Every summer when I was little we’d pile into the station wagon and head West. I’ll never forget those long drives from the hot humid climes of Georgia to the vast open prairies of Wyoming and Iowa – trapped in a car with no air conditioning – unless you counted the open windows — and sometimes accompanied by a drooling dog drunk on tranquilizers (he’d get car sick a lot; hence the ‘miracle pills’.) Dog in the back, drooling on my shoulder; my brother and I with our ‘dividing line’ – a seam on the back seat, across which neither one was supposed to cross. Of course it was a favorite game of ours to put just the end of your pinkie across that sewn boundary – into the other’s ‘space’ – just to hear the other one scream “MOM! HE”S ON MY SIDE AGAIN!”. You didn’t dare play that game too much, or else my mom would whip around, wooden spoon in hand, and thrash around like she was stirring kid pudding. Then the drooling dog (eyes half crossed) would have the pleasure of hearing our yelps instead of his! (drip . . . drip . . . pant . . . pant . . . I can almost feel those warm moist drops of drool falling on my shoulder even now. Hot car. Bad dog breath. Drool. And boredom.)

Eventually we’d arrive at one of my most favorite places in the whole wide world: My Aunt Liz’s and Nell’s house. These were actually my ‘great-aunts’ – and they were quite a couple – spice and sugar, sweet and sour, these two ladies lived together for almost their entire lives.

And their house! God! How I loved their place! They lived in Altoona, in a small white-framed house, two-story with the narrowest set of stairs you ever saw leading to a cluttered unused bedroom above. They had a closet in there that fascinated me as a young kid – open the closet, and there in the back was another door – a small one, only a few feet tall – and open THAT one and there in the back of IT was another door – tiny small, just about a foot. (I learned later that it fed into the attic, and that it was for stuffing curtain rods into for storage.) But of course the Aunts told me to never open the ‘little door’ because monsters lived behind it, so I would just look at it in wide-eyed awe, too afraid to even touch the thing.

I loved their yard – not a huge yard, for they lived in a neighborhood – but just bursting with flowers. They had a big old gardening shed – a ‘secret’ sort of place for us kids, as though it had been built for gnomes, with small windows set high on the wall, and that mysterious musty scent old buildings and sheds have. There’d be potting supplies and garden tools – all kinds of strange tools and things – and often when we’d arrive they’d either be in there, or out tending their yard.

In the house was a laundry chute that dropped down into the mysterious ‘downstairs’. (And I guess you can tell: there was a lot of ‘mysterious’ things to me about their house – still is.) But nothing threatening, everything seen through a child’s wide-eyed wonder, and they baked the best sugar cookies in the world (angel cookies, they called them). They’d always greet us with hugs and kisses – Aunt Nell with with her horn-framed glasses and softly concerned eyes; a flickering smile on her face, and stern old Aunt Liz (also with horn-rimmed glasses), who was never one to put up with any nonsense – from us boys or her live-in relative. (Later, when Aunt Nell’s mind went, and Aunt Liz’s body failed, it was a hilarious sight: Sharp tongued (and sharp minded) old Aunt Liz calling out orders from her bed, telling Aunt Nell what she was doing and where to go – and Aunt Nell – her house key strung around her neck, following the orders in a state of somewhat perpetual confusion. They lived to be 104 and 98 years old, respectively – Aunt Liz being the older one. And they died within weeks of each other at the nursing home – Aunt Liz first, then as if being called by her, Aunt Nell.)

Anyway, one of my ‘treats’ in going to visit them was that they were the ‘animal doctors’. Now I had a collection of stuffed animals – one of my favorite things (to me they were ‘alive’, and still are in some ways) – and over the course of time they would become worn, the stuffing packed, limbs loose, eyes dangling – my poor old bear even had his footpads and palm pads worn off from use, he partied so much with me. (Plus a bad haircut – me and my uncle decided one day the top of his head needed ‘clipping’ – and he has that bald spot right there on the top – which despite my continued hopes, has never quite filled in again.) And “Valentine”, my stuffed snake; her nose worn off with kisses.

So me and Aunt Nell – she was the ‘sewer’ and the animal doctor – would sit out at the picnic table next to their garden, in the shade of an old tree – and she would go to work.

First she would ‘inject them’ – stick them with a needle – so that they could ‘go to sleep’ and wouldn’t feel any pain. Then – at least for the bear – she carefully cut out new paw pads and foot pads and sewed them on. Then came the ‘major’ operation: putting in new stuffing.

She’d split the seams – so carefully! – that even now I can’t tell where she did her work – and taking some ‘new’ stuffing she’d poke and prod and plump them out again. I can still see her: horn rimmed glasses, face knitted in concentration as she worked; a few little beads of sweat on her cheeks and forehead (it was summer, after all) – stuffing and sewing, sewing and stuffing, with me anxiously looking on. Sometimes it seemed like it would take hours before she was ‘done’. And the last thing she would do – just before ‘sewing him’ (or her, as in the case of Valentine, my red stuffed snake) – she made him (or her) a new heart – carefully stitching one together (they are made of one of those wild 60’s hippy patterns) – stuffing that heart with some fresh stuffing – and putting it inside his chest (or in Valentine’s case, somewhere in the upper third.)

To this day I still have all of my stuffed animals – I found Valentine when my mom was going to throw her out – and then again when my wife, discovering her sides split and cracked with age (who knew that cloth can do that?) – and this time it was my turn to be the ‘animal doctor’. Her nose is still patched with that red cloth Aunt Nell put there; her eyes a wild kaleidoscopic pattern – and I found that heart inside – just where Aunt Nell had placed it – and there it remains to this day. Old Valentine (the bear is at my momma’s house) – looks a little bit ragged and worse for wear – and she has a big red ‘bandage’ sewn around her middle (my sewing skills aren’t as good as Nell’s – plus the fabric is too brittle to be ‘sewn’ properly back together) – and despite my wife’s objections, she resides with us (under the bed mostly, but sometimes hung over something in our room – along with her ‘husband’ I made some years later when I was a kid. (Yeah, I learned to sew early, and made a LOT of my own stuffed animals — a thing I think a kid of today would sneer at.)

And whenever I look at these things – those old stuffed animals of mine – I know not only those hearts are in them — but WHOSE hearts are in them – and it makes me feel SO good – because I know behind those hearts was another heart – as big as this whole wide world, only bigger.

Thank you, Aunt Nell and Aunt Lizz – wherever you are today – because to this day you are, and always will be my most favorite Aunts of all – the ones with the strange white house and beautiful gardens – the ones who really cared. The ones who gave their hearts to me.