In 1964, I was a knobby-kneed girl with glasses too big for my face and an ornery attitude in my head. I’d discovered that mouthing off was a fast way to make my mother implode. Interestingly, my parents chose that summer to take their first vacation ever—without me.
They packed me in the red Chevy Bellaire and dropped me off, my pink poodle train case dangling by my skinny legs, at the door of Aunt Carols’ house. The kisses and waves they threw my way as they drove off wasn’t enough to convince me that their hysterical glee wasn’t aimed at getting away from me. I watched the cat-eyed taillights grow dim in the distance before giving in to Aunt Carols’ pleas to “come on inside, Darlin’.”
Aunt Carol bulldozed her way through her clan of five boys, and led me to the den. She pointed to a pull-out sofa and instructed me to shove my train case into the corner, beside the ratty-looking floor pillows her boys crushed every night as they watched TV.
“Darlin’, I am just so happy to have a little girl in the house! I surely am! You make yourself right to home and don’t let those boys of mine get to you. If they bother you in the least little bit, just come tell me and I’ll be sure to tan their little behinds.”
She leaned down to hug me to her soft body, and her strawberry blonde hair fell over her cheeks. Up close, I could see just how many orangey freckles covered her face and the pearly skin of her arms.
“Aunt Carol, you have so many freckles!” I exclaimed.
“Darlin’, if I didn’t have these freckles, I’d be an albino for sure. C’mon in the kitchen while I get lunch on the table. You can choose the Kool-Aid, ‘kay?”
I followed Aunt Carol to the kitchen, and wondered why she had a Southern accent when she and her family had lived outside of Chicago all the years I’d been around.
As she took the Wonder bread and peanut butter out of the cupboard, I questioned her about her accent. She laughed again and gave my nose a tweak before going about the business of spreading lots of gloppy peanut butter all over the slices of bread she placed in rows on the counter top. My mouth watered as I observed how generous she was with the spread. At home, Mom strictly rationed the amount of “junk” I ate. It appeared that at Aunt Carol’s house, hunger was not going to be an issue. Gluttony, might, though.
Aunt Carol smiled at me. “Well, now I didn’t always live here in Chicago. I was born and raised in Memphis.” She licked the butter knife before plopping it into the dish pan. She put her hands on her generous hips as she thought about her next sentence. “Let’s see...I think I came here as a career girl in the summer of ’53. Met your uncle and got married a year later.”
She interrupted herself to point me to the Kool-Aid collection in the pantry. “Top shelf, Darlin’. I gotta keep the boys from gettin’ it, or they’d make Kool-Aid the live-long day. Now, what was I sayin’?”
I climbed on a stool and perused the stash of fruity powder packets and was happy to see my favorite flavor: lime. Aunt Carol got the round pitcher down and slid the sugar canister to me.
“Yes…I came up north to be an artist, Darlin’. I was good, too. But nothin’ could keep me from marryin’ your uncle, and so I ended up here, with all these boys…and well,” she shrugged. For just a second, she looked sad, but then she laughed and waved me out to call my cousins to the table.
I puttered around with Aunt Carol that day and the days that followed. She showed me how to draw, and tucked me in bed always with a kiss and a smile. Before I slept, she’d whisper, “It sure is nice to have another female in the house.” Her pronouncement each night made me feel that it was special to be a girl.
Imagine my wary parent’s amazement when they returned to take me home: their spunky girl was miraculously replaced with a sweet angel. As we drove away, I looked back at Aunt Carol standing in her door, and heard her call, “Come on back and stay with me again, Darlin’…real soon!”
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