"My life has been a tapestry
Of rich and royal hue;
An everlasting vision
Of the ever-changing view;
A wond'rous woven magic
In bits of blue and gold;
A tapestry to feel and see;
Impossible to hold…"
- Carole King
Our lives are like a "Tapestry,"and each person weaving the golden threads of their love, joy, compassion through out lives, makes that tapestry stronger...and more beautiful. I remember as a teenager thinking that if I couldn't grow up to be my own mother, who was my hero, I wanted to be her sister.
Aunt June was pretty near perfect as a runner-up. She was a home economics teacher and it seemed as if she could do anything. Cook, sew, garden…there was no end to her talents and accomplishments. To one who had spent a lifetime with only one adult female role model, who, it just so happened, was now the person telling you "no" most of the time, having a perfect aunt was, well…perfect!
I have often wondered if my cousin Christie, Aunt June's daughter, thought her own mother was as perfect as I did. Or was she, in her parallel teenage universe watching my mother through the same rose-colored glasses of distance…the way I was with hers.
I would not get to know my aunt until the year I turned twelve. That summer, my family of eight piled into our old station wagon and drove 2,000 miles across the deserts of the southwest, through the endless beige plains and into the cool green of the mid-Atlantic. First stop: The Audubon bird sanctuary outside Princeton, New Jersey. You see, not only was June perfect, but she had married an equally perfect Uncle Doug. If she was my 12-year-old model of a perfect grown-up wife, mother, and teacher (the three things I aspired to be), he was the perfect partner.
Doug was the resident director of th sanctuary/outdoor education center and so our visit included immersing ourselves in the world of field guides, binoculars, and duck blinds. We walked through forests and sat beside marshy fields learning about silhouettes and migration patterns. A man who was smart, handsome and kind. Not a bad resume for a dream uncle. Forty years later I remember that vacation as clearly as if I were standing at the top of the broad curving staircase of the large old house that was home to the sanctuary's offices, exhibits, classrooms, and living quarters,trying to memorize the pattern in the red and white quilt that hung on the wall.
Day trips to visit other relatives…grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins…were filled with laughter and singing. The Turtles "Happy Together" poured from the chrome-dialed radio in the dash of our station wagon serving as the film score to our vacation. I felt like we belonged to an even larger and more wonderful family than I had ever imagined possible.
Those few weeks of bird watching, visiting our parents' childhood stomping grounds, and discovering what we had in common with our cousins were extraordinary. Yet it was an early morning visit with my aunt that I remember most poignantly. So much so, that to this day I can still actually feel the outline of the roosters, painted in the glaze, that my finger traced on the tuscan yellow plates and cups in her kitchen while I drank weak tea, nibbled on a buttered piece of toast, and watched her teach my cousin Scott basic reading skills. I was smitten.
My cousin, whose learning needs were not being fully met by the local school system, was being "home-schooled" for the most part…long before the current trend in parent-based educating. June was patient with Scott's frustration and unswerving in her persistence, despite an uber-schedule that surely left little room for rest and visiting relatives (our family of eight was not easily tucked in to even the most welcoming of home). She must have repeated the same lesson twenty times that morning, and each time with the freshness and joy of an enthusiastic recruit eager to try new and inspired ways for introducing the curriculum to her pupil.
For me, this was a pivotal moment in the way I looked at the uncharted territory I then called my future. Up until that point, I think I just wanted to have things "when I grew up." I wanted to have a nice home, a good job, a smart and funny husband, and loving children who, with their parents, were devoted to church, community and family. Not a particular make of car or brand of clothes…my family was socialistic enough for me to have subjugated any overt consumerism from my wish list. But I did have a full inventory of"wants" that were more spiritually-acceptable in the culture I had been raised in.
I watched my aunt patiently and persistently teach her son the simple lessons that his younger siblings, cousins and friends had learned so easily at much younger ages. And it made me realize that what I really wanted was to make a difference in someone's life. To be a person who gave…not got. Getting a particular house in a particular neighborhood was less important after that morning…it was giving one's family a loving sense of home that really mattered. Giving someone the opportunity to learn was much more satisfying a dream to cherish than getting into the right school. Or, as Barack Obama said in a talk he gave at Principia College last spring, "I don't want to become something, I want to do something."
On the long drive home I thought about my aunt and what I had learned from her in the kitchen that morning, but it was Mom's example I was observing hour after hour in the car. I realized that she had always been there as a model for how to live a life of giving, rather than getting. Day after day she modeled joy in the face of hardship, patiently walked a path of hope rather than wallow in discouragement, and gave opportunities to her children rather than pursue personal desires.
Although I left my aunts' house with a clear desire to become a teacher, I arrived home from that long drive wanting to also become someone who could turn a loaf of day-old bread and jars of peanut butter and strawberry jam (a serious vacation indulgence when grape jelly was so much cheaper) into a midday party. That Mom could hold the attention of six restless children at a weathered old picnic table in a Salina, Kansas while she spread jam and poured juice was a miracle I wanted to learn how to perform.
By the end of that drive I didn't care if I drove a battered old car when I grew up…if I could only learn how to keep everyone in it feeling as happy, loved, and cared for as she did. It took me years to realize how blessed I was to have the examples of two amazing women that summer. One would awaken in me a desire to live a life worth giving…the other would show me how.
When I look at my sisters and myself, and the relationships that our children have with each of us, individually and collectively, I am humbled by the divine design of it all. It may take a village to raise a child, but in our family of five sisters (another story about brothers and spouses later), we are, perhaps even without realizing it, holding hands with one another as we share in the warp and weft of weaving the lessons of giving and grace to our children.
Today the sumptuous, color-filled tapestry that Mom and Aunt June carefully wove for us is as strong as their love for one another and for all of us. They each brought to their shared loom, the richly textured and strong, yet subtly colored of threads of their own lives as women, wives, mothers…and sisters. Side-by-side, maybe without knowing it, they created a pattern, now so interconnected and entwined, that today we feel only the tensile strength, warmth and beauty of its fabric. We, their sons and daughters, trace these soft, worn threads with our fingertips and can make out the story of sisters who have lived generously and courageously.
No matter who we are, or where we live, whether we have sisters or girlfriends, colleagues or neighbors, we live our lives of giving in the context of others. We are weaving life patterns that will give our children profound stories to trace for their sons and daughters..
The legacy of these life stories is found only in how well they point us towards the future…toward lives of strength, beauty and grace. Like my mom and her sister, we can work together, each of us gathering our own richly colored threads of love, patience, humility, meekness, and grace, weaving them, as we sit side-by-side, into this beautiful tapestry called life.
"…In seamless gratitude I weave
A silent, healing prayer,
With shining threads of ceaseless joy;
For man is God's great heir."
- Violet Ker Seymer
[the above photo is of my sisters, Lila and Fawn..and I
it is with regret that I have neither a photo of
my mom and her sister...together,
or one of all four of my sisters and I...
if anyone has either...please send it along
and I will add it to this post...with great joy!]