WHITNEY CAIN, PHD

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Aunt Dot & Chimneys

On a recent family visit I spent a little time with my 94-year-old Aunt Dot.  As her frame shrinks tinier and tinier, so do her interactions with the outside world.  I’m struck by how Aunt Dot’s big life has become very, very small.

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Part of her big life was her work as a social worker.  Dot climbed the ranks of various agencies and landed in a private psychiatric center where she became director.  She loved her work and excelled in it. 

I loved her work, too.  My fashionable Aunt Dot, with a cigarette dangling from her bejeweled fingers, entertained me with her case highlights and the occasional Freudian analysis for good measure.  The politics of my same-age peers left me jumbled, but unpacking the psychotic mind, Freud, and fashion seemed doable and certain.

I was 10 when Aunt Dot told me about 12-year-old Peggy.  Prone to violent, unprovoked outbursts, Peggy loved drawing.  Dot encouraged her and was rewarded with a breakthrough when Peggy drew an elaborate, oversized chimney.  Aunt Dot asked me, “Sugardoodle, what did the chimney symbolize?”  I remember the hope in her eyes.  This was big.  I didn’t want to blow it, but finally conceded.  “What Aunt Dot?  What? What did the chimney represent?”  She couldn’t hide her disappointment.  Not in me, necessarily, but in the whole of humanity’s ignorance.  “Hon, it represented her daddy’s wiener.  Duh.”  I bet I would have known given a year or two.

When I can catch a call now with Dot between her tightly scheduled game shows and appearance maintenance (“Honey, I’ve been blonde and curly since it’s been sold in a bottle”), we still enjoy discussing her past clients.  I haven’t told her much about mine, largely because of HIPPA, but also because they might disappoint Dot.  What’s a touch of anxiety or the itch for something new compared to chimney penises?  Electric shock and institutionalization seems a bit much for people looking to live their best lives. 

In her older age, Aunt Dot can be difficult and argumentative, but she’s remains fairly stylish and continues to call things as she seems them – whether penises masquerading as chimneys, divisiveness as politics, judgment as religion or tofu for a proper meatball.  Not much gets by Aunt Dot.  As Dot’s big life fades and this small one gets bigger, I’m soothed she’s still calling her own shots.  I do wish she’d hold tighter to that cigarette though.  Dot says fire extinguishers are for chimneys – I mean wieners.

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Photo Credit:  Nick. (March 10, 2010).  Thornbury Castle Chimney. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/34517490@N00/4508362796/

 

Whitney Cain