Earlier this week my aunt passed away from complications related to lupus. She lived a long life, nearly eighty years, had five children, four grandchildren, and dozens of nieces and nephews, friends and in-laws who treasured her in life and now mourn her loss.
We called her Aunt Sissy because she was the only girl in a brood of six siblings, so she was Sis to all her brothers, and Aunt Sis to us. She and my father were siblings and verbal sparring partners. Family gatherings — we shared all the birthdays, holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and sometimes Memorial and Labor Days to boot — often erupted into verbal fireworks over the Vietnam war, the hippies, or the travesty of Vatican II. Aunt Sis held her ground against my father, which was no easy feat, and through her example insisted that a woman's opinion mattered no less than any man's.
Aunt Sis was exactly the sort of aunt one hopes for — one who can see what you need that your parents can't quite fathom whether from a sheer sense of overwhelm or inadequate perspective, or both, as parenting is essentially an exercise in overly engaged inadequacy.
At eleven years of age I was a great worry for my parents. I was smart enough, to be sure, but also peculiar. I had no friends, and no interest in having any. I read continuously, usually three to four books from the library each week. I worked my way through the books, mostly sci-fi, fantasy, and other lowbrow fiction at a breakneck pace. Loved the Lord of the Rings. Isaac Asimov. Robert Heinlein. Ray Bradbury. Played with a chemistry set. Wore big coke bottle glasses and read and read and read. Retrospectively, of course, I now know that I was a geek in the land of beach blanket bingo. But at the time, I just knew that I was odd, very odd indeed, and not likely to be approaching anything resembling normalcy without a concerted effort, if at all.
My parent were at a loss for what to do. Piano lessons? Perhaps it would help my social skills to be able to play the piano — even if you don't talk with people, you can always play a tune, or so went the reasoning. Never mind that my fine motor skills were not well-suited to the instrument and I had little sense of pitch and even less sense of rhythm.
My aunt had other ideas. In her wisdom, she figured that the door into my mind was through books since reading was what came naturally for me. For my eleventh birthday she gave me a copy an etiquette book for girls called White Gloves and Party Manners.
I was stunned by this little yellow treasure, a "how to" book for girls to learn "proper" behavior. The cover had a line drawing of a lovely young woman in a diaphanous yet ever-so-modest dress wearing white gloves. I found her, and the book's contents, immensely exotic.
There were instructions on how to address various adults: Should you meet a judge (not of the Supreme Court) you should say, for example, "How do you do, Judge Jones?" And if you meet a judge of the Supreme Court, you should offer your hand, or even curtsy, and say "How do you do Justice White."
From my neighborhood, overlooking a Los Angeles beach town, there was very little chance of encountering a judge, let alone a Supreme Court Justice, but it's always good to be prepared. Equally exotic were the instructions on how to eat lobster and which fork should be used for the salad versus the seafood.
I devoured White Gloves and Party Manners, treating it like the fantasy fiction that it was for me . . . I'd been reading Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, and this read like some strange sort of Eastern Seaboard Earthling Chronicles. Imagine: somewhere people use fingerbowls, eat lobster, and write thank you notes on printed letterhead. I had no idea where this place was, or what this etiquette might do for me, but it alerted me to the fact that there were other places and also rules of conduct that one could study and follow . . . that if you were observant and exacting, you could figure out how to get along.
Over the next years I would study how people behaved, and read plenty of self-help and etiquette books as well so that eventually I could easily pass for neurotypical. When I tell anyone now that I was once as anti-social as my own dear Sweet M, no one believes me. When I say that I did not speak with anyone at school for five years (other than to respond to teachers' questions) no one believes it possible. But it's true. I was a geek, bonafide, through and through.
In the autism world we call this "broader phenotype" — when a relative has characteristics of someone on the spectrum, but doesn't qualify for a diagnosis. Socially impaired kids like me weren't diagnosed back in those days, we were just weirdos to be shunned or left to our own devices.
And Aunt Sis got it. She got that I was a geek. She didn't freak out about it. She didn't reject it. She didn't try to change me. She saw the way in — through a girl's etiquette book — to help me find a way out.
And all the years I've been posting on this blog, she has been my steadfast reader, often emailing me words of encouragement and urging me to never give up on my sweet little one, like she never gave up on any of her own kids, or nieces, or nephews.
This week was Sweet M's 11th birthday. Aunt Sis got to see her a month ago at my sister's wedding. She didn't quite get to see her through to her 11th birthday. I don't think I will be giving Sweet M a copy of White Gloves and Party Manners. Books aren't the way into her. But I will always have the power of the recognition that Aunt Sis gave me, and I carry that into my parenting of Sweet M.
So I will miss Aunt Sis. Wish I could imagine she's reading this blog from some other dimension — somewhere with lobster for dinner and fingerbowls to boot — but for the moment I'll just remember the generous force of her recognition and affirmation, and all that she has given me. Not etiquette, or manners, or airs to be put on, but something like grace.