They lived in Idaho Falls. It’s not halfway between Billings and Salt Lake City, but that’s where we stayed when we took the trip in two days instead of one. We stayed overnight at Aunt Babe’s house, sleeping in the basement, which felt better than any hotel I’ve ever stayed in. Sometimes we would stay there a couple of days, playing with Uncle Wayne’s rabbits (“Girls, they’re food, not pets.”) and Aunt Babe’s supply of toys.
Aunt Babe was my grandma’s sister, so technically, she was my dad’s aunt and my great aunt, but we never called her Great Aunt. Her name wasn’t Babe either. That’s just what the family called her. Her real name was Ann. I have no idea where her nickname came from. I just took it at face value that she had two names, one just as valid as the other.
Aunt Babe had a parrot. He could say lots of phrases. I thought it was strange that he would say, “Polly wants a cracker,” when his name wasn’t Polly. I can’t remember what his name was, but I knew it wasn’t Polly. He also said, “Babe has a nice butt.” Uncle Wayne had taught him that one. Aunt Babe didn’t like it. He would laugh when we laughed.
My favorite memory of Aunt Babe is the day that she played a Yogi Bear board game with me. She let me make up my own rules, even when I did it to win the game. It was the first time I had ever played a game not according to the rules. I felt such a freedom and gratitude to her.
She died suddenly of a stroke when I was about ten years old. She and Uncle Wayne had been loading rocks for their landscaping. Her last words were, “Oh my head.” It was the beginning of summer. We had only spent a couple of weeks in Billings. I remember coming to Grandma when she heard the news. She was sitting on the edge of her bed. I remember trying to comfort her, “Just cry, Grandma, you’ll feel better.” She shook, but tears wouldn’t come out. “I can’t. The medicine Grandma takes makes it so I can’t cry.” That was the moment in time that I hated the pharmaceutical industry. They took away my grandma’s tears when she needed them.
I remember going back to Idaho Falls for the funeral. My parents came up from Salt Lake and there was talk of us going back with them, but my grandma decided she was able to keep us for the rest of the summer. We stayed at the same house, but it was suddenly only Uncle Wayne’s house. Aunt Babe’s parrot was quiet. There was no way to get him to talk or laugh with us. He knew more than we did what had happened. In the end, Uncle Wayne had to send him to the San Diego Zoo.
Uncle Wayne married again to a lovely woman named Lois. She was nice, but she never played the Yogi Bear game with me. She got colon cancer and died soon after the colostomy. He married again to a woman I never met. When Uncle Wayne died, she inherited the house on a living trust, which meant that she could live there for the rest of her life, but she couldn’t sell the home and it would go back to Uncle Wayne’s children when she died. I don’t know why I know this, but it was mentioned to me in whispered voices.
About a month ago, we were reminiscing about Aunt Babe and Uncle Wayne. Stacey asked me, “What was Aunt Babe’s last name?” I drew a blank. I couldn’t remember it for the life of me. It felt like the moment that I realized that I didn’t have the recipe for Rhubarb Crunch after my grandma died. Something that should have been carefully logged in my memory was missing. There was a hole where knowledge should have been.
Two nights ago, it came back in a flash. I was almost asleep, relaxing in the strength of Mike’s arms. I bolted up, looking at him. “Wilcox.” He looked at me like I was dreaming or talking in my sleep. I clarified myself, “Aunt Babe’s last name was Wilcox.” He smiled uneasily at me and I continued, “Stacey asked me Aunt Babe’s last name a couple of weeks ago and I couldn’t remember it. It was Wilcox. Wayne and Ann Wilcox.” Mike nodded and tucked me into bed again. “You have to remember it because I won’t.” He comforted me and I fell back to sleep, dreaming of laughing parrots and Yogi Bear board games.