An Expert's Lessons on Being an Aunt

Karen Washabau and her husband, Dave, visited a StoryCorps booth in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Karen Washabau and her husband, Dave, visited a StoryCorps booth in Flagstaff, Ariz. hide caption

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Many families have a special aunt, a quick-witted woman who delights her nieces and nephews with funny stories — and a patient ear. For Karen Washabau, that aunt, Mary Elizabeth Ford, was known simply as "Mef."

As she tells her husband, Dave, Mef (pronounced "Mehf") was an independent woman, a history teacher who for years lived on her own in a small house in Altoona, Penn.

In 1954, Karen — still learning to write — wrote her first letter to her aunt. But it wasn't her last. As Karen recalls, "I never kept a diary in high school. Instead, I just wrote letters to Mef."

By her estimate, Karen wrote between 450 and 500 letters to her Aunt Mef. And when Mef died in 1985, at age 74, she found the letters — all of them — carefully stashed in a cupboard.

Given her age at the time, Karen says it's no surprise that many letters revolved around boy troubles.

One example began, "Dear MEF, All this is, is one sob story, so be prepared." After three pages, the note ended with the add-on idea: "But then, what are aunts for?"

MEF's response came almost immediately — and it cited Mrs. Miniver, the classic novel by Jan Struther.

"Here's what I think aunts are for," she wrote. "Aunts are to be a pattern and example to all aunts, to be a delight to boys and girls, and a comfort to their parents — and to show that at least one daughter in any generation, in every generation, ought to remain unmarried, and raise the profession of auntship to a fine art.

Thank you, Karen, for reminding me of this. I shall have to keep trying again and again to live up to it."

For her part, Washabau had no doubt of her aunt's ability to meet expectations.

"MEF was probably the gold standard," she says.

This piece was produced for 'Morning Edition' by Piya Kochhar and Katie Simon.

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