She didn’t have children, but she kept Colorforms in the hall closet for when we visited. I suppose there were coloring books and crayons in there, too, but it’s the Colorforms I remember, slick pieces of pliable plastic that could be placed and peeled and replaced over and over again on their laminated cardboard background. They were kept on a shelf that would have been eye level and easy reach for someone in elementary school.
They’re long gone, the children who used to visit long grown, but I don’t pass through the hall in my great-aunt’s house without, at least semiconsciously, thinking about those Colorforms. I half expected to find them six months ago when we cleaned that closet, top (candles, wrapping paper and ribbons and bows for all occasions) to bottom (bed linens, all manner of large Tupperware and foil baking pans for church potlucks), in a three-day blitz of culling a lifetime’s possessions in preparation for a move, someday, to a smaller home.
We made it through a closet and a half.
* * *
I’ve visited her Pittsburgh duplex since I was small enough that my backseat view was mostly of sky and I needed Dramamine to make the 50-mile trip. Her mother was still alive then, and I have dim memories of eating at a picnic table out back, under the shade of a locust tree on the grassy edge between the asphalt behind her garage and the steep hill behind that.
Nearly every summer, through my college years, her house was home base for a week. We’d go to the zoo one day, the Carnegie museum another, the aviary and Buhl planetarium another. We rode the incline, took a bus downtown, cruised all three rivers on the Good Ship Lollipop. Ice Capades under the open dome of the Civic Arena, the marvels of the June arts festival, Pirates games, the wooden roller coasters of Kennywood. One summer the next-door neighbors had a large round swimming pool we were invited to play in.
My bed for the night was the sofa. We’d go up around Christmas, too, and back in the days when she still used the fireplace, I loved falling asleep to the smell of woodsmoke and the glow of the last few embers, and waking to the sound of morning traffic rushing ’round the curve in front of her home.
After college in the South, I went to Pittsburgh for graduate school and lived across town from her for seven years. I went over — not nearly enough, in retrospect — to do my laundry, to share dinner, to watch TV or a movie. I learned (as has all the family) not to call her during a Steelers game. Once, she and I and a friend went to Heinz Hall and joined the audience alto section for the annual Messiah sing-along.
She worked her way up in the phone company from operator to executive, and she was never a particularly domestic person, but I think much of what I innately seem to know about hospitality I gleaned from her. On arrival, we were oriented to who was sleeping where, where the towels were (a set for each of us on the chrome standing towel rack), and then told to make ourselves at home. Buffet lunches were an appealing spread of meats, cheeses, breads, spreads, and the part I loved best: chilled vegetables, olives, and pickles on a cut-glass relish tray. It was sometimes a holiday, but always festive. And festively ordinary.
* * *
I visited her again a few weeks ago, flying back for an event with my brother and taking a few days with her. She has chosen a retirement community, and a move is imminent. We made an even smaller dent in the stuff this time, but in another sense we made good time: poring through photos I had seen before and more I hadn’t, talking about endings and beginnings. I learned that she wants congregational singing at her funeral, “How Great Thou Art” and something else and, at the last, “I’ll Fly Away.”
Her only niece, my mother, died in a heartbeat, and it is a treasure greater than everything in her china cabinet for us to discuss the end of this life, and the life to come.
At bedtime on my last night there, it hit me that I likely will not see her house again. Memories flooded. Tears welled but did not spill; I chose to dam them with a grin of gratitude.
* * *
The next morning, I resisted the temptation to go room to room with my camera. Some of what I’d want to gather is already printed, in the snapshots she has bequeathed to me. Other things, especially decor items, are clearer and more three-dimensional in memory than a photo could be:
The calendar towels on the kitchen wall.
The lace curtains over the sink.
The wire whisk suspended from the ceiling, caging a small bird in a nest of Spanish moss.
The silver metal breadbox, which I hope will go with her.
The lazy susan on the kitchen table, always stocked with napkins, salt, pepper, a sugar bowl, and a crossword dictionary.
The porcelain mister for her African violets.
The collection of cross-stitch pictures on the dining room wall (one made by me, another started by my mother and finished by my brother).
The wall hanging I have loved since the 1970s, a macrame owl on a perch of driftwood.
The Lucite rectangle from one of many Florida trips with her cousins, a bed of shells and other beach marvels swirling in a thicker-than-water turquoise liquid, which I loved to hold in both hands and tip back and forth.
The barns painted by her friend Marie, framed in weathered barnish gray wood.
The wooden dish shaped something like a Viking ship, hand-painted with vaguely Egyptian designs.
The milk-white, ruffle-wristed, open-palms soap dish on the back of the commode, which I have always thought of as praying hands.
* * *
Though we both relish these visits, on the morning I was leaving, she was ready to have her solitude again. At breakfast, I asked something that has come up recently with friends old and young: “What do you think heaven will be like?” We sat at this table, in these same seats, the day I learned my mother died; she was the first family member I saw after that terrible news.
With others, this has turned into a rich theological discussion. This time, it was simple, described in a soft sentence. She imagines beauty, especially mountains; she anticipates reunions with all the loved ones who have gone before.
I took a photo after all, of the one thing of hers that I have asked for: her pencil cup, made of rolled magazine pages, pencils included. It came out blurry. Once I pulled the car up the drive and loaded my bags, she was ready for the customary parting hug on the front stoop. But I had one more task, to be completed indoors, so we returned to the kitchen.
I made two New Year’s resolutions this year, I told her: to read my mother’s Bible, cover to cover (“Good!” she pronounced. “How’s it coming?”) and to sing to or with someone every day, which has devolved into “Sing every day, to or with someone if possible.” She was my “sing to” on her January birthday, over the phone, and now she would get a song in person.
“Some glad morning, when this life is over,” I began, leaning against the kitchen sink.
“I’ll fly away,” she joined, standing with one hand on the back of my morning seat.
We made our way to that celestial shore, hallelujah, by and by. Then the hug. “Come again!” she said, her own benediction. I didn’t look to check, but I believe she stood at her picture window, as she has all those years when visitors departed, watching over me as I drove out of sight.
Laura Lynn Brown lives in an apartment with probably too much closet space in Little Rock, Arkansas.