I did not go on many sleepovers as a child.
I do remember one sleepover at my Great Aunt Lily’s home. Aunt Lily lived with her sister and her brother, all unmarried, in a two story home with a covered front porch on a tree lined street with many others just like it. It was close enough that we visited them every weekend growing up. On rare occasions that my parents would go out, one of the aunts might babysit us. My brothers preferred Aunt Helen as she was the fun aunt, always quick with a joke, popping out her false teeth at you when no one was looking, always with a drink in hand. Aunt Lily was the cautious aunt – never letting us stray too far from our side yard for fear of gypsies kidnapping one of us.
I was one of Aunt Lily’s favorites, if that is possible in an extended family with literally dozens and dozens of nieces and nephews. Still, I always felt like I was. I was quiet, not social, polite, not daring or adventurous. I probably appealed to her sense of caution. I was probably the most manageable.
Aunt Helen wasn’t home that I recall on the night I slept over and it was after Uncle Albert had died. I was about ten. As sleepovers go with one child and one older adult, it was quiet. But it was time with her that made me feel special for some reason. She showed me her room, which we never saw on weekly visits. her room was the smallest in the house, at the very end of the hall that ran all the way around to the front on the second floor. I would never have snuck in there, knowing how creaky the floor was, I would surely have been caught. So when invited in on this special visit, it was like almost like entering some sacred space I still should not enter even escorted.
It was simple unlike Aunt Helen’s room – the largest bedroom at the very top of the stairs. Aunt Helen’s room had lush carpet, a large queen sized bed, special vanity and dressers for all her clothing. Aunt Helen worked outside the home in an office, went out often and traveled a great deal. She was always dressed up. Apparently this necessitated her placement in this room. I think it was more that she was always out late and needed to get up the stairs to her room without disturbing everyone else when she came in.
Aunt Lily’s room was simple, a single bed, a single dresser, an imposing Jesus nailed to a cross over the bed watching over her as she slept. I knew I couldn’t sleep with him staring at me. On her dresser was a small jewelry box with a few special items. Next to it was a round box of lightly rose scented powder with a puff that she used to apply it. That scent still reminds me of her the same way that the scent of scotch reminds me of Aunt Helen.
Aunt Lily had worked outside the house for many years as the cook at the catholic school down the street. Prior to that she raised all her six brothers and sisters from the time she was sixteen. Her mother died several months after the youngest was born. It was from that day on Lily’s responsibility to raise them. She was twelve years older then her sister Helen. They seemed decades different in age to me and worlds different in style and temperament.
She let me try the powder puff. She let me explore the attic where my mother stayed when she lived there after high school. I didn’t want to sleep in the attic. It seemed too far away and it was already decided that I would sleep in Uncle Albert’s old room down the hall at the back of the house. Before bed I had a bath in the claw footed tub and Aunt Lily combed out my hair. I remember having trouble falling asleep. It was a strange place with strange sounds. I was not terribly brave. Eventually sleep overtook fear.
The next day after breakfast at the tiny table in the sunny kitchen overlooking the small backyard, Aunt Lily asked me if I knew the story of the little boy and girl on the china plate we’d been eating from. I didn’t. So she told me of the love story of two children from families that did not get along. They loved each other and would meet on a little bridge over a river that divided their two properties. It seems I was picked up shortly after helping dry the breakfast dishes. All in all an uneventful sleepover.
It was so uneventful, I would have thought that there would be more. I hadn’t broken anything. I hadn’t been difficult or emotional. I hadn’t even been slightly unhappy. After I grew up my mother told me why there weren’t other sleepovers. When she was a young girl, she’d been shipped off to this Aunt or that cousin for long periods of time. She didn’t really say why, if she even knew. She said that it always made her feel as though she wasn’t wanted. She therefore never let me sleep over at people’s homes so that I wouldn’t feel that way.
For me it had the exact opposite effect. It made me feel that something was wrong with me that I was kept at home, isolated. I missed out on learning those social skills and on opportunities to feel comfortable in the homes of others that to this day would be useful. All those years I felt there must have been something wrong with me that no one wanted me to sleepover at their house. Had I only known it was my mother’s discomfort. I think she realized later in life how her actions had betrayed the results she’d been looking for.