‘Look, Mommy,’ Lucy says to me as she holds up a rubber duck dressed up like Frankenstein with a popbead necklace, ‘we’re having a Forgivements Day party. That’s where each duck chooses a partner who’s been decorated by me.’ She places her hand on her chest. ‘Then they marry each other.’ She’s standing on her stool in the bathroom and since her idea of ‘marrying’ involves holding hands and spinning around, she attempts a sort of whirl-shuffle but instead ends up with a faceful of hand towel. ‘Oh duck, you look beau-tee-ful. See mommy, he only has this old shirt on with the spider.’ She’s out of knowledge about the rituals of marriage, and doesn’t like to admit it, so the story ends as abruptly as it begun. Even at three, though, she is very concerned with the properness of things, and boy do I know where she got that from.
The remarkable thing about Aunt N. is that she’s about 5′ tall, has worn her hair in the same black chinlength bob for at least 40 years, and she says everything, totally deadpan, in a deep, raspy voice. She is my grandmother’s younger sister. My grandmother is about 5’4, has worn her own dark hair pulled back for at least 40 years and has a much more lilty voice than N. I think they both dyed their hair black or dark brown until the greys got too persistent. The two of them grew up with my great-grandmother, who I named Great when I was far younger than Lucy is now. She was 4’11” of pure Irish stubbbornness, born and raised in County Antrim. She came over as an eighteen year old in 1912 and even in her later years was known to climb over her fence to make sure the other side was as properly groomed as her yard. I can only imagine what the drivers on the highway thought when they saw Great on her stepstool coming over the fence at the top of the hill. In between, she raised my great aunt and grandmother just outside of Pittsburgh, and believe-you-me, there are in fact proper ways to do everything and the proper way was Great’s way.
I lived with my grandparents as a child, after my parents’ divorce, since my mom couldn’t afford for us to live anywhere else. We visited Aunt N. more frequently since she had a daughter 2 years older than I was, and I thought she was the coolest thing on high heels. Her house had a yard with a treehouse! There was a drumset in the basement! Her sitting room had this crazy black and white newspaper-replica wallpaper! Our townhouse had a patio instead of a yard, paint instead of wallpaper, and well, nobody played the drums so how exotic was that? Rock and roll happened in my aunt’s house. Piano practice happened in ours, and even our upright piano was far less cool than her baby grand. As I got older, there were other coolness factors–my grandmother towed the Ulster party line while my aunt, who had been to see our relatives in Ireland, wanted peace. My grandmother was very concerned about keeping up appearances and N. was far more easygoing. Well, with me. I didn’t get then the difference between kids you raise and kids you know.
In fairness, hindsight being rosy and all, the year my grandparents laid down a sheet of plywood in the living room so that I could practice tap dancing was pretty cool, as well as the winter they flooded and froze a mini-skating rink on the patio so that I could skate at home. The piano I resented so much was a replacement for the old organ and they got it so that I could take the piano lessons I wanted so badly. It may not be rock and roll, but it’s above and beyond what most people will do for their kids.
On the other hand, I also lived in a house where entertaining involved hours of bizarre cleaning rituals. One of my jobs was to, no kidding, polish the strip of metal on the floor at the front door. Crazy people do that. I was pretty sure Aunt N. never stuck one of her kids at the front door with windex and a towel to make sure guests didn’t see a dirty whatever-that’s-called. I did find out later that she once corrected my cousin for putting out a linen tablecloth that had only been ironed before it was put away, not again before it was placed on the table. See what I mean? There is a right way. It is our birthright.
It is also our birthright to make people work as hard as possible to figure out what is going on with us. Phone calls must be vague and talk of ills must be couched in disinterest. Complaining about other people is allowed, but complaining about woes is simply not. How are you supposed to martyr yourself if other folks know what’s going on. It is simply not done. This is why, when word made it through the family grapevine that N. had been bitten by a brown recluse, we were all forced to freak out. See, by the time we all know about things someone is usually in pretty bad shape.
Thankfully she is not in terrible shape. Sure she has a quarter-sized hole in her leg but she still has a leg. It takes several conversations to get this stuff out so nobody is ever quite sure what is going on. She has also been saving spider carcasses in a jar and researching entomologists, which may be more therapeutic than informational but definitely presents a humorous picture. The second bite is newer and therefore not as necrosed as the first and she has an appointment with a plastic surgeon to take care of it all, so things are moving. See, she had to have a clear plan of action to report before providing all of the information. That’s how it’s done.