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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Auntie's Boy

(with apologies for the sappiness.)
Every summer for six years in a row I hopped on a plane headed west. Usually it was on the now-defunct Braniff Airlines. I don’t know why Braniff went out of business, but two reasons float to the surface: 1) Their tickets were dirt-cheap; 2) They commissioned the inventor of the mobile, internationally-acclaimed artist Alexander Calder to design “Flying Colors,” a fleet of jets he painted in wild, abstract designs, just as amorphous and vibrant as his regular, non-jetliner pieces. Imagine what that must have cost. Imagine Southwest, hiring, say, Robert Rauschenberg to do the same thing today. Not only would it cost millions, but it would be tough to execute, since he’s dead.

Before I got my first paying job at age 15, I would fund these annual trips by collecting and recycling aluminum cans and deposit bottles. It takes 32 cans to make a pound of aluminum, and I would get ten cents a pound for them. From September to May I had to collect 32,000 cans to make a hundred bucks. Soda bottles were much more profitable, but they were much more difficult to find. So to make fifty bucks, I had to locate only 1000 Coke bottles. $150 would pay for my flight and give me a little summer spending money.

I was motivated to do this so I could spend three months with my Aunt Kay, my dad’s sister, and my favorite person in the world. If I stayed home during the summer, my mother would force me to enroll in bizarre institutions, such as the Sadomasochistic B&R Ranch Day Camp, where ne’er-do-wells and rule breakers would be publicly beaten at the daily “council ring” meetings. I also once spent two weeks at Vacation Bible School, a long, tedious ten days of hell. When they asked how we wanted to celebrate the last day, I suggested a Jesus piƱata. Whatever the event, they were always things I hated, so it was in my best interest to go west in the summertime.

Aunt Kay and Uncle Earl would pick me up at Stapleton and take me home. If I arrived after dinner (Did you know they used to serve meals on domestic flights? It’s true,) then there would be a fresh-baked apple pie (Kay’s specialty) and Dolley Madison butter brickle ice cream (Earl’s favorite) to top it. If I arrived before dinner, there was always my favorite meal: corn flake chicken, pan-fried potatoes and a fresh garden salad. I was spoiled rotten every summer. It was worth every bottle and can I picked up.

The first thing I saw when I entered the house was Kay’s amazing Chambers gas stove. She had cooked on that stove from the day they moved into the house they built in the late 30’s. It was a beautiful white Art Deco stove with red knobs and handles and built-in salt and pepper shakers. Above it hung a set of Revere Ware pots, pans, and skillets. Stainless steel with copper bottoms, they were always kept shiny by her scrubbing them with Twinkle copper cleaner and a nylon net scrubbie she made herself.

I can’t put my finger on it, but there was something defining about those shiny copper bottomed pans. My mother had the same set of Revere Ware, but instead of being hand washed and polished with copper cleaner, they were just tossed in the dishwasher and later put away in a dark cabinet. My mother once remarked to me that she still remembered coming home from the hospital after delivering a stillborn baby, and the first thing she saw was the Revere ware, bright and shiny, reflecting in the just-cleaned kitchen window. Kay had been taking care of the house and my infant sister while the caesarian took place. Mom reflected warmly on the feeling she got coming home to those clean windows and gleaming pans, after having gone through such an awful event. It was something she never forgot.

It was the kindness and simple things that defined my Aunt Kay. Growing up, each Christmas there was always a hand-knitted sweater or pair of slippers under the tree for my sister and me. And she took exceptional interest in my well being. Maybe because I was the youngest and seemingly most at-risk, the most vulnerable after my Dad died, or maybe in some odd way I reminded her of her late brother. But every summer was an adventure. A road trip to see my cousin in Vancouver. A jet boat excursion up the Snake River at the bottom of Hell’s Canyon in Idaho. But more than anything else, it was just the interest she paid and the attention she gave me and the things she taught me that meant the most. There was such a void of that back in Florida and such a flood of it that came from her every summer, that it was no wonder I cried on the plane going back home every August.

It’s because of her that Other Bill considers me such a genius around the house. I can hem his old pants and turn them into shorts, rewire a lamp, paint a house the right way, hang crown molding, manufacture a new catching bag for the avocado picker, fix a toilet, cut glass, prime a pump, hang a ceiling fan. Everything I know how to do is a result of Kay’s instructions. My dad’s family members were poor Michigan dirt farmers and never went to college. Everything they did, they did themselves. And if they didn’t know how, then they’d by-God learn how, because there was never money to pay someone else to do it.

My Aunt Kay could cut hair, singlehandedly add an addition to, or strip and re-roof a house. She could sew anything, from a pair of drawstring pants to a formal gown. I don’t think she ever bought a dress off the rack for herself. She could throw together a strawberry-rhubarb, lemon meringue, peach and apple pie in the time it would take a normal person to follow a recipe and measure the ingredients for just one of those. She canned her own pickles, made her own jam from raspberries she grew in her back yard, split rails and built a fence with the wood.

One summer she bought me my first 35 mm camera. It was almost $300, and she paid for $200 of it and loaned me the rest. “Well if you figure you have four more Christmas presents and three more birthdays and a graduation present, that’s two hundred bucks right there.” And I paid her back ten dollars a month for the next ten months. And she still sent sweaters. She stopped sending the knitted slippers because she had taught me now to make them. That camera took the best pictures and documented the next 20 years of my life.

On the cool Denver summer nights, unless there was a democratic convention on, we would never watch TV. She would sit in her red velvet Victorian rocker and knit. In the 70’s she made ponchos and sweaters to order that were sold at Andersen’s Variety Store, and she could burn through the skeins of yarn and complete one in two nights. We talked about politics, what I was learning in school, about my friends, and not often enough, about her childhood. She had some great stories about my dad, like the time he chased after her with the egg beater and got it caught in her hair. When I’d ask her for more stories about my dad, she’d say, “What do you want to know?” But my answer, “anything,” wasn’t enough. She didn’t care so much to reminisce. I think it was because she and my dad were so close, and she still mourned his early death. But she loved talking about current events, and she was full of questions for me, and she often forced me to think outside my little middle class box.

We were once talking about college draft deferments, and I told her I was glad I was going to college so I didn’t have to go in the army. “Why should you,” she asked, “just because you’re lucky enough to go to college, get out of serving your country just because you can afford to?” Her challenges to me on so many 70’s newsworthy events shaped my political outlook and social mores even to this day. I was starving for conversations like these, but back in Florida, they never happened. In Colorado, there was a plethora of topics that we discussed every night, and once we exhausted one topic, we would quickly move on to the next. Before we knew it, it was midnight or 1 AM.

She gave, and she taught, but most of all she cared. In so many disputes I had with my mother, Kay took my side, including my opposition to my mother’s second marriage. Having an adult to agree with me was an enormous comfort and an equally enormous thorn in my mother’s paw.

Aunt Kay had two kids who cared for me and took me under their wings as well. Generosity of the soul is apparently inherited and passed on.

I’ve tried for five years to write something about her that wouldn’t sound sappy and sentimental, and for the life of me, I haven’t been able to do it. This will have to suffice until I learn to be a better writer. Having her in my life was meaningful beyond words, and I still think of her all the time, but always every June 23rd, her birthday. I was often with her to celebrate it, sometimes sneaking off in the late afternoon on my cousin’s bicycle to buy her something sweet smelling from the florist. She lived a long life and died at 89. She’d be 101 now. I tried telling her several times, in person and in writing, how much she meant to me. She never thought she did anything other than what a normal aunt would do. She’d simply thank me, and then we’d move on to the next topic.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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1 comment:

  1. I always wished we had gotten to see more of Aunt Kay (and family). I always thought it was so cool that she had a daughter named Jill too! Their family always seemed so cool and smart to me. I can still see Earl with his pipe and sweaters that Kay made him.

    I have two beautiful baby blankets that Kay made for my twins. I used them for all of my baby's baptisms and then I had them cleaned and boxed. I will give them to Leah some day. Thanks for the reminder, I needed that today.