I am lucky.
I had an aunt that did the cool stuff — saving stale bread to feed to the ducks at the park, making homemade ice pops in Tupperware molds, backing the cars out of the garage in the middle of winter so my cousin and I could roller skate, teaching me the fine art of Lee Press-On Nails, bandaging my boo-boos, sewing clothes just for me, trusting me to keep her own daughter safe during long walks, picnic lunches and bike rides (she was a trailblazer in the work-from-home department and sometimes needed us out of her hair).
Seriously, guys — she had a swing in her basement. (I’m guessing Uncle Bob was the engineer of said swing, so he deserves the lion’s share of the credit, but he was usually at work when I did most of my swinging, so I associate it with Aunt Carol.) Yes, this was heaven for a little kid. Add to that the old dance costumes and gaudy costume jewelry we dressed up in and the old-fashioned desks we played school in. For real, going to her house was pretty terrific. And I was lucky enough to go there a lot.
She packed us up for adventure — camping, water skiing, the local pool, the beach. And she filled us with good food. (Seriously, she always had Tang and often had Peanut Butter Cap ‘N Crunch — OK, not actually “good” food, but as a kid, I thought it was all unsurpassed in awesomeness. There’s also a story of my brother consuming some gigantic number of grilled cheese sandwiches at her house — 15 or 20. He just kept eating them, so she just kept making them, intrigued to see when his 10-year-old body would declare itself to be full. (And no, he didn’t throw up.))
She sat us in corners when we didn’t cooperate and gave us what for when we misbehaved, but this was rare (we were angels, I’m sure). She tolerated neighborhood kids who hung upside down on her backyard monkey bars while eating potato chips. And she made sure my brother and my cousin sat in the correct order at the dinner table, so the right-hander and the left-hander didn’t knock elbows. She stuffed Pixie Stix, Tootsie Rolls, lollipops, bubble gum and other assorted sugary goodness into bushes, trees and other inconspicuous backyard hiding spots during a spring candy hunt one year.
She sweated the small stuff, and I am thankful she did.
From her generosity of spirit, her creativity and her laughter came a group of kids — her own, my brother and me, neighbor kids, her grandchildren and others — who knew we had a cheerleader, who knew how to have fun while also being respectful and who most importantly felt love.
Aunt Carol was a gift.
She was like a book character, well … actually more like a hodgepodge of the best book characters, like:
– Mary Poppins: No, I wasn’t lucky enough for her to give me sugar with my medicine, but she did teach me how to crochet when a bout with strep throat landed me indoors while the rest of the cousins played in the snow (unfortunately my crocheting skills never advanced beyond that initial lesson).
– American Girl Kit Kittredge: While it was the Depression that forced Kit to turn a wooden crate and a set of wheels into a door-to-door egg delivery business, it was ingenuity that sparked Aunt Carol to turn an old cigar box and plastic pill-counting inserts into a jewelry box that I kept and used from when I was 9 (when I got my ears pierced) until I was 29 and a mother myself.
– Miss Frizzle from the “Magic School Bus” series: No, she didn’t drive a bus or wear clothes with constellations, magnets or lizards on them, but she did drive a station wagon. Almost always she had a station wagon, and often it was headed for adventure. These were the days when we could lie flat in the back of the station wagon and color or draw or sleep. These were the long-as-a-city-block vehicles that could be loaded up with a week’s worth of food and the other necessities to spend a week on a houseboat in Kentucky/Tennessee. This was the station wagon that transitioned from shuttling little kids to lugging her own kids, plus a stray nephew or niece to and from college.
– Aibileen from “The Help” (with a whole lot of Minnie’s pie-making ability (without the secret ingredient, or course!)): Nope, she wasn’t a maid or a nanny, nor was she discriminated against because of her skin color or social position, but she had the inimitable gift of bestowing upon us kids the ability to believe in ourselves. That’s priceless.
– Wanda from “The Hundred Dresses:” Wanda was the girl who was bullied about always wearing the same dress to school and having a weird last name — Petronski. So, she started telling the mean girls that she had 100 dresses at home, all lined up in her closet. My hope is that Aunt Carol was not bullied as a child, but I know for a fact there were more than 100 dresses in her life — all that she made for herself, her daughter, her daughter’s doll, me — I needn’t go on, right? OK, but I will, because I’m not kidding when I tell you that my cousin Karen’s Kewpie doll Lucy had an amazing wardrobe of tiny dresses and outfits that all matched Karen’s. I was green with envy. (For real, she made a wedding dress for Lucy the doll to match Karen on her wedding day.)
– Caroline Ingalls from the “Little House” series: She saved, she reused, she re-purposed, she re-made. Aunt Carol didn’t live on a prairie, but she knew how to turn trash into treasure and to stretch a dollar like nobody’s business. (When she sent you home with leftovers, they were in actual leftover containers from actual restaurants that she had cleaned and saved for just that moment. And I remember receiving birthday gifts wrapped in the funny papers from her when I was a kid.)
I could go on and on, but I won’t. I need to keep a whole lot of Aunt Carol in my heart and in my memory so I can continue to share her with my children as they grow. Maybe I’ll hide some candy in the back yard one of these weekends or take them to the park she used to take us to and feed the ducks. Maybe I’ll get the face paint out and turn my kids into clowns or Indians like she did. Or maybe I’ll work a little bit harder at letting them know I’m their cheerleader.
RIP Carol Lesh, 1945-2012
P.S. Aunt Carol, if you can see this, Elizabeth wants you to know your swimming pool was one of her favorite places of all time, and John knows my cucumber salad pales in comparison to yours. We miss you already but are thankful you feel no pain.