I need to tell you about someone.
I need to tell you about my Aunt Marilyn.
Right now, she is probably snowed in her home in the western suburb of Chicago where she lives, the area she's lived in for almost all of her life. She isn't here with us, enjoying the warmer weather and the comfort of our family gathering for the holiday.
And I miss her.
Aunt Marilyn never married or had children, but she cared for so many.
She is wise and brilliant, with two master's degrees and a life spent shaping the minds of middle schoolers. This is and of itself should earn her some prestigious award just for putting up with them, because no thank you.
She has spent her life taking care of others. After my grandmother passed away and my grandfather developed Alzheimer's, she cared for him to the end. When an elderly aunt was widowed and became unable to care for herself, she cared for her through cancer, until the end. When another elderly, widowed aunt could no longer be independent, she brought her home with her for long visits, set up her long term care, and stayed close to her until she passed away at the age of 97.
She has been selfless and giving, patient (with me most especially) and I have never heard her raise her voice in my 40 years. She is a beautiful soul.
She spent years traveling with friends, seeing Hawaii and Canada, taking cruises. She was an incredible amateur photographer, hand-knit all of our Christmas stockings (even this year she added my husband and my new little nephew, Bennett!). She created ceramics, avidly read, wrote letters, and was a dedicated friend. She collects delicate little teacups and still has my grandmother's spoon collection displayed on the wall. I walk into her home and I am taken back to the years where I had not a care in the world, running freely through the house filled with the love of my aunt an my grandparents. My laughter bounced off of the walls and I was well cared for. I was a blessed and loved little girl, and I only wish sometimes I could walk back into that living room in Aurora, finding them all there, young, alive and welcoming me. When life hadn't hurt us all by premature funerals and health troubles, distance and sickness and loss forcing change in what always was.
Things don't last forever.
Suddenly we grow up and our families, the people we love and look up to, look older. Act older. Struggle with their health. Can't do what they used to. Have to make heartbreaking decisions to give up their homes for assisted living. Leave their independence in the past.
And it hurts to see it happen.
It of course is the circle of life, but it all just feels so wretchedly unfair. I want to scream until my lungs hurt, "Slow DOWN, time! Stop STEALING from me!" How beautiful it was to be an oblivious child.
So here we are out here in the desert, 1800 miles away from Aunt Marilyn. She doesn't have the chaos of all of us at her doorstep, her great nieces and nephews hugging her, learning from her just like I did. Making recipes of our past, the Christmases that came long before me, with my grandmother and her sister baking the things I still make today with my daughter. We aren't there and she isn't here.
So many years I'd wait expectantly for Aunt Marilyn to get off the plane and make the two hour drive from Las Vegas to our tiny little Arizona town in her expansive rented Lincoln Towncar, because that's when Christmas really began. She and Mom and I would bake cookies and sit and frost them, me dripping green icing on the carpet while we stacked little snowmen and bells into neat piles. They'd talk about pinochle and Uncle So and So and sit around playing heated games of Uno with Aunt Irma and Uncle George, also visiting for the holidays. My little heart was full and was convinced that things would never change.
But over time, family members passed away. Travel became harder. All of the sudden we weren't able to spend Christmas together anymore. It was never the same again. Blessed? Yes. Joyful? Without fail. Incomplete? Always.
All I have is this medium to tell you all how much she means to me.
And so, Aunt Marilyn, I want you to know how much you are loved. How much we miss you. How it's never going home to Chicago if we aren't there with you. I wouldn't have fallen in love with writing, or reading, if not for you. I wouldn't believe strongly in myself if not for your encouragement when I didn't know what to do.
I was less scared when I ran from Florida with my babies, starting a new life away from things that had broken me, because you offered your home to us. We didn't have to go, and came home to Arizona, but I knew you where there, and that made all the difference.
You have always been just a phone call away. And I haven't been as reciprocal when you've needed me, and for that I'm sorry. Sometimes you're scared. You're facing things alone, without us nearby. But I promise you in front of whomever reads this: I will never leave you! When you need me, I will be there. I will be strength for you when you are weakened. So will Mom. You have us, without fail. You deserve nothing less. Because you have given your entire life, not asking for anything in return. You've been a strong female example for me, being a highly educated, independent woman before it was even cool. I was so blessed to have my Mom and you to look up to.
I am so proud of you. Please never forget how wonderful you are, how thankful I am that I got to be your only niece and how much your life has meant to our family. Nothing would be the same without you.
You told me not to get you anything for Christmas. So this is what I have to give, because it doesn't take up any space. I know you didn't want anything "new".
I will always need my Aunt Marilyn.
I love you, and, just so you know, Christmas is NEVER the same without you.