Last night I received word that my dear aunt Carol Bradford Staninger had died, too soon, in Florida. This is the final blow for me, the final loss in a string of losses. In the last year and a half I have lost both my father’s sisters and my mother. They were the three graces of my life– the goddesses of creativity, charm and beauty.

They loved one another in a way one seldom sees in sisters-in-law, and over the years they supported one another like giant predictable boulders. They didn’t always agree, but they knitted themselves into a family, and became true sisters.

A mother passes on to her daughter as many lessons as she has time to communicate. Mom taught me how to be a mother, a wife, an artist, a teacher, a lover of beauty. In the last few years she tackled teaching me to garden, and one of her dearest legacies is the little garden she helped me plan and plant, and in which some of her own flowers now bloom. I come closest to finding Mom in that garden than anywhere else on earth.

My aunts taught me things my mother didn’t know. They opened out the definition of womanhood for me, and gave it other dimensions. My Aunt Betty was elegant and brilliant. She traveled extensively and cultivated in me a curiosity about the world. She was a great businesswoman, and wise in the ways of the marketplace. She was socially graceful, and made me feel at ease with others.

My Aunt Carol was a teenager when I was born. I remember walking around in her size 6 wedgies with fruits on the toes when she came home from college on break. I remember her taking me shopping in the city. We would try on things in lovely shops, then stop for ice cream at a soda shop. There was something leisurely about her in those days. She was the adored baby of the family and knew how to have fun. Aunt Carol’s spirit of fun had her flying home in the late 50’s with a lady’s hatbox on her lap, mysterious holes punched in the lid. When she got off the plane and opened the box, inside was her gift to my brother and me– a handsome white rabbit.

When Carol took her first job as a professional home economist, she started working with Girl Scouts, teaching them to cook. I got the benefit of that same instruction. One year, for Christmas, when I was perhaps 9 or 10, she gave me a hand mixer. It empowered me. It made me feel like now I was expected to go forth into the adult world and cook. I have, in turn, given that same gift to several very young people whom I loved because of all it implies.

As she grew sick, in the last year, she sent me a flurry of recipes. On our last visit she gave me the coveted chocolate cake recipe of my grandmother’s which had been kept secret all her life. I am so good at denial I assured myself her passing this on didn’t mean what it meant.

One of the saddest things about losing someone you love, is realizing the many ways in which you let that person down– didn’t give to them the full measure of love and concern they deserved. But the most profound lesson I learned from my aunts is the nature of unconditional love. They showed me, through their actions and their attitudes that no matter how second-rate my behavior might be, in their eyes and hearts, I was always beloved.

So now, for me, that wellspring is taken from this earth. I have drawn from it for as long as I’m allowed. It is now time to become that wellspring for others. It’s a hard thing to fill those size 6 wedgies.