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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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Bee Baxter Meyer
151 S. Resler, Apt. 189
El Paso, Tx. 79912
 

THE LAST LIVING AUNT

[Dave and Minnie Kane]

 

 

     The cousins and their husbands are talking so loudly they don't hear the aunt and uncle coming into the hall.  Suddenly they are with us, smaller even than anyone remembers.  The aunt is made of tissue paper, a tissue paper cut out, with a bright red little blouse hung over her shoulders as if on a paper tube and below it, a tiny, full skirted little peasant skirt.  I have a feeling the skirt will fall if I would unfasten the paper tabs at her waist.

 

     The aunt's face has been carefully rouged, but her lipstick is uncertain.  Her eyes are bright behind her thick glasses.  Her hair is freshly washed.  The uncle has bathed and helped her dress carefully.

 

     The uncle is perfection in his out of season white shoes, checked trousers, blue shirt and bow tie.  The cousins have exclaimed over the miracle of the uncle's grooming and abilities far too many years to be newly impressed with him.  Nevertheless, they are all impressed by him.  He and their aunt have been married sixty three years and he is her heart- lung machine.  He is also her housekeeper, personal maid, laundress, cook, doctor, nurse, psychiatrist, guardian at the gate and adoring lover.  "Isn't your little aunt exquisite?  Isn't she a darling?  Isn't she remarkable?  See how zestfully she eats -- how cleverly she responds!"

 

     The cousins crowd round the aunt and uncle.  There is much embracing and kissing.  Each of us is doing her best to demonstrate the love none of us feels.  We can't come so late to love when so many years of family feuds are between us.  Each of us has a memory of having been snubbed or ignored or even forgotten.  We come from two sisters of the aunt, each of whom was to us delightful, witty, clever and in the case of my mother, an almost professionally gifted comedienne.  But never so elegant and haughty and self proud as their youngest sister, now our last, living aunt.  Nor as vain.

 

     In Mama's family it was a given there were only two pretty sisters and that the rest, including Mama, were wholesome, attractive, bright, quick -- many things -- but all of them judgments made to get past having to describe so many of them as plain.  Very plain faces.  Serviceable.  Even pleasant.  But plain.  Only this aunt carried within her the conviction that there was beauty to be released in her and she had her fine, assertive family nose remodeled and tilted many years before "nose jobs" were a way of life.

 

     But it could never be said of the aunt that she was anything but an exquisite lady.  She spoke brightly and concisely, using as many syllables per word as possible,  She was arch, yet not flirtatious.  She was sharp in her criticism of anyone she considered vulgar, noisy, uncouth.  She spent nearly ten years in their Miami Beach apartment before she could bring herself to admit friendship for any of the affectionate but prying women on her floor. 

 

     She was lavish in her praise of the people she admired.  Only I, among all the cousins, was given this treatment.  She responded more to what she had heard I had been, rather than what I am now.  And she looked upon my home and the arrangements of books and pictures, furniture and plants, as an indication of the taste my life as a professional person had apparently developed in me.  So it wasn't I, as a person, nor as the daughter of the sister she most preferred, but rather as someone in an accepted framework.  She was and remained a snob, most of her rejection turned against the too friendly, too intimate pushiness of the northeastern Jews with their dental "d's" and "t's."  Yet even these she found more acceptable if they were successful and preferably, professional.  She had only lately begun to notice and think highly of my brother, the richer and more successful he became.  She found him so handsome and appealing she began to compare him to her adored older son, a comparison which was the highest praise she could give.

 

     My aunt and uncle adored their two sons to the exclusion of all else.  They bore the weight of the sons' choice of wives only to the degree of moderate self control  They never stopped counseling and directing, tending and crooning love talk to their sons, although the older was now in his sixties and the younger had died suddenly two months before, in his late fifties.

 

     The cousins were sure the aunt would die of the agony of her younger son's death.  For weeks she sat with tears running painfully, quietly, down her cheeks.  But not until weeks later did she even have to be hospitalized, this fragile woman whose doctor had told us eleven years earlier that with luck she might have six more months to live.

 

     The uncle kept her alive, through this time of terrible loss as for all the years before, so protected and sheltered, tended and adored, she was not allowed to die.

 

     Deep in Christian Science, which they credited with bringing their older son through his youthful rheumatic fever, the uncle skillfully drew her out and into the chemo-therapy that kept her life in balance, through major abdominal surgery for cancer and lingering hepatitis.  The pace maker, installed only last year, the oxygen tank companion, the chart of medications, all carefully tended, followed and administered by the little uncle.  Better than any physician, the uncle was never distracted from his quest for miracles.  Their many cardiologists and abdominal specialists had long ago reached the boredom of being made to feel less than adequate, most of them saying, "You be the judge, Mr. K.  You are a better doctor for your wife than any of us."

 

     The cousins exclaim over these survivors.  We watch carefully, the word might even be lovingly, as we help the aunt to her chair at the luncheon table.  The picnic hamper is brought into the kitchen from their car, so the uncle can serve the food he has prepared for her; no salt, no fats.  He will take no chances with our foods.  He says he only wants to give the aunt the great joy of our presence.

 

     We watch her eat her own food and some of ours, but always carefully under his portioned guidance.  She eats more than he, with greater zest.  Almost greed.  He is too involved, tending, portioning, serving her, to take the time to finish anything.  He merely tastes.

 

     Before I help her carefully, slowly, into my room to nap, my shawl lightly around her shoulders, she draws aside from me a moment and says to the youngest cousin, "Let me stay a moment and look upon your face, my darling," to this cousin who had recovered miraculously last summer from brain tumor surgery.

 

     My cousin's eyes warm a little, but remain shuttered.  She is not going to allow herself the indulgence or love of ancestor worship, at the few words dramatically spoken.  She remembers too many years when the aunt seemed to have forgotten us all, when she was building a New York countryside mannered life style -- when the cousins' lusty lox and bagel brunches were too vulgar, too ethnic to be any longer acceptable.

 

     So now this cousin sits and speaks sweetly and gently to her tissue paper aunt and shares a little of her life and of her daughter and granddaughter but as lightly and casually as one would to a stranger sharing one's seat on a brief plane ride.

 

     The aunt is not going to be taken back into our hearts.  But in spite of what she has never been to us, there is a feeling growing in us of enormous pride.  She is, after all, our long lived and only aunt, and we, in our sixties, so aware now of the miracle of each day, against our will, are investing our hopes in her.  We want some of this incredible alive, fragile woman, to be infused into us.  We want to think that deep into our eighties we will be able to retain her finely etched lucidity, her precise speech, her clever tongue.  Too, we envy her, all of us, with our sturdy but mundane marriages, to have continued so long to each such adoration, such singular worship from her husband.

 

     Would any of our husbands dedicate his life solely to preserve the lowering flame of life in us?  Would any of them choose our little dresses with such loving fingers and clasp round our withered necks and tiny, bony wrists, the jewelry he had not only bought, but uniquely designed for us?  We know better.  Nor would we want to change lives or years with her.  But we feel a strange combination of blood-root pride and envy, which, for the moments of leave-taking, affect us all deeply.

 

     After her nap and the few minutes carefully allowed her by the uncle to visit, the aunt comes into the hall, her hand lightly on a chair to keep her in balance.  We surround her.  We hold her.  We kiss her crumpled, lightly rouged cheeks.  If we could wrap her up like a beribboned gift, we would do this, too.  We counsel careful driving.  We say, "Again, next year."  We want to believe next year possible for her, as for ourselves.

 

     We feel the blood beat of family, a tribal tie, a strength and pride in her.  One of us says, "How remarkable we are, we who have come from those poor, Russian Jewish beginnings so long ago."  And we clasp her as talisman and proof of our being.

 

     That we are here is because of the sisters of our aunt were here, our mothers.  But they are gone and we are nearing the ages they began to leave us.

 

     Only this aunt remains.  The final branch of which we are the leaves.  And in her unconscionable will to continue, in her integrating strength of the uncle's will and life support, we are kept younger than we will any longer feel when she is gone.

 

     She has become our mothers.  In this adoptive rite, we invest -- is it hope?  Is it a prayer for her eternal life?  Is it more powerful even than love?

 

Bea Baxter Meyer

151 S. Resler, Apt. #189

El Paso, Tx.  79912

 

Copyright Issues

 

This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Bee Baxter Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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