My Aunt Rhea

October 25, 2002

When Laurie first met my parents and visited the house I was raised in, she came away without a clue as to where I’d come from. But not long after that, I took her to meet my Aunt Rhea. Laurie told me later that she stepped inside the doorway, and said to herself, “This is Kihm’s house.”

It is difficult to begin describing my Aunt Rhea’s influence on my life. She was my mother’s younger sister, as uninhibited as my mother was reserved, as energetic and original as my mother was passive and conforming, as adventurous as my mother was cautious. She was a painter, a silversmith, a potter and a knitter. She saw the artistic possibilities in everything. Her Christmas tree, always purchased at the last moment for the lowest price, came into the house as a battered, forlorn evergreen barely worthy of the name, and blossomed under her care into a glowing, shimmering wonderland. While my family’s tree was complete with lights, ornaments and tinsel, Aunt Rhea’s tree started there. I remember seeing strands of beads draped over the boughs and thinking, “but that’s jewelry…”

Speaking of jewelry, Aunt Rhea was always decked with long dangly earrings, multiple bracelets, necklaces and pins – she rattled, jangled and sparkled as she moved and she was always moving. She did everything at speed; she was multitasking before there was a word for it. One morning after the kitchen clean-up her coffee pot was missing; later, she opened the refrigerator door and there it sat. She cleaned us children thoroughly as well, putting Tide detergent in our bath water so we wouldn’t leave a ring in the tub.

She weighed 89 pounds and came by her weight honestly, working approximately 20 hours a day. I believe she slept from about 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., and the rest of the time she was moving or making or laughing and talking. She ate salads at family meals, even on Thanksgiving, giant salads, in a serving bowl that was all her own, filled with every imaginable fruit and vegetable – I recall lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, peaches, and cottage cheese with ketchup.

One New Year’s Eve, she introduced me to smoked salmon and smoked sturgeon. During a weekend sleepover, she introduced me to anchovies on homemade pizza. Coming from a Velveeta and Miracle Whip upbringing, I was swept away. One holiday afternoon, she handed me a plump brown sphere and said, “Try this. It’s a Rum Ball.” It was moist in my fingers, which should have been a red flag, but I was only a boy. I popped it into my mouth and the blast of rum fumes almost took my head off. I tried to draw fresh air in through my nose, and that made it worse. And as I recall my eyes tearing, I also remember her taking me to the Broadway Market in Buffalo and taking special care to show me the horseradish man weeping.

In a New York City hotel room, together with my cousins Snookie and Daryl, I watched Aunt Rhea eat a half-gallon of coffee ice cream with a spoon. No bowl. We kids had quarts. Mine was chocolate. We were staying up late. My mother and grandmother were at a play. In the subways, I remember her flying from pay phone to pay phone flipping open the coin returns. “A dime!” she would shout, and we would cheer. We rode from Buffalo to New York on the train, the New York Central, my mother in her seat, looking out the window, my Aunt Rhea up in the Club Car. She introduced me to the Club Car.

Her homes were decorated with small colored bottles in the windows, a silver mask with turquoise eyes, a painting of an Egyptian queen, blown glass fisherman’s floats in nets with circles of cork, oriental rugs, sofas of unexpected shapes, and tables topped with marble.

She lived in a home with my grandparents for a while, a two-family house on a corner in Buffalo, and she turned the lawn into a garden in the course of one summer. The grass disappeared and a sprawling, wildly colorful garden took its place. Her studio was in the basement, and there I would make things, ceramic boxes and statues, cleaning them off after they came out of the molds, brushing on the glaze, watching them come to life after the firing. She taught me the correct pronunciation for “kiln.” I remember her waltzing in the living room with my cousin Snookie.

I remember a more recent visit to her home in Akron, New York, an old stage coach stop with lots of land around it. Looking into the backyard, I saw scores of wild birds, chickens, ducks and squirrels gorging themselves at the feeders. Before we left, she gave us a frozen chicken, freshly slaughtered the week before, and a foot-square chunk of groundcover that she dug up for us and plopped onto a piece of newspaper. You never left a visit with Aunt Rhea empty-handed. The groundcover flourished at our home on Crawford Avenue and again here in Skaneateles.

My most recent visit with her was on Mother’s Day. She was tiny, living in a wheel chair, living in 1965. I prefer to remember her as the magnificent character she was, as the glorious influence she is even now.

She wore red to my father’s funeral.

I have always loved her madly.

They say that every child is born with creativity. If I have managed to hold on to my own, I owe it to my Aunt Rhea.

* * *

On June 14, 2005, at my cousin Daryl’s invitation, I had the honor of reading this piece aloud at my Aunt Rhea’s memorial service at the Bowmansville United Methodist Church in Bowmansville, N.Y. Many people had wonderful Rhea stories that evening. I had forgotten her love of swings; she was a child in the best sense for most of her life. Daryl spent the last two weeks of her mother’s life with her, at her bedside, and a few hours before Rhea died, Daryl was feeding her ice chips. But with one mouthful, instead of chewing, she began moving the chips towards the front of her mouth, pursed her lips, and spat a perfect fountain up into the air, and then blessed her daughter with an impish smile. A character, a joker, a joy to the last.

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