Saving Aunt Millie
I knew something was different the minute Aunt Millie climbed out of the cab. My eyes focused on her white sandals and then on her white linen sundress, which fell an inch below her knees. Aunt Millie never dressed like that. She always wore long, flowing skirts and leather sandals that wound up her calves like garden snakes.
I stood motionless on the porch, watching her pay the cab driver, praying that any minute she would toss away that ridiculously small purse, kick off her shoes and skip across the lawn. But when she waved, I knew way down into that part of me that stays awake at night listening for the future, that not only was something different, something was wrong.
Her large fingers bent into the hot summer afternoon, as if she were playing an imaginary piano, her wrist bending back and forth, tugging on my heart.
"Rebeccala," she called out as she walked up the path toward me. Her hair was not in its usual bun. But cropped short, close to her scalp. Gone was that mass of curly hair. Hair that used to be just like mine.
My throat tightened around the words I wanted to yell out. Go away! Come back like your real self. With each of her approaching steps I played the freeze frame game, trying to stop time. But, of course, she didnít stop. Instead, the closer she came I saw the distance between us grow further apart.
Still, she was my Aunt Millie. And when she held out her arms, I fell into them. I could tell she had lost weight. But worst of all, she smelled like the secretary in my fatherís office. Aunt Millie always swore sheíd never wear frilly perfume, saying its only purpose was to capture the heart of a man. I dropped my arms and waited for her to say something. I figured, since she was the one who had changed that she ought to speak first.
"Look at you!" she exclaimed. "Thirteen and all grown up."
I stared down at my feet, a hot tear caught in the corner of my eye.
"Oh my God, I donít believe it," my mother shouted as she barged onto the porch, wiping her hands on her apron. For the first time, I was glad for my motherís interruption. "So this was your surprise."
"Not all of it, Esther," Aunt Millie said, doing the two step. After which she froze in one of those model poses splashed on the cover of "Vogue" and "Seventeen."
"Well, you look great," Mom said giving Aunt Millie a hug.
With Aunt Millieís hair short, she looked more like my mother. They both had full upper lips - Aunt Millie with a mole on her cheek, my mom with one beneath her eye - and low foreheads, which was practically no forehead at all.
I was a blend of both of them.
"Beckyís been waiting all week for you," Mom said putting her arm around me. "Youíre all she talks about from morning Ďtil night."
I started to tell her about the books I had bought, but Aunt Millie interrupted me and asked Mom for a nail file. The knot forming in my throat made it hard to swallow.
I carried Aunt Millieís bags to her room, the one at the end of the hall next to the bathroom. The rosebuds I had put on the dresser that morning were opening up. A warm breeze pushed the blinds back and forth.
I wanted to turn back the clock to last summer. I saw us standing in front of the monkeys at the zoo, laughing at them as they hung upside down and made faces at us. And I remembered vividly the blue and green snow cones we ate while sitting on a bench, the combination of blueberry and lime cooling us off while Aunt Millie compared these American versions to the real ices over in Europe.
I knew what Aunt Millieís surprise was, but I didnít want to hear it, not yet anyway.
As I stood there trying to pull the past into today, I heard my sister, Rachel, call out my name. She was in the bathroom shrieking at the top of her lungs. "Becky."
Not again, I thought. Every time Rachel went to the bathroom, she thought sheíd started her period. This had been going on now for six months.
"Becky," she called again.
Aunt Millie and I got to the door at the same time.
"Whatís wrong, Rachel?" Aunt Millie asked.
"Is Becky out there?" my sister yelled.
"Yes," I sighed. "Do you want me to come in and check?"
I glanced at Aunt Millie. "All she wants to do is get her period and get married."
What I expected from my aunt was that knowing look, but the look we had once shared was gone from Aunt Millieís eyes.
Later that afternoon, as I came in from watering the backyard, I heard Mom and Aunt Millie talking. They sat in the den, at the game table, drinking gin and tonics and eating pretzels.
I walked to the end of the hall. Without making a sound, I sat down and listened.
"Heíll be in the day after tomorrow," my aunt said. "Just for a few days. Thatís all the time he could get off from the bank. But itíll give you guys a chance to meet."
"A banker," Mom said. "Donít you have a picture of him?"
"No. He gave me this picture of himself sitting naked on some bed in a motel room, but I didnít bring it."
"He gave you a picture like that?" Mom giggled.
"He said it was the only flattering one he had."
They sounded like the girls at school, the ones who got all flustered and excited over a simple look from a boy. I couldnít believe this was my aunt and my mother talking. Maybe my mother. She gossiped all the time with the neighbors when she wasnít taking care of one of us or cooking or sewing. I associated this kind of talk with the mothers on our block. A constant buzz back and forth across the telephone wires, while we kids were in school. But not Aunt Millie. I was embarrassed for her, until I realized she seemed to be enjoying it.
"Honestly, Millie, what kind of man is he?" Mom asked.
"Heís wonderful, Esther. I mean we talk about everything. Heís got two kids. Girls. From his first marriage. I met them a few weeks ago. And theyíre really sweet. The younger one, Ginny, reminds me of Rebeccala. Sort of rebellious, with these wild ideas."
Wild ideas? Rebellious? Those ideas were put there by her. By Aunt Millie herself. She was the one who talked me into my dreams about seeing the world and writing about everything.
What was happening to her? She said that when I grew up we could live together. Share our lives. Now she was talking about getting married. I felt betrayed. And at the same time I felt the need to save her, to stop her from making this terrible mistake.
"Can I get you another drink?" Mom asked.
"Sure. And let me make the salad. I need the practice." As she got up, my aunt saw me standing in the hallway. "Hi, Sweetie." She smiled and then put her arm around me and gave me a squeeze. "I still canít believe how tall youíve gotten."
"Come tell me whatís going on. Howís school?" She ran her fingers through her short hair.
"Okay," I said, glancing over my auntís shoulder.
I caught Mom staring at me. She raised her eyebrows and gave me one of her īI know how you feelī smiles.
I ran back to my room, buried my head in the pillow and cried until there were no more tears. Just this heavy pressure against my chest, which I thought would never go away.
Clark made his debut in a blue suit and white shirt with a stiff collar. But now he was wearing a golf shirt and grandpa style plaid shorts, which exposed his bony knees and hairy legs.
He was a big man with a head too small for his body, a long pointed nose and no chin. He towered above Aunt Millie, and I was sure that when he lay on top of her Aunt Millieís chest would crack.
He sat at the kitchen table, his thick hand on top of my auntís, the other flicking ashes from his Winston into the clay ashtray Iíd made for my mother last year in Girl Scouts.
Mom was peeling potatoes over the kitchen sink. Dad and Rachel had gone to the corn stand to buy fresh corn on the cob. I sat at the table across from Clark, giving him the once-over, trying to make him feel uncomfortable.
It was hot in the kitchen. As Clark talked bubbles of sweat popped out near the edge of his eyebrows and started rolling down his cheeks. Large wet circles appeared under his armpits. He was telling us about his plane ride and then about his kids and then about his plans for the future. About all the marvelous investments he was making and how he and Millie would be set for life, into their retirement. Money and more money. Not a word about any good books he had read or plays he had seen. I imagined he sang along with Mitch Miller. No wonder my dad liked him so much.
Aunt Millie looked all goo-goo eyed at him and kissed him on his sweaty cheek every few minutes. I almost gagged. He was so disgusting.
"Iím a lucky man." He patted Millieís hand. "Youíre looking at what used to be the number one bachelor on the East Coast. After my wife left I swore off marrying ever again." He winked at me. "But the day your aunt came into the bank, I knew it was love at first sight."
Aunt Millie blushed. I almost puked. I knew he was trying to butter me up. I gave him my evil glare. The one my mother says makes me look like Draculaís daughter.
"Whatís wrong, Rebeccala? Youíre awfully quiet," my aunt said.
"Nothing," I answered, turning my attention to the potato peeler in my motherís hands. One, two, three, the skins fell into the sink. If she let them go down the drain the garbage disposal would be stopped up again. And then Dad would get mad.
I wondered how Clark would react if Aunt Millie clogged up their disposal. I tried to picture my aunt preparing a dinner for a group of stuffy bankers, but the image would not hold still. I kept seeing her in tight pants waving a spatula through the air and reciting a poem, while the guests exchanged looks of bewilderment.
"I couldnít believe sheíd never been married," Clark was saying.
Because she didnít want to be. I ached to cry out those words.
But then I got an idea. If I could make Aunt Millie see how awful he was, surely she would not want to marry him. She was just infatuated - a new word I had learned from reading a story in Momís "Cosmo" magazine.
As I sat there, listening to Clarkís rumbling voice, I knew it was up to me to save Aunt Millie.
Later that night we sat around the TV watching The Ed Sullivan Show, eating popcorn with gobs of butter and drinking iced teas. A group of poodles from Russia pranced around on the screen.
Clark seemed really impressed. Aunt Millie snuggled up next to him and smiled at Mom every few minutes. A few more minutes of this and I knew I would barf up my steak dinner.
It was time for me to prove to Aunt Millie that Clark was nothing but a big jerk.
"Hey, Clark," I called out. "What kind of books do you like to read?"
I watched Aunt Millie watch Clark as he pressed his lips together and cupped his chin between his thumb and forefinger.
"Well?" I pressed. "Did you want Scarlett and Rhett to stay together?"
From the way his eyes squinted at me and then glanced up at the ceiling, I knew he was totally confused. And I knew my aunt would never tolerate an ignorant man.
"Who?" He asked.
"Gone With the Wind." Aunt Millie came to his rescue.
My insides started moving around.
"I saw the movie," he said with a chuckle. "And Scarlett doesnít compare one iota to my Millie."
Aunt Millie giggled and snuggled even closer. I chewed on my thumbnail.
"The movieís not nearly as good as the book," I added, waiting for Aunt Millie to agree with me. After all, she was the one who always told me no movie could ever compare to a good book. "Do you know how long it took Margaret Mitchell to write it?"
"Too long," Clark answered.
"Clarkís a very busy man," my aunt said. "He reads, Sweetie, but financial magazines and that kind of stuff."
A herd of elephants stampeded through my stomach.
"Get a load of these dogs, will you?" Clark said, pointing at the TV.
"How about the ballet?" I continued. "Did you see Swan Lake?"
Aunt Millie had taken me last year. This Christmas we were supposed to see The Nutcracker Suite.
"Honey," my mom said. "They donít have as many theaters in the Midwest as we have here."
"But we sure have a lot of lakes," Clark said, chuckling again at himself. "Never saw a swan on one. Now, perch. Thatís what we have in the lakes. And thereís nothing like fresh perch fried up in the morning with bacon and eggs."
I thought about Swan Lake, about the graceful dancers, about holding hands with Aunt Millie. Clarkís awful words might be squashing my future. But I wasnít going to let him ruin my memories.
"We had a really good time didnít we, Aunt Millie," I said, getting up and sitting down next to her.
She nodded. "Not everybody likes ballet."
"You can say that again," Clark replied, leaning over and kissing my aunt on the cheek. "Does this woman understand me or not?"
"Clark," Aunt Millie swooned.
My heartbeat was the loudest sound in the room. Yet, nobody seemed to notice. Least of all, Aunt Millie.
"What do you like?" I said nastily. "Do you like to travel?" I knew that would convince Aunt Millie. If he didnít like to travel, she couldnít possibly want to marry him.
"Iíll take Millie here, anywhere she wants to go."
My heart sunk. "Even to Europe?"
"WellÖ thereís plenty to see in our own backyard, so to speak."
I waited for Aunt Millie to gape at him, to gasp, to put on her Scarlett OíHara impersonation and stomp out of the room and back into my life.
"Weíre going to Florida on our honeymoon," she said. "I havenít been there since we were kids."
"You have to look up Momís best friend, Florence. Remember her?" my mom asked.
Aunt Millieís face brightened and the next thing I knew they were gossiping all about Grandma and their summer vacations down at Daytona Beach.
Nobody noticed my nostrils flare, the quickening of my breath. Nobody cared that I left the room. And certainly, nobody cared that I tore down my map of Europe and shredded it into tiny pieces.
I flung bits of France and Italy into the air, then stomped them into the carpet, jumping up and down until my calves ached.
I threw my pillow at the empty corkboard as the tears rolled down my cheeks.
"Hey," Rachel called, entering my room.
"Get out!" I screamed, rushing toward her. "Get out!" I pushed her out the door and slammed it in her face. "Leave me alone."
I picked up my one and only stuffed animal, Sesame, a tiger left over from my toddler days when I used to cling to Aunt Millie everywhere we went. I jabbed my finger into the tiny hole under his paw. I tore at it, over and over, making a hole the size of my fist. Finally the stuffing came pouring out, along with the remains of my heart.
I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of someone coming down the hall.
"Knock, knock." I heard my aunt at my bedroom door. "Can I come in?"
Her feet shuffled across my carpet. She was wearing one of Clarkís bathrobes and smelled like his cologne. I closed my eyes and pretended she had on that old T-shirt with a rip in the shoulder that she used to sleep in.
"It was a scorcher out here today, wasnít it?" my aunt commented.
I didnít answer. I wanted to, believe me. I wanted to say we were probably going to have a heat wave like in that short story I read. Maybe by this time next week we would have to stay indoors all the time because the sun would be moving in closer and closer. And then Aunt Millie would answer with a theory about the sun and planets. I would sit up and listen with fascination as she discussed life on another planet.
I wanted to answer her, but I knew if I started talking I would start to cry.
"Rebeccala," Aunt Millie sat on the edge of my bed. "I think we need to talk."
I squeezed my eyes tight. I pressed the lids together until I saw spots. I didnít want to cry. But the tears came anyway.
She took me in her arms and rubbed the back of my head and then my back as I sobbed uncontrollably.
"Oh, Sweetie" she whispered.
"You lied to me!" I blurted out. "You said weíd go to Europe, just you and me, when I turned sixteen. Remember?"
"Of course I remember. But things change sometimes."
"But what about all your talk about not needing anyone? How marriage wasnít for you. You said you hate to be tied down to anything. Thatís why you never plan ahead. Just get up and go. And thatís how I am too. Because of you." The words spilled over themselves as fast as my tears.
"Rebeccala," she said again. "I did want all those things. And I still do. But after meeting Clark, well, now I want to do them with him."
I turned my face away. "But he doesnít even like to read," I whined.
"That doesnít make him a terrible person," she answered.
"You wonít be free," I said.
"Sweetie, I can be married and still be who I am."
"Yeah, sure," I answered. Seeing my motherís signature on my report card. Mrs. Steven Feldman.
"Youíd like Clark, Honey. If you give him a chance. Heís a wonderful man."
Wonderful? Aunt Millie never used that word. It was too plain for her, too white-washed.
"Heís boring," I said.
"Not to me."
I looked over at my corkboard, at the scraps of Europe still hanging on.
"Youíll see," she said. "Youíll meet someone someday." She stroked my back.
How could she be saying this? How could she have changed so drastically? Or had she wanted this all along and had been lying to me? That I could not believe.
We sat for a while, each inside our silent worlds. A few times she started a conversation. She asked about my writing and what books I was reading. I couldnít bring myself to answer as though nothing had changed, when everything had.
"You want some hot chocolate?" she asked.
I didnít really, but I said okay. I was grasping to hold on to whatever time I had left with Aunt Millie. Before she became Mrs. Clark. And I suppose I was trying to make sense of it all.
While my aunt measured the milk into a pot, I opened up a package of Van De Kamps chocolate chip cookies. Those were her favorite and I had made sure Mom bought three boxes when we went to the market last week.
A cool draft blew into the kitchen from the laundry room. I tucked my feet up under my nightgown.
"What are you guys doing?" Rachel asked coming into the kitchen.
"Having a woman to woman talk," Aunt Millie said, smiling at me.
"Yeah, itís great being a woman, isnít it?" Rachel said. "Everyone should get married and have children. Iím going to have six kids."
"Well, you have to get your period first," I teased.
"Are you going to wear a white dress?" Rachel asked.
"No. Iím too old for that," Aunt Millie answered.
I had never heard my aunt refer to herself as old. I had never thought of her as any age, really. Iíd always just thought of her as Aunt Millie.
She put a cup of hot chocolate down in front of me. The steam swirled into the air. I leaned over and the warm, sweet smell rushed up my nose.
I felt Aunt Millie watching me and glanced up.
"What?" I said. Maybe she had come to her senses.
Before she could answer we heard Clark call her from the bedroom.
"Iíll be right back," she said, standing up. She kissed me on the cheek and disappeared down the hallway.
She didnít come right back. I knew she wouldnít. But it didnít matter. The Aunt Millie I knew would never be back.
They left the next day. As the rented Cadillac backed slowly out of the driveway, I watched Aunt Millieís polished nails waving through the still air. I felt the goodbye of her hands long after they had disappeared from sight.
Aunt Millie wrote often after that summer. I kept her letters in a shoebox with my love beads and peace symbols. But I didnít write back until it was too late.
My wedding invitation was found in her mailbox after the accident. It happened in Europe and nobody ever gave us all the details.
I know she was with me in the synagogue on my wedding day. I felt her hand on my shoulder, when Alan stomped on the wine glass. And sometimes I hear her voice while Iím out in the garden or reading a good book.
I have two wonderful children. A boy and a girl. My daughter wants to grow up to be just like her Aunt Rachel. She wants to graduate college, travel and take on odd jobs. She wants to be a free spirit.
But after all, sheís only thirteen. And as Aunt Millie said years ago - things change.