I hang up the phone. Aunt Loretta is dead. The Queen of Ice Hockey now sits on her celestial throne, with empty chairs to her left and right awaiting Jayna Hefford and Wayne Gretzky. From thence she shall come to judge the quick and the quicker.
I find Ace in the kitchen and pull him into a hug. ”Aunt Loretta is dead,” I whisper in his ear. This is the way we deliver unexpected bad news. This is how we begin to figure out how to tell The Big E.
Aunt Loretta isn’t really my aunt, though I’d be happy to share genetic material. Her husband, Uncle John (coincidentally not my real uncle), introduced my parents. To each other. Technically I owe my entire existence to Aunt Loretta and Uncle John. We spent at least a week each summer at my fake relatives’ cabin. My dad helped run the wiring and plumbing for the place.
Fly swatters: Uncle John’s “first line of defense.”
Noxzema – look for it in the dark blue tub: “Take a tablespoon of Noxzema to fix what ails you.”
Boiling water: Into which we dip the dishes and occasionally our bare fingers.
The creak of the huge metal hinge as I open the door to the cellar. And the humid air tinged with pungent gasoline as I creep around in search of the styrofoam worm bucket.
Aunt Loretta oils herself hairline to toes, a ritual basting in preparation for ultraviolet treatment. She wears a modest two-piece, maybe turquoise, and funny plastic anti-goggles that lay over the orbits, blocking all light, black smiley faces where the irises would be.
Ace tells me he already told the children, The Big E and our borrowed Wisconsin child, a girl of six. He overheard bits and pieces of my side of the conversation. The girl, let’s call her Rapunzel, says her grandpa is very old and she hopes he doesn’t die soon. Ace murmurs something helpful about the Circle of Life and how all people die eventually. Rapunzel agrees, yes, all people die. She says even a child could die but it isn’t very likely.
I freak out a little as Ace relays the conversation.
Aunt Loretta is never in a bad mood. She smiles and laughs freely. She calls me Anniedoodle and teaches me crazy stories about a burping mountain lion. An eight-foot stuffed swordfish guards over her midcentury living room. She starts playing hockey in her forties and continues into her ninth decade. Aunt Loretta gives me a stuffed animal (fiberfill, not taxidermy) every single year at Christmastime, fully ignoring my transition into adulthood.
Busy the Beaver. A toucan. Ginger the Fox. Timothy the Turtle. And more recently Antlers the Moose and Whaley the Killer Whale, both of whom are immediately appropriated by The Big E.
Bon voyage Aunt Loretta. May your skate blades be ever sharp, your limericks perpetually clever, and the sun’s rays eternal. I will continue to claim you as my own blood. As you know, the Lippins make a habit of turning good people into relatives.
Goodbye, dear Aunt.