"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I Didn't Know It At The Time


Here is this week's prompt for class: I didn’t know it at the time, but everything was about to change.


“Darling, look at you! You look so much like Velma. You’re so beautiful. Joycie, you didn’t tell me how gorgeous she is.”

And so began my relationship with Aunt Bea.

My mom and I had just driven hours from Spokane to the home Bea shared with her daughter, Sal, just south of Seattle. After more than a decade of unexplained silence (how could women raised as sisters stop talking to each other?) Mommy had recently renewed her relationship with her aunt. The boys drove to Portland last summer to meet Bea and the cousins for the first time. This visit to their new home was my turn to get to know my mysterious aunt and my even more mysterious cousin.

Bea’s hug engulfed me with so much affection, energy, and fragrance I could hardly breathe. The fact that her perfume was the exact same Tabu that Mommy wore made my head spin a bit. I hugged her back hard, inhaling the scent – amber, nicotine and scotch - that would forever after put me right back in the center of Bea’s generous love.

She pushed me away, keeping a firm grip on my shoulders. “Let me really look at you. The last time I saw you you were a freckled little girl in braids and bangs and dirty clothes. Now you’re a stunning grown up young woman. You have your grandmother’s Cherokee looks. Don’t you think she looks just like the pictures of your mom, Joycie?”

I looked uneasily at my mom. Bea calls her Joycie? And she talks about my dead Grandma Velma as though it were no big deal? Mommy hated that nickname and refused to talk about her mother: the beautiful, mysterious Cherokee princess who died when Mommy was just a baby. Daring to breach either of those taboos could easily have triggered an angry freeze – would have for sure if I’d been on the other end of the conversation. She shocked me by laughing at Bea and agreeing with her.

Really ? I wanted to say and didn’t. You always told me I look more like you, which is so not true. I’m not prune-skinned with poor fitting dentures, too dark drawn-on eyebrows and over-dyed, shellacked beauty shop curls. I don’t have ugly whiskers sprouting from my witch chin, and I never will.

Tall, chesty, thin-hipped – Bea was the most elegant and sophisticated woman I’d ever met. It was love at first sight. Her hair was a soft wavy silver, styled in a chic cap that framed a beaming carefully made-up face. Her eyebrows were perfectly arched and just a couple of shades darker than her hair. Dressed in black pencil-thin slacks and a bright fuchsia silk top that matched her lipstick, her feet bare, she exuded sensuality that matched perfectly the beautiful lilac point Siamese cat twining around her ankles.

I am related to this woman. Finally I meet someone whose blood I share that I feel connected to and want to be like. I felt disloyal as this thought took up residence in my brain, but exhilarated with the relief of it as well.

Mommy and Bea were giddy in each other’s presence. Talking over each other. Lighting each other’s cigarettes. Drinking like I’d never seen grown women drink before. My mom, whom I’d never seen drunk one time in all my 21 years, became red-faced giggly with Bea. Usually eager to lose myself in the soothing comfort of any form of alcohol, this time I was more interested in watching the relationship between these two women unfold. I didn’t want to miss a moment of it, and sipped my wine with restraint.

Their sisterhood left me out, and after the newness of it wore off, left me feeling confused, alone, and jealous. I excused myself to go for a walk in the soft gray mist of the late fall Puget Sound evening. Before the door clicked shut behind me I heard Bea ask Mommy if I was okay, and my mom’s reply that I often went off by myself – that I was a very private person and it might take me some time to warm up to her.

You don’t understand me at all. I’m not okay, and you should know that. Once I was sure I was out of sight of Bea’s sweet little ranch house, I pulled a pack of Salem Lights out of my jacket pocket, lit one with shaking hands, and inhaled the smoke as though it might save my life. I’d only been smoking for a couple of weeks, so the first few drags made me so dizzy I had to stop walking until my body adjusted to the chemicals.

No one in my family knew I smoked. I wasn’t ready yet to tell them, in part for fear I’d be compared one more time to Mommy. The fact that I wouldn’t be caught dead smoking unfiltered Pall Malls wouldn’t have mattered to anyone making the comparison. I briefly considered switching to the elegant Virginia Slims Bea was smoking, but decided they fit her much better than they did me – at least for now.

I was curious if (or what) my cousin Sal smoked. All the way over from Spokane my mom talked about Bea’s daughter as though she were the daughter Mommy was meant to have, so much more like her in personality than I was – tomboyish, serious, mechanically inclined, athletic, pragmatic. I hoped Bea might return the favor and wish I were her daughter, the two of us sharing traits the exact opposite of Mommy’s list: feminine, happy, creative, sensual, romantic.

I wondered if, when we met for dinner later that night, I would like my oldest girl cousin on my mom’s side of the family. Would Sal’s two-year age advantage, her famous refusal to follow social conventions like being polite if it didn’t suit her, and our opposite personalities leave any room for us to like each other? Could I like someone so much like Mommy? Was it possible for her to like someone who had made such a mess of her life?

Photo from Flickr

13 comments:

Kathryn Magendie said...

You are a beautiful writer. . .

I have such an image of Bea - in those slim pants, those arched brows...

good work here, Deb

Janna Qualman said...

You know, of late there's been a lot revisited about my mom (also Deb) and her mother from over the years. We've said more than once that it may have been a better fit if Mom's aunt - with whom she's very close - had been her birth mother instead. Knowing what little I do about your past, and reading this bit about Bea [I'm assuming this passage is memoir], I wonder the same thing here.

Beautiful piece, haunting photo.

Jessica said...

Nice excerpt Deb. It drew me right in and I feel bad for the mom and the daughter.

Jerri said...

These pieces make me want to gather your young self in my arms and assure her that she is loved, that she is valued and wanted.

You are—and were—amazing, Deb: Smart and sensitive and perceptive. It's a privilege to read along as you explore these memories.

patricia said...

I like Bea. =)

Tabitha Bird said...

Lovely Deb, I like Bea :)

Amber said...

Can't wait to find out. You know how to pull us into your world.

:)

Ask Me Anything said...

I'm hooked. Please keep going with this.

Carrie Wilson Link said...

Love it up one side and down another!

JOY said...

What a wonderful story . . . I want it to go on. The characters are vivid. There's a bit of mystery and several elements I identify with. I never wanted to be like my mother. But I've never examined what woman relative I might have been more suited to - will think on that!

It is interesting how our children can have traits of our siblings. One of my sister's daughters reminds me of me in some ways.

Really enjoyed your writing!

The Things We Carried said...

This makes me want to know more!

Deb Cushman said...

Okay, now you've got me hooked, you can't leave me hanging! How did you and your cousin get along? What was she really like? Curious minds want to know.

Great visual images, as usual, Deb!

Jennifer said...

Hi Deb
So I found your blog. I love the voice. Looking forward to reading more!
Thanks for the encouragement. I'm happy to have found a writing friend! Best regards,
Jen Weprin