In an ongoing tribute to the people I love, I would like to dedicate this next piece of writing to my Aunt Debbie.
Debbie is my aunt by marriage. She is married to my mother’s brother, John. However, Debbie feels closer to me than many of my blood relatives. She is enmeshed, an integral part of our family, the strong heartbeat that holds us together. Debbie is the woman everyone can confide in, an essential ingredient in any family get together, the glue that ties cousins to aunts to uncles to friends. She feels like the warm pulse at the center of it all. Her youngest two children, Suzy and Joe, are the closest cousins I have. Joe is the zany character who I could easily write a book about- he is impossible to describe in a few lines. Suffice it to say, he has been known to tip over backwards in a fold-up camping chair from drinking too much whiskey, he gives himself intense headaches pondering the meaning of life, and he will affect any voice or facial expression to get a laugh out of us. He is an utter nerd, the biggest geek, and so lovable. Suzy is like the older sister I never had. I go to her with my deepest heartbreaks and my highest achievements, and she holds me all the same. The fact that these two wonderful people came from Debbie makes perfect sense, and makes them all the more special to me.
Debbie first came to be known to my family long before I was born. She entered high school at Holy Names Academy on Capitol Hill in her junior year, I believe. She was a new student, not yet friendly with the all-female population, or part of a recognized clique. But she has told me many times that she spotted my mother right off the bat and decided, I want to be friends with her. She looks like she’d be really cool. And so a friendship was born, a beautiful unity that to this day is the red-wine drinking, snorting and laughing, infamously un-photogenic combination of my mother and Debbie. They are best friends and sisters-in-law. They camp together, cook together, have regular over-nights together, and support each other through ups and downs.
When I was a child, I used to desperately want to be included in the close, exclusive friendship that Suzy and our cousin Paul shared. Suzy and Paul were bonded at the hip, and on camp trips, family picnics, and cousin slumber parties, they would disappear together, laughing and tittering, slipping away on adventures that I longed to be a part of. They were several years older than I was, and therefore, leagues cooler. Getting them to include me in their fascinating duo was impossible, and the futility of trying often reduced me to tears. One day, after they vanished without a trace, I stood crying alone in Debbie’s room. I had followed them up the stairs, down the hallway, and I was sure they had disappeared into this room, but… they were nowhere to be found. I had been eluded once again. As I rubbed my streaming eyes with angry fists, Debbie came into the room and found me.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” she asked, kneeling down in front of me. Through hiccups and sobs I explained to her that I had been ditched once again. She looked at me with such concern on her face, and then gave my skinny arms a loving squeeze. “Oh, Sarah, don’t worry,” she said. “Big kids do that all the time. Suzy and Paul love you, it’s just that their a little bit older, so they like to do their own thing. You probably wouldn’t like what they’re doing, anyway.” I sniffed, sure that she was wrong. Of course I would like what they were doing! Perhaps she saw the doubt in my eyes, because she took a seat on the ground and pulled me down with her. “When I was a little girl,” she went on, “My older brothers used to ditch me all the time. And you know what I did? I made up my own games! I climbed apple trees and played dolls. I pretended my little sisters were babies, and I made my own books and illustrated them. My big brothers missed out on a lot of good times because they were so busy being big kids.” She looked at me carefully. “But big kids don’t get to have all the fun, you know.” She stood up and took my hand. “Come with me,” she said, and I followed, sniffling. She led me to the kitchen, where the commotion of ovens banging open and shut, The Beatles playing on the stereo, and tipsy adults seemed to obscure all of my worries. Then she handed me a grape popsicle. “Now go find Brigitte and Joe,” she said. “I’m sure they could use a cool big girl like you to show them how to have fun!” So I did, trotting out the door happily, purple juice already staining my lips.
As soft and nurturing as Debbie can be, she can also be a formidable disciplinarian. Many years ago, my family traveled to France. When I say my family, I mean my mother, my siblings, myself, my cousins, my cousin’s friends, several aunts and uncles, friends of my aunts and uncles, friends of mine, friends of my siblings… it goes on and on. There were tons of us, and we had a huge old French apartement to stay in. The kids slept upstairs in a sprawling loft, and the adults had bedrooms on the lower floors. Because we kids were all in our twenties (with the exception of my brother and his friend Tom who were far too young to be drinking, but were anyway), our nocturnal activities had everything to do with getting completely plastered every single night. It was great fun.
One night we all dressed up in our most attention-grabbing clothes, downed several bottles of our parent’s gin, vowing to replace it the next morning before they noticed it missing, and hit the small, unprepared town of Nancy, France. What followed was a swirl of tequila shots, bottles of Grey Goose on ice, more shots that were tinted pink and absolutely delicious, beer with lemons, more vodka on ice, more shots, and… the next thing I knew, we had all scattered to the wind. Upon later recollection, as we put the pieces of the blurry puzzle together, it became clear to us that we women had behaved in a dazzlingly slutty manner, taking home Frenchmen like it was going out of style. Jenny had disappeared with a black-skinned rugby player who tried to do unmentionable things to her with his unmentionables. My best friend had teased and flirted with the Grey Goose-buying Gerard until he couldn’t take it anymore, and slammed her up against a wall in a fit of French-kissing passion. I had found myself on the lap of un garcon named Phillipe, and as the sun rose over the park we were sitting in, I was horrified to discover that my monthly visitor had arrived as we smooched, and that Phillipe was now sporting a saucy red splotch on the front of his white button-down shirt. Oops. And my little sister… well, she was nowhere to be found.
This last, unfortunate piece of news came to my attention when Debbie shook me awake around nine in the morning. My head ached with alcohol and not enough sleep, and at first I couldn’t understand what was going on. Then it slowly sunk in. Brigitte was missing. She hadn’t returned all night. Her bed was still made. “You girls need to go find her immediately!” Debbie hissed, as I groggily began gathering my clothes. “Do not return to this house without her!” My best friend, the other notorious Brigitte, was already straggling into her pants. I nodded and began pulling a sweatshirt over my head. Debbie cocked her ear down the stairs to make sure no one was listening. Then she looked at Brigitte and I very seriously. “And do not let Sheila know that she’s missing!”
Indeed, if my mother knew that her youngest daughter had been out and about in the streets of France all night with an unknown young man, and that her whereabouts were still unknown, she would have panicked. So Debbie casually suggested to ma mere that she and Patricia, my mother’s older sister, go for a walk in the nearby park, which was just lovely, and then check out the market for fresh pasta and vegetables. “Find the freshest tomatoes you can!” Debbie urged, as my mom pulled on her jacket downstairs, and Brigitte and I spied from the wings. “If you can’t find them at the near market, don’t hesitate to go to the farther one. Pasta sauce is so much better when the tomatoes are fresh!” My mother and Patricia heartily agreed, and started out the door. Debbie called out after them, “And why don’t you think about seeing a movie? Today would be a great day for a movie.” The sun was shining brilliantly, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The door slammed shut and Debbie shot us a warning look as we hurried out the back door. Return with Brigitte, her look seemed to say. Do not even think about coming back without her!
We turned out into the street, desperate to find my sister. The only lead we had was the crumpled up piece of paper I had in my wallet, emblazoned with the suave young Philippe’s phone number. I had last seen my sister with Phillipe’s tall, handsome friend, as they leaned against the bar and took shots. “But I can’t call Phillipe!“ I protested, when Brigitte urged me to do it. “I got my period on his shirt!!“ “You have to Sarah,“ she replied. “We have no choice.“ It was true. So we found the nearest payphone and I dialed desperately. Answering machine. “Uh, bonjour Phillipe, c’est Sarah,” I began. “Uh, my souer n’est pas rentre hier soir, et je pense qu’elle est avec ton ami…” I looked wildly at Brigitte, and she urged me to continue. My French was fumbling. I had no idea what to say. “Um… s’il vous plait, si tu elle vois, rentrez-elle a nous!” (My sister didn’t return last night… I think she’s with your friend… if you see her, please return her!!) Ten phone calls later, and ten broken, faltering messages later, my sister returned home, her hair wild, missing one shoe. Debbie ushered her upstairs quickly, moments before my mother and Patricia returned. An hour later, when we all appeared at the table to eat, Brigitte’s hair was nicely combed and everyone was smiling innocently. “Look, Sheila,” Debbie purred, as we all heaped food on our plates. “Look at your beautiful daughters.” We smiled obligingly, and my mother smiled back, completely naïve to the fact that her youngest daughter had been missing for the better part of the night and day.
It isn’t just our family’s younger generation who can party, though. Get Debbie and my mom together, throw in a few of their sisters, add an abundant supply of red wine, and watch out! They get wild! Debbie will be the first to take shots and cuss like a sailor. “Ah, what the fuck…” she’ll say, if the party’s getting off to a slow start. “Let’s just get drunk!” The ladies sit in each other’s laps, take ridiculous pictures, throw off their clothes as the wine heats them up, and laugh hysterically with their feet in the air. I usually feel tame and prim when I’m hanging out with them at one of our famous “Ladies Weekends.” Debbie is always the instigator of trouble, asking the daring questions, poking and prodding at my drunken, heavy-lidded mom. She’s like a wild college sister, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if she stripped off all her clothes and began chain-smoking on the kitchen table.
For years, Debbie has taught English to college students. When I began seriously writing several years ago, I decided to submit some of my work to Hedgebrook, a prestigious foundation that sponsors women writers, and offers residencies to a selected few at their beautiful property on Whidbey Island. The piece I decided to submit was very deep, and very personal. Besides the anonymous judges at Hedgebrook, I only shared that work with three other people. Debbie was one of them. I wanted her to look over it for me before I submitted it, because she has years of experience in critiquing and editing. I also trusted her profoundly, and knew that I could share such a thing with her without judgment or worry. She would look over it professionally, and continue to love me as dearly as always.
So I drove out to Ocean Shores one stormy night when Debbie was beginning to move out of their beach house. She and John had bought the home several years earlier, but its purpose had been served, and they were now ready to sell it. We sat together in the bare living room, sipping wine in front of the fire, and Debbie carefully read everything I had written. I think I was trembling as she read it, and I was close to tears, but she was so compassionate and kind. She critiqued what needed to be critiqued, and she made some very relevant suggestions. Then we began talking. Debbie told me about some of her own life experiences, trials that had taken her innocence, but made her a stronger woman. She sympathized deeply with me, and our lifelong connection made it easy for us to share and understand one another in a complete, accepting way. No questions were left unasked, and when the night had been dark for many hours, and the waves beat the shore, we said goodnight and went to bed, friends, adults, and much closer than we had ever been.
My uncle John, Debbie’s husband, deserves an entire tribute of his own. I imagine I will offer him one in good time. For here, I will say only that Debbie and John are one of the strongest couples I have ever known. John is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s now, he walks with a stoop, and his hair is completely white. My favorite memories of him are on our family camping trips, as he threw back plastic cup after plastic cup of cheap red wine and roared in laughter. My family has a charming habit of getting drunk and trying to out-shout each other, each fighting uproariously to be heard. My mom and John were perhaps the worst at this, carrying on two separate conversations at once, yelling in each other’s faces and gesturing wildly. Debbie was often involved, as well, though in my mind’s eye, I can see her toppling her chair over backwards, and saying, “Oh what the fuck! Now I have to take a leak!”
I look to John and Debbie as an example of how love can deepen and grow as it ages. In my childhood, they were my favorite aunt and uncle, the ones who gave us popcorn and Coke, and put us in front of the T.V. to watch “Revenge of the Nerds” for the eighth time. They clearly had a passion for each other, a deep passion that sometimes turned into wild fights we would only catch glimpses of, but more often led them to each other’s arms, where they held one another, soft-eyed and content. They traveled together, with us, all over the world. They were both teachers at Tacoma Community College. They raised Suzy and Joe, and moved from the city to the country, and back. They had two dogs named Scrappy and Max, and when they returned to Tacoma after their sojourn in Port Orchard, they left the dogs to live with some neighbors. When they found out that the new foster family was not treating the dogs well (or perhaps they just missed Scrappy and Max, I can’t remember), they hatched a wild scheme to break into the home and kidnap the dogs back. We children were electrified with excitement, but unfortunately, the plan never came to fruition.
Now, as John goes through the profound changes that late Alzheimer’s brings, Debbie is always by his side. She loves him so dearly. She takes his arm and guides him from the car to the house, and back. She sits by his side as he eats, and gently teases him, putting food into his mouth. She rubs his back and makes sure he has the seat closest to the fire. She holds his hand any chance she gets. She loves doing these things for him, because he is her other half. But at Debbie’s core, she is like a rod of steel- so strong. I know that when John is gone, Debbie will miss him, but she will continue to live fully. She always has. Even as John’s illness set in and became more and more advanced, she would plan Ladies Weekends, trips to the coast, and jaunts to Japan to visit Suzy and Suzy’s husband, Ian. She laughs her husky, deep-throated laugh, and pads around in socks, smiling. Perhaps more than anything, I am awed by her ability to remain happy and balanced through this process of losing her husband. She will find him again. I know she will. If ever I’ve known soul-mates, it’s those two. Their thirtieth wedding anniversary is today, and I want to congratulate them for it! Not only have they made it through thirty years of marriage, they have done so with laughter, passion, and grace. They have inspired me indescribably, and if I can touch that depth of love and passion with another person, and sustain it for thirty years, I will feel like I’ve done something right. I love them both very much.
Thank you, Debbie, for being such an inextricable part of my life. You are a rock, and an incredible inspiration.