Aunt Lillie’s elfin laugh abides in memory

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If you don’t know by now, I am a true sentimentalist, one who loves to collect certain items not because of their value but because of the people they represent. Thus is the collection of red wine glasses and a lovely decanter that sit beautifully in my kitchen hutch. They all once belonged to my Aunt Lillie, actually my husband’s aunt, but what does that matter? I loved her very much, and I appreciated how she welcomed me into the family, saying, “You are the perfect girl for my nephew.”  Those were just the right words, all I needed to make me adore my Aunt Lillie from that moment on. 

 I first met her when I was in college.  My husband, then boyfriend, had come to get me at Morehead State one weekend, taking me to a concert at the University of Kentucky where he was an engineering student. Honestly, I wanted to go to UK, but I chose MSU because it was where all of my favorite teachers in high school had gone, and I believed if I went there then perhaps I could one day be as good.

Besides that, even in my young mind, I felt it could create a strain on our relationship, putting pressure on him to see me often and spend more money than he had. And so, here we were seeing each other about once a month, but on this special weekend I would be meeting and staying with his Aunt Lillie, not to mention going to hear my favorite Motown singers, “The Supremes,” over at Memorial Coliseum.

My roommate had reminded me to take a small gift to Aunt Lillie, and so I picked up a box of Ruth Hunt chocolates in Morehead, dressed in my favorite skirt and sweater and headed off to Lexington that cold afternoon. When we pulled up to a lovely older home just off Richmond Road, I was impressed to say the least. The tall pillars flanked a large porch holding several urns and wrought iron settees. An elaborate green door against the dark red brick reminded me of Christmas. I stood nervously with my boyfriend, waiting for that door to open, not knowing if it would be his aunt or the maid. Neither was true. It turned out to be Uncle Otha, a tall lean man who looked to be around 60 or so, dressed handsomely in a gray suit and tie. I knew immediately that I was in the presence of a gentleman, and soon I would see his lady coming into the living room, dressed just as nicely as her Prince Charming. She was a short, petite lady with silver hair, a round pretty face, and a jolly little laugh, not like Santa, but like an elf. It was the kind of laugh that made me smile back as she escorted us into her pink living room – not Christmas, not the North Pole, but perhaps cosmetic guru “Mary Kay’s style. As I sat down in one of her winged-back, pink chairs, I could not help but wonder if there was a pink Cadillac parked in the garage.  Actually, it was all tastefully done, elegant if you will, and I could not wait to see the rest of that big house and sleep in one of the guest rooms upstairs.

Uncle Otha was into real estate in Lexington, and Aunt Lillie dabbled in the jewelry business, one day making it a little less expensive for my boyfriend to purchase that diamond ring for me.  After they had taken us to a nice dinner in downtown Lexington, my boyfriend and I went to the concert, coming back late enough into the night that I thought my host and hostess were probably fast asleep.

They were kind enough, however, to leave the lights on for me, and so I walked through their downstairs, admiring the furnishings and the accessories that Aunt Lillie had accumulated through the years. Not everything was pink, but she did love color. I found my way to the gorgeous dining room where I first laid eyes on those red wine glasses and decanter.  They sparkled in the light of the chandelier that graced a banquet size cherry table.  As I was standing in awe, I heard the soft footsteps of Aunt Lillie coming down the hall.  “Oh, I hope I did not wake you,” I remember saying. “Not at all,” she replied. “I wanted to make sure you got settled in and had all you needed for the night.” And so, we sat on the sofa in the family room and chatted, not just a few minutes, but long into the night as she told me about the family, her being the sister of my boyfriend’s mother. She told me that one of the nieces worked for the Chicago Tribune, a nephew had written the music for a popular television show, and another family member was a beauty queen who had won several contests, not to mention being one of the first to get a degree in computer programming. While that was all interesting, I was more impressed with her quiet, refined nature and her ability to relate to someone 40 or 50 years her junior.  

It was on another visit to Aunt Lillie’s a year later that she told me she thought I was perfect for her nephew, and that sealed the deal. I loved her. No, not just because she said that, but for many other reasons, things about her that I observed through the 17 years that I was privileged to be her niece. And so it was when Aunt Lillie passed away that her daughter was kind enough to ask me if there was anything I wanted that had belonged to my precious aunt. While my decorating taste ended up being far different, there was something that could fit in quite well. I asked for the red glasses and decanter, hoping that she would not tell me that she wanted them too. Finally she said, “I will think about it.” It was a few months after the funeral when my husband agreed to go over and help her pack up some personal items. When he came home he handed me a box, and inside were those perfectly wrapped glasses and decanter. 

I shall never forget the excitement I felt as I placed those glasses in my hutch. I remembered the night I first saw them as a college girl, standing there in Aunt Lillie’s beautiful dining room, wondering how I could relate to someone with such class and wealth, not realizing the special bond we would form through the years.  And now I had something to remind me of that one I so loved and admired, something to keep and pass on in the family. Those glasses joined an array of other cherished belongings, including a table my grandfather had built, an antique magazine holder that someone had given my dad to repay a loan he had made to them, old bowls that had belonged to my grandmother, and a cherry wardrobe that my mother had used for years. They all remind me of special people, all who are now gone, but ones who live on in my memory. Today as I look at those glasses and remember Aunt Lillie, I only wish she could have passed on her jolly elf laugh, for sometimes I need to hear it.

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  • Nancy, Reading your thoughts and memories of times past, warms my heart. As I've related to you in earlier communications, both my parents passed away before I was 30. I didn't have the opportunity or the maturity to appreciate them, but as time marches, the memories I do have are priceless. I have some of their belongings and personal items that I keep in visible sight in our home, along with mementos of several others in my life and family, as you have with Robert's aunt and uncle. It is nice to know that someone else treasures the folks that touch our lives the way I do! Best, Mark Byington BCHS '66