Aunt Joanne gave us the silver fish. She came down from Manhattan with a suitcase full of stylish dresses, and expensive sweaters from Lord and Taylor for my brother and me, along with a school of silver fish that must have climbed aboard the brown leather vessel from the recesses of her cedar-lined upper East side apartment closet. They marched out onto the hardwood floors of our two-story house on Hayloft Circle and straight into the linen closet. They paraded up the walls lined with mom’s macramé planters and her rough rendition of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” from her oil-painting class at the Raleigh Civitan Center while my brother and I were stuck in Vacation Bible School at the Baptist church even though we were Catholic. Free childcare came with the opportunity for salvation.
But after Aunt Joanne’s visit, nothing could save us from the silver fish. They came out of National Geographics and scurried onto couch cushions. The slithering shiny annoyances feasted on book-bindings, carpet, photographs and dandruff. They multiplied like freckles after a summer in the sun, and for years, every time mom would crush one under her Sunday bulletin, she’d mutter her annoyance at her sister who’d left the gift that kept on giving.
To me, Aunt Joanne was just another adult who showed up on holidays and ask what my favorite class was in school, then take off on some tangent about her own education that didn’t interest me. Aunt Joanne’s stories were peppered with the names of famous people who’d graced her path and the fabulous places she’d been. Her date with Dick Van Patten, who we loved on Eight is Enough. The meals she’d eaten in the Rainbow Room with its magical views and legendary chandeliers. But her stories were also tinged with bitterness.
When she was five, she contracted polio and was sent to a hospital where the Daughter’s of Wisdom swore she’d get more therapy than was available to a bricklayer’s child in Brooklyn. Surely my grandparents thought they were doing what was best for their child, explained my mother in defense of her parents.
But Aunt Joanne, fifteen years my mother’s senior, remembers it differently. Mom didn’t know how the nuns tortured Joanne, forcing her legs painfully straight and pushing her to exertion beyond her limits. After all, mom’s pictures of her sister’s plight were painted by my grandmother, who was equally a victim having had to send her child away.
As a little girl, Aunt Joanne felt she’d been abandoned. And despite her Elizabeth Taylor looks, her limp stripped away her beauty advantages and colored her perception of life the hazy gray of a winter’s sunset. Though she clearly enjoyed sharing her elaborate stories of hob-knobbing with the affluent, and I often thought it amazing that she’d overcome her affliction to achieve such successes, my mother would wonder aloud after Aunt Joanne’s visits were over, “Was she making all that up to impress us?”
She was animated when talking about dinner at Lutece and tea at the Waldorf, but when it came to talking about family, she forever found ways to poke thorns into happy memories and add boulders atop the soil of sadness. She patently resented the easier life of her younger sister, polio free with parents doting solely on her once her older siblings had left to make lives for themselves on other New York City boroughs.
Joanne severed ties with my mother after their parents died. I’d heard she’d moved to California, and a decade later, when I too landed on the West Coast, I decided to look her up. Surely no relationship is beyond salvage. Young and optimistic I was.
I found her in Pasadena, relatively close to my apartment in Hollywood. She walked with a cane and told me, in no uncertain terms, that mentioning my mother was off limits. But what else connected us? Sitting in the Rusty Pelican adjacent to the 134 Freeway, I bristled at the admonition but was determined to make some kind of connection.
I encouraged her to share stories of relatives I’d never met and the family history I had only vague knowledge of. Apparently Great-Grandpa Flynn’s grand house was sold to pay back-taxes to a horrible woman named Tootsie Zorilla, who covered it in asbestos shingles and enclosed the wrap around front porch, my Great-Grandma Flynn’s pride and joy, with bricks and stucco.
Joanne’s stories brought to life the family skeletons nestled in the closet along with the silver fish. Cousin Regina once told my great grandmother she’d been raped following a Broadway audition and rather than investigating her charge, she was committed to a State Hospital for the mentally insane where she eventually died.
Some of what Aunt Joanne shared was fascinating. Other stories sounded outlandish or were mean-spirited and likely meant to color my perception of some of the relatives I know my mother had loved.
Cousin Bobby’s contractor’s business had to have been backed by the mafia because he didn’t have the smarts to set it all up on his own, having inherited my great-grandfather McGrath’s low level of intelligence.
Uncle Arthur had webbed fingers, which was likely a sign of mixed blood or inbreeding, which Aunt Joanne thought more likely of my father’s Tennessee relatives than her side of the family, but of course there are exceptions to every rule.
Most certainly there have been interesting nuggets of family lore shared over the years, but generally they’ve been infused with acrimony, as has been her perception of more recent events. When I told her that my mother had breast cancer, she said mom was likely making it up, after all, she was always looking for attention. When mom died three years later, Aunt Joanne sent a curt email, “I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure you loved her.”
I experienced her stories in person a few times over the years, but she’d get brittle when I’d slip and mention my mother and I hated the feeling of walking across crepe paper, trying not to fall through and into her vat of vitriol.
Our visits became less frequent and, though she has lived just a few hours away for over twenty years, at least a decade has passed since I’ve seen her in person and our communication now comes in spurts on email, each of us hiding behind screens.
Years ago, I was on a hike with my family in the Sierra Nevadas. For most of the week, we’d had little cell service, so I was surprised when the phone rang while we were taking in a viewpoint. Certain it had to be an emergency, I answered it. With no preamble, Aunt Joanne demanded I return her key. Taken aback, I asked “What key are you talking about?” We’d had no contact for months. Maybe a year. She’d never called my cell phone. “The fact that you don’t know furthers my case.” And she hung up.
When I got home from the trip, there was an email that said she’d given me her house key and trusted me to be her next of kin. Clearly I didn’t deserve that honor because she’d not heard from me in such a long time and I couldn’t even remember the key. Her aggrieved message refreshed my memory. I did indeed have a sealed envelope in my safe. I opened it and there was a key and some information about the location of important paperwork dated a decade earlier.
I returned the key, but not without making a copy.
I stay in touch with occasional emails mainly because she has severed ties with everyone else in the family and I am not sure how any of us will know when something happens to her, our oldest living relative at ninety. She always responds to my emails answers any question I ask about family history and for that I am thankful. She still lives alone and drives her specially equipped van when she can get a neighbor to load her scooter into it. She can’t walk and recently spent hours on the floor calling for help before a neighbor heard her dog barking. She brushed aside my admittedly cursory offers of support. I am not kind. I don’t push it.
I imagine that one day I may get a call. I might have to use that key.
I also imagine I won’t bring anything from Aunt Joanne’s apartment home without thoroughly checking it first for the shiny glimmer of a unwelcomed guests trying to stowaway in a crumbling menu from a long-since closed Manhattan restaurant or a box of old family photographs. I don’t plan to continue the family tradition of crushing silver fish while cursing distant relatives.
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Addendum: My Aunt Joanne actually died the evening I told this story at Story Salon, November 13, 2019. She had left instructions with the management at her senior living community NOT to contact any family members. I emailed her several times in November and December that year with old family photos for her to tell me about. Our last exchange was November 11th. My Christmas card didn't get returned but my daughter's College graduation card in June did. I tracked down an office manager who told me that a sheriff 's deputy had broken down her door after days had gone by and her dog Darrin was barking incessantly. She left detailed plans for what should happen to Darrin and donated all her things. And while she didn't want us to know what happened to her, I like to think that she wasn't as alone as she tried to be. Fifty people at Story Salon were thinking about her on the evening that she died - both her flaws and her beauty were remembered.