Four: Uncles and Aunts
Uncle Bodie saw the light on in the office and poked his head around the corner. "Don't stay up too late, Owen, okay?"
"I won't. Good night."
He's not really my uncle, or my mother couldn't have married him. He and his sister were the best friends of my Aunt Sully, and as we got to know them, we just called them "Uncle" and "Aunt" because we saw them every time we went to visit Aunt Sully. Michel and Kelsa weren't even born when I met them. In fact, I don't remember meeting them. They just were always there, always Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol. They were fascinated by the twins, both sets, because they were also twins. Uncle Bodie, it seems, was always fascinated by my mother, as well. He told us many times that he thought her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen the first time he saw her, and that he was honored to become part of our family.
We were honored, too, and more than a bit relieved. Uncle Bodie was a steadying influence on our mother and the household, which had become a kind of mine field after Papa died. There was no telling what would set our mother off on a rampage of shouting at the staff, or worse still, send her to sulk in her office at the University and not come home at all between dawn and dark. And after Uncle Bodie and Mom were married, there was always Aunt Andersol to lie on the floors with us, her feet in the air, coloring or playing Monopoly, teaching us to talk insultingly to one another (but only jokingly) when we played Yahtzee. Aunt Sully got a bit crotchety in those times. I don't know if she was jealous of Aunt Andersol or not. It wasn't like she hadn't been invited to live at the estate with us since before any of us were born. We all begged her to, all the time, but she insisted on living in Riverton.
Don't get me wrong, Riverton was a nice little town. Aunt Sully's house there was like a suite of rooms, with the big bedroom turned into her art studio, a room for her, a room for us boys, and a room for the girls. It had a kitchen big enough for everyone to sit at the table when the whole family was there, and a living room with two couches, a rocking chair, a window seat, and two matching wing chairs with ottomans. It was comforting when we were little, just a tad claustrophobic as we got older. We sat outside a lot when we were there, which was a nice change from our house, where the temperature from the ocean fog usually kept us in jackets and socks, especially in the summer. The girls liked to lie out in the hot sun there to tan, rolling over to make it even, basting themselves with sunblock. Michel, too. I think he tanned the darkest, looking like a shadow by the end of the summer. Kelsa and I sat in the shade; both of us burned red after twenty minutes in the sun.
Aunt Sully, Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol would take us camping in the summertime, to the lake or to the river. We would get filthy dirty and not take baths. We would sing loudly and not fret about doing it well. We'd play "Crocodile" with Gabe and give him sticks to crunch into slivers. The visits to Riverton were excursions into primitive life when we camped, simple life when we just visited. We learned to cook in Aunt Sully's kitchen, and in Uncle Bodie's house next door. (Aunt Andersol refused to cook anything more complicated than ramen noodles.)
Uncle John, who also wasn't really an uncle, joined us the summer after Papa died. His mother lived on the other side of Aunt Sully. He was a policeman in New York City, and Aunt Andersol told us he fell in love with Aunt Sully when he saw her kiss Gabe between the eyes. (Gabe is a big dog.) If Aunt Sully made Bodie and Andersol into "family," Bodie and Andersol made John into family. Uncle John was present for a camping trip in the summer and a winter weekend each year, and always sent us little presents for Christmas. He had an accent that we found irresistible to try to imitate, even though our attempts to perform that accent made him roll on the floor laughing at us. We thought him to be very cool, but Aunt Sully treated him like a stuffed owl until just last year, when he got shot, and then she did an end for end flip and stopped ignoring him. They forged a bond between them, and after that, seemed joined at the shoulder.
I was mad as hell for a couple weeks, but then had to accept that I was a punk kid to the adults, and that Uncle John really wasn't displacing me; he'd just taken a job description I could never fill no matter what. On the other hand, I had a job description he could never fill, the job of "Favorite Nephew."
It was interesting that Aunt Sully had called Uncle John right away after hearing the news of Mom's pregnancy. He had apparently become her closest confidant (which used to be Aunt Andersol) and sounding board; did that mean they had come to an agreement about being married?
There, that was another wrench to my stomach. (Or whatever it is that wrenches when you hear bad news.) What if Aunt Sully married Uncle John and moved to New York? I wouldn't be able to see her every weekend. I'd lose the only audience I had for my poetry, since I no longer shared it with my siblings, who thought I was a smarmy sissy, or my mother, who only wanted to know where did I come up with my subject matter. Aunt Sully read my poems, told me the ones she liked best, and then talked about what she liked to see in poetry, always noting that poetry works differently for each person. Sometimes she asked me what about a particular poem I would like to tell more about in my autobiography.
Of course, I didn't have an autobiography, but it was muy cool to think of someday having a volume on the shelves of the estate that was written by me, about me, full of my opinions and observations. That was when I started a second journal, full of rants and criticisms and smacked feelings, commentaries on my own work, explaining them, and critiques of the books I read and the music I heard. If the hidden diary I kept with my father was about my secret grief-filled thoughts, this new notebook was about the opinions I was not able to air. I hid it, too.
Aunt Andersol didn't ask me, or any of us, what we thought. She was a great proponent of Not Thinking About Things. She was tremendously practical, though, and shockingly straightforward. One day she observed Oesha trying to get her coat to cover her outfit as she left for school, and said, "What's this? Sissy Whore Goes to Town? Get your ass back upstairs and into some clothing that shows you have a brain and not just a pair of titties and a bellybutton. I don't give a damn if you're late to school, don't try to bulldoze me. Put on an outfit that you know I'll approve of, or you can stay home for the day and we can talk about home schooling."
Oesha fled upstairs and in seconds, returned in jeans and a hooded T shirt. She lowered her long-lashed eyes and glanced sideways at Aunt Andersol. "Good girl," said Aunt Andersol. "I'll be stopping by your class sometime today just to see how you're doing."
Oesha colored red in the face. Michel, having observed the whole drama, lifted the back of her long T shirt to reveal the clothes that Oesha had been wearing before. Oesha spun around and slapped the back of his head as he retreated. "You're busted, Kid," said our Step-aunt, and blocked the doorway. "You stay home where we can help you learn better judgment and fashion sense."
Oesha was humiliated and never dressed in funky fashion slut clothes after that. She could have gotten a failing grade for having missed a crucial quiz, but when my mother told the teacher the reason for Oesha's absence, the teacher simply let my sister take the quiz at a later date. Apparently the teacher could not understand why our tyrannical aunt would think that a mode of dress or a defiance of an order was important enough to miss school for.
"She thinks that Oesha is a 'poor little rich girl,' I bet," Aunt Andersol had speculated. "Downtrodden by the weight of big bucks, no time for play or pleasure."
"Pack mule," said Marca, poking her twin. "Hee-haw. You work in the gold mines from morning until bedtime, and all you look forward to is chow time. You slave, why don't you carry the sacks of money we get for allowances?"
"Why don't you go watch television?" Oesha had answered her. "It's just about your speed."
"Hee-haw. Aren't you glad I speak your language?"
Oesha had risen from the rug in front of the fireplace, dusted off the back of her pants, and walked out the door. Where the adults could not see her in the hall, she'd turned to Marca, given her the finger, and sweetly said, "Aren't you glad I speak yours?"
A book on my knees and my feet up on an ottoman, I had been able to put my hand over my mouth and stifle my laughter without being seen; I'd neither wanted to draw Marca's ire toward me nor to have to explain myself to the adults.
Kids that I went to school with -- that is, kids with whom I went to school (it's good to be grammatical in writing but it really sounds stupid coming out of the mouth) -- couldn't understand that my siblings and I had so many adults keeping an eye on us. Most of them had a mom and/or dad and step-mother and/or step-father and supervision amounted to making sure they had credit cards in their wallet and cell phones with them and that they didn't have to go to school in unfashionable clothes.
"Your auntie checks your homework?" had asked the incredulous Tom Bisrain, with whom I shared a double desk in math class. He'd had homework returned with a red "75%" scrawled across the top, and had commented that I always had "100%" across mine.
"Yes," I'd sighed. "If it isn't right, she makes me do it over."
"My step-father's sister," I'd answered.
"Tell her to go to hell," Tom had advised. "She's not your mother."
"You don't know my mother," I'd replied. "I'd rather have Aunt look at it."
"Come on, Owen -- that's not what I mean, you dummy. They don't have to watch over your shoulder to see what you're doing all the time."
"They don't, but with homework it's not an option."
"How the hell do they expect you to learn anything if they're always checking to make sure you do it right?" he'd muttered, exasperated.
I remember Marca being invited to a spring break party this past year. She had declined the offer, knowing she would not be allowed to go. One of the party-goers offered to pick her up, suggesting that all she had to do was sneak out and meet him at the end of our lane.
"Sneak out." She'd nudged me with her elbow as we stood at the curb waiting for the bus to take us home. "Get this, Owen, I could 'sneak out' of the house and go to a party."
"I don't advise trying that one," I'd said.
"No shit," Marca had replied. "Listen, I'm going to have both my aunts in the house, Mom and her husband, and about fifty million other people coming in and out and all of them know my face and my name. Sneaking out is just about as possible as Owen here turning into a real, live boy."
"Or as you getting your gradepoint above a 2.5," I'd countered coolly, willing to preserve her image of cocky, uncaring disdain for her family; I would not tell the boy that the 'fifty million other people' would be attending a formal dinner at the estate, or that Marca would be in an evening gown and heels, greeting government officials and professors and local business leaders. But there should be no doubt that I was not at all above insinuating that she was stupid.
Sometimes, having so many adults around seemed oppressive. Sometimes I did wish that I could just go make myself a toasted cheese sandwich in the kitchen without having to go through the chef, who would refer me to my mother, who would wonder why I was hungry again if I had eaten my lunch, and who would consult with Uncle Bodie, who would eye me up and down and observe that I'd grown another two inches from the looks of my pants, inciting Aunt Sully to pencil in a shopping trip to buy clothing, and prompting Aunt Andersol to huff and storm to the kitchen to make sure I got what she would refer to as "just a damn sandwich".
But mostly I wondered what I would ever do without them, even on those lonely days when I felt isolated and misunderstood.