Last time I saw my Aunt Lou (Alma Lucille), about two years ago, she had just celebrated 90 in her usual dapper style. The day we visited at the nursing home, she wore some cute little outfit and a snazzy cap, coordinated, no doubt by her daughters, Barbara and Jeannie. She was tiny, yes, and her hearing was not good. But she knew us, my sister and I, and brightened right up. We go way back with Aunt Lou, and that special relationship remains. She’s the one who took care of us as little girls for about six months while our father was sick in Philadelphia and my mother cared for him at home with the three youngest children. It was a sad time for our family, but I look back that that stay at Aunt Lou’s house, the summer especially, with a kind of lightness and even fun.
We were taken to Aunt Lou’s in CT when I had just finished up Kindergarten and Maura, first grade (at the Catholic school). We would be spending the summer with Aunt Lou, my mom’s oldest sister, Uncle Frosty (Forrest Hurd), cousins Bobby and Danny, who were our age, and their beautiful, glamorous older sister Jeannie, around 18, still at home. There had been nine children; one, Betty Lou, died as a baby, and the others had married and moved out. Even more amazing to us, the eldest, Barbara, was almost as old as our own mother! Maura and I shared one of the vacant rooms, and pretty much had the run of the house with our boy cousins, while Uncle Frosty went to work at the machine factory during the day, and Aunt Lou had one of her part-time jobs (at the airport diner, perhaps?) on some night shifts.
We were in the country-side, very rural compared to our suburban home. Across the street was a blueberry patch, and the backyard gave way to endless woods, with a working farm up the street. We ran pretty wild, that summer, as I recall: going where we wanted, when we wanted, all over the place. Somehow we got rides on the farm wagon, bumping through the pumpkin field. Every so often, one of the married cousins would invite us for a sleep-over. At Patty and Joey’s, there was a crystal dish of cellophane wrapped caramels on the coffee table and a big horse chestnut tree in front. Next door to Aunt Lou’s house lived Bobby and Danny’s cousins on their dad’s side, more boys our age to explore the woods and play in the tree house with. My sister was the one to catch crickets and grasshoppers in her hands; I was the one to rub noses with one of those other cousins, learning to kiss, Eskimo-style. When I couldn’t sleep one night, I sat up with Uncle Frosty watching Bonanza, as he picked meat off the bones of a pheasant he had shot. There was no “Go back to bed, now. Try to sleep.” He was a taciturn old Vermonter, but he seemed glad of my company.
By fall and the start of school, things were not so carefree. We were not going back to Philadelphia. We had one short visit back home, and after we saw our father, it was clear that things had changed, and we were not going back to our life there. We started school with our cousins; the days passed. We were fine, but we were waiting. When the news came in Nov. that Dad had passed, we already knew somehow. My mother was moving up to CT, where we would all be reunited. And so that chapter had passed. And I didn’t realize for some time that to live away from home, with relatives, was not a common experience for many children our age.
Only, I didn’t think to say thank you — for taking us in and caring for us. But thanks, also, for keeping us away from the hardest, darkest days of my father’s cancer death. It gave us a sense of belonging to a great big family, passed sometimes from hand to hand, wanted and welcomed. And a sense of freedom that I never again felt in my life, nor, I believe, have I been able to share with my own children. Freedom of movement; of time and schedule; freedom to come or go; freedom from judgment for our looks or our smarts; freedom, too, from guilt or expectation. It was summer, yes. But it was also their gift to us. And I thank you for that, Aunt Lou and Uncle Frosty, and all my Hurd cousins.