Women's History: Dear Aunt Kitty

Women's History: Dear Aunt Kitty

By Mary Duggan

My mother and her Aunt Kitty will always be women’s history for me. I think this is the case for many women. We learn how to navigate our lives, survive the terrible storms and stay on course while performing domestic tasks at the kitchen table with our mothers, and in our case, one small but mighty great aunt from Australia, as our teachers. 

I learned to cook at that kitchen table, for sure, and the proper order for hand washing dishes - glassware and silverware before plates and bowls. I even learned basic salon skills like how to give a Tony Home Perm or blond highlights. Working beside my mom, peeling potatoes or chopping onions, making a jello mold or gently kneading Irish soda bread, I learned about my people too, especially the women I came from, those I would know and those already gone to their heavenly reward. I learned my responsibilities as a woman and I learned my history. 

My mom’s personal history was a sad tale of loss followed by yet more loss; by the age of seven her mother, two brothers and father were all dead. For all intents and purposes she was completely orphaned as she was quickly separated from her two remaining brothers as her large and loving extended Irish-American family struggled in the aftermath of the ongoing tragedies to find homes for three children without parents. The deep economic depression affecting the nation became intimately intertwined with her family’s personal grief and made their painful choices even more difficult. A few exceedingly sad, and very rough years played out before my mom was taken into the loving home of her Aunt Kitty and Uncle Tom, a slightly older and childless couple who raised her to adulthood and became for me and my siblings de facto grandparents. Grandparents who had moved in their retirement from Chicago to California leaving us with a big hole but a treasure trove of loving memories, too. Their relocation marks my memories in a particular fashion as they too were relocated by expansion to include the dining room table. 

Our family dining room was long and rectangular and held an appropriately-sized table for a family that was soon to swell to eleven kids, my parents, and the inevitable friend at dinner time. That multi-purpose table was always busy between meals as we gathered around it to do homework on school nights. On the weekends it was transformed into the location for sewing classes for me as my mom, a former sewing teacher, and my Grandma Liz Duggan, a professional seamstress and drapery maker, taught me the nips and tucks of sewing, from trimming the tissue paper pattern, to cost effective tips for laying out fabric, followed by cutting, basting, the how-tos of Mom’s new Singer, the advantages of tailor tacks, how to make perfectly pointy darts and the hand-stitching, finally, of the hem. I remember it all and use those skills to this day.

It was the same table where I performed one of my many endless chores, the folding of EVERYONE’S laundry. And there alongside the table stood the much loathed by me ironing board - the scene of endless hours of ironing that felt like it was consuming my youth - because it was. I hated it. What I didn’t hate was my favorite chore - which was no chore at all - the writing of a weekly letter to Aunt Kitty to keep her up to date on all the family news. Dear Aunt Kitty became the three cherished words that marked me as a writer. 

This was the early 1960s. Phone calls were expensive and reserved almost exclusively for the announcement of births and deaths. All other news was delivered via those letters. I loved cursive and had achieved what my Grandma Liz declared to be Palmer perfect penmanship. My Grandma Liz and I shared a passion for alliteration and all things beautiful, especially penmanship. I was10-years old and in full possession of the skills required. 

I’d been born on my Aunt Kitty’s birthday and was named for her, so it was a given I could secure this sweet assignment. I already exhibited what my teachers described as a way with words - highly valued in my mother’s worldview - partnered unfortunately with a tendency towards shyness - a mortal and deadly sin in Mom’s worldview as well. In other words, I was a homebody bookworm. 

I was afforded some leeway with the content of the letters; but mostly, my ever-busy mother would instruct me in what she wanted relayed. Tell Aunt Kitty that Janie is doing really well with her violin lessons and her teacher says she shows real promise. Tell her that Paul has grown another two inches but it’s making his legs ache something awful.  Already a fan of medical drama, I’d added in the leg pain detail. Tell her we’ve already gone to see Mr. Lewin for new Easter shoes and Joanie insisted that hers be red! Can you imagine? Again, I’d shown real savvy, I thought, with my add-on to the boring shoe news. I couldn’t believe how demanding, bratty and spoiled my little sister could be - red, really? I knew Aunt Kitty would agree with my opinion and understand completely. Sometimes, when the flow of dictation from the kitchen went silent, I would prompt my mom with questions. I figured she’d put the kibosh on me telling Aunt Kitty that Uncle John had to go to the doctor to drain a boil on his butt. So I reigned in my love of medical details and held back what my 10-year-old self thought was hysterical. Should I tell her that Uncle Eddie is sick with the flu, I called out to my mom in the kitchen? No, she’d say, let’s not worry her with that. We’ll wait until he’s feeling better and report the good news after the fact. On and on it went just like that every Saturday morning as my endlessly busy mom taught me how to write and report and entertain. I’d give my right arm to have those letters.

And speaking of right arms, that is actually how everyone described me: you are your mother’s right arm - what WOULD she do without you? I felt proud when other moms would notice how good I was with babies or browning the meat for stew and already being able to sew house dresses for my mom - with zippers! I was happy and proud that I could lighten my mom’s really hard life because I was always worried about her on account of her own mother having died so young. So I was proud that other moms noticed helpful me and decades away from understanding the patterns in large families that “parentified” people-pleasing children like me and left us sitting ducks for abusive relationships in the future. But that’s another story, another piece of this woman’s history altogether. 

Furthermore, this was supposed to be a story for and about Women’s History from my perspective as the owner of a woman-owned business. I fear I have already ventured too far off base or maybe just too close to home. Either way, let me see if I can reign things in and get back on track. Let me see now, where was I? 

I am very clear on Women’s History and how it has shaped my life. I know from my grandmother’s history that a woman can go to visit relatives out-of-town only to have her 5-year child dart out into traffic and get killed. And I know from that same woman that women can give birth and die shortly thereafter from a blood clot. I know that when women die young they leave bereaved spouses and bereft children behind who never fully get over the loss.  

And I know that in best case scenarios other women will step up in extraordinary ways and raise those children. I know that a tiny little woman dismissed as a spinster can marry very happily late in her life and despite being technically childless can end up raising her husband’s 9-year-old niece and save that young girl’s life and in the process end up with her heart and her arms filled with great-nieces and nephews who adore her - a little immigrant lady with a great big life. And that great-aunties can instill orphan girls with values like courage, tolerance and forgiveness that can be passed on via story and example for generations. Along with Australian wisdom (a blind man on a galloping horse never looks back) that no one will ever understand. 

I know that brave little orphans can grow into movie star gorgeous women and win scholarships and get brilliantly educated and marry their one true love only to spend decades exhausted by all the wearying tasks of marriage and parenting and end up deserted some 30 years later - left with a ton of bills, a shattered heart, little ones still to be raised and a resume that read educated housewife in desperate need. Age: 50.

These are the women and the histories that inform our lives and the business that we have built together. Three sisters, each facing their own losses, and heartaches and offering up their unique talents, grabbing on to each other for dear life and saying let’s do something important. Let’s build something. Let’s defy the odds and the naysayers and make something marvelous happen - together. 

Let’s write the next chapter in the history of our family’s women. And let’s make it a doozy. 

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