By Linda Jenkin Costanzo
As summer vacation moves into August, childhood memories surface of my favorite aunt. My mom’s older sister, Helen, left me with some of the best summer memories of my childhood. She was born to German immigrants and was the second oldest of eight children.
She was not a cuddly, warm person; I don’t remember her giving me hugs or saying she loved me. She was a career woman who worked 45 years as a bookkeeper and office manager of a large company in Depew. She knew everyone who came in and was highly respected for her managerial skills.
Aunt Helen survived the Great Depression and worked during World War II, so she knew hard times. Lessons about money came frequently.
My dad’s seasonal job as an iron worker afforded us no summer vacation. Aunt Helen bought a cottage at Rushford Lake when I was 5 and every summer after that was awesome. She knew the calls were coming as we eagerly asked her the same question: Could we come to the cottage with her for the weekend?
I suspect she would’ve been terribly lonely without us. My cousin Jim and I were 7 and even at that age we seemed to be her perfect companions.
She arrived at our house at 5:30 every Friday evening with groceries and anything needed to entertain two kids – snacks, squirt guns and toys – whatever she thought would entertain us.
Jim and I piled into the beige Nash Rambler station wagon and scrambled to the back where she always left the window down for us. Seat belts were unheard of as we horsed around and laughed at whatever scenes came before us.
Aunt Helen calmly smoked her Salem cigarettes during the hour-and-a-half ride and seemed to be on auto cruise with her thoughts. Her little six-pack of Genesee beer was tucked in the ice cooler for later. I never understood how adults could enjoy such a bitter drink.
We pestered her to let us go down to the dock the moment we arrived. Aunt Helen never learned to swim, so she was a nervous lifeguard. She would sit on the dock wearing an old Mae West life preserver and hold a stick in case anyone yelled for help.
Occasionally our older siblings came along so there were six of us. My cousin and I dog paddled as the older, experienced swimmers dunked us. We never worried, but she did. More than once my older brother would quietly sneak beneath the dock and when Aunt Helen’s head count came up one kid short, she would panic and begin yelling, “Where’s Donald?” He’d finally tap on the dock from underneath when she looked like she was going to get hysterical. We always laughed ourselves senseless, but she never found it amusing.
By 10 p.m. Aunt Helen had retreated to her rocking chair to read the true crime tabloids that were scary to us if we peeked at them.
If we had colds, Aunt Helen still took us to the cottage but insisted we stay out of the water. Once I took an old red wagon and walked over two trails to a descending dirt road. I pushed the wagon with my foot for a running start at the top. I breezed down and gleefully flew past cottages. I was a pioneer in a runaway covered wagon or a jockey on a horse in the Kentucky Derby. She never checked on us. She trusted us and we always came back after a few hours.
I visit her grave on Memorial Day and remember her flamboyant style. Aunt Helen modeled a sense of freedom in my youth that still carries over today.