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A Magical Winter Memory

When I talk with readers about Calico Lane, the conversation usually leads to the person from my life that most readers would have liked to meet. That person is Auntie Heley. Some readers have said, "I wish I had an Auntie Heley in my life." Others wanted to know more about this woman--a woman who I never truly understood until my adult years.


When I was a child, I lived in a large house with extended family members. Dad's sister, Helen Kiehart, had worked as a waitress at a Catskills resort, but was now home, helping her mother (Baba) with the management of the house and the never-ending chore of meal preparation for my bachelor uncles, who never dined at the same time and whose metabolisms required different foods. I recall my aunt’s concern that every menu item is served hot and perfectly cooked.


The house was usually hectic with uncles coming and going, Baba shuffling in and out with the laundry basket, Dad tinkering in the garage, and Mom busy with my two younger sisters. Time alone with this woman, my Auntie Heley, was rare because the daily tasks took priority and many people demanded her attention.


I was allowed to roam all through the house and I’d often have lunch with Auntie Heley in her kitchen. Early on, she taught me the proper way to set a table, and by showing me how to make a b with my left fingers and a d with those on my right hand, I could figure out—no matter how confusing the table arrangement seemed—which bread plate and drinking glass belonged to me.


The table-setting teaching moment is one of several special memories, but overall, the days of my childhood repeated, like in the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ I think most will agree, one day was like the other during our young lives.


My family kept the winter holidays low-key. I didn’t get overly excited about Thanksgiving or Christmas. During the days following Thanksgiving, Dad strung lights along the roof line and Mom set electric candles in the windows. Auntie Heley baked cookies. I don’t recall ever going to sit on Santa’s lap or becoming too hyped up about gifts. I have dozens of photographs taken with family over the years proving winter holiday gatherings were similar from year to year.


However, there was one holiday weekend I specifically remember.


Auntie Heley began the Christmas holiday with an excursion on Black Friday—a bus ride to Scranton for a shopping extravaganza to her favorite department store: The Globe. When I was eleven, she chose me to share the experience.


We stepped from the bus and followed the sounds of Christmas carols in the distance. We paused in front of the five-story department store, where colorful mechanical figures swirled in the window displays and a train rumbled through a tunnel and over a bridge. Festive holiday music piped onto the sidewalks. Auntie Heley squinted at the falling snowflakes. She gripped my arm to steady herself on the snowy pavement. Beaming with happiness, she exclaimed, “It’s magical, isn’t it?”


We strolled through all four levels (the fifth level contained the office areas) of the city’s grandest store, my aunt ticking items off her gift list: wallets and socks for Dad and my uncles, Jean Naté dusting powder for Mom and another aunt, and dresses for my sisters. We carefully selected the perfect hat and purse for Baba. I modeled sweaters and jumpers in the Junior Miss Department, never knowing which item would be my gift. I trusted my aunt to know best.


On this shopping day, my aunt purchased personal supplies, because, she stated, ‘it would get her through another year.’ The annual outing to the Globe was the one time she would leave the house, which made me wonder ‘why purchase eyeshadow, lipstick, and mascara if you weren’t going anywhere?’ She bought moisturizers, facial masks, and lotions while questioning the clerk about the newest Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Arden products. “These are the products you will never see in our little town,” she said rubbing samples of pale foundations onto her wrist to match tones. I believed her.


Auntie Heley slipped a jar of Pond’s facial cream into my hands. “For your mother,” she said as if reading my mind.


Our outing ceremoniously ended with lunch at the Charl-Mont, an upscale restaurant located on the mezzanine floor of The Globe. The maître d’ escorted us to a table near the window and slid the chairs out, motioning us to sit. He carefully placed leather-bound menus in our hands and unfolded fabric napkins for our laps.


Auntie Heley suggested the entree. "Prime rib. It’s the best cut of the meat and something we don’t have at home.”


“It’s expensive, Auntie Heley. A hamburger will be fine.” I made the b and the d with my fingers on my lap and then grinned, knowing the table setting would meet my aunt’s approval.


“Now, hush, Judy, dining is an event. After all that shopping, my goodness, we found everything on our list. We deserve a treat. You can have a hamburger any old time.”


I raised my milk glass and said, “Bon appétit.” My favorite aunt smiled and tipped her wine glass toward me.


As I grew into adolescence, Auntie Heley was the person I could talk to without being criticized or judged. She became my confidante. While I didn’t tell her everything, I shared more with her than anyone else. She found time to listen to the teenage angst I kept bottled inside, mostly those worries I wasn’t comfortable sharing with my parents.


After that holiday excursion, I paid attention to Auntie Heley and noticed she never started her day without taking time to make herself presentable. She had a routine she followed every morning. Regardless of what chores were on the schedule for the day, she looked radiant, her face glowing and perfectly made up. Her brown curly hair was brushed and held in place with bobby pins. A pressed blouse and tailored slacks completed her attire.


It is only since becoming an adult that I recall her weary expression and soiled apron as she toiled in her kitchen.


Several decades have passed since my initial shopping trip with Auntie Heley. As the winter holidays near, and as the advertisements for sales and special offers jam our mailboxes, I can’t help but reminisce about the excitement of my first bus ride to Scranton, the crisp air, the snowflakes, the mechanical window displays, the special lunch, and a day when I had Auntie Heley all to myself.


It was the time in my life when I witnessed Auntie Heley as a complex person with simple desires. I began to understand the importance of occasionally treating yourself and always taking the time to look your best.


The simplicity of that day was, indeed, magical!


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