​My mom’s only surviving sister was 10 years older than she was. Charming and fun loving to the point of being goofy at times, Aunt Pearl was also beautiful.

She had long, coal black hair that she coaxed into ringlets with a curling iron. Unlike our modern day ease of curling irons that plug into any convenient outlet to heat with electricity, Aunt Pearl’s curling iron was heated by putting it down the chimney of a coal oil lamp! This feat could be iffy, as it involved metal, a flammable substance, and uncontrolled heat…not to mention lighting those lamps was essentially setting a small piece of fabric (the wick) on fire, then the light was constantly fed by the flame that burned until it was put out. There was also the fun prospect of singed hair and soot getting in the hair as well. In that instance Aunt Pearl was fortunate that since her hair was already as black as it could be, it hid the worst of any damage that was the price of wanting nice curls. Later on she set it into marcel waves that looked wonderful. Eventually, she wore it in a Roaring Twenties super short bob. Add the drop-waisted dresses that were all the rage, topped by a cloche hat, and she looked as if she’d stepped straight out of a talkie, the newfangled motion pictures that took the flapper set by storm.

During this era my mom was a small child, who adored her big sister. Aunt Pearl was wonderful with children, as I discovered for myself. People back then, early in the twentieth century, had more family members than beds, and sisters often shared a big four poster, piled high with a feather bed and several hand made quilts. The quilts were composed of fabric pieces salvaged from worn out dresses and blouses, so that a pointing finger could trace the story of each piece through remembered occasions from  the time before its original form was worn out. 

Aunt Pearl liked to tell stories, particularly of the ghost variety. When I was little and she’d come to visit, I would sleep with her and be deliciously thrilled by whatever story she wanted to tell me in the wee small hours of the night. One in particular that I’ve never forgotten was about two elderly sisters, who shared a bed as girls. Every night there would be terrifying knocking sounds, eerily seeming very near to them, though there was nobody else in the room. It was only when they were old and any day could be their last that one sister finally confessed to the other that she had been the mysterious knocker who kept the hoax going on for so very long, and utterly convincingly. It turned out that she had double jointed toes that she would carefully crack against the wooden footboard to make the terrible knocking sounds. Aunt Pearl had read about it in a magazine or book and did a very effective retelling in the dark.

My mom and her beloved sister were as close as a child and young woman could be.  There came a time when my mom started to notice whispered conversations and furtive activities between Aunt Pearl and their mother. Eventually, when she saw Aunt Pearl packing up her things, my mom asked Grandmother what was happening. They had dreaded that moment and Grandmother so hated to cause pain to her little daughter that she pursed her lips for as long as she could bear her own silence and then reluctantly answered the question “Where’s Pearl going?” with the puzzling “She’s going to M.” A bit of explanation followed, and my mom finally understood that her near constant companion and always game playmate was getting married. It must have been heart rending to watch the wonderful presence she took for granted as being hers always leave their home for a new one of her own. Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dick got married by a Justice of the Peace, while seated in their buggy. That seems to have been a thing at the time, though I think not overly common. I imagine it was quite the ice breaker at parties and such. 

My mom and Aunt Pearl remained very close the rest of their lives. They relied on each other in times of trouble and celebrated together during every eventful moment. They took care of each other in bad health, cooked together for holiday celebrations, and were sources of joy for each other just by spending time together. The only time I can remember ever seeing them argue was the moment the check arrived when we were eating out. They would snatch it out of each other’s hands, the bit of paper like a flat, rectangular shuttlecock in a never ending match of restaurant bill badminton. Aunt Pearl usually persisted until she emerged the victor, since she didn’t drive and wanted to repay my parents any way she could for their unending willingness to take her wherever she needed or wanted to go. I’m not sure how she managed it, since I was usually elbow deep in a banana split by the time the check came. All I know is that while she was getting out money to pay, a couple of dollars or a fistful of change would find its way into my pocket, along with a wink and a smile from the person who was to me the same wonderful, beloved companion and always willing playmate that my mom had known in her own childhood.

As she grew old in that remarkable way indomitable spirits have of never quite really seeming to reach true old age, even poor health couldn’t suppress her twinkle or the smile that lit up so many hearts she touched throughout her life. Aunt Pearl was one of those people you never forget. One of a kind. Her memory is indelible. As is the legacy she left me of joy in telling stories. Her dream of being a published author was never realized. That mine has been is in part thanks to her. Dreams can be contagious. Their enthusiasm. Their hope. And their twinkle that burns like a pilot light for my muse. Quite the legacy from a woman who never had children of her own.

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