My Favorite Aunt

Joan with Reed and Jim Christmas 1952

Here’s a photo from Christmas 1952 (I think) with Joan flanked by me and Reed.

When I was a teenager, maybe 16 or 17, my cousin Kathy (also a teen, a year or two older, and presumably wiser) told me this joke.

A woman decided to take on a new career as a madam, so she hired three women to start out: a model, an actress, and a teacher. After a month or so she noticed that the teacher was taking in considerably more than the others, so she decided to investigate. Listening at the door of the model, she heard, “Don’t mess up the lipstick, I just applied it. And be careful of my makeup!” At the door of the actress she heard, “This is a new hairdo, don’t touch it!” Finally she listened at the door of the teacher and heard, “Now we’re going to start at the beginning and we’re going to do it over until we get it right!” 

But this isn’t about jokes. Or my cousin Kathy (although you’ll hear about her again). This is about my favorite aunt.

Now no disrespect to any of the other worthy women who fulfilled the duties of aunt to me, but my favorite was certainly Joan.

She was born Joan Fay Sheetz on January 19, 1929. Growing up in Richland, PA, she would have attended the Richland school, and I believe she lived on top of the hill on Chestnut Street. At least that’s where her father lived when I got to know her in the early 1950s. Of course, by then she was Joan Zellers, having married my mother’s brother Mark, which is how she became my aunt.

I recall her as a cheerful spirit who loved to have a good time and as a result, everyone around her had a good time as well. Early on, before they had children of their own, Joan and Mark would spend a lot of time with me and Reed (my uncle who was but three years older than I was (still is)), like the time they took us to the Thousand Steps (along with Jane and Allen, another aunt/uncle pair).

Thousand Steps with Jane, Me, Joan, Mark, and Reed

This photo was taken at the summit of the Thousand Steps; there’s Jane, me, Joan, Mark, and Reed.

And once they moved into a newly built house on Poplar Street, their home became the central hub for many family get-togethers, seeing as how they had a large mostly-finished basement with a ping pong table. I even played ping pong with Reed, though I think he always beat me.

Joan taught me how to play canasta, and she and I often played a few hands while she was babysitting me. I suspect that today I would play canasta disastrously. (Can you name that reference?)

And she taught me to polka. I can still recall the two of us polka-ing around her living room all these years later. But I won’t polka now, don’t ask me.

Even after her children were born, first her son Randy and later her daughter Kim, Joan still found plenty of time for me (and my sister Donna who had made her entrance a few years before Randy).

Joan s Family 1959

I’m guessing that this was 1959. Joan is holding her daughter Kim. Next to them is son Randy and husband Mark.

Group shot 1957

I’m pretty sure this was taken in Joan and Mark’s basement. Sitting are Fumiko holding my sister Donna, my grandmother Tillie, and Joan holding her son Randy. Standing are Kathy, me, my great-aunt Marie (Tillie’s sister), and my mother Arlene. I’d guess this was in 1957.

Now several family members have told me that they think my mother was the best cook in our extended family, but I think Joan was the more adventurous one. I remember having my first taste of pizza at their house when she pulled it out of the oven; it was a pan pizza, made from scratch, and I seem to recall it was topped with ground beef, though I may be imagining that. And she was the one who introduced lasagne into the family. (In 1950s rural Pennsylvania those dishes were not as commonplace as they are today.) It was her recipe that my mother would make for years afterward, and I followed suit with that same recipe once I started cooking for roommates in State College. It was always a hit.

In 1953 my uncle Neal returned from a stint in the armed forces where he had been stationed in Okinawa. Accompanying him were his bride, my new aunt Fumiko (pronounced FOO-mi-koh), and her daughter Kathy. Now I guess I was too young to notice such things, but I found out later that most of the Zellers clan did not exactly greet Neal’s new family with open arms. The sole exceptions were Joan and Mark, who treated Fumiko and Kathy with the warmth and respect they deserved as new members of the Zellers clan.

In later years I can remember several times when I stubbornly resisted doing something my parents wanted me to do; whatever it was, if Joan and Mark were around, I knew they would stand up for my point of view, and they always did.

I’m not sure exactly when, but in the early 1960s Joan and Mark moved to Manheim, PA, so we didn’t get to see them nearly as much as before. But after a couple years, their home once again became the hub for large family soirées, like at Christmastime.

The years passed and I moved to State College and back, my parents bought a hardware store and moved into the apartment above it, Joan and Mark moved a couple more times, but still their home was the frequent gathering place for the extended family.

Joan Having a good Time

I don’t know when this was taken but probably late 60s or early 70s. As you can see, Joan liked to have a good time. That’s Kathy trying to fade into the woodwork.

I remember one Christmas in the early 1980s when the plan was to have the Christmas Eve get-together at their place, but at the last minute, Joan threw her back out and was confined to bed. It must have been too late to change the venue, or perhaps because Joan couldn’t travel, we still gathered at their house. It was a ranch-style house, so Joan, lying in bed in her bedroom, could still hear what was going on, and of course, everyone could peek in to see how she was doing.

At some point the cousins, all grown up now in our 20s (or in my case 30s), found ourselves sitting in the living room, the older folks presumably off in another part of the house playing cards (the Zellers clan’s favorite pastime). And we began to swap jokes of the slightly off-color kind. For example, I remember contributing that joke that Kathy had told me nearly 20 years previously.

And then somebody remembered Joan, all alone in her bedroom. “Hey, Joan! How are you doing in there?”

Came the reply from the bedroom: “We’re gonna do it again until we get it right!”

Yep. That was Joan.

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