I was a 5 generation baby as were my daughters and grandchildren. Having elderly people in my life was the norm and it wasn’t until I became a parent that this generational gift was fully appreciated. One of my greatest blessings was my Aunt Mary. A constant figure in my life, and now in my memories. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I saw with clarity what a gem she really was. You see, Aunt Mary was my great, great, aunt. Far enough from my bloodline to be just a face with a name in some families but more like a bonus grandma for me.
I asked my mother once how it was that our family was closer to Aunt Mary than the other branches of relatives were. “Aunt Mary was a safe haven for your father when he was growing up and they have always had a soft spot for each other.” she replied. Dad didn’t have the happiest childhood and Aunt Mary as his great aunt saw this and reached out. Love, acceptance and a sense of belonging were the gifts she offered my father and I was swept up into their bond just as the ocean tides gather up grains of sand, bringing them back into its’ mighty waves.
Time flew by with marriages, divorce, the birth of children and countless moves and yet Aunt Mary remained the same. We would talk monthly and yet years could pass without seeing each other face to face, but our rhythm never changed. We picked up wherever we had left off serious issues were discussed and shelved and then we would glide into the frivolous banter I so enjoyed. Aunt Mary understood. I could say things to her that would have shocked her peers, yet nothing seemed to faze her. She often said, “I’ve seen it all. People have been doing the same damn dumb stuff since the beginning of time.” She was always relevant, in touch with all generations and able to impart advice without lecture, disapproval without scorn. It was not until I was an adult that I learned that my parents as dating teens were able to seek out this woman’s council when they were not comfortable speaking to either set of parents. That’s just the way it was. Aunt Mary never seemed to age or become an old woman. She was like a building that appears to have always been there. No one can remember a time without its presence but when it is finally torn down, the entire block doesn’t look right, the feel of the neighborhood changed forever.
Years passed and the universe graced me with my first grandchild who was named William after my father. Aunt Mary was 88 years old when my grandson, her great, great, great, great nephew was born and the magical circle of Aunt Mary’s love swallowed up this newest member of the family. I am not sure if she saw my father in my grandson but for whatever reason those two bonded and for 12 wonderful years my grandson had Aunt Mary and she had him up until her death, less than 4 months prior to her 100th birthday. At the time of her death my two grandchildren William was 12 and Kaleigh Jean had just turned 6. They had spent countless hours with Aunt Mary and knew that her death signified the end of a special club that they were exclusive members of. How many children can say they have a rich and full relationship with a great, great, great, great aunt? Their time spent with Aunt Mary was unique, special and more importantly, a gift, whose value will only increase with the passing of time and the next generation yet to be born.
After a nasty fall that left Aunt Mary in bed and bored I mentioned to her that I wished she would write her life’s story. I had it verbally in bits and pieces. It was if I had started a picture puzzle of her life and had completed the border and the center sections. I had a rough idea of what the finished picture would look like but the colors and fine details were missing. She waved off my request and I thought that was the end of that discussion. I COULDN’T HAVE BEEN MORE WRONG! It was a few years later after she was admitted to a nursing home because of her physical decline that I walked into her room and she threw something at me and said with a smirk, “Here, you little shit, ya happy now? I picked up a booklet of punched line paper that was held together with sewing thread. The cover said…MY STORY FOR CINDI. At the age of 96 she had handwritten her memories just for me. After her death I was asked to give Aunt Mary’s’ eulogy and shared many of her stories, some of which her immediate family had never heard. I had in my possession something that was truly priceless and I was fully aware that I had been entrusted with a piece of history more valuable to me than any historical find and just as spectacular.
“Cindi keeps urging me to write about my life,” this was the first sentence she wrote and I knew that what was to come would forever impact me in a profound way and in the end it did just that. I had before me an account of the very things, events and people who had shaped this woman whom I had loved my entire life and now deeply missed.
“My first memory is an “almost memory.” A story that was told time and time again as I was growing up and do not know if it is true. The story is about the night the gypsies came to town.” Aunt Mary wrote. “My brothers Carroll and Nelsen came running into the house and told my mother to hide me because the gypsies were in the area. I must have been a newborn because mother was still laid up in bed from giving birth. Back then women took to their beds for up to 6 weeks after a birth but were expected to work like horses the rest of their lives. More about that in a minute let me tell you about where I was born. My parents owned a small meat market near our house that is now know as 633 and County Line Rd. Wexford was a thriving small town back then with a hotel, bank, drug store, (owned by Doc Purdy who attended my birth) millinery, grocery store, church as well as a saloon. An interesting thing about the latter building was the location of the saloon. The saloon was located on the north side of the dividing line between Grand Traverse County and Wexford Co. Booze was legal in Grand Traverse County but not in Wexford at the time. So you attended church on one side of the street and drank on the other. The saloon up and moved to the south side of town once alcohol was allowed in Wexford County. Guess it was safer to drink on the same side of the street rather than cross it if you were intoxicated.” At this point I chuckled reading Aunt Mary’s account of Wexford Corners in Buckley because is just that…a corner intersection with only the remnant of a burned down building and a few houses. I have a hard time imagining a “thriving” anything in this farming community.
“Back to the story of my earliest memory (almost). A caravan of gypsies was seen traveling through the local area. These so called gypsies were known to steal from farms and businesses. Not sure if they ever stole a child but my brothers were concerned anyway. Years later as I became a pest, they often told me that they should have let the gypsies take Me.” she wrote. This story of the gypsies was told throughout Aunt Mary’s life, the stuff legends are made of. Aunt Mary rehashed this story about a month before she died and laughed saying “when I am dead, maybe my brothers will tell me the truth.” I replied, “Wish you could let me know, it’s quite the cliffhanger.” I am not a one who believes in ghosts or spirits of the deceased returning from the dead with cryptic messages but what happened a few month after Aunt Mary’s death left me shell shocked and feeling things on an emotional level I have never experienced before. My home town papers the “Record Eagle” runs a column once a month called,” Look Back… News from 100 years ago.” This column contains articles from the county and surrounding areas that were submitted to the paper. Most of the time they would contain articles that so and so, sister of ____ is visting from Detroit and a tea was held in her honor. The article would include who attended the tea, what was served and usually ended with the following, “a good time was had by all.” These news shorts would let the reader know what business or residence had burned down and who was arrested for disorderly or drunken behavior. Every couple of months there would be advice on proper behavior for young ladies and tips on how to handle one ’s self during social gatherings. An early version of Emily Post’s etiquette column. As I was reading this particular column that day I come across the following. “Word was received in the city today to the effect that a band of gypsies were causing trouble in Mayfield. Last evening in Wexford, the gang met Charles Adams, a farmer living in that area whom they attacked and robbed of 98 dollars which he had on his person. Yesterday six warrants were sworn out and sheriff Shutter started a search for them.” Chills went up and down my spine as I reread the article. A mixture of tears, laughter and something I can only call mystical overcame me followed by a sense of peace I have never felt before. IT WAS TRUE! There were gypsies in Wexford during the time of Aunt Mary’s birth. Was this a sign? Was she confirming something for me or was it just a fluke? Whatever it was, I knew that Aunt Mary had her confirmation that her “almost memory” was true. In a way that defied logic, I knew that Aunt Mary was aware that I was privy to the reality of this 100 year old family story. My connection to this woman who I had known and loved for my entire life was stronger than ever and it pushed me to reread her story to glean whatever other else was there that she wanted me to know. Lessons that perhaps I hadn’t learned yet, combined with wisdom that she had left behind for me. Whatever the message was, I was sure the answers were handwritten on those lined pages bound together with thread.
I, Cindi, am kind of the odd duck of my family. I have walls covered with pictures of my deceased relatives. The “Dead People” wall as my mother calls it. The truth is, not all of those pictured on the walls are dead, but rather it is a family wall that tells a story through pictures. Like the First Book of Chronicles in the bible that starts with Adam and continues down the line of who begot who. I love the term begot. It conjures up a sense of continuity, a stream that keeps on flowing. It may twist and turn into a waterfall and then trickle into a little stream that flows into a lake, ocean or some other body of water. Always changing but still one in the same, connected and part of a bigger picture.
Aunt Mary recounts being little, maybe three or four and she writes, “I remember going to the park at Green Lake with our first car, many times the adults had to get out and push it through the sand.” I thought about her reference to “their first car.” Aunt Mary saw many firsts in her life. She went from space travel being science fiction to witnessing a man walk on the moon. She lived through 18 Presidents. At the time of her birth the Mexican Revolution was under way. WW I was the backdrop of her childhood with WWII that of her as a young adulthood. She tired of the conflicts and often said, “Man will find a reason to fight until the cows come home and then start back up as soon as they are returned to pasture.” She told stories of young men heading off to the recruiting station to sign up with Uncle Sam and immediately being put on a bus or train. There were no farewell parties or goodbyes, they were just gone and then the waiting game started. Letters could take weeks or months before a family knew that a young soldier had made it to his appointed destination.” In the midst of war for Aunt Mary’s generation there was an unyielding sense of American pride. The country rallied together, rich and poor, professional and farmer. Ration booklets became the norm for all and people worked together to make ends meet. This amazed me because today I try and imagine what would happen if our government issued coupons that said you could have 2 pairs of shoes this year, rationed gas, tires, sugar and coffee. Aunt Mary held firm opinions on what would happen. “People would be contacting lawyers saying their rights were being violated. Our generation sacrificed because we were part of something bigger. We were Americans, part of a whole. Americans learned to be a WE country not a Me country.” she said. This train of thought was also emphasized when she talked about the farming communities long gone. She recalled the barn raisings and harvest time when neighbor helped neighbor. I loved the harvest time stories. I can close my eyes and see the womenfolk from the neighboring farms gathering together to prepare a huge noon meal for the men who would start at one farm where they would collectively bring in that farmer’s crop. The horses, equipment, support and meals just kept moving from farm to farm until all of the crops were in. It wasn’t farmer against farmer but rather something deeper and more powerful, survival. Those crops represented money in the bank and food in the bellies of all. “Neighbors helped neighbors not because you had to, but rather because everyone’s burdens were made lighter and no matter how lean times were, there was always the knowledge that someone had your back.” she said. “We were poor” she wrote. “I was a grown woman before I realized just how poor we were but at the time I had a roof over my head, my belly was always full and my mother found a way to keep me warm in the winter. We had the whole outdoors as our playground. It is amazing the fun you can have with a stick, tire swing and a cat running between your legs. We never had many store bought toys but we had the freedom to run, kick up our heels and just be kids. One bike was used by 5 kids at one time. You learned to share, take turns and ride on the handlebars. We could cover a great distance with one riding and the others walking, taking turns and shooting the breeze enroute to wherever we were going. We learned the value of working hard. Everyone had a chore. Once again it was about being part of something bigger. We all knew what it took for Dad to keep a roof over our heads and for mother to keep us fed. I don’t remember there being too much sass about the daily chores, it was part of our day to day and that’s just the way it was.”
As I was reading from Aunt Mary’s entries I came across an incident that happened when she was a young married 30 year old woman. “On Flag Day 1940 as we were planting our potatoes. After loading up the seed and heading back to the fields, sparks from the tractor ignited the straw next to the barn. A fire broke out and all we had to fight it with was a hose and a pail. We lost not only the barn and outbuildings but also tools and some livestock. The old house and outhouses were spared. As I cried, Charlie held me and said “it’s going to be okay, we are alive.” That’s just the way things were, you picked yourself up, thanked God you were okay and then you started over…and we did.” We still didn’t have electricity out on the farm so we continued to do things very similar to how they were down when I was young. We heated with coal, burned oil lamps, hand pumped water for not only the animals but also for all the household chores. Since Charles was 6′ 7″ scrubbing his long johns and overalls on a washboard was a huge task. I recall the frostbit fingers and hands from hanging them out to dry or rather freeze and them hauling them in stiff to finish drying in the house.” Life was hard but it was good and there is pride in tackling the obstacles before you and mastering them. Electricity was a luxury because all of the spare money had to go into the farm. The day finally came in 1946 when we could build the new house and electricity was installed. A simple flip of a switch made life so much easier. No more oil to pour or glass globes to wash weekly. I sometimes wish that young people could go back and live the life I did for a day or two. Most people take electricity for granted. It is only when it is no longer there that you realize how much you depend on it”
Lost in my memories I begin to see my life as a patchwork quilt that has woven Aunt Mary into the very fabric of the squares themselves. She is the mosaic of yellows that have sprinkled me with sunshine. The calming blues that bring tranquility, peace and acceptance. She is the geometric pattern that reflects my inquisitive side and the rich purple hues that have made me feel as important as any visiting royalty. She has carefully woven her way into my life with threads so strong that my patches of memories are secure and intact ready to be lovingly handed down to my grandchildren who I pray will in turn pass those memories along. This is my tribute to Mary Bertek, a woman who continues to inspire me with the words she wrote on lined paper, bound together with sewing thread.