I love all of my cousins for a variety of reasons. I think Michelle stands out because she was always different and didn't really care what anyone thought of her choices, her style or opinions. She went with the flow.
Michelle babysat us for a few Summers. We were always barefoot. It was the early 70s so there weren't laws about having to wear your shoes in the car, or stores, or anywhere. And I remember the Summer that I learned the hard way why shoes are important: I split my big toe open on the running board of the Galaxy 500 while we were clamoring to get into the car so Michelle could take us to the beach. She didn't freak. She didn't call me names. She stuck my feet in the sink, hosed me down with Bactine and put a bandaid on it.
Mom, on the other hand, freaked. And forbade me to be barefoot ever because I could get ringworm, or some other thing. And she freaked out on Michelle for not paying attention. So Michelle and I conspired to more antics that would potentially damage either of us... but not permanently. Michelle was one of those people who challenged the rules, not because she was an anarchists at heart. But because some rules are far too limiting and keep us too safe, too comforable and don't challenge us to creativity or strength. When we are coddled overmuch we do not grow in any productive manner. We only grow in fearfulness.
And that is one of the things that I liked best about Michelle. She was fearless. At least she was to me. I was 4, 5, and 6 when she stayed with us for the Summers. She was exotic in her hippie maxi's with the long hair and big sunglasses. The staid housewives in polyester Carol Brady housewife attire looked at her askance. The uptight men in suits seemed in equal parts curious and appalled by her flamboyancy. We just didn't have many hippies in Traverse City. I guess. We certainly didn't have a lot of people who made alternative choices. And by alternative I mean there might have been 4 shades of nail polish that were acceptable back then, peach, pink, rose and red. And given the choice, Michelle always chose something other than those. Or no polish at all. Which unless you were a farm wife that was unacceptable as well. Ooooh...... danger on the rise!
But truly, I don't know much really about her life and choices back then. I just knew everyone worried about her until she was about 35. Much the same way that everyone worried about me. All I needed to know about Michelle was that she was encouraging, sympathetic, convivial and patient in explaining things to a child. Other than my grandparents, Michelle was the only one who ever explained anything.
She explained why she said no on the rare occasion that she did say no. She explained to me why the things that I was afraid of in my dreams needn't be scary. She explained how things were made (foodwise). She explained how nature cycles worked. And she explained adults to me. Nothing is more valuable to a kid than understanding how the adult mind works in the face of an adult episode of kid rage.
She explained that sometimes adults get mad because the things that we do scare them and they are too busy being scared to know that they are scaring us in turn. Sometimes adults get mad because they forget what it is like to be curious kids and they are too busy being addled adults. And yes, she explained what addled meant. Sometimes, she said, adults get angry because they don't have time to stop and pay attention to the things that kids want explained or to share. And sometimes adults get mad because they don't know the answers to our questions, because it makes them feel dumb. Most of which are silly reasons to get mad at a kid. But with an explanation life was a little easier to understand and navigate.
|photo from C'est si Bon! La Joie de Vivre|
Michelle was sneaky like that. Sometimes evading the rules, bending them and breaking them got her into trouble enough to warrant worry. But sometimes, more often than not I suspect, evading the rules gave her greater strength of character and a whole lot of perseverance. Rebellion is not without its problems. Rebellion is also not the problem that authority would make it out to be. Certainly it makes the figures of authority uneasy, fearing they will be toppled by a pitchfork wielding mob. But for the most part rebellion is how we learn who we are as individuals. Michelle took a lot of chances. She made a lot of bolder choices. Some of them worked. Some of them did not. As a result of the ones that did not work, her life was a bit harder than it had to be.
Similarly, as a result of some of my choices, my life is more difficult than it need be at the moment. But I am stronger than otherwise I would be. I have a mental and emotional strength that I had not thought possible. I might have a few edges that were not there before. But I am stronger. I know that nothing bad that happens is the end of my world. I might not like what happens. But I know that I can survive it. And.... getting back to those friends, I know who will be with me through everything in spirit if not in person.
Perhaps that is the best thing that Michelle taught me. How to really know who your friends are. They are the ones who caution you but encourage you to make your own choices; who cry with you when you make a wrong choice and will hand you the shovel so you can dig yourself out instead of playing keep away with it. It's the playing keep away that annoys me. It is not a friendly thing to do to dangle the tools of self help in front of someone. Real friends also do not defile your personal limits. If you are deathly afraid of spiders they will not dangle one in front of you. If you despise practical jokes they will not play one on you. Friends understand that your fears and limits trump their joy. Really, what kind of friend enjoys humor at your expense (except when of course it is a natural consequence of reality)? Friends don't take pleasure in your suffering. And those who derive the greatest joy from your discomfort can not be called friends.
Somehow, slowly through the years, I have regressed into the people pleasing mode and forgotten a large part of who I am. As I indulge in these Pintrest boards, a little voice says, "You might like this, but others will think it weird." In greater leaps than I imagined possible, the boldness returns, I see Michelle's smile and recall the fabulous patterns of her maxi dressed dappled in the shade of our large maples and I remember more and more what she inspired in me. Coupled with my Gramma's assertion that we are all made differently to make the world more interesting, I grow increasingly confident in my own direction. And I grow increasingly indifferent to other people's opinions.
I am told that there are many colorful characters in my cousin's branch of the family tree. I have found a few colorful characters in the Gerbstadt branch. The part of the tree from which I stem is rather dull by comparison with only Gramma and Michelle there. It would appear I am to be another colorful leaf in the tree.