The place where my childhood memories go to more than any other is my grandmother’s house in Columbus, Ohio. It’s gone now, swallowed up in the suburban development of the city. But unlike the many houses I lived in with my immediate family over the years, the Wilson Road house was a stable and unchanging place that always felt more like home than any other. The smell of that house, the expansive grandure of the sunken livingroom with the baby Grand piano, and the spooky chill of the basement cold storage locker, are all hardwired into my DNA.
The place in that house that influenced me most was my Aunt Kathie’s bedroom. My aunt had been a surprise baby, born when my grandmother was nearly 40, and a gaping 16 years younger than my mother. This made my aunt only 9 years older than I. So when she was away at college as a 20-year-old, I was 11 and ripe with the fantasies of who I might become because of my experience of her in her absence.
Her room was a vision in lilac. The carpet was a plush periwinkle. The curtains, bedspread and pillows were all a matching shade of violet with flowered edges. She had a canopied double bed where, when I slept there, I felt like a Midwestern princess. Her matching furniture set included a mirrored vanity in front of which I spent hours perfecting my pout. Although the rest of the house had its own distinct odors, her room always smelled of perfumed talcum powder.
One of the two closets in her room was an odd space, reclaimed from the requirements of another room and completely dysfunctional for anything related to storing clothing. It had a bare bulb light and two levels of offset, deep shelves, like giant steps. She had covered the walls with posters of her girl crushes and 70’s rock bands. Davie Jones of The Monkeys looked down on me as I rifled through her possessions; photo albums, high school essays and diaries.
I poured over not only the grainy, round-edged Instamatic photos of her own adolescence, but albums filled with the buttoned-up, lacy images of my grandparents as children. I was astounded to see that my great-grandmother actually once had dark hair, my grandmother’s dimples were much deeper on her baby face than her adult one, and that my grandfather looked just as sly at five as he did at fifty. Yes, I was a snoop, I invaded her privacy. But I was eleven. It would have been abnormal for me not to. And how else could I be transported into the glorious world of teen-dom, to understand a little better this exotic species of proto-humans, if I hadn't been very nosy.
Last week my Aunt Kathy passed away after many remarkable years living with breast cancer. Even though we all knew her death was coming, it’s hard when the “baby” of the family dies first, before her other four siblings. But life never marches along in the order we expect it to. I loved her, and the person I became inside her room. I didn’t see her much throughout her life, as we lived on different sides of the country. But I hoped I might grow up to be like her, with long dark hair, a college education and the guts to go study in another country. She married a lovely man, had two great kids and then was dealt several seasons worth of emotional and logistical hurricanes. But just as she laughed through the evacuation from her hurricane-flooded house in Louisiana a few weeks before she died, she managed to laugh through a lot of shit through the years.
I last spoke with her over the phone near Christmas. She was delighted to hear how much I adore living in England. She had loved this country too, during her student days. We kept it light, upbeat, but I knew it was probably the last time I would hear her voice. I don’t think I told her I loved her. But I did. More than I realized, surely more than she knew. “Oh, but she knew, Karin.” my sweet cousin told me recently. And now I’m sure she does.