Great Aunts are nice – they’re like having another grandmother who can spoil you, look out for you, and be outlandishly proud of your accomplishments. Mine did.
My favorite Great Aunt was a tiny little woman – maybe 100 pounds at her peak – with boundless energy and a smile that showed all her teeth and was often paired with her wonderful laugh. She was one of a kind. She passed away earlier this year and she is missed.
She was born Marge, but somewhere along the line she got the name “Tootie.” Everyone in our clan has a nickname, and I mean everyone. I’m still not sure how she got that name, but I know she made me feel special every time I saw her.
Aunt Tootie often watched me when I was a little boy, when my Mom would be off working. I was a round-faced boy with brown hair and impossibly big brown eyes, a runty little kid who ran fast and loved to play outdoors. I spent a lot of time with my Aunt Tootie and my cousins, doing who-knows-what in the backyard, but always something fun. She fed me along with her kids and whoever else was around the house, she threw me in the bathtub, she tucked me in. She hollered at me when I was being a pest (which was not as often as some people think).
It was just me and my Mom back then, when Tootie was a big part of my life, and I was a frightened little fella who was terrified of being left alone. Not sure why, but it was something I really feared. There was this time Aunt Tootie took me to the dime store and I got separated from her. Probably drifting away to look at some toy or book. I was scooped up by an employee who asked my name and announced it over the store intercom, asking if anyone had lost me. Tootie kept on shopping until she realized it was me everyone was making a fuss about. I had told the man my full name, and she didn’t realize it. To Aunt Tootie, I was “Danny Boone.” My eyes were filled with crocodile tears when she came and claimed me. She loved telling that story.
There were the times I would sneak into Aunt Tootie’s backyard and wriggle myself under the fence and steal stalks of rhubarb from the neighbor lady. My cousins and I would wash them off under the garden hose and munch on them, our faces scrunched and contorted from the tartness. Or I’d sit on the porch and talk with Pee Wee, the funny little fisherman who lived across the street.
One of the favorite memories I have of Tootie is the music she played. Her house always seemed to be filled with music, usually country music – the old country stars like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and my favorite: Johnny Cash. She would play and replay Cash’s greatest hits for me, dancing around the kitchen. She sure loved to dance.
Dancing wasn’t the only thing that got her moving. On Sundays when the Evink Family gathered at the public park in Otsego, she was one of the most active members in the family softball game. She was so slim she could turn sideways and disappear, but I remember her whacking that ball a distance that startled everyone in the field. Sure enough, after a base hit, her laugh would soon follow.
I had milestones in her home: my first birthday party (shared with cousin Kelley, who had the nerve to be born at the same time of year); my first tooth was lost there, under a card table when someone (let’s blame Kelley again) was chasing me and it loosened in the ruckus; and my first stitches came after I slid on Tootie’s wonderfully shiny kitchen floor and cut my head open on a cat food can. If I scrunch my face now you can see still see the scar.
The “great” thing about “great” aunts is that they can love you and take care of you and spoil you and dote on you, but you aren’t usually around them so much that you get irritated with them like you do your parents. I mean, aunts and uncles are like having all the good things about parents: the treats, the laughter, the gifts, the inside jokes, without the bitter aftertaste.
My first electric train set – still one of the best gifts I’ve ever received – came from Aunt Tootie and Uncle Toby. I played with it there on her living room floor and beamed with pride as I was the master of the track. With a press of a lever, I sped the train around the tracks – woosh, woosh, woosh. It even had a whistle!
Those childhood memories are something you never forget, and I’ll never forget Aunt Tootie.
Every time someone calls me “Danny Boone”, every time I hear Ring of Fire, every time I see a yard sale, and every time I want to retrieve special memories from my childhood, I’ll remember her and I’ll smile, because many of the best times of my childhood were when Tootie was around.