With Thanksgiving fast approaching I thought it would be fun to write about the people and things I am thankful for.
The picture sits on picture on my desk. It’s ragged and worn. Cut from a larger picture by someone over the years.
This picture is the first thing I see when I start a day’s work and the last before I stop work for the night.
It is one of the few pictures I have of myself as a teenager. I am wearing my usual winter attire in those days. Flannel shirt, a World War II era navy greatcoat I got at a thrift shop for the princely sum of $5.00 and boots. I always wore square-toe engineer boots back then.
The very small lady standing with me is my Aunt Mannie.
She wasn’t my aunt. More like a distant cousin – so distant we were hardly related.
When I was growing up I got a greeting card with a few dollars tucked into the envelope on every holiday. New Years, Saint Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter, my birthday, Halloween Thanksgiving and Christmas were all marked with a card from Aunt Mannie. Since I had never met her she was a mystery to me, and that made the cards wonderful because somebody out there loved me. I was so lonely with my failing hearing and lousy grades in school. Aunt Mannie was always there. In the mailbox.
When I was twelve my family moved from rural Chester County, Pennsylvania back to Philadelphia. My mom took me clear across the city to visit Aunt Mannie. We got to her house and I quickly realized that every card and every dollar she had sent me was more than she could not afford to share.
To be on the receiving end of that kind of generosity and love is inspiring and empowering and at the same time humbling.
After that I went to see her whenever I could. Sometimes I would cut school and play my guitar at every station along the Market-Frankford line until I got to her place. Whenever I visited she would cook me a big meal, pack me a meal for the ride home and stuff a few dollars into my hand before I left.
I loved those visits. Sitting in the kitchen with her talking about everything and nothing. On one visit she taught me how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich – something that became a weirdly useful skill later in my life.
She gave me so much, and to this day I don’t know why. I asked her a few times and she never gave me an answer. She reached up and gently placed her cool hand on the side of my face for a moment before walking back into the kitchen to prepare more food.
The last time I saw her I could tell something was wrong. As soon as I walked in she got all excited about her new copper frying pan. I looked in the kitchen and she was making grilled cheese sandwiches on a copper dustpan.
Before you ask, yes. I ate the sandwich. I couldn’t bring myself to upset her. Sometimes loving someone requires accepting the occasional dust bunny in your sandwich.
At her wake my father walked with me to her coffin. I loved him for that. As we stood there I asked him if he knew why she did so much for me. Dad shrugged and said, “She loved you. No other reason than that”.
I keep her picture on my desk. I think of her almost every day. Her example has influenced a lot of what I do as a teacher.
Thank you, Aunt Mannie. I love you.