Loving Aunt Gracie

Until my ninth summer I loved Aunt Gracie uncritically, passionately, from the tip of her high-piled orange hair down to the rhinestone bracelet encircling her slim ankle. I would have been even more impressed had I known that the stunning color was the result of brown hair bleached blond, then hennaed until it seemed her whole head was gloriously on fire. Her eyes, with the black lashes she carefully pasted on, and the royal blue painted lovingly over each lid, thrilled me more than any movie star’s. Aunt Gracie also drew beautiful wine-red circles on her cheeks and outlined her eyebrows with a thick black pencil. I believed that my extraordinary aunt was one of a chosen few born without fuzzy eyebrow hairs, and I thought everyone else looked colorless and sickly in comparison.

When we’d go for a walk for a chocolate soda, or a Coke, or a new lipstick, I would skip beside her, proudly conscious of heads swiveling in our direction, of stifled gasps of admiration and mouths falling open in envy. It was delicious knowing my aunt was the most beautiful, the most kind, the most talented woman in the whole world. I would add a silent parenthesis of apology, “Except for my mother, of course.” My mother was wonderful, too, in her soft way, but she had to work during the day, and Aunt Gracie worked at night. My mother said she was a dancer on Broadway and although I begged to be allowed to see her perform, my pleas fell on reddened ears.

“Perform,” my grandmother snorted. “Parade’s more like it.”

“Not my niece.” One of my bachelor uncles would pound on the table.

“But it’s all so pretty, so shiny,” Aunt Gracie would say in a bewildered tone. She loved her “career.”

“It’s like a fairyland, honey,” she often said to me. “And we wear the most beautiful things. Long, silk skirts, and great big hats with flowers, and lights all shining on us, and music soaring all around. The loveliest thing in the world. And I have six different costumes every show. Six of them! One time I had eight, and one of them was a little bitty thing with sequins.” Her eyes would glow even bluer as she spoke, and she’d smooth her dress, or pat a curl in place, and I would ache to see it all—to touch the silky dresses and rub my cheek in the furry trims, as Aunt Gracie said she did.

But all I ever got for my tears and pleadings were a shush from my mother and a bedtime story from Aunt Gracie before she had to leave. I loved to watch her long, crayon-red fingernails turn the pages. The rest of her hands, arms and legs were pure white, and she wore dazzling dresses of purple and bright green, and red and black, which she assured me were very much like her costumes in the show. Her bracelets and necklaces jingled and jangled until, overcome with ecstasy, I would throw myself on her, squeezing the soft body and gasping in the wonderful scents of perfume, power and magical creamy things I loved to know about.

“Oh, Aunt Gracie, will I be like you?” I asked.

“You’ll be much, much better,” she whispered back.

“Will I ever be as pretty?”

“Much, much prettier.”

“Will I smell as good?”

“Much, much sweeter.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I love you,” she always said.

That day at the beach began just like our other jaunts. As usual, Aunt Gracie broke a date when I expressed my desire to go the first warm Saturday. I hardly needed more than a tear or two, and maybe one dry sob, before she was on the phone to Mike, or Joe, or Leonard. Sometimes one of them went with us, which I disliked except for the presents her beaus always brought me. The same man rarely offered to accompany us twice. I could hear Howard, this time, yell over the phone, and I could see Aunt Gracie’s lip tremble. Her lip always trembled whenever someone raised his voice to her, which I had guess was what the family meant when they’d whisper, thinking me asleep, that she was just like a child.

I’d hear my uncle grumble, “It’s impossible anyone could be so guileless, so naïve—anyone except my sister!”

My mother would answer in her soothing way, “Gracie was always like this. And always will be. She thinks she’s surrounded by glamour at that place. She’s a baby—a big, beautiful, bouncy baby. She and Nina adore each other. They speak the same language.”

I was confused, particularly about Aunt Gracie and I both speaking English, but watching her on the phone, I had to admit she did sound like a baby.

“How can you be so cruel,” Aunt Gracie’s voice quavered. “The poor, fatherless child, just a tiny baby, and she wants only a few hours of fun.” Then her voice got angrier, and she finally stamped her high-heeled foot, as I was not allowed to do, and cried, “Well, I’m very glad to know how you feel and believe me, I’d never dream of going out with a man who hates helpless little children.”

She slammed down the receiver, then gave me a hug, telling me we were going, and my private sun shone warm and safe as ever.

We always wore our bathing suits under our clothing to save time so we could go directly to the beach and find a good spot, instead of first undressing in the wooden stalls. We chose a clear circle of sand for our blankets, and my pail and shovel and beach ball, and Aunt Gracie’s satchel that held tantalizing bottles with thick and thin creams, and little packets of eyelashes, and big and little brushes for hair, eyebrows, and colors for her skin. We sat very far back from the ocean. Once, Aunt Gracie had stood near the water’s edge, and when she felt the sand shift beneath her feet, she had screamed the tide was carrying her out and fainted. Luckily the family was there and calmed her when she woke up and screamed to get away from the water. I wasn’t afraid of the water, but I never went near it when I was alone with my aunt. I understood what it was like to be afraid of things like the dark and what was under the bed.

I pulled off my sunsuit and waited for Aunt Gracie to slip out of her skirt and blouse so I could bury her under pails full of sand. When her skirt fell to her ankles, an unfamiliar feeling froze me to the point of pain. All I could see were acres and acres of pure white skin. She mistook my open-mouthed horror for admiration and patted her bare stomach.

“How do you like it?” She smiled. “I wear it in a bathing scene at the theater, and I knew it would be perfect here, too. Now I can get a really good tan. Come—hand Aunt Gracie that bottle in there.”

I was rooted to each grain of hot sand beneath me. I felt as if I was simultaneously falling and doomed to stand there forever. Over Aunt Gracie’s shoulder I could see other women in two-piece suits, but the pieces were much larger than Aunt Gracie’s. Then I saw their faces and the faces of the men nearby. I heard the stifled gasps and saw strange smiles. I felt heads turning on either side of me, but my own neck was rigid.

“Darling, what’s wrong? You’re white. Here, sit next to me.” She patted the space on the blanket, leaning forward. Her top was not like the tops of the other women. I started to shake.

“I’m going to throw up,” I said.

Aunt Gracie didn’t waste time gathering our things together. She rushed me home as if our lives were in danger, which was her reaction to any illness. I refused her fluttering hands and didn’t say another word until we reached home. My mother was there, and I ran into her arms. I cried and sobbed and raged, but I wouldn’t talk. When she asked me what happened, I could only shake my head. Finally she put me to bed.

“Don’t let Aunt Gracie in,” I whispered. I felt my face burn and turned to the wall. I thought I would be sick all over again.

My mother remained calm. “All right,” she said, “You can see her in the morning.”

“No!” I shouted. Then muffling it into my pillow, “No.” I cried myself to sleep.

Aunt Gracie stayed home from her beloved job that night. No one could convince her that I was all right. She kept a vigil outside my door, sitting with the chair sideways so that when I padded out of my room in the morning, I fell into her lap. She gathered me into her arms and started smoothing my hair, murmuring softly. I tore away and ran into the bathroom, locking the door. When I heard her run to my mother, screaming, “The baby is sick again. Call the doctor!” I ran back into my room.

My mother made me get dressed. She only said, “You can’t stay in your room forever. You’re a big girl now.” She looked as if she wanted to say more, her eyes searching my face for help, but she evidently found none.

I refused to accompany Aunt Gracie to the store after breakfast, but I watched her through the window. Soon I saw her returning. Her hips undulating, her bracelets jangling harshly in the soft, morning air, her glaring hair seemingly piled even higher because she always held her head so straight, as if a basket of fruit was balanced precariously there. I could see neighbors turn to stare at the spiky eyelashes, the brilliant blue eyelids, the strange purplish cheeks. Near our house she glanced up and saw me. Her lips widened, and she walked to the window holding up a dripping paper bag.

Her generously lipsticked mouth framed the words, “Ice cream.” She raised her inverted-V eyebrows. “Want some?”

I turned slightly but watched her from the corner of my eye. I saw her hand press her throat as she waited, looking up at me. Her eyes had shadows beneath, and I saw her lower lip tremble and then catch between her teeth. A little ice cream trickled down from the bag she was holding aloft. A puff of wind blew her skirt and drew my attention to the rhinestone ankle bracelet. I looked quickly back to her face. She blinked rapidly and started to lower her arm, her bright head drooping on her neck. A sob escaped me, and suddenly I ran down the stairs, out the door and into her arms.

“I love you,” I cried. “Believe me, Aunt Gracie, I do love you.”

She hugged me to her. “I know, darling,” she said, patting my head. “I know you do.” But I couldn’t stop crying.

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