In December 2014, my Aunt Jane died at the age of 89. She died right before Christmas, which, if you knew her, made sense. My Aunt Jane and her husband, Uncle Bob, were the best parts of our family. Because of them, we grew up with laughter, joy, and stories. When I was young, our family would gather at their house for Christmas. I would see cousins and friends from all over who would come because Aunt Jane invited them. So, it makes sense to me that she died right around Christmas, and all of us would gather to remember her. I saw my sister, and finally met her husband. I met the wife and children of a cousin I babysat. I visited with my mother. We were together at Christmas once again.
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I’ve been trying to write what I remember about my Aunt Jane and Uncle Bob. The dogs keep interrupting, and when I think of it, that seems about right. The Mentzer household always had at least one dog, whether it was Daffy who was growling, or Gidget who constantly needed attention, or Jenny or Trixie, there was almost always a dog underfoot. I have four, and right now they are having their final romp of the day. This usually involves blocking the two youngest ones in the kitchen – where they sleep, and blocking the more vocal one upstairs. Grandma Mae has taken to playing “King of the Mountain” with the kitchen pups, so there is more than the usual mayhem downstairs. I am upstairs, in my office, surrounded by Christmas presents and books, trying to figure out where to begin.
I started writing a list of all the significant and special things Aunt Jane made possible – sleeping out in the backyard underneath a blanket thrown over the wash line; sleeping over in a bed with Daffy who snapped at me if I tried to roll over; playing with Wizard of Oz puppets that came in the laundry detergent she bought; going to the beach with Floss and the Gang; taking the bus to the “city” to Christmas shop, and have lunch at Watt and Shand – the list goes on.
Many of my childhood Christmases were spent at 443 South State Street. I was always amazed that my cousins were able to wait until Grandpa Fassnacht handed out presents to be able to open theirs. Afterward, the grown ups would sit around the round oak table and tell stories. I’d stick around, knowing that Aunt Jane would eventually sigh, and tap her shoulder, “Amy, Do you mind rubbing my neck? I’ll give you a penny a minute.” I didn’t mind at all. I earned my quarter, a penny a minute, and she always included a tip. I was a very rich kid.
I thought for years that my Aunt Jane knew all there was about finances. She had an envelope system that was just fascinating. There was an envelope for every expense, and she would sort out her money every pay check. Of course, she had a bank account, but her savings system was more remarkable, as it included tucking dollar bills here and there. On one occasion, when we were housecleaning her bedroom, I found a ten in the powder box. Who would ever think to look for money in a box of face powder?
Aunt Jane always smelled of Tou Jour Moi or Estee Lauder. She was the one who tried to instill in me the desire to have manicured nails. Sorry, it didn’t take. I still pick ‘em. But she tried.
She and Uncle Bob and their kids would call every birthday to sing to me. And, for many years, they took me out to a “fancy” restaurant of my choice. We went to the Glass Kitchen, General Sutter Inn, and on more than one occasion, they arranged for the server to sing Happy Birthday to me in the dining room, in front of God and everybody.
Aunt Jane really loved the old horror movies. Many an afternoon I’d be tucked up on her couch, my knees under my chin, and a blanket around me for comfort watching some hair-raising feature that included Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, or Peter Lorre. To this day, I have a dread fear that a head is going to come bouncing down a staircase, like it did in Hush, hush, Sweet Charlotte. Why? Because, just as the head was descending on the screen, one of the dogs knocked something down the steps next to the sofa. Yeah. Too much realism for me!
My Aunt Jane and Uncle Bob were from an era that knew hardship and struggle. But they also knew how to laugh, and enjoy life. One Christmas, they were in the living room listening to a compilation of Tommy Dorsey tunes while I was resting on the couch in the front room. I could hear them talking about the music, and the memories they shared. They both seemed suddenly younger.
While thinking about my Aunt Jane the one thing I notice is that I am smiling. Whether it is remembering the day I ran away from her because I didn’t want to take my medicine (she bribed me with Juicy Fruit and Cherry Lifesavers), the wet willies she’d give me if I fell asleep on her couch, or sledding down the back alley, and then coming into her house for hot chocolate and butter bread, the thing that strikes me the most is, Aunt Jane made things fun.
My mom used to chide me for being a lot like my Aunt Jane. Boy, I hope so.