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Comet the baby goat at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm was the center of attention in the nursery pen this spring, but when I visited, or checked in on the live feed, I mostly watched Betty. Betty is not related to Comet. She is an elderly Shetland sheep who came into our care as a neglect case that necessitated the amputation of her back leg. Last year, when another sheep gave birth unexpectedly, Betty helped to raise that baby, Hugo, as well. He slept in a fluffy ball on her broad backside and visits her through the fence.
The night of Comet’s birth, Betty heaved her body across the door to the shed, protecting the mother goat Halley. Hers was the second face Comet saw and they are fast friends. Betty is not even the same species as Comet, and yet she nuzzles her and lets her stand on her head and bounce off her woolly back. Once, when I checked on them, Comet was eating a piece of hay out of Betty’s mouth! Because of her patience and kindness, we have christened this elderly, three-legged lady Aunt Betty.
Betty has me thinking a bit about aunts, the world over, formal and informal, those who love and care for young ones in addition to, or in the absence of, parents.
Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm might not be standing if it weren’t for the effort of another aunt, Eliza. Eliza Adams Little was born in 1861 at the farm, the youngest of four. Her siblings were all boys, and the oldest, Henry Bailey, left home early for a successful career as a banker. Her other brothers, Daniel and Ed Francis, and their wives, Amelia and Sarah, lived at the farm with Eliza, who helped to raise their children.
Tragedy struck the family repeatedly. First Amelia died after a long battle with tuberculosis in 1903, leaving behind five children. Then Daniel slipped under a train in 1912 and was killed instantly. Two of their children died of tuberculosis, and their only son left home. Eliza’s sister-in-law, Sarah, was bedridden for many years. Aunt Eliza shepherded the last generation of her family, her nieces Agnes, Margaret, and Amelia, into adulthood. The four of them lived together until the end of their lives, a tight-knit community of single women devoted to each other and to the preservation of their family farm.
I am writing this in another family farm saved by the devotion of an aunt, this one a distant cousin of Eliza Little: my great aunt Emily Noyes Poore, born in 1919. Aunt Emily, like Aunt Eliza, was the youngest daughter. She also never married and remained in the house where she was born, working as a bookkeeper to make repairs and pay the taxes, while caring for a long list of children who lived with her in the rambling Poore House on Poore’s Lane in West Newbury, Massachusetts.
She cared first for her nieces, my mother and her sister, and then my generation, as well as a gang of neighborhood children who dropped in for cookies and Hawaiian Punch. Through Aunt Emily’s efforts, my family home was also saved. In the last decade of her life, she cared for my children, playing endless games of Connect Four with my son and Othello with my daughter. Though she was taciturn and didn’t suffer fools, her patience with children was endless. She died four years ago, at ninety-six, and a year later we were was able to purchase the house from her estate. The home I live in and the home I work in were both saved by aunts. So here’s to the aunts, the safety-net and favorite playmate for countless kids of all kinds the world over.