My mom is the fourth in a string of seven daughters born to farmers in southern Kansas. Collectively, these women have always been referred to as “the aunts.” And they are almost always referred to in the collective. I was never very close to them – we only saw my mom’s family a couple of times a year (mostly due to a strained relationship between my dad and his mother-in-law). I was in high school before I could correctly name each one, and that was only after I ingeniously developed a mnemonic device.
I was always out of my element when we would visit my mom’s side of the family. My grandparents, Gran & Papa, still lived on a farm and everything was different there. The water tasted funny. The cousins near my age were all tough boys who seemed to spend the entire time wrestling with each other. The pigs were not like Wilbur from Charlotte’s web — they were large, hairy, and mean. The food was…heavier. It seems that every dish included sweetened condensed milk (sweet potatoes, fruit salad, candies).
And this brings me to another important fact about my aunts. All are extremely large. To explain this to outsiders, we lovingly developed the phrase, “make-your-own-clothes-big.” Because that is what they did: made their own clothes. From bolts of fabric bought at Wal-Mart.
My dad, observing what was in swimming in my sister’s and my gene pool, and not over-valuing tact, would often use the aunts as an example of what we did not want to be. While our family was nowhere near what would be considered ‘health nuts,’ my dad would manage to interject a comment if I were to ever ask for another scoop of ice cream: “Nope. No way. You don’t want to turn out like the aunts.” (Sidenote: I was in college before I knew a person could eat more than two cookies at a time. Two was a federally mandated limited, for all I knew).
This did not create the self-image crisis that it could have. I’ve never struggled too much with that. Sure, I’ve shed some tears here and there when I see that my weight is increasing and I want it to change, but I can’t make myself do anything about it. I glare at my husband when he lovingly suggests I join the Y – not because it is degrading, but because he is right. “Ugh. It’s like you want me to be the best version of myself,” I whine in reply. (By the way, my husband is 6’ and 165 lbs. And he eats WHATEVER HE WANTS. It is not uncommon for him to eat an entire bag of family size Doritos in one sitting. And he never gains a pound. It is terribly disgusting and ridiculously annoying and outrageously unfair. He’s a bad influence.)
I joined the Y. Mostly I go to the yoga classes. I also try to eat healthy-ish. As long as I don’t have to give up Cheez-Its. A life without Cheez-Its is just not worth it.
It has been nice to get to know my aunts as an adult. I’m still not close to them, but I have an inkling they might be one of the best groups of women I will ever know. They are completely and totally there for one another. Aunt Maxine has passed away after battling cancer. I watched as her sisters gathered around her in her final days, cleaning her house, doing her laundry, and taking her to doctor’s appointments. (Maxine was the sister my mom was closest to, and my mom cared for her for months before she passed away.) Margaret has cancer now. She has a baby-of-the-family whimsical dream to visit every state in the U.S. before she dies. Aunt Karen and Aunt Lois have paid thousands of dollars and gone on dozens of trips to help make sure her dream comes true. (The stories of their travels are hilarious! I love hearing of arriving at the airport minutes before their flight, flagging the flight attendant for seat-belt extenders as they fight their way past angry passengers to find their seats.) Aunt Kathy suffered from polio as a child and it left her handicapped. She has turned her immobility into a small industry of creating beautiful fabric crafts. She will send Mom home with homemade pot holders and bags with our names embroidered on them for Mom to pass along to my sister and me. And she makes clothes for herself and her sisters. Aunt Linda lived with and cared for her mom until Gran had to go to a nursing home. They are all active in their churches, teaching Sunday School, preparing meals when members are ill or a loved one has died, and one even served as a song-leader in a denomination that normally will not allow a woman into this role. They still prefer notifying me of family gatherings via letters in large scrawl over quick emails.
On a personal note, I had thought none of the aunts would be able to come to my wedding, but Aunt Karen surprised me by showing up at the church minutes before the ceremony began. She had driven 10 hours by herself, and wearing a bright (and I mean, BRIGHT) tie-dyed dress over her full-figured body, she ended up serving the wedding cake when the girl on staff obviously had no idea what she was doing (Later she told me: “Darling, she was making a mess of everything. I just asked if I could help, and she was so relieved.”) She then turned around and drove the 10 hours home.
The aunts are compassionate, kind, selfless, loving, and fun to be around. They know how to laugh in the face of the difficulties, which is one of my favorite kinds of laughter. They are open to adventure. They stand up for what is right.
While society puts so much emphasis on what one looks like on the outside, the aunts have cultivated a life of discipleship, truly following in the footsteps of Christ. While I do not want to overlook my physical health (went to the Y today, eating a salad for dinner tonight!), I hope that I would spend at least as much time on my spiritual formation as I do on my physical formation. As my aunts have taught me, this is the part of me that truly matters. With all respect, Dad, I’d happily turn out like the aunts.
Megan Benton lives in Atlanta, GA with her PhD-pursuing husband. If you really want to get her riled up about society’s view of women, ask her about how culture says that men are funnier than woman. (It’s not true!) She loves to laugh and make others laugh. She was lucky enough to live in a house full of girls that laughed so much, it necessitated creating a quote board for the funniest moments. She’d love to write a book one day, if she could figure out what to write about.