The most important influence of all was my Aunt Doll. She was my mother’s aunt who had been widowed about a month before I was born. The first time she came to visit, she must have decided that I was a pretty special baby because she moved onto our ranch and never left until her death almost twenty years later. Her real name was Katheryn, but ever since her childhood, people called her Doll because of her diminutive size. She stood a little over four and a half feet tall and weighed about eighty pounds dripping wet. Though intensely maternal, she never had any children of her own. Her sister, my grandmother, had always been a busy career woman with little time for kids, so Aunt Doll cared for my mother as her own child. When my siblings and I came along, Aunt Doll took over where she had left off with my mom.
She cooked for us, sometimes cleaned up after us, made us practice the piano, but mostly (to my father’s horror) she taught us to drink coffee. Aunt Doll drank thirty-two cups of coffee every day. I know that it was exactly thirty-two because she always counted them: Thirty-two was her limit.
My parents were afraid of Aunt Doll’s influence on me because, not only was she a coffee drinker, but she was also a smoker. She smoked three packs of red Pall Malls a day. Everything on and around her, even the food she cooked, reeked of tobacco. I have never been curious to even try a puff because I have tasted thousands of cigarettes in the air surrounding my beloved Aunt Doll. I loved her so much, but she smelled so bad. Momma and Daddy need not have worried. Her real influence on me came in the form of a 1947 green Elna sewing machine.
Aunt Doll was a professionally skilled dressmaker. As a young woman, she worked for a tailor back East where she made fully-lined winter coats and men’s suits. On the ranch she made all of her own clothes and many of ours. She even designed and constructed special soft terry cloth undershirts for my dad. Sometimes I would point out a dress that I liked in the Sears catalog, and she would appear at our door with an exact replica a day or two later. With peddle to the metal on that old Elna she spent her life sucking down coffee, puffing away on Pall Malls and watching Guiding Light on her black and white circular screen TV. What a gal!
Aunt Doll’s house was pretty and orderly. She did not buy new things for herself. Everything she owned was old, and all of it seemed to serve a good purpose. Clutter was non-existent. She had one small storage closet lined with neatly labeled boxes where she kept Christmas tree ornaments, hidden gifts for my siblings and me, and small treasures that only she understood.
On Christmas Eve of my senior year in high school, Aunt Doll was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The doctor told her that she might have as much as one year to live. With the time she had left, she marked everything she owned with masking tape which indicated the date and occasion from which each item came. She also wrote an initial of C, G, R, or M to for Clark, George, RoxAnne or Marianne. With her personal effects clearly divided, she helped ease the burden of her passing.
One item was a shoebox marked ‘M&R’ which contained nothing but napkins, napkins that she had kept from every party, wedding, and special restaurant at which she had eaten since 1927. A few months after Aunt Doll died, RoxAnne and I sat down together and read her whole life in napkins. She had cocktail napkins from bars all over the east coast, engraved napkins from her ex-sister-in-law’s various marriages, and one with the name of a mystery man scrawled across it. What a weird little education that was! We kept a few that were significant to us, like my thirteenth birthday party napkin, the one from RoxAnne’s wedding and the napkins from my niece and nephew’s baby showers, but we were in a quandary about what to do with the rest. Nobody else would want them, not even a thrift store. Nobody could use them; they were old, dusty and written on. We thought about stuffing them back in one of our dad’s outbuildings, but instead, we decided to throw them away. Our hearts were genuinely broken at the decision. I think it was the first time in my life that I had ever thrown away anything of any emotional significance.
Aunt Doll’s influence on my life was profound. I worked diligently to become an excellent seamstress. I own and use four different types of sewing machines, but my favorite is the Elna. I have never smoked. Most of all, I have never, never saved a napkin.