The wrong cup


I met my aunt Stella for the first time when I was a bar mitzvah boy, I mean a young teen-ager. Why? She came down to our cobblestones from Montreal, now that the war was over and travel bans were lifted.

You could take a train or drive on your tires. She brought some records for our new blonde mahogany player in the knotty pine den (once an open porch). I liked Stella right away. The records were celebrations and translations of Yiddish curses, listing all the misfortunes you might wish on your worst enemies. They were called “kloles.”

Now, my mother’s sister bore a very slight resemblance to her siblings: the same height and weight, probably, and the complexion and tone. But the look was quite different: Stella stood upright to speak and tell her jokes and anecdotes before the hearth. Her jawline was just a bit jutting. In life, she had always led with her chin. She had married very young, had her son and daughter, left their father and allowed the grandmothers to raise her children – very “modern,” in a sense.

She found another husband, with gentle good looks and devotion not only to her, but equally to her boy and her girl. Stella had had two (or three) last names, and even “Stella” was most likely an adaptation of “Hadassah.” I believe that Stella was the only truly and literally native Canadian. The rest of the brood of sisters were Rumanian by birth. She brought me Quebec gifts, sweaters with maple leaf or fleur-de-lys motifs, and such regional items.

So what did I like about my newfound aunt? She treated me as an adult, always, and took my concerns seriously, but lightly, and, mostly, noticed me and noted that I, in turn, noticed her.

“She’s a liar and a cheat,” her intimates told me, but not really insultingly, believe it or not. I think they actually also admired her coping skills, her pre-feminist independence, her sheer vitality. Oh, now don’t judge her quite yet. Fast forward to my college years. Stella liked to pop into New York for shopping sprees, and for smuggling her purchases over the border, often by wearing layers of clothing to sneak them without frontier inspection. If I was visiting Manhattan at any time on an undergraduate weekend jaunt, she met my friends and dates and never forgot the details of those encounters.

And yet, her own son worked on Wall Street and lived in nearby Forest Hills. My cousin had a totally different perception of his mother. He thought she did not take him as seriously/lightly as I had observed. Once more, let’s move forward through the years. My mother has passed away. I am visiting Montreal, as a sort of pilgrimage. “I used to hide your mom in the closet or the cellar, so my boyfriends wouldn’t prefer her, she was so gentle and gorgeous!” Stella says to me. And then, she takes me to a fashionable men’s store and buys me a beautiful blazer that expressed the British traditions, mixed with the French influence, of coast-to-coast Canada. (I have it, and wear it, still.)

Stella received my father as a widower graciously in her apartment home and served her renowned poached eggs at brunch. She was also famous for awakening one eye at a time, so this early reception was a notable exception to her customary lifestyle. She predicted he would re-wed ASAP. He never did so, as I had predicted, and I learned that my aunt may have been keenly observant, but not necessarily correct in her interpretations. I guess that was what I so much enjoyed about my mother’s sister. She had her own life and soul, her own victories and errors of judgment. Her own flaws and faults, her particular charms and gifts – good and bad fortunes. She enjoyed her time on earth, went to nightclubs and flew, or migrated, to Florida, of course, the Eden of the Jews of up north and over the national border of the Americas.

I asked if I might visit her when I heard of her final illness, but she turned me down. I should have expected this, given her pride in pleasure, not in pain.

Nevertheless I still keep one slight resentment about her performance in this, our life. It has to do with the headline of this report. The Wrong Cup. You see, my darling mother collected elegant teacups. It was something of a refined Rhode Island custom of browsing among the various Junior League boutiques that presented the leftovers of the great estates from Newport. You middle class newcomers, you can at least make believe that you came here from fabulous backgrounds. Isn’t a cup the symbol of life’s portion of happiness and nobility, a courteous salute to the concept of “plenty”?

Well, to go back to the land of snow and the scene of the historic and geographic French and British struggles, upon one of the stately occasions when my mother Betty was visiting the landscape of her youth, she admired an elegant teacup on the glass shelves of her youngest sister Stella. Stella said good-heartedly, “Well, it’s yours then. I’ll wrap it up and give it to you presently … .” When Betty arrived, whew!, back in Providence, and pulled the strings and ribbons … she found a different cup and saucer safely but ignobly popping out. She was, unaccountably, deeply disappointed. On some level, this confirmed her girlhood sense that Stella may indeed have been a successful woman of her time, hale and hearty, but she was also an unreliable ally. Does this say as much about my beloved Betty as it does about my enchanting aunt? My mom believing the best, vulnerable to melancholy, when the best became something secondary, not primary. Or my aunt, in one of those endless sibling rivalries saying, without being even aware of the message, that my mother had the authentic devotion of her chosen nuclear family. And that one has to cope as well as hope, to grab and hold onto what you have, at all costs?

Dear nechama of Aunt Stella, you’re no footstool up above the autumn clouds; you’re playing poker, perhaps, but take a moment to forgive me if I’m coming across in an unkindly way. I think of you with admiration and affection, I’m a good nephew, I am, as best as I can be. I play my recordings not of the kloles curses but such enchanting ballads as “Stella by Starlight” and picture you, a star in my galaxy – with a touch of puck-like mischief. The wrong cup but still a gut yur auf dein cup!

Mike Fink ( teaches at RISD.