This wasn’t easy to write…there was a bit of bleeding involved. But it’s been something that I’ve wanted to write about for years because it’s such a central piece of who I am. More than ever before, I’m really trying to figure out pieces of myself- recognizing and recollecting the scattered ones and even discovering a few new ones. Though I could never do my aunt justice when writing about her, I’ve been as open and honest as I can be, which is what I always aim for when writing so I would like to believe that she would approve.
I remember being 5-years-old and sitting on the floor of the living-room, playing with the cardboard cutouts from the back of TV dinner boxes. Each box came with a piece of a ‘map’ of a town, so the more pieces you collected, the bigger (and more complete) your town became. There were sidewalks and town buildings printed on some of the cutouts, and there were houses and tree-lined streets on others. I used my fingers to ‘drive along’ the roads of the town-over the bridge and onto the streets where houses were aligned perfectly in tidy rows. Playing with these map pieces kept me entertained for weeks, but I never collected all the pieces, so there were huge square gaps missing in my town. I realized eventually that I was never going to collect the rest of the pieces… my town would never be complete, so I gave up tracing the roads into spaces of the living-room carpet where the other pieces were supposed to be. Eventually, I decided that the missing pieces made the entire town useless, so I threw away the pieces I had collected.
But it was during this brief period of box-piece collecting when my Aunt Helen came to visit, and even though I was only 5, her visit had a lifelong effect on me. I was playing with my random town pieces and tracing my finger along the roads when she sat down beside of me and ask me what I was doing. This in itself was a big deal, because as you may know all too well, most adults rarely take the time to not only speak to a kid but to sit down beside of them and seem actually interested in what they were doing. That was practically unheard of in those days, but my aunt Helen wasn’t like most adults. Though I was painfully shy, (especially since I didn’t see my aunt more than once every few years at best), I showed my town to her and pointed out my favorites parts (the squares with the houses, the bridge, and the town square with a statue in the middle). I explained in my best big-kid voice that I still needed to collect the rest of the pieces, but it shouldn’t take me too much longer to complete the town. I remember her tracing the streets with her fingers just as I did, before standing up, rubbing the top of my hair, and walking into the kitchen to talk with the adults. Because of the attention she’d given me, I felt important, and though I didn’t fully realize the feeling then, I also felt ’empowered’, as if the ability to collect all the pieces to complete the town would be a grand accomplishment one day.
During her visit, I remember being amazed at how perfectly unique she was.
She had arrived in a camper, or maybe it was a truck with a camper attached, I’m not entirely sure, but I would stand by the back door, curiously staring in at the small kitchen, and thinking how fantastic it was that she had, what seemed to me, her entire house with her, (on wheels!) She could come and go as she pleased; Immediately, I knew that this was how I wanted to live my life too-coming and going whenever I wanted.
Just when I didn’t think she could be any cooler or I could love her any more than I already did, there was the day she was in the kitchen with my mom when I came into to ask for something to eat. I had seen something on TV about how much Elvis loved peanut butter and banana sandwiches, so I really needed to try this for myself to see what I had been missing my entire 5-year life. I think the fact that my aunt was there gave me a push of courage because I remember walking into the kitchen and bravely requesting Elvis’s favorite sandwich. Because we didn’t have a lot of money, my mom tried to cut corners. Even where there were no corners, she managed to make them, so to her, having both a peanut butter sandwich and a banana was TOO much. But just as she began to say so, my aunt said, “Or for crying out loud! let her have a peanut butter and banana sandwich!”. I was speechless, because not only had someone defended me, but they had dared to stand up to my mother! Truth is, in the end, I really didn’t think much of the sandwich, but my aunt had stuck up for me, and that was priceless.
She seemed larger than life to me, (even better than Wonder Woman!), and not only to me but to most of the family. She was 14-years older than my mother (who was the baby of a family of 12 kids) and she was so worldly compared to my other aunts. Though she had grown up in Eastern Kentucky, she had found her way out…she lived in Chicago where she was a bartender for a time, as well as living in Arizona and eventually Florida, where she lived until her death. Unfortunately, there are pieces about her that I can’t fill in because so much had happened before I had come stomping into the world. The missing pieces of her life are as sad to me now as the missing pieces of my town, where the ugly, itchy carpet interrupted my beautiful town used to make me feel.
From the things I have been told by my mother and the memories I have of her, she was bold, fearless; she did things the way she wanted to do them, the way she felt they should be done. It seemed that when things became too comfortable, she moved on to something new. I remember my mother telling me about one of her husbands and what a good man he was, and how she never understood why my aunt left him. Even though I was only 12 or so when she told me this story, I understood my aunt’s reasons: life was bigger and maybe she didn’t have room in her exciting world for a perfect husband. Surely my aunt had things to do, places to go and people to be…I can’t imagine her cleaning the house or standing at the stove cooking dinner, patiently waiting for her husband to come home…maybe she DID do that sometimes, I can’t say-but even if she did, it wasn’t the bigger part of who she was. But there are so many fucking pieces to all of us, aren’t there? So, maybe there was a domesticated piece to my aunt…I have domesticated pieces too…maybe everyone does, and though I am not in the business of loving and leaving the way I used to be, I still understand why she must have made the choices she made. Throughout her life, she had a handful of husbands, (I believe there were 4), so she obviously wasn’t afraid to love. In the end, it was a man that she was living with who took her away from the 5-year-old me, and the rest of the world
By the time I was 6 years-old, the name Casper felt like a bad word that I should never say. I wouldn’t even watch Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons…even when my son had asked for a Casper movie many years later, I felt a sick stirring in the pit of my stomach. This was because Casper was the name of the man who had shot my aunt in the back several times, and then left her in the woods until hunters discovered her body. Dental records were needed to confirm her identity. Pieces. Somehow, this amazing larger than life character, that had made such an enormous impression on me had been ended by some small, cowardly man that couldn’t accept his lack of control over her, so he had ended her.
And the forest had silently accepted her, eventually returning only pieces of all that she had once been.
This point in my childhood was full of a blur of things that didn’t seem quite real, although I knew they were. My stepfather had made life for my mother terrible with infidelities, and the winter was especially cold and frozen. The water pipes under our house burst, so for much of the entire winter of 76/77, my mother had to draw water from a well, laying on her stomach to drop a bucket attached to a rope down into the well to get water for us. Her clothes would sometimes freeze to the ground and I remember my hatred for my stepfather intensifying each time I would watch her struggling to pull the heavy bucket out of the icy hole. I knew that I would never live that way, not with a man that didn’t care if I froze to the ground or help me carry buckets of water through the deep snow. I remember being mad at my mom for not being as strong as my Aunt Helen. Surely, my aunt would have never been with a man like my stepfather. During this time, my aunt had been reported missing, and while it was initially plausible that she could have just been traveling on her own for a while, there was a dark feeling that hung over everyone-as if they already knew that the worst had happened. Even then, as a child, I could feel that. Throughout the search, the discovery and finally the burial of my aunt, the entire world was made of hateful, uncaring ice.
It’s one of the reasons I loathe winter… it makes all of the beautiful things disappear.
Both my mother and grandmother were devastated, but as was usually the case, I did not cry…I internalized everything when I was small. I also felt that I should be strong because neither of them could be. I remember traveling for hours on icy roads in a quiet car full of sad people for her wake and her funeral. We stayed overnight in the house my mother had grown up in because that’s where the wake was held. For my mother’s family, the custom is to have the coffin overnight in the house of family and the night is spent watching over and being with the person before burying…letting them go the next day. I had been sent to bed in the room directly across from the coffin, but of course, I could not sleep. I’ve always believed that when you sleep, you miss the important things. Instead, I sat in the dark and stared through the doorway, as my mother and my other aunts stood at the coffin and cried, and if I am remembering correctly, pulling a metal box from the closed coffin…the small box that somehow managed to contain the precious pieces that once had been my brave, amazing, outspoken aunt.
All through the rest of my childhood, I heard so many things about my aunt; her outspoken behavior, and the fact that she had a hard time settling into just one life, and never seeming to stay long whenever she did try to settle…as if the pieces never fit, or maybe the pieces did fit in the beginning, but changed over time. Hearing about the way she had lived, left a deep impression on me. By the time I was a teenager, my mother would sometimes compare things I said or did, or even wore to my aunt, which was the most endearing thing I could have heard. As I grew older, my aunt became less human to me, and more of a legend, so of course it made me happy to be compared to a legend.
I had a reoccurring dream throughout most of my twenties. I would find myself in a world with an Edvard Munch orange-swirled sky…there was an enormous, empty cornfield in front of me, but all of the stalks had been cut, except for a very small patch of cornstalks in the middle…I would spend most of the dream walking through the difficult rocky dirt and then pushing through the stalks until I stepped into a clearing in front of a woman with beautiful eyes and dark red hair. We never spoke, we just stood there, looking into each other’s eyes…Sometimes her eyes were happy, but sometimes, there were tears just seconds away from spilling down her cheeks. Most of the time, I would suddenly wake while standing before her. Other times, I would turn away, pushing through the sharp stalks, and walking through the field, while staring ahead at the fire-colored horizon. I began to refer to her as my guardian angel or spirit guide. Though we never spoke, I felt so much each time I had the dream. Even when I didn’t fully understand what I was feeling, I knew that I was gaining something that either stopped me from making bad choices, or encouraged me to keep going. I felt sad when the dreams eventually stopped. After nearly 10 years, the silent woman with her warm, expressive eyes was gone.
Until last year, when I discovered this photo on a distant relative’s Facebook. This was my Aunt Helen, at least a decade before I was born. The dreams make perfect sense to me now. I’ve promised myself that if I ever have the dream again, I will find the nerve to speak to her.
Pieces…That’s what we are…and if you’ve ever had to pick through garbage or disconnect a sink drain to find something that was lost or accidentally taken from you, you know how wonderful it is to find it again… to clean it off and keep it safe so that you never lose it again. That’s what I am doing now, recollecting the pieces, dusting off the mosaic of jagged pieces that make me who I am. My aunt is one of those bigger pieces-even though she left the world before I had a chance to grow up, and need her even more than the five-year-old me had needed her. According to my mother, when she left our house during her last visit, she had said that she wished she could take me with her. I wish she had…things would have been different for the two of us, and maybe she wouldn’t have been taken away by some cowardly little fool with the name of a friendly ghost…maybe I wouldn’t have grown up to be at odds with the rest of my family…perhaps the fragments that have been strewn all over would be easier to recognize and recollect.
And finally, I want to share this with you because it’s so important to me. I have had this beautiful, damaged “lovely” for the past 15 years or so; She has managed to remain with me when many other things I owned were either accidentally left behind or lost. As you can see, she’s been through some tough times, (or rough patches as I like to call them). She’s the Goddess of my kitchen, where I sometimes go to spend time when I need to collect my thoughts, (baking especially does that for me). She stands right next to the sink, so she has accidentally taken more than a dive or two into the hot, soapy dishwater. She also serves as inspiration, because as broken as she has been, and regardless of the pieces she’s lost, she’s still here, and she’s still beautiful. People have sometimes asked me why I hang onto something so old and broken, with her missing pieces and faded paint, and I’ve always given the same answer- because I love her, and I will never let her go, regardless of how many times she is broken, or how many pieces she has lost (or may one day lose from a sink-diving accident)
Two years ago, I found another photo of my aunt, and I was absolutely overwhelmed with what I discovered in the photo. Sitting on the corner of her coffee table is my beloved Kitchen Goddess! I had no idea that she belonged to my aunt such a long, long time ago… and somehow, she managed to find her way to me.
She is another piece…a piece of my aunt, and just like my aunt, she’s another piece of me.
Pieces…the pieces we keep, give, lose, covet, stumble upon, forget, rediscover, steal, avoid, wish for, bury, the incomplete pieces we give up on and throw away…
…and the pieces we are brave enough to share with others…like stories worth bleeding for.
WE are those pieces
P.S. There’s always a song that plays on repeat the entire time I’m writing something, (I’ll start adding them to the end of each post-unless, of course, I totally forget)The muses grabbed this song when I began writing this, three days ago…and they still haven’t let it go.
‘Bite tongue, Deep breaths…’