Monday, July 18, 2011

Great Aunt Estelle's "Curse"

As a child, my grandpa had strong beliefs about children being present yet silent and obeying without question.  He was quoted for saying, “If I ask you to jump, you ask how high and how far!” When I was little I would have asked curiously “But Grandpa, why do you want me to jump in the first place?” Such an independent thinker personality was not welcomed with the elder generation in the family, or with many of its younger members for that matter, so it’s a miracle I ever ended up on my grandfather good side. I can’t recall what I did one afternoon at the lunch table, perhaps accidentally spilled a drink or some other minor accident, but it must have been something that in my grandfather's eyes was obviously avoidable for a ten-year-old. My grandpa responded with his famous, “What the heck’s the matter with you?” and I responded, “I don’t know Grandpa-what the heck IS the matter with me?” I expected a butt beating for being "smart", but instead he burst out laughing- half from surprise, half from being impressed that I had stood up to him.  From that moment on we were kindred spirits.

My grandfather’s sister never got to the point of being amused by anything I did. I can remember Great Aunt Estelle pointing her gnarled arthritic finger at me and sending curses from its tip, “One day I hope you get your payback and have a child just like you when you’re grown up.” Aunt Estelle was bad-tempered, miserable in general, and under the belief that little girls should sit motionless and smile sweetly with their hands folded in their laps.   She made it quite clear on multiple family occasions that I was her least favorite person in the world and when I got my arm stuck through a golden ring on her tacky white vinyl couch she was less than impressed at my imagining it was a fancy, royal bracelet.  

So I was a busy kid, but what’s so wrong with having a child like me one day? Growing up, I was always different. I wrote my first book at the age of three (with my dad’s help) and spent Saturdays cooking in my Easy Bake Oven and making “stained glass” window ornaments for gifts. Other little girls played with baby dolls, I preferred building huge castles with my knighted Lego men and acting out movie scripts I wrote with my Barbie Dolls. Mom often opened the freezer to see a Ken doll, frozen in a salad bowl of water because he had to cross the Arctic to save an Alaskan town from an epidemic. Skipper would be found dressed in a ficus tree leaf & scotch tape bikini with a shoelace tied to her waist and the ceiling fan so she could swing through the jungle like Jane at super speed.  A ballerina/cheerleader type I was not. I’d play outside most of the day, building forts and climbing trees, but then happily dress up in pretty ruffles and bows for church on Sunday.
At a young age, I had a knack at entertaining others and would burst into short performances on the tiny stages at the Elk’s lodge or church dinner/dances and convinced my friends to sell lemonade on the corner for $0.50 a cup, $.075 for a drink and a song.

 I was a well-behaved child overall, but If I had to choose a rebellious moment the closest thing would be getting into the Church communion wine. My little friend and I imagined ourselves queens at a great medieval feast drinking from our plastic Champaign glasses, dining on banana nut muffins we had just bought at the rummage/bake sale. Shocking? The wine wasn’t blessed yet so Father Joe only made me do two Hail Mary’s at the next week’s confession. Oh, and I may have used the lighting sticks for the prayer candles to practice writing JAMIE in cursive charcoal letters on the bottom of the offering box. And there was that time that I took that starfish from the jewelry store to use as a beach prop for my Barbie’s- but I cried like crazy and totally took it back when my mom explained that it was stealing NOT borrowing.  I suppose I wasn’t perfect, but I had an endless imagination and a heart that wanted to please my parents.  All my mother had to do was say, “Jamie, I am so very disappointed in you,” and I’d fall to pieces crying hysterically, and try terribly hard not to do it again.

Fast forward 20+ years later and I stare in wonder at the bubbly preschooler before me.  Her blond curls bounce happily as she tears down the grocery aisle, squealing with delight that she just got loose from my hand and now wants me to “Chase me, mamma, come and get me!” She thinks it’s a game of tag. I sprint after her, give a quick swat, and then I hear my own mother’s voice in mine as I explain to Jenna through her soft sniffles how much I love her, that I want her to be safe and that’s why she has to hold my hand.  “But why mommy? The strangers might take me away?”
We’ve had this conversation before.
“Yes, Jenna, and then mommy will be very sad not to get to see you so you need to hold my hand, OK?”
“Oh, alright mommy,” She sighs, but understanding she takes my hand and looks up at me hugging my leg, “I love you very much, mommy!”
“I love you very much too, Jenna.”

My first born Jenna is not the shy princess type. Jenna is more, an Elizabeth Bennett/ Anne of Green Gables type, her own thinker, adventurous, and stubborn. Her books are her favorite toys. She loves to cook and has picked up the baby dolls she got for Christmas only a handful of times.  Jenna watches movies and then acts out the plots and character’s lines with her toys. But most surprising of all is her love for musicals. Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, and Hairspray are some of her favorites.  She belts out the lyrics in the car and our living room, adding her own spins and leaps to the dances. 

Spirited, yes, willful, you bet, hyperactive and mischievous-most definitely.  But at the same time, my first born is very sensitive, compassionate, and loving.  At times she may be exhausting but the next day she’s quite delightful, adorable, and endearing. She has an inventive mind and a creative play that makes me smile remembering a little blond girl just like her. Aunt Estelle’s hope for me came true but I would call it a blessing, not a curse.  Jenna is her own person, a leader-not a follower. I was too.

Looking back it saddens me that Aunt Estelle couldn’t have been more tolerant. If only she could have seen past the hyperactivity and focused more on the loving & creative soul behind it. I’ve always mourned that missed opportunity. Great Aunt Estelle missed out on a potentially wonderful relationship, one like my grandfather and I got to share when he opened his eyes and heart to the good in me. I wonder how many of us could have the same if we only stopped long enough to take a deeper look.  

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