Six weeks after my father’s military funeral, I called his only
brother, my Uncle Bob, to tell him that life had come even
further apart. My mother was in jail for driving drunk again
without a license. There wasn’t much money for food, and
my two younger sisters and I weren’t sure what to do with our
little brother while we were in school. I cupped my seventeenyear-
old hand around the phone’s mouthpiece and whispered
He flew out the next day and went directly from the airport to the social worker’s office where he sorted through letters and forms in regard to our case. The Department of Children and Family Services had charged my mother with the neglect of minor children and was asked by the local State’s Attorney to represent the children’s interest. The social worker wasn’t sure what the court would do, though it didn’t look good, she told my uncle. He stood up and said he needed to make a phone call to his wife to discuss the situation with her.
Bring them home, she answered.
That spring my two adolescent sisters and five-year-old brother and I met Aunt Val at the Newark Airport. We barely knew her; we weren’t even related by blood. Though I felt shy, I also felt grateful. From the moment I saw her I appreciated that someone on this earth had noticed us, had actually stood up, raised her hand and said I will take care of these children. They can count on me.
She stood at the gate full of smiles and an aura of excited energy. Everything about her was perfect: her short styled blond hair, her white crisp blouse, her beautiful lean body. The moment she saw us, her arms angled wide like she wanted to lock them around all four of us. Her two daughters, ages six and eight, peered out shyly from behind her like baby chicks. I couldn’t imagine the permanent inclusion of them in my life just yet, nor could I fathom the bigger story we made: families change shape because of war.
To say it was instant comfort is to deny what we had left behind, or to suggest that we would ever leave our pasts out of the picture. My siblings and I carried with us the guilt of leaving our mother as if we were the ones who abandoned her, and the grief of losing a father. Already a divided loyalty hung in the air—how would or should we act with a replacement mother and father? Twenty-nine year old Aunt Val had to leave the contours of young motherhood, a predictable life on a quiet suburban street and the hope of having more of her own babies. My cousins had to give up their bedrooms and relinquish the full attention of their parents. With that tucked deep within us, we gathered our bags, and like a line of chicks following that mother hen, we headed off to the parked car.
It’s the chatter I remember from that first day: the questions, half-starts with partial answers, the giggles and the constant interruption of six nervous children. Then came the quiet in between that arrived when I wasn’t sure whether to turn around and run back, or to follow this beautiful woman I barely knew. Halfway through the airport Aunt Val decided we needed bathing suits for the upcoming weekend at the beach. That wonderful anticipation of water and fun focused our thoughts on one goal as we walked down the long corridors, still hearing the noise of takeoffs and landings.
We stopped at Sears and Roebuck, and in an odd way, that store with its florescent lights and racks of clothes, became the bridge from one world to another. The shopping for size and color and what do you think of this one and how much does it cost was the first page of our new family’s album. Back in the car, bathing suits in bag, we talked about dinner, who would sleep where, and what time Uncle Bob was expected home from work. We scrunched into the car with my brother on my lap, my cousins in the front seat, and my sisters leaning into each other in the backseat. Aunt Val rolled down the window and paid the tolls on the turnpike.
The specific memory of pulling into the driveway and then bringing our suitcases into a small quaint house has faded. Though I recall still the ache of leaving my mother behind surfacing as we got out of the car and walked the curved brick path to the back door. Then my eyes made a quick calculation of my aunt’s efficiency as I began the transition to a new life. I saw the place configured with pachysandra along the patio, a swing set in the backyard, and Snowflake the cat sunning herself in the grass. I felt the edges of two worlds colliding when I walked into the clean kitchen and saw only four chairs around the table. My eager cousins took me by the hand and led me into the living room, pausing at the window to look into the backyard.
“Does everyone like lasagna?” my aunt called from the kitchen.
If memory has a season, then that summer was one of water and smells. We went every day to the manmade San Jacinto beach, a small lake within walking distance where the fresh smells of suntan lotion and French fries covered over any sadness I felt otherwise. The summer aromas blurred the edge of loss and in spite of my grief, I relaxed for the first time in many years. On weekends we sometimes drove to the New Jersey shore with all six children taking various positions in the car to make it possible. We sensed the suggestion of family fun as we rolled down the windows to let in the smell of salty sea air.
Other weekends we headed north to the Catskill Mountains where we camped alongside Hemlock Lake in my father’s old musty army tents under sweet smelling pines and hemlocks. The recollection of another family in another time filtered through the pores of canvas like the raindrops did whenever anyone touched the sides. Instantly, I could smell my mother’s Chanel No. 5 as I thought of her unfolding our army sleeping bags outside Avignon, France, or on a long, sandy beach in Barcelona when we had been stationed in Germany.
But each time these memories surfaced, the smell of wet clothes from six children or my aunt’s kielbasa on the grill brought me back to the present of my life. My parents were no longer part of the picture—the details of living got in the way. Where did you pack the paper towels? Could you please find some more kindling for the fire? Who wants to go fishing? Who did the dishes last?
Back on Dale Avenue, the smell of refinished furniture filled the driveway while Aunt Val stripped and polished old pieces she’d found at household sales. Already, she anticipated how much furniture we’d need for the house she and Uncle Bob were having built to accommodate our new family. I could see her out the kitchen window as I did dishes. She bent over a table and rubbed off the varnish, trying her best to sand down the stains of a previous life. Afterwards she’d stand back to see if she’d gotten out all the crinkles. She wore rubber gloves and used steel wool and Zip-Strip and tung oil and walnut stain and anything else that would do the trick. In between, she calculated how big a pan she’d need to scramble enough eggs for a family of eight, what size salad bowl she should get, how many leaves would the dining room table require? How many new laundry baskets should she buy?
All of us, it seemed, were on our best behavior, committed to becoming a family—though I never talked to my sisters or cousins about this. Instead, I let the repetitive rhythm of our days become the thread that bound us: the dishes in the sink, the dishes dried and put away; the laundry carried down to the basement, the laundry carried upstairs; the groceries brought in, the garbage taken out. The sun came up every morning regardless of how we felt or how many lives the war continued to end. Though the television news was on, we didn’t connect our daily lives to the bigger picture of war. Where we lived, it was quiet. No one talked about my father’s black body bag or the late night sorrows of loss. While a brute wind of history blew around us, my cousins and siblings and I weeded the garden, folded towels, and filled an entire pew at church.
Sunday morning we piled into an old Ford station wagon and waited for Aunt Val. Eventually she came flying out the door looking like a model headed for New York, and each time I wished I could look like her with her shoes matching her purse, her make-up and hair perfectly done. “We’re going to be late, Chicken,” Uncle Bob said like a broken record. She never seemed bothered by that and she never did apologize. When we finally walked down the church aisle, heads turned to watch my beautiful aunt followed by a line of six children.
She had become a devoted Presbyterian after converting from her Russian Orthodox background when she married my uncle, much to her mother’s dismay. She grew up first in Brooklyn, and then New Jersey, in a life filled with saints, icons, and priests in black robes and dangling crosses. She knew about bulb shaped church domes and ornate statues of Saint Mary. She knew about martyrs. Once she told me she had always hoped to be a martyr, someone who merited grace. In a rare moment of disclosure, she said she hoped she could be one by taking us in, but what had happened, she continued, was that she had received far more than she gave. She hoped if we remembered nothing else someday, that we would always know that. You should never feel like a burden because I can’t imagine life without you.
But I did feel like a burden when she gathered all the loose things we’d left around the house and placed them on top of the dining room table in a big pile—the likes of stuffed animals and school notebooks and backpacks and sneakers from six children. She hung a sign from the chandelier that said there would be no dinner without any cleaning, signed The Black Hand. Out came the vacuum cleaner, dust mop, and dish rag. I assigned tasks to the little ones who never seemed to understand the importance of dinner.
I felt caught between the role of daughter and niece—I could never be my aunt’s daughter, and though I missed my mother terribly, part of me longed to be. We were only twelve years apart, could have been sisters, really. I didn’t want to explain to my friends why the woman who answered the door was too young to be my mother, or that she was my aunt only by the fate of marriage. I didn’t want to tell anyone why I’d come to New Jersey in the first place, how my father had been killed in a war none of us spoke about, or why I wasn’t with my real mother. The right words escaped me.
Some hot afternoons when I wasn’t swimming at San Jacinto, I’d go into my aunt and uncle’s air-conditioned bedroom and sit at her make-up table to sort through her crèmes and lipsticks. Unlike my mother, who carried her make-up in a vinyl purse, my aunt had drawers filled with these items I thought of as playthings. A curling iron, hot rollers, mounds of costume jewelry, and many colors of eye shadow made me feel like a child in a playroom, like a girl figuring out what it means to be a woman.
Other afternoons she invited me to watch soap operas as we folded laundry and matched socks on the living room carpet. As shallow as the stories were, I loved these moments. I felt part sister, part daughter as we sat there on our knees with summer breezes coming in the window. Together we got lost in the details of other people’s lives in As the World Turns and forgot that we were part of a story ourselves, a narrative not recorded on the news, an intangible tale of war.
Surely, like the soap operas suggested, mysteries abounded in that house on Dale Avenue. Most were as silent as my father’s army uniforms in the attic. I could not feel my cousins’ disorientations or their own private adjustments to change. I could not grasp the manic laughs delighting one moment over their permanent playmates, and the next moment their tears over the forced sharing of toys and space. I could not know that the muffled voices from my aunt and uncle’s bedroom were voices as insecure as mine. I could not yet see the selfsacrifice of my aunt. I was too busy pushing back my own dark spaces.
I suspected that she was angry with my father who abandoned his children for war. Angry with my mother for her failures. Though I don’t remember her ever saying that out loud, I saw her eyes roll when my father’s name was mentioned as if to say The hero couldn’t even take care of his family. Look what he did.
The situation worsened by the sometimes daily phone calls from her mother who asked my aunt why she needed to take care of four children not your own. I only heard snippets of these phone conversations, but I could see the impact they had on my aunt as she sat on the verge of tears at the kitchen table. And your girls, her mother continued, what’s to become of them with all those people in your house?
If these conversations made my aunt question her decision, she never let on. Decades later when I asked her about her mother’s displeasure, she said it was probably because her mother, as a child, had lived with DP’s in her house for years after the war.
DP’s? I asked.
Oh, you know—displaced persons from war.
Even as the history of war repeated itself, maybe what my aunt found in taking care of four children not her own was her salvation. St. Augustine wrote in the first century to counteract the belief that only the cult of martyrs merited grace, that the same freely given love that blazed out of these church martyrs still worked in the unspectacular, but no less ordinary. He wanted to draw upon this sense to fill the lives of humble, workaday Christians. God is not pleased only with the spurting of blood,he wrote. He has many martyrs in secret. Maybe in that way grace is a kind of vocation, some individual virtue of moral strength seemingly not thought about much in this century. Maybe we were my aunt’s transcendence. It was as if in the bigger family she could lose herself in the service of propriety, perhaps much like my father had done in the military or her grandparents had done after World War II.
What enabled her to do what she felt called to do was based on paradox: surrender so that you can be free. My aunt yielded herself for the sake of family, to outdo war and its sorrows—to give grace to my father giving up his own life so others could live. To embrace my mother’s children. Thus, my aunt allowed a kind of charity to live among us like a responsive tenderness, and an urgent mercy circling the narrative of our lives. No prizes. No explanation. No other solutions.
A memory: It is the end of August, evening, and soon it will be time to come in for a late dinner Aunt Val is preparing. I have lived in this house for over two months now. I sit alone on the backyard swing by a clump of maple trees that mark the end of the property. The cat sleeps curled near the holly bush by the driveway, and the sprinkler waters the sweet smelling grass along the patio. My toes point up to the sky every time the swing moves forward in the air, and then I fold my legs backward to pump myself forward. The swing and I rise higher with each back and forth movement. Though the land no longer looks like another country, I have not erased the lines between one life and the other. The sky turns its summer shade of pink with streaks of lavender. The daylight fades into dusk. Someone turns on the lights in the dining room, though I don’t go in just yet. I keep my legs pumping, backwards and then forward. In the mercy of the warm summer air, the cicadas begin their evening song.