When I was a child, my family would make a trek to Modesto, California, to visit my great-Aunt Elsie. Elsie was my grandfather’s sister. She belonged to the Old Mennonite faith, and her home was very different than ours. We were a big, noisy family who’d gather around the TV on Sunday evenings to watch Bonanza. Aunt Elsie’s house wasn’t even wired for electricity. Eight of us lived under one roof, and life with several teenagers and only two bathrooms could get quite interesting. Aunt Elsie’s house had a small bathroom with plain wooden floors and a big claw-foot tub that needed priming from a water pump outside. A bath was never a spontaneous event there.
Every other summer, my family would pack up the station wagon (prehistoric form of mini-van) and head halfway across the U.S. to visit Daddy’s family down South. Stuffed in the car like sweaty sardines, we’d chew Juicy Fruit gum, and play guessing games led by a mom who believed if we were busy watching for signposts and clues along Route 66, we wouldn’t have time to argue. Aunt Elsie didn’t own a car, but would carefully write out her grocery list and make her monthly trek into town via a vintage horse-drawn wagon. She had her own solution for squabbling kids. This no-nonsense aunt would direct us to a cabinet to choose from a dozen or so well-worn board games.
My favorite part of every visit came on summer evenings when long shadows stretched across her grassy yard and she’d head for the matchbox. Within minutes, her long pictureless living room flickered with soft light. I remember the mood around her table as lighthearted and cozy, sort of how I recall those occasional nights at home when a thunderstorm would knock out our electricity, and my parents would drag out the candles and fix snacks to eat together in the dark. There’s just something about the flicker of candles and sparkly glass lamps that suspend life as we know it for a few sweet minutes.
I’ve often thought of Aunt Elsie’s house and the big hug and kiss I’d receive immediately after I set foot on her property. She’d always say the same thing: “My, how you’ve grown!” As a teen, I remember a strange love-hate relationship with the road leading to her house, but the older I get, the more I cherish those memories.
Although I never personally followed the no-frills lifestyle of my Aunt Elsie, I do embrace her deep faith in Christ and know that life without him at the center would feel very dim. And I guess it goes without saying that I find it impossible to pass a kerosene lamp in a secondhand store without feeling my heart smile at the memory of that tiny, bespectacled lady with the bonnet and wide, welcoming grin.
*(Image of Aunt Elsie was taken by my sister back in the '70s.)