Parent Substitutes

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When the primary ones are gone, those lucky of us find subsitutes. Mine is a 94-year-old second cousin which means she is my father’s first cousin, younger than he by eight years, and much much longer lived. Eleanora has been Eleanor to her lifetime American friends, but since she’s reached her “maturity,” she’s allowed the final Italian “a” to reappear as it was on her birth certificate in 1917. Born to my great aunt Josephine, my grandmother’s youngest sister, Eleanora was the oldest of three sisters (the girls) who lived down the street from my father and his three brothers (the boys). In fact, Eleanora’s earliest memory is of sitting on the curb in front of her house with the youngest of the “boys,” Frankie, and telling him, “I have another sister.” Since my earliest memory is of staying with her and her mother, Aunt Josephine to me, when my sister was born, I count us as linked by the strange convolutions of family memory as well as blood.

Eleanora is one of the most “with it” people I know partly because she was a nurse and retains the savvy that comes from staring down doctors, admirals, generals. Working in various governmental agencies in Washington, she did indeed treat these higher ups, while her youngest sister Sadie typed documents in the Office of the President through four administrations: Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. Eleanora and Sadie lived together for more than fifty years, moving from the center of our nation’s capitol, to Arlington, Virginia, then to Silver Spring, Maryland, and finally to Dover, Delaware, where Sadie died in January of 2009. Typically, their fortunes peaked when they were in their fifties, and their huge apartment of 3 bedrooms in Arlington used to amaze me with its two bathrooms and living room/dining room you could almost roller skate across. It was there that I brought my first husband and young daughter to meet the “cousins and Aunt Jo.”

They never had to discipline me, but their models of generous and rollicking adulthood (including their tiny mother Aunt Jo who had a smile as broad as a ball field) helped subdue my distress over my own father’s wildness when I saw that they also rolled their eyes at his racist comments, and held hands in the back of his car when his driving threatened to send the car into the drink. (Here I’m remembering driving with him over the old Cooper River Bridge connecting downtown Charleston, South Carolina, with the suburb of Mount Pleasant. My parents moved to Charleston when I was four and never left its environs.)

Talking to Eleanora has also taught me a fair amount about forgiveness and facing the inevitable, but I think the biggest influence she’s had on me, she who never had children, is as a model of adult guidance. She connects me to an era without television or cell phones, with only one family car driven to work daily by the father of the family, leaving the others to take the bus. When there was a huge snow fall in Pittsburgh one year and electricity and water service went out in the city, her parents dug a hole in an enormous snowbank and put their perishables there in a covered container. “We also made nightly visits to another part of the yard and hid our ‘waste,'” by which she means the contents of the slop jar. “Everyone on the block tried to do that when no one else was looking.”

I’ve also had my share of emergency situations when lights and water are knocked out, but for some reason, Eleanora’s examples stick with me. Not to mention her intense desire to find a calling, thwarted by the Depression and the War. She wanted to become a doctor, quite unusual in the post World War I era, but the family couldn’t afford to keep her in college and she had to find a job, which wasn’t easy. She married in the late 1930s, but her first child died soon after a very difficult birth. Then her husband Dick was killed at the tail end of World War II. How she recovered her self-possession after these losses and talked her way into nurses training as a student ten years younger than all the others, is another story of a desire to serve tempered with an awareness of her differences. She requested a private room through her training, and unless a fellow nurse came to her in confidence, her classmates always called her Mrs. B.

Now when I teach young teachers, some of whose students are immigrant or African-American migrants from the south (with several stops along the way), I remember Eleanora and her “tribal” family, with its close intertwining of two large families, and the way they were raised not just by their own parents (her father was a tyrant) but also by the two model parents of Aunt Rose and Uncle John (my grandparents) down the block. We like to think we all have nuclear families, but it ain’t necessarily so, now or then. Often relatives are as important to our lives as our own parents. Especially when they’re the only ones left.

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