I grew up in a Polish Catholic matriarchy, surrounded by an astounding density of aunts, great-aunts, godmothers, cousins, grandparents and other female relatives whose official titles sometimes escaped me so we just called everybody “Aunt.” When my grandfather remarried, we inherited a whole third branch of family, chock-full of yet more aunts and cousins. The stack of Mother’s Day cards we all signed as kids was hefty. Family gatherings were like 80% women. The idea that women did not run the world frankly never occurred to me.
The Willett/Smith/Laskowski/Prihar/etc. women were tough, feisty, elegant, funny, outspoken and capable. From my Catholic grandmother, on my mom’s side, I inherited a love of antiques and entertaining; from my father’s mother, my progressive politics and geeky obsession with Watergate. I have Grandma Lydia’s copy of “The Collected Speeches of Abraham Lincoln” and Grandma Dorothy’s writing desk. I’m a little bit of both of them.
My mom’s father, Grandpa Sal, was a migrant worker who fell in love with the Willamette Valley during apple and pear season. He moved his family from Galveston, Texas to Portland when my mom was a child, partly to escape from the world he grew up in – a world where girls got married the weekend after graduation and men shot each other with hunting rifles over domestic disputes. He wanted more than that for his children – and, I like to imagine, particularly for his two daughters. So my mom grew up at a safe distance from the battalion of Texas relatives whose ways were alien to her – they didn’t understand why she would want to go to college, they used ugly racial slurs against Grandma Dorothy’s African-American neighbors, they married men who treated them like crap. And because Grandpa Sal rescued his family from that, the second generation of Laskowski girls – me, Cat, Beth and Grace – got to grow up in a family full of smart, outspoken women, and the second generation of Laskowski boys – Chris, Colin, Mike, Pete, Sean and Kevin – got to grow up to be the kind of guys who treat women with respect. And every day I’m grateful for the women in my family – colorful, creative, generous, sometimes odd and always loving – who I would never have known if Grandpa Sal hadn’t moved to Portland and my dad hadn’t married my mom.
When my mom died, I lost the most important person in my life – but I did not lack for mothers. So while everyone else is cooking brunch for their moms who live nearby, or calling their moms who live far away, or, like me, missing a mom who’s not there, I will also be thinking about all of the other women (and some men) who have been moms to me all my life. I’d like to take a few minutes to tell you about some of them.
My mom’s sister is the reason I’m obsessed with Christmas and Ireland, the person who taught me everything crafty that I’m good at (from cross-stitch to decoupage), who introduced me to every movie I loved as a teenager (from Rocky Horror to Jane Eyre), the favorite cool aunt who let us break our parents’ rules, and, perhaps most importantly, the reason I love books. Grandma and Aunt Kathleen’s house was full of books. Books piled on every flat surface, heaped on the floor and in chairs nobody sat in, and she was always buying more. I decided from a very early age that stacks of well-loved books were what made a house feel like a home. All the women in my family were readers, but it was from Aunt Kathleen that I learned how much I wanted to be a book person. Nearly every book that has mattered to me in my whole life was introduced to me by Aunt Kathleen.
The Dude Ranch
My best friend Evan’s family lives in a pink gingerbread house in Gaston, OR which we call “The Dude Ranch”, and his family has adopted all of his friends as their own; his mom Linda, aunt Vikki, and grandmother Rachel (who we all called Nana) love to feed us and shower awesome thrift-shop gifts upon us and take an active interest in all our lives. In some ways they know me better than my own family. We miss you, Nana.
The Cocktail Moms
Audrey, Lynne, Cheri and Kim are moms whose kids went to school with my youngest brother Colin. They, along with my parents, were part of what started out years ago at our church as a small faith-sharing group which devolved into essentially a party posse. Each small group was supposed to go by the name of a saint; someone in our group named us St. Gif (as in Saint “Thank God It’s Friday.”) We never see each other anymore without at least a case of wine being consumed. They are funny and loving and a little nuts and get really rowdy at the annual White Elephant Christmas Party and as soon as you walk into the house they will shove a glass of wine into your hand. They are the kind of people who, when your family is going through a trauma or tragedy (as all our families have at least once since we all became friends), they don’t just say, “Oh, let me know what I can do to help,” they just decide what needs to get done and they do it.
It would take a whole other blog post to tell you everything I love about all my zillions of aunties, so I’ll try to keep it short.
–Aunt Doody (REAL NAME: Edra Lee), my mom’s favorite cousin, only shops at Costco and won’t show up at your house for dinner without a 24-pack of something. She is relentlessly committed to making sure her nieces and nephews eat so much they want to pass out, and her absolute favorite thing in the world is feeding teenagers. It’s not a holiday at Aunt Doody’s house without at least one holiday orphan.
–Aunt Kathy is married to my mom’s brother Pat. Kathy is SuperMom. She is incredibly together and nothing fazes her, which makes her the absolute best person to have in your corner during a family emergency or trauma; at funerals and family meetings, in hospital rooms and crowded family kitchens on Thanksgiving, she is someone you want on your side.
–Aunt Cathie, while not technically my aunt, dated my uncle Mark (the crazy one) for like 20 years. We LOVE Cathie. When Cat and I were kids, we thought she was just the coolest – she dressed like Debbie Harry and her birthday gifts were always perfect. I’m sad that Mark is as troubled as he is, but I’m glad that Cathie has started her life over and is happy.
–Aunt Debbie was married to my mom’s oldest brother, Michael, who died when I was in 4th grade. Debbie raised her daughter, my cousin Beth, as a working single mom, with a saintlike amount of patience and never complained. I think it makes a difference to be raised among women who are teachers – it affects how you think about learning, and about kids. Aunt Debbie was a huge inspiration to me as a kid. And although I know she still wishes I was an English teacher, I credit her influence for my love of working with kids.
–Aunt Pat is my dad’s only sister, and the only member of his family who lived in Portland, so she has been a huge part of my life since I was born. I have so many memories of holidays at her house, childhood sleepovers with her daughter Megan, and of looking out and seeing her face at every major event of my life, from graduations to opening nights. She’s funny and resilient and a wonderful mom and grandmother, and it is tremendously satisfying to get the juicy gossip on what your parents were like as teenagers.
–Aunt JoDee, Aunt LeeAnn and Aunt Kelly came into the family when my Grandma Melita married my grandfather. They are heroic moms. The stress and challenges they’ve dealt with in their lives have been tremendous, but they are the most joyful, loving people you will ever meet. Family comes first with these women. Always. Without question. Which means if you’re lucky enough to be part of their family, you know they’re always looking out for you too.
The Pacific Street Mafia
I grew up in Northeast Portland, on a street called Pacific Street, deep in the loveliest part of Laurelhurst. It had all the best parts of a small town (we walked to school and to church, we played in the neighbor kids’ yards, we had an annual Fourth of July extravaganza complete with a kids’ bike parade). The army of moms who lived on that street parented communally; we’d walk home from school and end up at somebody’s house, and somebody’s mom would give us a snack and let us play outside for awhile and then help us with our math homework and make sure we were home for dinner. We moved away when I was in middle school, and my parents bought the house back about five years ago, before my mom got sick. Nearly all the old neighbors were still there, and the moms who once fed us after-school snacks or put Band-Aids on our scraped knee at summer picnics were once again right there to help, organizing a rotation to help take care of my mom when she was sick. One of them would call my dad every time she was at the grocery store to ask if we needed everything. One of them made sure that every vase around the house had fresh flowers in it. They brought casseroles and gossip. They were ready to help at a moment’s notice. And just like when I was a little kid who scraped my knee or needed help lighting my sparklers or was afraid of a neighbor’s dog, it was a relief and a reassurance to have a competent, loving mom (or twelve) take a problem out of your hands and say, “It’s going to be okay, I’ll take care of it.”
Aunt Sherry and Aunt Willie were Grandma Dorothy’s sisters. They lived in a house that seemed, to Childhood Claire, like exactly what Heaven must be like because it included a whole room full of dolls – floor-to-ceiling glass shelves and display cases full of gorgeous antique dolls from all over the world (they traveled a lot). They made their own Polish sausage, they hosted Christmas Eve dinner every year (with entertainment ranging from lottery tickets to magicians) and their house was like a museum of wonders. BEST WILLIE STORY: She smuggled illegal ivory back from the U.S.S.R. (not for criminal purposes, just because she bought an ivory carving she wanted for her house) by slipping it into a pair of nylons and tying it around her body under her dress; when Sherry protested that somebody would notice and she’d get in trouble, Willie pointed out – correctly, as it turns out – “They’re not going to notice anything on a lumpy old lady.” BEST SHERRY STORY – Her real name is Rose, but she had a hot French boyfriend in her youth who called her “Cheri.” The family adopted the nickname to tease her, and it stuck. She never married, and I often wonder what became of the French boyfriend.
Aunt Vi was married to my mom’s uncle Norm. They lived on a farm out in Beaver Creek, OR, which is exactly as rural as it sounds; they had chickens and horses and wheatfields and every day she cooked for the farmhands. When Norm died, she moved to a posh assisted-living facility in Portland, and now she and Sherry go to the opera and the theatre and the symphony. I have incredibly clear childhood memories of visiting the farm, riding the tractor, and eating Aunt Vi’s blueberry pie.
The Youth Ministry Moms
Stephanie, Carol, Lori, Gail, Leslie and many of the other moms whose kids have been in my youth ministry programs have been surrogate moms to me too in various ways. Carol held my hand and talked me through all kinds of family craziness. Lori decorated my Christmas tree. Gail gave me my first slow cooker. Leslie’s come to all of my plays. Stephanie’s driven me to the DMV. Technically I’m supposed to be an adult running a program their children participate in, but a good mom is a good mom, and good mom advice is good mom advice, even when you’re thirty and closer to the age of the parent than their child.
I have a stepmother who knew and loved my mom, and a step-grandmother who knew and loved my grandma. It makes all the difference, and it’s a potent reminder that family is about more than just wherever you inherited your genes from. Grandma Lydia died when I was a kid. She wasn’t at my college graduation or my sixteenth birthday. But Grandma Melita was. That’s family. My mom never saw any of my plays get produced in Portland, but my stepmother has been at every opening night. That’s family.
The Non-Mom Moms
When I need advice from my mom, I can’t call my mom anymore. So I consult a collective of the following people: my dad, my sister, my youth ministry partner-in-crime Monica, and my best friends Evan and Erin. Between the five of them, I can come to the right conclusion 100% of the time.
It’s not the same, and I miss my mom every day, but I’m tremendously lucky to be surrounded by so many people who care about me. And because I remember with great clarity my mom’s aggressive commitment to thank-you notes, I’m sure she would want me to thank them all for filling in for her in her absence.
So to every mom out there who’s not an Official Mom – to all the stepmoms, foster moms, godmothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, neighbors, babysitters, nannies, friends and other women who help children grow up and feel loved and provide support – thank you, and know that you are loved and appreciated on Mother’s Day.