Our Elizabeth Taylor

The other day, I ran across a TV channel that features biographies about famous people. At that particular moment, they were talking about the life of Elizabeth Taylor.

The narrator raved about her beautiful black hair, hypnotic eyes. Commentators talked about her sense of humor and how she consistently used certain phrases that set her dialogue apart from others. She had a stylish fashion sense and was a social butterfly. And she was a sucker for romantic love.

As I heard these descriptions of the late superstar, I realized every single adjective and colorful representation could be applied to a woman loved by my family. She wasn’t a movie star, but she was famous . . . to us. She was the fabulous Great-Aunt Hilda . . . our Elizabeth Taylor.

Hilda was the only sister to my grandpa, Andy. She grew up on the family farm, a raven-haired beauty whose skin was like silk, her dark brown eyes far more striking than words can describe. She was short, like her brother, but she had voluptuous curves of the female variety.

When Hilda was in her late teens, she did what not many young women from rural America did at the time — she went away to school, alone. She moved to the “big city” of Grand Island, where she attended business classes. It wasn’t long before she met a dashing young man named Harry Key. He was a railroad guy, she said. And he soon became her husband.

They set up house in Grand Island, with Harry often gone on business. But Hilda kept herself busy, working and attending social events in the big town. Hilda said their lives were “simply wonderful.”

Unfortunately, Harry died at a young age. They didn’t have any children. So when Harry passed away, everyone expected Hilda to pack up and go back “home.” But the young, beautiful woman said she would be staying right where she was.

In my earliest memories, there was Hilda in the thick of it all. Every single birthday, each of us Mueller kids would find a package in the mail, wrapped in brown grocery paper. Even though there were so many of us, she never forgot how old we were and a gift always arrived on the very day. It often took Dad’s hunting knife and a solid 15 minutes to open that highly secured parcel, which incidentally always carried the heavy scent of Hilda’s trademark perfume. Besides a gift, our special great-aunt would always include a dollar for each year we were alive and an envelope filled with “Family Circus” cartoons she’d clipped from the newspaper (because she said they reminded her of our clan).

When Hilda came to visit, it could be likened to the arrival of royalty. We’d clean the house, willingly, from top to bottom, and anxiously await the dust cloud that would accompany her antique and classic Buick as it sparkled its way down the dirt road. We’d run to the driveway and wave as she pulled in, her black hair (dyed to also have a blue tint) waving in the wind, her bejeweled fingers gripping the steering wheel of her original chromed and teal car. My father always marveled that the vintage auto could even make it that far and worried about her safety — but the elderly woman would just laugh it off and remind him that the son of the original dealer still worked on it for her, once a month whether it needed it or not.

We’d run to get a Hilda hug — it was like none other. Her curves had grown more pronounced over the years and I remember sinking into her, almost being sucked in as she wrapped her arms around me. Strong perfume would fill the house as she bustled about, bracelets clanking and her fancy shoes clicking. She’d tell stories about the men she knew at the veterans’ home and hospital where she volunteered daily. She loved them all — but not romantically, she’d chuckle as her heart only belonged to her beloved Harry.

Hilda’s sentences were constantly filled with “whatchamacallits” and “thingamajigs,” as she’d often talk so fast her brain couldn’t keep up with the dialogue. She’d weave stories that captivated me, explaining in detail the interesting food she’d eaten at her last potluck (the woman loved a good array of covered dishes at a German club on Thursdays) and maintaining her stance on remaining a Lutheran although Andy converted to Catholicism.

Hilda’s visits also meant we’d get a rare treat — pizza for supper. She loved pizza and beer — she said that specific menu was “how God intended us to eat.” My father would wholeheartedly agree, as Hilda made sure the beer often continued long after the pizza was gone.

Visiting Hilda in the big town of G.I. was also our annual vacation. My mother, whom Hilda adored and often referred to as being like a daughter, would pack us up for a four-day excursion each summer.

Hilda lived in the same house her entire life, which amazingly survived the town’s historic tornadoes while her neighbors’ homes disappeared. We’d settle into her guest bedrooms, which were like the rest of the house — full of roses, on the wallpaper, bedspreads, the furniture. It even smelled like roses, which likely came from her famous perfume.

Each morning of our stays, she’d shuffle about her little kitchen, wearing a rose-colored housecoat and slippers, always feeding us cantaloupe balls, Little Smokies and toast. Hilda would announce our itinerary for the day, always the consummate tour guide.

Once she was dressed in a colorful pants suit and spectacular shoes, she’d take us to the Stuhr Museum, her favorite coffee shops, a restaurant that served the biggest burgers I’d ever seen. We went for walks in a park, visited the veterans’ home where she’d introduce us to her friends and spend hours in the mall as she coached my mother into fashionable attire.

Although she got on in years, she remained a cornerstone of our family. The bond between her and my mother grew after my father’s death — they understood each other. And she often checked in with us kids, via the telephone, after my mother was gone. The old Buick was sold to that mechanic, who planned to enter it in car shows . . . she said it was sad to see it go, but she wasn’t much for driving any longer.

Amazingly, however, on my wedding day, the 80-something starlet made a surprise appearance. I’ll never forget, as she and I had our picture taken together, how she whispered in my ear, “I’m really proud of you. You’re almost as good lookin’ as I am.”

Hilda Key was an icon, a force to be reckoned with. She had an open heart and was accepting of others. She was physically beautiful and spiritually gorgeous.

She was our superstar — our Elizabeth Taylor.


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