My Aunt Thelma died this week. She was a feisty woman, outspoken and strong-willed. I say this with much love because that was not always an easy way to be as a woman in East Texas or in our family. I know because I’m like her in those ways! She was a career woman, a nurse, and very smart. She was observant and wise and gave me good advice on many occasions. I loved her very much.
My mother Joyce had four sisters–Ethel, Mary, Thelma, and Mom’s identical twin, Loyce. They were close and loving, and, as far as I know never exchanged a harsh word. These ladies were the definition of sweet! I learned about sisterly love, unconditional support, and “being there” from growing up in this loving circle of sisters.
When I was a child, Auntie (Ethel) lived just around the block at the back of the wooded loop of our little neighborhood. Aunt Thelma lived on the same street, and later moved next door to our house. Aunt Loyce lived just behind us, backyard to backyard. There was a little wooden fence once added to keep Shetland ponies contained for the year or so we had them. The twins would chat over the fence as they tended their matching borders of sweet peas. Paths worn in the grass went straight to Aunt Thelma’s and Aunt Loyce’s back doors. Aunt Mary lived in Houston but frequently visited for afternoon coffee never appearing without a warm homemade cake.
Afternoon coffee was a daily ritual for the sisters. Theirs was the deepest bond I witnessed as a child. They shared so much across the table at coffee time–gossip and news and struggles, joy and heartache. This ritual continued long after I grew up and moved away, and when I came back to Conroe from Austin, I always tried to be there by “coffee time”. Of course it changed over the years. At different times the group included my sisters and cousins, my dad and Uncle Carl. Eventually, it was just Mom, Carl, and Sissy as death and infirmities took the others away one by one.
How fortunate I was to have these sweet aunts who loved me, and were a part of my daily life as a child. They were just steps away if I needed anything. I would run barefoot through the green grass to play on Aunt Thelma’s swing set, or make flower leis from the pink four o’clocks on the side of her house, I transplanted some of them to my first house as a young mother. I played by the creek at Aunt Loyce’s where it was deep, and spent the night there when my parents were away.
This week I am aware of missing them deeply, and missing my own sister, Jan, who has been gone for almost eighteen years now. I remember the night we lost her, and how Aunt Thelma and Aunt Loyce were there within minutes in the early hours of the morning grieving with us, yet taking care of us.
As I walk through the pine trees at Little Piney, I feel the Neel sisters with me in my heart, in my very character, in my core belief that people are good and unconditional love does exist. I see the big pines with double or triple trunks, and I see them there, joined at the roots and together forever. The smell of pine, the carpet of pine needles, the dewberries, the wildflowers all take me home, back to that circle of love.