I come from an odd and estranged family- where everyone wasn’t talking to someone or other and many had run away from something – an early marriage to escape a parent, a disappearing, a constant sense of walking on egg shells and regularly being disowned. I met my grandparents on my paternal side only twice and there is a long list of relatives I may have heard about-I knew all their ‘business’ but I didn’t know them-but the few I knew I loved.
My Nana. Looking back I don’t think she was the warmest person but I recall so clearly how she made me feel loved. She lived in a tiny bungalow in St. Augustine, Florida and worked, apparently most of her life, at a little gift shop in Old Town. It was a dark little shop that I thought was one of the seven wonders of the world-that and the Ringling Brothers Museum. There were giant pink pencils with a map of Florida scrawled on them and I knew I would be so cool if I had one-I was seven, I also thought the miniature dioramas of hula girls made entirely out of shells were cool too. There were kitschy trinkets galore only I didn’t know what kitsch was and I thought it was all magical. I knew I was the luckiest girl in the world when Nana would bring home a family of crabs made out of shells! Occasionally she would get to take home something that was too broken to fix up, I know that now. At the time it was just fuel for my imagination and a glittery little piece of heaven that I could play with until it fell apart completely.
I had just turned seven when my father was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. My mother sent me to live with her sister in St. Augustine which meant I would be close to most of her family. It turned out to be one of the best years of my life. So many memories were forged and the foundation for my faith was built there. I wasn’t too aware of what was going on but I remember getting dressed up and carrying a Samsonite make-up case that had been decoupaged with big blue flowers. It held everything necessary to keep a seven year old occupied, and extra underwear. Just in case. I had a suitcase too but that had disappeared once I got to the airport along with my mother. I don’t remember her saying good-bye, I wish I could, but I do remember the flight attendant who looked out for me. Back then they were stewardesses in deep blue uniforms with a jaunty little hat and she smiled-a lot. Sitting alone in one of those sticky, leather chairs with my legs dangling, case on my lap and no idea what was coming I wasn’t afraid-I just felt free. I think that is a strange thing to say but no matter how hard I try I can’t remember any other feeling than freedom.
The airport in Jacksonville felt like a foreign country-it was hot, humid and had something called love bugs that would squash into your windshield on a regular basis. Once we left I got to go out to eat! It was overwhelming to have everyone hovering over me-an introvert from day one I was more comfortable observing than being observed-but at least I got to order like a big person! Plus, I was going to live on the beach. Literally. Aunt Cecelia and Uncle Ben lived on St. Auggie (that’s what we called it) beach in a house where you parked underneath the main floor and the back yard was as big as the world. Not really but to my eyes it was. I remember the back yard being lush with tropical flowers and a pathway that ended in with a shower poking up from the leaves so you could rinse the salt and sand off. Beyond the shower was a tower of steps leading down to the beach. I never went back to that house after that summer so the embellishment of memory may be influencing my recollections but either way the steps were long, the beach felt endless and it was a big deal because I was free to roam the beach-alone-any time I wanted if I followed the rules. And I did. I can still smell the salted breeze and feel the sting from the whip of my pigtails. It was a glorious time.
My Nana and her sister, Aunt Margaret, also lived in St. Augustine too and I split my time with them. I always thought it was funny that they were sisters. Aunt Margaret was tall, incredibly thin and flat out refused to wear a bra-she told me many times that they were bad for you. Cut off your circulation-information every seven year old girl should know . Nana, on the other hand, was short, round and wore (what looked to me) an industrial strength bra. Both were widows, had the obligatory springy permed hair of any respectable woman over fifty and both wore silvery glasses with the sparkly, pointy top corners. And neither wore pants. Ever.
When I got to stay with my Nana her tiny bungalow became this amazing world. She had this deep cast iron tub where hot baths that seemed to last forever and singing opera at the top of my lungs was normal-and allowed! My knowledge and exposure to opera was inexplicable-I was raised on the Rat Pack and Girl from Ipanema so it had to be linked to a blip in my DNA somewhere next to my love of classical music and big thick books. At night we would share a plump, hard bed in the paneled back bedroom. There was celluloid down light clipped to the headboard that Nana would use to read her prayer books at night. The only other light was the glow from an altar on her dresser that scared the ever living daylights out of my little self. With its floating bleeding heart crowned with thorns next to a soft faced, white robed Christ with said heart bleeding in the middle of his chest it made it difficult to fall asleep sometimes. I felt watched by this altar but more than that I felt watched over by my Nana so I usually slept pretty well.
I am sure this is where most of my spiritual formation began-church, which had been this vague presence that consisted of the occasional midnight mass at Christmas and the constant threat of damnation because of my behavior-became a warm and beautiful place. God became someone to me. I also began to feel like I wasn’t so bad-after all Aunt Cecelia, Uncle Ben, Nana, Aunt Margaret and even cousin Mark (who I drove absolutely bananas-seriously what teen-aged boy wants some seven year old usurping his space) cared for me. That and I was pretty sure I had landed somewhere just this side of heaven and it felt great.
Sooo, just realized it is pushing ten and I am still in my pajamas, my coffee is cold, my bed unmade and I really need a shower and I better get a move on-but hey, good mornin’ ya’ll 🙂 Till next time…