By Julie, who lives in Wisconsin, loves books, libraries and her five nieces. Julie tweets about all these things @ophelia_rises
Of all the nieces in our sprawling family, I was my Aunt Carol's favorite.
At least that's how she made me feel.
I suspect she made everyone feel that way when she'd lean into her chin and eye you across the table as you spoke, looking as though there was no other place she'd rather be, and that you, a bruised legged, awkward child, were weaving the most fascinating tale.
My aunt had four sons. One day, when the family was getting ready to take a summer road trip, a common Wisconsin family vacation, she hesitated at the door. She couldn't bring herself to go outside, her feet refusing to cross the threshold. Things changed for her that day. She seldom left the house after that.
In many ways, my aunt's life shrunk that day. In other ways, it grew. She read. Everything. Books covered every flat surface, sometimes piled precariously high. Haphazard and chaotic, auto repair manuals next to Edith Wharton. It was wonderful.
Agoraphobia took a lot from my aunt, but it made her turn her home into a magical place, full of surprises and curiosities. She brought the world to her.
She painted. She sewed. She taught me to crochet, showing endless patience as I sat there, near tears with a pile of knotted yarn at my feet.
My whole life, I never heard her raise her voice in anger. Her laugh, though; full and throaty and joyful. Head thrown back and eyes closed, she savored every moment.
Aunt Carol had a globe in the living room and a set of encyclopaedias. Once, as I sat on the floor thumbing through the M volume, reading about Claude Monet, I accidentally tore a corner of the fine paper. I looked up, horrified, but she crouched next to me and rested her hand at my back, saying "That's the sign of a book that is loved. That's what really matters - that the book is loved."
My 12th year was a rough one. In addition to the usual near-teenage awkwardness, I found myself being physically abused by my older brother. To this day, I have a small white scar below my lower lip that serves as a reminder of the damage a teenage boy can do. Let me tell you something about small town America - when the victim is a chubby, quiet nerd and the perpetrator is a popular high school athlete, most eyes become averted.
I was sent to my aunt's that summer. She taught me to peel an apple so the skin was one long continuous ribbon, showing me there's beauty in the every day. She'd leave books at the foot of my bed, some with passages underlined and notes in the margin in her neat hand. "So manipulative!" she wrote about Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester. It's the summer I discovered Anne of Green Gables, and my first literary crush, Gilbert Blythe. It's the summer I became a reader. It's the summer I healed.
That summer remains the best of my life, the one I measure every other summer against. My Aunt Carol remains the best aunt I could've had, whose love and patience I try to mimic as I sit listening to my own 9 year old niece, thinking, "oh, you beautiful, beautiful girl."
Carol painted the picture of a house with a beautiful garden included here. It hangs in my parents' home and will one day hang in mine.
The other picture is of a chicken shaped candy dish Carol owned and is now on my coffee table. I have a long standing fear of birds; the summer I stayed with her, this chicken mysteriously appeared before me at odd times. There it would be, sitting outside the bathroom door, or staring menacingly from the nightstand as I slept. Then, next time, perched behind me on the couch as I read. Aunt Carol moved this god damn chicken dish around all summer. I still hate birds, but I love this dish.