I spent part of this past weekend scanning old family photos (what else do you do on a snowy Sunday morning). Once I started, it was difficult to stop. My mother’s sister, Virginia got me interested last week with a photo of my great, great grandfather. Wow! And it reminded me of a story I’d written not long before my father’s sisters died.
Out of the Attic
I’ve become fascinated with family folklore and photos, so call my father’s two older sisters, knowing some history settles in the dust motes of their attic.
First though, I pick them up, go to breakfast, then take them to Walmart. My aunts are a handful at 92 and 87. I don’t know who to hold up first, whose arm to take, who is in more peril on icy New England pavement.
Finally, we get to their house. They have lived there together for as long as I can remember. Both widowed early, they found companionship in each other.
As a young girl, I’d complain about having to visit every Wednesday night. Back then their house was spotless and modern; both were well off and one aunt loved to boast about it. As soon as we’d arrive, I was instructed not to touch a thing. I’d sit on an uncomfortable beige chair and quietly watch ‘Room 222’ on television, sucking peppermints kept in a crystal candy dish. No one else I knew owned a candy dish. They must be rich.
This day I walk into the house and much like their lives, it has aged and grown musty. The ceiling is cracked across the kitchen and Uncle Buddy’s dark wood piano (once the prized piece of furniture) is now dusty and quiet. The couch could be the same one from forty years ago. The crystal candy dish still rests on the coffee table, but doesn’t awe me the way it once did.
We sit together on the couch, a wrinkled shopping bag of photos on the floor. I reach and randomly choose an album, flip pages, ask questions and listen to them argue with each other about who is who and what was going on when each photo was taken. They often sound harsh, but this must be normal because they both let it go, time and again.
They were knockouts as young women. ‘Merry widows’ they both joke. Aunt Ann fluffs her wig with a vanity that makes me smile. “Back when I had hair…,” and she launches into a story. Growing up, this was one thing we all tried to avoid – her stories, typically lengthy and repetitive. This time though, I encourage her. I want to know this part of my heritage.
“Remember the cruise we took?” she asks my Aunt Flo. “That handsome Captain?” She pauses and giggles like a young girl. “Remember how he kept trying to get me into bed?”
I am shocked and it shows. I look to the other for confirmation and she too starts giggling. I cannot help myself and ask, “So did you sleep with him?”
“Well, I would have you know, but he was a married man.”
So much for family heritage.
I look in both their faces – the way they speak, how they gesture with their hands, tilt their heads, and I am hungry for a glimpse of myself, looking for clues. The photos call out to me. I want to know who each person is, how we are related.
My aunts eagerly share information in a jumbled, non-sequential way that somehow wraps around us and makes perfect sense. We become comfortable with the passing of pictures and time.
Aunt Flo says, “I had a lot of tragedy in my life, but I can’t dwell on it because I can’t change it.” And she speaks of a son that drowned, a sister I never met who burned, one I knew and loved and died too young, her husband who died before I was born.
I come to a photo of the two of them in bathing suits and flouncy hats, standing on a beach somewhere in the tropics. “Wow!” I say. “You ladies were hot!”
“We were your age when that was taken,” Aunt Flo says, drawing the snapshot about an inch from her cloudy eyes. “Yup, your age.”
The photo fascinates me. I never considered these two women were once my age. When I was young, they were old. It takes time for me to process what she just said and I do the math more than once.
“Here’s my graduation picture,” says my Aunt Ann. “Look how white my teeth were. And they were all mine.”
She hands me a high school yearbook, “1934 – Hartford High School”. In the photo she is soft and beautiful and dreamy, not the woman I recall growing up. Under her photo is written “…quite the gal on the dance floor.”
Again, I am stunned.
My aunt of the Waterford crystal candy dishes says, “I was a hellion in those days. Your father had his hands full keeping the boys away from me. Oh yes, Honey. You should have seen your old aunt.”
Again she fluffs her wig and her eyes close. I think she has fallen asleep and reach over to pull the afghan higher. Her eyes flash open and she laughs a bawdy laugh. “Honey, let me tell you! Have I got stories!”
And I am happy to have this story to remember. Go on…make a phone call, take someone to breakfast…just be careful on the icy sidewalks!
As always, be good to yourself-