When I was growing up I had two mothers. My mother, and my aunt. My father was not around, and when he was, he was abusive. I remember one night, after a beating, my mother fled with us to the safety of my Aunt Judy’s. We remained with her for a day and a half; shortly after my parents separated and The Juice, as I called her, stepped up to help my mama raise us. She took us to her home for sleepovers with our cousin Karen, arranged weeks at the shore house where she took us to the beach, Marabella’s in Stone Harbor for dinner, Springer’s for ice cream, Hoy’s 5&10, and miniature golf. We did movie nights in. Juice took me, along with Karen, my uncle, and my grandparents to Aruba for Christmas 1993 (which also coincided with my birthday). We spent every holiday possible with Juice and our large extended family. Her favorite was Thanksgiving, and she would have us go around the table and say what we were thankful for. Judy never had a bad thing to say about anyone. Everyone she met was “dolly.” She attended every pre-prom photo session my sister and I had. She was the glue, and the center. In 1996, my mother threw a surprise party for Judybug, a leap year baby, to celebrate her 12th birthday. We went to the zoo when I was a child, to movies when I was a teen, to dinner when I was an adult. She bought me Godiva chocolate and took me to lunch to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Her hugs and belches were legendary, and her recipes for button cookies and dinner party chicken were sent from God. We called her “Miss Manners” because of her impeccable style, graciousness, and etiquette – it was she who taught me to say “Pardon my back” whenever she would have to face away from someone with whom she was conversing. She often sent thoughtful cards in her distinctive handwriting, just because. It was January 1999 when she was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer.
She fought. Oh, she fought. Surgery, chemo, radiation. She stayed optimistic and never indulged in self-pity. I begged God every night for a miracle. When the cancer spread to her brain, I went to the Shrine of St. Katherine Drexel and asked, on my knees, for one more year. In return I would name my first daughter after that good saint.
A year later, when it had spread everywhere, the doctors said they were sorry but there was nothing else to do. They gave her three months. She gathered her family close and said her goodbyes, and she went to a place of peace and love on November 27, 2003, Thanksgiving Day. I had seen her only ten days before, but I didn’t know it would be the last time, the last hug, the last “I love you, heart and soul.” She refused to let her nieces and nephews see her at the very end; the Juice held onto her dignity until the very last and she didn’t want us to remember her that way. So I didn’t know it was the last time. Some day I’ll come to terms with that.
She was the glue, and the center, and the ache never goes away.