Saturday, September 7, 2013

THE VEIL

January - 1990

I have a sense that images of memory and desire from our experience and longings live within us. We may be conscious of them, or they may arise spontaneously with the capacity to damage or to heal.  This phenomenon first revealed itself to me through literature and art—which are replete with personal, as well as universal images. Then, I began to recognize images living within myself—fiercely protected until I started writing about them.  Also, I began to “see” the images others live with—especially if people are particularly open and unaware that they are revealing something very private, sacred in some sense. When the soul speaks, a glimmer of living images appear, perhaps by a seemingly casual reference in conversation. 

To an astute listener, observer and delver into such things, as I consider myself to be, these images or experiences, once spoken, seem to ray out and, like a holograph, fill the room and speak to those who are apt to hear and see.  One such image appeared yesterday, and I had to, for the first time, set down in writing what I heard and saw.  

If one word only could be used to describe my Aunt Doris, it would be “eccentric.” She was my godmother. Every time she saw me, she would say in her high, lilting voice, "Oh, there's my fairy goddaughter!" Funny, kind and open too, she was a curiosity to the rest of the family. For one thing, she always carried an enormous and gaudy bag, out of which she pulled various items and gadgets: a metal tea ball for her tea; a large thermos of tea (spiked), caramels and licorice for lovers of sweets; artificial sweeteners (before anyone heard of them), and other novelties deemed (by her) absolutely essential for all outings. These items, like her countless phobias and fears, seemed to be extensions of her self. No one in the family understood the need for that bag, or the reason for her fears—the origins of which were unknown (even to herself), although they were often displayed and shared as freely as were the contents of her latest bag.

I have a vivid memory of her coming to a holiday gatherings at my grandmother's house in a coat, a beautiful shade of blue with a wide "ermine" collar. Her fragrance quickly wafted through the room on the coolness of the snowy evening. The cousins ran to greet her with hugs and kisses which left red lipstick smeared on our cheeks.  She was a sight to look upon, her frizzled hair, her thin drawn-on eyebrows and shiny pancake makeup face.  My sister and I could not wait to go through that bag as soon as we could to find her make-up and put it on and look in a mirror at our more grown-up selves, and we were in heaven. She didn't mind. 


The laughter was with her, not so much at her, and it seemed welcomed by her, as it put her at the center of family and fun.  I believe she was well aware of her aura, as we laughed about the bag, about the fears, about the idiosyncrasies and occurrences in her life, like the time she excitedly ran up to receive a prize at a banquet and then, in front of hundreds of people, found the ticket containing the numbers just called out (which she had undoubtedly pulled from her bag of tricks) was from another event entirely!  Then there was the time that she and Uncle Frank were at a picnic and, after having filled their plates with food, sat down at an empty table—on the same side, whereupon the table toppled over on to them, food and all.  It was also a well-known that she also "had to" take a souvenir from wherever she visited, such as a piece of silverware from a restaurant. These, as well as many other stories told and retold at family gatherings,  inspired such good humor and warmth. It was all in good fun and experienced as a kind of perverse family bonding, which no one more than Aunt Doris enjoyed.

She was a mystery, not only for the bag she carried, but also for  inner burden she carried within her which manifested in her fears. These included elevators, tall buildings and being alone. Uncle Frank had to hire someone to live with them so she would be alone during the day.  She was also fearful of crowds and any mode of transportation. Once, when a relative appeared as a guest on a local television program, she couldn't watch. I suppose some of the adults may have known something about her problems, though silence was the chosen method of dealing with any issue, but, as children, we mostly felt only the lighter mood, heard the fun made of her and the laughter surrounding this lovable oddity – Aunt Doris who could play a mean "Limelight Blues" on the piano, like a honky-tonk hostess.

Yesterday, I saw Aunt Doris for the first time in many years.  We don’t get together as we did when all the cousins were young, and our grandparents were still alive. Now, some thirty years later, we are all married with families of our own. But there she was, a little older, a little heavier (but so was I), still jovial and had the legendary bag with her.  This one matched her blue sweatshirt decorated with lace and cowgirl-like fringes. We were all ready to be entertained, and she was ready to perform.

Once again, we laughed together; only this time Uncle Frank was no longer with us. I know everyone must have imagined the expression he would have had and the sound of his unique laughter when she started with her stories, or when she pulled from her bag a battery-run ash tray designed to whisk away the smoke from her cigarettes. Out came an extra set of batteries (in case), the saccharin tabs, a cigarette bag—containing several packs of off-brands and a little plastic, fake cigarette complete with ash on the end.  She had purchased it some years ago, but continued to carry it with her, as she still meant to write to the manufacturer regarding her dissatisfaction with the “contraption.”  We all laughed heartily, just like old times.

In the past, we all had her refer to Mrs. James (which is how she referred to her mother), in a sarcastic tone. This time, however, she looked a little different as she spoke, and my delver's sense became finely tuned, and I began to “see” the image she had lived with all of her life. It was only a moment, a glimmer—created with a few words, and even though we all laughed again later, I felt a part of me remained in sympathy with her, until now, disguised sorrow.

Her mother had left Doris and her father when Doris was young. Mrs. James apparently would take Doris aside when she visited to speak smoldering, harsh, hateful words about the father, words which Doris said she did not understand at the time. Mr. James was a kind and quiet man with whom Aunt Doris lived until she married. It was obvious she adored him. What stood behind the words and the look on her mother’s face as she uttered them, must have seared into her young girl’s soul and remained there as an open wound.

As Doris herself conveyed this memory at our family gathering, an image of the scene appeared to me, as she seemed for that moment transformed into her mother—taking on the same tone and contorted facial expression her mother must have used to denigrate and discredit the father. I guessed it probably had not been the last or only time Mrs. James had cast her spell.

I am certain Doris was compelled to occasionally conjure up that image and re-encact it so that she herself could view it, like some grotesque Veronica’s veil. This, however, was the first time I had heard and saw it too. Here was part of the puzzle and mystery of my funny old Aunt Doris--the vulnerable little girl inside her, who long ago had endured the branding, lived with it and carried it with her to the end. 

It was a revelation in the midst of frivolity, a gift of insight and understanding to me, and I honored the fleeting moment in my own way, as I do dear Aunt Doris here in the recording of it.

Aunt Doris passed away in 1996 in her little cluttered house alone in Gloucester, New Jersey. Her only son, Frank, Jr. (Frankie), committed suicide a few years later.

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