When you think of Aunt Maryann, she’s standing at her full height, looking at you, head cocked to the side, fingering a long necklace carved of wood or silver with colored stones, large ones, one-of-a-kind, and she’s smiling, singing, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”
How are things in Glocca Morra?
Is that willow tree still weeping there?
Does that laddie with the twinkling eye
Come whistling by? And does he walk away
Sad and dreamy there, not to see me there?
Okay, so maybe it’s not from Finian’s Rainbow, but it’s always some obscure gem from the glory days of Broadway musicals and if not that, then the opposite – The Beatles or maybe even Mick in the Rolling Stones.
Aunt Maryann writes 3D letters. The word tentacles wrap their arms around you with their long Queen Anne loop de loops of scrawling handwriting flanked by butterfly and glitter stickers stuck to pastel envelopes. When she adds Uncle Frank to the signature wishing you all her love, you think it is the most fantastically longest signature in the entire universe, or at least the one with the most letter “n’s.” You love it when she says she doesn’t have much to say and life isn’t necessarily that exciting but still manages to go on for four double-sided pages.
If Aunt Maryann’s not standing when you think of her, she’s leaning against the sink of the unrenovated kitchen — the one without the dishwasher — or sitting at the head of the long dining room table, elaborate dining dishes you’d find on display at the Prince’s ball (the one Cinderella went to) spread out in front of her, and rows and rows of green Depression glass – bowls, pitchers, plates, stemware – peering out from the glass cabinets behind her. Sometimes your second cousin, Aunt Maryann’s grandson, is there, too, and his mother, your first cousin’s first wife, is complaining he prefers to bang on pots and pans instead of Fisher-Price. This is before she tells you about the time she saw Frank Sinatra in concert. But all you can do is stare at your first cousin’s first wife, mother of Pots Banger, to see which part of the living room and back hallway you can see through the top of her red bottle hair and before you know it, there it is, the memory of her brushing past you to run up the aisle of her own wedding while you fan out flower petals the way you rehearsed, equal parts right and left and then repeat, the way every flower girl is supposed to, even though technically there is no instruction manual.
When Aunt Maryann is at the beach you see Uncle Frank’s mustache dotted with sand like pepper dots eggplant parmigiana. It wasn’t always a vegetarian Italian dish, but it has since morphed into that, since he started worrying about his diet. The beach blanket is itchy, army green black, and, like always, you wish your mom could just use an old white sheet with flowers on it like everyone else. The blanket would get thinner and some of the flowers would fade. It would be the proof you had stayed until the lifeguards moved the lifeguard stand, rescue canoe, and oars back to the top of the beach, packed up and gone home, long after your freckles and the sunscreened handprint on your shoulder faded, Billy Joel had stopped singing about weekends on the Jersey shore, and the inflatable raft stood on its end in your garage, the part of the garage you couldn’t park a car in or navigate because it was too full of bikes and lawnmowers and junk. Your three older cousins are all gangly limbs, an octopus of teenage arms and legs accompanied by jungle hoots and hollers. When the seagulls laugh, your two older cousins, the handsome smart one and the other one whose mustache doesn’t look like Uncle Frank’s, laugh and tell their youngest brother, the dark-haired one who rides bikes with your older sister and can quote baseball and rock and roll history statistics, that the seagulls, when they make noise and flap their wings, they are laughing at him.
The painting that hangs at the foot of the stairs of your mother’s house is there because it looks like Aunt Maryann in profile when she’s smelling her roses in the garden she toils in when she’s not drinking iced tea and eating peanut butter crackers. But then again the drinking iced tea and eating peanut butter crackers might actually be your mom, and not Aunt Maryann. The painting is from the period when Aunt Maryann’s hair was longer, when she pinned it at the nape of her neck like an advertisement on how to be a beautiful Bohemian without even trying. But the flowers, all the flowers in the painting, they belong to her. Aunt Maryann knows all the scientific herbivore names, and that’s not even what they’re called, that’s not in fact accurate, the use of herbivore. Those really long unpronounceable flower names. The stack of gardening catalogs Aunt Maryann sits next to on her breaks in front of the fan are tall enough to form an end table on which she can place her glass of iced tea, if the iced tea is hers and not your mom’s. The gardening catalogs have illustrations only, like something from 1910, and not glossy images. They hold less interest for you than the door to the room off the basement den, which you crack open to peek inside. Every inspection yields the same vision of a Victorian playland of flea market antique furniture stacked to the ceiling, the basement windows emitting cracks of light as though there might be hidden treasure in the room, but you can’t see enough to tell. Not really. But you suspect you are right and that there is a lot of treasure there. Or maybe you suspect you are right because that’s what your older sister has told you, and if anyone knows, she knows.
“I’m looking at flights. I’m examining my schedule,” the handsome smart older cousin, Aunt Maryann’s middle son, the do-gooder, the happy marriage with three good-looking children, says from very far away.
The other cousin, the one with the mustache that can’t do what his daddy’s mustache does, says goodbye to move south toward the sun with his second wife, the one who didn’t see Frank Sinatra and makes a decent living on disability for the second and actually probably the third time. You think her resume would say, “work related injuries are my hobby” if you could put it under a black light. The other cousin left behind his son, that second cousin of yours, Aunt Maryann’s grandson, who preferred to bang on pots and pans as a toddler, the son he gave up years ago, first unwillingly and then willingly, when it looked like Frank Sinatra lover would be seeing the inside of a jail near a desert, and second wife disability wouldn’t buy as much for three as it would for two. Aunt Maryann signed everything, including the kitchen sink, over to Pots Banger. He’s all grown up now, not that that means a whole heck of a lot when you don’t work, when you play music, self-taught, when you wake up after 1pm and spend your days scrubbing clean designer vegetables purchased at Whole Foods with Uncle Frank’s pension money, money earned building anything and everything concrete you can see driving through the Garden State.
“He can’t work,” Aunt Maryann says from her hospital bed to you about Pots Banger. “He’s an artist. You understand.”
You don’t, but now is not the time to say. Your mother, who hasn’t spoken to Aunt Maryann for two years until today, she doesn’t understand either. Mom understands that statement as little as she understands why Aunt Maryann never got in the car to visit her, just two hours away, or why Aunt Maryann never invited her and her family to another holiday dinner after mom’s divorce went through.
Aunt Maryann is mean to the hospital staff, mean like the art teacher you hated in elementary school was mean to you, when she tied yours and Stacey Smith’s braids together for fighting about the clay pinch pots, mean like she couldn’t be once they made so many rules about permissible teacher/student behavior for generations after X. Your boyfriend plays live guitar for Aunt Maryann and she is serene, smiling peacefully, and you see her as you saw her after all those dance recitals, plays and concerts, holding her program, jacket over her arm, purse over her shoulder, head again cocked to the side, a smile stemming from the pink of her cheeks, anxious to hug you and love you.
Maybe Aunt Maryann can get the iron infusion she needs to be able to stand up on her own two feet again. Maybe when your dad comes to visit her tomorrow he will know what should be done in talking to the doctors, in navigating the health system. He’s her ex-brother-in-law, so one might say what right does he have and he has none, but he’s smart and funny, still loved if for nothing else than all those times spent on the army green beach blanket followed by dinners of sweet corn and sandwiches with cold cuts at the beach condo or maybe pizza or ice cream on the boardwalk, his treat. The cousin the seagulls laughed at visits dutifully on a schedule you could set your watch to, but there’s only so many times Aunt Maryann can listen to how his sports book will soon be published. At least the handsome smart cousin is looking at his schedule and will be there soon to take the reins, to make everything right, better, to snap Aunt Maryann out of it and get her the care she needs because the grandson who likes designer vegetables is out of his element directing decisions that don’t involve organic v. non-organic or steel string v. nylon string.
The doctor who gave Aunt Maryann the iron infusion before can’t do anything now. His hands are tied. Once someone else is in charge of your health the previous honcho gets usurped. But the handsome smart cousin is still coming, checking his schedule and looking at flights every day. You might not think Florida is very far away, but it is. It’s all the way at the bottom of the U.S., right there in the bottom right corner. Nothing but ocean after the tip. So it can be hard to travel north. Especially in the winter or just before Christmas.
Aunt Maryann is surprised when you say you and your boyfriend of three years are headed toward marriage. She thought you were the artist, that marriage wasn’t for you because you are so busy. Then you remember she is related to your mom, the one who may have convinced long lost relatives from over 30 years ago that you are the token family lesbian, the daughter who is not married, doesn’t have a boyfriend, but has many “significant friends.” Every family has a homosexual. Some have more than one. But even so, you are not the family lesbian. That is your aunt on your dad’s side. And that’s all you have, in terms of family homosexuals, for all you know for now. Then again you never know since the uncle and cousin you never knew you ever had turned up a couple of years ago on the other side of the family, too.
Pots Banger starts to pick up the phone. Not when you call, but he picks it up to work his thumbs to write back to you, though never in the morning and in fact always several hours later. He’s no longer suspicious that you are secretly mad he will get any money that might be left one day. Because his father and uncles are probably a little mad about that, or maybe even a lot mad. You don’t really care – your family is made up of Aunt Maryann’s nieces, a sister, an ex-brother-in-law. There’s nothing really that immediate about your family member status, though Aunt Maryann’s health situation seems pretty darn immediate.
Your father says Aunt Maryann might get out, but she probably won’t walk again, ever. He’s not a doctor, but you know he’s right. He usually is, at least about practical and logistical things for certain. Uncle Frank cries when he sees you. He might not know exactly who you are, but he knows you’re important and related to him, likely either a niece or granddaughter. And you think he might remember piggyback rides around the house to the tune of “Yellow Submarine.” You do.
You think that when there’s a will there’s a way doesn’t just apply to the motivational posters hanging in the metal shop classroom, but also to life. Sales meetings aren’t life or death, but it looks like Aunt Maryann might be life or death. As Christmas comes closer, you wonder if your handsome smart cousin who attends a lot of sales meetings has a slower than usual wi-fi connection, which makes looking up flights more frustrating. Or maybe he has to lead a church sermon in the coming week. He’s not a minister or a preacher, but he is a model family man. You weren’t baptized, nor did you go to church, so you don’t really know for sure and you might not be saved, but for now you’re not worried about that, you just want to help Aunt Maryann get better so you can get another one of her letters with stickers in the mail again, so maybe she can take the bus to the taxi to the theater to see that play you did in a bar. And you don’t know what your next trip might be, but you want to send the postcard you’ll write to her address you know by heart. You can count the number of things you still know by heart on one hand. Your childhood phone number, childhood address, also known as the address of the house your parents divorced in, your childhood best friend’s phone number, and Aunt Maryann and Uncle Frank’s address.
Aunt Maryann isn’t going to do the physical therapy the shapeless cotton drawstring solids with white sneakers want her to do. It hurts. When they transfer her to the hospital, she never has to go back to the place where they wanted her to do the physical therapy ever again. She writhes in pain — this is what your sister and mother tell you as you work hard during the Christmas season doing all the work Aunt Maryann thinks you understand you can’t do, as an artist. The other cousin, the one whose mustache doesn’t look like Uncle Frank’s, the one who also left for the same state his handsome smart younger brother lives in, he can’t travel back. He’s waiting to move into his apartment, with only his pension from other concrete places he built in the Garden State and second wife’s disability to pay their way. They aren’t artists, but they know what it’s like to work for a living, and to work and sustain an injury while working, to boot.
The sports book son sobs at Aunt Maryann’s bedside, no attention paid to the six years he disappeared, even during heart attacks and even though he was just 30 minutes away. Mom worries Aunt Maryann is plotting radically to do what she can so she doesn’t have to read the book when it’s published or be riddled with you know what but don’t know what any longer. But you know she knows it is not at all like worry, but more like she actually knows. The handsome smart cousin hasn’t found a flight to come visit, take charge and make things right, the other cousin whose mustache is seriously lacking like all mustaches except for Uncle Frank’s can’t afford a flight, drive or hotel, and Pots Banger sits at home, lacking the necessary job skills, any skills, only traveling to the hospital long enough to sign caretaker rights over to your father, the ex-brother-in-law, flawed like all, but with the unique distinction of being able to be the right man in the right time in the right place. Uncle Frank comes to the hospital with heart problems, but gets to spend time with Aunt Maryann in his hospital nightgown, gets to pat her hand and sing to her and tell her how much he loves her, nearly 60 years and counting.
Hospice sounds like a store in which you buy very particular things. Not like a candy store or the fishmonger or the butcher, but something more of the hardware variety, the odds and ends necessary to tie up the –ices of life, whatever they might be. You bring flowers and chapstick, you hold Aunt Maryann’s hand and sing Christmas carols to her, you moisturize her lips with Blistex in a blue tube. She knows you are there and squeezes your hand. Death begins at the feet, you learn, and travels north. Right now death is on lunch break, but it will soon be over. Your sister who tells your mom she taught you both how to love your aunt so very much, she says she can see how the lines of Aunt Maryann’s face run deep and run mean, that they are in fact a grimace. This observation makes the painting at the end of your mother’s stairs ring false.
You can’t piece it all together, you’re not very good at that, probably because you cop out, something that is so unlike you, but as the youngest you can get away with it and so you do. There are stories of slammed doors, locked closets, pulled hair, slaps, and not the kind of slaps that warn of a hot open flame. Slammed doors that don’t let you visit for six years, locked closets that won’t let you click “Book Flight Now,” pulled hair and slaps that don’t let you take the exit for I-95N, but do help Pots Banger become Aunt Maryann’s chance to do it all right, not to know slammed doors, locked closets, pulled hair or slaps, but instead only the creature comforts of all expenses paid on a life journey to nowhere but disservice cloaked in a mock-up of art.
The group sing-along to “Edelweiss” is initially rejected, surely out of fear, but you insist, and you are right. Your sister quotes from Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, one of Aunt Maryann’s favorites, your father tells great stories, sniffling all the while, and you share excerpts from her letters. Most importantly you hire Dolores – thank goodness you could track her down through the Internet – Dolores with the short black skirt, mob wife patterned tights and high heels to complement a tenor voice that maybe was once mezzo-soprano, when Aunt Maryann heard her sing at another funeral and decided she wanted Dolores for her own, but again, that was, after all, last century, and voices change. The handsome smart cousin speaks and says a lot about his mother, your aunt. He flashes pictures of his three good-looking children behind him while he’s up there in front of all the people, but in saying a lot he really says nothing at all.
You take the trip to Colombia to see the country your boyfriend was born in, the country of the man you hope to marry one day, even though Aunt Maryann didn’t think marriage was for you and yes, as it turns out, you’re not the family lesbian. You convince your taxi driver to find a post office to mail the postcards you’ve written, as no one seems to know where you can find a post office and you have a flight to catch. The postcards are one fewer this time.
Back at home on a visit to mom you pass the urn containing the half of Aunt Maryann that is not sitting on the vintage secretary desk in Pots Banger’s now house he inherited that is about to go under. The urn that sits on your mom’s dining room table looks more like a jewelry cabinet for necklaces but has the Virginia dogwood flower on it, your mother’s proof it was a sign that that was the one. You pat it absentmindedly and say “hello,” you laugh when your boyfriend accidentally places his glasses on top of it. You think about the ribbon around all the letters she wrote and your mom asking the dogwood an angry, unanswered question or two from time to time. You think that maybe it’s time to change the painting hanging at the end of the stairs, and you wish you could recall the tune and lyrics to “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” which only Aunt Maryann ever really knew by heart.