My husband, Jack Wade, was raised by a brood of women made up of his mother and his father’s sisters: Agnes, Melva, Genevieve and Sandy— an outcome of his father’s death when Jack was three. Wade males died young; it was the family history. His mother constantly reminded him of his upcoming early demise, and an unspoken fear existed that the family name would die with Jack.
In November 1992, the fear was broken with the birth of our son McConnell O’Casey Wade. The aunts were the first to hear the news; Jack’s mother passed several years before. Agnes, too, was gone having died from multiple sclerosis when Jack was nineteen. Her place was filled by Melva’s companion, Mary, who was an opera singer and in charge of music education in the New York City Public Schools. The foursome was ecstatic over McConnell’s birth and wanted nothing more than to fight over jostling him in their arms at Christmas, but chose to postpone their visit. In another year, at the age of one, he’d be able to fully soak up the gifts of their wisdom.
Shortly before Christmas 1993, the aunts invaded our home in Virginia. Genevieve arrived by plane in order to be the first to coddle and bounce McConnell on her knee. She was nearly six feet tall and a large cylinder of softness. She was the head of nursing at Woodville State Hospital in Collier, Pennsylvania until it closed in 1992, could put Nurse Ratched in her place, and never appeared happier than when she was chasing McConnell around the house. Her bags included a suitcase of clothes, one for gifts and four five-gallon buckets of homemade cookies.
The next day Mary, Melva and Sandy drove down from New York. They busted through the front door dressed in reindeer sweatshirts, holding platters of homemade cookies and gullets (those crispy waffles intended for ice cream sandwiches). Once the hugs were exhausted, they settled in the living room with Genevieve and me, and about every five minutes one of them would interrupt the conversation by lifting a cookie tray and saying, “Try one of these.”
Throughout their two-week visit if we weren’t playing, reading or singing— the aunts slipped into song faster than a character in a Rodgers and Hammerstein production— with McConnell, we were around the dining room table devouring cookies and hearing side-splitting stories about the aunts’ and Jack’s childhood.
About a month later we learned Sandy died. Her passion was painting, but she made a living as a social worker in New York City. She’d decided to treat herself to an adventurous vacation off the coast of Florida, went deep sea diving and drowned. She was the baby of the family; her death crushed us all. Sandy left five thousand dollars to McConnell in her will.
The following Christmas, Mary, Melva and Genevieve returned. In the hope of softening the loss of Sandy, I invited my parents. McConnell’s half-brother, eleven at the time, voiced his concern.
“Do you think it’s a good idea? They’re the most hateful people I’ve ever met.”
The invitation was risky, but I wanted to believe the joy of McConnell and the holiday season would be enough to warm their hearts. I was wrong. The chasm formed instantly.
Sprawled around the Christmas tree and fireplace were the aunts— outspoken, intelligent women— who believed travel was the best form of education. They were political and social activists at the forefront of the LBGTQ movement, and more than anything they hoped to live long enough to see a female president.
Perched squarely on the straight back chairs near the entrance hall were my parents—right-wingers from the See America First school of thought— who believed the formation of labor unions was the downfall of our country, and here they were forced to cavort with lesbians.
It was a wide-eyed, whatever you do-don’t laugh-kind of time. These moments consolidating in the evenings because during the day my parents sought out refuge at the mall, missing the quality McConnell-time the rest of us were binging on.
Whenever my parents returned the sun was miraculously over the yardarm, signaling cocktail hour; my father was never comfortable with anyone more educated then himself without a drink in his hand. No worries. Aunt Mary was the cocktail hour queen, serving bowls of microwave popcorn with one hand and sucking down gin from a very tall glass in the other— she could out drink an elephant.
I’m fuzzy on how my inebriated father managed to refrain from mouthing off to Aunt Melva. She was a by-the-rules Scrabble player, the Dean of Student Affairs at Brooklyn City Community College, and every year when she switched the calendar from April to May she sang, “Hurray, hurray it’s the first of May. Outdoor fucking begins today!” And that’s the answer. The aunts’ loving whirlwind made my parents too dizzy to react; they departed before the New Year.
In April we got word about Aunt Genevieve’s passing. She and her companion had gone to Ireland to learn more about the Wade family roots. After a long day of sightseeing, Genevieve chose to nap before dinner. She never woke up. McConnell received twenty thousand dollars from her estate.
Prior to McConnell’s fourth Christmas, Aunts Mary and Melva asked if their unofficially adopted sister, Angela Calomaris, could join us for the holidays.
“Are you sure?” I said. “We’re feeling a bit cursed. Come for Christmas in Virginia and die in the New Year.”
The aunts were amused but undeterred in their mission.
“Aunt” Angela ran away from home at sixteen, attended Brooklyn College, Hunter College and the City University of New York, then chose to fulfill her childhood dream and became a photographer. In 1942, the FBI selected her to infiltrate the Communist Party in New York City. For seven years she worked as the Party’s portrait photographer, collected names to go with the faces and passed on information about the meetings she attended. In 1949, she was the FBI’s star witness during the trial for the eleven CPUSA leaders. She wrote a book about the experience, Red Masquerade: Undercover for the FBI, then bought beachfront property in Provincetown and opened a bed and breakfast. Her Real Estate dealings also included a brownstone apartment building in New York City and a house in Mexico. She was worth over two million dollars— not bad for a woman who left home without a high school degree.
In spite of Angela’s guts and glory, she was a kid on the playground with McConnell, constantly making up stories to be acted out by his bunny collection. My Cousin Vinny was her favorite movie. We watched it each night, crammed into the TV room, hip to hip, shoulders wedged— uncomfortable in other households, but a welcome configuration in ours— and Angela would fall asleep, drunk on happiness.
On January 30, 1995 our curse came true. Angela passed away in her home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Five thousand dollars of the estate went to her playmate McConnell.
Mary and Melva said nothing about believing in our Christmas curse, but they never returned to Virginia for the holidays. Three years later we moved to New York’s Hudson Valley and continued celebrating with them in their home in Stone Ridge. Mary left us in 2010 at the age of ninety-one. Melva followed in October 2015, one week after her ninety-second birthday.
McConnell’s financial earnings from the Christmas curse were invested and, like him, continue to grow. The funds were originally earmarked for his college years, but McConnell had other ideas. He chose parkour over team sports, computer programing over choir and was reading Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries and C.J. Jung’s The Archetypes & the Collective Unconscious when his classmates were reading Harry Potter. By his junior year in high school he was free-lancing as a technical consultant. Upon graduation he took his business on the road, so he could travel throughout Asia and Europe. He returned to the States the following year and discovered after only eighteen months that New York no longer felt like home.
McConnell, now twenty-four, continues to take advantage of what his aunts called the best form of education, and his travels have allowed him to become fluent in five languages. He’s currently based in Taipei, Taiwan. But he says the first time anyone comes to Asia, Tokyo needs to be the first stop. I met him there this last summer. During our time together I fell in love with Japanese culture and thoroughly understand why he is an expat with no intention of returning to the States.
My parents think his ex-patriotism is appalling, and my friends don’t quite understand how I can be so accepting of his choice. But I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the lives of the women who showed him what it means to stand strong in who you are. He honors them every day of his life.