by Melissa Ballard
Photo by Melissa Ballard
“I hope the author writes more.”
I was reassured by this sentence in a thank-you letter from my Aunt Marge. She loved to read, and I had sent her The Secret Life of Bees for her birthday. After mailing it, I had been worrying she might not like it.
But it was the last sentence of that note, scrawled on tissue—paper-thin, cream stationary, which made me pause.
“Lily needed someone to love her,” Aunt Marge had written.
I tore off that section of the letter and tucked it in my wallet, behind a photo of my daughter. I carry it with me still.
Marge had a flair for French in high school. She wrote notes to her younger sisters, who were furious at their inability to translate. She was also good at math, a skill that must have come in handy at her part-time job as a carhop at the local A&W Root Beer Stand and, after graduation, as a full-time bookkeeper for the Henriot Candy Company.
Soon Marge had a pen pal: Ivan, the son of a family friend who was serving in the navy. Marge’s handwriting was notorious for its illegibility; she must have painstakingly penned those letters so Ivan would be able to read every word. Gradually, she would have revealed both her quiet intelligence and her sense of humor.
In a photo probably taken around that time, Marge’s dark hair is pulled back from her face and gathered loosely in the back. She wears rimless glasses, a slight smile, and a dark sweater with a ribbon bow at the neck. She would not stand out in a crowd.
When World War II ended and Ivan returned home, he called Marge and they arranged to meet. Their hometowns were sixty-five miles apart, but meet they did, and they were married less than six months later. It was a small wedding, at the end of April, in 1946. The local newspaper reported that Marge wore a light brown crepe dress with dark brown accessories and an orchid corsage.
They moved to Ivan’s hometown and soon settled in a housing development. The streets were named after gems and filled with round, sparkling sounds: Ruby, Topaz, Opal, Amber. Marge and Ivan lived on Agate, plain with its two stop consonants.
Their small house was all on one floor, the bedrooms and bath perched over the attached garage. There were clean lines, bare surfaces, and a design of asymmetrical triangles on the fabrics of the simple, straight curtains that framed the picture window in the living room.
In 1952, Ivan completed a course in Scientific Crime Detection. He worked as a guard at the Mansfield Reformatory, before being put in charge of officer training. Seven years later, when he died at age forty-one, possibly from radiation exposure while in the Navy, he was running the prison library.
Marge and Ivan had been married for thirteen years when he died; they had no children. Marge was a widow for the rest of her life–forty-six years. Each weekday until she retired, she drove from her home on Agate Avenue to her accounting job at Ohio Edison. At first, Marge and Ivan’s wiener dog was her companion. After Shorty died, she lived by herself.
I began to notice my aunt more as I got older. Feminism was on my radar, and I realized Marge was the only woman I knew who lived alone, and one of the few who had a full-time job.
Marge showed little interest in the domestic arts. Her home décor stayed the same over the years. She was not known for her cooking, and she never did any sort of knitting or sewing. At some point, though, she took a class and began to make counted cross-stitch quilts. They clashed with her own furnishings, but she put one on her bed and another in her guest room. She made one for each of her female relatives, and for friends, too, and then she stopped.
At family gatherings, Marge always checked in with her sisters and nieces, but then gravitated to the men, who were watching sports. She talked easily about football, golf, and her favorite, baseball. Her laugh was soft but genuine. Tickled. She often sounded tickled.
Marge’s modest life-style and her careful saving allowed her to help me financially while I completed two college degrees. She kept track of my courses, knew what I needed to take to complete my major, and asked countless questions–good ones. She followed my marriage and career and, later, the education of my daughter, with the same kind of precise attention.
Eventually, Marge asked me to be the executor of her estate. I had no idea what this entailed, but I wanted to help, so I agreed. She sent me a black, pebbled-vinyl, spiral-bound notebook. On the front in gold cursive was the title: What my Family should know. As I thumbed through it, the level of detail unnerved me: account numbers, policy numbers, contact information. What had I agreed to? At least she had carefully printed it all, and it was easy to read. On the penultimate page, Marge had included a summary of her assets. Below that, she added a list of liabilities: mean, homely, bad disposition, and under that: (we can’t get too serious).
Marge’s was a life that would escape the notice of most people; like her appearance, it seemed unremarkable. When asked about her, though, everyone in the family said some version of the same thing. “She was smart. She should have gone to college, but nobody in our family did that.”
At her memorial service, the young minister laughed as he recalled her coming to weekly Bible study classes with detailed written questions for him. Sometimes she came early, he added, if her list was unusually long.
Nine years later, while writing this essay, I realized I could not find my copy of Marge’s obituary. I began to search for it online, and one of the small number of hits I got was a reference to an endowed scholarship in her name at Cleveland State University. When we, her family and friends, had been putting together the scholarship, I had looked up “endowed.” It means “lasting; in perpetuity; forever.”
I study an image of a bowl made of agate: swirls of whites, blues, grays, and oranges form a gleaming, glass-smooth surface. I think of Aunt Marge, rewriting the plot of her life after Ivan died. I imagine a young woman I’ve never met filling out a thick stack of forms, patching together a quilt of grants, loans and scholarships, one of the latter named after my aunt. This student will be the first in her family to attend college. All of it is extraordinary.