The Good Eye: In Praise of Aunts

On aunthood, from a loving neice

The Good Eye: In Praise of Aunts

I'm told my Aunt C hated pictures of herself. There aren't many. In high school, she was a buxom, trim-waisted drill team dancer; by the time I knew her, she was soft and pillowy, with languid eyes and a heavy jaw. I remember her best in zip-front robes and other loungewear. I remember her in caftans. The only photograph to corroborate my caftan memories comes from before my time. It was taken in front of my grandparents' house in Dallas, some Christmas in the early Seventies. She may have been pregnant; her feet are bare on the chilly pavement. The caftan is white, splashed all over with red poppies and yellow butterflies.

Aunt C started getting sick the summer after my sophomore year in high school. I went up to Austin to help out after a foot surgery that would be the first of dozens, my covert mission to keep her off her feet. We watched Free Willy, which she loved. I jotted a careful list of the books I read while she was napping – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Notes From Underground – and drove up and down MoPac on odd errands doubtless devised to get me out of the house. She hated being told to sit.

For the next 20 years, she fought to stand. She was notoriously stubborn: that jaw. When I last saw her alive, rheumatoid arthritis had devoured her body from the inside out, twisted her limbs, and eroded her extremities. Pain had made her world small, my uncle said. Her body shrank, too. She was as tiny as a child when she died, nothing like the big, blowsy woman with the hoarse laugh who made doll clothes for my sister's and my "Mandy" dolls. My cousin was her life, but she'd wanted a girl, too.

Just before her death last week, I was thinking a lot about aunthood, having recently gotten to see my brother's 10-year-old twins and my sister's 14-month-old son. I was remembering the summer of 1988, when my sister and I stayed with Aunt C and Uncle Billy in Red Oak, my sister watching the Olympics on TV while I holed up with my cousin's Elfquest comics. Aunt C did laps in the above-ground pool in the mornings, smoked cigarettes by the flickering water at night. Scandalously, gloriously, she let my sister and me go skinny dipping. She talked frankly with us about boys and sex and makeup. Her favorite picture was that Seventies Willis Wheatley print commonly known as "The Laughing Christ."

For the funeral, my uncle wanted her to wear the artsy but elegant dangles in shimmering oxidized titanium he'd bought her years ago, but they were inaccessibly buried in a storage facility. My mother and I searched a local costume jewelry superstore for something Aunt C would like as much. We inspected rhinestone drops, silver hoops, mother-of-pearl discs with an iridescent sheen, gunmetal crystals clustered like grapes. The most fitting pair looked like peacock feathers – starbursts of violet thread stretched, macrame-style, on gold, leaf-shaped frames.

In the car afterward, my mother cried. I thought about how strange it is to buy jewelry for someone who will never wear it, not really, not even once.

As much as I love caftans, I get the strongest sense of Aunt C's style from another, earlier portrait, taken outside in the winter of 1968. In the foreground, my uncle crouches with a cigarette; in the background, two dead deer hang upside down like memento mori, flanked by my aunt and my mom, who look like a couple of mod Pagliaccis in, rather incredibly, matching charcoal wool ponchos trimmed with Technicolor pom-poms. My mother, a classic beauty, stands tall and slender and straight a few feet away from her sister-in-law. But, perhaps because they are dressed alike and have similar haircuts, Aunt C's particular catlike beauty is even more apparent. Slouched against a tree, her sharply arching eyebrows framing uptilted eyes, there is something almost bewitching about her. Just as it always was in life, one eyebrow is cocked a little higher than the other, as if she knows a fantastically juicy secret, one she's dying to tell you.

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