This year as I took my children and husband on the daunting drive across the Midwest, over grand rivers and endless plains, in rain and sun, and countless bathroom breaks with required forays for truck stop random goodies, I found myself singing this tune anticipating the lovely little woman who looks and acts half her age in a delightful way. Hearing her soft southern accent and smelling her perfume that I've never forgotten no matter how long I spend away.
It seemed to take forever and yet only an instant as I pointed out landmarks I remembered and argued with my husband about accuracy of the GPS now that there was construction blocking an important turn off. A few random work calls because upper management never truly get a day off of anything, my children best behaved they have ever been on a long car ride, and by the time we hit city limits it didn't seem to take quite that long.
Of course a stop along the way to see my brother helped too. Packed with cheese for both our loved ones, I couldn't wait to get to either place. My brother had the good sense to live directly on route between our home and my aunt's. I didn't stay long, but to hug him with my own two arms was a great gift. I don't have words for what that meant to me. I left him with cheese curds done up only the way a Wisconsin factory can make them fresh, and threats of coming to visit me or else! *Hint hint* Next time. Next time there'll be time enough to say all the things and laugh at all the jokes.
Hundreds of miles between there and here, the home of BBQ and Jazz beckoning me like a dream of all the best childhood memories. There I found her there waiting for us, arms open. Her home looked like it always had, maybe a new counter top and stove, maybe a new couch or a new color on the walls, but still, most emphatically Carolyn. A map of her heart, and a reflection of a life well lived. Her walls and surfaces were covered in the most amazing collection of family heirlooms and bits from her world travels. I was hard pressed to find very many countries that weren't represented. Treasures new and old from a crafty niece found their way into the mix. Recent paintings I had made gifts of and an old hand sewn and beaded leather pouch from my first decade of life hidden in among family pictures.
There are always new things at my aunt's, the ebb and flow of life changing like the ocean reef she loves so much, but always the much loved art and things my sisters and I always remember. The mantle clock that plays Westminster chimes owned first by our great grandparents a much loved shadow of its former self. No matter how old, or how time has aged it, or even state of disrepair, there will be a war over that clock on a date I pray will be distant yet. I would sleep in the middle room, sometimes alone, sometimes sharing with a sister, the clock right outside the door and listen to sound of time passing through the night. Bum Bum Bum Bum every fifteen minutes.
I have a deep love of Kansas City. I've lived in other big cities. I know what they hold. I would probably lose my mind in the maze of buildings and the pace of a thousand things to do should I live there, but I always feel drawn back to this place. Drawn to the love of my aunt, drawn to the childhood memories of playing in her yard, picking her tomatoes, and a hundred adventures with a woman who always seemed to have a friend everywhere she went. But I'm also drawn to the feel of midtown and Westport. You can see the lights of the Historic Plaza from her home, the feeling of jazz all around. That smokey bit of good BBQ, like a sax singing you to sleep. The tinkling of laughter through open windows as the sun set, a good melody on the piano. The pulse of life a sedate beat wafting through the air. The spray of a hundred fountains, water blue for their favorite sons, the KC Royals (World Series Winners!), like a soprano softly finishing the chorus. There are lights like any large settlement of humanity, but something about the warm air and the early sunset mute them until you feel part of the air, seamless and calm.
As always BBQ is involved in our trip. Either one meal or a large tray that feeds us for weeks, but one way or another, when we see Aunt Carolyn, BBQ will happen. There's a whole culture to KC BBQ. An odd mix of greasy spoon, cafeteria, and sit down. Some are upscale and some are nothing more than holes in the wall with one or two tables. The best BBQ is always in the older neighborhoods, plain chairs and tables found in mom and pop diners from the 50's, and never fancy. Just your average inner city corner grill that serves fish and wings or philly cheese steak or any number of regional foods. In KC you go to these little, old, less maintained places and find the food of your dreams. Sauce sweet and smokey, or spicy and tangy, or my favorite, both at once. Smoked meats piled high, the smell greeting you down the block of stacked brick buildings and absent grass. You walk down a cafeteria like counter yelling out your order to the cooks, cutting meat right in front of you, get your beer or soda and find a table where someone nice with a dulcet KC accent makes sure you have enough sauce and drink.
My children are mixed. The recent less than absent race relations in the US always has me edgy. I worry how my children will be greeted. I worry how I will be greeted. I worry how we'll be greeted when seen together because their glowing dark skin is so obviously different from my sack of flour and freckled complexion. I was amazed that no one paid us any mind. In Ohio we were stared at often. In KC all the neighborhoods seemed mixed and no one cared, we were just people. You respect them, they respect you. I don't know enough about the issues in KC government or society to tell you if this is what everyone experiences, but I was comfortable and greeted well by all manner of people.
This trip was a little ambitious for me, with my health being what it isn't, but still, wonderful things happened. Sea Life Aquarium was beautiful. The staff friendly and informative and always seemed to have time to stop whatever they were doing to tell you with such excitement all about the exhibits. A collection of rare animals, rescued and rehabbed animals, and animals from their world known breeding programs greeted us, seemingly just as curious about us we are of them. An octopus sucked against a window half hiding an eye and blinking closed every time she was caught watching. The missing link between sharks and rays strutting her stuff for all to see while she waited to grow up enough for a mate. One had already been chosen for her. A turtle patrolling and watching all that came by. A sea anemone that would hug you if you poked it between the spines while horseshoe crabs nestled in close. Sea horses bright and dark, large and small, happily going on with the business of increasing their numbers.
Another staff member herded the worshipers of all that goes bump in the night down a pitch black turn then whisked my daughter and I out. He showed her the back staging and the sets still under construction or repair and talked calmly the whole time. Embarrassment quickly faded as he declared we were the third ones that night, and they had only been open an hour. Kindness on a night of fright. Well trained, compassionate staff. That's what took a famous haunted house and made it truly world class.
We watched the opening pitches of the final game in the World Series while sitting at an old wooden bar table that wobbled, with sticky floors and chairs a decade or two past their prime, inside a true flea market, not a tourist attraction, to eat world class burgers. Food Network had featured the place, and no one cared, or maybe they even enjoyed, the dilapidated décor. Packed wall to wall, standing room only, clusters of beer glasses in hands around TV's to listen to the National Athem and some singing along. The noise was epic, but unified in a way only sports fans all rooting for one team can give you. Everyone from doctors and nurses, to cooks and wait staff, to business men and women, to children and elderly all wearing Royal blue. A sea of a city united, even non-sports fans, celebrating as one. Fireworks and honking horns filled the night. Even a few unexpected late hours in the ER for something easily fixable did not dampen the feel in the air as KC won her title.
Of all these amazing things luring me in like strains of jazz and BBQ smoke wrapping me in a hug, my favorite moment was sitting in front of a Samhain fire, sticks of incense in hand talking my aunt through a basic ritual in remembrance of loved ones lost. Explaining to her what that night was all about, and feeling the intimacy of a thousand emotions as she remembered those that have journeyed on. KC has a million things to do, all of them interesting, most of them culturally enriching, most of them fun, but it is her I seek. It is to be in her presence and talk. About life, love, fond memories, struggles, her adored shi-tzu begging to be pet and Westminster chimes flowing through our consciousness like smoke until we didn't even notice how many times the chimes sang at the top of the hour. It is making her my famous butternut soup and watching her enjoy it. It is holding on to her arm in a haunted house and listening to the history of all the places she took us. Fond memories of family friends she brought into our lives and her adventures with Uncle Dr. Jim in those very places we walked.
Not everything planned happened. In a way I'm ecstatic about that. It means more thinly disguised excuses to be in her presence, to share her life for a few more days. It means we can all pretend I have more reasons to go back again and again, when I only needed that one. Her.
Aunt Carolyn you are adored. I will always come back. KC is as much my home as Point because you are there. Thank You for another trip of memories and laughter and love.
I'm going to Kansas City, Kansas City her I come. You got some pretty little women there, and you are the most adored one!
Susan is a plural writer and artist by day, a child and pet wrangler by night, and occasional crazy person on the weekends.