Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Vonna June

Today would have been my Aunt Vonna June Shorter's 84th birthday. Because she was born on Christmas Eve, her birthday often got lost in the Christmas rush. I feel badly about that.

Virginia, Sheila, Vonna, and Richard Shorter
She and my mother were close in age and grew up during the Great Depression. In a picture of the two of them when they were little, my mother is smiling but Vonna is not. She always said that it was because she knew they were in a depression. I don't have a copy of that picture, but here is one of all of the Shorter kids, and everyone is smiling. It was taken in the early forties. My mother (left) and Vonna (right) were in high school, my Aunt Sheila was around five years old, and my Uncle Dick was about to leave home to serve in the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II.

Vonna was an artist. She sketched newspaper ads for several department stores in Fort Wayne and for Spotlite on Fort Wayne magazine. Even when she could no longer find work as an artist, she never stopped drawing. She made her own greeting cards and illustrated the weekly letters she wrote to family members. Here is a sketch she did of me for a Spotlite ad in the 1960's. "Tiger," the dog in the picture, was Spotlite's mascot and appeared in this spot each week. He originally belonged to Pat and Dale Aldrich, the owners of the magazine. When they divorced, for some reason, Vonna got custody of Tiger. He was a pedigreed toy poodle, but not at all stuck up. He and I were great friends.

Neither of my aunts ever married. They lived with my grandparents, and after my grandparents passed away, the old house on Hoagland Avenue became their house. Because they never had children of their own, you can imagine how spoiled my cousins, my siblings, and I were. And I was probably the most spoiled, because I was older than my siblings and geographically closer than my cousins. There were lots of gifts, of course—from Vonna, usually children's books. Because she was an artist, she chose them for the illustrations. Two of my favorites were Camembert, the story of a French mouse who painted, and Kay Thompson's Eloise at Christmastime, with wonderfully witty illustrations by Hilary Knight.

Vonna read to us, of course—Eloise was one of her favorites. But she didn't need a book to entertain us. She was a natural-born storyteller. She told stories about her childhood, stories peopled with family members I had never met—Grandma and Grandpa Wells, Grandpa Shorter, beloved Aunt Troas and not-so-beloved Aunt Flo—people who had died before I was born. She made it seem as if they were still living. I could picture Grandma Wells' boarding house, Grandpa Wells' cigar store, and the old family home on East Dewald Street that was sometimes so filled with visiting family members that, according to Uncle Dick, he and his sisters had to sleep hanging from hooks on the wall.

When she wasn't entertaining us with family stories, she was telling us the stories of her favorite movies of the thirties and forties. She especially loved Gone with the Wind and the movies of Orson Welles. (I knew the stories of, and could quote from, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Caine, and The Magnificent Ambersons, long before I actually saw the movies.) Sometimes she would recite snatches of poetry from memory. Little Orphant Annie, by James Whitcomb Riley, was one of her favorites:
An' wunst, when they was "company," an' ole folks wuz there,
She mocked 'em an' shocked 'em, an' said she didn't care!
An' thist as she kicked her heels, an' turn't to run an' hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin' by her side,
An' they snatched her through the ceilin' 'fore she knowed what she's about!
An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you
Vonna died of lymphoma eight years ago. As is customary with members of my mother's family, she kept the seriousness of her illness to herself for as long as she could. I knew she had been in and out of the hospital several times that year, but it was a shock when a family friend called to tell me that she had left the hospital for the last time and had gone home to die.

Loretta was working late that night, and I was afraid to wait until she got home to make the call, for fear it would be too late. When someone answered the phone, I could hear talking and laughter in the background. Sheila and some friends had set up a hospital bed in the living room, and all of Vonna's friends had come over for a big farewell party. I talked to her for several minutes. She reminded me of the time, when I was very young, that I threw a tantrum in the checkout lane when she took me shopping.

"What a brat I was!" I said.

She chuckled and said, "You weren't always an angel." Her tone implied that, as far as she was concerned, most of the time I was.

"I love you so much," I said, my voice breaking.

"I love you, too," she said. "More than you'll ever know."

When Loretta got home and I told her the news, without hesitation she got on the Internet and booked us a flight leaving that night. "You need to be there," she said. Due to layovers, we didn't get to Fort Wayne until the following afternoon, by which time Vonna had slipped into a coma. A few close friends were still at the house with Aunt Sheila and Aunt Becky, Uncle Dick's widow. I was reminded of the trip that Vonna, Sheila, and I had made to Illinois fifteen years earlier, to see Uncle Dick just before he died. Becky had told us to talk to him—that, although in a coma, he could probably hear us.

I held Vonna's hand and talked to her. I don't remember exactly what I said, but I know I told her how much she meant to me. I kissed her and said goodbye. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I felt her squeeze my hand.

I could tell you more about my Aunt Vonna—and someday I will. But it's Christmas Eve, and, as Nanny said to Eloise...

Oh trinkles
my dear
Oh drinkles and sklinkles of fun
It's Christmas
Christmas Eve
Oh my
there's a lot to be done!

Merry Christmas!

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