I had twelve aunts and nine uncles and I loved them all. Each of them was wonderful in his or her own way. But my aunt Mildred – well, she was very special.
She hailed from Lawrence, Massachusetts and had two sisters, Gertrude and my mother Grace. She passed away on December 13, 1985. I can’t think of a sadder day for anyone who knew her. It was not by accident that she happened to be born on Christmas Day 82 years earlier. If anyone ever deserved to achieve the exalted status of sainthood, it was Mildred (Partland) Bernard, better know as Mil to her friends and family.
She and her husband, my uncle Arthur, were married for over 45 years when he died in 1973, at the age of 73. They had two sons, Lawrence Kenneth and John Gregory. My two cousins, Ken and Jack, were considerably older than me. When I was born in 1948, they were 19 and 14 years of age respectively. This disparity in our ages was because there was a 15-year age difference between my aunt Mil and my mother Grace.
I don’t remember much about my mother. She passed away at the age of 37 from something no one dies from anymore. Sadly enough, she died in 1953 on Christmas Day, my aunt’s birthday. The night my mother died, she made my father promise to take me to live with her sister, Mildred. Because my father had to work so much, neither she nor my father wanted me to be raised by a housekeeper. I saw my father on holidays, summer vacations and occasionally on weekends – whenever he was able to make that long two-hour drive each way. Every single day, before I went to bed, my father would call me to say goodnight.
My father had brothers and sisters who lived very close to him. It would have been so much easier on him had I stayed with one of them. However, he had made a promise to my mother and, to his credit, he kept his promise.
Going to live with my Aunt Mil was a very smooth transition for me. Prior to my mother’s passing, I would occasionally go to visit my aunt and her family for several days at a time. I loved my aunt Mil. She spoiled me and would spend hours playing all kinds of games with me. She would even let me keep the light on in my room all night. Whenever it was time for me to go home, I would cry and hang on to her neck for dear life because I didn’t want to leave. My father and mother would literally have to peel me off her.
At 5 years old, I was still rather young to understand the finality of death and what it all meant. All I knew was I was with my Aunt Mil and I could stay there forever. I stayed until the day I got married at 25. I cried the day I moved out because I still didn’t want to leave.
My Aunt & Uncle at My Wedding in 1973. Just Two Months Before My Uncle Passed Away.
During those 20 years, she put up with childhood temper tantrums, the mean teens and all the other torture I dished out. I never officially got into any trouble growing up but I was not what one would call easy to get a long with. I was a headstrong know-it-all in those days and, if the truth were known, I probably still am. Never in all of those 20 years did she call me anything but “dear.” She never raised her voice to me once, she never spanked me and she never sent me to my room. She was my advocate, my female knight in shining armor. She would gently try to reason with me and would always try to understand me.
In retrospect, her methods worked. She was so good to me, she loved me so much and she had sacrificed so much for me that I never wanted to let her down or disappoint her. I think that’s what kept me in check. That’s probably why I never did any of the stupid things my friends did – after all, what would Mil think?
I’m sure at the age of 53, with her sons grown, she was ready to get a job, make new friends and experience a whole new lifestyle. She didn’t do any of that. She took care of me instead. I never once came home to an empty house. She was always there to greet me with a big smile and a “How was school today, dear?” My aunt and uncle could have used the extra money another income would have provided, but they didn’t care about that. My father, who was a carpenter and a police officer, pretty much rebuilt “our” house over the years. He felt he had to do something to give back to them. For the 20 years I lived with them, they refused to take any money from my father.
My Cousin Jack, Me and Our Dog Butch
I had called my aunt “Me Me” since I was first able to talk. I continued to call her that until I was about 8. By then I thought I was a little too worldly to use such a childish name so she became just “Mil.” My two cousins called her “Ma” and they called me “Drip.” I called them “Dope” and one day, when I was 10, I decided I would call her “Ma” just like they did. After all, as far as I was concerned she was my mother too.
The first time I used the term “Ma” I was nervous. I didn’t know what kind of a reaction I might get. I got none. Everyone pretended not to notice. Not one word was said about this important change in status. I now look upon this as the gift it was intended to be.
Not only are my aunt and uncle gone but also both of my cousins. I think back to those years quite often. I didn’t realize it at the time but it had to be very difficult to start over again with a small child, especially at her age. Her days of having to raise children should have been a thing of the past. Bringing up a 5 year old, at that point in her life, had to be about as much fun as having your car break down in a raging blizzard 100 miles from the nearest mechanic.
Her reward for this selfless act was measles, mumps, chicken pox, German measles, whooping cough, tonsillitis, earaches, sore throats, skinned knees, loud music, slumber parties, a messy house and a never-ending demand for attention. Lucky woman.
Her greatest talent, which I have only come to recognize in the past several years, was her ability to turn her house into my home, my real home. I had the complete run of the place. I took over ownership the day I moved in and I never truly relinquished it. Even after I was married, it was still my home and I could have moved back in anytime I wanted. Never once was I made to feel as though I didn’t belong. I never thought of myself as an outsider for a single second. The day I first showed up with my suitcases and all my toys, I was hers and I was hers for the rest of her life. In her will, her “three” children divided everything evenly.
I would be remiss if I did not give an honorable mention to my poor uncle Arthur. He also put up with me for all those years and never once complained. What I put him through, while he patiently tried to teach me to ride my bicycle without training wheels, would be considered an act of terrorism today. I was the daughter he never had and, after having to put up with me on a daily basis, I’m sure he was glad he never had any others. They don’t make them like him anymore.
01/25/2012 by Anne Benedetto