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As soon as I saw you I knew an adventure was about to happen. – Winnie the Pooh

family-love

I was young when the Dicksteins came into my life. (Actually, I just felt a strong nudge. I already published this essay, but Aunt Gerri always would tell me that she was the second person to have seen me after I was born in the hospital. I don’t know how I forgot this, but I think she just reminded me, again.) I called Aunt Gerri my second mom, after all, she was my mother’s best friend and her husband, Uncle Howard, was one of the nicest men in my small world. Not only did I experience his exemplary kindness, but others acknowledge this quality, as well.

Nurturing did not come naturally to my mother. Being first-generation American-born, she was strong and skipped grades in school, but found herself pregnant at nineteen with a high school education, a husband and a modest home to manage, following the cultural norms for a women in the late 40s. On the other hand, Aunt Gerri was overtly loving with me, laughed at all my jokes, and I never questioned where I stood with her.

Aunt Gerri 2nd from right

Aunt Gerri 2nd from right

Aunt Gerri was a beauty, with blue eyes and jet black hair, an unusual combination for an Ashkenazi Jew. Her cousin told me she had married the kindest man of all of their friends. Uncle Howard’s kindness was only overshadowed by his generosity. I spent a lot of time with Uncle Howard going to Carvelle, the ice cream stand, ordering the largest cone they could possibly assemble, much of which had to be retired to the freezer when I got home. Who would’ve thought you could have too much ice cream? The Dicksteins lived a half block from the amusement park and city zoo, a location very desirable to this seven-year-old child. We frequently walked their medium-sized poodle, Chi-Chi, who Uncle Howard meticulously groomed and manicured, bimonthly.

Chi-Chi and I had a special relationship. She was my playmate and extremely smart. I would tell her to go to her bed where she would sit and wait for her next directions. I would hide in the house and call her. Then she would barrel out and find where I was hiding, whether I was behind the sofa or in a closet. We were always ecstatic when she found me.

Uncle Howard let me hold Chi-Chi’s leash when we went to the park. We would stop at every corner until she sat, like a religious practice, then we would walk across the one busy street. The leash was always wrapped around my wrist, like a monk wraps his prayer beads. Chi-Chi knew her structure and felt safe with a seven-year-old at the helm. Uncle Howard’s generosity was always a little over-the-top and I remember going home with motion sickness from all the rides. We just didn’t know when to stop.

My family extended to include their two sons, who were like two more older brothers. Alan, the older, had his mother’s good looks and his father’s kindness. He drove a red Corvette and seemed legendary to this seven-year-old. His brother Paul had such depth he could access the deepest parts of the ocean floor and grounded this with his musical brilliance.

I was not used to being held or touched by my mother when I was a little, but I would sit on Aunt Gerri’s lap and lay my head on her large breasts while she would laugh and say, “Just put your head on my pillows.” How did she know exactly what I needed? I would kiss her under her ears and make her giggle uproariously. She was clearly, my second mom.

Aunt Gerri was known to be fragile and a bit of a princess; she was certainly royalty to me. She ended up outliving her husband and younger son. I continued to visit her throughout her life. The last was in her assisted living home where she continued to surprise me. Although she maintained her elegance, she had a level of gratitude for the service she received that was way beyond the entitlement of a princess. During my last visit with her, she mentioned some physical issues. Later, I was told she went to the hospital and as she was leaving, Aunt Gerri thanked the staff profusely and said, “I won’t be coming back.”She was clearly a remarkable woman.

At her funeral, her son-in-law spoke eloquently about how he and everybody else in Aunt Gerri’s life felt they were in the center of her love circle. I was surprised that I was not the center of her life and I was heartened by her skill at making everybody in her life feel this way. I wondered how I could incorporate this Grace into my life.

We come into these challenging curricula to learn to love and help each other along the way. I am forever grateful to my second family, as I have strived in my life to provide this unconditional love to others: For my children, my stepchildren, for many non-blood related beings placed in my care, and I hope I will have a chance with my grandchildren.

Perhaps the Universe conspired to place Uncle Howard and Aunt Gerri in just the right place at just the right moment to nurture me to nurture others. I hope their children, their grandchildren and their great grandchildren know from where they’ve come. It is a place where children are loved simply and elegantly. I can see in their family the seeds of love they planted years ago has grown, exponentially.