I guess her turn has come up. Not like a yahrtzeit candle that welcomes a departed soul to your household. Just because, she figures on the landscape: I’ve been squinting through the blur of memory at profiles of my uncles and aunts, my cousins and ancestors.
They become symbolic silhouettes, somehow. Well, Ruth, I think, strolled with her sister-in-law, my mother, me in a carriage, taking it all in, by osmosis. My father’s sister was a regular, frequent, guest at our tables. Her almost-Asian eyes above high cheekbones were not soft, but hard. When she laughed, there was a glint of something … not quite cruel, but distant. When she smoked, the veil created by the airy cloud of nicotine made her appear to me as a phantom in a mirror, possessing some secret knowledge from beyond.
Oh, I am exaggerating. It was only in my pre-school days that Ruth scared me. I got used to her opinions, mostly about the newspaper headlines of the day and time, and even enjoyed her angry judgments of her stepmother, and her harsh indictments of the quality of my grammar school teachers.
I knew where she stood on most matters. She was part of the communist-socialist movement of the Jewish era before, during and immediately after World War II. I learned to admire her forceful support for the ACLU, her disdain for religious dogma, her familiarity with the theatre and literature of what we used to label “the left.”
On the other hand, as with all of us, there were detractors. “She peed in bed throughout her adolescence,” my dad confided in me once. “She felt so insecure when her father took a second wife and had another family to raise,” my mother might sympathetically explain.
Maybe that was why she resented my mother, and tried to find access to her brother without his pretty and charming wife present. Maybe that was why she took the fancy dinners, with elegant china and silver on the tablecloths, for granted, and even with a touch of mockery for the bourgeois tone it gave to our simple dwelling.
And then, people hinted to me, as a high school teenager, that she had the habit of picking people up and dropping them suddenly, just as she moved from smaller to larger and fancier houses – with her husband and sons, of course, in tow.
In any case, I brought my friends to meet her: in the McCarthy HUAC years, I was nevertheless proud of having an aunt who could talk intelligently and knowledgeably about the campus world and its scenery. That is, until … suddenly, one summer, she turned on me! She spread strange rumors about my brother as well, that we were too attached to our mother, that she had harmed us with her devotion to the smaller pleasures of life and ruined our futures. “Made of nothing and will come to nothing!” was one of her phrases of contempt. In any case, the world of nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles came crashing down into an era of silence, the cold war of the neighborhoods we co-inhabited.
My finale is, that Ruth came to my father’s house during the shivah, the memorial week after my mother’s untimely passing. I saw her arriving and met her at the door. “You can visit your brother next week. Not now!” I declared. Nobody has ever criticized me for my rude behavior. In fact, there were those who admired me for it. Ruth gathered her family and moved over the border into Canada and lived a very long life there. Once, her younger son visited my eldest brother and confided that, despite his surface appearance, he was secretly gay, now emerging from “the closet,” after his mother’s death.
She haunts me, in a way, when I go down the cellar steps to take up the basket of laundry. You see, her half-brother, the artist in the family, had used her face as the model for the vicious pirates from “Treasure Island” that he had painted as a gift mural for the boyhoods of his three nephews when our house was brand new. Indeed, all those fading faces looking down from their loot do look very much like my late aunt, whom I summon up in these words without love or hate, only with the straightforward motive of authentic storytelling, chronicling, and tracing the branches of a family tree.
Mike Fink (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at RISD.