Little Silver #3 – Aunt Jill

One version of my childhood is that I was half-raised by a British WWII nurse. Aunt Jill lived with us for only 3 years before she retired at age 72, and she is one of the only consistent players in the enterprise of bringing up the two children at 301 Rumson Road in Little Silver, NJ. 

Once a single mother, Connie got a job in NYC. Yes, she longed to get back to her pre-children working life, but the city was where she could earn enough to cover the bills. Knowing she’d be gone most of each weekday due to the long commute, she placed an ad in The Asbury Park Press for a live-in caretaker. In walked Jill Tompkins with one suitcase in hand.

Jill became a fixture in the dry, mile-square town of Irish and Italian catholic families who had lived in Little Silver for generations. First of all, nobody had live-in babysitters. Secondly, her British accent made it such that anything she said sounded authoritative and slightly haughty, so people tended not to argue with her. And third, she got to work right away. With a skill level on par with Henry Higgins, she transformed my 7 year old brother Alex and 8 year old me from savages into people who could eat with a knife and fork. She taught me to make my bed with hospital corners, a skill I was pretty proud of and sure nobody else I knew possessed (nor did they likely care about, but I did).  She got things running smoothly in our lives, and we were not the only ones to notice. Kids who weren’t allowed to come to our house to play when the news hit that my parents were divorcing were suddenly allowed once Jill was on the scene. For those few years, she provided a real stability as our two parents took turns moving in and out of the house every six months.

Even though Aunt Jill was as serious a hard-ass as we had yet known, she seemed to sincerely enjoy our company. She rewarded any good behavior with Certs (British-esque, patrician-type mint) or Mentos, and on special occasions, took us to McDonald’s. She loyally drank tea out of the pharmacy-bought, flowered teacup I gave her one year for her birthday, and when it broke, she glued it back together and still used it despite its slow leak. She even crocheted Alex and me elaborately sectioned blankets for our beds; mine in two oddly matched colors that weren’t exactly pleasing to the eye – a saturated royal blue and potent mustard yellow. I LOVED this blanket and my mother kept it for me through the years and various re-locations, and it now stands as a pretty singular relic of my otherwise pretty relic-less childhood.

The best thing about Jill was that she had a story for just about any animal we brought up, and I suspected her, after some time of regaling us with tales of personal run-ins with the most obscure jungle animals we could find in our encyclopedia, to be a chronic liar. But like many kids, I preferred a good story to the truth any day, and hers were engaging, colorful and action-packed. She had worked in Africa as part of the North African Campaign during the war and, for example, while walking from the commissary to the hospital, she once spotted an ocelot or a puma in a tree above, ready to pounce. In none of her stories did the animals ever get shot or otherwise perish, and she narrowly escaped possible attack through several clever displays of agility. Though once in a while, a (probably handsome) hospital doctor came to her rescue.

(I should add that in support of the liar theory, Aunt Jill’s real name, as we found out through letters that came to her at our address, was Lorna Tompkins.  We soon discovered that we got in big trouble if we even jokingly referred to her as Lorna. So we didn’t.) 

Jill was a widow, and we had come to know Eddie, her husband, as nothing more than a personality-less ghost, mostly through her notable LACK of stories about him, even when probed for info. On the weekends when my mother or father were home from work, Aunt Jill would drive 30 miles south to stay with her friend, Mrs. Rowlands, an elderly American widow. Occasionally she took us to Mrs. Rowlands’ cluttered but pleasant apartment for a weeknight dinner, where we learned that they shared the bedroom and seemed to have a gentle and knowing companionship.

If Aunt Jill was guilty of any crime, it was of being old-fashioned in the wrong way for my forward-thinking and extremely liberal mother, who had volunteered at Planned Parenthood in the early 70s and worked there again after she had retired from her NYC job later in life. One day Jill’s achilles heel got the better of her when I was splayed out on the couch reading a book and she practically spat, ”Sit like a lady!” It wasn’t the first time we’d had this “conversation”, and for whatever reason on this day I retorted (with attitude, I’m sure), “But I don’t WANT to be a lady!” and she smacked me. I don’t think it was on my face; I don’t really remember, and it didn’t hurt, but it did surprise me. 

Connie did not have many rules, but there was definitely one: nobody was allowed to hit us. And that night after we’d gone to bed, when relating the tale of the day to my mom, Jill continued with, “And I think you should have Erika see a psychologist because she’s patterning herself after you.” Years later Connie told me this story, and how insulted she’d been. But after reading Jill some more refined version of the Riot Act, she didn’t fire her, because to start with, my mom is not a hot head, and also I think because she recognized that she needed Jill. We were in so many ways well-cared for. Jill could hang with my parents’ unorthodox custody arrangement, and previous babysitters couldn’t or didn’t because they were elderly immigrant ladies who led old-world lives; they didn’t want to live in the house during my dad’s tenure, not because he was threatening, but because he was a man who wasn’t their husband and their husbands didn’t want them living in another man’s house. Whatever the case, Jill was old, tough, indebted to no one, and she didn’t bat an eyelash at any of it.

After she retired, Jill left a vacancy. My mom was still working and we had a panoply of sitters that followed her, but there was never another who loved us, with whom we felt as comfortable, and whom we loved back. And strangely or not, I don’t remember what followed, but I think we saw Aunt Jill only a handful of times after her retirement. Jill had been in touch to ask if we would back-pay into the social security system on her behalf, which my mother did. After Mrs. Rowlands died, her family wrote Jill out of everything and she moved into an assisted living home on the Jersey shore. One Saturday about 10 years after her tenure in our house, Connie and I drove out to see her. Obviously older, she was tiny and vulnerable in a way I’d not known her to be, telling us in a small voice that she was living on a shoestring budget and could we help her out? She’d recently asked my father for money and he’d obliged, but that day my mother said no, that she didn’t have it. We stayed a bit longer and on our drive home I looked out the window while my mother assured me that Aunt Jill was being well taken care of.

That was the last time I saw her.

Recently, Connie told me a story. Two years after that visit, she’d received a message from Jill on the machine, asking for a call back. It was my mom’s last night in New Jersey, as she and her new husband had sold their house and were leaving for the retirement life in South Carolina. Connie deleted the message, and the phone was disconnected for good the very next day.

Three days later, my father died of cancer. And while everything bleeds into everything else, that is a story for another day.