I glanced up on the top of my dresser recently and caught the eyes of my dear Aunt Dolly, gone now so many years. I keep her there in close view for a number of reasons, but most importantly for the lesson she taught me about the notion of unconditional love.
One picture of her, slightly blurred, presents a young child, perhaps only three or four, seated in a small chair and wearing a large round watch around her neck. Her left foot is up and extended and you can see she’s wearing a fluffy undergarment beneath what appears to be a fashionable dress and what seems to be a long- sleeved sweater. Her hair is brushed and her little round face has an attentive, winsome look. The year is probably 1908.
The other picture captures a young lady, probably in the 1920s, pretty fashionable, with long streaming hair and wearing some kind of fur around her neck. Again, she has the appearance of someone staring off, a bit spellbound by what she’s looking at.
She and my other paternal aunt along with my father and all their brothers grew up in the Appalachian part of southern Ohio, pretty poor and with little prospect of ever escaping the limits of Churn and Upper Twin Creeks. They were born to parents they never spoke much about, other than that their father had married “that woman” after their mother died. By that time, though, the sisters were of age and intent on leaving the hill country and seeing where the world would take them.
My grandfather Walter had reportedly told Dolly that he wouldn’t allow her to marry a certain young man over the next ridge. I never knew his reasoning, but from what I’ve heard of the old man, there probably wasn’t much. Besides, he selfishly didn’t want to lose a seasoned cook and clothes washer.
She had little chance to disobey him, but proudly said if she couldn’t marry her sweetheart, then she’d never marry anyone. She and my aunt soon slipped out of the grips of their father and the land that had failed them. They fled north to a small town where they found jobs in a shoe factory. They were soon making money of their own and beholden to no one. More importantly, they were busy defining a new way of life for themselves.
Years later when we would visit the “home place,” she would take on that same faraway look as I think I see in the photograph, but would never comment much, except to say what a wretched life she had had there as a young girl. When I played on the rocks where the creek bed formed deep pockets, she told me all she could see were the piles of laundry she and her sister would have to drag down there to wash almost every day. And there were bad snakes in that grass, too.
When she died in her sleep years later, I was living abroad and got the call. As I passed through customs, the officer welcomed me home and asked what had brought me back. Without a blink, I told him my mother had died. He said nothing more and I never regretted the exaggeration, since in so many ways she was my mother.
In thinking of Dolly and how she influenced me as a young man, I recall other parents and aunts and uncles and remember how they either helped or hindered so many young people who had come of age and were anxious to leave home. These were kids I had grown up with and what we all had in common was a desire to get out on our own. Although we had all kinds of reasons for wanting to leave, it was the wise Dollies of the world who recognized which reasons were good and inevitable and which were worrisome. She also knew the importance of coming full circle round and leaving the welcome mat out when the time came to come home again. The light was always on.
Like my aunt who was ready to test her wings, we all need to see what’s over the next ridge and who’s in the distant tribe that calls. In going, some are driven by ambitions and dreams. They are the fortunate ones who have all the advantages without often thinking twice of how lucky they are for their peaceful rites of passage. Others embrace the flag and don uniforms, only to die in distant lands for reasons the future will conveniently forget. Still others are troubled beyond understanding and even help, who harbor anger and resentment, sleep with their irreconcilable differences, and who are haunted by many forms of madness. These are life’s throwaways, the unfortunates who so often are quickly lost and gone forever. They are the sick and homeless, the mentally crippled, often drug addled and given to lives of crime. Their anchors have pulled loose and they are swept away, pointlessly adrift in directions to be feared. There is no return welcome mat. As Neil Young’s lyrics go, “I saw the needle take another man.”
There comes a time when none of us can reach out far enough to protect those we brought into this life. When we once played guardian angels and watched over them and tried to keep them out of harm’s way as best we could without any thought of thanks or gratitude, we had no real idea about what the time might be like when they would be far from us, both in distance and in love, outside and perhaps not wanting or even shunning our protecting arms.
When I first left home, it could have been so much easier. But sometimes problems just get in the way without any real reason. There are moments when we simply can’t see what causes the itch that demands to be scratched. So when I eventually found myself someone else and somewhere elsewhere, I felt both exhilarated and more than a bit hesitant, if not frightened, of all that could happen. I wasn’t afraid of the mistakes that were inevitable. What caused me pause was the hesitation that my journey might well lead me so far that I could not retrace my steps. There were some landmarks and porches with welcome mats I didn’t want to forget.
Looking at the pictures of my aunt now takes me back to that earlier time when she told me I could always come home, at least to her home, wherever she might be. She confided that it had taken her years to get to where she wanted to be and to rid herself of the ghosts that clung to her. She reminded me of the favorite treats I enjoyed as a child that she would prepare when I visited. They were all still there in her head and in the magic she could work with her hands.
She was pretty independent up to the end and didn’t like being told what to do. I remember well when she had a big to do about defying Jimmy Carter when he urged us all to wear sweaters and turn our thermostats down to conserve energy. She didn’t like thunder and she didn’t like being cold. She also enjoyed her evening cigarette and once asked me when visiting my house if I would get her a “sip of whiskey.” She knew what she liked and laughed when we talked about the time she had once sent me over to the backyard of a neighbor to pick some berries that were growing in his well attended patch. When I got caught and brought before the Inquisition, I never gave her up. And she never forgot my act of fidelity.
And then one evening when I was elsewhere, she up and went to bed one night and never woke up. Just slipped away, hopefully with contentment and no pains or regrets.
Today I look at the face of that little girl and that flapper in those pictures and know that perhaps I’ve been one of the fortunate ones who had my own version of a guardian angel to cover my back during some of the questionable journeys in my life. And I always knew that the welcome mat was out.