In the past ten years, Women’s Voices has posted scores of stories about romantic love—adolescent love, fraught love, long-lasting love, love betrayed. For our Valentine’s Day coverage this year, we cast a wider net: We looked for stories about love in the broadest sense of the word—romantic love, sibling love, love for one’s community, love for a friend, the love between parent and child . . . Here’s the fifth story in the Valentine’s Day series we’re calling LOVE IN ALL CONTEXTS. —Ed.
At this heartfelt time of year I’m thinking a lot about my Aunt Mim. She was my father’s sister, a Katharine Hepburn kind of girl with chestnut hair, lovely cheekbones, and long, coltish legs. But unlike Katharine Hepburn, Aunt Mim was far from the manner born.
Her father, a Polish-born miner, died young doing his hard and risky job deep underground in the coal region of Pennsylvania. After that there was even less money in the family. But fortunately, my aunt grew up with a lot of mother love, and a zest for life that she was great at sharing with me. Every day I spent with her was Valentine’s Day. I wish every girl could have an Aunt Mim in her life. I was lucky enough to have two Aunt Mims in mine.
My first Aunt Mim was my fairy godmother. When I visited her at my grandmother’s house as a child, she would always make my dreams come true. Her brain was like a popcorn popper, exploding with ideas about how we could have fun and more fun.
On pretty days we would set out with her speckled bird dog, Skipper, on walks to the nearby woods. Skipper would soon take off after a squirrel or maybe a rabbit. That would leave Aunt Mim and me to kneel down in the pine needles and examine the tiniest of growing things. The gray-green lichens with little red caps poking out of them were British soldiers, she told me. The lacy little white plant growing out of soil over rocks was reindeer moss. When I touched this wiry ancient plant, my fingertip bounced back. It was stronger than it looked.
I did more than touch the wonders that Aunt Mim introduced me to on our woodsy walks. I tasted them as well. I loved the mellow sweetness of teaberries, those pink little beauties that grow in leafy clusters close to trees. But I needed Aunt Mim’s encouragement to take my first bite out of a birch tree. “See?” she said, after I’d tentatively nibbled the bark. “It tastes like root beer!”
Aunt Mim introduced me to her favorite treats from the farmer’s market, too—things I never saw in the supermarket, where everything was wrapped in plastic. It was Aunt Mim who showed me how to peel back the pointy leaves of an artichoke and feast on its heart with lemon butter. It was she who revealed that there were edible pink jewels tucked inside the glowing globe of a pomegranate.
At naptime, Aunt Mim would read me a child’s version of Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. That was how I learned about snowshoes, and how to make homemade ice cream by dribbling maple syrup into fresh drifts of snow. When I met a summer neighbor in Maine whose people were Wabanaki, my first thought was, “She looks like Old Nokomis!” Thanks to Aunt Mim and those naptime readings of ours, I’ve wanted to learn more about Native American culture ever since.
Aunt Mim’s enthusiasm for life was all the more inspiring to me as I began to understand the heartbreaks she’d suffered from an early age. After her father was killed in the mines, she would defend her little brother, my father, from schoolyard bullies by crying out, “Don’t you dare hit him! He doesn’t have a daddy!”
Later, a generous childless aunt funded Aunt Mim’s generation of young ones to be the first in our family to go to college. Aunt Mim’s brother got his bachelor’s degree in teaching. One of their cousins sailed all the way through medical school. Other cousins earned degrees in nursing, commercial art, and child development. But after heading off to study home economics at a state college in the cornfields, Aunt Mim found her heart just wasn’t in it. Paralyzed by homesickness, she returned to her mother and the coal slags of their tragic little town. She could have been jealous of her brother’s and cousins’ successes. But instead she celebrated their achievements by reaching for her box camera and taking their pictures: my father in his mortarboard, one of the cousins in a surgical mask and scrubs. When I look at those faded family snapshots now, I think not only of the new graduates’ breakthrough triumphs, but of Aunt Mim’s big-heartedness behind the lens of her camera.