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October 5, 2008


There are certain people in life that shape the structure that you cling to in tumultuous times, people who are constant and stable, people that are there to catch you up when you most need it.  Through my childhood, my Aunt Sue and Uncle Ritchie were those people for me.

Uncle Ritchie, my father's brother and a big gentle bear of a man, married Margaret Sue, a tall Texas belle with a hearty laugh and a quick wit over 50 years ago. They had a long, happy life together, raising three kids of their own and occasionally pulling me and my siblings into their fold. When my own parents' marriage began falling apart, they were quick to scoop us up and take us away from their drama.

Uncle Ritchie was the antithesis of my father, filled with gentleness and humanity, a quiet man who enjoyed just making kids laugh. My dad, while charming to most people that met him, was a narcissist with a mean streak a mile wide. He was quiet, too, but his quietness was sinister, a weapon that he would use to manipulate anyone he could. And kids? Umm, yeah, my dad didn't like them very much once they got old enough to question him.

Aunt Sue was the perfect mate for Uncle Ritchie. She was bold, funny, loud, solid as a rock and honest as the day is long. You always knew where you stood with Aunt Sue and she would defend us kids whenever we screwed up as just being kids. She was accepting and loving and understanding and never seemed to be put out by any request. My mom was loud, too, but in a different way. A more desperate, strident way. My mom was the prettier of the two (and Aunt Sue always told my mom this) and my mom loved it. Mom wasn't the most loving or accepting parent, still isn't.

I learned how to cook and paint ceramics and sew and knit and crochet while at their house, but these hobbies were never jobs I needed to learn so I would be a good wife someday. These were things that everyone in their house did together, things that they learned and did because they LOVED to do them. Creativity was encouraged, hugs and laughs were liberal, and you always knew you were loved with them. They even said it. Out loud. A LOT.

At my house, on the other hand, I had 2 self-absorbed parents who did not laugh with us (unless they were teasing or they were drinking), who did not encourage our creativity, who didn't hug or ever say they loved us.

At my house, we were sent to our rooms, doomed to listen to arguments late into the night most evenings. At their house, everyone sat in the den together and watched TV together or played board games until we all went to bed.

At my house, it was clear what a burden we were. At their house, even extra kids were no burden and most summer afternoons would find most of the neighborhood kids hanging out in their yard or in the pool.

At my house, you never knew who would be there in the morning (or what kind of mood they would be in) when you woke up. At their house, you were greeted by breakfast and hugs as soon as you got up. 

When we kids screwed up (and we did), my parents didn't like to talk about it. What would the neighbors think? This left us all dealing with shame issues, even today.

When their kids screwed up (and they did), their parents rolled up their sleeves and helped them out, accepting advice from whomever would give it. They understood the concept of "It takes a village" long before it was in vogue. They even offered to take in my troubled older brother after one particularly nasty fistfight he had with my father but my mom was mortified. She still is to this very day

I would have lived with them if I could have. In a heartbeat.

Last night, I was driving to pick up my daughter when my phone rang. My mom called to tell me that Aunt Sue had passed away. Pneumonia. I had to pull off the road. Sue, the strong, larger than life, smiling rock of my childhood, one of two adults that I knew loved me unconditionally, is gone. Even though I haven't seen her for a couple of years, if I close my eyes, I can still hear her laugh, still feel her hug.

It breaks my heart to think of Uncle Ritchie alone but I can't do much for him from here. He does have his 3 kids up there to watch over him but he may not last long without her. We O'Neills have a history of dying of a broken heart.

Aunt Sue, thank you for being the Mom I wished I had, the Mom I try so hard to be like with my own kids. Thank you for helping my understand my flawed parents ... your insight always helped me gain perspective and let me know that it wasn't MY fault that they were broken.  I am a healthier, wholer, happier adult for the memories that you and Uncle Ritchie gave me and the world is a sadder place today.

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This page contains a single entry by Prosemonkey published on October 5, 2008 5:00 PM.

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