People say that kids need good role models. Some would say that parents are the best role models kids can have and so these parents need to always be aware of their words and actions.
But what about role models for parents? It’s a tough job bringing up little ones. Some days the task of lovingly rearing one’s own children to accomplished adulthood seems downright impossible. It is on those days that a mentor is needed — a superhero parent, of sorts. Someone to remind you that you are not alone in fighting the good fight of bringing up kids with manners and ones that will eventually sleep in their own beds. Alone. All. Night. Long.
All parents have these role models, even if they have never stopped to think about it. Maybe it is a parent of their own, or a spouse, or a friend who has “been there, done that.” These people encourage us, either openly or subtly, to be all that we can be for our families.
|Aunt Betty and Emilia in 2009|
I lost my leading superhero last week. Elizabeth Valentine Powalski was the nicest lady to ever grace my presence. She was born and died in the same house on Felton Street, 86 years apart. She loved kids — especially babies. She left this life clutching a rosary, a prayer on her lips.
She was my great-aunt — the youngest sister of my grandfather, who I lost less than a year ago, and the ninth to die out of ten Powalski siblings. I didn’t spend a lot of time around her as a child, or speak with her frequently as an adult. I saw her on Thanksgiving each year and at family weddings or anniversary parties. But I thought of her often, especially in these past five years that I have been a parent, and she will always be close to my heart.
She influenced me with her kindness, with her stubborn spirit, and with the dry way she told Polish jokes at her own expense. Aunt Betty was fun to be around, plain and simple. All of these personality traits are aspirations of mine, but not the real reason I grieve her guidance.
When I was expecting my first daughter, determined to be a good parent despite the realization that I was going to have to do it alone, Aunt Betty understood. She had a been a single mom too — long before the Angelina Jolies of the world made it trendy. As a kid, I never really knew why Aunt Betty never married and I was too afraid to ask. I sort of forgot about it. Aunt Betty was Aunt Betty. No explanations needed.
But when I told my parents over the phone about the surprise baby that I had on the way, Aunt Betty’s face popped in my head. She must have made a similar phone call to her dad, or had the same conversation face-to-face. She had been in my shoes, decades earlier.
The questions started to swirl in my mind about her journey as a single mom. I needed to know how she did it. I needed her reassurance that I too could do it. Suddenly, Aunt Betty’s story as a single mom was one that I needed to hear.
I made a point to visit her on Felton Street when I visited my hometown a few weeks before Christmas, well into my second trimester. I wrote about this visit in depth in an earlier blog post. She asked me about my health and how the baby was developing. Before I had time to start rattling off my long mental list of questions, she took my bloated hand into her frail palm.
She didn’t offer empty words of encouragement or tell me that everything would turn out for the best. Instead, she passed along advice from one of her own parental role models. It was advice that had seen her through the hard times — it was advice she wanted to hand down to me. Sitting in her living room, she told me the same thing her father had told her, some 50+ years earlier, when she told him that she was pregnant with no intention of marrying.
The Lord will help you raise this child.
Not, “Oh, you’ll do great!” or “I’m sure a nice man will come around soon enough!” Nope. She gave it to me straight. There was no way I was going to get through this parenting gig without divine intervention. And something about those words comforted me in a way that still sustains me today.
Suddenly I couldn’t remember any of the questions I had been compiling for months. They all seemed trivial in the presence of a woman who had long ago taken the same path as me, and made it through the forest alive. The how, and why, of her story didn’t matter. The fact that she had succeed as a single mom — well, that was the only thing I needed to hear that day.
I visited her again two weeks ago. I was back in my hometown for my brother’s wedding. My oldest and youngest daughters accompanied me. My cousin Steven, Aunt Betty’s son, had invited me to come by and see her to say my “good byes.” Hospice had set up a bed for her in the living room and it was no longer a question of “if” but “when.” I left my four-year to play at my parents’ house, but took my two-month-old baby along.
Aunt Betty was in the type of condition you never imagine for a superhero. Her eyes stayed closed the entire time I was there and I’m not actually sure she knew I had come. I ran her emaciated hand over the baby’s head and down her chubby arms. When my daughter started to wail, I didn’t try to comfort her. I just let her cry for a few minutes, hoping my ailing aunt heard it and realized there was a baby nearby.
She celebrated her 86th birthday a few days later surrounded by family. I was already back in Florida, but I heard that it was as festive as it could be. A few days after that, she passed away. I woke up to a text from my dad with the news. I immediately felt the loss — like part of my identity had been stolen from me. I imagine it is the way a person feels when they lose a parent, though I am blessed to not have firsthand comprehension of that experience. It felt like a piece of me as a parent, woman and person had been taken away too soon.
So I grieve this loss in a different way than my cousin Steven, or his kids, or my Aunt Lottie — the last remaining Powalski “kid.” Mine is a selfish sort of grief, weighed down with internal questions about my own morbidity. Who will I give inspiration to in this life? Who will find a little bit of strength in something that I say? Who will grieve me when I am gone?
But with those questions comes a little bit of wisdom about being a role model: It is not just our kids who are watching us. If we are very lucky, others look up to us too.
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