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Black Auntie Magic

Growing up with a mentally ill mother, there were two loving women I could count on to turn a nightmare situation around.

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A young girl rides on the back of her aunty outside on a bright summer day.
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There is a T-shirt that reads “God Couldn’t Be Everywhere, So He Created Aunts.” Every time I spot a wearer, I nod at them and smile. I know what a blessing an auntie can be, because two of them salvaged my childhood. The daughter of a schizophrenic mother and an overwhelmed father, my home life was often chaotic.

As a little girl and through my early teens, I didn’t have the tools to understand Mom’s altered sense of reality. I wasn’t able to reason that though she was hostile to me, I wasn’t the cause of her problems. So I remained on guard, waiting for the next time she thought I said something I hadn’t or acted in a way that never happened. A seemingly innocent incident would trigger her screaming, cursing and accusing.

I’d lay awake wishing my parents would divorce so I could live with just my father. While that didn’t happen, two aunties provided me with the stability I craved.

Aunt Claire, my father’s sister, seemed more like a hip big sister. She knew how to defuse my dark moods with a joke. Her sense of timing (or was it Daddy’s?) delivered me out of harm’s way again and again. “Come visit Auntie for a sleepover, Bailey,” she’d chirp over the phone. She’d let me stay up late to watch movies with her, pulling me into her clean scent and warm embrace. I’d feel my shoulders relax, my breathing slow and deepen to match hers.

Aunt Claire taught me how to French braid my hair. She let me dress up in her stylish clothes. And she was always game to go on any ride at the amusement park.

While Aunt Claire was the cool one, Aunt Jo, my mother’s older sister, was my maternal proxy. “Don’t run through grandma’s house” and “finish your greens” rolled off her tongue just as easily as “I love you.” I turned to her for advice about boys. She listened when I needed to vent about problems with school or friends. She’d stand beside me in the oven-warmed kitchen, apron dusted with flour, as she taught me to cook family favorites.

But more than just a sounding board, Aunt Jo was a guardian angel who descended on our home with uncanny reliability to pick me up for a long stay at her house. “You’re stronger than you know,” she’d tell me after my mother left me feeling small and defeated. “It’s not your fault,” she’d reassure me. Her belief in me was so unshakeable that I began to believe in me, too.

Aunties kept my world from spinning out of control. And their unconditional love and support carried on well past my teenage years.

When I was 25, I met a wonderful man, a divorced father of a 7-year-old, who I thought might be the one. I excitedly told my mother all about him the night after our first date. Mom’s negative attitude had me questioning my own feelings and flooded my heart with fear and doubt. Is it wise to pursue a relationship with a man who arrived with baggage? Aunt Jo gave me the courage to follow my heart when she simply stated, “What matters is his character and actions today, not whatever happened in the past.” Two years later, she stood beaming in the church when we married.

When I became an aunt by marriage, I knew I had big shoes to fill. Whether we’re sharing dinner or chatting on the phone, or I’m sending my nieces and nephew a card, my goal is to be a loving and consistent presence. That way, I can pay my blessing forward.

*The writer changed her name to protect the family’s privacy.