Aunt Penny was a very naturally beautiful woman. Her pale blue eyes sparkled, always with a hint of mischief, and her blonde hair was stamped out of the same DNA as my own. Her body was lean and muscular in a way that only comes from living and working on a farm. Her bare arms and face were a pinkish brown and lightly freckled from the summer sun. She always smiled at me with a certain mischievous understanding, as if we shared a secret that no one else on earth understood. I loved her like you can’t imagine.
Penny was my fathers’ older sister. She had been a registered nurse, but once they bought the farm and she became pregnant, she opted to stay home, raise the children, and run the farm. She was strong, intelligent, outspoken and creative. She painted and played guitar, threw pottery on her wheel and played the piano for fun. She had blackberry pancakes, eggs and bacon on the kitchen table every morning before sunrise. She made preserves, casseroles and pies, and could effortlessly throw a hundred pound bale of hay over the fence to the cows. She gardened with fervor, and years later, grew a few pot plants in plastic milk jugs that had been cut in half, because she knew her teenagers were smoking it anyway, and didn’t want them getting “the bad stuff on the streets.”
In my eyes, she could do no wrong. Penny spoke her mind, and anyone that knows her will tell you she speaks without punctuation. One story blends seamlessly into the next, but once you had her ear, she was a great listener as well. She was the one person that I always felt I could talk openly and honestly with about absolutely anything. She never talked to me like a child, what I said really mattered to her and she would listen thoughtfully and offer direct advice, never placating nor patronizing, but honest and unfiltered. I loved that about her. She didn’t speak in euphemisms or metaphors; she used the words shit and fuck occasionally, and called me out when I deserved it. She was also fiercely encouraging, and nurtured the part of myself that I wanted to believe in, but never quite could.
Penny also possessed an uncanny psychic ability, and she saw the same in me. We both just seemed to know things sometimes without explanation. I always thought it was just coincidence, but she thought different. We were cut from the same cloth, eccentric, different somehow, and there was a connection and bond between us that I treasured.
I had pretty shitty self-esteem growing up, and Penny had a way of opening me up and showing me a side of myself that I was typically not able to see. I always felt too skinny and awkward, never at all comfortable in my own skin. Penny could change that for a while.
To me, her closet was paradise. She was not at all a typical farm mom like you may think; she was unequivocally what we would today label a first class, grade A MILF. Although she spent most of her days in faded jeans or cut-offs and a tee-shirt with her hair pulled back and hiking boots, she had a wardrobe most girls would kill for, and a vanity filled with jewelry that made me feel like I was lost in a museum. Not the boring kind, like gold, diamonds and pearls, but great heavy necklaces of hammered silver and chunky turquoise. Her rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings were all handmade works of art, and each with a story behind it.
Dozens of belts in every color and width, leather jackets, hats, scarves, and knee-high leather boots mingled in her closet with the designer jeans, fashionable tops, and mini skirts. I used to love sitting at her vanity, trying on her jewelry and watching her get dressed up. The times she would fix my hair, dress me in her clothes, let me wear a few pieces of her treasured jewelry or show me how to apply mascara were magical times. When I looked in the mirror I blushed and smiled with excitement, I wanted to stay there forever.
In great contrast to Penny was my Uncle Wayne. He was a surgeon, and had a practice about 45 minutes out of town in Front Royal. He was very tall and thin, and when I was a kid, I saw him as very stern and rather quirky. When he wasn’t at work, he was usually busy feeding cows, mending a fence, or any one of another seemingly endless duties required to keep the farm running smoothly. We saw him mostly at meals, he was always friendly and silly, and always twirling the waxed tips of his enormous brown mustache.
All of the kids were spaced about 3 ½ years apart. At the time, Joey was seven, I was ten, Wayne was thirteen and Sonja was sixteen. She was sweet and nurturing and treated me like a little sister, but much of the time she was entirely too cool for us.
After catching up a bit on the expansive front porch that was adorned with lots of comfortable seating, we entered the kitchen, which was truly the heart of the home. As you entered, immediately to your right was the bathroom/pantry. Just like Penny, everything in this house was unconventional, and no one thought it was strange at all to have a toilet and sink inside of your actual pantry where you kept not only your food, but also any cleaners, insecticides, rat poison and bug sprays.
If you were inside sitting on the toilet, directly to your left was a sink, and there was a clear aisle in front of you with a window, yes, a window at the end, and shelves lined with dry goods on either side. The window didn’t face outdoors either; it went directly through to the hallway that led from the kitchen to the dining room, right next to one of the staircases that led upstairs. It had two little gingham curtains that never quite closed all the way, and anyone on the toilet usually fell suspect to pranks and embarrassment. Directly underneath that window in the hallway outside, sat a little table that held the phone, answering machine, and always copious stacks of mail and papers that usually overflowed into piles lining the edges of at least three of the stairs beside it.
Next to the bathroom door in the kitchen was the washer, the dryer and the refrigerator that was barely recognizable because every inch was covered with photographs, chore charts, reminders and grocery lists. Out to the right of the fridge you rounded into the hallway. The kitchen had two enormous windows on the back wall, with a well-worn cozy reading chair under each. On the far left of the room was a huge old fireplace and mantle that a large wood stove had been inserted into. In the winter months, the top was used to keep the multitude of side dishes and homemade pies warm, while the front held court to an anthology of cats and dogs.
Along the front of the kitchen was a big window over the sink that looked out over the driveway. On the counter beside the drying rack, sat the old white enamel compost pot filled with coffee grounds, eggshells and scraps for the pigs or chickens. Cabinets lined the walls, and the underside of the counter surrounding the oven and the stove. In the corner was the old silver coffee percolator that was infinitely full and piping hot. In the center of the room was a large, rectangular table and chairs that sat upon the gray and pink squares of the linoleum floor. It was covered with a turquoise and white gingham tablecloth, with a lazy Susan in the center offering the butter dish with the rooster on it, the sugar bowl, the salt and pepper shakers, and the honey pot with the little wooden wand.
The free-standing coat rack that stood beside the entrance to the hallway always made me think there must be a room full of travelers that had just come from somewhere incredibly cold, even in the middle of July. Coats hung at least three deep from every spindle, year round.
On the front porch, there was a door to the left of the kitchen entrance, a small storage pantry that held all the dog and cat food and contained a large, reach in deep-freezer that never disappointed in the summer with its green and orange creamsicles.
Summers on the farm were magical, it was like being in another world, another space and time altogether. We made our own fun outdoors all day, and it always involved mischief.