Meta Thorndyke was the richest woman I have ever met. She had no money so to speak. What she had was worth far more than dollars and cents. What Meta had was priceless. My Aunt Meta was one of my mother’s older sisters. There were fourteen children in all meaning older was usually measured in months versus years. My grandmother, Corina Gada Walter died at only forty-two years of age. My understanding is her death was caused from twisted bowels from all those births so close together. Of course, in my family, the stories themselves get more twisted each time they are told, so who knows what actually killed her. Still, it makes for good conversation when we’re all together trying to outdo one another with our inside knowledge of all the family’s history.
Meta married in her twenties. His name was Jimmie McCauley and he would remain the love of her life until the day she died. They were married a short time by the standards of that era, however, long enough to bring two daughters into this world. My cousins, Maureen and Mickey were only two and three when their father died. He was a veteran of World War II and had suffered physical trauma which eventually took his life. It was the late forties. Being a single mother of two small girls back then cannot compare to the young women on the same path today. Regardless of the circumstances of how Meta ended up a single mother at such a young age, she lived in a small town with limited opportunities. Her life could not have been easy nor people always kind. She soon married a local rancher, Loren Thorndyke and moved her children into his parent’s farmhouse in Cayucos, California. Cayucos, the city she was born and raised in, the city she would die in, buried near her parents and siblings in the local cemetery.
I asked my aunt one afternoon, while drinking coffee in that same farmhouse kitchen, why she had married Uncle Loren. Had she known him her whole life? Was she in love with him? Was she happy? I can’t recall all of her answers but one, I will always remember. She talked about loving Jimmie McCauley and missing him even then, as an old woman. She spoke of loving my Uncle Loren but more like a brother and yes, she was happy. I thought about that conversation for many years because it seemed sad to me, to lose the love of your life and marry someone you loved like a brother. Then, when I was older, I realized the aunt that I loved, adored really, had planted a very important seed in my heart. It would stay there for many years, seemingly dead. Until, at the very moment I needed it most, watered by my own bitter tears, it would grow and produce the most beautiful answers to some of the most painful questions. My aunt had taken the bitterness of life and used it to grow something wonderful for herself and her daughters. Bitterness, much like compost, can have a lot of death and rottenness about it. My aunt taught me the value of not discarding life or its lessons, no matter how difficult it gets. She taught me to keep turning the ugliness over, watering it with tears when necessary and eventually, miraculously really, it turns into something wonderful and unexpected. It’s rich and beautiful and organic with a smell of the earth that goes deep into your very soul if you let it. My aunt taught me that while drinking coffee at a kitchen table in an old farmhouse. I’m pretty sure she had no idea what an incredible gift she had given me that day.
Life as I have known it for most of my adult, married life has drastically changed over the last two years and all I can think about lately is Meta Thorndyke. I have spent my life trying to do right. I have worried about money and bills, my husband and children, being a good daughter, sister, wife, friend and citizen. I have worried. A lot. Like almost every day, all day, a lot. For the most part, all that worry has produced little to nothing of value. It has robbed me of sleep, peace, joy and freedom. I can see that now. So, where do my memories of Aunt Meta fit into all of this? That puzzle called my life is being pieced together even now.
My life as a child and as an adult was and continues to be tethered to Aunt Meta and her ranch. They are both gone now and yet they both are more alive to me now than ever. There are framed photos scattered throughout my home of my days on the ranch. Days filled with calves sucking our fingers, lambs chasing us on the back patio, picking wild blackberries behind the old creamery and swinging off a rope in the barn only to drop into the sweet smelling hay below us. Nights filled with old mason jars full of tadpoles we had scooped out of the old cement water troughs in the dark, hoping to see them morph into big fat toads in the morning. Then there were the puppies and kittens. The barn cats provided us with kittens on a regular basis and my Uncle Loren’s sidekick, Pepina, would produce a few puppies now and then. After the house was dark with every adult soundly sleeping, we kids would sneak out into the quiet of the countryside night, skies filled with a million stars and head to the old shed where all our soon to be contraband slept. It was thought they would be safe from coyotes there, they were definitely not safe from marauding children. We would each grab a favorite and scamper back into our beds where we snuggled down into those wonderfully worn, handmade wool blankets and slept with our furry treasures. Life was good.
Lest I forget, my aunt also had a monkey named Willa Mae. She had been purchased by my cousin Mickey while at college. Mickey soon realized a monkey and college were not a perfect fit so Willa Mae was sent to the ranch. My Aunt Meta loved that monkey as did most of the rest of us. Willa Mae wore diapers and little preemie sized baby dresses. She looked and smelled like a monkey because she was a monkey but she was also the perfect size to play baby with. It was never hard to find her. She was always in someone’s arms, usually my Aunt Meta’s. But the times we kids could convince her to leave the safety of Meta’s arms, convince meaning pleading with a piece of fruit, she was ours if even for a short time, to dress up and push in a baby carriage. We loved her and cried giant, hot tears when she was buried under the old fig tree years later. I still miss that monkey.
My aunts love of nature, her amazing ability to grow humongous gardens behind the old barn, her lack of care for fashion or finer things, her gnarled hands from years of hard work, her love of family meaning anyone who walked in her door, her love and care of animals, her outspokenness on all subjects, her complete lack of political correctness coupled with her love of all people helped make me who I am today.
I remember looking at my mother’s hands many times and comparing them to my Aunt Meta’s. My mother was the baby of the family and one of the best women I have ever met in my entire life. She shared many of the same qualities that made her sister Meta so great. One difference however was my mother was much more of a city girl than my aunt. My mother had her nails and hair done weekly, she did hard work but of a different nature than Meta. She was also outspoken and an animal and people lover. They were two versions of the same person really. The city mouse and the country mouse. Often, as a child and as an adult, I would hold my mother’s hand, stroking it with love, burning the image of her manicured fingers and diamond rings into my memory. Even then, I knew I would need to remember someday, her hands, when she was gone. It would aggravate her though because I would always say, “Someday, I want hands that look just like Aunt Meta’s.”
“Why in the world do you say that? My poor sister’s hands are a mess from all that mans work she does. Why would you want hands like that?”
“Because mom, Aunt Meta’s hands are beautiful. You can see her life in them and I can see my life in them.”
It’s true. My life has been in my Aunt Meta’s hands all these years. I have done what I thought I should do, what I needed to do, what was right to do. But through it all, I have seen her hands reaching out to me, drawing me in, offering me more, beckoning me to do what I was meant to do. So now, finally, the journey begins. Again. I get no credit for the coming changes. I have actually fought against what is coming. Thankfully, God, life and probably my Aunt Meta have now forced the fork in the road upon me in such a way that I can no longer ignore it. I get to choose which way to go, to the left or to the right but choose I must and so I am choosing. I am choosing to leave behind thirty-five years of fear, worry and doubt. I don’t need them anymore. I am choosing to live the life I was meant to live.
My Aunt Meta was truly the richest person I have ever met. She didn’t have money or famous friends but her house was always full of food she raised and grew herself, fed to people from every walk of life who loved her. She didn’t have new clothes or fancy fragrances. She wore pants and blouses worn out from hard work and her perfume was an honest day’s sweat. There were no new cars just my dear Uncle Loren’s old pickup truck, battered and bruised from ranch life. She didn’t drive because she was blind from the age of twenty-eight due to glaucoma. Life had often given her manure, scraps and what looked to be worthlessness on more than one occasion and she took every bit of it and turned it faithfully, often watered with tears, into a deeply hued compost and grew the richest, most beautiful life ever.