A village of aunts

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Janet Sheridan

I played with wooden blocks on the floor underneath a canopy of fabric stretched on a quilting frame. The sturdy hose and practical shoes of my mother’s elderly aunts enclosed me; the murmur of their voices washed over me.

Each held a hand on the underside of the quilt to check the depth of their tiny stitches. Worn-thin wedding bands flashed in the quilt’s shadow.

Whenever I see the word quilting, I visualize aged aunts with swollen ankles chatting to the movement of needles as children play in the shelter of their love.

Throughout my life, my aunts and great-aunts steadied me with their presence.

Aunt Bertha, nearest and dearest of the great-aunts, lived down the lane from us and provided emergency services: she brought in meals when Mom was sick, baked cookies she hoped we wouldn’t mind eating, and provided safe haven during traumatic times.

One summer day, Barbara and I ran screeching to her house after escaping a bloated cow and a murderous porcupine.

“Mom’s not home and there’s a huge swollen cow back at our house making funny noises and foaming and trying to get through the fence to eat us,” I yelled as we barged through her kitchen door.

“Yeah, that’s one fat, crazy cow,” Barbara added, “and on the way here we saw a porcupine crouching in a tree to dive-bomb us and kill us with its quills. We had to run way out into the field to escape.”

Aunt Bertha stopped canning tomatoes, wiped her hands on her flowered apron, and hid her amusement. She sat us at the kitchen table, gave us just enough ice cream to “fill our sweet tooth,” admired our bravery and good sense, and sent Uncle Henry to investigate.

Another great aunt, Beulah, gardened in her husband’s boots, talked too loud, laughed too hard, cussed too often, and one day held me gently against her ample girth until I quit crying.

As a teenager, I was spending the night with her after going to a party with the Lake Shore friends I left behind when we moved to Spanish Fork.

“It’s not the same anymore,” I sobbed. “I feel like I don’t belong either place.”

She said nothing, just held on and listened.

“Beulah’s a bit rough around the edges,” I overheard a hoity-toity second cousin remark at a family reunion.

I knew better. My Aunt Beulah was soft, quiet and kind when it mattered.

Mom’s youngest sister, Aunt Lois, saw me steal a piece of Double Bubble gum from a drugstore’s penny-candy jar when I was old enough to know better.

“Janet, I’m disappointed in you, and your parents would be as well. Put it back.”

She said no more, told no one, and continued to treat me with affection.

In return, I swore off shoplifting and forgave her for giving birth to cousin Jimmy.

Mom’s other sister, Aunt Mary, paid attention to me: laughing at my sick jokes, asking about my life, and complimenting my combed hair.

When Carolyn was asked to be Miss Utah in the Lake Shore homecoming parade, I pulled her royal float. Mom used dotted-Swiss fabric to make us beautiful dresses, which we modeled for our relatives before the parade.

I stood beside the glory of Carolyn whose dress had a peplum — an odd ruffle around her middle — that made the ladies swoon. Unnoticed, I skulked away, an insect overshadowed by a peacock. Aunt Mary’s voice stopped me: “Janet, twirl so we can see the beautiful bow on your sash.”

Though I felt like a spinning cockroach, I twirled and smiled at Aunt Mary.

I remember, love, and honor my aunts. They were the village that raised me.

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