And there was Sara, in a Boston ‘burb wearing silver slippers and African turbans on Sunday, pouring cream from a little cow pitcher at ladies’ brunches with just her twenty-something nieces putting monogrammed, starched-white napkins in their laps, grateful to learn the difference between British tea and Asian, delighted by the homemade mayonnaise on her crustless cucumber sandwiches. She zipped to the city and hopped a plane with her always-packed overnight as easily as the Europeans do.
Aunt Mignon haunts bookstores by day, lurks nights in Irish pubs with crazy-fun artists of all types, hearing about who’s slept with whom, what anti-depressants so-and-so is on. Min rolls her eyes at all the political talk from older poets who marched in the ’60s, and she tolerates burn-outs who call her a square for never puffing a ciggy much less pot in her life…and only dating one spoiled-brat guy at a time. She graduated in Faneuil Hall, goes to rock shows there decades later–under the shiny white Christmas lights and blue neon clock of the Custom House. What a life to put before “she never married” in post-mortem bios. Oh, wait. That wasn’t my namesake. That’s me!
So here I am, knowing why some name that point Hell. One fourth of the way, you want to stop when meeting the wind. But the stars, and the sky-high towers, and the lights so shiny on the midnight ripples, all pull like a tug-o’-war rope. Halfway, you’re stuck. Know you’ll lose your voice. Hear the chill, laughing at your cotton hood, seeping into the tips of your ears that will ache tonight as you sip spiced chai in pink thermals and fuzzy purple socks, longing for a man to rub you warm.
*Painted on the Massachusetts Avenue bridge over the Charles River that connects Cambridge to Boston.
I. My father banned Christmas. No lights, photos, tree-trimming. Ham was out too. If it snowed, morning was a sledfest for us Three Little Ones–Sammy, and H., and me. We zipped down the hill from the old Shirley House, rich people’s spirits sipping hot toddies and looking down on us, destined for Hell. What madness it seems now. Man, that hill was steep and slippery, and I was not the boldest girl on earth, hated snow inside my mittens. But that’s what you do with boys for playmates when you’re avoided like the plague by normal girls who eat sweet potato pie and don’t have to braid down their hair. My teen sisters made bean pie, wore dresses down to right-below-the-knee, smuggling mini skirts to switch, fake normal, in school. And my big sister had outweirded the whole neighborhood by going away to college. Only the invisible girl across the street who dumped oatmeal out her gabled window was stranger than us.
II. We Three’d pretend it was fine, and had never known anything else. But the older ones griped, said how it had been before the tin men took the house, back when there was a dog, Daddy had smoked cigars, and Christmas began with Momma poking little pushpin things into a juicy, scored ham. That, my sister said, was in the good ol’ days, back when you were dead. Her spirit-twin sister got upset at that, but I wouldn’t find out for another ten years that I was the only one of us nine who almost didn’t make it home from the hospital, so tiny, wouldn’t eat. Eventually, I swept into the family like part of the blizzard, on the Epiphany, cuddled in Daddy’s arm and a purple plaid blanket; named after a dead aunt, and a gypsy, and a faerie too…which explains a lot, really.
III. But enough about me. On Christmas afternoon, we went to Grammie’s house. The door swung open to a world that would do the Sugar Plum Faerie justice, tables draped in handmade ivory lace, white cotton and green-foam village with a tiny man actually ringing the church bell. The tinsel-dripped tree scraped the ceiling, its spiraling rainbow tube splashing star shapes on the walls. And, oh, the cookies. Snow-sugar-covered raspberry sandwiches, gingerbread men (and girls, just for me), all stacked like a Seuss tale on a three-tiered goody tree. There were hundreds of presents, even for family I’d never met, curlicued and bowed. The five of us feasted, my mother happy that I’d wolf down anything, even peas, if you poured gravy over it. And we laughed, Sammy and I singing Later on, we’ll Perspire! as we sit by the fire… with Johnny Mathis until nightfall, then stuffed ourselves, all those presents, and tin-foiled pie for our siblings into a cab, giggling all the way home. To this day I wonder: what did the older ones do while we three were playing normal for a day?
It reminds me of my aunts in their 80s–seeing two
tiny elderly ladies who must be sisters, one
with a crushed-velvet burgundy clutch, three
feathers on her matching veiled hat. Eighty-
something years of bickering or ignoring for six
days per week, then going to church on the seventh!
Her sister, in a crushed navy dress, matches too.
They competed for a lifetime. I wonder who won.