My aunt Val was one of those people with a laugh you couldn’t forget, a personality that livened any party, and a playful streak that involved night time swimming and decorating the kid’s faces in colored icing that stained our skin for days. I will never forget her beautiful home in Queens, NY.
The drive was part of the fun. I’d lie in the backseat with my head resting on my mother’s lap (these were the days before car seats were required). I remember going through the tunnels and watching the lights flash by through the car window. A strange echoing sound filled my ears as we traveled through the tunnels to get from Jersey into the city. Graffiti decorated every building - every surface. There was a Mcdonald’s on the corner and a three-story Footlocker. When I saw these landmarks I knew we were getting close. Her house was white and tall - Victorian style, with tiers of bushes lining the stairs. You entered the foyer which was cold, yet inviting. The outdoor carpet was bright blue, like a swimming pool. It led directly into the living room. The entire house had dark wood flooring and charm. A white, overstuffed sectional filled most of the living room space. There was also a white piano, fireplace, and television stand.
One of my aunt’s favorite past times was playing Scrabble with my mom and their other friend, Annette. They’d blow through numerous bottles of champagne during their games that lasted hours. The Scrabble board was housed on the dining room table. Once in a while, they’d let allow me to play and drink apple juice from a plastic fluted glass. Every visit was an adventure.
Upstairs, my cousin's room was pretty large and decorated in typical boy fashion. Painted red, black, and dark blue, he had a keyboard, king size bed, and a snake for a pet. One of my favorite spaces was my aunt’s office. It was a small room with a pull out couch and tiny TV atop a wicker end table. I used to hang out in there when my brother and cousin were too cool to spend time with me. And then there was the attic, which wasn’t much of an attic at all but instead a loft and hang out. The sloped ceilings made it hard to walk around, but there was a small bed, dresser, and television, perfect for a sleepover.
Outside my aunt had an above ground pool and a tire swing, tied to an oak tree that towered over the entire property. I think there was even a treehouse in it. On hot summer nights, we would swim underneath the deck spotlight. There’s something magical about swimming at night. My aunt always let us do things my parents never would. If we asked something, aunt Val would swoop in and answer before my parents could ever say no.
My brother, cousin, and I used to spend a lot of time in the basement. Though the floors were concrete, there was a pool table, dart board, couch, and television. Plus, privacy. The boys were older than me and always getting into mischief. Because I wanted to be included, I didn’t participate in their bad behavior but I knew better than to tattle-tail. They often threatened some type of bodily harm if I had.
There was a table in the basement that was made from an old cable spool. It was huge. My uncle brought him home from the telephone company where he worked for his entire life. He and a buddy had sanded, stained, and polished the spool into a beautiful, wooden table and quite the centerpiece. The day my brother and cousin decided to carve their names and other obscenities into the table with their pocket knives was one of those times I sat in horror, just watching - knowing the outcome would not be good. After they realized their mistake, they elicited my help to flip the entire table over. They were convinced they had the perfect solution until they discovered the felt pieces my uncle had glued to the bottom of the spool, to keep it from scratching the floor. I don’t remember exactly what happened that day, but I’d guess it wasn’t good.
Block parties at my aunt’s house were an annual event that you’d have to experience to truly understand. The entire block was shut down for the day. Neighbors set-up tables outside with foods from cultures around the world. A fire truck parked at the end of the street, where kids were able to climb, sit in the driver seat, and get sprayed with the hose. Relay races were one of my favorite parts of the day. Everyone participated, from the smallest kids to the oldest adults. Three-legged and potato sack races were always a fan favorite. I remember the water balloon tosses and walking with an egg on a spoon. Music filled the streets, along with laughter. The adults had as much fun, if not more fun, than the kids. Prizes were handed out to the winners of each relay and the night ended with sparklers and a giant pinata.
My aunt was everything my parents weren’t. She was fun, carefree, spontaneous and full of life. My mom was more reserved, uptight, and cautious. But when she was with my aunt, she became a different woman. She let go of her inhibitions, allowed herself to relax, and experience life. But my aunt always respected who my mother was, which included reciting a few bible verses about strength before dinner and a special goodnight prayer before tucking us kids into bed during sleepovers. But she also helped my mother to see who she could be when she allowed herself to live a little.
My aunt was taken from this world way too young. But, her memory lives on in photographs and stories. There are certain things that will forever be synonymous with my aunt Val, including Scrabble and champagne, night time swimming, and the movie Gremlins (she let me watch it and then told my parents about it later). I recently expressed to my mother how shocked I was at the variety of vivid memories I have from my aunt Val. I don’t always remember much about my childhood, but her, I remember. Her house, her laugh, her crossing her legs every time she laughed or sneezed out of fear she might pee “just a little”. She taught me how to floss (she was a dental hygienist). She taught me how to ride a bike. And she taught me so much about living life to the fullest. I may not have realized it then, but I do now. So thank you, aunt Val, for the memories, the life lessons, and all the love.