Extraordinary people come in very unexpected packages, and my Great Aunt May was no exception. She was the notorious black sheep of the family, known for cussing, smoking cigarettes, drinking whiskey and living down by the railroad tracks that ran through the small Midwestern mining town of Madrid, Iowa.
A photographer who was passing through on his way to Des Moines once approached her to model for a poster for the soon-to-be hit song, “Pistol Packin’ Mama” by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. We’re told she gave him a face-full and threw him out of the restaurant where she worked as a waitress.
I never knew my Aunt May. What I know of her comes from the stories my mother’s family handed down. I have always found it so intriguing that, even though the ones who tell the story are very attached to their own conventionality, her name is always spoken with a kind of grudging respect, verging on awe.
May Sullivan was sassy, funny and had an explosive temper that would rain hell-fire on anyone who crossed her. According to the family mythology, she didn’t give a “Tinker’s damn” (as my grandmother used to say) about what people thought of her.
I always wondered if that were really true. It’s not rocket science to figure out what it cost her to rebel against small-town, religious and social norms. And while the stories are hilarious, there is something so painful about the unspoken truth, that her rebellion against society was purchased, in large measure, with alcohol.
Still, I love to hear the stories. About the photographer. About the way she gave everyone hell. About how much the children in the family loved her and looked up to her (while their parents couldn’t help themselves but look down on her). She had little dignity, but she had fire and that rare quality of courage that allows one to break the human contract to live in fear of judgment of the tribe. Even though I never knew her, there is something about her I truly miss.
I miss her when I feel I’ve been too frank. I miss her when I feel I am just too damned unorthodox for some people’s taste. I miss her when I swear haphazardly and offend. I miss her when I wish I didn’t give a damn what other people think of me, when in fact, I do. I even miss her when I’ve had one too many glasses of wine and wish I’d had more discipline. And I just miss her willingness to live her life, flying in the face of society’s rules and expectations. These qualities will live on in my borrowed memories of her as inspiration to not take life so seriously and to enjoy a life lived outside what is normal and seemly.
This post was originally published in 2010.