We, small person and I, spent the weekend with one of my favorite branches of my family tree. My father’s sister, and on the second day, my father’s brother’s wife, my daughter and I converged at a spot in Kentucky where a handful of other Illinois transplants spend part of their time. My father’s sister and her husband live there full time, and a couple of other parts of that branch own spots on the circle drive they call FBI: farm boys from Illinois.
The aunt with whom we stayed used to put me up for a week at a time when I was a teenager without a bedroom door. For this, I was grateful. I am still so very grateful.
Back then, still in Illinois, her beautiful home on the lake had a deck that wrapped around two sides of the one-story house. The one story went high, high, with windows to the top of a vaulted ceiling. I’d never seen such a room in real life: wide hearth, deep fireplace, chimney to the top of the room, triangular windows to show off the far view of the lake. An elk with a name hung above the mantel. Other creatures’ heads hung everywhere in the house, even in the cozy, fireplace-worthy basement where I slept and where I watched coyotes sniff at the ground-level windows at dusk.
My cousins and I threw rings made of wrapping paper over the elk’s horns at Christmastime. The days and weeks I’d spent in the house gave me a sense of kinship with the trophy. I loved him. No one else I knew had an elk over the mantel, and I certainly didn’t even have a mantel, but my adored aunt and her husband had both. Her husband spent a lot of time away, at oil wells and construction sites and of course on hunting trips, but I knew him to be kind to her and liked him for it even if I didn’t care to fire a rifle myself when he offered and scoffed at my refusal.
The elk moved with them to a smaller apartment in town away from the lake. Their couch sat under Elmer, maybe not quite Elmer but a name that sounded close to Elmer, and one had to duck to sit down under his wide antlers and low-hanging chin. He went up for sale in the local shopper, with a huge price tag. If I had called and asked, he might have been brought over to my tiny house for a smaller price, but I was too shy and too proud at that time. I was twenty-three and married and ashamed of where I was. Their smaller apartment had less space but even more attitude than the house by the lake. The physical constriction just concentrated my aunt’s style. I felt diluted next to her as an adult. That sturdy branch on the family tree is populated by so many interesting, capable, accomplished and downright intense personalities.
The person I thought I’d be by then, the person I had hoped to show to my slightly distant family who loved me despite or because of my parentage, wasn’t the person I’d become. I hadn’t become anything at all. My first husband was all mistake, and we all knew it but no one had the heart to say it to my face. My little house, beloved but sinking quickly into its own basement, smelled like mildew and dog. My transportation consisted of a Honda motorcycle that ran reliably but sported a long-expired tag and a Blazer that ran unreliably and stayed legal. The bike was the husband’s, probably purchased in another city and not paid off. The husband was a cheating son of a bitch who wore an inappropriately green suit to my father’s funeral.
Now, I am done with that man, joyfully. Done with that house, heartbrokenly but necessarily. Done with that Blazer after passing it along to a mechanically gifted friend. Done with feeling less-than because of my choices. I’ve chosen to marry and leave another man, but now I have a daughter because of that choice. I also have a decent sense of who I am, and I am no longer too careful about my words.
True to her Hartlieb roots, that small person speaks her mind, but not unkindly. She loves life and fears little. I worked hard to give her less to fear, and failed, but she has chosen joy. I’ve chosen to admit my stupidity and find humor in the ridiculous things I’ve done. This weekend, I told my stupid stories to my beloved aunts for the first time.
They laughed with me. My aunt’s house was again my home. My small person stirred pancake batter with her and pounded round steak. We slept like babies on Benadryl. We stalked a fox in the back yard and saw deer and turkey buzzards from Old Blue the pickup truck. She captained a very fast pontoon boat with great confidence and surprising deftness.
The boat stretched my faith in the small person’s skills, but my aunt offered the helm without pause. I forgot caution, and we sailed along just beautifully. My aunts held on tight and smiled in her direction.
When I was fifteen and newly awarded a legal driving permit, it was the same boat-owning aunt and her mother who put me behind the wheel for a long drive to pick up my brother. I’d driven all over our small town, chauffeuring my dad from tavern to bowling alley to tavern, but never with a minimum speed limit. My grandma and aunt commanded me to get behind the wheel and go. Fast. So, I did. After that, I was never afraid to go anywhere. Cautious, but not afraid.
My small person wasn’t afraid to take the wheel of that boat, and she wasn’t afraid to push the throttle all the way to hold-on-to-your-hat and pull it back to putt-putt neutral to show her passengers, aunts times two, some particularly lovely houses on the lake.
Most of all, she enjoyed herself.
Now that I say what I think, now that I’m not an awkward seventeen or twenty-three, I tell my beloved aunt how much I appreciate her attention. She watched my small person and complimented her on her easy demeanor and her confidence. My small person does not complain or whine, but rather opens a conversation with a splat of humor if the topic might include something ungracious. Farts are fair game among family, but tears over a stubbed toe are not. I hope that she has watched me during her few years and has learned from my ever-more-sparse but always present mistakes.
From our weekend away, we brought home souvenirs: rocks fished from the lake with our toes, driftwood from the beach, a whole turtle skeleton, piles of snail shells, all destined for the place at home where we store such memories in plain sight. We have always decorated our home with tangible artifacts of life well-lived, things for guests to pick up and turn over in their hands and their minds.
We left my beloved aunt’s house after a long breakfast on the boat. We ate deer sausage and cheese and crackers, and the captain steered with one hand and ate a bunless hot dog out of the other.
Neither my small person nor I wanted to leave, just like I used to hate to leave her big house on the lake. I do not want to stop talking about our weekend, and I do not have the words to explain how much I appreciated the time given to me and my beautiful daughter.
The days with my aunts reminded me that I’ve come from righteous and forthright stock, if you put any stock in nature over nurture. To be told by my mother that I’m “just like my father” never felt like an insult, even though he made enough mistakes for the lot of us. She loved him, and she loved me, and I loved the whole fam damily from the outside looking in except for those precious weeks with my aunt and the precious holidays with anyone who shared my last name.
My small person looks like them and walks like them. She is bold, silly, loud, opinionated, thoughtful but not self-sacrificing. Her smile and her eyes and her thick wavy hair, her readiness to laugh at herself, her willingness to push past comfort for the sake of a great time, all of that I can credit to the Hartliebs by marriage or by birth. We, them, she, and I are of a kind.
Our weekend reminded me of all of this and taught my daughter more of what she is made of. My dad would have loved her so very much, and I tell her good stories and bizarre stories of what my time with him was like. Time with her very beloved great aunt gives her proof of a certain kind of life, full of highs and lows and laughter no matter what