I was an adult before I realized Aunt Lizzy was actually my great-aunt. I saw her on occasion at funerals, weddings, and random family gatherings that had more fried chicken than reason. Aunt Lizzy looked a lot like my grandmother, who was her sister, but the similarities stopped at appearances. My grandmother was plain and sensible — Lizzy was full of pizazz. Ethel was careful and conscientious. Her sister had tried everything at least once.
Aunt Lizzy caused quite a stir the day that she pulled her new 1971 Cadillac Eldorado into our rural church parking lot. You see, my Aunt Lizzy didn’t really go to church. The WMU ladies talked about the rabbit fur she had on and the deacons talked about her V8 engine and fuselage flanks. My mother felt her arrival was an answer to prayer and my daddy just wondered what she was up to.
After the service, Aunt Lizzy invited our family to join her for lunch in Dickens, “my treat” she said, and we hesitated for a minute deciding whether to take one car or two. “Kandy can ride with me,” Aunt Lizzy announced and with that she opened a chrome-gilded door into my personalized 3-D Cadillac commercial. The interior was even roomier than the television had broadcasted and I realized immediately this was no ordinary event.
Everything in the car’s interior seemed red leather, except for the woodgrain trim around the audio system and the glove box. The instrument panel looked like a rocket ship in my eleven-year-old imagination, with gauges and meters enough to land the Apollo 14. Our bench seat was separated only by the central armrest that could be folded away as needed. Aunt Lizzy kept her right arm resting there most of the time, probably to support all of her jewelry. I gawked silently as Aunt Lizzy removed some tepidly awaiting liquid from the detachable cup holder and took an eager draw.
“It’ll do 0-60 in 10 seconds,” Aunt Lizzy drawled in her gravely, smoke-worn voice. I became both conscious and self-conscious that she was talking to me. So I did what most star-struck fifth-graders do and stared at my shoes. There was an awkward silence as the analog clock ticked on the dash and I hoped that Aunt Lizzy wouldn’t try to prove her statement with my parents so close behind.
“How ‘bout a little Elvis?” Aunt Lizzy inquired, more an announcement than a question, considering my sudden introversion. I’d seen 8-track players in the department stores, but this would be my inauguration to experience it first-hand. As the panel swallowed some Christmas cassette, I stared at Aunt Lizzy’s ring-studded hand as she tapped to the beat.
“Merry Christmas baby, sure do treat me nice.
Merry Christmas baby, sure do treat me nice.
Bought me a diamond ring for Christmas,
I feel like I’m in paradise.”
Aunt Lizzy didn’t just have one ring, like my mother did. She had one for every finger — each with a stone so large that she must have had to rest her arm at meals in-between bites. Her nails matched the interior of her car, and she clicked them against the steering wheel like a painted metronome. While Elvis crooned through the speakers, Aunt Lizzy joined him for the chorus.
It was at that moment, somewhere between a “Blue Christmas” and a white one, that I had a startling revelation. For the first time in my life, I realized that an octogenarian could enjoy rock ’n roll.
Light dawned and my sheltered mind thawed to a new thought: I was in the car with a very unique woman. One who knew what she liked and didn’t mind who else knew. She was confident enough to celebrate her distinctiveness and be content with her eccentricities.
Aunt Lizzy left an imprint on my life that day. Not that I wanted to be like her, but somehow, she did encourage me to be like myself.
Along the journey, I’ve found that being unique is a challenge. Sometimes it is simply easier to tag along, than strike out on your own path. Distinctiveness borders on the peculiar, which often lays you open to raw vulnerability. Not everyone appreciates Elvis or those that do.
I’ve also learned that there is a difference between being unique and being rebellious. The first is a slipping into. The second is a casting off. Rebellion is an insubordination. Uniqueness is a submission to your own destiny.
I don’t know what my Aunt Lizzy would say about herself. She passed away not long after this event. But, I’m glad that I knew her. Glad that she showed me how to be in the clan without being a clone. And I’m especially glad that I got to ride with her once, on a very special day in December.
Aunt Lizzy and my Grandmother. Aunt Lizzy is the one with the cat eye glasses, the larger jewelry and just a little more leg showing.