Auntie Mabel’s birthday is today. She died many years ago, but I still think of her often on her birthday. She was my surrogate mother, my teacher, my best friend, and my sort of role model.
Her name was Mabel Olive Walton Robb Robb (she married Preston Robb, divorced him, remarried him, and divorced him again) Brown Hollinger. She was my father’s older sister (in so many ways) and had six marriages, the last at the age of 83. I said, “Auntie Mabel, why would you get married again at your age?” She said, in her slight British drawl, “Honey, I just don’t believe in sex outside of marriage!”
She was the only woman I knew who worked. She was a teacher, and dressed up every morning in flowing skirts like Loretta Young did on television (look her up on YouTube!). She had bright red hair and drove a gold Pontiac with huge tail fins and push button shifting — so cool! She was always spouting “Auntie Mabel-isms” that taught me about life and how to have fun.
I went to live with her when I was 6. My mother had had a bad fall and concussion, and my father was in no shape to care for three kids — me, my sister who was 5, and my brother who was 2. So we were parcelled out to relatives — my sister to Aunt Elsie, my brother to Nana, and me to Auntie Mabel 400 miles away from my home in Mill Valley.
I was thrilled. For the first time since I was 17 months old, I was an only child. She was between husbands at the time, so we had all kinds of fun. I learned a whole bunch too. Like when two men come to the house at the same time, you should go to bed early. If it’s Friday and you’re Catholic, you get Morton’s Macaroni and Cheese for dinner and Fudgesicles for dessert. When you have blond hair and it gets washed, it MUST be rinsed with lemon juice. And when you go to the Del Mar racetrack, be sure to bet a $2 daily double on the favorites — you almost always get your $2 back!
When it was time for me to go back to school, it was arranged that I would go to the school she taught in. She was a 4th grade teacher, and I didn’t quite understand that she couldn’t be my teacher for 1st grade. But her best friend was the 1st grade teacher, and she was very nice UNTIL…it was time to get polio shots.
Those were the days they gave the shots to all the kids at school because the vaccine was relatively new. So they lined us all up outside the nurse’s office. When I realized what was going on, I threw a fit. I was convinced I had had the shot at my school in Mill Valley and, if I got a second shot, I WOULD GET POLIO! I was hysterical. Auntie Mabel had to leave her classroom to calm me down, call my parents, and determine that I had not had the vaccine before. I still remember how terrified I was.
Then came Christmas. My parents and sister and brother came down to Temple City for the holiday. And then left. Without me. When I was in my 40s, Auntie Mabel asked me, “Do you know why your parents left you with me that time?” I said no, why? She said, “Well, I have no idea!” They never discussed it!
So I finished out the school year and went home to get reacquainted with my family, and begin a life with some major abandonment issues! I spent every summer with her until I was 12 and we moved to New York. I am who I am in large part because of her.
Happy Birthday, Auntie Mabel!