The Zen Of The Johnson Aunts
Throughout my life, I would visit my three paternal aunts who lived in adjacent houses on a Southside hill in Jamestown. On any given spring or summer day, I might arrive to find them all on Aunt Jane’s broad front porch, sitting in white wicker chairs. Huge pots of bright red geraniums graced the steps; hanging planters overflowed with purple petunia and pink New Zealand impatiens.
Somewhere amidst this horticulture splendor – behind a veil of hanging plants and through the arbor of rhododendron, would sit my Johnson aunts – straight-backed Norse women dressed in their light beige or yellow sweaters and perfectly pressed clothes, close together, knees turned at the same angle. My aunts dressed as if every day were Sunday. The sun seemed to find them. Sometimes, I was hesitant to approach as they sat so serenely there, blessed by light.
As a teenager and a young adult, I would smile at their quaint civility, marvel at how they sat so still there on the front porch. Sometimes I would hear them chuckle, their voices in unison. Their manicured hands lay calmly in their laps. At the sight of me, a welcoming chorus of “Oh! Hello!” rang out as if they were both surprised and delighted.
I would approach them one by one and hold their upper arms gently in my hands, leaning down to kiss each on the left carefully powdered cheek. Their faces felt like chamois. They smelled of Ivory soap and light perfume. Perhaps it was the hanging flowers wafting in the air.
I would stay for an hour perhaps, and they would ask me about my life. I’m sure I would reply at length, chatting on, earnest about myself. They listened rapt and polite, nodding now and then, leaning forward, tilting their heads.
My aunts were born just around the corner at 221 Barrett Ave. in 1914, 1916 and 1917, in a house my great-grandfather built himself. For much of my life, my aunts rarely left their houses except for the business of housewifery or family gatherings. The porch was their boundary to the world, and it was a beautiful porch. They were the well-loved daughters of Swedish and Finnish immigrants Martha and Ben, and from their parents they knew the beauty of quiet labor and the grace of silence.
Jane and Helen’s houses faced each other on Superior Street. The sisters’ lives were intertwined though each was an independent person and valued her privacy too. Jane and Helen did not work outside the home or at least not since their youth in the 30’s. After they married, their business was home and family. They liked it that way. It was the business of family, and they were executives.
Aunt Marian, the youngest girl, was different for a while. She followed her aviator engineer husband, who died young, to the nation’s capital and worked for two decades at the Library of Congress. She was there throughout the tumult of the 60’s. She rode busses every day, from her brick house in the suburbs downtown to the library, and liked to say she literally lived the Civil Rights Movement. After her husband died, she returned to her hometown and moved into the upstairs apartment in Jane’s house. Marian liked her knitting group and enjoyed her Lutheran Church.
Aunt Helen was golden as a movie star. She favored beige and gold. Her platinum hair was perfectly coiffed like Lana Turner’s. Aunt Marian used to say Helen walked like a queen, and that’s accurate. Helen was slim and tall, elegant, formidable. She hugged you to her like a lost child. She painted my nails when I was small. When I came to visit, she served shrimp salad sandwiches cut into neat diamond shapes and coffee in porcelain cups decorated with flowers. The latest issue of Vogue magazine lay on the coffee table. From the moment I could crawl, Heh-wen was my dear aunt and confidante.
Aunt Jane was the tallest and the oldest sister. She tended her brother and sisters when they were small. In the end, she outlived them, her husband Clayt, her sisters and her brother-my father Raymond-and other dearly loved ones too. She lived to be 97. Her daughters Marlene and Martha were particularly devoted to her. Like her Finnish mother, Jane had the sisu. It’s a Finnish word for fortitude. She was calm as a monk. Then she would surprise you by bursting into hearty laughter like child. She listened when you spoke. If you arrived upset or sad, being near her made you feel better. She did not have to say a word. It was the same gift her mother had. Everybody loved Jane.
These Johnson aunts – Marian, Helen and Jane – each in her way nourished me. This morning as I sit with coffee on a spring morning in Jamestown, listening to birdsong, I realize their gifts – my tulip-cheeked aunts, my spear-straight backed aunts, lovely as flowers, tenacious as bulbs. They lie near one another on a rise in the cemetery now. I like to imagine them chuckling and whispering still.
Their lives were simple and honest. Their truths were powerful: how to endure in harsh seasons, how to see oneself and one’s life as a work of art. How to love others. How to be still.