On behalf of my sister, I brought a length of braided sweetgrass to my Aunt V. in Milwaukee this past holiday weekend. For now, she's enlaced it with a heart of grapevine stems and berries (above) on her living room wall, but once it dries, V. will use the sweetgrass for smudging at drumming circles, which she hosts in her backyard. She and the women with whom she drums tie red prayer cloths around the slim trunk of the crabapple tree V. planted in memory of her older sister (my aunt) C., who died three years ago. The drummers invoke their higher spirits and say a prayer of honor and thanks before smudging the tree and the sacred circle around it in which they will drum. They learn rhythms together and then turn to silent meditation to the beat of their drums.
I came to know my Aunt V., who last month celebrated her eighty-first birthday, when I was about fourteen years old and she was the age I am now. My parents dropped off the three of us--my sister, my brother, and me--to spend a week with her (she is one of my father's older sisters) and our Uncle G. in the small house they shared with G's two older brothers and a large dalmatian. My parents were headed to an august medical facility many hours away where my mother underwent a battery of tests, which eventually ruled out cancer and determined her to be in robust physical health.
In those years, my aunt and uncle led a very private life, and in retrospect, I see that, in welcoming three children whom they barely knew--two teens and a three year old--my relatives had said yes to an intrusion into their privacy, and to a lot of work. As mistress of the house, V. kept us occupied all day and every day with activities we thought she undertook on a lark but that must have required much forethought, planning, and organization.
That summer, we learned to sew with Vogue patterns and to make pasta by hand, stringing lengths of hand-cut fettucine to dry on hangers before cooking. At some level, we recognized our aunt's efforts, for on her birthday, which arrived during our visit, we proclaimed her Queen for the Day. To start the morning, we served apricot sugar toast and coffee to her in bed and executed an ambitious dinner that evening, an undertaking that proved the wisdom of avoiding the temptation to prepare a new recipe as the centerpiece of a special meal. In tackling salmon croquettes, I discovered, too late, the difficulty of replicating neatly shaped and perfectly browned patties as displayed in lustrous glory in the pages of V's Bon Appetit magazine. No matter the meal's imperfections, the memory is one we still recall fondly, and the visit cemented a relationship that has endured for more than thirty years.
In remembering that week with her, and in learning more about her drumming this last visit, I admire more than ever V's willingness--and ability--to choose yes as a response to life, even when many and sometimes most of the variables are unknown. It's impossible for me to avoid contrasting her, now long widowed, with my mother who, though fearless in her imaginative life, was, unlike V., largely overwhelmed by the physical, tangible realities that come with being human. I hope I'm not deluded in imagining my own life as some mix of the best of the two approaches, and I like to envision that when I'm eighty-one, I'll still be saying yes to life and finding sacred possibilities in my own backyard.