My Aunt Shirley was what you would call a character. She smoked cigarillos, drank “sudsies” and wore clogs. When she laughed, which was pretty much constantly, her shoulders would heave up and down.
By all accounts she was a tomboy. Growing up we had a brass spittoon in our house that had belonged to my grandparents. In the side was a huge bulge from where some punk kid had thrown a cherry bomb. All my life I thought it was one of my uncles who had tried to blow up the spittoon. When my parents died and I was cleaning out their house, I gave the spittoon to my Uncle Robert, who set me straight. Aunt Shirley was the hooligan who had tossed the cherry bomb inside. Of course.
In our family it was a rite of passage when you turned twelve to be put on a bus by your parents in Omaha to be shipped off to Minneapolis to spend a week with Aunt Shirley. Alone. I’ll let you think about that for a minute. They put you on a bus, possibly with siblings or other cousins, but otherwise alone, without any adult supervision.
I don’t know how or when this tradition started but it was made possible by the fact that Aunt Shirley worked from home selling insurance. If you were a girl, one of the things she did with you during that week was take you to an antique store to look at Depression glass. She would have you pick out your favorite pattern and then every birthday and Christmas for the rest of your life you would receive a piece of Depression glass from Aunt Shirley. I have an entire kitchen cabinet full of bubble glass, the pattern I picked out on that trip to the antique store. I have no idea what she did with the boys. What did they get for Christmas? I’ll have to ask my male cousins sometime.
Every Christmas Aunt Shirley would take the bus down to Omaha from Minneapolis. Always by bus. One time she was supposed to fly somewhere but she missed her flight and the plane ended up crashing. I want to say, “killing everyone on board” because that sounds more dramatic but I really don’t know. At any rate, she never flew again.
She liked to joke that the first thing my grandpa always said when she walked in the door was, “when are you leaving?” Aunt Shirley would spend days cleaning my grandparents’ house from top to bottom and then on Christmas Eve we would all gather in their tiny home, our eyes watering and coughing from all the adults’ cigarette smoke.
Aunt Shirley was the glue that held the family together. When she died we attempted to re-create Christmas Eve a couple of times without her by gathering in my Uncle Jack’s smokey living room, but it was never the same. We stopped trying.
Following are photos of a young Shirley. I’m tired of touching up old, moldy, scratchy photos so I’ll leave pictures of a more mature Shirley for another blog post.