Three of my father’s sisters, all by now in their seventies or eighties, live within twenty-five miles of my mother, and when I visit my mother, I call on these aunts. When I was in Texas in the summer of 1985, I telephoned the eldest, who lives in a small town seven miles from my mother’s, to see if she would be receiving. When she agreed that that afternoon would be good, I called her sister who lives about a block from her and set a time a couple of hours later. Then I called the third aunt, who lives about fifteen miles farther away, and set a later time.
When I arrived at Aunt Lillian’s house, she welcomed me warmly and proceeded to make coffee. While doing so, she mentioned that she wanted to give my sister Becky a magnificent cut glass bowl that had been residing in state on her dinner table all my life. Flabbergasted, I managed to mumble something to the effect that perhaps one of her daughters, granddaughters, or great-granddaughters might like it, but she responded that they wouldn’t appreciate it. Not wanting to argue with her, I allowed I was sure my sister would, and changed the subject, hoping she would forget about it. She then asked if I were going to visit her sisters, and when I told her I’d scheduled them all for the afternoon, she suggested that she invite Lucille to join us for coffee. I was pleased because this indicated that they were on speaking terms that week, they having fought like only siblings can fight for seventy-odd years. So she invited Lucille over and we had a pleasant little afternoon visit.
When I mentioned to them that it was near time to depart for my visit to the third sister, Aunt Lillian stepped into the pantry and produced a box just the right size for the bowl, complete with the necessary packing materials all ready to go. She emptied the fruit out of the bowl and packed it while we stood there, the three of us said our goodbyes, and I went to Aunt Sara’s for yet more coffee.
When I returned to my mother’s, I brought out the bowl for my sister and learned the rest of the story. The bowl had been given to Lillian as a wedding present in 1924 by her brother, shortly before he was shot in a dispute over territorial rights to a local belle. No charges were ever filed because my uncle had asked on his deathbed that none be since he was, after all, poaching. In Texas, especially in those days, district attorneys did not normally interfere in family matters unless it was requested. The assailant, by the way, made good some years later during the depression by getting my father a job with the oil company. But back to the bowl.
The bowl, as I said, had been sitting on Aunt Lillian’s dining table for over half a century, gathering accolades. My mother was especially fond of it and was unable to pass it without giving it a thump. One day last spring, Lillian had offered it to my mother, who had immediately refused it on the grounds that it ought to go to one of my aunt’s sisters. Lillian had told her what she told me, that they wouldn’t appreciate it, but she had also told my mother a bit more. She mentioned that her sister Lucille, who had been standing right there when she had wrapped up the bowl for me to take to Becky and who was on an extremely limited budget, had asked for the bowl, saying that she could get a thousand dollars for it. Now my mother has to live around both of these women, and she quickly realized that she didn’t dare take the bowl, however much she wanted it. So she suggested as possible recipients my aunt’s daughters, who live in other parts of the state, or, deviously, her own daughter, safely a thousand miles away in Denver. And Lillian, crafty old soul that she is, must have plotted for the rest of the spring to stage the transfer to get the maximum pleasure from it, to not only give the bowl away in front of Lillian but also to give it to someone who patently did not deserve it.
The final twist, of course, is that, while I am not fond of cut glass, the damn thing is exquisite…and valuable, and what I got out of my role as inadvertent actor in my aunt’s little drama was several of cups of perked Maxwell House.
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.