Updated: Jul 25, 2022
An entry to Writer's Digest (edited). Who was that gateway drug to adulthood for you?
I had assumed that the subject of the painting existed only inside her imagination and talent. The rest of her home was certainly a tribute to the imaginations of Aunt Emily. I don’t think it ever struck me as strange that everyone, including my parents and friends, referred to her by this name.
My upbringing wasn’t especially strict, but the absence of the Internet meant that the amount of boyhood trouble I could access was limited. I spent enough quality time in our upstairs bathroom with a Sears catalog that I still get excited when a toilet flushes. Several years before that, Aunt Emily’s home, butting against an overgrown hillside that was the only sled-able hill in Huron, was as close to taboo as I knew existed.
She came to Huron, South Dakota because of its “progressive culture.” She thought this term referred to the early stance that the City (never more than 15,000 residents, mind you) had taken to embrace unions and women’s right to vote. Based on what I could see of the contents of her squat house, built for winter survivability more than architectural grace, I thought the term had something to do with exotic tastes in art, books, and food. Also exotic was the iguana Aunt Emily once purchased, a rare experiment that didn’t end well.
Me, my friends, and my little sister - a companion forced on me by vague parental notions of fairness - would drop by at least two or three times a week when the weather permitted. Aunt Emily never formally greeted us and never asked us to leave. We just opened the front door and went inside.
She would pause her painting, sketching, stitching, or (the preferred option) cooking to let us know what she was doing and, if we exhibited curiosity, how she did it. Her hair was streaked brown and gray, wanting to curl in damper weather but generally what my mother referred to as “unkempt.” If I had known what that meant I would have heartily disagreed: Aunt Emily’s hair was fantastic. It was simply pinned up, but with two sticks that always changed. Hair sticks shaped like daggers or twigs; some with fanciful, curlicued ends. One set sprouted dragon heads.
She gave us treats that we never saw at home. Cookies with herbal or salty notes, and limeade. Aunt Emily had lived alone as far back as I could remember in this house that smelled like unfamiliar spices and oil paints. She was tall, and graceful in a manner that I was too young to appreciate.
Her collections of books and music fascinated me. The obvious no-nos like Lolita were initial draws. But my first exposure to Catcher in the Rye and Rimbaud was sprawled on a fading paisley area rug, Miles and Aretha competing for air time with Eurythmics and The Clash. She knew our favorites but always introduced a new album into the rotation.
When I heard that Aunt Emily had died during one especially warm summer, I traveled home for her service. Nearly two hundred people, most of whom I had never seen before, stood with my father, sister, and me on the hill behind her house. Afterward, the pastor said that Emily wished the children that had kept her company be allowed to adopt their favorite mementos.
Her final gifts continue to enlighten. My wife surprised herself by quickly learning the mysteries of the dragon-head hair sticks. Birth of the Cool just sounds better on vinyl. And I was wrong about my favorite of her paintings. At some point she must have lived in Lisbon to paint Sunlit City. Whether that's true or not, it adorns my office, as real as any memory.