Wednesday, July 30, 2014

For My Dear Aunt Wendy

Today I remembered this old song that used to play occasionally on 104.3 Cool Oldies. My parents didn't like to listen to anything else on drives in the 90's for fear of Britney Spears and 'N Sync I suppose. But this song, I haven't thought of it in years. It's the 1967 "Windy" by a group called The Association.

Whose tripping down the streets of the city
smiling at everybody she sees?
Whose reaching out to capture a moment?
Everyone knows it's Windy.

I have this vague memory of driving down Midland, I think, and looking out over the dash from an angle that leads me to believe that I must have been very young. The air outside danced to the happy-making tune that played inside the car. It was as though the wind knew which song was on the radio.

And Windy has stormy eyes
that flash at the sound of lies
And Windy has wings to fly
above the clouds (above the clouds)
above the clouds (above the clouds)

I remember thinking to myself, sitting in what was probably the beat up old family van I privately called Eleanor Roosevelt, that it was confirmed. Windy was a real name and my grandparents had, in fact, named their daughtermy auntafter the wind. But of course, her name was in actuality Wendy. Wendy Joy Winston. Aunt Wendy.

Wendy's engagement photo.
Wendy didn't have stormy eyes. I wish I still remembered the color. I believe that they were blue. A very clear blue. But I haven't seen her since April, and I don't think that in April I was paying particular attention to the color of her eyes. Photographs, however, confirm that they were shaped like almonds, and set close togetherone of the genetic signatures of the Richardson (her maiden name) family. This may have been her only Richardson-ian feature though. I've often heard stories of Wendy's growing up years. She was born in Western New York, where neighbors commonly informed my grandmother that her third daughter looked nothing like the first two, and that instead she looked like a little Indian child. Wendy's hair was very dark, and very thick, and looking back through the years it seems that most often, she wore it at her shoulders.

I don't recall Wendy's eyes ever flashing. According to my collection of memories, most often, they lifted. There was something behind her eyes that had a lifting quality. Not lifting in any upward direction, necessarily, just the feeling of being lifted. Softly, modestly, but happily lifted.

And you know, if anybody had wings to fly it would have been my Aunt Wendy.

Wendy was a kind of aunt-mom. She had six kids, the oldest was her only son. Her five daughters followed, each one about two years older than the next. I was the same age as her youngest, which made the rest of the Winston brood a special variety of cousins: cousin-siblings. We shared all kinds of things. Clothing, interests, camping trips, the occasional attitude problem, dance lessons, and every single birthday cake.

Oh, and movies! We had most of the Disney movies at our house, but for many years, we didn't own Peter Pan. Fortunately, Aunt Wendy did, and she was always willing to loan it out. My brother, who was five years younger than I, loved Peter Pan. Either him or I would semi-regularly trek up the stairs from the family room to the 60's linoleum covered kitchen to ask Aunt Wendy for permission to borrow it. When I asked, it was under the pretense that it was for my brother, but the truth was that I loved it too. And not so much for the swashbuckling, and the flying, and the lost boys, as for the mermaids (shocker), the never-growing-up, and the Wendy Moira Angela Darling.

Perhaps I should acknowledge that the base of my understanding of Peter Pan is admittedly the Disney film. I've read the story, or most of it, but it won't do me any good here. Because when I think of J.M. Barrie's Wendy Moira Angela Darling, to the shame of my literary sensibilities I think first of the little Disney character.

I liked her blue nightgown, her strangely stationary curls, and her kindness. She reminded me of my Aunt Wendy, the same one who loaned me the film in the first place. Wendy Darling darned socks. Or perhaps she suggested darning socks? I didn't know what that was at the time, but I thought of my Aunt Wendy when I heard the word, because my Aunt Wendy stitched brightly colored thread into the toes of each one of her daughters' socks, to differentiate each girls' pair from the next.

I wish I still remembered the colors. Perhaps Katy was green, Tami may have been blue. Jennie could have been pink. Just a few stitches. The pink in the shape of an x. The green a little square. I knew that for Wendy, those stitches were purposeful. Her five daughters, her five squabbly, delightful daughters, didn't like to share socks. I asked my own mother to stitch colorful threads into my socks. I only have two sisters. And just one whose socks could be confused with mine. But I still, in many ways, wanted to be a Winston.

Aunt Wendy made her daughters after-school snacks. I think that there were always apple slices, Saltines, and cheddar pieces waiting on plates on the picnics tables in her backyard. And she made ramen noodles for lunch. She gave her daughters what appeared to be an option of culinary magnitude to childhood me: they could either put a chunk of cheese (but only one) in their Ramen noodles, or if their water-and-seasoning-packet-broth was too hot, an ice-cube.

Aunt Wendy loved photos. She lined the walls of her living room, the living room with the most beautiful cove ceilings I'd ever seen, with photos. You wouldn't call it a gallery wall, exactly. All of them framed and hung together, very tightly, and all of them at eye level, all the way around the room. I think it was so that she could see as many of her loved ones as possible. She was literally surrounded by their faces.

Some of the people you'd find featured on Wendy's living room walls.
The collection grew over the years. There was always the old sepia toned photo of her grandmother Jennie. Wendy and John's wedding photo, taken outside of the Provo Temple. In it, I think John's father was wearing a brown suit. And the early family photo—Uncle John with his oversized glasses, and Wendy with her feathered hair. Little Scott and Lori, suntanned and mischievous, sitting on their parents' laps.

Then, a portrait of Scott and Jennie, looking ever so much like siblings, despite the 12 year age gap between them. I can remember the senior photo of Julie, the one Wendy took with her camera that used film, taking its place above the organ. And the tiny picture of Katy in her red graduation gown that sat in the corner of a frame. Eventually, there was a photo of Tami, standing next to her very tall, reed-like husband Tanner on their July wedding day. And then, photos of grandbabies. And photos of nieces and nephews and trips and holidays.

Wendy Moira Angela Darling was a mother to everyone. At least to all of the lost boys. My Aunt Wendy was the same. She took care of the next door neighbor girls, Meghan and her little red-headed sister. She took care of my dear cousin Kayla, who has no siblings, but still gets to experience the joys of being picked on by her numerous cousins. I know that Wendy took care of me.

She encouraged me to play the piano, despite my open rebellion of practicing. She put together little family talent shows, opportunities to perform "Part of Your World" ultimately, as that was the only song I ever learned. She asked me about Harry Potter, and after I finished reading her entire Nancy Drew collection, she introduced me to an interesting knock-off series called Trixie Belden. I didn't read very many of those though, because she kept them in her basement. I always thought that Aunt Wendy was very brave, because she did laundry in that basement, a dank, dark, spidery place, every day.

My Aunt Wendy brought me into her home for a few weeks during the summer of 2010, after I had my back surgery. Aunt Wendy sat for hours one evening and listened as I told her about my college heartbreaks, my experiences in coming to know myself.

A photo of Wendy, John, and me taken during her April visit to Provo.

I saw Wendy in April, when she came to Provo for Jennie's graduation from BYU. I sat with her in seats that were very high up in the Marriott Center. We picked them for their proximity to the entrance. She was very tired in April. Before Jennie's convocation began, John stepped out to use the restroom. I stayed with Wendy.

We talked about my Dad, her brother. "He is so sure about what goes on after death, on the other side," she said, "and I believe him and what he's experienced, it's justI'm not as sure as he is sometimes." She folded her hands across her lap.

I too, feel very sure. But then again, I wasn't daily staring death in the face. So I said, "I think I know what you mean."

"I've always believed in life after death, but up until this point I've never realized how little we know."

"It is kinda scary."

She looked at me through her glasses, the ever-present sincerity in her eyes a little more visible through the pain than it had been that day. "I mean, if I could choose, I would be a guardian angel," Wendy said, "I don't know if you get to choose, or what else you get to do once you're there, but if I could choose that's what I'd want. To watch over my children and family and help them."

But this was April, and in April Wendy wasn't sure if she would by dying soon. In fact, she was still feeling pretty optimistic about things. But that's Wendy for you.

Her kidneys failed in July. After battling cancer for almost three years, Wendy was finally ready for a new beginning. She left us on a Thursday.

I'm not sure exactly where she went. And that might be what is trickiest about losing her. I feel confident that she went somewhere. That my Aunt Wendy couldn't possibly have ceased to be. No, I have to laugh when my thoughts stumble in that direction. This, right here, sums up what I believe under my skin about death:

"While many thousands of others truly mourn for the loss of their kindred, yet they [the believers] rejoice and exult in the hope, and even know, according to the promises of the Lord, that they [the lost kindred] are raised to dwell at the right hand of God, in a state of never-ending happiness."
(Alma 28:12)

But where exactly is the right hand of God? Is that a geographic location? Metaphor, maybe? Can I get there too? When can I see Wendy again? Can Wendy see us? Will she watch her children grow and live, will she be present in moments when her husband, or her siblings, or her nieces or nephews, or any of her loved ones need her?

Then, I remember that Windy song.

And Windy has wings to fly
above the clouds (above the clouds)

Is Wendy above me somewhere? It probably doesn't hurt to believe such things. And I think that she might approve of me searching the skies for her. She lived a very look up kind of life.

Wendy Darling seemed to live the same life, didn't she? The look up kind of life.

"Well, a mother, a real mother is the most wonderful person in the world. She's the angel voice that bids you good night, kisses your cheek, whispers 'sleep tight'..."

That's something Wendy Darling said in Disney's Peter Pan about mothers. She might as well have been saying it about my Aunt Wendy, the description fits her so well. Wendy was an angel voice. And why couldn't she be now? Would she change so much in death? Would she be, truly, any different in her desires now than when she breathed?

And then I remember Wendy. The person, herself.

"If I could choose, that's what I'd want. To watch over my children and family and help them."

So perhaps that is where she is. Here. Here and there. Low and high. But what could be both low and high, both here and there?

Why, the wind. Of course.