Tina Dietz grew up in North Dakota, in the sleepy, rural town of Mandan. But to her, it felt like a battle zone.
"I thought parents screamed at each other all the time," Dietz, now 38, tells her partner, Patrick Conteh, in a 2018 StoryCorps interview. "I didn't know any different."
Yet one silver lining shone brightly over the gloom: visits to her great-aunt Shirley's farm.
"It was just 60 miles," Dietz says. "I knew that road like the back of my hand. Every mile marker we passed, I was one minute closer to just being loved."
Dietz recalls her great-aunt, whose full name was Shirley Awanna Krosch, sitting at the table, drinking bitter coffee in the morning, ready to greet Dietz with affection.
"If love had a smell, it was stale cigarettes and coffee," Dietz says.
During visits, Dietz and Krosch would tend to the farm, where she would relish time spent with Krosch's horse, Flicka. Greater than the joy of riding was the feeling of making her great-aunt proud.
Because of the overwhelming joy she felt in her great-aunt's presence, Dietz attempted to escape her home life and turn summer vacation into a reality, year-round.
"When I was in seventh grade, I remember writing to her," Dietz says. "And I just asked her to take me away from my parents. I didn't want to live in hostility anymore. I just wanted to go where I was loved."
Dietz agonized over the letter, waiting anxiously, and finally received a response.
"Opening that letter was hard," Dietz says. "I can see her handwriting. Always cursive. And she said she couldn't take me. She wanted to, but there wasn't anything she could do."
"She told me that my parents loved me. And that they would be sad if I wasn't there," Dietz says. "And I think in that moment, I thought, how would they be sad when they have one less mouth to feed and one less kid to chew out?"
Despite the disappointment, Dietz continued to seek solace in the company of her great-aunt.
These days, Dietz, a hairdresser, is in school full time. She thinks of her great-aunt often. Krosch died in 2012.
Conteh asked Dietz what she would say to her great-aunt if she was still living today.
"I would just thank her for showing me that I was worthy of love," Dietz says. "She was the adult I needed growing up. And I learned more about love at her house than I did spending 18 years under my parents' roof. And I feel that a part of her lives in me."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
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