One benefit of the lockdown: a calendar that has room for classes I’ve been wanting to take for more than a year. Cheryl Svensson’s Guided Autobiography class has been on my radar for over a year. Here’s one of my stories from the eight-week class.
My Great Aunt Mimm’s small apartment in Allentown, Pennsylvania had the soft scent of age with a dusting of Shalimar. Her’s was one of several apartments in a pale pink two-story stucco complex built in the 1930’s on one of Allentown’s broad, tree-lined boulevards.
When I close my eyes and wander back to that time and place I remember black out shades and Venetian blinds, a spinet piano in one corner and an early Hammond organ in the other. I can see her long hallway painted with shafts of light from the late afternoon sun. I can see the oak barrister bookcases, with a complete set of Harvard Classics and Aunt Mimm’s collection of tiny porcelain dogs.
These are my memories. But memories are nothing more than stories that change with each telling.
What doesn’t change is the warmth that I feel in my heart for Mildred Matilda Barber. As a young child surrounded by a strange cast of characters, my Aunt Mimm was a soothing constant. She was the one who read to me from storybooks she always seemed to have with her. She was the one who played Heart and Soul with me for hours on my grandparent’s upright or, in winter, suffered through Jolly Old Saint Nick as many times in a row as I asked, until I was certain that Johnny would get his skates and Susie her dolly.
Aunt Mimm was a slight and gentle woman. Her personality illuminated a room not with a frenetic sparkle but soothing glimmer. She had a solid sense of adventure but was not the type to convince anyone to take a risk. After graduating from Allen High School in 1916, and determined to continue her education, family legend has it that young Mildred visited the local bank seeking a loan to pay for college tuition. They say she pestered the exasperated manager until terms were agreed to and the papers signed.
She attended Keystone State Normal School and began teaching with the diploma still hot in her hands. Aunt Mimm loved children and any child would be lucky to have her as their teacher. She loved dogs, too, and often brought her Jack Russell Micky with her to the classroom.
After retirement she traveled. Most often with friends. Once she brought me a tiny steel drum from a trip to Barbados.
I don’t recall her ever driving. In my mind’s eye she is always dressed in a brown wool skirt that hits just below the knee, a matching cardigan over a white cotton blouse with a pixie collar, thick flesh colored stockings and sensible tie-up shoes. She never married. She never had children of her own.
My Great Aunt Mimm was buried the morning of my ninth grade algebra final exam. A few days earlier I sat at her viewing with my mother, sister and grandmother on the funeral home’s hard mahogany folding chairs. Four women from the Order of the Eastern Star stood in front of her open casket and sang. I stared at the ruby red carpet not knowing what to do but certain that I didn’t want to cry.
It had been awhile since I’d seen Aunt Mimm. I was in the throes of becoming a hormonal teenager and she was old. My love for Aunt Mimm was muted by pimples and first periods, schoolgirl crushes and broken hearts. I didn’t have time to notice when she became so lost to herself that a care home was the only option. It was there that she passed in her sleep.
After her apartment was emptied my mother arrived home with a small bag holding a few porcelain dogs and some jewelry. I was given the gold mechanical pencil she wore on a chain around her neck when she was teaching. I still have that pencil. Her initials are engraved on the side. The spinet piano arrived for me, too, but before I left home for college my mother told me it had to go. And so I sold it to a music teacher for $200.
When I was thirty-five, I was an artist living rent free in exchange for light janitorial work at an art club in Palo Alto, California. While I swept floors and cleaned studios, my friends were finding partners, having babies and beginning to make money in a fledgling Silicon Valley.
People knew me as Robbi then, because that was my nickname, having been given the name ‘Roberta’ at birth. I put up with being called ‘Robbie the Robot’ – the character from the move ‘Forbidden Planet’ – in grade school, ’Roberta Flat’ – a play on singer Roberta Flack’s name – in high school, and ‘Rotten Robbie’ – after the chain of gas stations in our country’s middle – while attending college in Nebraska.
But in the summer of 1993, I decided to change my name to the only one that fit: Mimm.
Changing my name did not change my life the way I thought that it might. Still, I take comfort in knowing that twenty-seven years ago the universe had wonderful plans for me to which I was not privy. I also take comfort in walking through life with the same name as the one true and happy constant in my young life.