“Sometimes having a crew of feisty Golden Girls acknowledge your bruised spirit by voicing what you’re secretly feeling, is just what the doctor ordered.”
By Stefanie Thomas | Twitter: @STsheloves
I have four stepsisters. My brother-in-law has three sisters (my “Monkey Sisters”), and one adorable daughter. I have two female cousins with three daughters among them. My Grandma Agnes had six sisters. When the last of her sisters died last year, Grandma said to me soberly, “I’m all alone now. I have no sisters left.” [Insert suppressed sob here.] Sidenote: Grandma’s one remaining brother is alive and well; he emails me lovely updates regularly.
My Grandma Dot, who passed away 11 years ago, had four sisters (three of them still living). I could probably write a book about sisterhood, but for now it’s on my heart to focus on my Grandma Dot and my great-aunties.
In Grandma D’s family, with the exception of one of them (Elva), none of the girls went by their given names. Somewhere along the way, they ended up with nicknames that stuck. Doris became Dot, Ula became Lou, Geraldine became Gerry, and Rhoda became Petie. I love the story behind this last one. When Rhoda was a baby, not yet walking but crawling, the family had a big dog named Pete. Wherever Pete went, Rhoda went. When anyone called the dog, he would go running, with little Rhoda at his heels. The family started referring to baby Rhoda as Pete, which over the years turned into Petie. That these lovely sisters ended up with such boyish handles makes me smile.
Any time my great-aunts descended on Grandma and Grandpa’s house for a visit, I got excited, knowing things were about to get good. When Grandma and her sisters gathered, something special would happen. Perhaps as you read this you’re imagining sweet white-haired ladies in dusty-rose cardigans coming together to share heartwarming stories and quilting tips. Think again. If they were the Golden Girls, they were Blanche and Dorothy, not Rose or Sophia. Or maybe you’ve read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells? The sassy Ya-Yas reminded me time and again of my Grandma and her sisters (minus the whole bayou debutante part).
In my memories of being with Grandma and my old aunties (I’m allowed to call them this–it’s a term they’ll use when referring to themselves, and for me it is absolutely a term of endearment), there was always lots of colour. They’d wear stylish outfits (think shoulderpads), shiny rings, sparkly earrings and necklaces. Their make-up would’ve been carefully applied, their hair tinted a warm black, auburn or gold. And their nails would be perfect–long and manicured and polished in a shade that would probably be discussed during the visit. But as bright as Grandma and her sisters were in their appearance, it paled in comparison to their personalities. Talk about colourful.
In my work as a counsellor, I sometimes refer to the notion of families having a currency, a system for placing value–on people, or traits, or endeavours. In some families, the currency is achievement; the more you achieve, the more you are recognized or validated or valued by your family. Another family’s currency might be creativity, intelligence or athleticism. When it comes to Grandma D and her sisters, I can’t help but think that their currency was (and is) humour.
I’ve heard people talk about being “quick to laugh.” Well, Grandma and her sisters were quick to be funny. I’m talking hilarious. During visits with them, it felt like half the time was spent howling with laughter, the other half was spent trying to catch our breath after howling with laughter. A huge part of what made (and makes) them funny was their delivery. It never felt like they were trying to be funny. Without getting too excited (about anything), they’d offer their observations and comments in a dry manner–you could almost call it a drawl. If you got to join Grandma and her sisters on one of their visits, you felt like you’d managed to gain entry into a secret club (a secret club of awesomeness). To this day, when I say something that makes my great-aunts laugh, I kind of feel like I’ve just earned a shiny gold-star sticker.
Cautionary note: It’s important to try to keep this whole humour-as-currency thing in check. I must admit I recently declared to Petie and her fantastic daughter Darcie: “If someone can’t make me laugh, or doesn’t think I’m funny, I have no use for them.” I don’t know what got into me! It’s totally true.
Grandma and her sisters loved to sink their teeth into juicy stories they’d heard–the more shocking, the better. They seemed almost delighted to discuss the real and more unsavoury details of life. They didn’t sugarcoat things, and they didn’t censor their conversations just because us kids were around. I think in some ways I was a bit of a precocious kid, so I always appreciated being included in their round-table of gossip, dirty jokes and laughter. If you ever reported that someone had hurt your feelings, Grandma and her sisters would offer up a satisfying “Who does she think she is?!” or “What a jackass!” (Am I allowed to say that word on SheLoves? I hope so!) This might not sound very enlightened, but sometimes having a crew of feisty Golden Girls acknowledge your bruised spirit by voicing what you’re secretly feeling, is just what the doctor ordered.
Here’s the thing about Grandma and her sisters: they knew how to have fun. They knew how to laugh at life, and at themselves. They were there for each other. They enjoyed each other. Even when families and life brought them provinces apart, they remained the best of friends. Grandma and my great-aunties knew how to love. If they loved you, you knew it. You felt it. They loved fiercely.
In the Fall of 2000, my Grandma Dot’s health took a sudden downward turn. She went into the hospital and the next thing we knew, she was in a coma. It was a sad and shocking time for the entire family. We flocked to her side and rarely left. She “came to” a few times over the first few days, waking up briefly to smile, or make some funny or touching comment. But as the week went on, she fell into what appeared to be a deep sleep. We held her hands, stroked her forehead. We thanked her for being such a wonderful mother and grandmother. We told her how much we loved her. We’d gather in her hospital room and chat, keeping an eye on the monitors as nurses came and went.
And then one day, some of us were sitting at the foot of Grandma’s hospital bed when her sisters walked into the room. They took turns standing at their sister’s bedside for a moment. I think they were all in shock over how quickly her health had declined. And then the old aunties each pulled up a chair and we began to visit. It was a sombre occasion, but almost immediately my great-aunts had us laughing.
Sometimes, when crisis strikes, you just have to laugh. And laugh we did. After being completely silent for days–I’ll never forget it–my Grandma suddenly started making noises. It’s hard to describe the sound she made, but there seemed to be an urgency behind it, like she was trying to speak. It was as if she wanted us to know that she could hear us. I felt quite certain she was responding to hearing that her sisters had arrived. Grandma passed away peacefully, a day or two later.
I miss my Grandma Dot and think about her often. Last month I went to stay with Petie and Gerry came for a visit too. As expected, it was a laugh-fest, but beyond that I felt acutely aware of how lucky I was (and am) to have these fabulous women in my life. My travel companion was my aunt Shirley (one of my favourite people on the planet) and during the trip we kept saying to each other, “This is gold. GOLD.”
I smile as I write this, because I know that what we got from my Grandma Dot and my old aunties is much better than gold. How rich we are.
Stefanie is a Registered Clinical Counsellor living in Vancouver, BC. She feels blessed to work in a helping profession and is grateful that her work requires her to show up not in a power suit but with listening ears and a compassionate heart. Stefanie enjoys spending time with family and friends and has never met a kid or baby she doesn’t like. She is a noticer and appreciator of birds (chickadees, herons, eagles) and many a beach rock has come home in her pocket. Stefanie is a lover of music, tv and movies, and she is gifted at absorbing and retaining useless pop culture trivia. She loves walking, fresh air, the smell of dirt, and anything of the salt and vinegar persuasion. She can often be found puttering.
Image credit: Krista Guenin