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It Was Those Who Believed in Me Who Helped Me Believe in Myself *

January 27, 2010

My Aunt Mildred, my mother’s only sister, thought I was wonderful. She’s gone now, but sometimes when I listen carefully, I can still hear her saying, “Cookie, ya dear girl, ya,” the way she greeted every one of my phone calls. (Personal note: You may not call me Cookie. My family does. But that’s another story.) I could rely on Aunt M for encouragement. She always believed in my possibilities, and no matter what I was doing—or not doing—she thought I was wonderful. I am not always wonderful, but her unflagging belief in me mattered. It still does.

I teach a course in adolescent development and this week I’ve asked my students to list several adults who influenced them as they were growing up and then to write about one. This is an activity I use in my work with Oregon Writing Project as well. You can learn things about yourself by the choices you make and the things you write as you capture stories that are meaningful.

One of the things I learned from Aunt Mildred was to be on time. She was just about never on time. If you planned to go to a movie with her, you were well advised to lie about the start time if you wanted to get there for the opening credits. As she got older and I became the driver for our thrift store excursions, I never let this bother me. I always took a book to her house and sat and read while she completed an almost endless series of one-more-thing-before-we-leave things she needed to do. Uncle George was not so patient, but he was a career Marine officer, so I can understand his impatience with her unmilitary ways. After he died, I wrote the following in my journal:

Aunt Mildred was often late. Uncle George used to say that she would make him late for his own funeral, and sure enough, as the organist played her repertoire of mournful tunes over and over, and I kept the funeral director and preacher at bay, we waited at the funeral home, friends and family all gathered, for almost forty-five minutes for my cousin Charlie to arrive with the video camera to tape the service. The next day, at the cemetery, the Marines waited, lined up for the twenty-one gun salute, for a half-hour before Aunt M arrived. Uncle George was right.

I loved Aunt Mildred despite her foibles. It’s easy to forgive someone who thinks you’re wonderful. Although she lived a thousand miles away, she was with me in spirit in every class I took until I finished finally my doctorate. When I got discouraged or felt just too tired to go on, she was a cheerleader, telling me that she knew I could do it. Sometimes, she sent random cards in the mail. A birthday card or a Christmas card or St. Patrick’s Day wishes would arrive long after the event (or early, I suppose), always with a few dollars to spend on something I didn’t really need but that would cheer me up. After Aunt Mildred died, I tried to capture her spirit of fun and her lateness in a poem:

Memories of Aunt Mildred
by W-OZ

Brothers sisters cousins mother aunt
we wait,
standing in the lobby
tickets in hand
double bill about to start.

Aunt Mildred’s late again.
That’s no surprise
but we know she’ll be here,
skating on the edges of too late
but never missing out on fun.

Breathlessly, laughing,
she rushes in,
her bag bulging from one shoulder,
her other arm outstretched,
covered with a pale blue sweater.

We know the drill,
surround her,
protecting her cargo from
suspicious eyes.
Moving fast
before the smell can permeate the space.
Before our hamburgers and fries
announce a presence
forbidden in the popcorned darkness.

The show begins.
Elvis sings and gyrates
and we cringe as the big Coke bottle
slips and rolls to the front,
glad we’re sitting where the grownups
call too close,
giggling and pretending we don’t know them
even as we sip our Coke from plastic cups
filled with crumby ice from a twist-tied plastic
bread bag smuggled in in Aunt M’s purse.

When you’re in school, it’s easy to begin to doubt your abilities, particularly if you encounter a difficult class or you’re having trouble getting a paper started or you do poorly on an exam. You need people who believe that you can do whatever it is you need to do to be successful. You can provide this belief for others too. It matters.

List several adults who made a major impact on your development while you were growing up. What was special about these people? In what ways did they influence you? Tell a story about one of them.

I never doubted my ability, but when you hear all your life you’re inferior, it makes you wonder if the other guys have something you’ve never seen before. If they do, I’m still looking for it.
• Hank Aaron (Aaron began his career in baseball in the Negro American League and in 1999 was ranked fifth on a list of “Greatest Baseball Players” by
The Sporting News)

* Thanks to Maya Angelou for the title quotation.

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