Aunt Stella just turned 80. When I was 6, I was the flower girl at her wedding -- the one where she married my cousin Dave -- which technically makes her my cousin-in-law. She's always been way more than a cousin-in-law, so I'm sticking with aunt.
Stella Milner (later Stern) arrived on the shores of America from her native U.K. when she was in her early 20s. She arrived first among her siblings with little more than an enchanting smile, a sense of adventure and an ability to focus on the positive regardless of how little of it there was at any given moment. She was determined to stake her claim to all the opportunities America had to offer and my cousin was one lucky guy to have been staked by the incredible Stella.
Aunt Stella, like many women of her day, believed her role in life was a supporting one. She was the engine that ran her family, all the while allowing her husband to believe he was in charge -- just like one of those '50s sitcom wives. "It was just how it was," says the resigned-to-the-fact Stella. I'm sure Sheryl Sandberg is rolling her eyes just reading this.
But while Stella may have sat on the sidelines of the women's movement, she was also the family's loudest cheerleader when it came to pushing the younger women in the family -- including me and her daughter -- through glass ceilings.
"There is nothing you can do about the past," she once told me, "but tomorrow belongs to you."
Stella wore her enchanting smile through thick and thin, through all of the bumps and obstacles life put in her path. A sick husband, domineering relatives (what? You think I come by this on my own?) and the usual roundup of life's disappointments -- not much ever kept her down for long. I remember that during some of the tougher times -- financial and emotional -- she would visit the local AAA office and collect an armful of free travel brochures. She'd bring them home, spread them out on her dining room table and map out just where she would visit "when Dave got well." Her dreams got her through the roughest moments and the rest of us learned the power of hope.
She raised her two children -- both lawyers -- buried her husband, and with eyes forward, moved on. About a decade ago, she moved closer to her daughter and into a Sun City retirement community with a golf course. Stella doesn't play golf, but she fully embraces every other recreational and social offering Sun City offers. She has made a ton of friends, plays Mah Jongg like a fiend, volunteers where needed, exercises (almost) daily and keeps company with a gentleman named Jordan Gorell who follows me on Facebook and alerts Stella to which of my posts she needs to read and which ones she can skip. A tough critic, that Jordan.
Having Jordan in her life has been a good thing. Stella still isn't a fan of driving on freeways or at night and for years after Dave died she found others to fill her rarely empty gas tank. I suspect Jordan adjusts her car clock for Daylight Savings Time, too, and probably programs the remote when the demons possess it.
All things considered, turning 80 was no big deal for Stella. "It's just a number after all," she said matter-of-factly to those gathered to celebrate with her. Life, as it always has been for her, is what you make it. If you choose to let things get you down, they will. It's all about the attitude that you bring to the table and learning to live in life's positive cracks even when they are hard to find amid the darker disappointments.
There is just one small thing she would like me to mention. We all have had our "wish I had said that" moments. Aunt Stella had one on, of all days, her 80th birthday. But having a relative who blogs for a living has some perks. So here goes:
While the lovely ladies of Aunt Stella's hair and nail salon behaved appropriately and gasped in shock when she said she was turning 80 -- "Every one of them told me I didn't look 80!!" -- there was the unfortunate matter of the bus driver whose bus she boarded to go home after her day at the salon.
He asked her if she was going to Mistywood. Mistywood is an assisted care facility along the route and nobody but a blind bus driver would mistake my Aunt Stella for a Mistywooder.
"I wish I had said to him, 'Yes, I'm going to visit my mother there!'" she told me. Aunt Stell, you just did.