Going Big or Going Home

I’ve had lots of wonderful Fourth of July celebrations with my own three boys, but one of my all-time favorites was when I was a boy myself — the bicentennial celebration of 1976, when I was visiting my Dad in Southern California.

We’ll just say that Dad wasn’t all that prepared when it came to entertaining an 11-year-old in town from Oregon, so I spent much of the week following him around as he ran errands. For the Fourth, we headed to his sister’s house — my Aunt Alice and Uncle Bert — in San Jacinto.

Looking back, I think he knew that his sister would entertain me.

And he wasn’t necessarily wrong …

The men — my dad and my Uncle Bert — weren’t much into the Fourth of July festivities. And that really pissed off my Aunt Alice.

“What do you mean you’re not going to the fireworks?!” she snapped at them.

They looked at each other. She was the hottest firecracker of any they’d handle this weekend, and they knew enough to know not to get any closer.

“Well dadgummit!” she said, grabbing her purse and keys. “C’mon, Jeff, let’s go …”

She gave my Uncle Bert a look that could have started fire in a rainforest.

So she and I piled into this huge old car they had and she took off down the small residential street, which was lined with cars on both sides. My Aunt was never known to be that great of a driver — neither was my father — so I held on for dear life as she barreled down the street, narrowly sideswiping cars on each side as she peered her head out the window and laughed and yelled, “Whoa! Did you see THAT one!”

From left, my Uncle Bert, my Aunt Alice, and my father, Burton Riley, in 1976.

Yeah, the official party had already started, but little did anybody realize the unofficial party was right there in that huge old car, with my Aunt Alice behind the wheel and me grabbing onto anything I could find. As the wonder and awe of the bright, colorful explosions in the sky reflected off the windshield, I mostly watched my Aunt that night. I’d never been around anybody who so gloriously soaked in the moment. She cackled and howled as if she was 11 herself.

That party would continue another 20 years. After I graduated from Oregon State and moved down to Hermosa Beach, I’d drive out at least once a month to go visit her in San Jacinto. She was well into her 70s now, and we’d sit and chat for hours, eventually heading out to grab a bite. She always was so interested in my life, my sports, my schooling, my writing — and she was flat-out hilarious, punctuating any quip with a laugh that could be heard a block away. I’d laugh so hard my gut would be sore the next day.

Once, when me and five Sigma Chi brothers were driving an old VW bus from Corvallis to Baja and had been on the road for two days, we’d stopped for gas and I called her from a payphone. “Dudes, you’ve GOT to meet my Aunt.” She was upset she wasn’t going to be home when we arrived, but she insisted — demanded, actually — that we stop and help ourselves to sandwiches and showers.

So we did.

She lived in a retirement community, and plenty of neighbors were peering out their curtains, wondering what band of hooligans had broken into Alice Cutting’s house. One old dude came out to check on us, and once he heard who I was — “Ah, you’re the nephew I always hear about!” πŸ₯° — and then learned what we were up to, we had to practically push him out of the bus. He was absolutely beside himself. (Later, my Aunt would tell me he never stopped talking about that day her nephew and his frat brothers stopped in that graffiti’d old VW bus, wearing nothing but shorts and flip-flops, all greeting him with a firm handshake and a hello, and all headed to sleep on the beach in Mexico for a week.)

She had taught grade school for years, and one time we were having a burger in an old diner downtown. The waitress — in her 30s — came to take our order and dropped her arms to her side and said, “Oh my gosh, you’re Mrs. Cutting! You taught me in the third grade!”

Aunt Alice looked at her, put her finger in the air, looked at me, and said, “Hang on.” She thought a minute and then looked back at the woman and uttered a name.

Tears began to well in the woman’s eyes and she wiped her face and said, “Oh my God, you remembered my name.”

My Aunt had a way of making everybody around her feel special. I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time, but what I realized I had learned from my Aunt Alice — and what has stuck with me over the years — is that you never really know what moment might land on the soul of an 11-year-old kid for a lifetime.

It might be a moment that means nothing to you. It might be something you’ve done 100 times. But it could also be a moment that informs an 11-year-old kid that somebody out there is listening — somebody cares. Somebody thinks you’re special. As I grew to know my Aunt Alice, I realized she didn’t get behind the wheel of that old car in an effort to impress anybody.

She did it because she cared.

RIP, Aunt Alice.☺️

And Happy Fourth, peeps.

Go big or go home.

Today and every day.


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