my aunt joan–my father’s sister–used to live in a lakehouse in indiana. she was a high-school biology teacher in a small town nearby, and she lived in this little white lakehouse which, in retrospect, i think was a trailer. in the summers we would pull up to her housetrailer in our rental car (for some reason i always remember her waiting outside for us, brandishing a garden hose), and my sister and i would spend the visit swimming and feeding the ducks on aunt joan’s lake. aunt joan’s lake, that was the name of the lake. we never called it anything else.
aunt joan was my favorite. she was the unmarried aunt without children, and this made her cool. not having kids of her own meant that she treated us with a bit less paternal condescension than our other, childweary relatives. her phone was a five-way party line, so it rang five different ways depending on who the call was for. sometimes when you picked up the phone you could hear someone else’s conversation, but you’d get in trouble if you were caught. also, she had her own lake. with ducks. “is aunt joan’s lake really aunt joan’s lake?” i asked my father. no, he said, it’s not really hers. i didn’t believe it.
my sister and my three cousins and i worshipped our cool aunt joan. the best times were when all our parents left to do some horrible grownup thing, and we had aunt joan all to ourselves. she would take us to the science lab at the high school and show us what our hair looked like under a microscope. she would let us swim for hours in her eponymous lake. she would play her alabama records for us, and we would dance around the living room to “mountain music” until we fell down from dizziness. my cousin scott was the funniest dancer–he would stomp too close to the record player and make the record skip.
when we got home from vacation i had my mom get me an alabama cassette tape, but it wasn’t the same. eventually aunt joan got a better job and moved away from aunt joan’s lake to an apartment in the city. eventually my three cousins became strangers. there are other childhood things i remember about aunt joan–how old the elevator was in her apartment, how she kept all her things organized in little baskets, how she would sing parts of songs when they came up in conversation. how everything she said always seemed more interesting because she was saying it. how her hands were always soft and dry and papery like an old woman’s, even when i was little and she was in her thirties. how i always felt special when she asked me about school and my friends. mostly, though, she’s my aunt who had a lake all her own.
my aunt joan still has no children, is still unmarried. i used to wonder about that a lot when i was little, since every other woman my mom’s age that i knew of had a husband and kids. once i asked my parents why aunt joan never got married. “well,” they said, “i guess she never found anybody she wanted to marry.” at the time i thought that was really sad, that such an awesome woman never found anybody to marry, and i hoped and prayed that she’d find someone to make her happy.
now, of course, i don’t think of it that way at all. aunt joan as a single woman is just the way it is, the way it’s always been. i’ve never had the courage to ask her, but i get the feeling that she’s as accustomed to it as everyone else is. she’s quite set in her ways at this point, and i have a hard time believing she’d move into a house with somebody and let them turn off the clock radio by the bed, or rearrange her garden, or wash the dishes in anything but scalding-hot water. i’m that way about my life sometimes. how can somebody hang their bath towel over the shower curtain rod without closing the curtain first? why would anyone rumple the floor rug in front of the couch and not bother to straighten it?
once, in my early teens i think, i overheard my aunt saying to my parents, “…and i truly believe that when we die, we all die alone.” at the time i hadn’t ever thought about dying alone, but i decided that she was probably right. after all, even if someone’s holding your hand and staring at you as you pass away, they can’t see what you’re seeing, can they? they’re not going with you where you’re going, right? no matter how many people are around when it happens, dying is something everyone does by themselves. my thirteen-year-old self also decided, right then and there, that it isn’t possible to really, truly know another person. my mom can’t look at my dad and determine what he’s thinking any more than i can. i don’t always know what my sister is going to say or what she’s going to do next. fundamentally, we’re as alone in life as we are in death.