I always found it interesting how a woman with three daughters of her own, along with a son — not to mention three other nieces from another sister — could still have so much love in her heart to cherish me the way Aunt Sue did. My memory consists of a laundry list of loving gestures, encouraging comments and just general kindness that she bestowed upon me, mostly from ages five through nine. I always felt very special in her presence; it was as if I was her favorite out of all the kids on my mother’s side of the family.
Me, age 4 months, with Aunt Sue.
About ten years ago, while my mother was still alive, I asked Mom for her opinion of why Aunt Sue adored me so, when she had children of her own. Mom’s response went something like, “Well, I was her baby sister, and after she and Aunt Berniece each had three daughters, she was very happy when I got to have a baby girl of my own.”
Sweet in concept, perhaps, but I think there was more to it than that. There was something about me that seemed to resonate with my aunt. I was precocious, yet vulnerable; curious, bright and somewhat entertaining, I would tell jokes and stories, and do impersonations (Gomer Pyle and Sgt. Carter were crowd-pleasers). I loved reading, and was good at it.
Considering all of that, I also realize now that she — being aware that there was a lot of tension and turmoil in my home — enjoyed providing a haven for me when she babysat me or when I would spend a weekend with her family. I was a gifted child in need of cultivation, protection and most of all, unconditional love. Corporal punishment so commonplace back in those days, she was one adult that never rose a hand to me, ever — or to any of her own kids for that matter; it simply wasn’t her way.
Some of my earliest memories of Aunt Sue are when I had a loose tooth that was ready; my mother would take me to her house and my aunt would pull it with a small pair of pliers. Seems crazy now, but back then it became routine; loose tooth ready, and it was off to “Aunt Sue and Uncle John’s” small home on Alcala St. Originally a two-bedroom, one-bath home, the garage had been converted into a bedroom (where son David slept), and there was a “utility room” off the kitchen where they kept their washer and dryer. French doors led from the dining area out to their shady backyard. (That was the first time I had ever seen doors like that, and I remember thinking they were rather cool and different.)
When I was about six, as we sat in her dining room, Aunt Sue drew a small portrait profile of me, and wrote a poem underneath it, about “Kelly” and “jelly” and “belly,” and it was very endearing — not at all insulting or teasing. I thought it was incredibly flattering and — even more so — amazing that she was such a good artist. That was truly a turning point for me. I wanted to draw — and be able to write — just like her. I held onto that work of art for years after that, but somehow lost track of it over time.
Around the same time, my mother casually mentioned to me that Aunt Sue wanted to get me into TV commercials. Too young to wonder “why me, and not her own kids,” I again felt somewhat special, but didn’t give it much more thought. I just remember assuming that all commercials were live, and how mortified my mom would be if I ate a booger on TV (“Kelly, dammit, no, no, noo0ooo!,” she would shout at our Sylvania, with a smoldering Kent dangling between two of her slender fingers).
Years later I found out that Aunt Sue — planning on being my agent — had sent photographs and a bio of me to some studios in Los Angeles/Hollywood, and a couple of them actually responded, showing interest; but (according to Mom) our families weren’t able to afford to get me down for screen tests, auditions, etc.
(No coincidence that, while pursuing my acting career 25 years later, I would feel my aunt’s presence on every commercial audition I would go out on.)
At about age seven I spent a weekend at Aunt Sue’s and somehow acquired a white kitten from some neighborhood kids whose cat had had a litter eight weeks before. Aunt Sue suggested I name her Puffy, so I gladly obliged. My aunt had a Siamese cat named Samantha (obvious at the time, from Bewitched), so I figured it couldn’t hurt to follow in her footsteps when it came to animals, as well. My dad hated cats, so Puff wasn’t all that well received, but I got to keep her, anyway.
I remember Aunt Sue driving a silver 1967(?) Mustang around that time. I don’t remember ever riding in it, but just knowing she drove around in it only added to her coolness, from my perspective.
“Do you think I’ll be tall and thin like you someday, Mommy,” I asked my 5’9” mother one day. Without missing a beat, she replied, “No, honey, you’re probably going to take after Aunt Sue; shorter, with a nicer, curvier figure.” I remember beaming at that prospect; I mean, how bad could that be?
When I was eight, Aunt Sue’s middle daughter Julie was getting married, and wanted me to be the flower girl in her wedding. (At the time I didn’t see any issues, but looking back, I was probably more like a junior bridesmaid. Whatever.) Julie wanted to leave my lacy, just-above-the-knee dress white (probably another faux pas in today’s bridal books), which seemed fine, but thanks to the artistic endeavors of some overzealous student at Delta Beauty College, I wound up with a ridiculous hairstyle that looked just like my mom’s and Aunt Sue’s beehives, only I had ringlets hanging down.
Mom, Bride Julie, Aunt Berniece and Me (with my WTF ‘doo).
Albeit my nervousness about my upcoming trek down the aisle, I did feel kind of like a princess — even a bit of a mini-celebrity — and I remember Aunt Sue gently pulling me aside about 30 minutes before show time and saying, “Now, remember, people are not going to be looking at you; they’ll be looking at the bride.” However that sort of counsel would come across now to some people 48 years later (where so many children are made to feel like the center of the universe), I thought it was sage advice back then, and it sort of took the pressure off. It also taught me at a young and very impressionable age that, no matter how special you are (or feel), there will be times when you need to step back and let others shine.
Groom Mike (who, years later came out of the closet), Bride Julie, Aunt Sue and Uncle John.
As for that stupid hairdo, the real laughs — at my expense, anyway — actually came the morning after the wedding, when the whole mess had shifted to one side after I had slept on it all night. I had stayed at Aunt Sue’s, and I remember the raucous guffaws from my cousin David and his friends when I stepped out onto the front porch in my kitten-printed flannel PJs. Not up for the jabs, I went back inside and looked in the mirror to see a sad, freckled face, crowned with what looked like brunette roadkill. I was mortified and on the verge of tears, but Aunt Sue swept in and helped to disassemble the train wreck that was my hair, and soon all was right with the world again.
To be continued.