By Julie, who lives in Wisconsin, loves books, libraries and her five nieces. Julie tweets about all these things @ophelia_rises
My first memory of Aunt Theresa is of her sitting on my chest, trying to wrestle a marker from my hand. “You little shit!” she yelled, as I squirmed beneath her, fingers tight around the fat pen. I had drawn on the wall while she was babysitting me - an angry stick figure. I was mad about something; I don’t remember what. I also drew on my older brother’s face while he fell asleep on the couch. I think I was 4 or 5. Theresa was right; I was a little shit.
Theresa was 15 when I was born. Aside from the unfortunate marker incident, we got along famously. I was, perhaps, not the easiest child, but she showered me with unconditional love, making me feel like loving me was the easiest thing in the world.
For years, I was her constant companion, taking the bus around Milwaukee with her, spending entire days exploring the city. I was her little sidekick at the makeup counter as she tried on endless lipsticks and eye shadows at Gimbels Department Store. “How do I look?” she’d ask, posing and laughing in the way only the most confident people do. I'd always answer honestly; “Beautiful'.
And she was.
Smelling of Aquanet hairspray and Charlie perfume, she was the most glamorous, exciting, beautiful person I knew.
Theresa would dole out advice on our many outings. Once, sitting across from her at a table of a fancy restaurant, an impractically luxurious location for lunch with a kid under 10, her bits of wisdom included, “marry for love, but make sure he’s rich”, and, “crying can get you out of most speeding tickets.” By far the best tip was how you could use a blow dryer on your forehead for a few seconds if you wanted to feign sickness so you could miss school.
This was terrible advice. Of course it was. So I hung on every word. To date, I’ve cried my way out of three speeding tickets.
Theresa bought me my first record – The Best of Blondie. I was 8 and had no idea who Blondie was, but I knew if Theresa liked it, it must be cool. That same year, she made my Halloween costume, dressing me as Sandy from Grease; only, it was Sandy after her semi-slutty makeover at the end of the movie, when she wore tight leather pants and smoked. The school thought this was not an appropriate costume for an 8 year old and I was promptly banned from the class Halloween party. I was furious. How could these teachers not appreciate the accuracy of my costume? I was even carrying cigarettes! My aunt sympathized and took me to get my ears pierced, something my parents had previously said I couldn’t do until I was 12.
I have been lucky with aunts. They have read to me, nurtured me, knitted and sewn doll clothes for me. They have sent me to school in full makeup and leather pants and let me sneak sips of coffee. They made prank phone calls with me, back when such things were possible. I love all of my aunts. But I worshiped Aunt Theresa. The world was brighter and more colorful when I was with her.
Theresa died in 2013. She was 55.
Up until writing this essay, I had never cried about her death. Not when I wrote a piece for her eulogy and not when my dad laid a gentle hand on my shoulder saying, “she’s gone.” I think sometimes the body can’t process grief. She was too big to be gone. Too colorful, too loud. Too wonderful. Too everything.
Today, I re-read her last Facebook messages to me, written shortly before her death. I LOVE YOU JULIE. All caps. Several heart emojis. I cried then. Gasping sobs, the kind where you’re just not sure if you’ll ever catch your breath. She’s gone. The brightest star in the galaxy of women who’ve touched my life is the source of some of my dearest, funniest, most bittersweet memories, and I won’t get to make any new ones.
I have five nieces. In Spring, it will be six. Everything I am as an aunt is a tribute to Theresa. My nieces walk through life knowing they have an aunt who thinks the sun rises and sets just for them. I had that. It was lovely. It changed my life. I am happy to share it.