My Aunt Mary wasn’t pretty. Her nose was bent a little to the side of her flat face. Her hair hung limp and straight. She was a few pounds overweight. Her dowdy brown dress covered her shapeless body. My 12-year-old city-girl eyes judged her to be strangely lacking in the attributes I had learned were of great value in the world I knew. She greeted me as I stepped off the bus, took my hand in hers and lead me to the old farm Ford where my 16-year-old cousin George sat in the driver’s seat.
My mother had placed me on the bus, despite my trepidations, assuring me that I would have a wonderful new adventure over the summer, getting to know my cousins and becoming educated in the ways of rural living. Two months away from the hot city with her brother and his family on his farm in Connecticut was her idea of a perfect gift. I wasn’t at all sure. Would I have to do farm chores? Would I like my bumpkin cousins? Would they accept me into their lives? Those were my thoughts as I sat in the back seat of the car looking at the back of George’s head as he drove me to what was to be my new summer home.
There were four cousins, three boys and one girl. Helen was my age. She ran to me immediately with a big hug. Suddenly I felt at home. Aunt Mary smiled and her eyes twinkled. “Here is the sister you always wanted, Helen,” she said. And from then on we were the warmest of friends and, yes, like true sisters. There were farm chores that were Helen’s but I happily shared them with her. We washed the clothes together outside of the farmhouse, scrubbing them in a wooden washtub as Aunt Mary carried tubs of hot water which she had heated on the old wood burning stove in the kitchen. Helen and I sang all the songs we knew as we scrubbed, rinsed and wrung the clothes and then hung them on the line. It was fun because we were doing it together. We sang all the songs we could think of with the names of girls: "Sweet Rosie O’Grady," "Daisy Give Me Your Answer Do," "My Gal Sal." We laughed and told each other stories of movies we had seen, books we read.
And there was the farm food! Aunt Mary was a perfect cook. The aromas from her kitchen from her roasting and baking were like nothing I had ever experienced — heavenly. Helen and I went to the garden and picked the fresh vegetables from the rows of corn, squash, string beans and peas. We pulled carrots, potatoes and beets from the ground, washed them and brought them to Aunt Mary to cook. We picked blueberries and raspberries for her cake baking. Chickens were caught, beheaded and plucked by Aunt Mary herself and were baked in the wood burning stove to perfection. Uncle Charlie and the boys, George, Billy and Sam did the plowing, haying, milking of the cows, building and repairing.
When our chores were done, we were completely free to explore the woods and the roads in the area. No warnings from the grown-ups to be careful crossing the streets. No one questioned where we went or what we did. They were too busy with their own farm tasks and they completely trusted us and our judgment while we were on our own. The five of us hiked through the woods. We didn’t need a map or a compass. They knew every tree and every path along the way to the lake at an abandoned Boy Scout Camp, formerly called Camp Keaton. There we swam at the twenty-foot deep end of the lake. Not a soul around. No lifeguard. The boys decided that it was time I learned to swim. Don’t worry. We’ll save you. And they threw me in. I learned to dog paddle quickly. I had complete faith that my strong, older cousins would keep me safe. And they did. Hiking home, they decided that I was a good sport and no longer a city “tenderfoot.”
Aunt Mary was the heart and soul of the farm. There was nothing she didn’t know how to do. Like a pioneer woman, she organized everything, assigned chores and raised her children with compassion and loving instinct without outward displays of affection or sentimentality. Everyone knew their place in the order of things and knew that their contribution was vital to the survival of the farm and the family. Uncle Charlie said little, but it was understood that his authority was not to be questioned. He was respected and loved without much being said.
Helen and I sat on the porch with Aunt Mary. Aunt Mary seemed beautiful to me. As we shelled peas together, all was quiet; all was still as the peas dropped into the tin pail: plunk, plunk, plunk. Bees buzzed in the lilac bush. The sun was warm. I had an overwhelming feeling of belonging. The heavens smiled, and all was right with the world.
This article originally appeared in Roadrunner Extra!, the resident newsletter of Beatitudes Campus.