The Amy Gift

By Cynthia Cavanaugh

The Amy Gift

We were moving back “home” to the west coast from our three year stint in a mid-western city. So, I called Aunt Amy in Lincoln, told her we’d be passing through, and we’d like to take her, along with Cousin David, to dinner. No, she insisted, she wanted to cook dinner for us.

We arrived in town and settled into our motel room before heading over to “College View,” the part of Lincoln where Aunt Amy lived. Historically a bit down-trodden, houses in this neighborhood were built in the early years of the 20th century. Over the decades bathrooms had been added, a kitchen remodeled, or a basement paneled. Later it evolved into the “Historic College View Neighborhood” with its own Association and plans for a farmers market. Still, in the 1990’s, sidewalks needed repair and gentrification had yet to begin. But, gracious old trees shaded the quiet streets, and the scent of Midwest grass and blooming lilacs filled the air in July.

But this was early fall, and the leaves had just started their annual makeover. We arrived at the little house with the fake brick-patterned tar paper and wide porch where my grandfather had kept his “viewing” chair. Aunt Amy’s house hadn’t experienced the cosmetic changes of some of its neighbors, and in the big, sloping back lawn sat the clothesline never replaced by a modern dryer. Ringing the doorbell was the entry card to the perfect time-warp.

My mother’s favorite sister answered the door and we entered 1957. Amy sported a stylish wig, but otherwise, at 90, she was still the slightly overweight aunt with the Saunders eyes. The living room had hardly changed in 40 years. The sofa was different, but had never moved in my lifetime. Shelves of knick-knacks, the TV, dining room table and organ all stayed in their places of origin. Ceilings were high, rooms opened off of other rooms with no hallways to separate them, the claw-footed bathtub hadn’t been replaced, and Grandpa’s basement bedroom had become a workspace for David’s stonework. In the kitchen, a new stove, refrigerator and washer had been installed a few decades earlier, but the rectangular dinner table still sat in the middle of the room, with the single hanging light above it creating a sort of interrogation room glow. The icing on the time-warp cake was the unmistakable smell of heating gas.

We sat in the “front room” and caught up on Amy’s life, along with David’s craft fairs and his cockatiels which he paraded around town on his shoulders, as the “Birdman of Lincoln”. Two cousins who lived in town each called to say they wouldn’t be showing up after all. So much for our mini family reunion. Nevertheless, Amy and her son were interesting company.

I offered to help my aunt with the last preparations for dinner. When I arrived in the kitchen, Aunt Amy had donned a plastic shower cap over her wig. She obviously saw the look on my face: shock and awe. What purpose could a shower cap possibly serve in dinner preparations? “I wear the shower cap to keep my wig from catching fire when I’m taking the chicken out of the oven,” she explained. Yikes! How far was she planning to stick her head into the oven to retrieve the chicken? And why wouldn’t the shower cap catch fire anymore than the wig? Ruth Buzzi’s Laugh-In hairnet came to mind. I had to get my laughter-quaking body out of the room immediately. An excuse was made, and I exited to the bathroom with the claw-foot tub.

When I returned, dinner was hitting the table, and David and my husband were joining us. David reminded his mother to remove the shower cap, and we all sat down to a slightly under-cooked chicken in the “Bates Motel” kitchen. My laughter barely subsided; I just wanted to leave and share the shower cap story with Sid.

Dishes were cleared and we settled back into the living room. Aunt Amy slipped into her bedroom and brought out a large charcoal drawing of an eagle that I had drawn, and apparently gave to her when I was about 10. More than three decades later, she still had it. And she wanted me to know how much she treasured it.

At that moment, the visit turned. The requisite visit with kin, a trip down memory lane and funny stories to share with my friends suddenly transformed into a deep connection with a woman I’d hardly known. Far away from most family, I’d grown up without much adult confirmation of my worth; without heroic grown-up figures to tell me that I was special and important. And now this darling woman shared a piece of me that I had shared with her so long ago. She had cherished something that I had created and, unknowingly, was giving me a gift I’d never received: a stamp of approval of my 10 year old self.

Aunt Amy died a couple of years later, followed by Cousin David not long after. My Christmas letters to Amy during her last years were more personal and heart-felt. I fantasized that, had we lived closer, she might have been the aunt I would have wanted; the one I could go to for outside support and nurture. Having grandchildren of her own, she may never have been that aunt. That didn’t matter. Her gift to me changed some perceptions of my childhood, and I looked at family photos of all those trips to the Midwest in a new light. I saw myself surrounded by a big, loving family who embraced me and, in my adult years, I would reach out to them for even stronger connections. I found myself several aunts and an uncle, along with numerous cousins, who brought the family ties I wanted. A sweet woman and a drawing made all of that happen.

About this writer

  • Cynthia CavanaughCynthia Cavanaugh is a textile designer who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband and three furry friends. After a career in the art world, she found her writing voice and inspiration from the big and small moments of her life and the world around her.

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5 Responses to “The Amy Gift”

  1. Stephanie says:

    What a wonderful story by a talented writer. I hope she contributes more articles!

  2. Your story was a delightful trip down Memory Lane. As we get older, we do change our perspectives.

  3. Michele Paul says:

    I so related to your story. You put into words how I felt when meeting with my seldom visited relatives in Wisconsin. Sweet story-

  4. Enjoyed your writing style and humor sprinkled throughout your story with a lesson. We all need to take the time to appreciate the little gift’s life sends our way.

  5. Cynthia Cavanaugh says:

    Hi Alice, I’m just reading your sweet comment about “The Amy Gift” and I want to thank you for your input. When we think about our life’s experiences, sometimes we see, from a distance, how much impact they make.

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