Most of us can recall a place and time when family came together for catching up, sharing tables laden with food, strengthening the ties of blood. It likely has made a tangible difference in your growing up. The experiences are now spun of memories, more valuable as years pass, crisscrossed with secrets, small enchantments of youth. Those times were threaded with a mysterious blend of innocence and the dawning awareness of looming adulthood. But there were still moments when one’s being was gilded with an exquisite sense of being fully alive. Happy.
Aunt Christine’s house seemed to nearly overcome the yard and sidewalk, two and a half towering stories of red brick casting a shadow that fell on me in the sedan. Asleep the last couple of hours of a two-day (if all went well) trip, I felt cramped and dreamy. Moist heat rolled in through the car windows. Cicadas rasped so loud my brain reverberated with the familiar noise. Three of us five kids tumbled out of the back seat as Dad opened the trunk and set out our suitcases. We each grabbed our own, pausing for the parents. I sat atop my suitcase–stuffed with summer clothes, books and other essentials for a week–and stretched. I thought it was a shame my oldest siblings were in college and had to work all summer. But more food and attention for me.
We had, at long last, arrived in a city outside of Kansas City, Missouri. I was freed to enjoy the start of my eleventh summer. We were all Missourian (I had been born in St. Louis and lived there a year and a half), which meant we believed we were a tad Southern even if it was situated in the Midwest. It didn’t feel anything like my hometown in Michigan. So each year we made the trek back to my parents’ old stomping grounds.
I was about to enter a world defined by Aunt Christine, where fresh-baked pecan and rhubarb pies awaited us, delicate doilies covered almost every surface, the Bible figured prominently on the coffee table and there was a whole room devoted to sturdy boxes and cellophane packages she bought and organized to give to the needy. Her smile was the sort that makes you feel that for every bad thing in life, at least ten good things would happen. I was certain that many of them were due to her presence. Her arms were rounded with hugs as we entered the light-filled foyer. But I knew she was also made of tough sinew and grit as were all the Kelly women, Mom included.
Uncle Glenn, tall, thin as a reed, came forward with sharp shoulders and a few words in greeting. He had a “punny” joke right off but he tended to brevity unless he had something of particular interest to offer. His words also seemed to have double meanings; I sometimes didn’t know if he was kidding or complaining. Dad stepped up and maneuvered around the talk, swapped stories about the past year. Mom seemed magnetized by her sister’s goings-on.
We kids were looking for cousin Bruce. He ran down the wooden stairs, then stuck both hands in his jeans pockets. Dark hair was freshly combed back from a high forehead, gleaming unlike my brother’s crew cut. Bruce’s white cotton shirt looked fresh-pressed. A few years younger not close yet to being a breezy teen-ager, I felt grubby and childish but shared a hug, anyway, breathing in scents of sunshine and starch. I had a bevy of girl cousins but only a handful of boys. Bruce’s voice had a soft, easy cadence. He was surprisingly handsome for a cousin. Polite, whereas my next-older sister and brother bent rules and could be annoying but got away with it. And he knew about things that the men in my immediate family did not, like fishing and hunting. Guns.
Mom and Christine, two of the three sisters who would come together, were “thick as thieves again”. They laughed over this, a peculiar thing to say, since stealing was unthinkable–they were church-going women. But they did conspire when in the same room, talking over intricate details of being working wives (my aunt, at a bank; my mother, a teacher), raising children (Mom’s five to my aunt’s one), managing husbands and household business. Industrious, energetic and, efficient they might have made good CEOs, if they had had the chance. They admired each other’s work, compared shoes (bargains) and print neck scarves (sheer and silky) matched to older dresses.
This world was also shaped by Uncle Glenn. Three or four Cadillacs and Chryslers lined the long driveway. Every year there were different ones that he “bought for a song” (my aunt’s eyebrows rose high at that). They often needed some work and he loved to do it. In this, my dad and uncle had common ground. Dad was fascinated with cars, as well, but tended to purchase smaller ones like a red BMW Isetta that opened up from the front. My wise-cracking uncle’s cars were immense boats. I liked to tag along and listen to rustic car talk, smooth glossy paint finishes, admire the clean, fancy interiors. The engines were strong and dauntless, unlike engines my father worked on that sputtered and emitted greasy fumes until they finally worked up a congenial purr.
The yard was green and wide. I’m not sure I recall the back of the house so much as the feel of it. I have in my mind the picture of a screened in porch–all relatives’ houses seemed to include good porches–where people talked and relaxed, sipped iced tea with a lemon wedge and nibbled rich cookies. There were trees bowing over the grass and groupings of colorful flowers. When the wind rose it was warm, fragrant with the headiness of summer. The cicadas accompanied everything we did. I found their brown, green and white bodies and dark eyes fascinating, strange creatures hatched of the deep heat of summer.
I loved to listen to Aunt Christine and my mother talk, so tried to stay quiet although they knew I was eavesdropping. They laughed readily, whether they were talking about their hair-do or jewelry wants or their last church potluck dinner that included some odd pickings. Their affection showed in a hand on a back, an arm snug around shoulders, a smacking kiss on cheeks. They kidded around as if they wanted to get a rise out of each other. Shared experiences sweet or sour, voices lowered. The words, as my mother’s Missourian vowels returned, were complex telegraphing of intimacies. Their gabfests were the manifestation of loving loyalty.
The adult members of my family had survived the Depression, so they valued every small possession, saved odds and ends “just in case” and never stopped being grateful for plentiful food on the table. My aunt and Mom empathized with the pain of those in need. But Aunt Christine felt it a mission, keeping at the ready every essential for anyone who was heard to be without. The big bedroom with those items were stored was a staggering sight when I checked it out each summer. It seemed as if it was just as full as the year before. A great many families would again have most of what they required at a moment’s notice, whether they were victims of fire or a natural disaster, of medical tragedy or violent homes, and in need of refuge and sustenance. Many found themselves jobless, I knew. She volunteered at shelters and soup kitchens and gave money to many causes. She accomplished basic social work out of her own pocket and offered her skills for nothing.
There were many rooms with high ceilings and rich woodwork. So unlike our two-story yellow house with only three bedrooms to harbor seven of us. But the spaciousness also seemed a little sad, more empty when all had quieted. I knew that my cousin Bruce was treasured as an only child. He didn’t have to do much of anything to be counted worthy. I admired his gentlemanly manner, benign teasing ways, and how he included me in outings with the others. As my other siblings left for college but our Missouri visits continued, I had him a bit to myself. He drove a truck or one of the fancier cars, and we’d cruise through city streets on an errand, or into lush rolling country, radio on, talking as we wanted. It was good to sit by him and press my hand into the June wind as he drove. To go new places.
Once he took me to a rudimentary outdoor shooting range where he engaged in target practice. I watched from the safe distance, shocked by the ease with which he managed his rifle, the shot’s noise crashing about me, the mostly men lined up to aim and fire again and again. Then he held it out to me, something that would not be allowed now. I decided to take it when he instructed me exactly what to do and not do.
The sleek heaviness of it were so foreign I nearly gave it back but he kept coaching me, carefully watched over my every move as I positioned it. When I gingerly pressed the trigger, a shot rang out and the rifle kicked against my shoulder I was shocked. And shamefully elated. I had hit part of the target. It seemed a terrible thing to do but it was like nothing else I had even experienced. I felt a surge of bravery for a split second. Less young. I knew nothing of gun laws and violence. A small city girl, I lived in a community designed and overseen to maximize orderly, safe goings-on. So I felt its force as an audacious thing, and knew I would not likely do it again. But was not sorry I tried it. I never mentioned it to my family, nor did he.
As the youngest of five at home, at times I felt squeezed out or somehow misplaced. At my aunt’s and uncle’s I felt included and special in certain ways. For one thing, Aunt Christine wrote poetry and I did, too. We shared our writings through letters but also when I visited. Her poetry was long and elegiac, often religious and at times mystical. I am certain my poetry was constructed with childish vocabulary, ordinary moments. She never once criticized or discouraged me. Instead, she told me I had a “talent for telling” and encouraged my every attempt. Each small piece I published later on meant something; she took pride in my effort and result.
And, too, she recognized my all-embracing love of God, treated it as a blessing. Her own Christian faith spilled all over at times. It offered compassion as if it never ran out. Though we didn’t always agfree on theological details later, her effortless praise and worship were a profound comfort to me. We shared prayers and our favorite Psalms. We kept each other close. She knew me with a spiritual clarity that required no words. I felt she was an angel’s helper meant to help guide me.
When Aunt Mary, the oldest, arrived with fanfare, the threesome was completed. She was gifted with a needle, fabric and thread. She owned a seamstress business in a colorful little house, making hand-made quilts, providing tailoring services, creating original clothing. She was single following a disastrous marriage, a rare thing back then, in that place. When she joined the other two it was as if they were a matched threesome, a full set. Except Aunt Mary peppered her talk with salty language that was tactfully ignored. Her wit was sharpened by a past that was darker, I suspected, less protected. I had great fondness for her spirit, recognized a different kinship as I witnessed her spitfire energy, her frankness. The fact that she was alone yet successful and managing fine impressed me.
Their united eruptions of laughter, commentaries on everything under the sun and dramatic expressions–it all merged into a singular, vivid piece of music. I was in the presence of women who had had heartache but were without self-pity, rising from the dust. They just stood up, victorious. They were my kin, and as a young girl I was thankful, even relieved to be included in such a group.
Aunt Christine presided over her gracious home until she was in her nineties. My mother and other aunt lived long, as well. But now they are all gone from this earth. They lost and gained more than they expected while here, no doubt, as it is for us all.
Still, they are with me and I think they may even be watching me write this. So I say this: they could whip up the best flaky, juicy apple pies and fresh strawberry jams. They could bring me to tears with their stories. They each had talents that were put to fine use in several creative ways. Aunt Christine could find me when I could sometimes barely find myself. Aunt Mary taught me to survive with flair and humor. My mother? She was water, air and fire to me. In their presence I had no doubt: I was a part of something good and true. I keep it in heart and soul, and hope I give it away as well as did they.