‘The next day will be the same’

When I was a kid, my mother stayed home with me, teaching me how to be a housewife, and I spent part of my day in the next room with my mother’s family. While my mother’s family were my home, my family was my sister and my aunt. They might occasionally come over to help, but mostly I had regular day care.

The people who had given me the wake-up call at 5:30 had settled down to work. I was playing dress-up in my mom’s bed when, at a moment’s notice, they came back to prepare breakfast for my mom and me. I remember lying in bed on the day I was born watching my aunt’s hands as she swirled the egg white around in a pan to cook me and chatting with them and telling me stories. We spoke a language, and I could feel the order of the sentences flowing, the flow of my life, through my fingers.

Sitting on the train — in this case, in Lower Manhattan for school, my aunt’s office on Main Street. As a child I was accustomed to sitting with my aunt on the East River, feet in the grass and eyes deep in my book — cozy and close together. She could change the discussion and fire me up for school — we would just sit in silence, playing word games and saying sad things for short periods of time. She could also laugh: real close-to-the-bone laughter — the words crashing in our mouths, our eyes rolling. I’m not sure how she learned to do that but it was immediately apparent — she had it down.

There was more family I saw. So many more. When I had a babysitter, there was always a foursome on Saturdays. We’d chat in the car or watch old cartoons in the basement. One weekday we’d come home with new friends (not always real kids) who would crash for the night, usually in my uncle’s apartment. I would watch them nuzzle and chat while my dad watched news on TV and her and I talked about chores and the house and school and everything.

There were weekends and anniversaries when I’d be with my aunt at her grandparent’s house. At her Uncle Nolan’s house one Sunday morning we’d drive to Long Island for a “pie and a hatchet” with her grandmother, wait for Uncle Dick to drive them home and then hike to the beach. While we were sunbathing, my aunt was looking for her dad’s old G4 computer keyboard he lost back in the 1970s. Her dad and Uncle Dave had been in the Special Operations Group, and he had given it to his uncle, who had never found it.

Some days, I was a kid at the store with my dad — and my aunt and uncle in tow. They’d take me to a party at my grandma’s house, or have me hold a stuffed animal while my aunt put my sister to bed. I understood what it meant when an aunt took a special interest in me — how she needed me, the way she needed me to hold an elderly women’s hands in the throes of falling asleep or to sniff the shiny perfume of her expensive slippers.

No matter what happens to me, the next day will be the same.

I remember her telling me, “I love you.” I was just 10 or so and I remembered her expression and heard her “I love you” almost word for word. I thought it was embarrassing, because it meant that I was bad for going to sleep before she was done with her chores. Still, I thought that was what true love was.

The truth is, her loving is more: she knew she was capable of loving.

It took me a long time to understand that. I had neither the letters of the alphabet nor a family tree to read, but I could hear the way her voice sounded as it begged for love. Once I got the love language, it’s been years of it — back to grandmothers, great-grandmothers, cousins and aunts and aunts and uncles.

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