Mom, Inc.

Aunt Jean

Letters, laps and Chinese food

By Renee Phile

I am . I live in a small, A-frame, wood-paneled house in the mountains of West Virginia. I skip outside the sliding glass door and run down the long, winding driveway to our mailbox. The faded white paint on the side of the box reads “19 Poplar Grove Estates.” The red flag is down, a good sign. I open up the mailbox and peer in. A car advertisement. Several envelopes addressed to my parents, probably bills. And then my hand touches it. It’s nestled under the rest of the mail: a pale green envelope addressed to me. The neat penmanship fills the envelope, and the return name reads “Aunt Jean.” I smile, rip open the envelope, not able to wait another second to read my letter from my pen pal.

She writes about her day and the books she is reading (two by Mary Higgins Clark). She writes about the weather (rainy). She writes how she enjoyed our visit last month, and would we be visiting anytime soon? She signs her letter like she always signs it:

Your Kindred Spirit,

Aunt Jean


I am 14. Dad and I drive up north to see Aunt Jean at her home in Martinsburg, West Virginia. We call ourselves the “Aunt Jean Club,” but yesterday we caught wind that there were some other family members, who will remain unnamed, who feel excluded from the club (even though the club is “open”), so we are keeping our club on the DL.

The three of us are sitting on her old beige couch, reading books. I look over at Aunt Jean, and watch her read. She smiles at one page, frowns at the next. Her eyes start to water as she reads, and I look away and focus on my own book.

“Aunt Jean?” I ask after several minutes. “Have you read that latest book by Mary Higgins Clark? The one about nighttime?”

“Hmmmm . . . ” she says, “I do believe I have.” Her eyes close as she thinks, “But let me check in my notebook . . . yes . . . (as she ruffles through the pages). Yes, I read it two weeks ago. I have it written down right here, and I wrote ‘good’ beside it, so I suppose it was good,” she chuckles.

“I want to read it,” I say.

“You love reading just like I do. You and I are certainly kindred spirits,” she says.

After several hours of reading and lounging on the couch, we heat up a frozen lasagna and play Scrabble. Aunt Jean tells us story after story — about growing up during the Depression, about her two brothers and one sister, about how she worked as a librarian, about her husband who passed away around the time I was born. Dad and I listen, then, out of nowhere — bam! — a 60-point play. Dad and I look at each other, amazed. She was undefeated at Scrabble. She still is.


I am 22. Yesterday, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English, and I have no clue what to do with my life. Most of my college friends are heading to the beach to celebrate, but I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be than at Aunt Jean’s house. I drove up here yesterday, right after graduation.

It’s just her and me, and earlier today we went to the Martinsburg Mall to walk laps and eat Chinese food. Aunt Jean said two laps around the mall are 3/4 of a mile, and she would know because that’s where she walks four mornings a week. We have spent the day reading, talking, sipping weak coffee, and of course, playing Scrabble. Lots and lots of Scrabble.

I tell her how I don’t know what to do with my life. All I know is that I love English and writing. “Go with what you love, and the rest will take care of itself,” she says. I do just that.


I am already 36 years old. (How did that happen?) It’s April, and I’m thinking about Aunt Jean, because her birthday is in April. She passed away in January 2013, and I miss her, but I don’t feel she’s far away.

I still read all the time. I still write all the time. I practice my Scrabble strategies daily. Now it’s through an app called Words with Friends, but it’s still basically Scrabble. I went with my love for English and writing, and the rest has taken care of itself, just as she said.

I’m organizing my closet, and I find an old shoebox. I open it, and see her neat penmanship stretch across the envelopes. The box is full. I take an envelope out, open it. I read the first few lines, then skip to the last part, my favorite part. There it is: Her cursive letters swirl and swoop to form the words:

Your Kindred Spirit,

Aunt Jean  PS

Renee Phile loves being a teacher, even if it doesn’t show at certain moments.

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