SANDE BORITZ BERGER
My great aunt Irene is the oldest living relative in our family, the only link to a past that began in a tiny shtetl in Lithuania over a century ago. A petite Clairol blonde nearing ninety, Irene is visiting my home on Long Island for the weekend. It’s a little past nine on this Friday night, when she taps on my bedroom door, simultaneously apologizing for the intrusion.
“Come in, come in,” I say, hoping to convince her she’s welcome. She approaches my bed balancing a leaning tower of clean laundry she has finished folding. Somehow, laundry touched by my aunt’s warm hands never needs pressing. There is something magical in the way she arranges all things domestic, never a loose thread or speck of dust to be found in the tidy world she inhabits.
“Tired, Mommele?” she asks, using an endearment I remember from childhood. I see her gazing around my disheveled room as if searching for survivors of a twister. A week’s worth of clothing is strewn over the backs of chairs, and books stacked like dominoes sit on the night table. But I don’t feel judged by her: not now, not ever. I relax back on my corduroy reading pillow and motion for her to come sit near me on the edge of the bed.
“Why is he so late?” my aunt asks, still standing, squinting at the digital clock radio. I tell her that my husband had a dinner meeting and she shouldn’t worry so much. I stifle a laugh when instantly reminded of the roots of my own paranoia. There is doom and disaster stamped into her light brown pupils.
“Do you want I should put away the clothing?”
“No thank you, just plop it all on top of the dresser. And please, sit down.”
She walks slowly, kneeling with the pile as if she were bearing gifts to royalty. I wonder what makes her so comfortable with servitude as she carefully creates a temporary home for the laundry at the edge of my dresser.
Again, her eyes peruse the room. I think she is stalling and really wants to talk. I shimmy my body over to make more room for her. She slips off a beautiful pair of beige leather pumps, and examines them. As a child, I was constantly trying on her shoes and begging her to save them for me. She promised, but one summer my feet grew two sizes larger than hers.
“Will you save those for my Jenny?” I ask, grinning. But she’s distracted and doesn’t seem to connect to my wave of nostalgia. “Auntie, do you need a pair of slippers?”
“No, darling, I’m fine.” She’s come prepared for this visit with her chintz housecoat, a relic from the 1950s, terry-cloth slippers, pink plastic hair rollers, and several washcloths. She knows my two teenage girls and I walk around in our underwear, and use cotton balls to clean our faces and noisy hair blowers to dry our hair.
It’s only a few hours since her arrival, and already she’s emptied the refrigerator of fuzzy unrecognizable objects, polished the flatware, and refolded every towel in the linen closet. Her pink mottled hands look years older than her face, and her fingers are gnarled from years of fixing and touching. My aunt has the soul of an immigrant, always anxious to earn her keep. I imagine this stems from the many years she spent living under the roof of her brother (my grandfather), after he sent the money for her and her older and only sister to come to America. When she was still just a teenager, in his home, she baked, cleaned, and cooked, helping to prepare elaborate Sabbath dinners, which were a family ritual every Friday evening.
“I miss him,” she says, unexpectedly bursting into tears.
“Who?” I ask, dazed, thinking of my husband, still at the office, and why his being late would make her cry.
“My Fred,” she whimpers, pulling a tissue from her sleeve before I grab one from the box. It’s nearly ten years since her husband passed away. They’d married just months after being fixed up by a family friend. Uncle Fred was in the army; he had the job of recruiting men and women for the Reserves because he spoke several languages. Already well into their forties, they decided not to have children. Instead they filled their lives with work and doted on their three nieces and six nephews, whom they visited often. Every August, they traveled abroad to see Uncle Fred’s relatives, who lived in Wiesbaden, Germany. It was their only real luxury, since Uncle Fred made a modest living working in the royalties department of a publishing company.
When I was young, I imagined them as the couple you’d see on top of a wedding cake, nearly perfect. They lived snug and content in a studio apartment for more than thirty years. Even now, my aunt sleeps on the same Castro convertible they opened every night before going to bed.
“Oh, Auntie, I know you do,” I say, taking her trembling hand in mine. Has she waited weeks or months to cry with someone she feels close to? My aunt has always been too proud to share her grief with neighbors or casual friends.
There was a time during my highly emotional, misunderstood teenage years when she was there for me while I cried. Whenever possible, my aunt shielded me from my mother’s quick temper or my father’s tough-love discipline. Either by telephone or in person, when hearing of my minor misdeeds, she would quietly interfere, spouting off my good virtues as if she was reading the ingredients of a favorite recipe. Sometimes just her words were enough to get me a reduced sentence in my punishments, which were usually because I talked back—which I always thought talking was all about.
My mother, a social butterfly of the postwar era, often left me in Aunt Irene’s meticulous care. I was a toddler when we walked hand in hand on busy Brooklyn streets, stopping at fish markets and butcher shops with the distinctive aroma of sawdust floors. We’d sit for hours on splintery wooden benches in tree-lined parks, my aunt introducing me to people who only smiled. She bought me special gifts with the money she earned working in my grandfather’s knitting plant, showing each new season’s line to the out-of-town buyers, and taking orders: white cotton gloves, felt hats, and expensive velvet-collared dresses, perfect for taking me to a matinee performance of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. With her compassionate words, she has painted pictures of a childhood happier than I remember. Even now, over forty, I hunger for the retelling of those stories, the insatiable need to glimpse again at that joyful child.
She stops crying as quickly as she began, then reaches out for an oversized neon-colored sweatshirt I’d thrown over the bedpost. “Can you get me one like this?” she asks. It’s so electrically bright, I can’t believe she likes it.
“Sure,” I say, straight-faced. “I’ll ask my girlfriend who makes them.”
“Maybe in a softer shade of green,” she says, taking another deep sigh. A few seconds later she says, “Ach, I should probably move to Florida.”
My mother has been badgering her, for years, to move down south. But I know my aunt. Unlike the Dodgers she once worshiped, she will never, ever leave Brooklyn, or the antiques-laden apartment she has rented all these years.
“I don’t know how your mother can stand those ceramic classes with all those yentas . . . sitting there, day after day, making those ridiculous ashtrays and clowns, breathing in all that powdery dust,” she says, shielding her nose and mouth.
I can’t help but laugh. She’s got a point. I, myself, am overstocked with faux Lladros and misshapen serving bowls. But my mother is protected by the banality of ceramic making. It gives her something to look forward to. She still has my father, a sometimes-amicable companion. Though she may be lonely, unlike my aunt, she’s not alone.
“I can talk to you,” I say. “I never talked to Mom this easily.”
“Your mother means well, honey,” she answers, now defending her elder niece.
“It’s just that she has nothing really important to discuss.” She turns both her palms up like a magician. “Nothing.”
“She can still drive me crazy.” I’m sulking like a five-year-old, wishing that this little old woman on the edge of my bed were my mother.
“Are you sure you’re not my real mother?”
She giggles. Then gets sullen, her mouth quivering. “You were like my child; I took you everywhere. People would stop me in elevators, talk to you, and say, What a personality! Uncle Fred, he knew, he said you’d be someone special.”
Tears fall on my cheeks. And I wonder if there will ever be a time when I no longer hunger for this kind of validation, whether my aunt was the true giver of unconditional love.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to upset you,” she says.
“It’s okay, really. I’m fine.”
The front door slams. We hear my husband’s loud footsteps downstairs in the kitchen. My aunt picks up her shoes and scurries toward the bedroom door.
“Good night,” I say, blowing my nose, afraid that saying “I love you” would cause me to choke on the hard lump forming at the back of my throat.
I wish I could give her something, anything, as she reaches the threshold of my bedroom door. “Take this, Auntie, please,” I say, jumping from the bed and draping the neon sweatshirt over her arm. It occurs to me that she has never asked me for anything—that she takes pride in her independence now more than ever. To my surprise, she takes the shirt and clutches it to her chest. Falling back on my pillow, I memorize my aunt’s fading silhouette. She leaves behind a faint aroma of lilacs, much like the clean sweetness of freshly folded laundry.
Excerpted from Aunties by Edited by Ingrid Sturgis. Copyright © 2004 by Edited by Ingrid Sturgis. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.