“Auntie” Revisited

I wrote “Auntie,” (in Journal 1986) to describe an incident in 1985 in which my aunt, while her sister stood there watching, handed over to me for delivery to my sister a crystal bowl that her sister coveted.  At the time, I assumed that her only motive was to spite her sister.

Three or four years after that incident, my aunt became less and less capable of living alone, and her daughter’s visits became more frequent. One of these visits overlapped one of mine, and I told the daughter about the incident. She mentioned that she had been very fond of the bowl herself but then immediately observed that, well, she hadn’t noticed its absence. Somehow, over the subsequent years I fixated on the idea that my cousin deserved the bowl more than my sister because of the circumstances under which my aunt had given away the bowl, and I brought this concept up to Becky on, I’m sure, many occasions.

Then, last December when I had developed a medical problem that I thought signaled my imminent demise and was trying to atone for as many wrongs as possible, I wrote Becky and wasted my deathbed wish by saying that she really must give that bowl to its rightful owners…the descendants of our aunt. She got back to me and told me that she had started feeling guilty about this herself a while back and had just been too busy to do anything about it. Damn, I should have asked her to stop smoking.

So I immediately called my cousin and got a recording: “This number is no longer in service.” Oh dear, I thought, she’s fourteen years older than me and I haven’t called her in eight or nine years and I’ve let her die on me. I knew she had two daughters but didn’t remember their names…their first names, much less their new last names.

Then I wrote to my cousin’s last known address in Denton. The letter didn’t come back, but I didn’t hear anything either. So about a month ago, I Googled around and discovered that she was on a committee of the First Christian Church in Denton. But there was no church directory that listed the phone numbers or addresses of the membership. There was, however, a Membership Committee for whom email addresses were listed, so I found a member of the committee my cousin was on who was also on the Membership Committee, and wrote her an email telling the story of how my sister got the bowl and explaining that after these many years my sister had agreed that it should go to our cousin or one of her daughters and asking this woman if she could please contact my cousin, if she were still alive, and ask her to contact me or my sister.

The woman kindly emailed me back the next day saying that she barely knew my cousin but that she was good friends with one of her daughters and would pass the message on to the daughter. After what was to me an agonizing delay, my cousin wrote Becky with some additional information of which I had been unaware.

She pointed out, as a minor aside, that it was more like ten years before my uncle’s death that he had given the bowl to his sister rather than “shortly” as I had said. More importantly, my cousin disclosed that he had been her mother’s favorite and that when he died, her mother had transferred all her affection to my father. (In those huge families, there was nowhere near enough affection to go around). My cousin also said that she had never seen her mother as upset and grieving as she was when my father died back in 1969. And finally, my cousin revealed that when she was going through her mother’s things after her mother’s death, she found a handful of letters from herself and selected others but a fat bundle of letters from Becky. Apparently my aunt had saved every single card or note Becky had ever sent her.

All this put quite a different spin on things. My aunt’s transfer of the bowl to Becky had not been, as I had assumed, purely to spite her sister. Rather, spiting her sister was just an additional pleasure since she had had other reasons for wanting to give the bowl to Becky. My cousin also suspected, quite rightly, that the bowl was the only heirloom Becky had from that side of the family.

So my cousin had written that she felt Becky should keep the bowl. Becky then confessed to me that she really, really did just love the bowl, which she has prominently displayed atop a china cabinet that was our maternal grandmother’s. And furthermore, her partner could not help observing that in the same room there was art from some of the better minor artists in this country but that everyone who entered that room ran immediately to a point directly in front of The Bowl and stood there ooohing and aaahing.

What I learned from this was that what I had to atone for was not my role in transferring the bowl to Becky but rather for assuming that my aunt had acted purely out of spite. That and a ten-year campaign to convince Becky that she ought to give the damn thing up. Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to generalize from this lesson and cut more folks more slack.

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