I saw the first copy of my hardcover the other day. I won’t have it in-hand until next week, but my publisher needed a mockup for a magazine photo shoot. So the jpg appeared in my inbox, cheeky as the day is long with its trompe l’oeil wrapping and 3D twine tie.
It didn’t matter that I’d already seen the cover image on the uncorrected proofs for months. This format made the six-year trajectory of writing feel complete in a way it never had, all the changes herded in. I couldn’t wait to introduce it to family and friends, most of whom hadn’t read it yet. Then I thought about one who would never see it. She left her mark on every page about the legacy of the lost mother, but would never know.
My godmother, my mother’s sister, would have been over the moon that I’d written a novel, and the subject would have resonated with her. Like my mother she was everything that is right about motherhood while still carrying that invisible backpack of her own aspirations, some achieved, some forgone. She’d held several ambitious jobs in education administration before having children, and juggled the work after, too. Her talents and interests trailed behind her like the jellybean paths she left from each of her children’s doors on Easter morning. But they, and everything else about her, stopped in their tracks when she was 54.
She and my uncle were still in the hotseat of parenting years when the leukemia she’d beaten once came back. She was the center of her four kids’ worlds; she was also beloved at the school where she worked as a guidance counselor — that much was clear from the line out the door at the funeral home. Everywhere I turned that night there were fragments of stories about my aunt, which was appropriate, since she was the most meandering storyteller I’ve ever known.
The last time I saw her was mid-March of 2005. I flew from Washington DC, where we were living then, to the hospital in suburban Boston. I was two months pregnant, which she didn’t know yet, and I was both eager and heartsick to tell her. When my second child was born, my aunt had called herself the fairy godmother, and gave our daughter a glittery wand with tinsel streamers. I hung it over the crib twined in the mobile because it felt like a blessing and a promise. Nothing could go too far wrong with your fairy godmother watching over you.
Standing at my aunt’s bedside that bleak March day, I couldn’t stand knowing she would never meet my third child, or be a beneficent overseer of whatever the years would hold for us all. It was horribly selfish and I was angry at myself for thinking it, as her own four children went in and out of the room all too aware she would never see them marry or have children.
When it was my turn to go in during one of her lucid moments, I stood as close as I could at the left bedrail and told her I was expecting another baby. I wasn’t sure she heard, because she rasped into some family story as if she were continuing a conversation that had been interrupted by her last nap. There was a small bitterness to her remembrance, so out of character that it told me more than her appearance did that she was in the chute.
When her story was finished, one of her daughters held the cup and straw for a sip of water. Then she looked in my direction and offered a nonsequitur that made perfect sense to me. “Remember, I am the fairy godmother to all the babies.”
As I wrote a tribute for the back of her funeral program, I was all too aware of my blind spots. To me she was the queen of that house where everyone wanted to be for holidays, and where her children’s friends wanted to hang out. She was the mother who knit sweaters and colored the milk green on St. Patrick’s Day. I had a vague sense of her aspirations, a rough idea that she’d been pursuing real estate architecture before she’d gotten sick again. There’d been suggestions that she was hungry to leave a larger mark on the world. As rich as I thought her life and achievements were, she’d sought some measure she hadn’t yet defined.
In the end, I knew little of what she wanted her legacy to be. For sure it included healthy children, a home full of fun, making sure loved ones felt loved. But I knew there was more to the story. I also knew that even though she loved me very much, I wasn’t privy to it. In the end we all die with bits of our story untold.
My aunt’s oldest daughter is now married with infant twins. I’ll be going to their first birthday party in June, a few days after my novel is published. If I have to shop every day of the next two months, I’m going to find them a magic wand. In a world where nothing is certain, we can all use the protective oversight of a fairy godmother.
Then I’m going to find my daughter’s wand, its silver streamers plucked bald over the years. I’ll tap each of the three boys my aunt never met — the one I was carrying when I said goodbye to her, and two more who came after him. And then I’m going to give it a little wave over my book.