When I was probably five, we were at a fancy restaurant in the springtime with my family and my aunt's family. It was lunchtime, and I was wearing a sundress with little yellow flowers and my mary janes that made me feel like Dorothy. The dining room was a sun-filled room with a patterned carpet that was perfect for skipping and jumping games. The waitstaff shuffled about, refilling water glasses and surveying the scene with bored expressions.
My aunt was my dad's crazy, only sister. This is how I remember her: poofy dyed blond hair, bright pink lipstick, foul mouth, chain smoking, pill-popping, cut-to-the-chase speak, truly exotic and magnetic, "you should play Yahtzee for real cash even if you're just a kid", "get that little shit" (referring to her youngest son who used to run away from her routinely), big husky laugh, finger right in your face to make a point, "speak up I can't hear you", "we're playing golf all day Tuesday so you'll have to entertain yourselves while you're here visiting", bets with her secret bookie, "it fell off the truck - don't ask questions", two martinis at noon, many more to follow, sitting at the kitchen table talking to Maddie the live-in maid, every TV in the house on at all times, petting her crazier-than-she boxer named Gus who sat on the couch with her and drank water from a glass, needlepoint talented and frankly obsessed, fearful with a great big mask of LOUD, crazy. That's who she was. She was my lunatic Aunt Gail.
She birthed my only three cousins,and here we were at a fancy restaurant at some country club in Connecticut. The grown-ups told all of us kids we could go run around for a bit, and as we left the big round table with all the silverware without being reminded to push in our chairs or be quiet, we realized the volume was being turned up at the table and things between my dad and my aunt were getting hairy. We played some made up game on that way cool carpet for a bit before one of us noticed that Dad and Gail were standing up now, hands flailing about as though they were being swarmed with mosquitoes.
Lunch ended abruptly - in fact before it was eaten - and we drove to her house, but only to get our stuff. Then we drove home. All the way home in silence, still in my flowered sundress and my mary janes in the way back of the Buick. And we were done with crazy Aunt Gail and her calm, smooth and quiet husband Uncle Ronnie and my three cousins. Done.
Ten years later dad bit the bullet and called her. They reconciled, but there was a whole ocean under that bridge.
Last summer at a house on a lake in Upstate New York, we, the next generation of door closers, had finished our dinner on the deck and we were gathered around the outdoor fireplace drinking beer or red wine, depending on our preference, shooting the bull with my husband's sister and her family. They aren't crazy in the same way as aunt Gail, but they require chaos - real, on-the-edge chaos - the way some people need coffee to start their day. Life is a slog for them without their daily dose of mayhem. There were a couple of other grown-up cousins in the mix that night, and there were six water-logged and sun kissed children inside the rental house playing flashlight games and watching a movie, wrapped in their sleeping bags. Cousin time.
In an instant, my husband and his dramatic sister were at it. She was standing and animated, arms flailing - the return of those goddamn mosquitoes. With the fire casting its eerie light on us, the volume turned up and the tables had turned. Was it really about the lost art of letter-writing they were fighting about? Certainly not, but there was no time to scratch off the veneer and see what lay underneath. The door had slammed. We were packing. We'd sleep off the beverages and leave first thing in the morning.
"Get in the car, kids. We're leaving earlier than we thought."