About the age of ten, I was taken out of my home by the state and placed into the foster system. After enduring years of abuse at the hands of my father, my neighbor and aunt learned of the gravity of my home life. My father had confessed to them he was afraid he would kill me. He feared he would smother me in my sleep. They intervened and called the authorities.
The same aunt who reported my situation offered to take me in when the court insisted I live with a guardian. For the next year and a half to two years (it felt much, much longer) my guardians were either Auntie Carol and Uncle Dick, “Five Acres” children’s home or Santa Rosa group home in Altadena. The most pleasant of these was easily my aunt and uncle’s. Though it’s hard to say I enjoyed the foster system and the trials it presented (I did not), I can say it was character building.
My mother was the oldest of five daughters. Carol was the second born. They grew up on a small almost barren farm in El Cajon. There was very little food and even less money (that I know of, my grandfather was never seriously employed as anything other than a drunk). A common meal was a stolen orange (peel and all) or a mixture of half oj and half milk from the goats on the farm (a habit my mother maintained into adulthood). Both their parents died when my mother was 15, their mother in December, their father in March the following year. Five young girls were suddenly five young orphans. If I had to guess, this past had something to do with my aunt Carol’s willingness to care for me.
Though I never knew my aunt in her childhood, I certainly knew her in mine. Their house was one city away and we would visit frequently. My mother and aunt would talk often and endlessly. Whereas Mom was thin and wiry, Carol was thick and cuddly. She was easily huggable. Both had salt and pepper hair, and my aunt Carol’s feet I recall vividly. Being a country girl, she went barefoot as often as permitted. Her heels were calloused and cracked, immune to both rock and heat. While I couldn’t make it off the porch without my shoes, Carol thundered through the yard and the brush without regard. She was a tank. I was a tricycle. With the number of children she had, she had to be.
Never a small task to raise a child, what made raising me all the more difficult was that my aunt and uncle were already raising eleven children of their own. Imagine two children. Imagine five children. Now imagine eleven children, all close in age. Not many people could. My aunt did. As you might have guessed, given my background, I was troubled and I introduced a level of trauma to that household they should not have had to endure. They did and they rarely complained, certainly far less often than I did. Instead, they welcomed me warmly.
Strangely, what I remember most about those days living with the “Thomas Clan” as we called them, were not the vacations or the celebrations. Instead, what I remember most were the mundane; the trips to the grocery store where I would marvel at a bill in excess of $100 (this was back in the early 80’s and unheard of at the time), loading into the back of the van squishing between my all older cousins and, most of all, going to and from school. My aunt would tirelessly pick me up in the van where I’d relish riding shotgun for fifteen minutes even in an otherwise empty vehicle.
Then there was “the pepper incident”. One day in the den, tv blaring in the background, I was playing with a pepper shaker above my aunt’s head. Containing her frustration, she patiently waited me out. My silliness had to come to an end, she thought. Before it did, with my last few taunts, the shaker burst open covering my aunt Carol’s head in menacing spice. Rather than yell or scream like I expected, she sighed in disappointment. I still remember that sigh. Few things are more painful than disappointing a patient parent.
Fast forward thirty-six years. Two months ago, my aunt Carol passed away. She was 90. I’m fortunate that I had shared with her everything I needed to on many occasions previously. When I would see her at family gatherings, the most recent a reunion at Lacy Park a couple years back, I would thank her. I remember running up to her in her wheelchair, half ignoring my own nephew in the process, just to hug her and thank her. “Thank you for taking me in Auntie Carol. Thank you for raising me and loving me and giving me a home back when I was a boy. You were always so kind to me.” “Kind” is a good word for Carol. She was kind, kind to the many and kind to the few. A street full of neighbors and a store full of clerks would say the same. She welcomed them all. And she welcomed me. “I don’t know how to repay you” I’d say.
“That’s what aunts do, Peter. It was no big deal” she’d laugh. I disagreed with her then and I still do today, though I never told her so. While I had many aunts, only she volunteered to take me. In fairness, I don’t know that my other aunts could have. They were facing difficulties of their own.
Since her death, at night before bed, I would often look at the photo of the two is us from that day. I’d stare at it, at our smiles and at her wrinkled, sun-spotted hand (it was the one that used to hold me). I’d think about the rides to and from school and I’d cry. “You were kind to me” I’d say aloud “you were kind to me.” Nothing else came to mind and really nothing else mattered in those moments. Carol fed me. Carol clothed me. Carol raised me but most of all, the way I killed the household quiet, Carol killed me with kindness. My aunt, my uncle and my cousins were kind to me at a time in my life when few other people were. I wondered how I’d ever be able to repay her. Today, I found out.
Today, was my aunt’s funeral and memorial. Why the delay between her death two months ago and today’s internment (she was cremated), I don’t know. But I was glad the day finally came. Along with the hugging and healing, it gave me a sense of closure. Oddly, during mass, listening to the priest was a bit of a struggle for me however. He called my aunt “kind”, “generous”, “thoughtful” and “strong”. While all these things are obviously true, his words struck me as hollow. He had never met my aunt.
Instead, where I found most comfort (and discomfort) was in the stillness. I basked in the moments of silence between the words and prayers, the standing and sitting and even the hymns. I sank into the uncomfortable quiet and allowed myself to feel all those conflicting feelings of grief. I rode the waves as best I good. I went from sad to mad to glad and back again, from moments of laughter to moments of loss. I laughed. I cried. I coughed. I allowed myself to just “be”.
After mass was a graveside or wallside service. Another priest said a few words. We repeated a few more prayers, “Lord, hear our prayer” we’d recite and closed with the Lord’s Prayer until my aunt’s urn was placed in the vault next to her husband Dick. A groundskeeper carefully lifted the marble facade into place while my cousin’s husband helped to hold it. The employee replaced the corner posts and methodically tightened the screws until the stone plaque was secure. White doves were released. We watched them pitch and turn, come close, go far until almost vanishing into the distance when the priest said “That concludes our ceremony. On behalf of the family, thank you for coming. Peace be with you.” It was a lovely service. A celebration of life would follow a few miles away.
Before leaving, a number of us hugged and talked and laughed and hugged some more. Even my brother who is notoriously absent from most family gatherings came. After all, this wasn’t anybody who died, this was Auntie Carol, by far our closest aunt and mother to our closest cousins. I lingered a bit longer. I finished greeting a few neighbors and in-laws before making my way back to the plaque to take a picture before I left. The groundskeeper was dismantling and folding the shade-supplying tent.
“Pardon me. What is your name?” I asked politely.
“Jose. My name is Jose, sir” he replied.
“Jose, my name is Peter” I said extending my arm. “Thank you for taking care of us today.”
“You’re welcome, Peter” he said shaking my hand. As I turned toward the wall to get a shot of the inscription, he asked “Are you her son?”
“No. I’m her nephew” I replied “but she was my other mother. She helped raise me when I was a child.”
“It’s obvious” he said. You have her character.”
“Thank you” I said, a bit puzzled by his declaration.
“Do you know how I know that?” asked Jose.
“I’m sorry. I don’t” I confessed.
His answer was prophetic, “You’re the only one who thanked me.”
I shook his hand again and mouthed a few numb “thank you’s” before turning and walking away. It didn’t hit me immediately. Two steps later it did. My knees weakened. My head collapsed. I was weeping. It dawned on me. This debt, this duty, this obligation I owe my aunt, this one I’ve been wondering how I will ever repay? In my actions, with my words, without realizing it, I am repaying, giving to others what my aunt Carol gave to me.