“Aunts, a Remembrance” from ESSENTIALLY by Richard Terrill, Holy Cow! Press

The house is full of aunts—ants, we said it, like the insect. The aunts leave red lipstick on the filters of their cigarettes, snubbed out in a free-standing ashtray. They bend low to hug the eight-year-old (“Ricky, how you’ve grown.”) They smell of gin, Camay, and department stores. They cackle during a second cocktail, or retire en masse to the living room to talk about whatever the uncles don’t.

They teach guitar or take dictation. They counsel wisely, make the rules. One aunt lives in a small guest house in the back—maybe it used to be a garage; one lives next door to a house that resembles an ice cube; another lives in one of those arrangements even stranger to a kid in a small midwestern city, circa the late nineteen fifties: an apartment! There is only one door from the outside, and then many doors leading to separate lives within. How do they get out to play? How do they not track wet snow down the hall?

My father had four sisters and one brother. My Aunt Gladys divorced Earl Gigler before the War. Aunt Vivian divorced Harry Pierquet during the War. (I’d heard once she had another quick husband after that, but older cousins said otherwise and are probably right.) Aunt Mildred divorced Harold Brunette after the War, but then there was Tom, the likeable oaf who happened along years later in Mildred’s life, in my era. He came to family parties for years, to us kids just another uncle, another present at Christmastime. “Why don’t you marry him Mildred,” the other aunts and even the uncles said about Tom, whom everyone liked. But she wouldn’t give in.

Aunt Claire was never divorced, I’d thought, but found out differently in her obit. My father’s brother was her second husband…and yes, he too had been married once before meeting Claire. During wartime, he wrote letters to my father from a camp in Tennessee, waiting to fight the Germans or the Japs. The letters are full of getting-that-marriage-over-with, what to tell the lawyer, what not to tell.

Never divorced was Aunt Lillian, my only-child mother’s favorite of the many Terrills she had to deal with. (“Lillian has sense,” my mother said emphatically, implying that the others perhaps didn’t.) Lillian and my father aside, the Terrill family tree had undergone much pruning in my father’s generation. There were four (or five?) divorces among the six siblings.

Not a great deal of reaching toward the sun, either, on that family tree: Cousins were few, only eight of us the products of these six elders. We were divided generationally between the “older cousins” and the “younger cousins.” I was the youngest, the only born after mid-century; my eldest cousin was born in the year of the stock market crash, 1929. I thought of him as simply another uncle.

The result of it all was that kids were outnumbered by adults at the loud and loudening family parties, where adults didn’t much believe in “not saying it in front of the children.” Politics, religion, sports, workplace or family gossip—their concerns were ours before we understood, and we grew smart beyond our years. Most of the aunts and uncles started families late in their lives, and thus the gatherings became like history lessons or time machines: Their talk of “Ma” and “Pa,” the grandparents I’d never known, who were born in the 1870s. Pa could pick up any brass instrument and play it, had a beautiful singing voice, played piano well. Ma could make a meal for the whole family on half a pound of ground chuck. Summers on Uncle Art’s farm. Early Packards and Plymouths. My father born on the kitchen table of the family house a short walk from the depot where Pa was the station agent. Grandfather Terrill “played around,” my mother contended, though she’d never met him in the flesh. By the end of her life, “Ma” was addicted to morphine, a victim of crippling arthritis. All true? Someone’s faulty memory at work? As a child I knew only that I was not to question what was said. Just listen, and listen we kids did.

 And their bizarre cousin Ray who, the story goes, donned a fake mustache and bad toupee, took the train out of and back into town, and lit a warehouse on fire to collect the insurance money. He did time, but the family laughed about the incident years later, as they laughed about most things. I met Ray only once when he drove from Chicago for the weekend to visit. Strapped on the top of his purple, ten-year-old Cadillac that leaked oil in our driveway, was a mattress. He had a bad back.

Years later still, I drove my brother to an Ohio archive for his genealogical research. One mid-nineteenth century Terrill, maybe in our line and maybe not, had been hanged, a newspaper account read, on questionable evidence. But, the item concluded, since he was an undesirable character, the town “did not consider it much of a loss.”


If our forebearers are our fate, mine is a mixed legacy. But the aunts I knew placed the family in a better light. Their actions and independence pre-dated feminism. Was it something in the gene pool? Or just stubbornness and self-certainty that led to those divorces before the culture had said that they were okay? The aunts did what they wanted, said what they thought, more Barbara Stanwyck than Donna Reed, less Doris Day than Billie Holiday—whom, white and coming of age in the twenties, they must have liked much less. Their attitudes toward race were, sadly, those of their times: “Well, I guess some of them are all right,” allowed Aunt Mildred during the height of Civil Rights. It was a cliché of the day, and we’d hear it elsewhere as well, not to be repeated since my mother sympathized with the plight of “the Negro,” as the usage of the sixties had it. Aunt Vivian probably said and thought worse—she who’d never met, never spoken to a black person, but who seemed to grant tolerance nevertheless toward those in the defensive backfield of the Green Bay Packers, our hometown team.

Hard as it is to imagine now, they passed their lives in an all-white world. The only black people they ever met were the deferential waiters on the train to Chicago. Had they the advantages of my generation, I think they would have spoken a language more native to their generous hearts.

And what to make of this anecdote, which I heard only once, I can’t remember from whom: my father, on one of his frequent business trips to Chicago for the railroad, accompanied after cocktails and dinner by the men of the other rail lines: the Missouri Southern; Rio Grande; Gulf, Mobile and Ohio. The group passed a small and peaceful civil rights demonstration on a street in the Loop. My Dad impulsively joined the end of the march and pretended to be one of the protesters. I can imagine him lifting his legs high, exaggerating his steps, and then looking back at his southern colleagues, knowing he would get their goats. He must have laughed at their disdain. Ever the jokester, a trait I know I’ve inherited, did he see more than the humor in his action? I like to think so, that he sensed something wrong with the way the southern men talked and what they seemed to believe.


I had no sisters, and at family gatherings the house seemed full to me with these women not my mother. I remember especially the old house of Aunt Lillian and Uncle Bill, big and white and high ceilinged, with furniture that had seemed to me somehow fancier than other people had, though I think now it was probably just older. There was a bedroom right off the living room, something I’d never seen anywhere else; a bar set up in one corner of the living room was something I was considerably more familiar with. And there was Uncle Bill’s sunroom, west facing toward the river, and set off to the right as we entered the place. There he read his newspaper, feet on stool, and smoked his wonderful and fragrant cigars. He had a television that actually had a remote control, linked by a cord to the set. When we all walked in for his surprise retirement party, he hardly looked up from his throne. Aunt Vivian asked, “Aren’t you surprised?” His newspaper frozen at arm’s length, Bill answered with his squeaky stutter, learned from an overly strict Germanic father. “I’m s-s-so surprised I don’t know what to say.”

While we all rooted for the Packers of that Lombardi era, Negro players and all, Uncle Bill had actually played for the Packers… but that was before the existence of the NFL—before even World War I. It was part of that ongoing history lesson. Bill had been a high school classmate of Curly Lambeau, and years later I pored through the archives at the Packer Hall of Fame to find the publicity shot of Bill in a three-point stance at guard, Lambeau behind him under center. Uncle Bill was nearly as much fun as the aunts.

During the Cuban missile crisis, I imagine most families avoided discussion of nuclear war until the children were in bed. Not the Terrills. Aunt Mildred was aghast at the rumors she’d heard about Civil Defense and evacuation protocol when the bomb was about to strike. “What happens,” Aunt Mildred voiced to my parents, “if they say Johnny goes to Appleton and Ricky goes to Marinette, and you should stay behind?” The directive, if it existed, was probably something like the one Brits followed, sending children out of London during the War. But she would have none of it.

“What worries me,” Aunt Gladys countered, “is the establishment of a Communist spearhead in our hemisphere.”

That’s the way I remember the phrase: not Communist beachhead, like a foothold for an advancing army, but spearhead. Surely that’s the way a nine-year-old heard it, not the way she misspoke. Or maybe the aunts saw it that way: Russian spears literally flying across the ninety miles to south Florida (where none of them had ever visited). Perhaps cold war paranoia was for them an extension of the insecurity in those early marriages, now played out on a world stage: ex-husbands coming home drunk, now become men with Russian accents marching down Walnut Street in little Green Bay, Wisconsin.

As a boy, was I frightened at the prospect of burning up in a nuclear fireball? Not as much as I was fascinated with the heat and fallout from this good conversation.


“Why don’t you marry him, Mildred!” the aunts implored again, another topic as contentious as the prospect of the end of the world. “No, I went through one marriage,” Aunt Mildred insisted to the jury of her siblings. “I won’t make that mistake again.” And so large-boned Tom persevered, in our family’s circle but out of Mildred’s arms. I was too young to consider the celibacy that his role forced. I did take note, though, when Mildred reported that Tom was teaching her to drive. Mildred would be at the wheel, I was told, with Tom seated snugly behind her in his white Dodge Coronet (with the push button transmission).

“I know how to go and turn and stop,” Mildred said. Even as a kid, I was afraid she’d learned the techniques in that order!  Thankfully, Tom was big enough for his leg to wrap around hers to access the brake.

“Did you hear Mildred broke up with Tom?” Aunt Vivian reported excitedly one Sunday after church, but before the Packer kick off. She and her husband Uncle Virgil—the sweet working man with the easy laugh—visited almost weekly that fall. It was big news, but the break-up, like the threat from Cuba, turned out to be temporary. Soon enough those missiles were on boats back to the Soviet Union, and by the family Christmas, Tom would be back standing in the kitchen with the other uncles.

I loved being witness to that adult talk, sometimes about others in the clan, but more often about how far the Packers would get and how the Kennedy brothers were trying to control big business. About shares of AT&T, whether to hold or to sell (“What difference does it make?” Aunt Mildred cackled, “You’re going to croak and lose it all anyway!”) And there was talk about April finally giving way to May and the weather that led to trout fishing, berry picking, swimming, and later hunting at the family cottage—the most beautiful time. Food was also a topic addressed with a passion on par with world affairs: where, for instance, was the best place to get broasted chicken, Krolls or Schaeffer’s? Or my dad’s favorite and thus the only right answer, The Swan Club? “That’s the place where for dessert they give you those knee joints,” he liked to say. “Kneecaps,” my mother always corrected, knowing that my dad knew very well what they were called.

Dad just couldn’t let the opportunity for a joke go by. To my cousins and his sisters, Carleton Terrill, my father, was the most entertaining of the siblings. The elder men in the family were nearly a match for the aunts in unpredictability and humor, could outdrink them and were allowed to, yet never a harsh word or incident from booze or other cause. I see the uncles leaning like figures in a moving portrait, elbows on the bar and hands gesticulating, making points in air. I remember the most mundane of subjects being discussed with passion that other families would reserve for death and dismemberment. Restaurant chicken, second marriages, nuclear holocaust—nothing was worth not having an opinion on for the Terrills. Nothing merited anything less than overstatement: the most, the worst, the farthest from town. I grew up in one evolving hyperbole. And those opinions would be argued, with and without logic, with and without cocktails, till the same point of no resolve was reached. The fun was getting there. I don’t remember the particulars of the talk as much as I remember its invigorating lack of subtlety, its vast modulations in pitch, how quickly it came to a humorous end without much decided or agreed upon.


Aunt Gladys, the eldest and first divorced, died in 1964, right after the first Kennedy. We’d gone from church to Lillian’s house that unbelievable Sunday when someone had murdered the President’s murderer. Gladys by this time was always in a dressing gown, her face reduced to a cancerous skull. She had moved in with Lillian and Bill a few years before, and now they were taking care of her at the end. “Is Aunt Gladys any better today?” I asked, not yet eleven, and I had to be told that she wasn’t going to get any better, a concept new to me. It was the first of the deaths of that generation, and the only for which we weren’t allowed TV for the whole weekend after her Friday passing. The old school said that was the way of mourning, to show respect.

Aunt Lillian died in 1984, only three months after my father. My mother had been to the hospital that evening and remarked to me on the way to the funeral three days later how red had been the blood that Lillian had coughed up on the front of her hospital gown. In retrospect, it was a sign, my mother said. In retrospect: the kind of irony that death creates of the time just before it, when no one knew for sure. An aneurism, they’d diagnosed, and Lillian was too frail for the surgery they’d tried. I remember her just months before her passing, walking unsteadily from the family plot at the funeral of her younger brother, my father, and then being steadied on the arm of another mourner. I had seen one leaf settling into my father’s open grave to rest upon the casket. That single leaf would never fall from my memory, emblem, I think, of the solitude of our passing.

Aunt Mildred, who never married Tom, (and never got her driver’s license), had died three years before in 1981, dropped suddenly to the kitchen floor of her apartment, in that building with the one door and the many doors. Perhaps she’d arisen to answer the phone, getting up from one of her “shows.” Those were her afternoon soaps. “Oh, there’s such fighting and sadness and drama, you know,” saidshe whose later life had held so happily little of it. Mildred’s heart broke finally and completely that one time, and she lay where they found her before suppertime. She left most of her money to the church and shares to each sibling, most of whom didn’t need it. The entire family, working class and uneducated, knew how to pinch a penny and all left money behind.

Tom had gone on providing that apartment for Mildred in the big rental house he owned. I think he owned it just so he could do so. He charged her not enough rent to cover even utilities, my mother said, and was almost as generous to the other tenants, whose rent I’m sure he never raised. “As long as Millie has a place to stay,” he said to us again and again, perhaps hoping we’d make his case with her, and we never did, and it wouldn’t have mattered. When Mildred died, Tom’s letter to my mother, in the garbled hand and with the bad grammar of his grade school education: “I can’t believe that God has taken Millie I ask myself why oh why, why oh why. What ever will I do?”

He carried that torch till he died. Not so much a flame as a dim but steady glow like the giant lighted milk bottle atop the Fairmont Dairy on Broadway where Tom had worked the night shift. We looked for it whenever we drove past: a giant milk bottle always appearing as a surprise to a boy far too young to drive and who thus held no sense of geography in his own hometown. What lay beyond Norwood School and Herman’s candy store? There’s the big milk bottle. See?

Aunt Vivian died in the early 90s, still not tired of life, her second (or third) husband passed away, still smoking even after her circulation left her hands permanently like ice. Still making her great pies, crusts flakey with sugar and lard, when I went to visit her those last years. I had met Linda by then, and Vivian—the woman so suspicious of those she imagined different from herself—was anxious to meet her, but died before we could arrange it. Vivian knew Linda was Chinese and made no mention of it, either because she knew it wasn’t an issue for me or, what I prefer to believe, because it wasn’t an issue for her.

Even near the end Vivian walked daily the long road around the lake where she lived in a trailer home across from her one son. “In her coffin,” my mother told me, “she looked like she was about to get up and dance.” She’d been a good dancer, and had still gotten up some holidays to jitterbug solo to Ted Weems while my father gazed wistfully toward the ceiling and wished those days were back again.

Years later my brother visited Aunt Claire, who like my mother stayed married the balance of her husband’s life. Claire had no memory of my father, her brother-in-law whom she knew for forty years until his death. “Claire is in even worse shape than Mom,” my brother wrote me. His note was enclosed with his half of the pay for the woman we’d hired to help our mother with housework and shopping, help her remember who she was, and sometimes who other people used to be.

“What did your dad die of?” my mother asks me during a visit.

“Mesothelioma. . . the lung lining.”

“So it was cancer then?”

And another time, the Alzheimer’s progressing, as the loneliness of her shrinking world seeps in: “Your father should have hung around a little longer.”

It must be like an apartment building, I think, that loneliness and not knowing what is going to happen, not knowing why the world is going away. Only one door is the door home in the vacant and anonymous hallway.


I think of the aunts now as a set, apart from the trajectory of their individual past lives, about which I knew much less. They are a sister act, as if in vaudeville, dressed alike for the performance. All are talking at once, and too loud. All are agreeing, yet seeming to disagree. Or I imagine them in a row of seats in a studio audience for some TV show of the day, The Best of Groucho or Hollywood Palace, all smiles and applause.

  I find in dusty boxes in my closet, snapshots of the aunts as pleasant looking young women. Women in flapper’s dresses, very round hats, standing next to the cars I’ve seen in gangster movies, cars with running boards, parked sometimes in front of country roadhouses or dance halls. The shots are black and white, or sometimes hand tinted color. And on each the unlined, unmarked smiling face of someone I think I recognize.

The past is marked for each of us by what we didn’t know that we now do. I didn’t know how much I loved them: the aunts asking always how school was. Aunts exclaiming what was wrong with the Seventh Day Adventists Mildred was becoming interested in. Aunts cooking too much food and urging us to finish it. Aunts picking raspberries and making pie, finding just a handful of wild blueberries at the edge of the property near the wet, tall grass, and then giving them to me to try, so sour, but the taste so real, so unlike cereal or pancakes or things from the store.

Aunts who came with us to the beach, posing for a picture, standing behind us in bathing caps, hands over the shoulders of each of the nephews, my brother and me. Aunts watching Gunsmoke and Your Show of Shows. Aunts reading Son of the Grand Eunuch and Saratoga Trunk. Aunts paging through Argosy or TV Guide. Aunts shushing us to hear the weather report—from that guy who mumbles so on the radio broadcast.

Aunts stating their opinions: unfounded opinions, certain opinions, ideas to top other ideas, some bad but forgotten easily. Laughter to top laughter. Maybe one more cocktail. Aunts lighting cigarettes, aunts lighting charcoal, aunts lighting our simple three-room cottage where we stayed summer weekends, piled up like the crew of a submarine.

When the red light goes on, aunts speaking into the new reel-to-reel tape recorder my brother and I got for Christmas that very morning. It’s a moment they intuit may be remembered. “Johnny and Ricky…Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” and then the dog lets out a loud bark and everyone laughs and includes her in their best wishes.


Excerpt from Richard Terrill’s ESSENTIALLY: ESSAYS AND WHAT FALLS AWAY, used by permission of Holy Cow! Press

Richard Terrill is the author of Essentially: Essays and What Falls Away Is Always: Poems & Conversations, both from Holy Cow! Press. Five previous books include Coming Late to Rachmaninoff, winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Poetry, and Saturday Night in Baoding: A China Memoir, winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award for Nonfiction.  He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wisconsin and Minnesota State Arts Boards, the Jerome Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as well as three Fulbright Fellowships. Work has appeared in journals such as Iowa ReviewGeorgia Review, North American ReviewRiver TeethNew LettersFourth Genre, and Crazyhorse.  He is professor emeritus at Minnesota State, Mankato, where he was Distinguished Faculty Scholar, and currently works as a jazz saxophone player.  He lives in Minneapolis.

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