Aunt Alice did dishes when there was no more room to stack dirty ones. Unimportant tasks could wait, and Uncle Fay never seemed to care, and probably never thought of complaining. There were just the two of them living in Cadillac in a narrow, old house on a lot just slightly wider. Aunt Alice waited on Uncle Fay like he was King, but that was okay, because to him she was Queen. They never had much, but that was okay too, because they seemed to have everything.
Mundane chores waited while Aunt Alice painted a flowering mural on the wall of their spare bedroom, or experimented for hours with a new and usually delicious recipe, or while she layered every branch of their tall Christmas tree with shavings from countless bars of Ivory soap, or while she shopped for a special gift for twenty-nine nieces and nephews. And once home, with her holiday purchases, everything was still on hold while she creatively wrapped each present as if it were fine jewelry instead of
something from the Five-and-Ten-Cent Store. Each gift was filled with mystery, and expectation because it was wrapped in love.
Aunt Alice often painted. Some paintings were still life, many were scenes of woodland paths or roads that stretched to distant horizons. And once she painted a twelve-year-old ballerina gracefully positioned on a red peony. The ballerina was me.
Aunt Alice spent much of her time on important things.
When my younger brother and sister and I were kids, Aunt Alice and Uncle Fay often stopped by uninvited, usually on Sunday night, and everyone was glad. Aunt Alice emitted warmth like the sun, and after she left, the warmth lingered like a cozy summer
evening. She was attractive, with square shoulders and a nicely defined waistline. She had bright, big teeth; which made a striking smile. When she laughed she changed the demeanor of our quiet, conservative home.
Aunt Alice was from Chicago. One time after visiting her hometown, she told us that, “The road to Chicago is lined with signs that read “Donut Pass.” Those signs made me awfully hungry for donuts. Finally Uncle Fay decided he had to get me some at the very next Donut Pass.” Then she added, “There were a lot of unnecessary signs too. They reminded drivers that when passing they should “Pass with Car.” Aunt Alice could change a gloomy Sunday evening into an occasion.
As a kid no one ever sang with me until one dark, rainy night when I sat in the front seat of a car parked just outside Grandma’s house. Behind the wheel, with windows tightly closed against cold and rain, sat Aunt Alice. She sang with me while beating rain provided background music, and danced erratically across Grandma’s porch in the glow of a house filled wall-to-wall with relatives. I can’t remember why we happened to be in the car, but I know we sang, because it was then I realized that, other than at church or school, no one had ever sung with me before.
Aunt Alice was found very late one night walking the city sidewalks in her nightgown. She was going to church to see Jesus. Aunt Alice has a sorrow. A sorrow I didn’t know about, one that didn’t show in her smile. For Aunt Alice, who had no childe, had a child – a child who I came to realize she loved through loving others.
Years later when I had a family of my own, Aunt Alice caught a cold – she thought. She planned to go to the doctor in the morning, but instead she went to see Jesus.
It has been more than two decades since Aunt Alice died, and I think of her less and less. But recently the child that Aunt Alice never had – called. He lives in North Carolina, and now that he’s found relatives he’s coming to Michigan. He had hoped to meet his mother. He wants to know all about her. But will he?
Oh my family will show him where she lived, and the pictures she painted. They’ll show him the grave site where she is buried beside Uncle Fay, the man she met and married long after his birth. He may walk the streets she walked and talk to people who knew her best, but will he come to know her?
Will he understand that Aunt Alice gave away priceless gifts from a treasury of love, and that she enriched the lives of those around her? Will he understand that her gifts of love were gifts she yearned to lavish on him? And will he understand that on a rainy night outside Grandma’s house nearly forty years ago his mother sang with him?
When he comes north, and introductions are made, and extended hands touch, will the love that Aunt Alice gave to us be given to the son she never had, but always held as closely as an unforgiven daughter was allowed?
Like the dime store gifts she gave, this upcoming meeting is filled with mystery and expectation because long ago it was wrapped in love; love left in our care to steep until this opportunity to share. Will it still be warm enough to nourish the visitor who
comes so late?
Susanne Box Elenbaas
Cover Kathy Gibbons