When my mother’s only sister passed away in 2000, right around the Cancer Solstice, she took with her an entire era of my family’s history. Hers was a generation which seemed to produce more than its share of great ladies, my aunt and my mother among them. You can judge the success of a person’s life, I think, by how many phone calls must be made to notify people of their death. It took two of us the better part of a day to contact everyone with a close personal interest in my aunt’s passing.
She took with her not only the supportive safety net a loving parental figure (for she was truly my second mother) alone can offer, but also thousands of small, interesting stories and bits of family lore unavailable from any other source. We’d been asking her questions since mom died several years ago…stories about our parents when they were young, about her, about the family. But in the end there were many questions we didn’t think to ask.
Since 1971 we’d been co-parented by our mother and aunt. Soon after my father died in an accident, our mother brought us to California where we lived for awhile with my aunt and her husband, who took us in with an unquestioning generosity which we took for granted until many years later, when we’d discovered just how rare such qualities were.
That Auntie loved us was never in question, but her approval had to be earned. Appropriately for a woman born with the Sun in a tight conjunction with Saturn, she held us to a high standard. But she also took a genuine and abiding interest in the world that extended to all of us. If you had a problem of the heart, you went to my mother; but if you had a practical, real world problem, you took it to Auntie, and she’d help you sort it out. Earning her praise was thrilling. Of course, when you were out of line or had disappointed her, she didn’t hesitate to let you know about that, too. Mom gave us heart, but Auntie gave us spine.
The formidable matriarchs in all our lives—symbolized astrologically by Cancer, the Moon, and the fourth house—orient us in the world by insisting on the importance of things essential and irreplaceable: history, family, lineage. For years I had no place in my life for these things. I had watched my mother and aunt give endlessly to others on the basis of their blood connection to us, and as I watched them both grow tired and ill and spent at an early age I drew conclusions which connected their philanthropy to their illnesses. Not for me, I decided early on, and blithely ignored any family member not in my direct vicinity, and many who were. Despite the example of my mother and aunt, I didn’t yet appreciate the notion of blood connection and tribe. I suppose it’s because I had the luxury of their protective generational buffer between me and rootlessness.
While the most potent astrological symbol of womanhood—the Moon, ruler of Cancer—is synonymous with caretaking, heritage, and nurturing, caring for others and defending family bonds are not the sole dominion of women. In my family, however, it has always been so. For a clan full of fishermen, sailors, sad cases, and lost souls, women like my mother and aunt were our true north, guiding us gently away from the rocks.
The day of my aunt’s funeral, her daughter, my sister, and I rushed around, providing food and comfort—a little clumsily, like children playing dress up—while waves of grieving men and children washed up against us. I remember thinking, Good god, now we’re all that’s left. Our mothers left us their compass, hidden deep in our fourth houses like buried treasure; but we’ll have to learn to read it ourselves if we’re to bring this ship safely into harbor.
I wonder, when the torch passed to them, if they felt so small and inadequate to the task, so unprepared and false. How did they know so much, bear so much, love so much? Those are the questions we forgot to ask. Maybe we hold the answers in our memories of their examples. Or maybe we’ll find them on hot summer nights, gazing up at the moon and asking her to share with us her secrets, the secrets of history and of women.