For My Aunt, Who “Mothers” Me

My aunt is not a “mother” in the technical sense, but she has a mother’s wisdom which she has used to guard me zealously.

Graduation from UCLA Law School, 1976.

A corporate attorney who graduated from UCLA Law School in 1976, my Aunt Sue is one those razor-sharp legal minds who broke ground for the women of my generation, showing the world that female attorneys are every bit as savvy-smart as any male counterpart. Growing up, I wanted to be just like her. I even looked like her. Until 1996, I was positive I would follow in her footsteps and go to law school.

To ensure I was on the right path, I first became a corporate paralegal at a large, conservative firm in NYC just after college graduation. I worked on mergers and acquisitions – “deals” as we called them.

In that year, Aunt Sue and I had a few important late-night conversations. She offered practical professional advice which I now understand, also had broader meaning. “Dress for the job you want to have,” she told me, “but make the suit your own.” Heeding her words, I learned to bring femininity to my wardrobe; accessorizing starched navy and black suits with scarves, jewelry, and cute shoes. She taught me that you can do a job and still be you. 

One of my favorite photos. Me and Aunt Sue, 1977.

When I told her I was anxious about putting millions of dollars worth of bank notes through copy machines, she said, “Remember – no one’s life is in your hands.” It was true. I was not a surgeon. None of the flashy bankers or company owners was going to die in a 20th floor conference room because of my work. “The worst that could happen is that someone loses money,” she stated plainly. And money preservation was not part of my job description, anyway. I wasn’t at the negotiating table, and even if I were – it was only money. Despite all her success, my aunt always knew that money was just a means to an end – not the end in itself. 

But the best piece of advice she gave me was actually a discovery exercise: “Figure out who holds the power for you.” In my position, who had the power to help me achieve success? I pondered this for days, thinking it must be the attorneys I was working with. They could give me good recommendations for law school and beyond.

But it turned out, the real power was held by people who worked 15 floors below us.

In 1994 and 1995, there was an enormous amount of paperwork for mergers and acquisitions sent out to signing parties for review at various stages of a transaction. With anywhere from 5 to 35 signatories on each deal, my job as a paralegal was to put the documents (approx. 30 of them) into a set which could then be copied, collated, and tabbed for distribution to the parties. Usually, the final versions of each document came together in the late afternoon; they needed to be copied and Fedexed out by 7:30 p.m.

I soon learned that the guys in the copy room “held the power.” If they didn’t hustle, rancor would fall on me and the youngest attorneys. So I made sure that I did everything I could to get my “jobs” to them quickly, and then, to show my appreciation. I knew the copy guys’ names, a few things about their families, and when time was really tight, I got into the fight with them.

One night I was standing at an industrial copier at 7:15, reloading paper bins and prepping Fedex boxes when I got a massive paper cut on my left hand. Blood ran down my arm, but I had to keep going, so I raised that hand above my head and did what I could with my right. Soon, the copy guys spotted me, and the next thing I knew, someone was bandaging up my hand. The Fedex guy appeared and we loaded his hand truck with 30 or so boxes. I was a mess of gratitude at the end: a skirted, heeled blonde with an untucked shirt, askew hair, and a clunky mass of white gauze on my left hand. I was not the picture of professionalism. But I had been successful in my job and I knew who to thank, and that was very satisfying.

It was a feeling that I experienced many times that year. The equation was reflex: the more I invested in my relationship with the copy room guys, the more they helped me. I never missed a deadline.

My aunt taught me that the people who “hold the power,” deserve our gratitude and respect. They are often the hidden ones, the crew behind the scenes, and we have a moral obligation to see them as the individuals they are. We must give credit where it is due, and honor the contributions of all. What my aunt was really saying was, “Succeed. But be kind.”

Trying out corporate law as a paralegal before “buying” into law school loans turned out to be a wise decision. In the end, I decided against a law career. I feared I was disappointing my Aunt Sue, but we are different people.

And that’s how it always is between mothers and their kids, isn’t it? What we share brings us close, but cherishing the uniqueness in one another cements our bond. 

Today, my aunt and I talk all the time, discussing the things that matter to both of us: family, friends, love of animals. We try to live joyfully, embracing the lessons of the past, but living in the present. I rely on her for strength and assurance, and am grateful for the way she shepherds our family through changing times.

Me and my aunt with our husbands. January 2017.

That has never been more apparent than in these last few years, when she so graciously and selflessly cared for my grandparents at the ends of their lives, and in the last couple months, when she has managed the long and often tedious process of honoring them in their passing – sorting through memorabilia, dispersing belongings, helping us all to say goodbye.

My Aunt Sue never had children, but she “mothers” beautifully nevertheless, and I honor her this Mother’s Day.

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