When you hear that your aunt has passed, cry. Then, enlist the help of an organizer and a maid. Bring these two wonders in a red Toyota to your aunt’s seaside abode. House them in the first floor parlor and make sure you sleep upstairs in the guest room facing the sea. Let them know that your aunt was a great woman.
(Did I tell you that Aunt Estelle had a loud laugh and petite feet? That she won the hearts of many with her sweet songs of love and loss and her donations to orphaned children?)
When you open the lady’s closets and drawers, clap. Know that her hats, gloves and shoes made her the adored Minnie Mouse of the fashion world. Devise a game plan, a strategy you learned as a boy. Admire her gloves and pack each pair in tissue. Note how they are crocodile-embossed, rabbit cuffed, fox sheared, and mink suede. Adore your aunt’s handbags. Touch the red leather, the distressed city sack, the shiny python tote and the snake clutch. Do not let on that you are horrified by her repeated animal and reptile killings.
(Did I tell you that Estelle never married? That her father, rich from his steel companies, moved his long hands over her small breasts— that she went off to boarding school at twelve and never came back?)
As you enter the downstairs hallway, stand tall and applaud the lady’s fifty pairs of boots. Know that her daily choices were driven by this burning question-- How many ways can you do black? Try her buckle-suede shorties on your toes and peer into their tiger-print insides. Put your arms in her wildcat-lined knee highs. Stroke the ostrich feathers stitched into her dark mid-calf leather, thick-heeled boots. Be aware that the latter are the boots du jour in Manhattan.
Survey the L-shaped living room—the cherry bookcases and Queen Anne desk, the grand skylight and the potted palms. Flick on Ravel’s Bolero. Think of dancing with your aunt as a teenager with hands held high as she led you in a toe-touch turnaround. Barely 5’ 2,” Aunt Estelle had full dark hair, which she began dyeing at 35, a fleshy nose and supple arms. Her painted toes peeked out from her pearl-studded mesh booties. And you, at 5’ 11,” smiled down at her with a boyish mustache. Remember how the music, rich with flutes, clarinets and a bassoon, built to a long crescendo that made you giddy.
(Did I tell you that Aunt Estelle’s mother fell into the sea one winter’s day? Her shoes hit ice on the beach’s breakwater. Estelle never knew if her mother protested or if she slipped down in one motion, eager to die.)
As the music fades, begin to pack. Ask the organizer to line up the bubble wrap, tape and boxes. Remove the finial and shade from the brass lamp and recall the fine light it shed on a spring night. You stood by your aunt’s open window, as a young man of twenty, and heard her say “no” to the only lover who dared to propose. Numbness crept into his blue-gray eyes as he bent forward questioning her very being and then drove off enraged in his BMW.
You sat by your aunt, sharing a snifter of brandy, as she confided in you about her father’s mean caresses. She did not trust any man to respect her body and fortune. “And I don’t mean you,” she said. “You are my real family. The kindest person I know.” Reflect how her bold words freed you to share your own wounds. How you told her you felt lonely and disliked by your dad. From that day on, she asked you to love her belongings and to give them away only as her will directed.
Prepare to spend a fitful night missing your aunt. After the assistants go to bed, read her letters to editors about taste and culture. Thumb through the recipes she marked but never had time to make. Relish your renovations to her seaside home—the long windows, trellis and patio—and how she turned to you, the frustrated young architect, for advice. How she declared herself to be your first and best client. Consider her glee, years later, when you started a silly store called “Things,” named after The Museum of Things in York, England. Rejoice how she visited you that summer in Boston as lamps glowed on Charles Street and she stepped down into your crowded space with its blue bottles, red porcelain roosters, Scrabble letters and refurbished typewriters bought as toys for daughters’ sweet sixteen parties. Toast her pluck.
(Did I tell you that Aunt Estelle, who lost her cabaret voice and began reading Russian novels to the blind, asked me to sell her emeralds to raise money for orphaned boys, abused girls and crippled seniors?)
At breakfast, ask the organizer to pack each item safely and securely. Tell the maid to dust her books and to load them upright into boxes with open edges and bound ends alternating. Then crouch alone to fill in the small spaces with Estelle’s notebooks and doodles of peacocks and butterflies, with her bookmarks of embossed leather, of pressed purple asters and bright ribbons stitched with silver charms. Feel your throat constrict. Take a tall drink mid-afternoon, then smell the sea air that floats to your aunt’s wrought-iron balcony.
(Did I tell you that Aunt Estelle hated hearses? That she sold her Cadillac on a whim and gave her money to the gay men’s hotline? That she knew from middle school that I was a member of that church. That she sensed my shy self-doubt and spoke to my parents, permission granted, on my behalf. That she helped me enroll in a liberal school.)
As evening arrives, eat a quiet dinner on the porch. Give your helpers a night off. Feel honored that only you were summoned, from Europe, to your aunt’s bedside to hold her hand, read her poetry and celebrate her leopard and velvet scarves, gauzy wraps and lace shawls studded with gold. Envision her pale face, the skin pulled taut as she swallowed Demerol for pain and rested her cool, blue-veined hand in your warmer one and said without words, thank you for tending to the leavings of my life. Recall your desire to faint.
Nearing the end of your journey, review your checklists often and calm your busy mind. Put your feet on the ottoman and conjure up that Christmas in Manhattan a decade ago when Aunt Estelle steered you into a department store to buy the perfect gift for your now-gone lover. She pointed to a blue cashmere crew neck and offered to treat. Tickled, you accepted. As she paid, she forgot her manners. “For your new lover—he’s cultured, not cloistered like the boy before.” Your jaw shut. You hid your hurt by buying her a costly black cloche hat with a jeweled broach.
(Did I tell you that Aunt Estelle grew more anxious as she aged? That she wanted everything in order, every item to have a plan. That her Art Deco hatpins, displayed as striking bouquets in glass vases, had to be donated to the American Hatpin Society. That her Baldwin piano had to be shipped to The London School for the Blind and her classical sheet music sent to Julliard. That, growing weaker, she pointed from her daybed in the living room and commanded, “Tell the staff that you’re in charge when I’m gone.”)
Just when you are about to scream from work overload, put down your lined pad. Ask the movers from town to come right away to push boxes, trunks and suitcases out of the living room and down the path. Order up seven limousines to receive them. Listen to the working men grunt and sweat. Look subdued when they lift the final item into the air.
As you wave the last box and the last car into the narrow streets, let the organizer who knew Estelle cry in the kitchen and the maid drop on Estelle’s quilted bed to sleep. Leave them each a Godiva Chocolate Bliss basket as a token of your thanks. Open your arms and bow to the sea. Sit on the stone wall and drink your champagne. Understand that you will inherit significant money and will use it to start a foundation to honor your aunt. Know that you will appoint the board and design the new building. And, as your aunt dances above you in the night sky, pray that she approves.