Thanks to Evanston Library staff, I learned that the month of March is National Women’s History Month, Irish American Heritage Month, National Craft Month, Music in Schools Month, National Nutrition Month, and Red Cross Month. Hopefully, I didn’t omit any.
I decided to focus on National Women’s History Month and Irish American Heritage Month by writing about two women who played major roles in the lives of my sister and me – that is, our African American mother and our Irish American “Aunt Thea.”
Aunt Thea was not a blood relative, although we embraced her as one and she did likewise. She asked to be called “Aunt Thea.” Aunt Thea lived four houses down the street from us. I have no idea when my sister and I first met her, but we spent almost every day visiting her. Our mom adored Aunt Thea, and whenever my sister or I disappeared from our house, our mom knew that we were at Aunt Thea’s. Aunt Thea was the only person we could visit without telling our mom. Aunt Thea called our mom “Mama,” and whenever my sister or I went to Aunt Thea with complaints about something our mom did or didn’t do, Aunt Thea found an explanation that defended “Mama’s” actions. This didn’t stop us from going to Aunt Thea with our woes.
Aunt Thea never married. After her parents passed, she lived alone with her Scottish terrier, Lassie. Our mom sometimes complained about Aunt Thea being “hard to get away from,” but even when she commented on Aunt Thea’s talkativeness, she excused it by pointing out that Aunt Thea lived alone and didn’t have anyone else in our neighborhood who visited her.
Aunt Thea had lots of trees and bushes in her yard, and when my sister or I helped her clear out the weeds, she identified the “good plants” to keep and even showed us how to sample the sweet nectar of honeysuckles. Her weeding instructions helped my sister and me know how to weed our own yard, something our mom greatly appreciated.
With our mom’s blessings, my sister or I ran errands for Aunt Thea every Saturday and sometimes during the week if she needed cat food for the stray cats she fed on her porch. Our mom occasionally quipped that Aunt Thea spent too much money on “stray animals,” but after our mom let my sister and me keep a stray cat rescued from a big tree in our yard, she said nothing else on this subject.
Mom spoke admiringly about Aunt Thea taking care of her parents until they passed. Our mom had done the same. Mom spoke proudly about Aunt Thea being smart and working since she was a young girl. The same was true of our mom. However, by the time our mom and Aunt Thea were adults, our mom still worked as a domestic in our hometown, while Aunt Thea became an office worker in a nearby city. Our mom praised Aunt Thea for getting a good job because “just like colored people, the Irish were discriminated against.” She told us about signs that read “Irish need not apply,” and compared this blatant discrimination to signs restricting (banishing) colored people. Aunt Thea often told us, “As smart as Mama is, if she weren’t colored, she’d be able to get a good job.”
Mama and Aunt Thea had a long, loving relationship until old age, poor health and mental deterioration separated them. I have no doubt that if they had been able to write each other, they could have signed off with: Empathetically yours.