Aunt Ada’s house had a white picket fence.
Like the zigzag-cut edges of a square 1950s black and white photograph, the fence surrounded the entire perimeter of her one-acre property. Her cozy, clapboard-sided Cape Cod—white with red shutters and trim—occupied a corner of this picket fence photograph. And although a decades-old photo may fade, my memories of Aunt Ada are as sharp and clear as ever.
When I was a young boy in the late ’60s Aunt Ada was in her late sixties. Technically, she wasn’t really my aunt—not my mom’s or dad’s sister—she was actually my paternal grandmother’s sister; but I grew up calling her Aunt Ada.
Short and plump, she had wispy brown and grey hair in a style befitting a woman her age. She was soft-spoken and amiable. From even my earliest memories, her face, although slightly withered from age, was always genial, always companionable. Aunt Ada’s eyes were graced with crow’s-feet—the consequence of wearing a perpetual smile. One could not help but see in her a helpful and caring friend. Her demeanor revealed a gentle and sincere person, and it was not possible to be uncomfortable in her presence—attributes that were the result of Jesus living in her.
My mother, knowing how much I enjoyed spending time with Aunt Ada, would often arrange overnight visits for me throughout the year—usually in the summer or autumn. And Aunt Ada always welcomed me with genuine affection.
Aunt Ada’s house was more than just a mere structure—wood and plaster pasted together to form a shelter from the elements—its walls enveloped more than just furniture, plumbing, and wiring. There was a warmth and comfort inside that anyone could feel—a benevolence that emanated from the love that lived within those walls. Aunt Ada harbored so much love—so much altruism—she couldn’t give it away quickly enough; and any surplus was fated to linger in her home.
Aunt Ada’s house was certainly more to me than a mere dwelling; it was my escape from the real world of school bullies, the cruel invectives volleyed by insecure and thoughtless fellow humans, and all the other unpleasantness and ugliness that had already transformed me into a cynic by the time I was twelve years old. Aunt Ada’s house was my portal to a realm where life’s absurd—and often unreasonable—demands were denied entry. It was, in my mind, the proverbial storybook cottage; it was as close as I could get to stepping into a peaceful and untroubled world where—just like in some illustrations I’d seen in children’s books—fairytale characters wandered through the woods, picking berries for a homemade pie. At Aunt Ada’s house I could step into these pictures and become part of their promise—the promise of a carefree world. Grandma’s house without the wolf. Hansel and Gretel without the witch.
Birdhouses abounded in the many dogwood, maple, and cherry trees; I’d watch the cardinals and jays flit about, pecking at the seed that Aunt Ada had left for them. Even the smallest of God’s creatures benefited from her generosity; and as I watched the birds accept her provision I realized that Aunt Ada was a giver—not a taker.
She had placed lawn ornaments sporadically throughout her meticulously manicured property; one of them, a lawn jockey (that I, in my youthful naïveté, thought was supposed to be Al Jolson), stood sentry beneath an oak tree, waving his lantern at the entire scene. At dusk, Aunt Ada would let me turn on his lantern from a wall switch in the kitchen. This simple gesture did not lack significance; it said to me that I was more than just a visitor in her home—it meant that I had something to contribute. It was kind considerations such as this that endeared her to me.
A cobblestone walkway meandered from the front of the house around past the side door and into the backyard. Soft green moss and grey lichens grew between the cobblestones like a natural woodland grouting.
There was a brick fireplace in the backyard, and we would enjoy toasty evening fires on spring, summer, and drizzly autumn evenings. Dense shrubs and myriad trailing plants sewed their way at will throughout the picket fence and some decorative latticework. English ivy sprawled above in the overhead beams constructed alongside the garage. All of these combined to create an intimate corner and cozy arbor hung with natural curtains of myriad flora.
Sometimes, her sister—my grandma—Rosa would come over to join us for an evening fireside chat. Warmed by the crackling flames, Aunt Ada and my grandma would visit together, absorbed in quiet and affable conversation. The crickets chirped their unique song, and the silent fireflies performed their sparkling, floating dance.
Aunt Ada entrusted to me the task of steadily feeding sticks into the flames, and I was proud and honored that she trusted me—a mere boy—with fire. One stick in particular served a very special purpose—if only for a few minutes—and was never placed completely into the fire to be consumed until its singular purpose had been fulfilled.
Stuffed with toasted marshmallows, I would doze in my lounge chair as the murmur of my companions’ tranquil, restful voices lulled me off to sleep. But before long—and too soon—grandma would leave for home and Aunt Ada would rouse me from my shivering slumber and shuffle me off to bed.
Bedtime was always a treat at Aunt Ada’s house. I couldn’t wait to climb the stairs up to her cozy attic guest bedroom. The wooden staircase, built into a small coat closet in one of the bedrooms, extended almost straight up—like a ladder—to the attic. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time; I was afraid of falling, but it was also like climbing through a secret passage to a hidden chamber. I never could make up my mind if I liked climbing it or not.
The attic bedroom was welcoming and comfortable. A clean, fresh “country cabin” fragrance emanated from the cedar A-frame ceiling. The carpeting was plush. Charming European knick-knacks, including some Delft pieces, graced the shelves—and a water pitcher that she used as a flower vase sat on a small wooden table in the corner. Small framed oil paintings depicting autumnal landscapes—probably in Holland or Austria—hung on the walls.
The mattress was firm, and the snow-white bed linens were clean and tightly tucked with hospital corners. The comforter was plush and warm, and the moment that I became enveloped in its luxurious softness, I knew that no harm would come to me. I experienced a curious dichotomy of sensations as I snuggled into that bed—the super-firm mattress beneath and the cushiony, spongy comforter above—I loved it.
Lying there, waiting to fall asleep, I’d listen to the myriad sounds that drifted in along with the breeze, the comforting rhythm of the wind-up clock on the bureau providing a soothing accompaniment to the crickets. Aunt Ada’s threat of my becoming a midnight snack for the bedbugs scared me in the beginning—but only for the first few visits.
In the morning Aunt Ada made bacon and eggs with hashed browns—my favorite. And pancakes. While she cooked, I sat in the corner at her little kitchen table, staring out the window at the picket fence, the birds, and the trees.
Among the knick-knacks perched on a trio of corner shelves above my head was Aunt Ada’s three-minute egg timer. It began as a whim but immediately evolved into a tradition for me to play with the timer while she prepared breakfast. I’d sit quietly, flipping it first one way, then the next—back and forth—watching as the tiny granules sifted through the miniscule channel in the glass. Four inches high and two inches in diameter, it was made from a section of pine branch, a concave scoop hollowed out from the center to make a place for the glass tube. It was just the type of trinket one would expect to find at an Indian trading post in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Another of my favorite things was a small balsam fir needle-filled pillow—a souvenir Aunt Ada had brought back from New Hampshire. I never tired of burying my nose in it to savor a whiff of “Christmas”.
Sometimes, on cool summer evenings Aunt Ada would take me to New York’s Jones Beach State Park. Thousands of fragrant honeysuckle plants, geraniums, and evening primroses—thoughtfully planted in well-kept flowerbeds along both sides of the brick walkways that meander throughout the park—sent up a veil of heavenly scents that wafted about with the incoming ocean breeze.
By the water, we’d stroll unhurriedly along the boardwalk, stopping at the outdoor band shell to listen to the live music—some nights it was swing, some nights, polkas. Sometimes we’d play shuffleboard. Aunt Ada would encourage me while I roller skated in the outdoor rink that was cleverly constructed amidst the sand dunes and native plants. The salty breeze coming in off the Atlantic was invigorating and delightful—and always made me hungry for seafood. Aunt Ada would buy me a corn dog or some French fries from one of the vendors on the boardwalk.
Activities such as these were a plus; I would have been content always to have just sat with Aunt Ada in her yard, lazily chatting and gazing about her storybook world.
My older brother made a few dollars one summer when Aunt Ada paid him to apply a fresh coat of white to the picket fence. I was there too, and I insisted upon helping. He wouldn’t let me. When I stomped inside to ask Aunt Ada to make him let me help she kindly and tactfully explained that it was a task for an older person; and she promised that someday she’d let me paint her fence. She had diffused the situation with gentleness and honesty, and my already healthy respect for her grew even more that day.
Aunt Ada died before I could paint her fence.
There are many good reasons why Aunt Ada’s house was such a wonderful place to be—that it was of such extraordinary character. It reflected her own. It was an appropriate extension of the very person she was. Like her, Aunt Ada’s home was of an Old World style—unpretentious and comforting.
I don’t have a cozy arbor—but I have Aunt Ada’s egg timer. I don’t have an outdoor fireplace—but I have Aunt Ada’s balsam fir pillow. And I have my memories.
And someday I, too, will have a white picket fence.