From the time I was a little girl, my earliest - and best - memories always involved Aunt Lois. My mom's older sister, Aunt Lois had the coolest toys: gobs of crayons and paints. Reams of blank computer paper and blank accounts receivable forms which she brought home in boxes from her job at the dairy, rescued from the throwaway pile. Dolls and dusty old dress-up clothes in a real wooden, mirrored wardrobe. A brand-new (ancient now, ha ha) Atari computer with Frogger and Pac-Man when my family could barely afford a TV.
Christmases were a dream creation courtesy of Aunt Lois. All seven of us cousins, all girls, counted the days until her Christmas feasts of pumpkin and cherry pies, sugar-baked ham, home-canned green beans and corn, and fresh homemade yeast rolls. Presents for all of us in the latest toy crazes, from Cabbage Patch Kids to LoLo Balls (if you remember what those were). Christmas music piped in the ancient hi-fi. A tree with lights. Surprises galore.
A photo of all of us little cousins in nightgowns and footed pajamas, piled on one armchair around her as she read us a book.
Rainbow sherbet in the summer before bed and no clean-up chores and Pop-Tarts for breakfast (TOTALLY not allowed in my healthy household) and WE COULD GET UP AND GET DRESSED WHENEVER WE WANTED TO, and didn't have to set the table!
Aunt Lois' closet, even, dazzled me with its piles of shoe boxes, endless sandals and work dresses, and all kinds of trinkets from years gone by. Which she let me paw through in curiosity, the coral and brown skirts falling together over my head like curtains.
I always though her chic, smart, and fun - and wished, quite often, that I could have her as a second mom. And maybe move in!
And yet through it all, Aunt Lois was always there, holding out open arms. For you see, Aunt Lois had no children of her own. No husband. No house of her own, even. Just the upstairs floor of my Mennonite grandfather's house. The house he built himself, from his own plans, even with an amputated right arm - the green lawn full of verdant apple and peach trees, rows of shivering corn leaves, and blackberry vines.
None of this I understood fully until I became a young woman, looking back on those radiant younger years of unfettered glee.
And little by little, like a blurred picture slipping into focus, I could see her clearly.
What most people might consider horrific spoiling (!) was, from her perspective, a gift of grace and freedom in our otherwise rather hard lives. Outside of Aunt Lois' lavish extravagance, I daily faced finacial and other troubles at home, bullying at school, cruel and humiliating teachers, snubs at church other wealthier girls, my mom and sister with life-threatening health problems, no close friends, living far from extended family, moves and bad adjustments, death of family members, and other difficulties. So many changes. So little security.
As I look back now, I realize that Aunt Lois was not wealthy at all! It hit me, when I began to understand life a bit better, that Aunt Lois was just an ordinary woman at a dairy. She battled thyroid problems that almost permanently destroyed her stomach, with no help from anyone else, and so many misdiagnoses that the disease could have killed her. She cooked for her (sometimes difficult but wonderful) father, lived in her hometown among married relatives and wagging tongues, canned peaches and hung clothes, and worshipped God quietly at the small Mennonite church where her brothers and sisters married. And she created a world for us, a softer world, a refuge from the pains and difficulties of life.
And the biggest shock of all, that has stunned me well into my adult years: AUNT LOIS NEVER GAVE WAY TO BITTERNESS, JEALOUSY, OR RESENTMENT.
If it were me, I would not receive my (married) siblings' children with such grace and so many gifts. I married at nearly 28 years old, so I know a little of what the single life is like. Instead of responding with grace, if I were in Aunt Lois' shoes I would sit stiffly to the side, bitter at God and wondering why THEY got to marry and have children while I didn't. What, does He think they're better, or something? Does He think I'd be a terrible parent or a lousy wife? Does everybody think I was washed up, or too (insert negative word here) to get married or raise a family? Well, they're certainly not going to get any of MY money. MY time. MY anything. Let them spend Christmas somewhere else!
No, Aunt Lois chose to serve with grace.
If she felt cheated, she never let on. If she heard others whispering behind her back, she never acknowledged it, shrank back in humiliation, or clambered to defend herself. If she felt lonely and childless, she wrapped her arms around us and gave us the gift of lavish love.
Even now, with Aunt Lois now well into her 60s, I look to her as one of my great heros.
Why? Because she proves that one need not be what society demands to change your world. You don't have to have children. You don't have to have a college education. You don't have to be married. You don't have to have good health. You don't even have to go on a mission trip (although it's great if you can) or serve overseas or study theology.
You simply GIVE YOUR LIFE TO CHRIST, as it is, a broken vessel - and allow Him to use you however He sees fit.
You see, not long after those golden years in Aunt Lois' house, which had become my childhood dream home, my mom passed away unexpectedly on a cold February afternoon. And the one who stepped into the void was none other than Aunt Lois.
Aunt Lois helped me put on my wedding dress and pin on the veil. Aunt Lois held my beautiful adopted baby boy and sends him birthday cards. Aunt Lois helped arrange his baby shower, sewed him a homemade tractor quilt, and passes on the news about the cute things he says and does. Aunt Lois, who got laid off from the dairy and spends most of her meager income as a nursing home schedule coordinator on medical bills, pays $30 every single month so she can call me nightly in Brazil - the only one in my entire extended family to ever do this.
The baby shower Aunt Lois created with my mom's extended family in Newport News, Virginia, in 2010.
No matter where I moved, whether as an intern in Atlanta or a college student in North Carolina or my first job in Richmond, Virginia, or my mission post in Sapporo, Japan, or with my husband to two different states in Brazil, Aunt Lois NEVER failed to send me a birthday and Christmas card.
When I needed a mom, she was there.
And GOD put here there. "For such a time as this."
Rather ask God to USE YOU for HIS GLORY, and AT ANY COST - and submit your life to His.
And by doing this, you will have lived, and loved, and served, far greater and impacted more lives for eternity, than you could possibly imagine.
Jennifer Rogers Spinola lives in Brasilia, Brazil with her Brazilian husband, Athos, and two-year-old son, Ethan. She often wondered growing up and into her teens, and then into her late 20s, if she'd ever get married! Jenny teaches ESL private classes and is the author of Barbour Books' "Southern Fried Sushi" series (first book released in October!) and an upcoming romance novella collection based on Yellowstone National Park (also with Barbour Books).