Tomorrow, friends and family of my Auntie Karen are going to be together, sharing stories and happy memories of her. I can’t be there, because I’m an ocean away, but I still want to be a part of it. So here goes.
I met my Auntie Karen when I was about 10 or 11, and Uncle John (my Dad’s baby brother) brought her home to meet us all. I thought she was pretty cool, and I wanted to show her that. So, in a little kid kind of way, I made her a name plate out of these melty beads I was really into at the time. The last time I was at her house, she showed me that name plate, from nearly 20 years ago, which she kept in one of those drawers where you just kind of collect things. She kept it through three international moves, which is silly for a little hunk of plastic, but it meant a lot to me to know it was still there.
When Uncle John and Aunt Karen got married and I was about 12, I was reluctant to have a new person in the family. My closest cousin, Kate, and I whispered to each other that we couldn’t imagine calling her Auntie, since Auntie is something you call someone you grew up with. It didn’t take long to change our minds, though, and she soon had us welcoming all sorts of other strange things into the family. My mom and I were helping her throw a wedding or baby shower for one of her friends, and during a quiet moment in the kitchen, she told my mom all excitedly, “you’re going to be an Auntie!” Which was her way of saying that she and my Uncle John were getting a dog. She let that joke go after it stopped being funny – unless she was talking to my Uncle Rodger. He referred to Belle, a white bichon frise, as a rat with a hippie wig, and my Aunt Karen always called him Belle’s Uncle Rodger. Actually, that one never stopped being funny.
Auntie Karen was so welcoming and so hospitable. She freely took me and all of my vagrant cousins into her house whenever we wanted to be there, and I believe she was never happier than when she had guests. One summer, when I was about 16, I was over there with a few other cousins around the time of Karen’s son’s first birthday party. She had a paddling pool on the deck for Mitchie to splash in, and set us all up in deck chairs around it to cool our feet and watch over Mitch in his swim diaper. She may or may not have handed us a round of illicit beers, but she definitely laughed the loudest at the suggestion that Mitchie was peeing all over the inside of the pool, including on our feet.
Karen always stayed in touch with everyone. After high school, I took off for a year in Europe, and she made a point of calling fairly regularly, despite the astronomical phone bills. I used to write a lot of letters in those days, and years later, she told me she practically danced around the kitchen every time she got a letter from me. When she found out she was pregnant with a second child, she called me with Uncle John on the extension, and asked me to be their daughter’s fairy godmother. Of course, I was ecstatic about it. At only 18, I was nervous about taking on the responsibility, but it turned out to be pretty easy, and I’m so proud to have a goddaughter like Emily.
At Uni, I lived in the same city as my Auntie Karen, and spent an enormous amount of time at her place. She had me and my cousin Kate over for dinner all the time, and we were regularly on the babysitting roster. She was sort of a surrogate mom for a while, since mine lived so far away. Karen was amazing with the relationship advice over those years. Her dating philosophy was wasy to adopt: “Dating is like a smorgasbord, you should try a little of everything!” she would say and laugh. She’s always one of the first people I would call during a breakup, and she would always say, “I spit in his shoes!” to make me laugh. Then she’d listen patiently while I told her everything. Over the years, I developed a habit of letting my own Mom know about my love-life through the filter of my Auntie Karen. She was a real bridge builder, because for a time, my Mom and I didn’t talk much – in a regular mother-daughter conflict kind of way, I think. Through my Auntie Karen, though, my Mom always knew what was going on with me.
My Auntie Karen is the originator of our family rule never to put a cork back in a bottle of wine. (I suspect she came up with this to make fun of my Mom) When I was about 21, I was staying with her and my Uncle John for the summer and learned this lesson well. This was, I think, the first summer after they’d moved to Iowa from Saskatchewan for Uncle John’s work. He was working about 30 hours a day, Aunt Karen was working on a Master’s degree, and their kids were about 3 and 5. I didn’t have any plans for the summer, so I went to look after Mitch and Em. One night, Aunt Karen happened to be home for dinner, and we opened up a bottle of white. We laughed so hard, and I don’t even remember about what. I tried to know my limit, and moved to put the bottle back in the fridge, and she scolded me and refilled my glass. By the end of the evening, we were drunkenly chasing the kids around the house, getting them all riled up just in time for pyjamas.
She was really worried that I would get lonely for the couple months I was there, without anyone to really hang around with. She trolled her classes for young men I could hang out with, and got the across-the-street neighbour to help out. This neighbour described her nephew as “hot” so I was looking forward to meeting him. However, when he showed up at the door, he was decidedly not hot… She waited a few hours for my hangover to subside the next day, and then laughed her face off at my graceful reaction to his appearance at the door, at my inability to fit my key in the door when I got home, and at the kids for being so sympathetic about my headache. She brought this up all the time, even years later.
We took a bunch of weekend trips that summer – there was the weekend in Chicago, where we had to keep Emily on a leash and harness as we toured through museums and restaurants, because she’s prone to running off. There was also the day trip to the Caves… it was fun to be climbing around in the cold, dark, damp caves in the middle of summer. Hilariously, all of us had gotten dressed independently that morning, and all of us had shown up in the kitchen for breakfast wearing jeans-shorts, and grey tshirts, like a family of enormous goofballs. In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” we toured around all day in our matchy-matchy outfits, stopping to pose for group photos at every opportunity.
Today, I really wish I was there for a hug with my Uncle John, my goddaughter Emily, and my cousin Mitchell. This isn’t easy for me, but I know for them, it’s harder.
I love you guys.