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."
Saturday, May 9, 2009
My dad is passionate, emotional, conflicted, engaging and connected. He's kind of a big hairy unpredictable female, but he hates to shop and he won't ask for directions when he gets lost, which is all the time.
My dad is a giver, too. A fantastic giver. Each October of my college years, he'd call me up to tell me my package was on its way, and I'd know that he'd been gathering.
I can still remember opening my little college mailbox and seeing the padded envelope with my dad's familiar chickenscratch ballpoint pen handwriting on it. I'd free it from the walls of Box 766, clutch it under my arm and head to the library to find a spot by myself. Between the stacks, I'd tear it open and release the contents: a flattened, foggy ziplock bag packed with his love for me and my love for nature and seasons and home and him. I'd do as he said, and stick my nose right in there.
He'd been out to the woods behind our house and collected a handful of the most brilliantly hued maple leaves from the forest floor to send to me. Usually he'd throw in some pine cones, acorns, ferns, speckled birch bark, and even a mushroom or two. Often, a confused spider would emerge from the still damp pile of autumn splendor.
"Open the bag, put your nose in, and take a big long breath in. Since you can't be here to experience it in person, I'm sending you Vermont fall."
I'd be instantly transported to home and to a younger, less confusing state of being. The leaves smelled of my tree swing, rock walls, woolybear caterpillars and dew. I could hear the trees creaking in the wind behind my house. I could see the charcoal grey sky. I was suddenly there, picking apples from the low arching tree in the meadow.
And he did that for me every year until we moved back to New England three years ago.
My dad was adopted as an infant, and then re-orphaned at 23. He is imperfect, without a doubt. His temper flairs used to leave me trembling under my covers when I was young. He has a hard time sharing his stuff. He can be an unbearable snob. His father, a narcissistic public figure, dropped dead of a heart attack in their front lawn when my dad was twelve. His mom was an overwhelmed, somewhat weak figure who hired people to do most everything.
When my sister was born, she was the very first blood relative my dad had ever seen, and he wept.
All those times he packaged up fall for me, he was loving me imperfectly, in a dew-covered and fungus-riddled way, but also openly.