“On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, we we walk in a dream. On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, life will be peaches and cream.”
I paid homage to my sister Carolyn in my last post on the occasion of her birthday, but Water Signs also features another generation of close sisters: Monica and Maria, based on my mom and my Aunt Marie (who’s name really was Maria, although everyone called her Marie).
From the time I was a little girl, I always admired the relationship between Mom and Aunt ReRe (as I affectionately referred to her), which was as close a bond as I’ve seen between siblings. Like Carolyn and me, Mom and her younger sister were also opposites, physically speaking: At 5’5″, my active mother maintains an impressive figure, even after giving birth to five children. Aunt Marie, on the other hand was — in her own words — “pleasantly plump”, although height-wise, I believe she and my mom were about the same.
Both are and were attractive women with sweet, beautiful and completely different faces. Whereas my blonde mother’s face shape is angular, frosted-haired Aunt Re Re’s was round. Mom has thin lips, Aunt Re Re had full ones — but both shared an unwavering commitment to the application of lipstick as the final touch of make-up before leaving the house. (A funny side note I will definitely incorporate into a future book: as a kid, I couldn’t get over how Aunt Marie could expertly apply make-up without ever using a mirror. She’d just laugh and tell me “Dar, I know my face!”).
In terms of personality, this passage from Chapter Four sums it up nicely:
“But though there were physical contrasts between the two sisters, each shared common traits of generosity, gregariousness, unselfishness, and — oh yes — an almost irrational love and over protectiveness when it came to their children.”
In that same chapter, Maddy muses to herself how blessed it is indeed to be so loved and cared for by these women. Certainly as a mature adult, I’ve made enough friends and acquaintances over the years to know that very few are so fortunate. I not only grew up with a mother who loved me, cared for me, and enjoyed spending time with me, I also had an aunt who loved me as if I was her child, too. Not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for that.
But as I am sure my sister Carolyn and cousin Annie will attest, when you’re young, it’s tough at times to fully appreciate such expressions of love and devotion.
When I sat down to write Water Signs, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to my dear Aunt Marie, who’s been in heaven now for just over six years. Although she was actually more involved in my life during the “Jake Winston” courtship, caring for my wonderful Uncle Merle (may God rest his gentle soul), and running a business demanded pretty much all of her time when “Ken” came into the picture. So I decided to alter reality a bit.
In real life, my mom’s good friend Marion was actually staying at the Ocean City house with us when “Ken” picked me up for our first official date. A wonderful woman in her own right, Marion was a femme fatale, a sharp dresser, a quintessential female — in short, a northern version of Tennessee Williams famous character, Blanch Du Bois. Like Aunt Marie, Marion has also gone on to the next life, but she lives on in my memory. She also inspired an unforgettable line in the book, which is uttered by Aunt Maria, just as Ken and Madeline are about to depart for Atlantic City:
“Drive nicely, Ken. You’re carrying precious cargo.”
And just like Maddy, I was completely embarrassed, though I never admitted it to my date, figuring (as Maddy does) that there was nothing wrong with him knowing exactly how important my safety and well-being were to my family. Looking back, I’m fairly certain “Ken” was at least a little nervous, having recently been exposed to the entire boisterous clan over breakfast the morning after meeting me. And though I tried not show it, I most definitely had butterflies (more on that in another post).
In the early parts of the book, as the relationship between Ken and Maddy progresses, Aunt Maria becomes even more of a friend, confidant and support system, much like Lori. I even managed to pay homage to our younger years, when the two sisters would pile their respective kids (Mom’s five and Re Re’s two) in the car and set off on new excursions.
Much of these remembrances I incorporated into the story through the use of flashback. Thus, one evening when Ken is having dinner with Maddy, Monica and Maria, the conversation turns nostalgic as the characters discuss one of my very favorite childhood memories involving an intense summer heat wave and the Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey:
“Ken seemed to get a kick out them, particularly the one about a hot and humid day in August, 1973, when she and Maddy’s mother had decided to take all of the kids to Great Adventure. About midway through the Safari — where even the lazy, sleeping animals seemed to have been affected by the intense heat — the air-conditioning had broken down in the car. As a woman who was often “roasting” even on the most bitter-cold winter days, Aunt Maria had insisted on rolling the windows down, only to have the park ranger scold them over the P.A. system. Good thing he had, though, because right after that a mob of baboons descended on them, apparently for the sole purpose of “christening” Monica’s brand-new, white station wagon.
“And of course, having insisted on wearing her cute new sandals instead of practical sneakers to the park, Aunt Maria had ended up in First-Aid with blisters all over her feet. After throwing the shoes away, she’d stolen her teenage son’s hockey socks so she could walk around in comfort — but not before they’d wasted most of the day waiting for someone to help her.”
Fun times for sure! And just like Madeline in the book, as a six year-old child who absolutely loved amusement park rides, I only managed to experience two of them with my mom that day when all was said and done. Still, it’s a great memory.
As for the sisters’ shared love of Atlantic City casinos and intrepid hunt for “hot” machines, that is straight out of real life too, though these days, Mom spends more time at the new Harrah’s in Chester than she does at any of the offerings on the famous boardwalk. Oh and she’s constantly imploring my aunt for some heavenly assistance, though if God indeed allows such intercession, Aunt Re Re has yet to respond with a huge jackpot. I’m thinking she’s too busy regaling other loved ones on the other side of the veil with her side-splitting stories and infectious laughter to take time out for such mundane things. She’s on to much bigger and better experiences now.
So here’s to loving mothers, fond memories and the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood. And someday when I get to heaven, I sure hope Aunt Marie tells me how happy she was with my portrayal of her.