June 29, 2007

Aunt Contrary's birthday

For years I have mocked my father's sister's family, with the exception of my cousin and his family in Maine who adore me, and, occasionally, my cousin and her family in Philadelphia.

The middle cousin, their sister, otherwise known as the Midtown princess, traded in her Subaru for a BMW because someone told her only lesbians drove Subarus. Odd, I would have thought a Subaru a family car, and no one would mistake the Midtowner for a parent. On the sexuality front, me thinks thou dost protest too much, and no one actually cares.

When my father died, I didn't even think to telephone the Midtowner, his niece, who has demonstrated less compassion over the years than a piece of shirt cardboard. Cardboard, after all, bends. My friends got me to my parents' house, held me though that whole mind-numbing new reality for months, if not years.

The Aunt of "Happy Chris-mukkah," a post I wrote in 2004, is Aunt Contrary. Her husband, Uncle Pompous, is dead, his ashes in a Brooks Brothers shoebox that I do not plan to see buried.

Our longtime family housekeeper, who retired about 10 years ago, after 15 years of daily coffee with my grandmother and subsequent 10 years of weekly cleanings at my house, had mentioned over the years that Aunt C. and Uncle P. were jealous that my dad had gone out on his own, taken some chances, made some big money, traveled when and where he wanted, with and without us in tow.

Yes, Daddy did, and he paid some huge prices along the way, while Uncle Pompous Chicken toiled for someone else until he was pushed out of working misery with a gold watch at age 65.

My parents didn't attend the retirement party; they said they were in Haiti. Well, they could have been. My mother has also been known to be unavailable for Passover post-Daddy, chez Aunt C. and Uncle P., claiming she was in Paris. Apparently Paris and Wonderland have a lot more in common than one might imagine. Right now my mother still owes me one for that bat mitzvah she avoided in 2004. Should our presence be requested at any religious ceremony for a member of Aunt C.'s family, it's her turn.

Aunt C., meanwhile, held up her end as helpmeet to Uncle P. til death did them part. In the 1980s, she was all in favor of feminism so long as it didn't interfere with their dinner as a couple. In the 1990s, they fled the town in Long Island where both had grown up (pre-WWII, pre-Levittown, when their town was actually in the country) to retire to warmer climes in Florida, along with half of their friends and neighbors whom they had known their entire lives.

I do not know if Aunt C. has any friends that she has not known 50+ years, which I find astounding. I know Aunt Contrary's female friends were all "couples friends"; that they socialized as Noah would have wanted, two by two. As a single woman, I cannot fathom this way of life: wanting to see me does not require the presence of my partner, whether I have one or not.

Aunt Contrary played piano; she played tennis; she chauffeured her children around town -- even to Wonderland -- to music, art appreciation, and other cultural and athletic lessons. She did some paid work that she could turn off at a moment's notice (or when the employer tired of her), and she ran the Long Island household with the help of our (my generation's) baby nurse, a housekeeper, and a laundress.

To this day my female cousins and I know how to scrub a toilet simply because we attended Camp Hell-in-the-Woods, where we learned tasks we would never perform as adults.

At her 80th birthday last weekend, a "ladies' lunch," Aunt C. chatted away. (My cousins were under the impression that if if were women only, Aunt C. might not realize her husband, Uncle P., was no longer among us. No one ever voted either of them "most observant." Most of Aunt's friends are in her age bracket, and few have remained standing in the two-fer position of the 1950s.)

To this day, she considers the former owner of Camp Hell-in-the-Woods a dear friend. Mr. Camp Director, a widower, lives in the same neighborhood as she in warmer climes, Florida. If an 89-year-old man can said to be doing such, he is dating a relative of Uncle P. who is no relation (teetotaling is not our genetic strong point) to me. When Mr. CD wants a drink, he calls Aunt Contrary.

"Send him a bottle of rum. With my compliments," I suggested. For when Mr. CD had kicked me out of summer camp, urging me not to darken their door again and telling my bunk mates that I was "disturbed," an alcoholic [at 13], and the proverbial Bad Influence, he had done so because I brought a bottle of rum, taken from my parents' extensive liquor cabinet, to camp, and I had shared it with my bunk mates. (At least I shared.)

Mr. Camp Director was so afraid of bad press for Camp Hell-in-the-Woods that in lieu of taking me straight to the local hospital for alcohol poisoning, he made the camp nurses sleep in shifts, each one taking watch for 10 minutes at a time, until the next morning when I awoke, in the infirmary, my hair somewhat worse for the tantrums and wear, but my body feeling not a trace of a hangover.

In all the literature about what we could (gum) and could not (candy and snacks) bring to camp, neither alcohol, cigarettes nor drugs merited a mention. Name tags topped the list of necessities.

No one thought to ask me what was wrong. No one at Hell-in-the-Woods had paid attention to my previous years of misery. From my vantage point 30+ years down the road, if Mr. Camp Director had been so concerned that I was going to be an increasingly Bad Influence (from age 8, I showed fierce tendencies in that direction), it would have made much more sense for him to let my parents know that Camp Hell-in-the-Woods and I didn't particularly get along, as I had tried to tell them in letter after letter, summer after summer.

Instead, Mr. Camp Director and wife took my parents' money and ran. (Sleepover camp, in those days, cost about $26 a night per child, the equivalent of about $102 in today's dollars. Refunds were not available upon request. For $102 a night, I can find a decent bed and breakfast on a lake, no housework required.)

In the process of pocketing my parents' check, Mr. CD seared a hole in my adolescence, a third-degree burn I fault him for applying much more than I fault my parents for missing that same burn. I hid from my parents during that era, emerging only when I excelled at what they craved: great academic results. Camp required an entirely different set of talents, all of which I lacked the agility and coordination to display, and none of which I cared or was capable of mastering.

I was a camp failure: not only was I a washout at athletics, I never cared to commune with nature. I did so only to escape the actual camp premises, where we had to swim twice daily in a lake with leaches. You would have thought I was Julie Andrews, climbing every damn mountain in parts of New Hampshire and Maine. Trust me, I didn't do it with a song in my heart. I was lured by the lack of uniforms and promises of Dairy Queen before returning to that wretched camp.

We also had to compete -- not just participate -- in "land sports," those team-sports-bonding games involving the kicking or throwing and catching or hitting of a ball, something no counselor managed to teach me to learn -- a clue that athletic competition was not going to be my forte, one might think.

From the age of 9 onward, I figured out that sleepaway camp was a place to give my parents a two month respite from me. On the outside, it looked very caring, to send your daughter away from the sweltering Wonderland heat, to enjoy the cool mountains in rural Maine. My brother was sent off as well, at a younger age than I. Did either of us want to be there? Well, not so much.

I never did, shall we say, share in the camp spirit, something patently obvious to everyone but the person in a position to profit from it. You had to be legally blind not to notice my lack of aptitude and my attitude.

Given that we were at camp 24/7 for 8 weeks, at a ratio of 4 campers to one counselor, with weekly comments sent home by our counselors, it seems to me Mr. CD tripped over his bank account and well under even the low-1970s standards for monitoring the health, happiness, and well being of his pre-adolescent and adolescent charges.

Mr. CD and wife, I think, owed that much to our family, whether to Aunt Contrary, whose two daughters had put in seven to 10 summers a piece, as both camper and counselor, or to my dad. Dollar signs, however, seemed to blind him, despite his role in loco parentis. (I do not think Mr. CD and wife had any children of their own, fortunately.)

Mr. CD and wife could or should have, but didn't, take the approach of my prep school, which suggested that my brother (who managed to absent himself from ninth grade) might be happier elsewhere. It would have been, dare I say, responsible of him to observe my nature in the five full summers I spent under his eyes, instead of leaving it to the sixth very truncated season to discover how much trouble I could be.

At Aunt Contrary's 80th birthday luncheon, she told me that she thinks about my father every day. I didn't ask what she thinks. Once I heard how cozy she and Mr. Camp Director are, I was reminded that, as her cousin, Superman's fiancee, characterized her and my father repeated to me, she is a sanctimonious cunt.

Being a sucker for sleepaway camp has always been behind her drive, my distaste for the concept not withstanding. When I was a child, vacationing with her always wiped my parents out. The woman could not sit still; she needed regularly and frequently scheduled outdoor activity prior to cocktail hour.

As a kid, for me, one half-hour tennis lesson (I dressed well, but I sucked at and didn't care about the game.) and one water-ski run around our Adirondack lake sufficed. Dad played golf; my mom needlepointed, read, and showed up for afternoon tea at 4 pm; my brother was left to his own devices; and the entire family met for predinner cocktails nightly.

On rainy days, we played countless games of backgammon and cards, and my father had an ongoing gin game with my de facto uncle, who owned the hotel where we stayed each summer. I learned to operate an old-fashioned switchboard without disconnecting callers.

A few theories about Aunt C. and her role in our family: Jealous, much, Aunt C.? You were handing in your algebra homework while your cousin, prior to her incarnation as Superman's fiancee, was photographed frequently in Life magazine at various social venues where, had you been of age, you would not have been sufficiently sophisticated to hold up your end of the conversation. You might, however, have held up your end of the alcohol consumption. That is how I know we share the same genes.

It has been confirmed that you and your best friend used to throw parties where all the guests were boys, so you two could have your pick. I suspect Grandma liked the idea of a popular, smart (Seven Sisters grad in the days of restricted admission for Jews), daughter, and that you convinced her not to care who might get hurt along the way, people like my high school best friend's mother, who, at 80, still feels slighted.

Still, my life and my brother's have had much more of a Superman's fiancee edge to it than have any of Aunt C.'s overly responsible offspring. I can't tell if who she resents more: me, my brother, my mother, or my late father. I'm sure she disapproves of us all. My response? Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.

It's also hard to tell which of her offspring she disapproves of most: My eldest cousin, the Philadelphia connection, after being force-fed culture, is the outdoorswoman in the family. So much for her ever-so-cultured childhood. My middle cousin, the Midtowner, failed to marry and reproduce, though she is one hell of a shopper and her income probably exceeds her siblings, mine, and my brother's combined. My youngest cousin, the Maine connection, married a Presbyterian and is bringing up their kids as some variation on mainstream Protestantism. So much for his bar mitzvah.

Sibling rivalry, much? Once I empathized: she is the elder sister, deemed the responsible one as was I, and my father, her brother, was the younger child, like my brother, both deemed the "bad" boys, and determined to live down to their reputations). Now my attitude is, you're 80 years old; Daddy died at 59, 16 years ago. Grandma died more than 20 years ago. Get over it, lady.

Incidentally, I need a phone call to be reminded of the day Grandma died or was born about as much as my mother has needed a call wishing her a happy anniversary -- to a man to whom she is no longer married. My dad cannot come to the phone, not now, not ever. Aunt C., grow the fuck up.

Aunt Contrary thinks about my dad? About what? How much she must have taken perverse pleasure in the trouble that my brother and I tended to find ourselves, compared with her children? About how orgasmic she must have felt getting my father blackballed from a country club to which one of her good friends belonged?

That friend was a birthday party invitee whose name was mentioned so many times I finally made the connection between where she lived and for what hurt she had been responsible, which reverberated as a deed not favorable to Aunt Contrary's history of sibling rivalry with my father.

Think about how much she loved her brother -- my father -- and me to the point that if she can, even now, twist a knife, she had no qualms about doing so. She even did the family housekeeper (whose work did not meet Aunt Contrary's standards, but did fine for my grandmother and me) out of the plants the housekeeper had tended over the years, in favor of her daughter who had hightailed it to Philadelphia, out of local reach.

I once entertained the notion that Aunt Contrary might not be conscious of her words and actions. But over the years too many instances have illustrated that "unconscious" was far too polite and agreeable a term. The term malicious springs more rapidly to mind, and not simply because it starts with the same letter as martini, the predinner beverage of choice at her house.

After my grandmother died, we were told that all five grandchildren would gather on a specific day to choose which of my grandmother's possessions we wanted. Next thing I heard, cousin Philadelphia and husband were coming with a truck. As if they had been living on orange crates and futons into their 30s. Grandma's kitchen equipment? Offered to the offspring of one of Aunt's friends. Photos of Grandma's childhood I was promised? Grandma died in 1985 and I have yet to see a one.

Blood ties have been convenient for Aunt C. : they are certainly not thicker than water, as the saying would have it. In mid-life, I have finally realized, I need not spare another drop in her direction.

No cousin from that family tree, regardless of the distance of the relation, has turned out to be an improvement on the original set with whom I grew up, my first cousins, offspring of Aunt C. and Uncle P. My mom is an only child, from the South, so the only cousins she has there are distant even to her.

Yes, you can pick your nose, you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family. That old cliche holds. Friends truly are the family we make, the people with whom we make a concerted effort to hold on, to remain connected.

When Aunt Contrary goes off to meet Uncle Pompous, there won't be a wet eye in this house.

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