My aunt, Sally, is probably going to die today just a little less than a month shy of her 59th birthday. This month marks her two year battle with stage 4 breast cancer. I am no stranger to grief and loss, but for some reason this is hitting me especially hard. I like to think it’s because I’m much more skilled at feeling my feelings now instead of just drinking about them. So today I’m sad and today I want to take a moment to celebrate all that she means to me.
Sally never thought of herself as smart. I think she has always been plenty smart, but she was definitely wise. She could cut through bullshit in a hot minute. Sally was bossy and opinionated, but she loved fiercely and was never once afraid to go to bat for who and what she believed in. I’m not as bossy as she was, but I am a lot like her in those other areas. I already wrote earlier this year about my mother, her sister. The two of them were similar in these things and I like to think they passed those beautiful characteristics on to me. This year at Renovatus, the staff took personality tests and one of the things mine said about me was that I have the “need to be against.” I won’t argue with that. Sometimes that has gotten me into real trouble when I fight just for the sake of fighting. But as I have witnessed through the lives of two of the most influential women in my life, there will be times when you need to speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves. There are times when the injustice is too great and the hard thing needs to be said. The older I get and the more I learn about the heart of Jesus for his kids, the less afaid I am of being the one who speaks. Sally and my mom gave me that gift.
I grew up in the small town of Wingate, NC. It’s everything the stereotypes in your head think it is. It’s conservative, Bible belt-ish, and in some ways still struggling to catch up to the cultural changes of our time. But it is, of course, also beautiful and loving and safe. Community is paramount there and the people live it out in so many ways that Jesus would smile about. Sally never moved away from Wingate but there are many ways that she was always too big for that town. Sally was always interested in this big, wide world we live in. She loved art, food, film, theater, dance, clothes, books. She directed community plays and made interesting, diverse friends. She introduced me to gay people and provolone cheese. I’m not kidding about the cheese.
Sally took me to see RENT for the first time in 2000 and I thought I would split open with emotion. I remember she and I sitting in the theater weeping for 30 minutes at the beautiful humanity of it all. When I was little my favorite part of Christmas was the Christmas Eve get together she would host at her house. She would decorate and serve hor d’oeuvres on actual serving platters. There was wine with actual wine glasses, music, and everything smelled like Christmas. The conversation was probably something smart and cultural like politics and poverty, an aspiring liberal little girl’s dream. I am fully aware that as I have gotten older I’ve romanticized these Xmas Eves in a way that clearly doesn’t reflect reality, but we barely decorated for the holidays at my house and traditions were scarce. So I soaked up every moment of these little parties at Sally’s with her “cool” friends.
Also when I was little Sally loved to watch Baryshnikov dance. I can remember walking into her small apartment and seeing his tightly clothed body jumping and twirling across the screen. Those moments are where I learned that boys can dance too and there is a country called Russia where they talk with fun accents. Later, she and I would watch as Carrie would fall in love with “the Russian” (Baryshnikov) on Sex and the City and we would share in our very own love of that show.
Sally Williams was a lot of things to a lot of people. She loved children even though she never had her own. She worked in the child care industry most of her adult life and was their advocate as often as she was able. She made a huge impact on her community at Wingate Baptist Church and loved those people as well as she knew how. But for me, the impact she had on my life was to show me that there is a whole world outside of the small town I grew up in.
I live in Charlotte now which is only 40 minutes from the sleepy town of Wingate, but I left home for college, lived for a short moment in California, and have traveled all through this giant country of ours. I’ve even been to see the bright lights of NYC a few times which is something Sally always wanted to do, but never did. If I could give her any gift it would have been to see just one show on Broadway. I think it was Sally that exposed me to all the life at my fingertips. My husband and I are “foodies” now and love to try any and all of the culinary delights available to us. I appreciate art and film in a way I wouldn’t have without her influence. I’ve been to actual fancy parties and I adore them (even though I have no desire to be the one throwing them) because they remind me of Christmas at Sally’s. But most of all, I absolutely LOVE being surrounded by good friends of all walks of life, eating, drinking, loving, and laughing loud and deep.
Thank you for giving me ALL of the gifts, Sally Annie. You helped make me me.