Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Easter Travels With My Aunt

Happy Easter to all.  

I don't know about your families, but this holiday lost a Christmas-like luster early on in my youth.  Sure, there are major points off for the lack of gift exchanges.  But, at some junction, my tribe stopped celebrating it together by the time I was in junior high.  It was frequently tough enough for us to sit around a dining room table in December, let alone a few months later.  There was always somebody not speaking to somebody else.  And, usually, a bunch of them were mad at my grandmother for one thing or another.

Now, since the bulk of my relatives came from my father's side of the ledger, there was a deadly dynamic that played into these family skirmishes.  And, with three sons still alive at the time, you could always expect that the trouble would arise from the forced relationships of their wives.  My mother and my aunts who had simply married into this nonsense.  And naturally they all had their own agendas to fight for.  Translation: there was always one pissed off at another.  And, for the most part, it was my mom as the referee-ing monkey in the middle.

As for me, I got along with both the wives of my dad's brothers.  As long as there was cash in the birthday and Christmas cards, you were bound to win my favor.  My mom tried to be Switzerland, too.  And then frequently had to endure complaints like "did you hear what that goddamn so-and-so said to me?"

This is a tale of one of those aunts.  Helen.  Shown here dressed to kill with my mom (clad in red, natch).  During those days where you dolled yourself up for a backyard summer barbecue in the Bronx.  Hot dogs, hamburgers, and mink stoles.  Doesn't that happen in every family??

Aunt Helen was married to my father's favorite brother, and he died very early on at the age of 45.  That devastated my dad and I can only imagine what that untimely departure did to my aunt and her kids.  My cousins were already teenagers in high school and always looked askance at yours truly, since I was much younger.  I had virtually no relationship with them.  And, frankly, I often steered clear of Aunt Helen.  An early widow, she always seemed to be crying.  I can remember many a New Year's Eve when my mom would urge me.

"Go over to Aunt Helen and give her a kiss for Happy New Year."

I'd look over to some sofa where Aunt Helen was sobbing her eyes out and I'd suddenly gravitate to some excuse that involved a contagious disease.   I clearly has a "crying phobia."

My mom and Aunt Helen were friendly and I believe they even worked together for a while at the Union Pen Company on McQuesten Parkway in Mount Vernon, New York.  I began to notice that she also had a variety of health issues.  Arthritis.  Eye surgery.  There were few times when I can remember Aunt Helen not sporting a bandage somewhere.  I would steer clear at those times as well.  I clearly also had a "bandage phobia."

Aunt Helen and family lived only a few blocks away from us, so we could easily walk over for a visit.  I was never comfortable there.  But, for the longest time, they were the only branch of my family that had a color television set.  For the glory of watching "Get Smart" with that NBC peacock, I easily dealt with the aforementioned phobias.

This is not to say that I didn't like Aunt Helen.  It's just that we had little in common and I could barely relate to her or her children.

So that's what makes one Easter so utterly bizarre?  I was either 14 0r 15.  Those high school years always blur together.  One night in the last week of Lent, my mother got a phone call from Aunt Helen, who was planning to drive down to see some of her own relatives in Maryland for Easter.

"I don't want to make the drive by myself.  I thought that maybe Lenny would like to come along for the ride."

My mom treated this invitation as if I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii.  Aunt Helen, beyond a need for a car companion, reasoned that it would be great for me to see her nephew Arthur who just happened to be my age and we had made some sort of a connection in previous summers.

"Lenny could see Arthur and play with him."

Okay, I was a teenager and not looking to "play" with another guy.   And I was also not looking to spend four hours in a car...make that...trapped in a car with Aunt Helen.  But, when it came to these types of invitations, my mother did not have the word "no" in her vocabulary.  Besides we had no set plans for Easter and my parents likely looked forward to a few days of peace and quiet.  From me and from each other.  Rifts were already slowly starting to form.

I was stuck.

I packed for this trek as if I was headed to a date with electric furniture at Sing Sing.  Dreading every moment until Aunt Helen pulled in our driveway behind the wheel of her "big ass" Buick.

I felt like I was saying goodbye to Mount Vernon forever.

We weren't more than five miles away when I realized this trip was going to be a very different one.   

Aunt Helen popped WABC-AM on the car radio.  Hmmm, music I listened to.  While my own mom had been an early devotee to pop radio, even she had migrated to the softer sounds of the Tijuana Brass and Mantovani.  But not apparently Aunt Helen.  She was a-movin' and a-groovin' to the hits of today.

And singing along.

"Yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy."

A moment that was so wrong.  But so amazingly real.  And enjoyable.  We sang as long as we could pick up WABC on the New Jersey Turnpike.  As soon as we reached the Delaware Bridge, Aunt Helen already knew which dial position to turn to in the area.

"And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.  Jesus loves more than you will know.  Wo, wo, wo."

Beyond the traveling Sonny and Cher routine we were developing on the road,  there was another striking attribute to this ride.

Aunt Helen was talking to me like an adult.  Trust me, in my family, this didn't happen easily.  But, here she was, talking about her health and her unfiltered opinions about other relatives and friends.

"Don't tell your mother."

Okay, I won't.  And keep it coming, lady, because I'm loving every juicy minute of this.

When we finally got to her relatives' home in Odenton, Maryland, Aunt Helen didn't necessarily stop her free wheeling chatter.  As Arthur and I were older now, our "playtime" was not as much fun as it was when we were both eight years old.  So, my attention never really diverted from my chatty aunt, who was hilariously candid with her thoughts.  Especially when her own relatives were not within earshot.

"I can't believe they still haven't fixed that kitchen stove."

"I don't like that girlfriend of his.  A real golddigger."

"Arthur's got a weird smell.  I don't think he's using any deodorant.  Do you notice that?"

Well, yeah, I did, but I wasn't going to say anything.

I was petrified at the thought of this Easter weekend, but uncontrollably sad when it sped by at lightning speed.  Before I knew it, we were back on the New Jersey Turnpike going in the opposite direction.  With the car radio blasting.

"Young girl, get out of my mind.  My love for you is way out of line.  Better run girl, you're much too young girl."

And, as quickly as this connection with Aunt Helen was made, it was almost as speedily lost.    Our family became even more fractured.  I don't think Aunt Helen and I ever had another time like this trip.  As a matter of fact, I think she died maybe seven or eight years later.

But, as is obvious, I remember that one Easter.  A one-time-only bond with a single relative.   One that was not afraid to treat a kid like me as an adult.

Dinner last night:  BLT sandwich at Blue Plate.

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