This is my fifth day of 60 days of gratitude for people in my life. For 60 days I’m writing a post to celebrate my 60th birthday. Enjoy this essay about my Uncle Walt and Aunt Aileen!
“So I took the fifty thousand dollars and I bought a pair of roller skates!” That’s what my Uncle Walt said once and it became the line that everyone used to characterize him! I never understood the story, but those words somehow encapsulate his lighthearted view of life.
Uncle Walt was my Dad’s oldest brother by fifteen years. He was an attorney in the small town of Celina, OH, not far from the even smaller town of Coldwater where the Bernard family grew up. Aileen Courtney, his wife, was my Grandma’s younger sister, making Aileen my aunt AND my great aunt!
We visited them regularly for summer holidays, driving the one and a half hours from Dayton, OH through small towns until we passed Grand Lake Saint Mary’s with all its tiny cottages right next to the road. The usual activity at Uncle Walt’s house was playing croquet in their back yard. If you’re not familiar with croquet, it’s that game with wire wickets set up in a course around the yard through which players hit wooden balls with wooden mallets trying to be the first one to maneuver the entire course. Like the other games our family played, anyone could play, and my Dad and Uncle Walt offered handicaps to level the field. It felt pretty good to be able to beat one of the grown- ups every once in a while!
Thanksgiving was the big day with them, though! Every year, with only a rare miss, until I was 24, I celebrated Thanksgiving at Aunt Aileen’s and Uncle Walt’s. We’d get up early and trundle into the already-packed car, arriving when they were just getting up. Dad wanted to go early so he and his brother, with an army of others, could go rabbit hunting in the farm fields of Mercer County.
Starting at around age 10, I had the privilege of going hunting with them. I didn’t carry or shoot a gun. My job was to walk abreast of my Dad, Uncle Walt, my cousins Terry and Nancy, then later, her husband, Stan, and my brother Dan. Those were the usual hunters who I remember. My job, I started to say, was to flush out the rabbits. I only remember flushing out one rabbit, and that was a frozen one, sitting perfectly upright and still!
Mostly, what I loved was just walking across the fields of cut corn and soybeans, smelling the dry crops, studying the frost on the edges of the broad leaves and listening to my relatives talking and making jokes. It felt really special to me to get to go hunt rather than stay at the house with all the other family. I got to be outside all day!
There were so many farms there in the countryside, but Uncle Walt would say, “Oh, it’s OK if we hunt here. I know this farmer.” Sometimes he would talk with a farmer outside near the barn. I thought he must know EVERYONE! In fact, he even knew somebody at the ice cream stand on the other side of town from their house! I never did figure out who we were going to see when Uncle Walt would say, “Come with me. There’s a man I need to talk with on the other side of town.” Then, he’d drive to Dairy Queen and buy me an ice cream cone.
And I thought it was pretty impressive that my uncle had his name in gold letters emblazoned on a certain window on the second floor of a building on the main street in Celina. “Bernard Law” the arching letters said. “He must be really important,” I thought. Well, I knew he was important to ME, because he did those same fun things with me and my siblings every time we visited! We’d play, go see that man across town, build a fire in the fireplace, and cook out in the backyard.
The picture was completed with my Aunt Aileen’s part. For Thanksgiving, she would make chili for lunch, her own brand of chocolate chip cookies for snack, and prepare a sumptuous banquet for supper. My mom would always bring the pies, but Aunt Aileen made everything else.
A few times I got to go visit Aunt Aileen and Uncle Walt (that always rolls out as one long word!) for a whole week by myself! Just like solo visits to my Grandma’s, these were special visits too. I don’t remember being lonely there because there were so many fascinating things to play with. Aunt Aileen had a cupboard in the kitchen with the games I could choose – Pick Up Sticks, Mr. Potatohead, and one of those cards with the face and the iron shavings that you’d move around with a magnetic rod. In the living room there were several decks of cards in a certain drawer. I would build card houses for hours! And then, downstairs in the basement, there was this Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest board game to play.
But nothing created memories of Aunt Aileen’s basement like roller skating! Either by myself or with siblings, roller skating in Aunt Aileen’s basement was a formative practice second to none! I could skate there for hours, getting my maneuvering around each pole just right, moving around the chairs and the ping pong table without poking my hip, even occasionally sneaking through the huge built-in closet with two doors.
So, maybe that’s where that $50,000 for the roller skates came from! Maybe that’s all got to do with the investment my aunt and uncle made in taking care of his brother’s kids, that priceless gift of making us feel special and having childhood adventures and being conscientious community people in a small town. I’m sure Aunt Aileen and Uncle Walt had struggles and disagreements and difficult times, but in my eyes they were prosperous, generous, and optimistic.
It’s still hard for me to send off a loved-one who is driving off without dancing after them waving goodbye with both arms, making funny faces and shouting Goodbyyyye!” until they’re out of sight. That’s what Uncle Walt used to do, and it caught on.
So, thanks Uncle Walt and Aunt Aileen for helping me develop a light heart!