We all have people in our lives that transcend time. Who they’ve been & who they are manages to live in the same spot in our hearts concurrently. They linger in ways we don’t even realize. The way we do or don’t express ourselves, the way we drink our coffee, the way we clean – they’re in our DNA.
Growing up isn’t easy for anyone. My mom, my brothers, my sisters, my 5th grade teacher Mr. Barney, they all saved me with a smile or an earnest interest in some childhood moment long since faded away. Aunt Lil too. She’d be way toward the top of that list.
Lil was a family friend, an Aunt by choice, as opposed to genetics or marriage. She and my mom were both widowed in their 30s. They shared a backyard fence anchored by a telephone pole that had been greased so none of the army of kids they raised could climb it.
2 widows. 11 kids. 6 bedrooms. 2.5 baths. 1 television per household. Nearly impossible by today’s standards. Lil and my mom made it look easy, when surely it wasn’t. What comfort they must’ve found in a quirk of real estate. Neighbors becoming family.
Lil and my mom settled into second marriages, comparing notes, over coffee. A constant shadow, I’d sit at the kitchen table coloring while they talked in code underestimating how much I understood.
Mom kept my dad’s business going. Lil worked jobs that allowed her to tend to and contribute toward her family. She worked an industrial clothing press for a tux shop, ensuring wrinkle free proms and weddings in Madison, WI. She was an elevator operator at Manchester’s Department Store, my hometown's midcentury version of uppity. She was also, like my mom, a cleaning person. That job caused her back problems for the rest of her life. She’d wonder aloud why people couldn’t use a paper towel to wipe up the soapy, milky water on the edge of the restroom sink. Why didn't people leave a place better than they found it?
Lil loved indulging the people she loved. Her children dressed beautifully. She had an electric organ bigger than the one in our church. She played whenever anyone had the time to listen or sing along. Formerly as beautician, her hair was always perfectly in place. She had a huge old siamese cat named Tiger and a series purebred dogs she loved the way she did everything. Passionately.
Aunt Lil adored cars. I remember a champagne colored Falcon. She had a minivan. My favorite was a navy-blue Buick Skyhawk, with pristine white upholstery. Riding in it felt as though you were in a cloud floating through a perfect sky.
Each Christmas and Easter a florist would drop off a centerpiece for our small table with a card signed in her distinctive handwriting, “All our love, Lil & Robert”. Elegant. Generous. How many tuxedos did she press for that sweet gesture? How many elevator buttons did she push? How much milky water did the pine boughs cost?
Time progressed as time always will. High school became college became career. Wisconsin became Florida became New York. My dad died. Others followed. My mom’s circle became smaller until eventually someone else’s circle became smaller because my mom was gone too.
Lil and I kept in touch. Each year our gifts would pass each other in the mail. I’d send decadent desserts to save her time in the kitchen. She’d send me a centerpiece or fresh fruit. Too much fresh fruit, but I ate what I could and gifted the rest. It would’ve bothered me to waste anything she gave me.
My sexuality was a non-issue as far as I could tell. “Do you think I care about anything other than your happiness?” she said when I finally fell in love. She confused his first and last name calling him Nolen instead of Matt. Her version made sense. I had been a dramatic kid. Of course, I’d end up with someone with a soap opera name.
We’d talk on the phone as life and obligations allowed. Lil’s voice got quieter and slower. Her handwriting got shakier. Letters came less often, usually with an apology for not writing more. Still pears and apples from Harry & David, the modern equivalent of a centerpiece, arrived each year.
I sent her my book. She sent me a card I’ll treasure forever. She was proud.
Lil died a few weeks ago. Robert, her husband, followed 16 days later. I like to think they couldn’t bear to be apart. They were the last two survivors of my parent’s inner circle of friends. The last two. I didn’t realize that until they were both gone – not that it would’ve changed anything I suppose. Somethings don’t make themselves known until they’ve happened. You can’t anticipate the void, but it's there waiting for you.
Still, there are people who don’t completely leave. They endure mostly inside of you, sneaking out into the light of day when you admire a centerpiece, hear an organ play or take a few seconds to clean up the small splash of water after washing your hands.