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A Kindred Spirit

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From the time I was nine, my great Aunt Jean and I have been friends. Not just relatives, but actual friends. Good friends. Yes, there was the obvious age difference, 60 years I think, but that never mattered to me. She called us “kindred spirits” in her letters to me. We began writing letters back and forth when I was nine years old. Pen pals, we were. Nothing made my day like a long letter in the mailbox from my Aunt Jean. We had quite a bit in common. She was a retired librarian so she obviously was fond of books. Of course, I also love books. When I would visit her at her house in Martinsburg, West Virginia we would often read together. Separate books. Side by side, usually on the same old, comfy couch. Occasionally she would smile at what she was reading, and sometimes she might frown. Maybe her eyes would water every so often. She always had a book. She kept track of all the books she read in a spiral notebook; her neat penmanship stroked through the pages.

            “Aunt Jean?” I would ask, “Have you read that latest book by Mary Higgins Clark? The one about nighttime?”

            “Hmmmm…” she would say, “ I do believe I have.” Her eyes would close as she was thinking. “But let me check in my book…yes…(as she ruffles through the pages) Yes, I read it two weeks ago. I have it written down right here.”

            Dad and I made a special trip north every year to visit Aunt Jean. If no one else could go, we still would. Usually it was after Christmas, although sometimes in the summer. The drive was around 6 hours, but it was always worth seeing Aunt Jean. Sometimes, just to be funny, we called ourselves “The Aunt Jean Club.” But then we caught wind that there were some other family members, who felt excluded from the club (even though the club was “open”) so we kept it on the DL. What did the “Aunt Jean Club” consist of? Scrabble. Lots and lots of games of Scrabble. Aunt Jean would tell story after story while she was playing; most of the time I doubted she was even paying attention to her letters. Then out of nowhere, bam! A 60 word play. Dad and I always looked at each other, amazed. She was undefeated, after all. She still is.

            One of the last times I spent time with Aunt Jean was after I graduated from college. I just wanted to get away for a few days and relax. While most of my college friends were heading to the beach to celebrate, I couldn’t think of a better place to relax than Aunt Jean’s house. It was just her and I and we spent the days reading, talking, sipping coffee, and of course scrabble playing. Lots of scrabble playing.  Not once did the TV turn on. Not because she didn’t have a TV, but because watching TV wasn’t what we did. She took me to the local mall one day. It wasn’t very big at all, but we walked around once, and took a few detours into various stores. After once around the mall, we were both already bored, neither of us big shoppers. We walked around a second time, this time at a quicker pace, you know for exercise. Aunt Jean said two laps around were three-fourths of a mile and she would know because that’s where she went walking regularly 4 mornings a week. After our walk, we browsed over to the food court and ate Chinese food. I ate my entire plate of sesame chicken, while Aunt Jean ate a few bites of hers and was satisfied. She never ate much, and it showed; She was probably less than 100 pounds. A little lady with a huge heart; that was my Aunt Jean.

            I love Aunt Jean because she was one person I could just relax with and be myself. Her presence refreshed me in a way that no one else’s did. She wanted to know what was going on in my life, and she listened attentively. But really I just liked to hear her talk about her life. She grew up during the Depression, she and her three siblings. A remarkable fact about their lives is all four of them ended up getting their college degrees, one of them (my grandpa) got his PHD (and is still teaching at Appalachian State, I might add). Obtaining a college degree during that was remarkable! Aunt Jean’s husband, Jim died when he was only in his 50’s, and she kept a framed picture of him on her wall beside the head of her bed. I never met Jim, because he died the same year I was born, but I feel like I know so much about him because she talked about him so much. The picture over her bed always made me smile; her bedroom was across from the hall bathroom so I would see his smiling face whenever I passed her room. She never remarried and I assumed part of it was because she was still in love with Jim.

            I’m smiling right now, through a few tears, because undoubtedly she’s with Jim right now. Aunt Jean passed away yesterday, January 8 and even though my heart hurts, I know she’s with her husband and I am glad because 30 years is a long time to miss someone. She was a wonderful influence in my life though, someone who shared my love for books and words. My kindred spirit.

She also makes me want to go practice my scrabble strategies.

She’s still undefeated, but maybe I can still beat her one day. 


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