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April 15, 2024

Transitions 15

By Sand Pilarski

Fifteen: Return of the Aunt

Now clad in comfortable sweats after school, and having no commitments for the evening, I was content to sit in the reception room downstairs and await the arrival of Aunt Andersol, to see if she had come to any mishap trying to ski or to party with her student friends. I had my history book in my lap, and a notebook and pen for "taking notes." I read the chapters assigned by the teacher, and then wrote scripts for the main characters, trying to imagine what they must have said. Sometimes I was able to rise to meet the character's fame, but more often than not, they were dragged down to the kind of humor one associates with the Marx Brothers, or the Three Stooges, which I consider unsung classics that should be studied in school right along side Charles Dickens. My history book seemed pessimistic, dwelling on the mistakes that leaders had made, brushing over lightly the advances of peaceful heroes.. There was far more about Napoleon and his greed for power than about Edward Jenner and his discovery of a vaccine against smallpox.

Aunt Sully and my mother had put their heads together and introduced some books into the household, demanding that we read them. One that I remembered especially was about eradicating diseases like smallpox, polio, measles, and mumps. The description of symptoms was horrifying as anything Poe or Lovecraft had to offer, and when my mother, Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol, and Aunt Sully rolled up sleeves to show the shiny scar of being inoculated against smallpox, the lesson came clear to me of how grave the situations had been.

A truck pulled up at the front of the porch, and as the valet went out the door to take over parking the truck in the garage, the door to the vehicle slammed, hard, interrupting my meshing musings about diseases, the characters from my history chapter, and Rachel Owen, her black hair making a cloud around my ability to think.

"Are you all right?" I heard the valet ask.

"Never better," I heard Aunt Andersol's voice grate, sounding more pissed than I had ever heard her. Redell had appeared to open the door for her, and she entered, her eyes blazing, something else I had never before seen.

"Aunt," I said, hopping up from the couch, not even the least bit willing to tease her.

"Owen," she replied, and stomped up the stairs.

Redell and I looked at each other with astonishment, and he carefully closed the door. He smiled wanly at me; I knew he was wondering if she would be joining the family at table tonight, but didn't want to put himself in front of a family buzz-saw.

"I have no idea," I said to him, and scooping up my notebook and text, followed her up the steps, but headed to my own room.

After dumping my book and notebook there, I went to the nursery, where both Kelsa and Michel were almost cowering. They looked frightened, diminished, younger than they were. "Owen," Michel whispered, "she's really mad."

"I know, but how mad, and what, what did you hear?"

"She said the f-word," Kelsa said.

"Tell me what she said, whatever words she used," I told them. "We've all heard the words before."

"She threw something across the room and hit the wall," Michel reported, his brown eyes huge. "And shouted, 'That fucker!'"

"There were lots more thumps on the wall," Kelsa said, cringing. "She kind of shouted, 'That dirty little fucking son of a bitch.' She grunted a lot, like she was trying not to scream."

Aunt Andersol was the most level-headed of us all. Well, she and Uncle Bodie, although since he had married my mother, he was intrinsically biased towards my mother's opinions, which at times did not seem all that level-headed. Like the time she ordered that staff should not enter a room when family was present, unless specifically ordered to do so on occasion, or without knocking and requesting entry. The staff was, by and large, extremely insulted, and some of them quit, saying they would not be told to stand by like servants. The time of their leaving until the time they were adequately replaced was an awkward stretch of dusty furniture and ill-served meals, but Uncle Bodie supported Mother through it all, saying she had a right to direct staff as she would. (The whole affair stemmed from an incident in which Mother was trimming her toenails, and one of the maids appeared from nowhere with a hand-broom and dustpan to sweep up the remnants even before she was done clipping.) Aunt Andersol, on the other hand, would have just remembered to lock her door.

But now, Aunt Andersol had thrown a tantrum, a foul-mouthed one, not considering that we would listen outside the door, even though we assumed the adults knew that we always did.

"We need to know what's going on," I said.

"Count me out," Kelsa spouted. "I'm not going to mess with someone who's mad enough to throw stuff."

"Same here," her twin agreed. "We're going to go paint. See you at dinner." The two of them left me, scuttling off like a pair of cockroaches. I could almost see their antennae waving.

Oesha was nowhere to be found; probably she was with Grandmother Claire, as usual at this time of day. If there was any more information to be gleaned, it was up to me, and I wasn't any more eager to confront a furious Aunt than Michel and Kelsa were.

I retreated to my office and pulled out my journal. I marked down what I knew. Aunt Andersol has been sick and distant for weeks. She took off without her texts. She took off with her camera. She took off with friends for the weekend, with texts. She came back mad, cursing up a storm about someone. I used my pen to scribble out "cursing" and inserted above it, "cussing." That was good, sounded more earthy.

Staring at the words I'd written, I tried to figure out what they meant. Had Aunt Andersol met someone, and gone away with him for a weekend, then been ditched? Perhaps Oesha had been right about our aunt pining for love; maybe on the weekend she thought they would make up, but they hadn't? Sometimes I thought I understood the adults around me, but I knew I didn't really understand about love. Dad, I wrote, I've never heard anyone say one bad word about you, no tempers, no angers, no jealousy...

Everyone who knew you said you were a great man, a kind one, with an open heart. That sounds to me like you knew more about love than anyone. I know you missed Mother when she wasn't here, because you told us so. You told us how much you loved her. But you never threw the phone at the wall after you talked to her. You never stomped around and sulked when she headed off to a dig. I don't understand why my aunt would be so angry -- almost like she's blaming us for something.

Putting the journal back in its hiding place, I went back to my room to change clothes again, this time into something suitable for dinner.

I fully expected my aunt to decline dinner that evening, but she didn't. The dish of the day was a pork roast rolled around a stuffing of onion, bread crumbs, apple, and raisins, served au jus with white rice and repellent slices of carrot sauteed in olive oil and dressed with some kind of thickened sweetening. The pork was terrific, and I actually like rice; I ate almost all my serving of carrots first to get them over with, and then began to enjoy the meal.

Before dinner, I'd filled Marca and Oesha in on what we'd learned earlier. Halfway through the main course, Marca had the lack of aplomb to indiscreetly ask Aunt Andersol, "So, here you are. Want to tell us about the weekend in the snow? Or are you still playing at being 'The Aunt of Secrecy'?"

Aunt Andersol's eyes blazed with irritation. "When I want to tell you about my personal life, I'll let you know," she said tightly.

Marca had the hide of an ancient rhinoceros. She could not perceive a jab or a parry. "Oh, let's see," she said, hooking a finger around her upper lip. "We're to tell you about everything we do, but you're suddenly exempt from family chit-chats, is that it?"

I was impressed. I didn't think Marca had that extensive a vocabulary.

"That's it, I've had enough." Aunt Andersol stood, threw her napkin down beside her half-eaten plate of food, pushed back her chair, and stomped up the steps, leaving us in open-mouthed mystery.

"That was rude, Marca," said my mother.

Marca finished the rest of her pork roulade and rice in silence as though our mother had not spoken. When she had done, she wiped her mouth with her napkin. Looking directly at our mother, she said, "Rude? I'm rude for wondering what is up with her? And she's not rude for leaving the table to puke for hours for the last few weeks without telling us she's been sick? She's not rude for refusing to have supper with us? She's not rude to have something going on in her life that makes her say "that fucking son of a bitch" about someone and not tell any of us what's going on?" She stood, as well. "Fine. I'm rude, not her, and I'll go to my room and not watch television or play music. I know the punishment. Pardon me."

As she ascended the stairs, our mother did not call her back. She had been rude, there was no doubt. But she had also been the voice of our collective concern. We were all worried about Aunt Andersol, and she had, to this point, confided in no one. Uncle Bodie was still staring angrily at Marca as she went out of sight on the second floor; Mother was still staring, brow furrowed, after both Marca and Aunt Andersol; and the rest of us were staring at our plates, focusing on our peripheral vision to see what our mother and Uncle Bodie would do.

They did nothing.

I can only think that the adult form of "dealing with" by doing nothing is a cause of much misery in the world. Oh, see, gang members think that arming themselves and shooting random passers-by is a way of life. I know, let's pretend that this isn't happening and just send the school buses out as usual and keep expecting the street to be safe enough for the kids to run to the corner market for bread. That seemed to be the way the world dealt with gang violence. Or in this household, Not my responsibility, oh, too bad for the bystanders. Maybe Aunt Andersol wouldn't kill anyone, but she was undoubtedly building unwarranted defenses and hurting us with her absences and her words. Mom and Uncle Bodie appeared to be too easily convinced to step aside and let her travel her hurtsome path.

"May I be excused?" Oesha said, still looking at her plate. When our mother said she could be, she rose and left, her head held proudly, without looking at anyone else.

I realized I had to uphold their commitment, as if it was my own, as if now my own chosen battleground. I stood. "Please excuse me, I have homework to finish." I didn't wait for permission, and left the table.

Later, in a secret meeting upstairs, Michel and Kelsa told us that they had just stayed seated, quiet. Michel said, "Mother said, 'What have you two to say?' but we just shook our heads and didn't say anything."

Mother had released them from the table with exasperation, and then told Uncle Bodie, "I'm worn out with this drama. I want to go upstairs and lie down."

The dining room was left empty; the family simply was not speaking.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-05-25
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