You know that “Christmas morning feeling” that you got as a kid, on a Tuesday afternoon in July when a package arrived from your Aunt, postmarked with something about Bangkok and something about the U.S. Army. Well, probably not. But I do.
On my Father’s side of my family, I have numerous aunts and uncles, which in turn gave me dozens of cousins, who themselves now have dozens of their own children. Hard working, down-to-earth type folks; sort of reminds you of “The Walton’s”. My Mom has one sister. My Aunt B.
She never had any children of her own. She’s a lot like me (or more accurately, I’m a lot like her); Those little yard-ape, ankles-biters sure are cute and all, but they’re an enormous responsibility. It’s a lot more convenient to live vicariously through other people’s children. You just entertain the little snot-noses for a short while. Gain their temporary trust by teaching ’em a few harmless bits of information that their parents would never dare speak (i.e. Texas Hold-’em Poker; it’s good for the math skills, learning the art of straight-faced-lying and developing money management skills). Hand-crank the key on the middle of their little backs until the spring is wound tight. Feed ’em a soda and a pound of candy. Then, when they’re just beginning to spasm, quickly give them back to their parents. “Have a nice evening!”
Andy Griffith’s Aunt Bee was nothing like my Aunt B. The matriarch of Mayberry had a quiet, reserved personality. She was always fixin’ up fried chicken for Andy and Opie or baking pies for a local community event. She wore fairly drab clothing and sang in the church choir each and every Sunday. “Don’t be late for suppa!”
Aunt B is the only person that I’ve ever known to own an 8mm camera. And thank goodness that she did. Not everyone my age has home videos documenting their childhood years. An 8mm camera was something unique to the world during that period of time. Unique, exciting, evolving, interesting , trend-setting. And she also owned one of those cameras.
Her movies still exist, preserved forever in a digital format. The shaky, grainy, black and white film cells capture images of everyday life as it appeared in our small town during the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Bulky Plymouths cruising down Main Street. Me and my knees taking a bath in the kitchen sink. The local volunteer fire department putting out a practice blaze on a small farm pond. The family dog. Snow. And lots of family gatherings. As the camera scans slowly around the living room, men in white shirts and suspenders recline in high-back chairs, some smoking pipes or cigarettes while solving the world’s problems. The ladies huddle in groups confined to the shadowy corners, somehow secondary, as was the custom of the times. Polite children stare dumbstruck at the camera as proud parents look on. Lots of black rimmed glasses and bouffant hairdo’s. Those film clips appear to the viewer as a slow moving portrait come to life. Of course there was me, the OCD, Ritalin-deprived, poster child for hyperactivity bouncing off of assorted furniture, while juggling family heirlooms. But then there was Aunt B. In her physical prime, Aunt B was a ‘looker’. A cross between a silly Audrey Hepburn and a subdued Lucille Ball. She would bat her eye-lashes and flash a smile for the camera, then strut off into the distance like a runway model, only to morph into a ‘flapper’ doing the Charleston, look back over her shoulder and giggle uncontrollably. The living, slow moving portrait-like film was shot in black and white, but flashes of color seemed to appear whenever she crashed the scene.
In a way, Aunt B followed her Mother’s footsteps into the working world. My Grandmother worked as a private secretary for U.S. Senator Millard Tydings in our Nation’s capital (i.e. Tydings Committee vs. Joseph MacCarthy). Aunt B.’s path led her outside of the Washington, D.C. area. She worked various positions, but primarily at U.S. installations and embassies around the world. Along the way, she met my Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob would eventually become a 30 year veteran of our armed forces, serving in 4 of the 5 military branches during his career. They married and spent many years of bliss together during their world-wide tour, eventually ‘retiring’ in Las Vegas, Nevada. Retiring meant Aunt B arranging junket packages for high stake gamblers at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. Uncle Bob becoming the head of security for Vegas Village Shopping centers.
The packages that arrived at our house when I was young came from places that I only knew about by reading a globe or a newspaper. Berlin, Germany. Bangkok, Thailand. Tehran, Iran. My gifts included a green Lederhosen-type outfit. A wooden massage tool shaped like a set of woman’s breasts. A hand-carved wooden cow bell (clacker). A bag of matchbooks from everywhere. A large wooden elephant. A Knights-of-Arabia looking replica metal shield, helmet and battle ax. A gold puzzle ring set with my Garnet birthstone. Souvenir travel patches from Alsace, Nederland and Ankara. The Fiat that I drove in high school came by cargo ship from Europe when Aunt B’s next move wouldn’t allow a vehicle. The cuckoo clock hanging in our dining room came from Germany’s Black Forest. It drove our family crazy. May have had something to do with me constantly setting the hands of the clock forward so I could watch that little bird do his thing.
Between The National Geographic Magazine and The Travels of Aunt B, I developed the itch to go somewhere/anywhere at a very young age. Three days after I graduated from high school, I hopped on a plane and visited Aunt B. in Las Vegas for the summer. There WAS a world outside of Woodstock, Virginia! Just before my 21st birthday, I went back a second time and stayed for a year and a half.
Aunt B is now in the prime of her life, just recently celebrating her 78th birthday. She is legally blind as a result of macular degeneration. She has suffered from narcolepsy since she was a young teenager. Her bouffant hairdo has been traded in on a fine selection of wigs. Her shapely gams are not quite as shapely or sturdy anymore.
What brought Aunt B. here to now live in Virginia is not a happy story by any means. It was not uncommon for her and Uncle Bob to vacation separately. And during vacation time, there was limited contact between the two of them, especially before the age of cell phones. It was just a practice that helped them keep the marriage a happy one, like not going to bed mad at one another. A few years ago, Aunt B flew in from Las Vegas to spend a couple of weeks visiting with my Mom here in Virginia. During the week before her return trip, there were no panicky phones calls to remind Uncle Bob when and where to pick her up. He knew the time, date and number of her return flight. They had gone through the routine dozens of times before. When she arrived at MacCarran International Airport, Uncle Bob was not there to greet her. Aunt B, narcoleptic and legally blind, sat in a waiting lounge for four hours, but still no sign of Uncle Bob. She then called friends for a ride home and then called police to break into her house. Uncle Bob had a fatal heart attack while taking a shower. Counting the newspapers in the driveway, it seemed that he had been under running water for several days. The image of my little Aunt sitting in that big airport, waiting patiently for the man that she had loved for years, as he lay dead in a tub at their home…it just makes me very sad. Like tears-sad.
Aunt B.’s house here in Woodstock is just minutes from my home. It’s a nice little two-bedroom duplex located in a quiet neighborhood filled with retirees such as herself. But unlike the ‘old folks’ homes of her neighbors, her home is that one museum which you really enjoyed visiting. Hanging in the hallway are the autographs given to her by the Apollo 11 astronauts, while they toured Berlin after their big flight. An autographed card that reads “Best Wishes, Richard M. Nixon”. A Vietnam War aircraft carrier picture, with various airmen’s handwritten notes thanking Uncle Bob for his leadership and wishing him well in his next assignment. There’s a framed poster promoting a bull fight in Mexico that Aunt B. had attended. Another poster is an advertisement for a ballet in Paris. The beautiful artwork depicts the prima ballerina for the evening’s show, who just happens to be my second-cousin Helen. In the living room there are table lamps constructed out of antique brass hookah pipes. When you’re almost tired of asking ‘what is that? or who is that?’, you walk into the den. A look at the walls covered with pictures of Vegas entertainers and you find yourself asking “You met Wayne Newton?”
I spent most of my life preparing food for people. As in professionally. People paid for the little nuggets of goodness. Nowadays, I’ll spend an afternoon creating something yummy just for the pure enjoyment of cooking, which might sound odd to some folks. Aunt B would be one of those who would question the phrase “enjoyment of cooking”. The last thing that she seared was the inside of her microwave oven while trying to burn a frozen dinner. I’ll deliver dinner or dessert to her front door, announcing my arrival as “Meals on Wheels!” Every tenth or eleventh meal will get a panned review such as “I just couldn’t eat it. I threw the second chop in the trash”. “Well, what’d you want me to do, lie to ya?”. Aunt B would be the one in the group to bluntly ask “That’s what you’re wearing to dinner?” But I still continue my pilgrimage of meals. She cracks me up with her bluntness and flamboyant natural self. Aunt Bee of Mayberry was known around town as simply Aunt Bee. Friends and acquaintances of mine will ask “How is your Aunt B?” They don’t know her first, last or maiden name, but they remember the person. She wears fake bunny ears at Easter and reindeer antlers at Christmas. She loves a glass of blush before dinner. She tells the same stories of her younger days over and over and over, each time with a different twist or untruth, but always with enthusiasm, grace, wit and color. Just like her starring role in those old home movies of hers. She’ll bitch about this and that, but who could really blame her. Her husband’s a memory. Old friends and family are leaving this world at an increasing pace. The eyesight’s almost gone and the body doesn’t work as well as it once did. Images might find it difficult to enter into her eyes, but twinkles still find their way out. When she wakes from a narcoleptic session, it’s with a smile or giggle, like to say “Yep, I’m back.”
As Aunt B skipped around the world, she was often asked as to where she was from. Her own little running joke was to answer (in a heavy Southern drawl) “I’m from Pugh’s Run, Virginia”. (Pugh’s Run isn’t even really a place, but a small stream just north of Woodstock). When Aunt B came back to Virginia to live for good, family members met her at the airport. Like hired limo drivers, we stood stoically near the departure gate and held up our own little homemade sign. You got your signs for Thompson, Smith and Jones. Our little sign simply read “Pugh’s Run”.
A lot of gifts showed up at our front door. The common thread amongst them was a reason to dream. The world’s a great big adventure.