Thursday, February 14, 2013

our strange addictions: tales from a family of battle-losers and fingernail-keepers

1. then

For most of my childhood, my Aunt Vanessa lived in Ferndale, a charming Victorian town in Humboldt County. It was damp and everything there smelled like mold, but in a comforting sort of way. At the center of town was an old-timey general store called the Mercantile. Downstairs you could buy jeans or cowboy boots. Upstairs was a museum where you could see the tiny satin slippers of Chinese women with bound feet. On an unreachable mezzanine was a display of antique rocking horses with tangled hair and haunted eyes. When Cathy and I rented The Ring in the haunted days after my mom died, we looked at each other when a lonely rocking horse appeared in a barn loft onscreen and said, “The Mercantile.” How did the filmmakers know?

There was a Mexican restaurant called, for some reason, the Ivanhoe. The upstairs was roped off because there’d been a fire. This idea—of a place half occupied, half ruined—delighted me and found its way into Lilac Mines.

Ferndale: adorable, a liiiiittle musty.
According to conventional family wisdom, Aunt Vanessa had been the wild, popular one in high school. My mom had been quiet and studious. Vanessa had gotten pregnant as a teenager, gone on to marry four times, worked all kinds of jobs. She got in feuds with her crazy pot-growing neighbors. She had horses and mules and goats and a peacock. She once built a tiny town for the latter to stomp around in like Godzilla. Vanessa made for great stories, but I related to—and sort of sided with—my mom. Back then I took sides.

When my mom got sick, Vanessa made numerous trips down the coast. She was a natural caretaker, quick with a cup of ice chips or a cool rag. She was happy to shop for bargains at Pic N Save or just hang out at the foot of my mom’s bed, talking and being with her big sister.

When my mom got really sick—the deathwatch none of us would quite name as such—Aunt Vanessa was all tears and fluttering hands and aggressive optimism. They gave my mom some kind of medication that probably fell into the “make her comfortable” category, but Vanessa said she knew someone else who’d taken it and “really rallied.”

When my mom did not rally, Vanessa was sobs and hugs and declarations of love. It wasn’t my style, not back then. I clenched my fists and willed myself not to run to the bluffs surrounding the church where we had the memorial service.

2. now

It had been six years since Vanessa’s last visit. My dad steadfastly refused to let us open most of the Ferndale-scented presents she’d mailed during those years, and he hadn’t mailed any of ours for her, because we were going to do this in person, dammit. 

As soon as I saw her last Tuesday night, I realized that my wariness about the popular girl who had once teased my mom about her weight had given way to unabashed love.

Like anyone in her sixties who was lusted after in high school—who looked like Sophia Loren with a more delicate nose—the first words out of her mouth were all about how she wasn’t as thin as she wanted to be and didn’t want any photos of herself on Facebook other than the existing glamor shot, taken on an Alaskan cruise a few years ago. But she looked even better than that picture: red-brown hair in a ponytail, silver scarab necklace from my mom, bright teeth and throaty, self-deprecating laugh.

L-R: AK, Baldy, my mom's awesome cousin Adrienne, Aunt Vanessa.
Over burritos and tostadas at Leo’s, Vanessa told us stories from high school: how she almost never went on Mondays; how one Monday when she did, hot football guy Dick Whitney walked her to class; how her algebra class broke into applause and she was so embarrassed she never went back.

I started to see Vanessa through her own eyes: social and boy-crazy, yes, but no more secure than my mom had been. She was someone who’d worn her heart on her sleeve. She’d cried when other kids had gotten punished. She’d defended the librarian with the rubber arm who’d let her take refuge in the library with a fraudulent hall pass.

We went back to Cathy’s house to open gifts. Unlike most gift-opening experiences, what was inside was a mystery to all parties.

“Let’s hope it’s not Loleta cheese,” Vanessa laughed, referring to her current town’s primary export.

We did find a few artifacts: vegetarian cookbooks bookmarked with receipts from the now-defunct Borders, crumbly coffee grounds that didn’t smell like coffee. My dad gave Vanessa a framed picture of a bird he’d found in our attic, because Vanessa and her husband Linus had a parrot named Baby and loved birds. Then my dad realized that, actually, Vanessa had drawn that bird.

“I don’t remember that!” she exclaimed. The forgetful leading the forgetful.

Vanessa was giddy, remembering songs she’d written: “‘Me and My Kindle’ to the tune of ‘Me and My Shadow.’ Oh, and I have to send you the lyrics to ‘Thanks for the Mammaries,’ which I sang to my doctor when he did my lumpectomy. He didn’t think it was very funny.”

She got several years worth of cards that included photos of teddy bears my dad had donated to the H.A.L.O. Foundation, which gave them to sick kids in the hospital.

“Those kids are grown up by now,” I joked.

Then Vanessa read the card: “‘…donates teddy bears to children with terminal diagnoses.’”

“Oh. I guess those kids aren’t grown up now....”

Dr. Bear specializes in, um, palliative medicine.
We were all giddy and macabre. Vanessa shared other family stories, which I jotted down in my little blue notebook as fast as I could: how her mother’s side of the family had traveled west in a covered wagon and saved a woven blanket that my sister and I both have framed pieces of: “They were usually used to bury the dead,” Vanessa said, “but our family kept ours, which tells you how thrifty we were.”

Also kept: someone’s finger, which had been sliced off by a wagon wheel while fleeing an Indian attack, and her grandmother’s fingernails, which lived in a jar in the china cabinet. All the kids had loved visiting that gruesome china cabinet, which was also home to “the [N-word] whip.”

Until then, I’d always enjoyed the notion that my family tree hadn’t included any slave owners: My mom’s side lived in the north, and my dad’s was busy getting persecuted by Jew-haters in Europe during slavery times. But no, Vanessa confirmed, the Pope side of the family—her mother’s people—owned slaves.

But she showed us a picture of General John Pope who, at least, had fought in the Union army. “He was famous for losing the battle of Bull Run,” she said. I felt a strange surge of family pride.


Claire said...

Never underestimate the power of a good teddy bear. I admit I haven't seen many I liked in recent years; they all look sad. They are softer though.

My family is from Virginia, so it's pretty likely someone owned slaves. Best case would be they were too poor to own any.

Cheryl said...

Fingers crossed for poverty!

Anonymous said...

I love this post. JJD

Cheryl said...

Thanks! I loved crafting and pizza-eating with you and Joel! :-)