Winter is my white season.
My time of emptying soul through reflection.
I found out recently that my Aunt Jane died only several years ago while living in England. She had been a favorite character in the theatre of my life. She had also been a heroin addict. Her addiction began somewhere around age thirty.
Aunt Jane and my mother had been close friends. Sisters, almost. I felt like their mutual daughter when we three were together.
They were beautiful, magical women. And when my grandmother, Toot, joined – it was a generational trinity of wonder and wisdom.
A few of those fractured pieces want to speak. To return to the white of a snow-covered land with no footsteps. To remember something I fear I may forget to remember.
A Piece of a Conversation:
-I heard from Bob today. He called to tell me that Jane burned the girls’ clothing last night.
-How could she have done something like that?
Mary paused. Swallowed. Straightened and extended her spine so that it sprouted upward from the kitchen table.
-He said she put the girls to bed, waited for them to fall asleep, and then cleared out their closets and drawers. She took the clothes up to the attic, tossed everything into a pile and set it on fire.
-My God, Mother, she could have burned down the entire house and killed everyone!
-Yes, I know. Luckily Bob was not on-call that night. He smelled the smoke and called the fire department immediately. Part of the flooring has to be repaired. They were lucky. . . .
-What else happened?
-I keep hearing something scratching against the backdoor screen. . .
-Probably wind. . . leaves blowing. . . birds. . .
-No-o-o. . . but I’ll go on . . .
-Jane has been having BJ bury the used hypodermic needles in their backyard. Can you imagine the damage this is going to cause her? BJ is the oldest. Sharon may be too young to remember. Bob doesn’t think that she understands what is happening at all. But he’s worried sick about BJ’s safety.
Extended silence. Throats clear. A rustle of tissues. Wooden chairs creak. Footsteps softly pacing the linoleum floor. The screen door again. . . faint scratch of fingernail. . . soft thump.
-I can’t imagine putting your daughters through something like that. I could never put Jayni through that. . . .
-No, you’ll never have to. You’re very different from Jane.
-Jayni adores her Aunt Jane. How can I explain any of this to her?
-It’s an illness. Aunt Jane is very sick and will have to go away for a long time. Jayni’s the youngest grandchild. She won’t remember much. By the time she’s old enough to know the truth, Jane may have died.
-What should I do? Neal has just been promoted. He can’t leave. He can’t take care of Jayni. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea to take her to Bob and Jane’s or not.
-Take her. The two of you go. Stay as long as you can. Let Bob know that the family is supporting him. I’ll prepare Neal’s dinners. I’ll call Theresa and have her clean the house
-But what do I tell Jayni? She’s a curious child. And easily frightened. A sensitive child.
-Yes, I know. Tell her you’re going up to Baldwinsville to visit your brother. She can visit with her cousins. Make it sound like fun.
-She’s shy around her cousins. BJ intimidates Jayni with her haughty attitude. Sharon treats Jayni like her personal servant. She really only loves her aunt.
-Well, there’s not much we can do now. You need to start making plans and packing tonight.
-Shhh. . . I heard the back door knob. Jayni’s coming in from the backyard.
A Piece of Home:
I enter the kitchen and glance at the mayonnaise-colored clock-radio on the counter next to the toaster. The surface is so glossy it looks like a petit fours’ fondant icing. I am hungry, but it’s too early for supper. The time is about 3:00PM. Daydream Time.
I hug and kiss my grandmother, Toot. Everyone calls her “Toot,” though no one remembers why.
But I remember the story: she requested to be called by the first words uttered by her first grandchild. My cousin BJ had the honor of naming Grandmother Ballard, “To-To.” Every family member adopted this new term of reference. Everyone, that is, until I was born and began to speak. I shortened the name to “Toot.”
One firm, commanding syllable. Its success was widespread: family members, neighbors, friends, business associates. People loved to feel the bubble of air that popped at their front teeth when they spoke this four letter word.
There’s a history of four letter words being dirty. Unutterable in polite company. This word, however, is clean and crisp. It stands with self-confidence. I’m proud to have authored it.
And I’m proud of my grandmother as I kiss her soft, powdered cheek. She is beautiful and elegant. Her blue-tinted grey hair is softly waved and secretly fastened in place with crinkled silver bobby pins. Her skin is perfectly smooth, uniform, unmarred by even one freckle. Her pores are sealed by a delicate layer of flesh-toned dust. She smells of roses. That frail scent of toilet water that whispers a flower’s fragrance. Strictly Ladylike.
In her lap, sits her burgundy leather purse. Her champagne-colored gloved hands are draped and lightly folded over the handles. Her feet, in matching burgundy pumps, are paired like bookends at the base of the wooden kitchen chair. They are alert. Heels ready to click – like Dorothy’s – into Oz.
Her suit is made of wool. So finely woven that it is soft enough to snuggle into. It’s a subtle plaid of complicated colors. Colors that blend so well together, the eye cannot distinguish individuals. A color palette that expresses the ultimate goal of Communism.
The suit is hand-tailored by Hellie Stelmacher, Toot’s personal seamstress. The precision of German craftsmanship is immediately evident. . . seamless seams, covered buttons, double topstitching on the collar, cuffs and pocket tabs – all impeccably parallel. Toot is always assembled with the awareness of every detail. And every detail is related to its neighbor. To its tribe. To its entire clan.
Her mind is as orderly as her appearance. She is a finely tuned machine, keeping my mother and me in good-working order. She tries to keep my Aunt Jane and my cousins BJ and Sharon well-tuned also, but they live several hundred miles away. So that family’s machinery is less tidy. The timing belts are looser. The spark plug firings less exactly syncopated. Their suggested maintenance schedules are not consistently followed.
I think this is why my Aunt Jane has had a breakdown. Her regular maintenance schedules were overlooked. And the intricate machinery parts – like the viscera of clocks – stopped working in unison. Some little tooth bit the wrong circular gear during the wrong rotation.
A Piece of Imagination:
Inside of my three-year-old mind, I imagine my Aunt Jane coming undone as I kiss the cheek of my meticulously-done grandmother.
Toot jingles her voluptuous key ring – the ubiquitous signal that she is planning to depart. I want her to stay. I want the conversation to continue. I want more details for my theory. So I excuse myself, saying, “I’ll go upstairs and play in my room.”
The expression on my mother’s face relaxes with a sigh. The commas around her mouth lengthen.
Oh, the relief of punctuation. . . it’s a pause for breath. And breath is life force. It’s a continual, silent chanting of Om. The voice of God. The sound current of creation that never ceases. In its vibration everything is contained. As in silence, everything is contained. As inside the pause between an inhalation and an exhalation, on that edge just before the next inhalation. . . truth is held in suspension.
A Piece of Recollection:
As I watch my mother’s mouth unfurl with an exhale, I hear Toot’s singing voice in my memory. The one she used in church. In the safety of a large congregation of Presbytery. The wavering silk thread of a soprano – quivering like uncertain hands pulling the silk from the worm’s cocoon safely nestled in the bend of a mulberry tree.
The voice looks like a lady trying to walk on a cobblestone street in high heels. The flavor is vinegar mixed with a teaspoon of honey.
My place in church was to stand next to Toot, between the floral garlands and the white taper candles burning safely on bamboo stilts, Polynesian style. The decor of special holidays.
A Piece of Protection:
And on these special occasions, I jockey for position so Toot and I can share a hymnal, and, so I can dissect the qualities of her scantily-heard voice. I memorize it for occasions such as this. For times of uncertainty and times of fear that make me want to dress up in pretty clothes and costume my anxiety.
I take this memory upstairs to my room, leaving the door ajar. I remember hearing my grandmother singing holy words of praise. Although I cannot decipher the exact words, I know they were sanctified. I know they were rising up to Heaven. I know she thinks they were beautifully offered in a voice that wears angel’s wings.
A Piece of Eavesdropping:
This memory is my adhesive as I put my right ear to the floor and strain to listen through to the kitchen below. But the voices wear mufflers. The words pass like exhaust fumes – sour in their pungency; intangible, ungraspable in their exit.
Another Piece of Imagination:
I begin to imagine instead.
I imagine Aunt Jane pulling down the spring-hung ladder that leads to the attic. I imagine her setting fire to the lives of my cousins. I imagine her face painted like a warrior – scrawled up bloody red. Her intent upon some distant invisible mission.
I imagine her walking into BJ’s room first, because she is the oldest daughter.
I see her open the closet door and pick-up ruffled dresses and blouses with white Peter Pan collars and pleated woolen skirts clasped with large gold safety pins. One at a time, flinging them into a box. I hear the metal hangers hitting the cardboard with a sound like pelting hail.
Once the closet is bare, she walks into Sharon’s room, and opens the closet door.
More fiercely now, she yanks clothing from the hangers: a yellow and white seersucker sunsuit with shoulder ties like shoe laces, an organdy party dress with crinolines and wide bows at the waist, a dotted swiss Easter dress. Gaining momentum, she lets the wire hangers litter the closet floor. Her eyes grow more determined as she stuffs the clothing into the box. In her mind, she begins to chant, “I want to be a good housewife. I want to be clean and tidy and organized. I want my children to clean up after themselves.”
With the box in her arms, she walks in measured slow motion. Up the ladder, one step at a time, into the attic. She walks to the center, under the cathedral peak, where the four-cornered dormer sunbeams meet in a mandala configuration.
In the center she places the cardboard box, teeming with little girl’s clothing. Like an abundant offering upon an awaiting altar. From her apron pocket she pulls a can of lighter fluid – the kind my father uses to accelerate the combustion in our charcoal grill. She squirts it over the clothing, first in a star pattern, then outlines it in circles.
Like the circle of a Wicca ceremony, she moves around the box clockwise. Her footsteps become slower, hypnotic, tribal-like. She moves even slower, suspended like a Pa-Kua practitioner – walking the walk of an ancient Chinese warrior so deeply focused upon his internal components that his physical body appears to float. Walking the walk of the praying mantis. So graceful, patient, dancerly. . . yet fully committed to killing.
From another apron pocket, I see Aunt Jane pull a large box of safety matches.
She waves her right arm in the broad arc of a wing and drags a match slowly down the black strip on the side of the box. The red match head turns blue and yellow and orange as it erupts into flame. She tosses it onto the pile.
With each step, she lights and tosses a match until she completes a full circle. She is living, now, inside of her Celtic ancestors. The flames surge. It’s a funeral pyre. A cleansing ceremony. Burning dresses, looking like the burning ghosts of little girls. I long to see their souls rise to Heaven.
In the orange afterglow, I see her face. It’s streaked with sweat and soot and red lipstick. Her lips move, but I can’t make out the words. She looks like a Hoodoo priestess in spellbinding-trance or a Shakespearean witch about to be consumed by the fire of her own making.
Her image begins to fade and curl like the skins of daffodils. I see my Uncle Bob sprinting up the ladder, two-steps-at-a-time. I see him reach through the licking flames and grab Aunt Jane, whose dark shape has a corona of wild hair and no face but a shadow. Her head bends and latches onto his left hand. She is biting his ring finger as he drags her from the flames.
A Piece of Kitchen Communion:
My reverie dissolves. I can only remember my beloved aunt visiting my mother and me earlier in the year. Talking and laughing and baking together in our soft, buttery yellow kitchen. I remember wrapping her apron ties twice around her waist, just so I could hug her a while longer.
A Piece of Hope:
My mother and Toot are making travel plans for me. Maybe tomorrow I will be driving with my mother up to Baldwinsville, New York to see my Aunt Jane. I hope that I can still hug her. I hope that my cousins are softer, kinder toward me. I hope that all five of us females can embrace in a circle of symmetrical love and flaming grace.
A Broken Puzzle:
This dream never came true, however, I am comforted now – knowing that Aunt Jane lived a long life in a faraway land without leaning upon any of us every again.
She left a silent legacy. A circle of mystery.
Aunt Jane died and I still don’t know the truth.