Journal Gen X: Judee, the Fairy Godmother
This is the greatest risk that any of us will take. To be seen as we truly are.
-Fairy Godmother (Cinderella, movie)
I recently learned of the passing of my Aunt Judee. My father’s sister, she was also my Godmother, and a second mother to me when I was a young girl. I spent countless hours with her over summers, sometimes stretching into days. She moved several times during my childhood, which I loved because each move felt like a new adventure. Being with Judee was like being with a cool older sister. I have three younger brothers, whom I love, but having another young female around was both fun and helpful. Judee was the one who seemed to understand me and what I wanted and needed. Much to the chagrin of my father, she took me to get my ears pierced for the first time when I turned the big ten years old. I still remember the first earrings: silver stars.
Judee was energetic and creative. She wore fun clothing and fun jewelry. She frequently wore her hair in pigtails. She would pour out all the cereal in a new box, just to get the prize. She taught me how to hula hoop. She had a way of putting a positive spin on things. When, as a teenager, I had a mundane job, and I told her about it, she relayed how she got through a time like that herself, by inventing a story for the series of tasks she had to perform. When I had to write a fiction book in fourth grade and had no idea where to start, she showed me how to unlock my creativity, encouraging me to think in ways I hadn’t before. She rushed to my high school one afternoon as the bus was departing for a game (I was the mascot), to bring me a pair of light-up earrings she thought I would enjoy. Although I was initially reluctant to wear something clearly against the ‘cool code,’ I eventually did. Judee was unabashedly who she was. I admired that quality in her, and wanted to emulate it.
Hair and games
I have fine, straight hair. Judee had straight, fine hair, which she sometimes curled. Mostly she wore it straight. So, she understood the challenges of our hair type. When I was about eight, Judee took me to get a Toni Tennille haircut. Named after the lead singer of the seventies pop group Captain and Tennille, it was a pageboy, which could be curled under but which most of us feathered up at the ends. It was all the rage, and for me, incredibly high maintenance. Because my hair was so fine, it took curling irons and almost constant brushing to keep it from looking stringy. But I felt like everyone else, which is less important to me now, but at the time it was everything. Judee knew this, which is why she gave up part of her Saturday to take me to that salon.
When I was a pre-teen, perms were popular, but also expensive. Before I started to get perms from a salon as a teenager, Judee gave me perms using the box kits. Most didn’t take. Once, the kit produced just one curl, right in the front of my head. For some reason, we both laughed, and somehow, she was able to correct the situation, bringing me back to my pre-perm state. On those days, it felt like we were the only inhabitants of earth, so intent was her focus on my happiness.
I’ve written about my Grandmother Thelma before. She was Judee’s mother, and a kind, compassionate woman whom I loved and still miss dearly. One of the coolest things about Thelma’s house was her game closet. During holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the whole extended family (including Judee’s family) would gather at Thelma’s house. In Thelma’s game closet were an assortment of board games, a real wooden cradle with several dolls dating from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, and other miscellaneous toys. Have you seen, during family gatherings, the child walking around with the board game in her hands after dinner, bugging each adult to play, when everyone is too full or otherwise engaged in adult conversations? Perhaps this was you, or your children today. I was that child.
Born an extrovert, I’ve particularly always enjoyed playing games with others. Board games, card games, you name it. Game play allows us to strive as a collective towards the same goal, even if we’re on opposing teams. Games also remind us of a time when play was at the center of our lives – something that’s easily forgotten as we get older and join the workforce.
So, it’s after dinner on some holiday, and the adults are talking. Some have gone to the back room with a night cap to watch sports with my Grandfather. My brothers are playing with dinosaurs and Tinkertoys. I start to walk around, board game in hand. That’s when Judee would swoop in and save the day. One of our favorite games was Mystery Date, because I liked the pretty dresses worn by the players. I always appreciated Judee for sacrificing whatever else she would rather be doing to hang out with me for the length of a game.
A funeral and two weddings
The last time I saw Judee was at Thelma’s funeral. My husband and I went to Judee’s house after the service to visit for a little while. During that time, we went into her bedroom and looked at old photographs, including some of her wedding to her first husband, where I was her flower girl. That wedding was a blast. I was about nine or ten, and Thelma made my dress, which was a floor length, powder blue gown. It had an empire waist with a velvet ribbon all the way around, which ended in a beautiful bow in the back. My hair was curled in ringlets, I carried a small bouquet and got to walk down the aisle. I felt like a princess. At the reception, my cousin and I yelled incessantly, and inexplicably, for polka. When the band obliged, he and I would start at opposite sides of the room, run towards one another, link arms, and spin around a few times, before skipping to the opposite side of the room from which we started. I remember it being one of the most fun nights of my life. The band would probably have a different opinion.
My husband and I were married in the front yard of the house we were living in at the time. We paid for the wedding ourselves, didn’t accept gifts, and made our food for the reception. Beyond the consideration of the financial investment we were making, we also wanted a very low-key ceremony. We invited only immediate family as well as my paternal Grandmother (my only living grandparent), and a few very close friends. Our guest list was around fifteen. We didn’t have a wedding party. We were married by the Mayor at the time (someone we both knew). I bought my dress at a department store and it was cute but simple. We didn’t have a band. The only thing we really spent money on was a tent for the small number of guests to eat after the ceremony. It was a stress-free day that accomplished our goal of becoming husband and wife. My most cherished memory of that day is when my husband squeezed my hands while looking into my eyes as we said our vows.
Navigating the distance and moving on
I moved away from my hometown many years ago and travelling back became less frequent the farther we lived from that town. When you move away from a place where most of your family has stayed, a distance can set in that is more than geography. Travelling home frequently is cumbersome, not to mention expensive. And family dynamics being what they sometimes are, it’s sometimes smarter, although not always possible, to avoid getting pulled into the dramas that can sometimes surface. For instance, when my parents weren’t getting along with their siblings, my relationship with those relatives was affected as well.
While looking over the photos of her wedding that day after Thelma’s funeral, Judee reminded me that she wasn’t at my wedding. I replied that ours was a small wedding and that we invited immediate family and very close friends only. That was the truth. It was also the truth that I had let the years come between us. She, like some others, weren’t there because I had lost touch with them. She politely accepted that explanation, but I could tell that it was insufficient for her. In hindsight, I don’t regret the small number of invitations, and that day was perfect in my memory. But I will always feel the sting of a decision I can’t undo.
Lost time can’t be regained, so memories must suffice when the person with whom you made them is gone. As uncomfortable as that moment was in her room that day, the rest of the visit with Judee was lighter, spent talking over old times and looking at old family photos. She gave me a collection to take home, which I still cherish. I made it a point to let her know that I loved her and that she was important to me.
Aunt Judee’s early influence helped me understand that you only live once, so make it count. And when you love someone, make them count. I’m sure I didn’t say thank you, or I love you enough to Judee. Do we ever? But I loved her. And I learned from her. And I feel immense, everlasting gratitude for the magic wand she waved over me, shaping me into the woman I am today.