When I was little, I had a stuffed unicorn. I named it “Rainbow”. Of course. At the time, I had no idea how ubiquitous unicorns and rainbows were in the lives of little girls. All I knew was that I loved this little creature, with its pure white, soft fur and golden horn. And I loved it even more because it came from my Aunt Robbie. She had a reputation in our family for sending the coolest gifts. One year, my brother and I got a story book in which the main characters shared our names. Another year, it was a set of Garfield comic books. She always sent gifts that said she knew who we were. They weren’t expensive or extravagant. They were personal. But my adoration of Aunt Robbie came long before these shipments of cool gifts graced our lives.
Robbie was my father’s baby sister. She was the youngest of seven children, born years after my grandmother had already been confined to a wheel chair by rheumatoid arthritis. The family was not well off, supported by my grandfather’s work as a restaurant manager, and later as a salesman. But she was the adored baby, taken care of by big brothers and a sister that tried to give her a happy childhood in spite of their meager circumstances.
Much later, in a cold January when we visited “Babe” in Chicago, I met my Aunt Robbie. It is one of my earliest memories – snow, the lace-like building my aunt took us to (the Bahá’í House of Worship on the North Side of Chicago, in Wilmette), and being kept warm in her loving arms. My exhausted parents had just told me to walk after I whined that I was tired. She picked me up. I adored this woman whose blood I shared.
Growing up, I always wondered if I was special to Aunt Robbie, or if she treated everybody as if they were her very own special friend. Now I think it was both. My father once told me that it took her a long time to get to be comfortable with herself, but when she did her laughter was the richest he’s ever known. It wasn’t just that she was kind. I never felt a trace of judgment from her. That’s how I think of her laughter, as accepting and embracing everyone she was near, her hazel eyes sparkling. It was one of her gifts to us.
She also gave us Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbs. What, I wonder, would have become of our family had we not had these wry, intelligent and often touching comic books gracing our coffee table? Certainly there would have been less laughter in the house. Though she lived far from us, every time we read those books, it was as if she sat next to us, laughing too. I am certain that those books encouraged my interest in reading, something the basal readers in school were far from accomplishing.
Every birthday we would open her cards expectantly, knowing a good chuckle was coming. The images of Sandra Boynton greeting cards and notepads she sent still give me a boost when I need it. I especially remember an elephant with legs and trunk sprawled on the ground, a turkey or two on its back and head, and several surrounding it, looking dumbly into space. The elephant’s eyes show resignation and humility. The caption reads, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” Why does this image fill me with such a sense of resilience and joy, even thirty years later?
When I was eleven, I was not a happy girl. I had always been tall for my age. I was awkward and bespectacled, and a nerd. I was also romantically precocious. This combination is heart-breaking. Every single boy I liked was shorter than me and thought of me as a non-entity giraffe. My older sister’s perfection added to my sense of self-loathing. Though she wasn’t really perfect, being five years older than me, she did absolutely everything better than me.
Then Robbie sent me Judy Blume’s Are you there, God? It’s Me, Margaret. How could she possibly know that Margaret and I were going through exactly the same things? She spoke to God like He could hear her. I did too, though no other kids I knew did. She worried about never growing boobs, and so did I. She liked boys more than felt right, and so did I. I adored Robbie even more for sending this book. I even forgave her for getting married and moving to Kansas, even farther away from us.
My father wrote of Robbie, “Somewhere along the line I became amazed at her involvement in life, in her intelligence, and her capacity for making things happen.” I see now that it was Robbie’s model that I have been following. I didn’t want to just watch. I wanted to do, like she did.
In the early nineties, my aunt moved with her husband to Highlands Ranch, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. Several years later, shortly after I married my first husband, I received my first and only phone call from her. I was working at the Bahá’í National Center as a records clerk. She had started her career in public relations there when I first met her that long ago, cold January, in the northern suburbs of Chicago.
“Hi Amy. It’s Robbie,” she said to me. I never received personal calls at work, and this felt very strange. But It was so good to hear her voice. Several years had passed since we had spoken. In fact, we really hadn’t seen a lot of each other throughout my life. But she felt like more than a sister, almost a mother, even after all the years. “I called because you need to know something, and I wanted you to hear it from me personally.”
“Okay,” I said, not sure whether I was holding my breath for good or bad news.
“I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. I found a small lump a few weeks ago, and had it biopsied. It turned out to be malignant, so I’m starting chemo and radiation therapy right away.”
My aunt was the public relations director for a cancer research center in Denver by this time. She knew about how to talk about cancer. I didn’t. All kinds of questions flooded into my mind, clouding my ability to see any of them clearly.
“Okay,” I said again, a lump forming in my throat. “What does it mean?”
“Well, we caught it early, so we’re hopeful.” Her voice was calm, reassuring. How could she be reassuring me? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I breathed a little easier with those words. But I can still see the entire scene with crystal clarity: The sunlight of mid-afternoon casting slight shadows on the grass and trees outside the window next to my desk; the files and papers stacked on it, waiting for my attention, the rows and rows of shelves waiting for me to place those records back in their appropriate locations. My supervisor, a dear, sweet lady named Pat, knew just the kind of compassion to offer, though I can’t remember her words, either. The scene is connected with others, like sinew, throughout the following decade: the family reunion where she told us the cancer was in remission; the call from my father telling me that his older sister was dying rapidly from liver cancer, and that Robbie would be going to Georgia to care for her, returning the favor of care Aunt Caryl had given her during cancer treatments; the call, again, from my father, that after a walk in the country during a visit to my parents, Robbie noticed a pain in her hip. It hadn’t gone away for several weeks. She had it checked. It was metastasized bone cancer.
The last picture I have in my mind of Robbie is from my cousin’s wedding. I am struck by the similarity she has with my grandmother, the woman who was long-debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis, whose relationship with Robbie was more fraught with guilt than mine was with my own mother. In the picture, Robbie’s neck and shoulder are hunched to the right. Her bones are collapsing under her. She is smiling with my dad and my uncles. Caryl, her older sister, is conspicuously absent, having died a month earlier.
The things I remember about my Aunt Robbie are not her accomplishments, though they are remarkable. In 1994, after hearing on the news that the Ku Klux Klan was recruiting in her suburb, she organized one of the largest annual suburban Martin Luther King Jr. Day unity walks in the country. She received the 1999 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award from the Denver Urban League for her efforts. She raised a daughter while running an independent PR agency from her home, focusing on serving cancer research, even while she suffered from the disease. What I remember are intangibles: her hospitality, her generosity of spirit, her laughter. Even these words aren’t quite right. There’s a feel to Aunt Robbie that lingers with me, that makes me smile and feel like she’s hugging me.
She had that affect on many. My cousin told me she still picks up the phone to call Robbie. But I still wondered what it was that made me feel so connected to her, even though I rarely saw her. After her funeral, when many of her friends and family gathered at her home to once again experience her fabulous hospitable spirit, I was humbled by the number of times people told me how much I remind them of her. The thought still brings tears to my eyes: that I might even begin to approach her character in likeness.
I now draw on her strength in my writing. I know that both she and my older aunt inspired my second novel about a racially divided small town in northern Georgia. I feel her with me as I write these words. I often think of her, as my cousin does, though I don’t pick up the phone.
Not long after her death, I dreamed I had the opportunity to hang out with her again in her house. I knew she was dead, and that it was her spirit I was chatting with over coffee. The ineffable joy of that dream still lingers, and I begin to see the similarities. We both love coffee. We are both tied to our mothers through a complex mixture of guilt and admiration. We have the same hazel eyes and broad hips, though my hair is slightly lighter. We shared a similarly tortured adolescence. We came through it all somehow to find an inner strength that holds us up even as our bones are collapsing, literally or figuratively, under us. I know that she knew, as I do, this strength is from our humble recognition of the Greatness inside of every human soul. I don’t pick up the phone to call Robbie. I just call on her. And she always answers: “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.”