Spotlight: Who is Auntie Jill?
“I ain’t got no food in the refrigerator,” Auntie Jill’s voice barks from my phone.
As a kid, she terrified me—and still does, at forty-three. I reduce the volume to one bar. We are planning my stay with her in Detroit over Memorial Day. To friends, I’ve dubbed this sojourn a Guilt Trip, which makes me wonder if I’m as mean as I sound.
“You got any plans to visit Detroit?” Auntie Jill asks each time we talk. What she means is, how do I find time to fly to Denmark, Venice, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Basel, Cabo, London—but never Detroit? I haven’t traveled back home since my uncle’s funeral six years ago. She is the last of my family living there, and the last of her family still alive. We’ve been halfheartedly struggling via telephone for six years to nurse a bond between us that never existed.
“That’s alright, we can go grocery shopping when I get there.”
“I don’t eat nothing anyway,” she says.
“I can cook,” I offer.
“Nah,” she says. “I hate cleaning up the mess. You drink coffee?”
“Well, I’ve got that.”
“Great!” I say, mustering cheer. The line falls silent. I sputter, “Hey, maybe we could go downtown. The New York Times did one of those Thirty-Six-Hours-in-Detroit—”
“You can, but I ain’t getting shot!”
“What about Detroit Institute for the Arts? I hear—”
“Nah. I hate art.”
“—Or Corktown? There’s supposed to be a bunch of cool shops and restaurants—”
“I AIN’T DOING THAT!” she says. “Not interested!”
I sigh, knowing there’s one activity we’ll do together—my sole escape from watching television with her all day.
“Can I go with you to bingo?” I ask.
* * *
Uncle Buddy and Auntie Jill moved from a charming old cottage in Dearborn to Brownstown Township in the early 2000’s. Their house is tucked into a curve of a Del Webb community, one of those eerie master-planned Edens where every home is essentially the same. Owners can select sunrooms or covered porches, garages on the right versus the left, and adornments like copper cornices or Doric columns. Everything is new, the insides and outsides painted white.
After a three-hour flight from Seattle, GPS guides my rental car into the subdivision passed a man-made lake, whose central fountain jets forty feet into the air. I putt-putt past rolling bluegrass lawns and an unending ribbon of concrete sidewalks, pulling into Auntie Jill’s driveway. Six years ago, grief held us together and gave us purpose. This time, it was just her and me.
Why was I burning my vacation on this?
Because I am a dutiful niece. Auntie Jill is alone. Because she won’t stop asking when I plan to visit Detroit—though she’s technically never invited me to stay.
A woman power-walking by waves hello as I step out of the car and buckle under the humidity. I wave back, surprised. In Seattle, people pretend that they don’t see you on the street. I wheel my suitcase to the front door and ring the bell; the television blares inside. A minute later, the deadbolt clanks and the screen door opens with a metallic wheeze.
“It’s about time!” Auntie Jill says, squinting against the light.
“Hi!” I say, feigning brightness. “Sorry, I had to pick up my rental car.”
I follow her inside to find every shade pulled. There are no framed photos or art on the eggshell-white walls. It looks like she just moved in; there’s hardly any furniture.
“I wondered what took you so long,” she snorts, eying me.
* * *
My first morning, Auntie Jill shuffles into the kitchen, plugs in Mister Coffee and settles into her La-Z-Boy with a groan. She flips on the television at 8:11 a.m. each morning, a minute after her alarm sounds. With the exception of bingo and bathroom breaks, she remains in front of the TV until bedtime at 11:30 p.m.
Her puffy hazel eyes blink at the blue-white TV light as Dick Clark narrates the categories on $25,000 Pyramid. From his banter with the contestants, a housewife and a mechanic, I discern that the episode was originally broadcast circa 1982.
Waiting for the coffee to brew, I wander into an alcove that contains a card table topped with moldering plants: an organ pipe cactus, a violet, a lily. My uncle used to paint pictures in this space, given the good light from windows on three sides.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with ‘em,’” Auntie Jill says, padding up behind me. She reaches past me to turn each of the pots counterclockwise a few times. I poke a finger into their too-wet soil and wince.
“What’re you doing?” she snaps as I pull the cord to open the blinds. She falls back to the dim kitchen. She hasn’t drawn the shades since I arrived, though it’s sunny. I sense that it’s been dark inside the sunroom, and the rest of her house, for years.
* * *
Now that Uncle Buddy is dead, Auntie Jill doesn’t stock the refrigerator. She wasn’t kidding about that. Her kitchen counter is flecked with errant coffee grounds that would have driven Uncle Buddy crazy. A white coffee mug lays mouth-down on a wrinkled paper towel where she leaves it to dry each day.
“Why use a new towel if the old one’s still good?” she says to the room. Her coffee—decaf—is thin, brown water splashed with fat free milk and a teaspoon of refined sugar. The teaspoon she uses to stir it leaves a tawny halo at one corner of the wrinkled towel.
This is breakfast. I’ll soon discover that getting Auntie Jill out of the house to play bingo is not merely a means of escaping the unending parade of television shows but my one daily opportunity for caffeine and a meal.
* * *
Normally, it wouldn’t be my first choice to spend a sunny summer afternoon inside the Democratic Club of Taylor, Michigan: a squat, windowless brick building on Wick Road outside of Detroit. A strip of thick, unmowed bluestem grass flanks the faded black-topped parking lot. The marquee out front reads, “BINGO! Monday nite 6:30 p.m.,” as if the locals don’t know. No one plays bingo here except people from neighborhood who have come for years, a cohort thinning with time.
The Democratic Club looks the same today as it did in 1945, the year it was built, the same year my parents were born. A dented brass ashcan lingers at the main entrance, a battle-worn sentry brimming with red-lipped cigarette butts. Everyone we pass tosses greetings at my aunt’s feet, like roses to a matador. “Hi there, Jill—Hey, Jill—Nice to see ya, Jill—Ya gonna win big today?”
The cracked glass doors swing open to reveal a wall clock with a yellowed cataracted lens, rows of mismatched card tables, and stiff, high-backed chairs whose pilled maroon fabric speaks of a ring-a-ding age. Strips of faux-wood veneer peel back from the ceiling fan blades.
At the front of the hall, the old, square bingo-ball monitors hail from an era when TV sets were furniture. The low-pile industrial brown carpeting seethes a funky potpourri of cleaning fluid, ozone and decades-old cigarette ash ground in by the soles of worn loafers.
This is where Auntie Jill plays bingo on Monday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. She arrives early for the fish fry on Fridays; people around here are still Catholic, somehow. The other days, she plays at American Legion Auxiliary #200 or the Knights of Columbus #4872 on Brest Road. On Sundays, she plays a double-header between the two.
The only day she skips is Tuesdays. “I figure I shouldn’t play bingo every day of the week,” she says.
Bingo has always been Auntie Jill’s sacred space, but after Uncle Buddy died, it became her life. Most players are women, many of them widows—and it doesn’t hurt that she wins. Auntie Jill has always been lucky, the type who finds four-leaf clovers in vast green fields. These days, she scores enough at bingo that she doesn’t touch her monthly retirement check.
* * *
The first game gets going when an ancient, bird-boned woman belts out, “BALLS!” from the row behind us. I peep backwards, waiting for a hand to tap the back of my head, like in church. She’s barely five feet tall, topped with a tight mop of snowy Jheri curls.
“She’s got BALLS!” shouts the pudgy proctor who verifies her winning pull-tab.
I’ve made the mistake of looking away from my twelve boards. Now I’m behind on I-25 and B-10. Dab. Dab-dab. Dab-dab-dab. I can’t hit them all with hot pink ink before the emcee mouths, “B-3.”
No one yells, “Bingo!” but several tabletop machines chime Ziiiiiing! in unison, meaning that a few people are close. The emcee announces new balls—G-57… O-70—and I hold my breath in anticipation of someone claiming victory. Sixty-odd bodies in the cavernous space vibrate with the same restlessness.
My machine is playing twelve electronic games and I’ve got twelve paper boards in front of me on the card table; I am not close to bingo on any. Auntie Jill stabs her bright orange dauber—dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab—across her twenty-four paper boards. She glances over at mine and reaches across without asking permission—dab-dab-dab—hitting a G-45 and two O-70’s that I missed. Her orange ink doesn’t match the pink I’ve been using.
* * *
The gridded acoustic ceiling is missing tiles like the few old men amongst us are missing teeth. Auntie Jill doesn’t seem affected by the surroundings: the burnt-out reader-board lights, the scuffed beige walls, the drooping American flag. She doesn’t cringe at the squink of white Styrofoam cups filled with scorching black coffee and dusty non-dairy creamer. On break, she buys a jelly donut from the service counter whose faded handwritten menu of hot dogs, french fries, chips, and soda curls at the edges.
Two rows up, a golden chihuahua named Charley gives an exhausted sniff from inside his owner’s giant blue purse, channeling my ennui.
Auntie Jill remains focused on her boards and the ritual of changing out her primary-colored daubers by round: blue for pink, pink for green, green for orange. She pays no mind to the crooked French Manicure Press-On nails that appear a foot tall on the monitor when the emcee holds bingo balls in front of the camera. Instead, she growls at her glass good luck charms—a red ladybug and a pink pig—each time she loses a round.
“Come on, you guys! What are you, asleep?!”
Eventually, a hoarse belch of, “Bin-Go!” rises from the back of the hall to put us out of our misery.
Auntie Jill and I tear off sheets of newsprint, rip-rip-rip, and throw thirty-six losing bingo boards into the wastebasket as green games give way to yellow. I’m stung by pangs of Left Coast guilt at the voluminous paper I know will not be recycled but left to rot in a landfill for future generations. None of this bothers my aunt.
“What do I care if they don’t recycle? I’ll be dead anyway!” she snorts.
* * *
It’s ridiculous that I’m cowed by this short, apple-shaped woman. Barely five-foot-two, Auntie Jill can turn me into a quivering six-year-old by unloading rapid-fire questions: You still working for that architecture firm? How long has it been? What’s your job, again? Didn’t you go to school for graphics or English or something? What does marketing have to do with that?
She neither ponders nor reflects on my stuttered, convoluted answers to these simple questions; my world sounds unnecessarily complicated, even to me, when I explain it. She grunts and chambers the next and the next. At home, I always phone her in the late afternoon so that, after thirty minutes, I can say it’s time for dinner. In person, there’s nowhere to run.
You still with that same guy? You ever think of getting married? How come you ain’t never had no kids—don’t you want ‘em?
After we get home from bingo, I scuttle into my uncle’s La-Z-Boy where she fires more inquiries—You ever gonna talk to your dad again?—drowning out Alex Trebek on TV. Alex corrects a contestant—“Not quite. The question is, Who is Grover Cleveland?”—and I realize that talking with Auntie Jill is like being a contestant on an aggressive game show where my answers are never quite right.
* * *
I was shocked when my aunt first invited me to bingo in 2011. She never asked anyone to join her.
Uncle Buddy was fighting lung and liver cancer at the time. He scuffed out after us onto the driveway in his navy robe, pajamas and slippers, waving while Auntie Jill backed her powder blue Chrysler Pacifica into the street. She rolled down the passenger window and leaned over me to yell, “Get back inside, Frankie! It’s too cold to be standing out here!”
It was early March. The yard was covered in patchy snow.
I waved to my uncle, lingering in the driveway. He adjusted the black newsboy cap over his bald head with one hand and waggled the other at me. “Goodbye, Sweet Pea,” he called. He looked frail, his thin olive skin faded to yellow-white.
“Get inside!” she shouted.
He flapped a dismissive wave, Bah!
She idled until Uncle Buddy shuffled back into the open garage and lowered the door.
My sing-song farewells faded into an uncomfortable silence. I wondered, with not a little panic, how soon she would turn on the radio.
Instead, she pointed at me. “Look, Kid, there’s a couple of rules. First, your Uncle Buddy thinks I spend $35 on bingo, but I spend $50, and you ain’t gonna tell him that. Second, if I’m in the mood, I have a donut even though I’m supposed to be on a diet, and you ain’t gonna tell him that, either. We clear?”
I swallowed and nodded solemnly, hoping that I’d make it back to Uncle Buddy alive.
* * *
Uncle Buddy was eight years older than Auntie Jill when they met. He was a dashing dark-haired naval officer, recently returned from a tour in Naples; she was eighteen, freshly graduated. They spent every moment of their uneventful lives together—he worked on the Chrysler assembly line and she was a primary school lunch lady—until he died in April 2011, a month after my visit. Auntie Jill was in her early 60s then, the threshold of her Golden Years. Her parents had both passed a few winters before that, her mother of illness, her father of heartbreak two months later. Her brother, Jack, was dead. She and Uncle Buddy had no children. Their beloved shepherd mix, Sam, had died long ago.
After we buried my uncle, Auntie Jill’s immediate family shrank to a disowned nephew who had stolen money from her—and me.
* * *
On Memorial Day, Auntie Jill and I met her best friend, Tina, at the Big Bear Lodge for dinner at 3:30 p.m. in between bingo games. Every night, Tina and Auntie Jill call each other at 9 p.m. to make sure the other one isn’t dead or injured and immobile on the floor. They’ve been friends since working together in the public schools for thirty years.
Tina, whose husband died decades ago, has already taken a spill—she fell and was unable to get up, like in the commercial. She lay on the floor for hours, her three cats licking her, until her son found her the next morning. Unfortunately, she fell after my aunt’s call at 9 p.m.
We talked about Tina’s school—she can’t afford to retire from her work in the kitchen—and how one of her cats died this year. I felt so grateful for the social lubrication and Tina’s positive demeanor, that I didn’t mind looking at blurry photos of her remaining cats, or pictures of the plastic baby dolls that she crochets clothes for.
Auntie Jill half-heartedly swiped through the photos, handed back the phone and pursed her lips. “Where’s the damned waitress?” she said, turning in her seat. The lights over our booth betrayed white-gray roots lingering beneath the line of strawberry blond dye in Auntie Jill’s pixie cut, her one cosmetic indulgence.
“Look at this one,” Tina said, holding out her phone to show a black baby doll with a purple crocheted cape and jumpsuit. I struggled to suppress my percolating judgment. What was wrong with me? Tina, who was incredibly sweet, donated the dolls in their handmade outfits to charity each Christmas. Could she be more thoughtful—or could I be less? Why was this trip bringing out the worst in me?
Auntie Jill griped about our ponytailed server, probably still in high school, until she materialized. “Hi! I’m Kaleigh, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Are you ready—”
”Yeah, I’ll have a green salad, a petite filet and a side of fries,” Auntie Jill said, tossing her plastic-coated menu to the center of the table. “And a glass of milk.”
Tina and I fumbled with our orders. Although she had lost fifty pounds in the previous year, she needed to lose twenty-five more before the doctor would perform corrective surgery on her other knee. She finally decided on a small steak with a side salad for take-out. I ordered a steak and salad while inhaling a piece of garlic bread with my second refill of Diet Coke, my body shuddering from caffeine withdrawals.
When our food arrived, I was reminded that, in Michigan, a salad means iceberg lettuce smothered in dressing, shredded cheddar cheese and croutons with an occasional slice of cucumber and, if you’re lucky, a cherry tomato. I slid the cukes, the tomato and the lettuce leaves from their dressing bath while Auntie Jill picked at the cheese and the croutons, leaving her greens behind. Auntie Jill sped through the meal, our bingo double-header in mind, dashing my hopes that we’d linger so that I could soak up more of Tina’s warmth.
“Talk with you tonight,” Auntie Jill called to Tina across the parking lot, ambling to the car with only a wave. Tina, accustomed to my aunt’s abruptness, opened her arms to hug me goodbye. It was surprisingly easy to fall into her embrace, though I’ve met her twice. I was surprised by how much I needed the hug and wondered if I deserved it.
* * *
Unlike Auntie Jill, I’ve never been lucky. We are polar opposites. I write; she watches TV. I love books; she’s plays bingo and cards. She craves home and routine while I hunger for travel and change. Since my uncle died, the one adventurous thing she’s done is cruise the Carribbean and Alaska. She seems to hate everything about cruises, if her complaints are an indication, yet she keeps signing up.
“I’m spending all your money, Kid,” she laughed.
I held up my hands. “It’s not my money! Do what you want to do!”
In between commercials, I asked about her next cruise.
“England or Europe,” she said, changing channels without looking at me. “They do these river cruises where you stop in port for a couple of hours. On the boat there’s entertainment; you can see a show or play bingo or cards.”
“Is the food good?”
“Yeah. But, you know, I don’t really eat.”
I nodded. I was out of topics. I tried tiptoeing away as the TV blared.
“Good night, Kid,” she hollered. Her eagle eyes missed nothing.
“G’night,” I squeaked, skirting the edge of the room.
I closed the door to my bedroom—alone at last—two more nights to go. The TV was so loud I couldn’t sleep but I didn’t have the guts to ask her to turn it down. Jesus, I was pathetic. I grabbed a crossword puzzle, pulled up the covers and put in my ear buds, falling into my old remedy for noisy neighbors. I chuckled to think Auntie Jill and I both had coping mechanisms, albeit opposite ones, for living alone. Maybe what bothered me wasn’t how different we were but how similar.
* * *
I was thirty-two the first time I rented an apartment without a boyfriend or a husband. After my divorce, I felt on edge, worrying that the bottom would suddenly fall out: What if I never find someone? What if I lose my job? What if I get sick or someone attacks me?
To distract myself from the possibility of assault, disease, and dying lonely and destitute, I filled my apartment with a revolving door of friends and parties. Mine was the sole name on the lease; however I was rarely, if ever, alone.
Two years in, nursing a bad breakup, my feelings about solitary life changed. Suddenly, I appreciated having a private space where no one could judge me if I drank too much or overslept or played the same sad song ten times.
The state of Auntie Jill’s house suggested that she was still in that early phase of grief, despite the fact that Uncle Buddy died six years ago. She didn’t want neighbors to see her lax housekeeping or judge her for watching television fifteen hours a day. She didn’t draw the shades to deflect the summer heat as much as the awareness and contempt of outsiders. Like me.
* * *
By day three, my ass began to resemble the shape of Uncle Buddy’s La-Z-Boy. The sunny skies tempted me, so I announced that I was going for a walk. “Want to come? It’s nice outside,” I said to Auntie Jill as I laced up my shoes.
She was watching a trivia show called “The Beast,” in which a portly English fellow is pitted against C-list celebrity contestants playing for charity. I figured the offer of company was her missing enticement to exercise. She wrinkled her nose like I passed gas.
“No, thank you! It’s too damned hot. Have at it!”
She refused to give me a key, so I had to ask her to disarm the alarm and unlock the deadbolt and unhasp the screen to let me outside. Later, I would have to ring the doorbell for her to let me in, and she’d be similarly irritated that I interrupted her show. I mused, unwisely, about the necessity of keeping the doors dead-bolted and the alarm on, even though we were home.
“They kick the front door in!” she said. “I seen it on the news!”
I opted not to point out the community’s twenty-four-hour roving security staff.
Once outside, I walked the pseudo-utopia of perfectly trimmed lawns and pristine sidewalks for an hour, wondering if I’d ever end up in a place like this. The same three women power-walkers, wearing ball caps and “Life is Good” T-shirts, waved at me in passing, loop by loop. It was like being trapped in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
The scariest part was, I could see my future in them. I had the same ball caps and sunny-sloganed T-shirts at home. And really, forty-three is merely twelve years away from fifty-five.
* * *
The afternoon I left Detroit, I couldn’t gather my luggage fast enough. “Thanks for having me,” I said, because it was the polite thing to do.
Auntie Jill shuffled to the front door to disarm the alarm and unlock the deadbolt and unhasp the screen door as she did when I went out for that morning’s walk. I bent down to hug her; she gave me a gruff sort-of embrace wholly different from a Tina hug. Still, it was her way of showing affection in exchange for me watching Ghost Hunters and Fixer Upper for the last six hours together. I had watched more television in four days than I had in four years.
I leaped over the threshold and out to my rental car, delirious with impending freedom. Over my shoulder I shouted promises to text her when I landed, then corrected myself. “I’ll call you,” I said, diving into my janky Toyota Yaris. Her flip phone, for emergencies, was always turned off.
On the flight home, it sank in that Auntie Jill still wore her gold wedding band. On my first night, she kept asking whether I was going to get married again; in retaliation, I mused about the chance of her doing the same.
“Men my age want one of two things: a purse or a nurse. I ain’t neither,” she said.
It was true: Uncle Buddy was impossible to replace. There was no man to call her, “Wifey,” no man to smooch at bedtime and call, “Hubby.” No Sunday bike rides, no one to tend the garden, no garden anymore. No one to occupy the La-Z-Boy opposite hers, no one to eat meals with. I understand why she doesn’t buy groceries: she’s still aching for the man who wore the plaid flannel shirts, trucker’s caps, and baggy Levi’s that, until this spring, hung on the other side of her closet.
Maybe she’s right: once you’ve lost the love of your life, there’s little reason to raise the blinds, even on sunny afternoons, because his plants are near death, his paints are dried, the canvases useless, and because she’s usually off at bingo.
Paul Coelho once said that love can only be found through the act of loving. An awesome and terrifying quest that everyone is guaranteed to lose, whether by death, estrangement, or divorce. I wondered if either of us had the fortitude to wedge ourselves again in the messy, uncertain crevasse between love and loss. Not with men, but each other.
* * *
Back in Seattle, I grab a taxi at Sea-Tac Airport and dial my aunt. I use the ride as an excuse for a quick call, a tactic that makes me feel like a selfish shit after the past four days.
“Hi Auntie Jill, I wanted to let you know I made it home okay,” I say. The TV volume drops. It’s 11 o’clock there.
“Where are you calling from?” she asks.
“A taxi. I’m on my way home.”
“Oh,” she says.
The applause track clatters.
“Well, thanks for coming, Kid. Maybe next time we can do one of those things you wanted to do, like a museum or something.”
“That would be fun,” I say, stunned. Leave it to her to surprise me. I instantly regret the picky details I stored away to tell my friends about Mean Old Auntie Jill.
The line falls quiet except for the echo of canned laughter. Neither of us knows where this goes.
“Well, I better run,” I say because that’s my line. “Thanks for having me.”
“Okay, Kid. I love you,” she says slowly, as if it’s hard to admit.
Maybe it’s not guilt that made me travel to see Auntie Jill—maybe it’s how much I’ve always loved my Uncle Buddy, and still miss him. Growing up, he stood in for the caring father I didn’t get, and he loved Auntie Jill more than anyone. Maybe this is my way of honoring him.
Maybe I don’t have to understand Auntie Jill to love her. Does she have to be like me before I can open my heart to her?
Maybe what terrifies me about Auntie Jill is that I’m already walking in her footsteps: I’ve fallen in love with an older man, and we are about to get married, although I didn’t confide this to her. It’ll be me and Michael—no kids, no pets—in a house too big for one person when one of us dies. I overlook statistics that say he will likely pass in the next twenty years, and it will be only me. Auntie Jill and I are, shockingly, on the same side of the battered old card table it seems. Maybe in her loneliness I see my own future solitude, with no one to tether me to that inconvenient hold we call family. Unlike her, I don’t even have a reluctant niece who won’t visit often when I’m older.
“Well, I’ll let you go,” she says finally. Because it’s easier, I let her.
After we hang up, I question what I think I know about Auntie Jill. If I quit prosecuting her flaws, I might discover the courage to learn more about her: what she wanted to be, what she hopes for the future, how she’d like to be in each other’s lives. I’ve been on my own for so long, I fear I’ve lost compassion for others in a similar place. This isn’t about being nice, it’s about being a thoughtful human being, which I had convinced myself I was.
Auntie Jill, facing the declining years of her life, not only portrays the plight of all humanity, but my plight. After losing parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, I foolishly considered myself immune to loss, but there’s more to go. Auntie Jill reminds me that, for those who remain, death never gets easier. It’s tempting to disappear inside. Maybe that’s why I stay away. If she and I aren’t close, I can’t catch what she’s got.
As the taxi turns on Thistle, I promise to ask her more questions next time. Not out of spite, but with the aim of learning. Every love story starts with the same probing queries that help us know each other—if we find the courage to ask.