karma, chakra and chi…oh my!

13 08 2008

Six months after she’d given birth to my dad – three months shy of her 24th birthday, Eva died of meningitis leaving four children under the age of five. Her unmarried “spinster” sister, five years her senior, came from the Southern Illinois village of Ellis Grove to become a housekeeper for her recently widowed brother-in-law. After all that’s what you do when you’re family.

Vera didn’t make that journey alone. She had to bring along four unmarried brothers and her elderly widowed father, Eli Harris since their housekeeper / cook was moving away and they weren’t about to lose her! Best counts puts about ten in that household for her to deal with. A neighbor across the alley, Mrs. Jascoviak who had no children, volunteered to care for baby Billy all day long, returning him at night to sleep in the “boarding house”. I don’t actually know how long that went on – a year or less perhaps- or longer…it didn’t matter once that bond was formed. Auntie Jazz became a surrogate. No one made her do it. I’m quite sure she didn’t get paid to do it…but she opened her home and heart to that baby.

About eight years after Vera had come to help out her brother-in-laws’ brood, she spent a morning preparing a Thanksgiving meal for the clan and at some point – took off her apron, dusted the flour from her hands and she and her brother-in-law went down to city hall and officially tied the knot. It was another four years or so until they had a daughter of their own to add to and complete the blended crew of three boys and two girls.

Old Eli passed away somewhere in there, the bachelor brothers in and out – one was always in…Guy Jennings Harris. He was one of the most colorful characters from my childhood as the youngest of 14 grandkids. Tattoos on both arms – one a huge Naval anchor…he smoked like they did in the 50’s – just like on Mad Men…there was always a cloud hovering around his head and a freestanding ashtray like a mini cocktail table within an arm’s reach. The most fun was when he’d light a cigarette and let you “try” to blow out the match. God help me if I got in front of the TV when he was watching Gun Smoke. I asked Dad where Guy worked “No where!” was his quick answer…then I’d remembered – he was a bookie. “Legend” has it there were some shoeboxes stuffed with money found in his room after his death. My mind colors that even more knowing the kinds of activities in the Chicago area in the 1920’s and 30’s. I wonder if he paid room and board?

Vera’s house was pretty much a no nonsense kinda place. I don’t remember sleep overs (there was no more room!) but I remember family gatherings on the holidays throughout the year and we’d be a group numbering over 25 piled in around one table in the dining room and one stretched out in the basement for the kids. And to me – it all evokes the warmest of memories.

I don’t know how old I was when I realized that Grandma was really my dad’s aunt and I had never known the twist about Auntie Jazz till recently. That fascinated me – a stranger taking in this baby boy to almost raise him as her own – to help out another hard working woman – who had stepped into her sister’s shoes and got the job done. But in the end Vera was their “mom” and when Granddad, later in life had a stroke….the dining room table was taken out and replaced by a hospital bed. I think it was six years that she cared for his motionless body day and night. My dad would go over to the house on his way to work each day to give him a shave. I don’t doubt that a huge measure of my ability to respond and react in hospital settings had to do being around Granddad and talking to him like “normal” even though his vocal chords could barely eek out a sound. You don’t have to be afraid of quadraplegics in hospital beds.

And I grew up knowing that my dad was a serious blood donor. He has a fairly rare blood type and I knew that it was a monthly ritual. It wasn’t till talking to his younger sister the other day that it all came full circle – Auntie Jazz needed blood for some reason later in life…and my dad’s blood became a lifeline for her. When my father found out they were charging her for blood – he threatened to quit giving and a quick policy change involved an arrangement that Billy’s blood to Auntie Jazzy was always free.

Mismashed family it was – even knowing that there were mumblings of Auntie Jazzy wanting to adopt my dad as her own…it left a DNA imprint deep on my dad’s soul. My childhood home became home for people who’s parents were in other places…some just stayed weeks – others, a lifetime. My folks’ hearts had both been stretched big by the circumstances of their own lives…both motherless at young ages, they became parents to more than their biological children. My mom still tells people she had 11 children.

My parents’ generosity of spirit, rarely in expensive, extravegant showy ways, just quiet, practical honest love and a way of making their home a refuge for anybody who needed a place came from them learning to receive the kindness of strangers themselves. The Auntie Jazzys and Auntie Veras in our world today are still out there – quietly doing what women do best – picking up the slack, stepping in where there is need and nurturing other people’s kids. So even though my dad would never espouse squat about chakras or chi (but here he’d turn the phrase and say “no but I’ll take some tea”) – he said “what goes around comes around” – and call it what it is…karma.