When little –

Aunt Judy

“When a woman is talking to you, listen to what she says with her eyes.” – Victor Hugo

          I was not the eldest child in our 6 children household – but I might as well have been.  I was the oldest girl – second in the line-up with my older brother, two years my senior, heading up the pack.   My base personality was and still is one of living on the cusp of OCD mixed with a rambunctious nature that had me doing everything at lightning speed.   For some reason this combination made me very responsible as a little girl.  Later these qualities would get me into trouble. The funny thing is that I just didn’t see it – still don’t.    I felt so quiet and unexplored on the inside and so I share this with my sister Jenny.  Her eyes pop out of her head in disbelief and I am shocked to discover that how I feel on the inside is apparently quite different from what I convey unknowingly on the outside.  

Having 5 siblings – we band of six played without Mommies and Daddies hovering over us – they were there but seemingly peripheral – running to your parents could be done – but only as a last resort.  Independence was as important a trait as work ethic – both unarguable and insisted upon.   Arguments would erupt and “that’s not fair” could be heard rising above the din – but mostly we took care of it knowing that our parents would come down on a side that held an objective view we didn’t yet understand.  It was risky to call your parents to intervene. 

My grand-parents on both sides were cherished by me.  My Mom’s parents, my Grandma Lin and Grandpa Allan, lived several hours away in Indiana and seeing them seemed in my little girl experience to be country and gardens and small wind chimes and picking beans for dinner.   As I entered grammar school the Indiana trips became normal for me and I couldn’t wait to find out on any particular weekend – that we would be making the trek.  Sprinkled into this was my Mom getting lost driving every time we made the trip without my dad, and Dairy Queen was a very important part of these excursions.  Upon arriving my Grandpa Allan would kiss my forehead ceremonially, my Mom would start cooking and talking with my Grandma, her Mom, and we kids would go get lost in the woods with my Uncle Steve, who was the same age as my brother Toddy.  Life was grand!

My Grandma Maida might as well have been rich.  I thought so and so did all my siblings.  She lived in a big house (it was actually quite small) on top of a hill (a slight rise in the road) and owned a lake (she had a run-down pier on a tiny piece of lake front that we had to walk blocks to get to.)  When we would arrive my Grandma Maida (yes, I am named after her) would present baked huge chocolate chip cookies with what seemed like hundreds of chocolate chips in every bite, and give us each a whole bottle of coke.  What could be better than this?  And my Dad (her son) would talk and smoke with my Grandma Maida – who also smoked – and they would huddle and talk about books and ideas while my Mom joined in loving them both – and we kids were free to go to the beach or walk to the Dam or tease the German Shepard dogs in the kennel outside or climb trees.  The only caution was to “BE CAREFUL” and “WATCH YOUR BROTHER AND SISTER” – and off we went.  We would return from danger to meals of home-made something – and always with sumptuous desserts of chocolate angel food cake, thick home-made frosting and as much ice cream as we wanted.  In my mind’s eye everything was perfect and beautiful and my childhood memories are sprinkled with watching my Grandma Maida sew beautiful clothes for me that had smocking or embroidery and tiny tiny hems, and lace and bows.  Also, she would take me shopping once a year to buy a Christmas dress.  Of course this dress was more beautiful than anything I could have ever imagined as all my clothes were generally sewn by my industrious and tireless Mom – but her sewing skills were lacking.  Even as a little girl I knew this – and some part of me wanted to protect her from criticism over this fact – so I wore my clothes as proudly as my little girl stature could. 

My Aunt Judy was my Grandma Maida’s only daughter.  She was much younger than my Dad – her brother.  When my father was a young boy, his Dad, Donald Walker, was killed in an accident, leaving my Grandma Maida a widow with a young son.  She married again when my father was a young teen – and had two children – my Uncle Pete and Aunt Judy.  It is important to say here that I loved horses more than anything in life – this being no exaggeration.  Where now kids might fall in love with a cartoon character or action hero, I loved real horses and they were all around our house in Wheaton.  Behind us, next to us and down the road – everyone had horses.  My best friend in grammar school owned ponies and so I rode with Pam every day after school – falling off when a sudden gallop occurred and I didn’t care a hoot.  I drew pictures of horses, won art contests with my horse paintings and pretended to be a stallion on the playground.  I understood fetlocks and saddles and bridles and even cleaned out stalls with my girl-friends – with the only goal in life being one of someday owning a horse.  So when I found out that my Aunt Judy owned a horse and would teach me how to ride – I was in heaven.  This of course merely enhanced my view that my Grandma Maida was rich.  Understanding decades later that my Grandma Maida was in no way wealthy and perhaps one of the hardest working women in the western hemisphere only enlarged my already enormous view of her as a mighty woman of grace.

My Aunt Judy fit into my little girl mind as a wonder woman of keen interest – she owned a horse and had a “friend” Elayne whom I knew was very important.  I do not have many memories of my Aunt without Elayne being there in the middle of them.  I remember Elayne in those years as being quite beautiful (she still is) and having long thick hair that I envied.  She was kind and loving and took an interest in me and my siblings that I don’t think any other adult showed in quite the same way.  Aunt Judy and Elayne, with what I am sure is Elayne’s prompting, would ask me to show them my birthday presents or my Christmas presents and I would do this ceremonially.  They would take a pronounced interest in what I was showing them and they listened intently as I poured my heart out about some detail of a book I was reading or an obscure thought I couldn’t figure out.  I loved them for this – and I can’t honestly remember any other adult that interacted with me in this way. 

So how do I describe my beloved Aunt Judy?  My sister Jenny tells me of the time she phoned Aunt Judy and Elayne to have someone else answer the phone.  Obviously Aunt Judy was in the middle of something – so when John answered the phone and Jenny asked for Aunt Judy – he put the receiver aside for a moment and hollered into a back room, “Sarge?”  Of course.  Perfect.  There you have it.   Aunt Judy was all take charge, all direction, all confidence, and I see now exactly how she came to this.  My Grandma Maida was the same way with poise.  My grandma was elegant – with perfectly coiffed hair, perfect nails and perfect clothes – all the time.  Ever stylish and ever knowing and intelligent – I remember the story of her driving in a snow storm with her sisters – careening off the road into a cow fence – getting out of the car and returning momentarily for a pair of wire clippers – laying down beneath the car and cutting the fencing from the wheels – calmly getting in the car when task completed – and returning to the road to complete her trip.  Elegance and tenacity always.   My Aunt Judy is this on steroids.  When I was a young Mom, buying our first home with my husband, four tiny daughters in tow, we had our family over for a BBQ and a look see.  Judy stood in the back yard for perhaps 30 minutes, bellowed for Elayne to get a pad of paper and pencil and to “take this down.”  She proceeded to give explicit directions that began with:

Get 6 men to remove concrete from back of yard.

(Get dumpster for concrete – tell city to put dumpster directly behind fence.  (And they would of course – no one would argue with Aunt Judy.)

Bring rototiller and till up entire back yard – fertilize, seed, water.

And she did it – she made it happen and we merely went along for the ride.  I don’t remember deciding on a day – it was better to just ride the wave of energy. 

         Judy and Elayne’s first house was somewhere with a large front yard and you couldn’t walk without stepping on frogs.  This was so embedded in my childhood memory that I don’t even want to know if it is not true.  For all I know there was one frog and I stepped on it – and therefore there were thousands.  From there they moved to a darling house in Lisle, and my Grandma Maida came to live with them.  These are the beginnings of my Christmas memories that are connected eternally to my Grandma Maida, my Aunt Judy and Elayne and became the basis for the traditions I have tried to instill into my own immediate family.  I now see this same Christmas magic being incorporated into my girl’s lives and the lives of their families and of course this thrills me.  My little girl mind can still see the magnificence of my Aunt Judy’s tree – the gentle touch of Elayne’s decorating making everything perfect – the white porcelain polar bear of my Grandma’s, and the tiny ornaments that went deep to the inside of the branches where you could stand for hours peering into the branches and be mesmerized by little discoveries.  My Mom was in awe of how they decorated because she was all quick get it done and slap dash small manageable pieces and a desire to have something beautiful but done so quickly and suddenly to miss the mark get a vantage point from a bit away and realize that it just isn’t quite right and oh well do it again soon on to the next project.  (My Mom is another story for she is my hero and I needn’t go anywhere other than my own Mom to find someone to emulate. )

         And the food!  Food glorious food, hot sausage and mustard!  Oliver could not have imagined anything as sumptuous as the feasts prepared at my Aunt Judy’s home for the holidays.  My Grandma Maida and Elayne did all the cooking but with the distinct supervision of Aunt Judy I am sure.  White linen table clothes, cloth napkins, elegant Crystal and chocolates.  For the taking!  So, again, of course they were rich!  Getting dressed up, Frank Sinatra on the stereo, movies and games and playing and tights and patent leather shoes and ribbons in our hair and clean white shirts on my brothers and fancy dresses and my mom with lipstick on and my Dad comfortable talking with his Mom, my Grandma, and dogs of course, and food food food and dimming of the lights after dinner and opening of presents with Aunt Judy passing out the gifts one by one, and the oohs and ahhs and happy hugs and shrieks of delight and Elayne steeling away with Grandma in tow to put out a decadent feast of desserts and the frosting and the ice cream and the small glasses and pretty china and my little girl heart bursting.   I do remember going to bed and feeling that I was the luckiest girl in the world. 

When Aunt Judy and Elayne decided to build a house in Warrenville with my Grandma having her own room and bathroom, well they were rich so of course.  It was not until years and years later than I realized how hard they worked and that everything they had and did was the result of working and working and savings and working some more.  They were an example of mid-west work ethic that is the DNA of our family.  Anything less was shameful to me and I believe I have instilled this into my girls.  They are better at relaxing than me – and for this I am grateful.  I believe my daughters have a balance that I have not yet achieved but there is hope as the days unfold.

The Chrismas memories continued as well as the swimming pool out back in the summer time – the BBQ’s, the deck, the beautiful gardens that Aunt Judy and Elayne worked on tirelessly created a beauty that I could not have imagined.  Again my Mom tried to learn from this but was too fast and too impatient to wait for things to grow into the kinds of patterns that Elayne could achieve.  It makes me love my Mom so much to think of her wanting to emulate those she loved.  My Mom was child-like in her view of life in some ways.  Oh!  Look over there!  Isn’t that beautiful?  Let’s wall-paper the house exactly the same!  But small manageable pieces of wall paper are not meant for the elegant patterns Aunt Judy and Elayne created – but they were gentle in their praise of my mom’s efforts, realizing the compliment but most likely horrified in some of the slap dash results.  Oh my Mom – how I love her – how I miss her. 

Aunt Judy taught me life lessons of love and respect and hard work and Elayne taught me beauty and patience and a softness that I still find elusive.  So I can truly say that they filled my little girl life with big grown up ideals that I have embraced as I now am a Grandma.  I look back at the glorious memories that loom large in my grown up memory – and the vivid picture of my childhood is as bright and innocent today as it was back then.  Thank you my beloved Aunt Judy for what you were in my life – what you are in my life – what you will always be in my life.  I love you.

  •  Maida

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