Great Aunts

We were lucky to believe that life was so perfect.

Us girls wore matching outfits, new Christmas dresses we received every year. Special for the holiday. Our mommas fixed bows into our hair, which we inevitably knocked askew while playing outside with our brothers and cousins. Hide-n-Go-Seek or Capture the Flag, or Lord knows what else we got our imaginations into as we ran and squealed and sweated in the short, cold day.

One year, the weather was particularly mild for the Oregon Coast in December, and we all played outside on the little street in front of our great-grandmother’s trailer home, with its plastic flowers and ceramic frogs in flower pots on the front porch.

One of the older boys, possibly my brother, brought Alka-Seltzer to the party. The big boys tried to test the theory about feeding the stuff to seagulls to see if it was true.

I don’t remember if they managed to actually feed a tablet to a poor unsuspecting bird, or whether we told on them in time to save the dumb creature’s innards from fizzy destruction. Either way, it was very exciting.

The adults talked and snacked and the men drank cold beers while we played until it was time to open presents.

“This party isn’t where you receive your big gifts,” my mother primed our expectations on the hour-long drive to the family Christmas party. “You will get a little treat, and you will make sure to say ‘thank you’ to your Great Aunts for your gifts.”

It’s funny how the little treats always seemed like great treasures as a kid. Hard candy in a little jar. A Christmas tree ornament that smelled like cinnamon. A dime store dolly. Our great aunts always delivered. Aunt Mabel, wearing a lovely dress or perhaps a sequined pantsuit, brought gifts wrapped in gold foil paper. She was all about the presentation, and it made our pre-Christmas celebration special. Aunt Joy, who once wore a Little Bo Peep costume to Christmas, was perhaps the more eccentric of the great aunts. They created the occasion. In many instances, especially those when Joy would roll up in her latest borrowed car with homemade gift strapped to the roof, they were the occasion.

Their sister, my own grandmother, died when she was 34. Long before I was even born. I always wondered how she was next to her younger sisters. How she would have been an integral part of the holiday celebration.

Lots of pretty food displayed in red and green trays on a potluck table. The house always decorated with a Doug Fir Christmas tree, perhaps a plastic poinsettia, and some flashing glass lights on a big thick green chord. Lots of cousins to play with. Mom and Dad told each other, “I love you,” and held hands in the front seat of the car while we fought sleep in the back on our way home.

We were so lucky.

And now our Great Aunt Mabel has passed. In her 78 years, I never saw her without her hair done, maybe some lipstick on. Dressed to perfection, even in blue jeans and a red checkered shirt, which was her outfit of choice on this last 4th of July. With the support of a walker, she hobbled down to the river where the rest of us, still clinging to the remains of our ever-fleeting youth, sat and drank and ate and talked and laughed louder than we even needed to, because doing so is like a shout-out to the Heavens for allowing us all to feel so happy and alive.

Aunt Mabel loved her family. She loved wearing sequin pantsuits to family gatherings. She loved the color yellow so much that she painted her entire house the cheery hue. She collected pretty porcelain dolls. Her kitchen always smelled both clean and like coffee, and if you were lucky enough to join her in the kitchen for an afternoon chat, she’d pour you a cup. She loved planting dahlias and wearing big diamond rings. She had a great laugh and loved saying, “Well my gawwwwwwwwwddddd!” in reaction to funny stories.

The last time I saw her was in the hospital in Corvallis. She’d gone in after her heart gave us all a little warning that it was almost her time to go.

“Why, Amanda. Do you have a date out here in town, honey?” she asked me as I peeked around the curtain obscuring the big hospital bed where her tiny frame rested.

“Ha! I don’t, Aunt Mabel. I came to see you.”

“Well!” she exclaimed.

She wore a beautiful floral silk housecoat. Her hair looked nice, her eyes were clear and bright, and she was still sharp as a tack.

“Who do you think killed that JonBenet Ramsey?”

“I have no idea, Aunt Mabel, but I can’t wait to watch the special they’re going to have on TV.”

“You think they’ll ever find out who did it?”

“Someone has to know.”

“I think those parents knew more than they ever shared.”

Aunt Mabel was a sweetheart, but she always had her finger on the pulse. She knew what was what.

She was a gem. We were lucky to call her “Aunt Mabel,” or “Gram,” and she will be missed.


Along with carrying the sadness that accompanies loss, and the grief that time leaves behind, my own sister and I can’t help but notice that all of those fixtures of our youth are inexplicably disappearing.

“The treasures are all going away,” she texts me.

“I know it,” I reply. “How do we fill the gap?”

The answer to that question, of course, is that we can’t. Not in the same way that our great aunts did anyway. They were from a different time and place in the Universe. They grew up with so much less than we did. They were so much more focused on others. They found humor in the littlest nuances of people and life, and they turned those nuances into stories, which they told for years on years on years.

“Sissterrrrrrrrrrr,” I text her back, laughing at the contrast of beauty and pain. That’s how Mabel and Joy used to refer to each other. Sissstterrrrrrrrrr. It’s something I’ve recently adopted when referring to my own sister. It’s more of a declarative statement/celebration for the world to take note of than a nickname.

“We find humor in every situation. Every single story. We have that trait in us, thank goodness,” she says. And, she’s right.

The selflessness we’ll have to work on. We’ll have to get organized and start planning early so that this next generation of hooligans can have gold foil-wrapped treasures of their own.

We’ll try to fill in the gaps. We’ll bring the humor and the fun. We’ll try our own hand at being great aunts someday. Nothing will ever be the same though. Which is why it was so wonderful, and it’s why it’s so damned sad.

We are lucky that life was, once upon a time, so perfect. The least we can do is to recreate our next best version for the generations to come, and to have a good time while doing it.