On the day of the
bait crisis, my Aunt Virginia and the green suit were standing by the picnic
table shooing black flies off the potato salad and wrestling with a bowl of
Jell-O. "Aunt Virginia, do you have anything I could use for bait?" my
skinny little cane-poled self asked. "Something sort of bright
Now this is where
I was in luck, because my aunt, who evidently figured war might break out or
something equally hideous could occur whenever we were more than 10 minutes
from home, always packed enough food to hold us for a week or so. She surveyed
the table, reached for a jar and, with a fork, a metal fork—these were no
fast-food picnics—removed the pimientos from a dozen Spanish olives. Instant
That night, with
a little help from gas-station air hoses along highway 47, a bucketful of
bluegills and one pimiento-loving bullhead made it safely to the cow tank.
rides, camping, rock climbs. Aunt Virginia, and the green bathing suit, would
usually be there. She' was the one who would work cheerfully at 2 a.m. to get
the rocks from under the tent floor. She would be the first one' with the
citronella when the big mosquitoes came. She would bravely fry bacon in a
five-pound iron pan over a struggling wood fire in the pouring rain. She would
be the one to halt those brushes with homicide that are incumbent with
cousinhood. And she made sure that no matter what the circumstances, none of us
ever, ever, ran out of the staff of life: Ritz Crackers, Oreos and Fannie May'
When I called my
Aunt Virginia from my home in Washington, D.C., recently to inquire into the
green suit's health, Uncle Mike reported that my aunt was cleaning the garage.
The call was special to me, because not only was the suit just fine, but also
the fact that Aunt Virginia was cleaning the garage let me know everything was
right with the world.
On one of my
visits to this house, where Santa Claus used to bring gifts before the blazing
fireplace, the green swimsuit was awakened from its winter sleep and placed
gently on a hanger for the occasion. I brought it from the hall and hung it on
the mantle. Just to see it was to hear my aunt's voice cry out over the
decades: "If you kids don't stop doing that, right now...."
In retrospect, a
summer day in the life of my Aunt Virginia and her green suit, particularly if
we were camping, must have been so much fun for her that I don't know why she
didn't just step in front of a train in late spring. First of all, there were
always about seven kids on every trek: my sister and me; my three cousins—Aunt
Virginia's children-Mickey, Bobby and Judy; and a couple of loaners for the
weekend. We had in our possession a giant, extremely homely tent that Uncle
Mike, ever watchful for a bargain, had gotten for a song. It had been, I'm
sure, state of the art during the Spanish-American War, and it could easily be
lifted and set up by a dozen soldiers over three days. It had four rooms and
could have comfortably slept 16. Comfortably, that is, if we hadn't always
pitched it over tree roots and rocks that were invisible by day but grew to a
height of several feet by sundown. Probably the sleeping bag had been invented
by the late '50s, but not for us. My Aunt Virginia would haul from the car
stacks upon stacks of cushions and blankets. Then, many nights, just as we all
had settled in over the roots and rocks, it would rain. Not a gentle rain, but
a Midwestern summer-night deluge. In fact, the uncanny way the rain would find
our campsite makes me think today that had we been around to pitch our tents
during the dust bowl days, we could have saved Kansas.
had probably been invented by then, too; ours, however, was not one of them.
The next morning, my Aunt Virginia, having rested comfortably for all of half
an hour, would haul great mounds of soggy bedding out to the clothesline. But
not before she did solitary battle with wet kindling and big, cast-iron
remember most about the green swimsuit," my cousin Judy, now 44 and the
mother of two, says, "was looking out of the tent in the morning and seeing
it hanging from the line while my mother tried to get the bacon to
The rest of us
would be too cold, too wet or too tired to move. But Aunt Virginia,
ever-preparing to feed, would be out there in the mud, fanning the fire with an
old Reader's Digest, picking ashes out of the bacon, breaking eggs into a bowl.
As we emerged, each got a big hug and a smile. She was looking forward, I
suppose, to doing about a hundred dishes by hand at a cold water pump after