We lost Aunt Millie earlier this month. I stopped by to see Uncle Gerald. We hugged for a long time. After that, we talked about aunt Millie. He loved her since high school. That’s the kind of love everyone wants.
When I was a little girl, I had all kinds of people around me. I never had time to get lonely. I never even had a chance to be alone. Even in the bathroom, someone else was always there; taking a bath, brushing their teeth, or just sitting on the side of the tub, gabbing away. There was always something to talk about. That’s one thing everybody at my house did the best: talk. That’s why Grandpa called us The Magpies, because we were always talking.
Debbie was my best-friend-cousin. She lived Uncle Gerald and Aunt Millie and her brother Jimmy, and Sandy in a tinsy, tiny house with a great big yard. That yard was the most fun; just wide open space; enough to play baseball with a outfield big enough to have no automatic home run area. No worrying about knocking a neighbor’s window out either.
Uncle Gerald was the youngest of all the brothers and the tallest. Dad said Uncle Gerald never lost his baby teeth, that’s how everybody knew he was the baby, ’cause no one could tell just by looking at him. Uncle Gerald had straight hair that always slid into his eyes in corn silk shocks, so he was all the time brushing it out of his true-blue eyes. Those eyes were just like Dad’s, still laughing when the rest of his face was relaxing.
Aunt Millie was the smallest of all my Aunts; she was itsy-bitsy and she was a good listener. Sometimes she seemed to just listen to those other Aunts talk about their husbands, just taking it in like maybe she could get some tips from those older aunts in all that chatter.
Debbie was itsy-bitsy, just like Aunt Millie. She was sort of quiet, but she talked to me all the time; especially if it was just the two of us. Well, that was pretty seldom, but it did happen. Debbie was one year younger than me, but she was tinsier than Bonita. Debbie had silky fine, hickory nut colored hair that Aunt Millie tied up with ribbons matching her shirt. Later, when Debbie go older, the ribbons turned into headbands, ’cause that got to be what everyone wore; ribbons were for babies. My Mom made headbands out of cloth to match the dresses she made me, which looked super-cool, but gave me a headache, squeezing so tight around my head. Debbie never had headaches, so she could wear headbands to her heart’s content.
Debbie’s house was so tiny there wasn’t even room for a bathroom or a basement, so she went Number 1 and Number 2 in an outhouse, like Mom did when she was a little girl. I wondered what she did when they got sick and threw up, ’cause I was pretty sure they didn’t throw up in the outhouse, that would make a person even sicker than sick. I never asked Debbie, ’cause I never felt like throwing up at her house, so I only thought of it when I was throwing up in my own bathroom, and then I wasn’t thinking of Debbie.
Debbie told me Aunt Millie heated up water on the stove, for dishes and baths and stuff like that. My Mom gave baby Julie a bath in the sink, but hot water came right out of the faucet; she didn’t have to heat it up. I took a bath upstairs and I had to be super careful not to fill the tub to high, ’cause for one thing it’s wasteful, and for another thing, if it goes to high, it leaks through a little hole at the top of the tub and right down on Mom and Dad’s bed. That’s how I learned what a double-screaming banshee fit was.
Uncle Gerald worked in The Shop as soon as he got out of High School, then he married Aunt Millie, ’cause they loved each other like nobody’s business. I guess Uncle Gerald got tired of lugging night-time potty out to the outhouse, so he dug his own septic system with a shovel and lots of elbow grease. That was after he worked all day in The Shop making cars for people like us; only Dad never drove one of Uncle Gerald’s cars, ’cause he drove a Dodge, and Uncle Gerald made Chevys. Anyways, Uncle Gerald worked super hard after he got home from already working super hard, so Aunt Millie and Debbie and Jimmy and Sandy could be comfortable. My Dad worked super hard, too. That’s what dads did back when I was a little girl. Whenever they got a chance to rest, they sat around laughing and debating about who worked the hardest. If I complained about jobs I got, I might just get some more. Anyways, most of the work those men complained about was work they chose for themselves, like that septic field. Nobody told Uncle Gerald to dig it; well, maybe Aunt Millie did when they were all alone and everything was quiet and she could get a word in edgewise.
When Debbie got almost all the way through third grade, Uncle Gerald moved the whole family into town, to a pretty grey-blue house, with siding that never had to be painted. Mom said that was the berries, having a house that never needed paint. Debbie’s new house had plenty of room, and a whole big basement, with a huge hot water heater, and city water and sewer, so Uncle Gerald never had to even think about the septic system.
Debbie told me she was scared to walk to that giant school in town, where all the kids were way, way bigger than her. I never thought being tiny might be scary; I just knew everybody said Debbie was ‘cute as a button’. When I stopped to think about it buttons weren’t really all that cute, but they were special, ’cause they came in all kinds of colors and designs and Mom spent hours picking out just the right buttons for a new dress. Besides, nobody ever said ‘cute as a snap’, or ‘cute as a zipper’, which must’ve meant buttons were pretty special.
Debbie’s house was in what she told me was a ‘sub-division,’ which was like a little town full of houses with little yards, inside a bigger town. Debbie could walk everywhere on sidewalks: to neighbors, to the store, even to a real live swimming pool in the summertime. That was the best thing of all about that new house, that and all that new linoleum smell in the kitchen and a whole bathrooms with a shower and a tub, and another bathroom, with just a toilet and a sink right by the back door, so a kid could get right back outside and play quick as lightning. Now that was the berries.
Aunt Millie told Mom, “I’m done darning and mending. I did that long enough. My kids will never wear another patched pair of pants or anymore hand-me-downs.” I loved hand-me-downs, they were just like a present, only with no holiday attached. Sometimes I got to wear them just like that, and sometimes Mom made them into something new, and I couldn’t even remember what they looked like before she worked her magic. Sometimes I got Deanna’s old clothes. That was the best, ’cause she was the most beautiful girl in school, and when I had her clothes on, I felt beautiful, too. I told everybody who would listen, “This used to be Deanna’s.
Mom stayed quiet when Aunt Millie said that, but later on, she told Dad, Aunt Millie was so proud of all her scrimping and saving so they could have that house. She had a right to crow a little. When I heard that, I wished I heard Aunt Millie crow, even a little.
Everyone in both Deb’s and my family live in relative abundance now: we have comfortable homes with plenty of bathroom space, large yards and family close at hand. It felt good to talk about old times and common ground, and the scarcity we never knew we had. It’s good to remember just how easy it is to be happy. Still, I feel sad when I write this. I hope Aunt Millie knows just how much we all love her and miss her.