Whilst I have continued to write Shards (and thank you for all the comments they have received), I have avoided regular updates for some time, in part because it has been a difficult few months. The biggest jolt came at the end of September when Manel, my aunt in the States, died unexpectedly and without warning at the age of 59. Although there were some things I might have said here, my immediate focus was taking care of my family over there (and I was lucky that those with whom I work were so good about letting me do so). Growing up, my family would travel to Louisiana to see the Traylors every other year, for two or three weeks at a time. It led to the incredibly close ties which mean that in the last ten years I have visited the States about as many times. I often talk about the months I worked in Louisiana before university, but most people do not know that I also spent a summer living with Manel and her family after my GCSEs.
Her children’s words at the funeral captured her perfectly: the teacher, the mother, the animal-lover, the rebel, and — at least in passing — the personal neuroses that gave her the unique character that we all grew to love. There is little I could usefully have added but I did have some thoughts at the time that I would still like to share.
Every trip, the five children from our two families would all await one inevitable occurrence: Manel chewing out a service industry worker for some shortcoming or perceived sleight. Mostly it was warranted, if not the viciousness with which she took to the role. We would typically shy away embarrassed whilst secretly enjoying the spectacle.
For Manel, I knew, one’s chosen work was a vital part of life and laziness was anathema to her. She held others to the high standard she held herself. Jenna mentioned her slight jealousy of all those pupils whose foibles Manel knew almost as well as her own children, and a sadness that Manel’s grandchildren would miss out on that personal attention. She immersed herself in her work and, as she saw it, so should everyone else.
But there was more to it that I did not realise for many years. On a trip to Las Vegas, my family and I returned to our room after breakfast on the day of check-out, only to have an irate cleaner burst in and tell us we should not be there. She had, presumably, seen no luggage and assumed we had already left so she could begin work early, only for us to return and (minimally) undo her efforts. Puzzled, we tried to explain but she decided to pick up the phone and call security. We only heard her half of the conversation but I remember the end vividly, “Do they speak English? Yeah, a little.” Being British, I could only find the hopelessly faulty attempt at derision laughable and, bemused, we related the bizarre event to the rest of the family later. Manel was not amused. She was furious.
I visited alone a year later and one day Manel went digging through papers and returned proudly with a letter that she presented to me for inspection. It was from the hotel manager, in response to a complaint she had sent, apologising for the incident and — rather ominously given Vegas’ history — stating that “the employee in question has been terminated”. “Terminated,” Manel repeated with her mischievous cackle, and I began to realise this was not simply glee at the firing of an unforgivably rude employee (nor her potential mafia-style burial somewhere in the desert). She wanted me to understand how important we were to her and this letter was her proof. She was always incredibly protective over those she loved (to a fault, her children might argue, if they ever wished to swim while the sun was out) and, for the few weeks we spent with her at a time, she wanted to guarantee things were perfect.
It took years of being embarrassed to realise someone just wanted to protect me and to show me I was important to them. And in that, I suppose, she really was a mother to everyone for whom she cared.