I always loved going to visit my Aunt Opal. I was enchanted by her name which sounded so old fashioned. She was my father’s older sister and by the time he was born she had already married and had children of her own, creating the crazy fact that he was an uncle to people who were older than he was. It always boggled my mind to think of such a thing, but I also saw it as something fun and unique about our family.
Aunt Opal lived on Wakefield Street with her husband, Harold. Their home was set on a huge lot that featured handmade lawn furniture and an enormous swing set that Uncle Harold had built in his huge workshop. Their home was one of his creations as well. He had built it with some help from my grandfather and it was quite different from most houses in Houston with its stucco exterior that seemed more suited for Arizona, New Mexico or California.
I never understood how Aunt Opal’s seven children had managed to squeeze themselves into the tiny place that only had three bedrooms and one bath. Six of those youngsters were boys and only one was a girl who played the piano so beautifully that she might have been featured in Carnegie Hall. Aunt Opal’s sons were tall and lanky and adventurous souls who were as entertaining as their sister with their outrageous stories of life along the bayou that meandered near their home. Most of them were grown and gone from their parents’ watch by the time I was a young girl visiting with my mother and father, but invariably word would spread that we were there and one or more of them would drop by to talk with my father who was more like one of their siblings than their uncle.
Aunt Opal knew how to cook like her mother, my grandmother Minnie Bell. She often invited us into her kitchen where she would literally whip up a couple of pumpkin pies while sharing steaming hot cups of coffee for the adults and glasses of milk for me and my brothers. She worked away as though the process of baking had become second nature, like breathing. Before long the spicy aroma of the ingredients would fill the kitchen and our anticipation would mount. We knew how good those pies would be.
Uncle Harold often pried my father and brothers away for a visit to his workshop. It was a sight to behold with its incredibly organized array of tools of every conceivable kind. I sometimes thought that his work area was cleaner that the interior of the house. He was adamant about keeping the area pristine. Nary a speck of dust escaped his eye.
My brother still gets a warm glow on his face whenever he speaks of Uncle Harold’s workshop. He tells me stories of our uncle instructing him on how to repair most everything. Mostly he learned how to use each of the tools. According to my brother, Uncle Harold was more interesting and informed than the builders on the program This Old House. Building things was indeed how he had earned a living and cared for his great big family. His hands were as beautiful and adept as a sculptor’s. He was an artisan of the craft.
After my father died Aunt Opal became an important link to our family history. She told us about his boyhood and how special he was to her and the whole family. She brought out photo albums with images of him and my grandparents that I had never before seen. She was a chronicler of family folklore and I loved her stories which she always told while sipping on heaping cups of coffee.
One time Aunt Opal came with our little family on a trip to see our grandparents. My mother was only newly widowed and a bit leery of traveling alone with three children, so Aunt Opal happily agreed to be our guardian angel. I soon learned that taking a trip with her was fabulous because she insisted on stopping for snacks and stretching of legs every two hours or so, unlike my father whose method was to make time driving down the road without relief for hours. With Aunt Opal we became acquainted with tiny cafes from Houston to Hot Springs where waitresses wore little uniforms and called everyone “Honey.”
I never thought to ask my Aunt Opal questions about our family even as I realized she was attempting to provide me with our history. I wish I had thought more about what I would one day want to know. Over time I saw her less and less as I launched my own life with a family and a career. My mother would become too ill to consider visiting Aunt Opal and so our link to her slowly faded. One of the most devastating moments of my life was to learn that she had died and none of us had been informed. I felt guilty that her children had come to believe that we were not interested in our beloved aunt.
Aunt Opal and Uncle Harold’s home is no longer where it once was. The land where it had stood was valuable and her many children sold it after she died. The new owners tore down the place that had been hewn with Uncle Harold’s hands. His workshop and the swings and all of the quirkiness of the place was gone along with those wonderful tales that Aunt Opal so loved to tell. Somehow though, her spirit and Uncle Harold’s as well seem to hover over the spot even to this day.
I find myself wondering what happened to all of Uncle Harold’s tools. I think of the antique phonograph that was a prize possession of Aunt Opal. She so delighted in turning the crank to operate the machine and play records for us from a time early in the twentieth century. Mostly I think of sitting in her kitchen watching her work on those pumpkin pies like a master baker while enchanting us with her never ending tales of long ago. I can close my eyes and feel those moments as though they were happening in the present and I think of her every single time that I make pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving and Christmas, an art passed from my grandmother Minnie to my Aunt Opal and eventually down to me. Now it is my grandson, William, named after his great grandfather who sits and talks while I spin my magic on those pies and tell him of his ancestors and how wonderful they were.