A lot of decades ago, I was a little girl. I had four siblings, goats, dogs, cats and a stuffed purple bull named Lucky that I loved.
And I had an aunt. My Aunt Dee. She wasn’t very tall and she gave the best hugs a kid could hope for. Full, warm, squeezy hugs that pressed my face into whatever shirt she was wearing. I would stand there breathing in the scent of laundry soap and food while she hugged me increasingly tighter and rubbed my back at the same time. Then, as quickly as it had started, it would end. She would release me and move onto whoever else was standing close. But, as she was hugging them, she would look over at me and smile so big I could see both her dimples. Shirley Temple dimples. On my aunt. I loved that. And, for added measure, she had the curls too. Pretty much, she was the best.
A trip to her house meant that I would be the star of the show. As soon as I got there, she would ask me what I wanted to eat. More than once this question caused my kid brain to shut down. I lived in a house of seven people and it wasn’t a typical occurrence that my desires were relevant. Like ever. So, if I asked my Aunt Dee for Neapolitan ice cream ( why isn’t this everyone’s favorite?) a bag of Doritos and two snickers bars they would appear in the middle of her bar later in the day. I always felt like I had just won a kid’s version of the lottery. It was at her house that I first tried onion dip. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to try less, but she teased me until I did and I loved it. I still do to this day. I never open a container of it that I don’t think about her.
Her house was also where my cousin Susie lived. As much as I loved my Aunt Dee, I loved Susie more. She was fun and always had the best toys and shared them freely. She was my age and, most important, she wasn’t one of my siblings. She was the different I needed coming from my crowded home. I spent many hours with her under her bed, laying flat on our backs, and staring up at the Valentine she had tucked under her bed frame. It was from the boy she loved and we both thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world. We knew she would grow up and marry him. We knew her wedding would be absolutely beautiful and we knew I would be there. It would be a dazzling day of yellow and parasols and happiness. The only thing we didn’t know was that none of it would happen. My family moved away to Texas and our relationship became summer visits full of walks and bus rides and begged-for puppies.
Then, years later, when I was a young girl and at my Grandmother’s house the phone on the wall in the kitchen rang. It was a hot summer afternoon and someone answered it. Of course they did. Why wouldn’t someone answer a phone ringing on a Sunday afternoon? I was sitting at my Grandma’s peeling formica table when I heard my mom start screaming. There’s not really a reference point for your mom screaming when you are a kid. It’s just terrifying. It was that day too. What came next was worse. My cousin was gone. Susie. She was gone.
That’s what my mom kept saying over and over again. “It’s Susie. She’s gone.” At first, I thought she had run away, but I couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t have heard about that. Surely she would have called me first.
The next thing I knew my Dad’s heavy hand was on my shoulder. “Jean Ann, go pack the suitcases. We have to go.”
I went to the dark air conditioned room where all of our stuff was scattered and tried to pack like a grown up. I couldn’t. My dad found me sitting in the middle of the floor crying with clothes covering my lap. He put his hand on the top of my head and left it there until I stopped crying.
After that, it was a long car trip with my mother sobbing softly in the front seat while I pushed my face as hard as I could into the hard window. So hard that my nose felt bruised by the time we pulled up to Susie’s familiar house.
I hung back as my parents went to the door. I didn’t know if this was a house for me anymore. Where would I go? Sit? Be? But then, my aunt met me on the sidewalk and I was smooshed into a blue plaid shirt. She held me forever. At least it felt that way. When she pulled back her dimples weren’t there, but her kind brown eyes were.
“Come in,” she said. “Come in and let’s find you something to eat. Are you hungry?”
I didn’t really think my answer mattered, so I just followed her and ate whatever she put in front of me. I ate and ate while the grownups cried. Eventually, I understood that my cousin had drowned. It was a freak accident on a camping trip and it was forever.
That was the part that I couldn’t figure out. The forever part. It seemed so unnecessary, I was willing to live this new life for a while if I had to, but forever? That was too big.
Eventually, one of the grown ups asked me if I wanted to go to Susie’s room. I did not. I wanted to do that less than I had ever wanted to do anything in my life. I couldn’t imagine that room without my cousin. Without us. I froze in the middle of my aunt’s kitchen with an empty paper plate in my hands. Froze. Couldn’t have moved for anything. My aunt swung around from the casserole dish she was serving and announced that there was no time right then to look at Susie’s room because I was going to the movies with my cousin David.
My cousin David looked at me and I looked at him. We really didn’t have a relationship. There was no need. He had my brother and I had Susie. But, my brother wasn’t there and Susie wasn’t either. So, I went in the bathroom and brushed my hair and got in the car with my cousin. An awkward car ride with him was better than opening that second doorway on the left. I knew that. We didn’t talk much, but we did stop and pick up his girlfriend and another friend. A boy.
This boy climbed in the back seat with me and I suddenly couldn’t breathe. How had I come to be in a back seat with a boy? My first thought was that I wanted to tell Susie. My second thought was that the world had gone crazy and I couldn’t tell Susie. So, we went to the movie.
It was E.T. I sat in that darkened theatre and watched Elliott and E.T. forge their relationship and, somewhere in the middle, that boy I was sitting next to held my hand. It was me. I was in a movie theatre holding someone’s hand and I was biting the inside of my cheek to keep from sobbing. Life is weird.
When we got back to my Aunt’s house she was there to greet me. Again. With a hug. She fed me more food and I still didn’t go to that second door on the left. I couldn’t.
Instead, I hung out in their family room and played with my little cousin Rona. I knew how much Susie loved her and and how glad she had been to finally be a big sister so I tried extra hard to take care of her. I played every game she wanted to play and sang every song. I helped her get things she couldn’t reach and basically made myself her chief care taker for the rest of the day. It was something to do while I processed that I was in my Aunt’s house without my cousin and that a boy had held my hand.
It was because of my helpfulness that I was given charge of my little cousin the next day at the cemetery. It was me holding her hand while her mom sobbed and threw herself on her daughter’s coffin. It was me showing her flowers while people led her mom to the car and it was me that played with her the rest of that day too. I just wanted to help my aunt. I wanted to make her smile. I wanted to see her dimples and her eyes light up. I didn’t want to lose my aunt and my cousin. I didn’t think I could handle that. I didn’t want to handle it.
Finally, on the day it was time for my family to go back to Texas, I walked down that hallway by myself. I walked into my cousin’s room and I dropped down and looked under her bed. The Valentine was still there. I whispered into the dusty emptiness and told her my last secret.
“Susie, I held a boy’s hand and I miss you so much.”
That was the last time I ever went in my cousin’s room. In fact, I buried all of these memories. Put them in a room in my brain and closed the door.
I still went back to visit my aunt and she still hugged me tighter than anyone and fed me as much as she could get me to eat, but our relationship was infected. It was infected with sadness and it made being together painful and jagged.
When I grew up and got married we exchanged Christmas cards every year and she always began them, “Dear one.” I loved that. It was how she made me feel. Like I was dear. How many people in life make you feel that way? But, sadly, because of moves and miles and a greater distance than either of us could really travel we didn’t get to see each other much.
Then, the other day, my phone rang again. Not on a kitchen wall, but the message was the same.
My aunt was gone.
Gone from me, but reunited with Susie. I hope they are hugging. I hope Susie’s face is squeezed against her mom’s shirt and that they have days and years and an eternity to not let go.
And, I hope these words help me remember. Remember what it feels like when someone makes you feel dear. Remember that you can do that with something as simple as a tub of onion dip and a warm hug. Remember that awful and wonderful sometimes show up together. Remember that many decades ago I was a little girl. I had four siblings, goats, dogs, cats and a stuffed purple bull named Lucky that I loved.
Remember that forever is forever.