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Swift: Dad's sisters took us on storytelling adventures

Tammy Swift, columnist

We call them the "aunties."

We always felt a special kinship with my Dad's three sisters, partly because our family structures were so similar: Their family consisted of three girls and my Dad, and our family had four sisters and my brother.

When they visited, Mom prepared as if setting the stage for Betty Ford: the house was cleaned, top to bottom; a special meal was cooked and the table was set with the good china. We kids were expected to be on our best behavior and — most appallingly — to gather around the piano to sing something for the "aunties."

I always felt a little self-conscious around the aunties, because they seemed so well-educated and proper. They weren't like my mother's sisters, who came from a big, down-to-earth German-Russian family.

Aunt Ethel is a retired nurse who was married to Bob, a hospital administrator who is now deceased. She is small and fine-boned, with a brilliant smile and a head of striking white hair. She is extremely sweet, and her nursing background makes her an excellent caretaker — even now, amid age and illness, she would rather help someone out than complain about her own pain.

Just 11 months older, Aunt May has the same radiant smile and head of striking hair, which had turned completely gray by the time she was in her 30s. She has a college degree in home economics, but I mainly remember her as a homemaker. She wrote wonderful letters, filled with description and detail, until macular degeneration in later years made that impossible. I don't know what caused her eye problems, but once heard it could have been the welding she did in the 1940s while working in a shipyard during the war.

Dad's youngest sister Avis was perhaps the feistiest and funniest of the lot. She was an excellent fifth-grade teacher in my hometown, although she and her family had lived on the West Coast before that, which made them all seem quite cosmopolitan. She suffered a stroke in the early '90s, which left her in a wheelchair but didn't dampen her quicksilver wit even one little bit.

The best thing about the aunties is their storytelling. We used to gather around the kitchen table after dinner and hear their childhood stories, which were told with great animation and detail. There was the one in which the aunts dressed up my poor dad as "Alice," then abandoned him in the barn when company came. Poor Alice waited and waited for his sisters to come and free him from his humiliating fate, but they completely forgot him.

Or there was the time Ethel got so fed up with May's lollygagging to school that she packed May's lunch by throwing everything willy-nilly into the lunch pail and dumping baking soda on her jelly bread. When mealtime rolled around, May opened her lunchbox to discover a big ball of green goo.

We kids knew how those stories would end, but we couldn't hear them enough. Over time, they grew grander and more dramatic, which made them even juicier to hear.

A few weeks ago, my aunts all got together in Fargo. Now in their 80s and 90s, they all use wheelchairs or walkers, and they have their share of health challenges. They still share stories — or, at least, snippets of stories — that demonstrate their shared history of a family.

And they're still quick-witted as ever.

When dinner time rolled around, they all queued up in their wheelchairs and slooowly made their way to the dining center. "Look!" Auntie Avis said. "We're making a train!"

Once a Swift, always swift.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at