When I was growing up, my mother had a best friend named Barbara. Barbara was a part of my life from the time I was six until her death earlier this week. She was a rare female executive for "Ma Bell" before the days of anti-trust suits (or women's suits at Brooks Brothers, for that matter.) She remained single and childless her entire life, but she helped raise at least one kid who loved her like a mother.
I remember our first meeting as if it were yesterday. We were sitting in our living room on Long Island and she was wearing an exotic (in my six-year-old terms) necklace from a far off land called Barbados.
I was hooked.
Poor Barbara. I couldn’t get enough of her. I wanted to know what Greece was like. Were there really camels in Egypt? And really, how cool was she... driving that little VW Bug. Imagine this poor woman’s surprise when I announced one Friday night that I wanted to have a sleepover at Aunt Barbara’s. I’m not sure who was more terrified, my mother or Barbara. I’m sure a plan was in place to return me to my rightful owner at the first sign of a freak-out.
But, in what would become a pattern during our shared life, she called my bluff.
We had a magical night at Spinning Wheel Road. We watched the Brady Bunch (I hadn’t yet learned to recognize her patented “this is ridiculous” look.) And then a life-changing thing happened. She put on a record (vinyl, 33 1/3) and we listened to the soundtrack of “Mame.” Mame is the story of a single woman living in Depression-era New York who suddenly becomes the guardian of her young nephew. Unburdened with the worries of parenthood, she shares her own special brand of philosophy with her young charge. It was a fitting selection.
We sang. We danced.
Though it may not be anyone's birthday,
And though it's far from the first of the year,
I know that this very minute has history in it, we're here!
Indeed. We were there. And from that moment on Barbara became my Auntie Mame.
Despite her serious nature, she had a wicked sense of humor. How many 10-year-old Catholic girls knew all the words to Tom Lerher’s “Vatican Rag”? Of course, I had to take an inviolate oath to never demonstrate that particular skill to Sister Teresa.
Oh, how we laughed.
Years went on and I became an emotion-driven teenager with moods on a pendulum. My Auntie Mame would have none of that. My fits of angst were met with, “don’t go away mad, just go away.” And the unspoken understanding, “I’ll be here when you regain your senses.”
At a time when female executives were unheard of, I listened… okay eavesdropped… on my mother and Barbara as they discussed the goings-on at Mother Bell. She would have scoffed at the word mentor, but professionally, that is exactly what she was. When my time came to be a 20-something leader I had to fire someone for stealing. I was distraught. I was putting a man with two small children out of work. She looked me dead in the eye and said, ”you’re not putting him out of work. He did that all by himself.”
From Barbara I learned that the wisest voice is not always the loudest voice.
I learned to stare down things that frighten me and take them apart piece by piece.
I learned determination, pragmatism, and loyalty.
I learned to open a new window.
Barbara, know that you taught your protégé well. I’m opening new windows and I’m giving kids a living room to dance in. I hope I am providing some words of wisdom along the way. But you’ll be happy to know, we’re skipping the Brady Bunch.
Thank you, Auntie Mame.