Some people in this world are fortunate enough to have been given two mothers. Perhaps it is a grandmother or a stepmother. Perhaps it is an older sister. Perhaps it is an aunt.
When my mother died in 2000, I felt like an abandoned child, even though I was in my twenties. She was my pillar to lean on for nearly everything — most often approval — but always unconditional love. When my mother passed, I thought I had to find my own way…and it did not always go so well.
But, that second mother stepped in to help me. I have always referred to my mother’s sister by nicknames: She was known simply as “Auntie” in Facebook posts and these blogs, but also as “Ninny” and “Humpy” and “Meece.” All of these names convey meanings to different people who held a special place in her life. To my mother and father, she was “Liz.” To me, she was “Sis.” That shortened version of “sister” — my mother’s only sibling — became my pet name for her, yet it carried a tremendous significance for nearly four decades.
There is something unique about second mothers in that they provide a much-needed safety net. Our natural parents bear the burden of responsibility to be figures of authority in our lives, to be the ones that teach us right from wrong, to show us where we came from and to shape our opportunities. As their children, we often feel a sense of duty to return what was given to us…or given up for us. We may even feel pressure to make them proud.
However, second mothers never expect that of us. They are our most loyal supporters and our most fervent protectors. They love us from a safe distance, but they are never far away. They show up when we call.
I spent more of my adult life with my aunt than my parents. She held my first daughter, and the second. Both girls share parts of her name. Mary Elizabeth became Ava Elizabeth and then Maryn Lee. When I was overwhelmed by working full-time and trying to find solutions to childcare and my own guilt, she was the one who told me it was okay to quit. Later on, when I wanted to start my own business, she told me it was a risk I had to take and to go for it. When I told her I wanted to write a book, she demanded that I finish it before she died. And when it was necessary to move her into a nursing facility, she told me that it was her time and I had done all I could for her. It was okay to let go.
This past Sunday, I lost my auntie — my Sis — to cancer and kidney failure. And letting go has been more difficult than I imagined, even though I’ve had two months to wrap my mind around losing yet another mother. But today, the grief is different. I have lost my best friend. She was always there for me, when I wanted her to be and when I did not. She took my side no matter what it was — from episodes of teenage rebellion to getting married earlier than my parents preferred. She defended me each and every time. No one else will ever do that again. I am on my own now. Childhood has wrapped up.
On Friday, I will take my auntie back to her home place in Greenbrier County– in a snowstorm no less — conditions identical to the days my grandmother and mother were buried. Some things never change. But I am in for a big one now that she is gone. I will miss her cackling laugh, I will miss the melody of her voice and I will miss her amusing stories (which I usually questioned). I will feel an emptiness when I walk into her house, which is a stone’s throw away from mine. I will always be grateful to her for picking up where her sister left off in my life. And while my auntie was a second mother, I will never forget that she put me first.