Ever since our recent family reunion I’ve been thinking about my dad and my grandparents and great aunts and great uncles. My dad’s generation of Wilhelms was all-male – he had two brothers and three male cousins – no girls.
My dad is a big guy and has a big personality and is from a generation of men that think “men are in charge” (or should be). What’s interesting to me is that in this male-dominated Wilhelm family, in my opinion, the strongest Wilhelms were the matriarchs.
From my earliest childhood memories, my grandmother Kyra worked outside the home as a nurses’ aid. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, while other grandmas were at home rocking babies and baking cookies, mine was at the hospital taking temperatures, dispensing medications and changing bed pans. The stories of my great-grandmother Elizabeth are legendary: Coming to this country alone at thirteen from Germany; marrying one brother and then another, after the first died after only nine months of marriage; then raising her young family alone after her second husband (my great-grandfather) died. She was tough, stubborn and a force to be reckoned with. And my great-great-grandmother Mary apparently converted the entire family to Catholicism back when women had no say in such matters.
Then there were “The Aunts”. My three great aunts (my grandfather’s sisters) were never married. Aunt Marie, Aunt (Wilhelmina) Minnie, and Aunt (Elizabeth) Liddy would have been called old maids back in the day. They lived together in the family home that became the base of operations for all Wilhelm family gatherings. I’ve heard stories that Aunt Minnie was once (almost) engaged but I don’t know if that’s true and it doesn’t matter because she remained devoted to her sisters and the entire Wilhelm clan. In some ways growing up with the Aunts was like having three more grandmothers – maybe even better than that. They balanced and complemented one another. Where Aunt Liddy was more nurturing – she rocked the babies and sang lullabies, Aunt Marie was more artistic and willing to let us “mess in the kitchen” with her. She made great play dough (not to be confused with Play-Doh®) and would let us play with it for hours. And she would burn cinnamon in an old German ceramic “house-shaped” contraption – it was magical! Aunt Minnie was my Godmother and my favorite. I can still feel her gentle hand on my shoulder and smell her perfume. She was a business woman – the County Nurse’s secretary. And she was well-respected in our hometown. I remember walking downtown with her many times and people would greet her very politely as “Miss Wilhelm”. I was always so proud to be with my Aunt Min!
I’ve often thought about all the things that they did for each of us – especially my generation of 24 great nieces and nephews. Each birthday Aunt Liddy would call to find out what kind of birthday cake we wanted – and she would make it exactly to our order! Each Easter meant an Easter egg hunt at their house and after each family left, the Aunts would re-hide the eggs for the next nephew’s family (I learned about the re-hiding of the eggs many years later). Christmas would mean cookies that arrived from some cousin in Germany and although we didn’t care for them then, it breaks my heart now to know that the Aunts would share their treasure with us. Christmas also meant packages wrapped in white tissue paper – always wrapped the same way each year. The gifts were simple (and practical) but even as a kid I loved receiving socks or a shirt knowing that the Aunts had bought it just for me.
As kids, we Wilhelms, might have taken the Aunts for granted. Didn’t everybody have three extra grandmothers? But looking back I cherish what they meant to us and I honor their memories by visiting their graves ocassionally. This is something that Aunt Minnie and I would do together – we would go to the Wilhelm burial plots in St. Peter’s Cemetery and pull weeds and place flowers at the graves of the ancestors that I never knew. So now when I go to ‘visit the Aunts’ I thank them for instilling in me a love of family. And pride in being a Wilhelm. Even if I am only a male.