Aunt Melissa

The internet is full of memes about the ‘cool aunt’ and the ‘crazy aunt’, but what if it were the same person? To this day I am both a little intimidated and a little in awe of my Aunt Melissa.

Aunt Melissa is my grandmother’s older sister. When I was a child, she lived with her mother on the old farm in Cornwall. When we went back east to visit Mom’s family, we’d often take a day trip there for lunch. Aunt Melissa’s lunches were memorable. Some dishes I recall are tomato aspic and sugar-free pie – she’d often try to experiment and wasn’t always successful. I remember my mom being horrified once when I spit something back onto my plate. I think I was 5 or 6 years old.

My great-grandmother would slip my father money and tell him to stop at the hamburger joint (aka. McDonald’s) when we left. 

She’d have the wonderful stories as we’d walk around the place, telling me tales about my grandmother. They’d grown up on that farm and the entire family lived there through the Depression. Neighbors worked the land by the time I was around, but some the old outbuildings were mostly still there. I remember once we buried Greek worry beads under running water at the fresh water spring, although I don’t remember why. 

Her brother died in WW2. She didn’t talk about the war much. 

Aunt Melissa and Uncle Ernest, April 1918

She died April 12, 1991. We lost my grandfather that spring, too.  It was a sad time for all of us – especially my grandmother.

After Aunt Melissa died, I was given some of her household items. I would be moving out on my own soon and it seemed that no one else in the family needed a hand mixer or a baking pan. I still have that hand mixer – it’s a Westinghouse and is older than I am.  I’m tempted to utter the phrase “they built things to last back then” which is how I know that I’m related to…well, everyone I’m related to… but especially Aunt Melissa. 

Thirty years later, my family still talks about her. We tell the same stories over and over again – the one about her shooting a raccoon, the one about her cooking, the one about her service in WWII.   

Aunt Melissa, “in service” was written on the back, location unknown

This past year, I’ve had more family memorabilia make its way to me – including letters and records Aunt Melissa kept from her time during the war. Some I had seen before, some I had not. This is the initial spark that inspired this project I’m doing here. Her story was nearly lost.  

Aunt Melissa, late 1950’s/early 1960’s

She didn’t marry. She didn’t have children of her own. Too long we have been mislead in thinking those where the keys to women being remembered when they’re gone. How many obituaries still note women in relation to others – “a loving wife” or “a caring mother” – instead of a life review based on their own accomplishments. Compare how men’s lives are remembered and you’ll see what I’m talking about. With or without a spouse or children, Aunt Melissa’s life was important. 

I am well aware that this resonates with me as I have also chosen not to marry, not to have children. And I will repeat that – because this is important to point out – I chose. I do not regret my choice. Did Aunt Melissa choose? It’s hard to tell. Some family members think she had a sweetheart in the war.  Maybe in all the letters, I’ll find some clues. Maybe it’ll remain a mystery. Maybe it wasn’t the point of her life.   

Me standing behind Aunt Melissa on my grandmother’s porch, June 1984

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