———————- // ———————-
If you want to have someone to look up to, you should have an aunt who is only 8 years older than you. My mother’s youngest sister Jill filled that role since I was a tyke. She was always the big kid who was older and wiser, yet still close enough to my age that she was more fun than all the adults in our family. She came to our New Jersey home to stay one summer. She was both built-in baby sitter and playmate. Usually, my brothers and I got to enjoy her company when we visited our grandparents in Maine. One summer, when Jill was an older teenager, she had a summer job. I felt robbed of her company. I remember crying because my grandfather was taking her away every day to her place of employment, which was too far away for us kids to walk. That was probably for the best, as we would have been such a nuisance showing up at her job while she was trying to work.
As Jill matured into adulthood, we saw less of her. She moved in with my aunt and uncle in Maryland and started a modeling career. She was, in addition to my own assessment of her entertainment value, a beautiful young woman The modeling world was, it seemed, not for her. She ended up working for the FBI, which added another layer to her already established allure. The FBI!! I pictured her investigating alongside some Efrem Zimbalist Jr. type to get all the facts and nail the bad guys until a newspaper article informed me she was doing some kind of clerical work. I could have been disappointed by that fact, but she looked like a movie star in the picture accompanying the article, so I allowed my personal image of her heroism to live on.
I moved to Texas with my parents during my own young adulthood and was too busy going to school and earning a living to visit with relatives. By then Jill had gotten married and started her own family, providing me with young cousins I rarely got to see. She would often spend time in Maine and I got to see her from time to time when I visited. She was still the fun aunt she had always been. When my grandparents passed away, Jill and her husband bought their property and built a new house on it. Then Jill seemed to be there every summer. When my parents divorced, my mom moved back to her hometown in Maine and she and her sisters were reunited.
Once my own son was born, nothing could keep me from spending a month in Maine every summer. I wanted the kid to have the same (or similar) experience I had as a child. Visiting family, conducting the town band on a Thursday evening, riding the restored steam engine train, ambling around downtown, watching the windjammer celebrations with its flotilla of sailing ships and the 4th of July fireworks over the harbor. Aunt Jill was there every summer to welcome us to town. I have great memories from those times.
My mother and her sisters loved to sing. When young, they would gather around the piano while their mother would play old hymns and American standards. These ladies have always been ready to sing. I learned many of the songs I know from my mom, who played the autoharp when I was a youngster. I think I inherited my love of singing from these amazing women. When my son was young, some members of my mother’s family attended a family dinner at the hotel where my mom worked. We can be something of a rowdy bunch when we are all together. As we were starting to leave, we ran into Jimmy Dean. Yes, that Jimmy Dean. He often visited our little town as he summered on his boat along the coast of Maine.
And…he’d had a few, as they say, before he had even entered the hotel. Ol’ Jimmy, along with my mother and aunts, went straight for the lounge, where there was a handy piano. They belted out a few tunes together. I think I did a little eye rolling while the rest of us waited for the revelers to finish their impromptu concert. As they exited the lounge, Jimmy asked Aunt Jill, “When is the blessed event?” We all looked around in confusion. Except for Jill’s husband. He laughed. When I queried my uncle, he related that he had told Jill the dress she had chosen to wear to dinner made her look pregnant! She had chosen to ignore him. We roared at Jimmy Dean’s faux pas, as Jill was in her fifties at this particular time. As I said, she was a beautiful woman and looked younger than she was…and the man was three sheets to the wind. Jill took it in stride with her usual good humor, but I often wondered if she went home and burned that dress.
A road trip with my mom and her sisters is one of my most cherished memories. Truthfully, I can’t remember where we went, but we drove up the coast somewhere with my young son in tow. On the way home, I sat in the back seat with Jill and my boy, who was a bit sleepy after a day of fun. The trio of sisters decided to sing. I sang along with any tune I was familiar with. I’m certain, if we have an official family song, it is You Are My Sunshine. Singing for an hour or so, in our traveling cocoon while the trees of Maine slipped past our windows, left me feeling all was right with the world. I belonged here with these singing ladies and knew I would always enjoy recalling that afternoon of familial comradery through song.
Aunt Jill passed away earlier this month and we all lost a bright spark who illuminated our lives. I saw her last summer and as I hugged her, I told her she was always my favorite aunt–even though I loved them all equally. I didn’t know if she’d gotten the joke. I wasn’t sure if she knew who I was, but she smiled and hugged me just the same. Her memory was fading by then. Her capabilities declining. I wanted to thank her for all the fun times we had as kids. I wanted to thank her for helping me with my mom when she was faltering and I lived so far away. I wanted to laugh about the Jimmy Dean story and sing a few songs and coax her into singing her favorite, Bésame Mucho. But mostly, I wanted to just sit and visit in the present moment, since a past she could not remember seemed inconsequential. It’s not trivial, of course. My own memories of our shared experiences bring me joy. I promise to hang onto them for as long as I am able and allow the spirit of her voice to sing through me.
Rest in Song my fun and lovely aunt,