Monday, April 20, 2009

On Becoming Aunt Nellie

The Russian has gone to Russia. He's looking for a way to become a billionaire--possibly, by manufacturing American barbeque sauce for Muscovites. I miss him, his funny ways, his Russian pride, his chefly way with steak and salmon, his kisses and hugs, the way he calls me, "Squooooorrrell." But I also find myself settling easily into a solitary life. It is familiar and quiet. I find myself becoming increasingly . . . mincing. I recline in my chair, looking around in calm satisfaction: every surface is sparkling clean, and each thing in its place. I eat neat, small, nutritionally balanced meals and wash all but the dishes I'm using before I even sit down. When I go to bed, everything is put away. Even the quilts on my bed lie over me square and flat and folded just so. I move from wakefulness to sleep as I move through the house, leaving no trace, no mess. In this, I can feel my great-great-Aunt Nellie growing under my skin, filling out my life like a balloon slowly inflating within a container.

When my dad was eleven, his mother Dorothy Emma died of Hodgkins Disease. Family photos show her in the year of her death to have had a pale, slightly bloated face, dark rings under sad brown eyes, a tired-looking smile. Dorothy Emma had an aunt, her mother's sister, named Nellie, and Nellie was married to a man named Howard. They never had children. Nellie worked for Ma Bell as a phone operator, a pretty good job for a young woman from the 1920s-70s. Howard was a security officer, although I don't know what he secured, a bank maybe. After my grandmother died, my grandfather, himself a police detective, began to drink heavily and was unable to care for my dad, so my dad was sent temporarily to live with his great-aunt Nellie and his great-uncle Howard.

I don't know much about these two. Here's what I do know: Howard was from the east but his family had something to do with the Native American Indian reservations in Oklahoma. Possibly, his mother or father taught at reservation or Indian boarding schools (we have pictures of assembled classes). When Aunt Nellie died, to everyone's great surprise, she left a hundred thousand dollars to Haskell Indian College, presumably at Howard's request (he was already dead). I have pictures of Howard posing for the camera in his security guard uniforms, or in overalls working in their small garden. My dad remembers Howard as a strong but gentle man, who paid some much-needed attention to a little boy, took time to show him how to do things. Unaccountably, I also have a picture of Howard standing with what appears to be a KKK rally a ways in the background; it is not clear whether he is attending or posing in front of the event. Howard died before I came along, so I never got to pose the question. But I do remember Aunt Nellie.

Aunt Nellie came to live with us in 1981, when I was 11, and she stayed for two years before she passed away. She was in her mid-seventies. The two years she spent in our house must have been a sort of hell for her, with my brother and I bounding around upstairs most of the day, although I would imagine life was better with us than it would have been in a nursing home. The downstairs in our split-level house was finished, had its own bathroom, good natural light, a fireplace, and my parents had had it renovated to form two rooms out of a single big one. When Nellie didn't want to eat upstairs--as was the case most breakfasts and lunches--my mom fixed her meals and took them downstairs on a tray. I cannot say for sure, but it seems like Nellie ate dinner with us most nights. I distinctly remember her smell, not a bad smell, just sort of papery and musty. Her mouth must have been dry, since when she spoke her spittle clicked and clacked like rustling celophane in her mouth. Her nose dripped, so she carried a pressed handkerchief with which she frequently dabbed the tip of her nose.

At dinner, Aunt Nellie liked to have a piece of meat, a soft vegetable, some bread, and always, a nice piece of fruit. Everything she ate, she cut into tiny, neat squares. Once my parents went out, leaving us in Nellie's care for the evening. She fixed hamburgers for dinner on the stove, cooking them in our smallest saucepan: two-inch-diameter hamburgers, one for each of us. The story is a legend in our family.

Now, the family teases me. They say I remind them of Aunt Nellie, especially when I eat. We are enjoying Easter dinner, for example, and I utter some cranky thing about the nuisance of birds and flowers and nature in general, mainly because I am allergic, or I cut my ham into perfect tiny cubes, because I enjoy the way ham slices so neatly under a sharp knife. Sure enough, out comes mom with, "Now, who does that remind you of!" And everyone else chirrups inanely, "Aunt Nellie!"

And, no wonder I am becoming Aunt Nellie. I must have stared like a little monkey at the poor woman throughout dinner, every night for two years. I inhaled her every move. I don't remember finding her especially delightful or repulsive, merely fascinating--precise and defined. Just as a child learns a language, soaking up the sounds and structure, so I soaked up the gestures, the small proprieties and inclinations of Aunt Nellie. And did so in concentrated doses. I had no other opportunity to observe her than at the table. Aunt Nellie had then, as I do now, limited patience for people under 18; she wasn't inviting me downstairs for tea and needlepoint in the afternoons. Even so, my memory was profoundly impressed by the tidy shape of her movements and the tight compass of her expression.

I feel my life at times developing along these lines of inference. And, they are only inference, since I have no idea what Nellie was in herself, to herself, with Howard, or even as a foster mother to my dad. Nor do my parents know any more than I. My dad was a child when he went to Golden City to live with Nellie and Howard, and he remembers only feeling safe and loved in their home. Besides, he only stayed for a year before returning to my grandfather's house. As adults in the early 1980s, my parents were struggling--not terribly successfully--to make ends meet and didn't spend much time with Nellie. I hope that she was not miserable or too lonely with us. She left no letters, no journals, no revealing manuscript memoir. What I am to know of her, it seems, I will have to remember and learn from myself as I get older.

I do have her books. Her legacy to us--to me, in effect--was a library of 200 or so volumes, including a slew of second-rate religious novels (Miss Mitford, Miss Read) as well as the much more congenial Little House on the Prairie series; Alcott's Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys; The Five Peppers, The Five Peppers Midway, and The Five Peppers Grown Up; a nice boxed Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass set; the collected works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the collected papers of Abraham Lincoln, and so on. Nothing particularly surprising, no James Joyce or Anais Nin tucked away to raise eyebrows. A copy of the Grimms Brothers is as racy as things get (that is pretty racy). Over the years, Aunt Nellie clipped articles from various newspapers about the books and their authors, folded them neatly, and enclosed them in the front covers. I read all of these--books and notices--consumed them. They had the flavor of Aunt Nellie.

Some nights, of late, with no Russian to watch basketball on tv in the evening, I pause in my reading to luxuriate in the quiet. The light from my lamp glows yellow on the furniture, the wood dustless, the sofa pillows angled in greeting. Things are in their places. My tea is steamy. I am waiting for my Russian to return, with or without his fortune. I am at peace, happy to be alone while I am waiting. But I am glad that it will end soon. What's that? I feel a tickle, a bit of moisture on the end of my nose. As I move to dab my nose, I bump the tea cup off the table with my elbow. Hot tea splashes against the chair, engulfs my slipper; broken bits of cup go bouncing along, falling into the ornamental grating on the floor. I jump to my feet, hurl my book at the wall, roar, "FUCKING HELL!!" and know with some certainty that whatever the future holds I am not Nellie yet.

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