My cousin’s fraternity brothers were hanging out in his family room, close to the university where they were enrolled. It was 2 a.m. The guys kept hearing muffled noises from the hallway. Finally my cousin opened the door. There stood my aunt, feather duster in hand, casually dusting the door jamb.
When we teased Aunt Myra about her eavesdropping (complete with prop), she always responded, “I just wanted to KNOW” as if that were justification enough.
Some people collect buttons or coins; my aunt collected people. A pillar of hospitality, when she passed last week her house was packed with friends who had known her decades and friends who had known her weeks. The young woman who walked the dog sobbed, “I can’t imagine life without her.” Several others said, “I hope y’all realize how lucky you are to be part of this family.”
We do. I and my twenty-odd cousins were born into a culture of love and raised with the expectation that if you were lucky enough to be born into such, you had a responsibility to extend it to others. Love was a verb, not a noun.
When Aunt Myra happened upon a young, strung-out addict, she informed her sons that they would be rooming together, settled the young man into a room, fed him, and eventually steered him homeward with a bus ticket. If you crossed her path, she assumed there was a reason. But I bet she didn’t let him go until she had satisfied her need to know. My aunt believed in the power of a good question.
A decade before my grandmother passed at age 95, my aunt organized a family-style obituary for her. Why wait till Grandmama was gone to share our favorite stories? As Aunt Myra aged, she decided an even better plan was to have her own obituary transcribed while she still had time to edit. My cousin would read the latest version aloud while she fussed that he hadn’t included the Girls Victory Band, which he said didn’t fit and she said didn’t matter. It was important. They finally reached an agreement, which is to say she got her way:
Myra was prouder still of being a member of Girls Victory Band. (She was the only girl tall enough to hold the bass drum). She stood on a corner of Peachtree Street as Clark Gable rode by for the premiere of "Gone with the Wind" and maintained through the years that they made intimate eye contact.
I have no doubt this is true.
In life, as in driving, we unconsciously steer where we’re looking. We may not mean to, but we do. An incarcerated colleague wrote about his own early memory of opening a door to an unnamed noise and finding his grandmother holding a pistol. The same grandmama on whose lap he often sat was now cursing and aiming a gun at his mother’s door. “I’m gonna shoot that damn nigger,” she threatened. “Give me the gun,” his mother demanded evenly. The grandmother handed over the weapon but not before she called her daughter “nigger-lover.” For my friend, the shock was overwhelming. He crept away, crying. Why weren’t black people worthy of being loved? Why did his grandmother hate him, her biracial grandson?
My friend writes more. His childhood culture here revolved around fighting, stealing and getting drunk. Fighting determined your position in the group. Stealing was a way of life, unquestioned, a weekly occurrence. Getting drunk was how you celebrated and how you mourned.
What does it mean that our residences were only miles apart but our lives such worlds of difference? A local prison is now his home.
Our family has led charmed lives. “Y’all sure know how to throw a funeral,” someone said after the boisterous service filled with laughter and applause and even, yes, props. (I sometimes think our family members become ordained only because stand-up doesn’t pay the bills.) That is how we celebrate and how we mourn.
Despite our foundation of generous love, we have dealt with alcoholism, addiction, AIDS, and bad attitudes. For us, it’s just material for more stories. None of us is living out our life in prison. Had we been born a few miles away into a culture of poverty and racism, you can bet that outcome would be different.
My brother says that in his work as a psychotherapist, he often sees broken families who don’t speak to one another, much less gather voluntarily. Our family longs to have another cousins’ party, one more New Year’s Day betting pool, one more chance to connect over Bloody Mary’s and iced tea.
If you are lucky enough to be born into a family whose guidestar is love, recognize that for the blessing it is. And extend the gift to others. Dust off those assumptions of who people are based on where they’re located. Open the door to whoever crosses your path and assume they’re present for a reason.
My aunt just wanted to know, because she believed every single person was worth knowing. As my brother said, she gave to others the hope she had for them and invited them to stay awhile. Hope and hospitality. Steer toward those.
Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices and lives in Cedar Grove. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org