My great-aunt Lena, born Karolina Katharina in 1890, was one of nine children born to hard-working dirt farmers in Kansas. In her youth and early adulthood, she was demurely beautiful, with large brown eyes and long brown hair that went nearly to her waist . She was a humble soul and quiet by nature. She had the sweetest heart of anyone I have ever known.
The story goes that in her twenties she married a good-looking man from Chicago. They lived there, and Lena soon got a job as a seamstress at the Conrad Hilton Hotel. She made draperies, napkins, and tablecloths for the hotel when she began her life as a city girl. She was extremely talented and made all of her own clothes, coats, slips, robes, and nightgowns too. In fact, I only knew her to have two store bought dresses in her lifetime- one for my brother’s wedding and one for mine.
Aunt Lena had only been married a year or two when that handsome husband went out late one night for the proverbial ‘pack of cigarettes’ and never came back. Heartbroken and afraid of living in the city by herself, she packed up and moved to Amarillo, Texas to be near her sister, my grandma Martha Margaretha. It would be years before she would divorce that wayward husband, and somewhere inside, Aunt Lena made a vow to never fall in love again. She never did.
She rode the train from Chicago to Amarillo bringing with her a large, black steamer trunk packed full of her belongings. She also had a small, light brown suitcase with a darker brown stripe woven into the fabric that held her clothes. Everything she owned came with her on the train, except her faithful, black, push-peddle Singer sewing machine, which would arrive at a later date.
I remember well the small efficiency apartment she first lived in after arriving in Amarillo. Lena made do with her tiny apartment complete with a hot plate, and Murphy pull down bed. Complaining was not in her vocabulary, so Lena settled in, got a job, found the bus route, and waited patiently to move closer to her sister.
My daddy, J.C. Claughton, Jr., was a lot of things, but one of his best qualities was being faithful to visit his parents and Aunt Lena once or twice a week. He would drink coffee with them before work or stop by with some groceries on his way home from work. He was loving and faithful for all of their days.
My Grandma and Grandpa lived in a small duplex, apartment A. Side B finally became available, and Aunt Lena was given first choice. When she moved into apartment B, life truly began for Aunt Lena. Most of her eighty-eight years on this earth were spent in that little, stucco duplex on Hayden Street, twenty-five steps away from her bossy, older sister. Grandma and Grandpa had only one child, my dad, and Aunt Lena, never having children of her own, loved my dad something fierce. She adored him, and when my brother and I came along, she adored us as well.
Aunt Lena never said no to us, but she and grandma would go round and round when Lena would get tired of her bossiness and rules. If Grandma prepared a Sunday lunch, she would tell Lena what side dish to bring. If Grandma invited her friends over for Canasta, she would sometimes accuse Aunt Lena of cheating.
“I see you looking at my cards, Lena!” Grandma would announce.
“I don’t need to see your cards to win the game.” Lena returned.
“Well then, keep your eyes on your own cards.”
“Same goes for you.”
And this would go on until one of them either quit the game or Grandma would say lunch was ready. I’ve been witness to Aunt Lena throwing her cards on the table and stomping off.
“I’m going home. I don’t have to put up with your nonsense.” And she would walk the twenty-five steps home to duplex B.
Aunt Lena bought a television and Grandma had a phone line with an old black rotary phone, so they shared both the TV and the phone for the entirety of their duplex days. If Aunt Lena needed to use the phone she would have to ask Grandma, and if Grandma wanted to watch one of her ‘programs’, like Lawrence Welk, she would have to ask Aunt Lena. And I do recall Grandma paid for the newspaper, which Lena could read the next day when Grandma was finished. The two sisters negotiated their daily life decisions as sisters are prone to do.
Aunt Lena always let my brother and me have a Coca Cola at her house. (Those small 6 oz. Coke’s that came in a bottle.) Jimmy and I would be in her tiny little kitchen shaking up our coke bottles and spraying them into our mouths. Once, I recall a rather messy incident when one of us, probably my brother, shook his Coke but missed his mouth.
“Watch this,” he said. And he stuck his thumb in the coke bottle and began to shake it.
“I bet you can’t do this,” he taunted me.
And all of a sudden he missed his mouth spewing the sticky, brown liquid all over Aunt Lena’s kitchen-walls, curtains, ceiling, and floor. We stood frozen in time with our shoes stuck to the floor when Lena walked into the room. She never told on us, just helped us clean up and made us promise not to do it again.
Aunt Lena would patiently let me sit at her treadle sewing machine and sew straight lines on fabric until she taught me how to make skirts and aprons. I would have to sit up close so my feet could touch the foot pedal giving me the control. I would watch Aunt Lena take down her hair in the evenings and brush it, then braid it into one long plait down her back. In the mornings, she would unbraid, brush, then put her hair into a bun at the base of her neck. Always. No variations.
When my brother and I came by for a visit, we were supposed to go to Grandma’s house first. Grandma would get terribly jealous if we saw Aunt Lena before her. Aunt Lena would wave at us through her front window curtains as we bounded up the steps to the duplex and wait patiently until Grandma had her fill of us. This was another of Grandma’s rules: she wanted her grandkids all to herself at least for a little while. Aunt Lena never complained, but we knew it seemed unfair.
Aunt Lena was a sweet and pure soul. I never knew her to say an unkind word about anyone, not even when she was mad at Grandma. Her life was small in a lot of ways. She never drove a car, always depending on the bus, my dad or walking. On grocery day, she and Grandma would pull a little cart up the sidewalk, three blocks away to the Furr’s Grocery Store. And after their shopping, they would take turns pulling the loaded cart all the way home.
My Dad, till the day Aunt Lena died, would slip money into her checking account to supplement her small Social Security stipend. He wanted her to feel independent. She and grandma both, as they got older, would hand a blank, signed check to the grocery cashier and let her fill out the check and then they would show Daddy the receipt so he could balance their accounts.
Daddy was insistent that Grandma and Aunt Lena travel with us on our summer vacations-camping in Colorado. Although anxious about heights, Lena was a trooper and participated in everything. Once, we all rode the train from Silverton to Durango Colorado, and Aunt Lena refused to look out over the mountains, praying loudly and repeating, “Oh, the heights, the depths and the altitude! God help us all.”
Though Aunt Lena never spent money on herself, she was always generous to my dad, brother, and me. On our birthdays, she would choose a card from her box of all-occasion cards from Woolworths, and sign it: Love, Aunt Lena, slipping a crisp five-dollar bill inside.
As Aunt Lena got older, her fear and anxiety took over in ways my father could not understand. She refused to wear her dentures after going through the painful process of teeth removal. She refused to get hearing aids although she couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. And eventually, she refused to eat anything besides what she wanted: Coca Colas, peppermint candies and Tapioca pudding. And at eighty-eight, won’t we all have earned the right to eat, live and love exactly as we wish?
Dear, sweet, great Aunt Lena passed from this earth forty-four years ago. I have her black, steamer trunk still packed with her sewing shears and threads, lots of old photo albums from my dad and assorted miscellaneous items from my youth. When I pass by that old trunk, I think about a shy, young woman riding the train from Chicago to Amarillo. I think about her bravery to live life when many things seemed so scary. And I think about the way she loved us with unconditional love and devotion.
Even if our worlds are small, and the ones we love turn out not to love us back; even if we have bossy siblings and no children to care for us in our old age, we can still have kindness and choose to love those close to us. We can dare to be brave even when it hurts. We can be generous of spirit and share our worldly belongings, knowing there is always enough for everyone. Aunt Lena seemed to know all of this intuitively and perhaps that is why she was loved so dearly.