Originally published on July 11, 2011 as "The Woman I Am Becoming" at https://voicesmatter.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/the-woman-i-am-becoming
My great-aunt Thelma lives in rural Mississippi in the house (a bit modified through the years, of course) in which she was raised on land that has passed from ancestor to ancestor since the Ashley family arrived there around 1795. As a child I would walk the short distance from my grandparents’ house through the woods and around my grandfather’s gardens to visit Aunt Thelma. I could always count on a cold “Coka-coler”, puzzles or some sort of board game, a jar full of marbles, and a parting gift–an apple or an orange. Aunt Thelma never married or had children, so the children and grandchildren of her four siblings were precious to her, and she was like another grandmother to me. As life sometimes goes, we didn’t always have time for her, but she always had time for us–she was a constant; ever-present for her family. Aunt Thel cared for each of her siblings as they left this life: Earl, cancer; Mae, lukemia; Pete, cancer; Gurvis, cancer; Ginny, dementia. I suppose with those odds, it’s a wonder she’s made it through her 85th year. Then again, perhaps her work here is not done.
Last fall I read Cutting for Stone, an epic novel by Abraham Verghese that journeys from India to Ethiopia to the United States and weaves a story of family, tragedy, caregiving, regret, and forgiveness. Absorbed in the tale, I came across the word ayah: “The little boy’s ayah, Sebestie, had nothing to do other than join in the play…” This word, pronounced “ah-yuh”, reminded me of the pet name for Aunt Thelma that was given to her by a niece. I never knew how to spell it, but it sounded very similar to ayah. Of course, with a southern child saying the name it sounded more like “i-yi” with a long “i” sound, but this word intrigued me. When I looked up the meaning, I found that it was an Indian word that means nursemaid and is a derivation of the Latin and Portuguese words for grandmother. I doubted that this word ayah had any role in the pet name given Aunt Thelma, but I thought how fitting that she, who has become the matriarch of her family even though she has no children, would be called by a name so similar to this. She has mothered and given care to so many.
As I approach my 36th birthday, I find myself mothering and giving care for so many myself. My own boys are 12 and 9, and when I remarried two years ago, I gained a full-time stepdaughter, who just turned 14. In December, my husband’s former stepdaughter, who is 20, came to live with us. Yesterday, she gave birth to her auburn-haired baby Chloe. Not only did I have the privilege of witnessing her birth, but I also became a grandmother…sort of. Many have asked me what Chloe will call me: “Grammy?” “Maw Maw?” “Mimi?” All of those seem strange to me. I am, after all, only 36 (!), and I have no biological link to this child. Oh, how she holds my heart already, though! While her mama will grow her and love her (and quite well, I suspect!), I will get to have a unique role in her life as well.
So I will be “Ayah” to baby Chloe. It seems fitting, and I pray I can be a woman who is everything my Aunt Thelma has been to so many.
*By the way, I simply can’t share a bed with a man called “Paw Paw” or “Gramps”…it’s just not in me. Mike will be “Papa”. : )
Note: Aunt Thelma died just eight months after this post was published. She remains forever in my heart my own ayah.