Dress your family in cor.., p.5
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, p.5David Sedaris
I hoped Aunt Monie might become a fixture, but she never visited again. A few times a year, most often on a Sunday afternoon, she would phone the house and ask for my mother. The two of them would talk for fifteen minutes or so, but it never seemed joyful, the way it did when my regular aunt called. Rather than laughing and using her free hand to roll her hair, my mother would compress a length of phone cord, holding it in her fist like a stack of coins. “Aunt Mildred!” she’d say. “How perfectly nice to hear from you.” Lean in to listen and she’d use her bare foot to push you away. “Nothing. I was just sitting here, looking out at the bird feeder. You like birds, don’t you? . . . No? Well, to tell you the truth, neither do I. Lou thinks they’re interesting but . . . exactly. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.”
It was like seeing her naked.
When I went to camp in Greece it was Aunt Monie who bought my ticket. It seems unlikely that she would have called specifically asking how she might brighten my life, so I imagine that my mother must have mentioned it, the way you do when you’re hoping the other person might offer a hand. “Lisa’s going but what with the cost, I’m afraid that David will just have to wait a few years. You what? Oh, Aunt Mildred, I couldn’t.”
But she could.
We learned that every night Aunt Monie ate a lamb chop for dinner. Every year she bought a new Cadillac. “Can you beat that?” my father said. “Puts maybe two thousand miles on it and then she runs out and gets another one. Probably pays full sticker price, if I know her.” It struck him as insane, but to the rest of us it was the very definition of class. This was what money bought: the freedom to shop without dicking for discounts and low-interest payment plans. My father replaced the station wagon and it took him months, hectoring the salesmen until they’d do anything to get rid of him. He demanded and received an extended lifetime warranty on the refrigerator, meaning, I guessed, that should it leak in the year 2020, he’d return from the grave and trade it in. Money to him meant individual dollars, slowly accumulating like drips from a spigot. To Aunt Monie it seemed more like an ocean. Spend a wave and before they could draw up a receipt, there was another one crashing onto the shore. This was the beauty of dividends.
In return for my trip to Greek camp, my mother demanded that I write her aunt a thank-you letter. It wasn’t much to ask, but try as I might, I could never get beyond the first sentence. I wanted to convince Aunt Monie that I was better than the rest of my family, that I understood a sticker-price Cadillac and a diet of lamb chops, but how to begin? I thought of my mother, flip-flopping on the topic of birds. On the phone you could backpedal and twist yourself to suit the other person’s opinions, but it was much harder in a letter, where your words were set in stone.
“Dear Aunt Mildred.” “My Dearest Aunt Mildred.” I wrote that Greece was great, and then I erased it, announcing that Greece was okay. This, I worried, might make me seem ungrateful, and so I started over. “Greece is ancient” seemed all right until I realized that, at the age of eighty-six, she was not much younger than the Temple of Delphi. “Greece is poor,” I wrote. “Greece is hot.” “Greece is interesting but probably not as interesting as Switzerland.” After ten tries I gave up. On returning to Raleigh, my mother took one of my souvenirs, a salt sculpture of a naked discus thrower, and mailed it off with a note she’d forced me to write at the kitchen table. “Dear Aunt Mildred. Thanks a lot!” It hardly established me as a diamond in the rough, but I told myself I’d send a proper letter the following week. The following week I put it off again, and on and on until it was too late.
A few months after my trip to Greece my mother, her sister, and their homosexual cousin visited Aunt Monie at her home in Gates Mills. I had heard about this cousin, favorably from my mother and despairingly from my father, who liked to relate the following story. “A group of us went to South Carolina. It was me, your mother, Joyce and Dick, and this cousin, this Philip, right. So we go for a swim in the ocean and . . .” At this point he would start to laugh. “We go for a swim and when we get back to the hotel Philip knocks on the door, asking if he can borrow, get this, asking if he can borrow your mother’s hair dryer.” That was it. End of story. He didn’t stick it up his ass or anything, just used it in the traditional manner, but still my father found it incredible. “I mean, a hair dryer! Can you beat that!”
I was obsessed with Philip, who managed a college library somewhere in the Midwest. “He’s a lot like you,” my mother would say. “A big reader. Loves books.” I was not a big reader but had managed to convince her otherwise. When asked what I’d been up to all afternoon, I never said, “Oh, masturbating,” or, “Imagining what my room might look like painted scarlet.” I’d say that I’d been reading, and she fell for it every time. Never asked the name of the book, never asked where I’d gotten it, just, “Oh, that’s nice.”
Because they lived in the same part of the country, Philip saw a lot of Aunt Monie. The two of them went on occasional vacations, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of Philip’s friend, a word my mother said in italics, not in a bad way, but like a wink, suggesting that the term had more than one meaning and that this second meaning was a lot more interesting than the first. “They have a lovely house,” my mother said. “It’s on a lake and they’re thinking of getting a boat.”
“I bet they are,” my father said, and then he repeated the story of the hair dryer. “Can you beat that! A man wanting to use a hair dryer.”
Philip and Aunt Monie shared a taste for the finer things: the symphony, the opera, clear soups. Theirs was a relationship enjoyed by the childless, sophisticated adults who could finish a sentence without being hounded for a ride to the Kwik Pik or an advance on next year’s allowance. Resenting my mother for having children put me in a difficult position, and so I wished she had just had one, me, and that we lived outside of Cleveland. We needed to ingratiate ourselves and be close at hand when Aunt Monie took to her death bed, which could, I figured, happen any day. Aunt Joyce was now flying to Ohio three times a year and would phone my mother with updates. She reported that walking had become difficult, that Hank had installed one of those contraptions that slowly hoisted a chair up and down the stairs, that Mildred had become “I guess the best word is paranoid,” she said.
When Aunt Monie could no longer finish an entire lamb chop, my mother made plans for a visit of her own. I thought she’d go with her sister or homosexual Philip, but instead she took Lisa and me. We went for a three-day weekend in mid-October. Aunt Monie’s driver met us at the baggage carousel and led us outside to the waiting Cadillac. “Oh, please,” my mother said as he ushered her toward the backseat. “I’m sitting up front and I don’t want to hear another word about it.”
Hank moved to open the door but she beat him to it. “And don’t give me that ‘Mrs. Sedaris’ business, either. The name’s Sharon, got it?” She was the sort of person who could talk to anyone, not in the pointed, investigative manner that the situation called for, but generally, casually. Had she been sent to interview Charles Manson, she might have come away saying, “I never knew he liked bamboo!” It was maddening.
We left the airport and passed into a wasteland. Men stood on rusty bridges, watching as filthy trains coupled on the tracks below. Black clouds issued from smokestacks as Hank detailed his method for curing hams. I’d wanted to hear what it was like working for Aunt Monie, but my mother never led him in that direction. “Hams!” she said. “Now you’re talking my language.”
The landscape gradually softened, and by the time we reached Gates Mills the world was beautiful. Here were brilliant thick-trunked trees surrounding homes made of stone and painted brick. A couple dressed in bright red jackets rode a pair of horses down the middle of the street, and Hank passed slowly to avoid spooking them. This was, he explained, a suburb, and I thought he must be using the wrong word. Suburbs meant wooden houses, the streets named after the wives and girlfriends of the developer: Laura Drive, Kimberly Circle, Nancy Ann Cul-de-Sac. W
“Stop . . . now,” I whispered as the car passed a slightly smaller version of Windsor Castle. “Stop . . . now.” The fear was that we’d drive beyond the ostentation and wind up in a plain neighborhood resembling our own. Hank kept going and I worried that Aunt Monie was one of those guilt-ridden rich people you sometimes read about, the kind who volunteered in burn units and tried not to draw too much attention to themselves. The conversation had moved from hams to sausages and was testing the waters of barbecue when the Cadillac turned toward what was unquestionably the finest home of all. It was the sort of place you’d see on the cover of a college catalog: the Deanery, the Hall of Great Fellows. Ivy hugged the stone walls, and windowpanes the size of playing cards glinted in the sun. Even the air smelled rich, the scent of decaying leaves tinged with what I imagined to be myrrh. There was no maze or pond-size fountain, but the lawn was well tended and included a second, smaller house Hank referred to as “the outbuilding.” He gathered our bags from the trunk, and as we waited, the equestrians passed the front of the house, tipping their velvet hats in salute. “Do you hear that?” my mother asked. She clasped her collar tight against her throat. “Don’t you just love the sound of hooves?”
A maid named Dorothy stepped out to greet us, and as if my sister were blind and unable to take in such wonders on her own, I turned and whispered, “She’s white. And she’s wearing a uniform.”
The maids in Raleigh might wear pantsuits or cast-off nursing smocks, but this was the real thing: the starched black dress trimmed in white at the cuffs and collar. She wore an apron as well, and an unflattering cap, which sat on her head like a tiny cushion.
While regular maids mumbled, Dorothy announced. “Mrs. Brown is resting.” “Mrs. Brown will be down presently.” Like a talking doll, her side of the conversation seemed limited to a handful of prerecorded statements. “Yes, ma’am,” “No, ma’am,” “I’ll have the car brought round to the door.” While waiting, we ate sandwiches of smoked salmon served with potato salad. I suggested that we nose around, or at least move beyond the kitchen, but the idea proved unpopular. “Mrs. Brown is resting,” Dorothy said. “Mrs. Brown will be down presently.” It was nearly dusk when Aunt Monie telephoned the kitchen, and we were allowed to enter the main parlor.
“How’d you like to dust this,” my mother said, and I shuddered at her lack of sophistication. The whole point of finery was that someone else handled the upkeep, polishing the end tables and reaming crud from between the toes of lion-paw easy chairs. That said, I’d have hated to dust it. A lampshade or two would have been all right, but this resembled one of those period rooms cordoned off at the museum, the furniture gathered in tight little cliques like guests at a party. Walls were papered in satin stripes, and curtains fell from floor to ceiling, bordered by what were later identified as swags. The potty-chair and folding card table didn’t quite fit in, but those we pretended not to notice.
“Mrs. Brown,” Dorothy announced, and we followed the noise of the grinding gears, gathering before the newel post to stare up at the approaching chair. The Aunt Monie I’d met ten years earlier had been rickety but substantial enough to leave a dent in the sofa cushion. The one that now droned down the staircase seemed to weigh no more than a puppy. She was still elegantly dressed, but withered, her balding head drooping from her shoulders like an old onion. My mother identified herself, and once the chair had settled onto firm ground, Aunt Monie stared at her for a few moments.
“It’s Sharon,” my mother repeated. “And these are two of my children. My daughter Lisa and my son David.”
“Well, some of my children,” my mother said. “The oldest two.”
“And you are?”
“You sent me to Greece a few years ago,” I said. “Remember that? You paid for my trip and I sent you all those letters.”
“Yes,” she said. “Letters.”
“Very long letters.”
The guilt I’d stored was suddenly gone, replaced by the fear that she’d forgotten to mention us in her will. What was going on in that wispy head of hers? “Mom,” I whispered. “Make her remember who we are.”
As it turned out, Aunt Monie was a lot sharper than she appeared. Names weren’t her strong suit, but she was incredibly perceptive, at least as far as I was concerned.
“Where’s that boy,” she’d ask my mother whenever I left the room. “Call him back here. I don’t like people snooping through my things.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s not snooping,” my mother would say. “Lisa, go find your brother.”
Aunt Monie’s second husband had been a big-game hunter, and off the main parlor he’d built a grand trophy room, a virtual ark of taxidermy. The big-cat corner included snow leopards, white tigers, a lion, and a pair of panthers mounted in mid-leap. Mountain goats butted horns before the coffee table. A wolverine stalked a doe from behind the sofa, while beside the gun case a grizzly bear raised her Bunyanesque paw, protecting the cub that cowered between her knees. There were the animals, and there were the objects made from animals: an elephant-foot stool, cloven ashtrays, the leg of a giraffe turned into a standing lamp. How’d you like to dust this!
I first entered the room during one of Aunt Monie’s baths, taking a seat on a zebra-skin ottoman and experiencing the dual sensations of envy and paranoia: a thousand eyes watching, and I wanted every one of them. If forced to choose, I’d have taken the gorilla, but according to my mother, the entire collection had been willed to a small natural history museum somewhere in Canada. I asked what Canada needed with another moose, but she just shrugged and told me I was morbid.
When expelled from the trophy room, I’d go outside and stare at it through the windows. “Where is he?” Aunt Monie would ask. “What’s he up to?”
Early one evening, after staring through the trophy-room window, I moved among the shrubs and watched as Mrs. Brightleaf, the part-time nurse, dissected Aunt Monie’s lamb chop. The two of them were seated at the folding card table, overlooked by a portrait of husband number two, who knelt on a felled rhinoceros. My mother entered from the kitchen, and I was startled by how out of place she looked, how wrong amid the hired help and scalloped end tables. I’d always assumed that given a full set of teeth, a person could step from one class to another, moving effortlessly from the ranch house to the manor, but it now seemed that I was wrong. A life like Aunt Monie’s required not just study but a certain proclivity for pretension, something not all of us were blessed with. My mother waved her highball glass, and when she jokingly took a seat on the old woman’s potty stool, I saw that we were doomed.
On Sunday afternoon Hank drove us back to the airport. Aunt Monie continued her downward spiral and died at home on the first day of spring. My parents attended the funeral and returned to Cleveland a few months later. There was, they said, the estate to settle, lawyers to meet, loose ends. They left Raleigh on a plane and returned a week later in the silver Cadillac, the fur blanket raising heat welts on my mother’s knees. It seemed that she had been remembered—and fondly, too—but nothing would persuade her to reveal the exact amount.
“I’ll give you a figure and you just point up or down,” I said. “Was it a million dollars?”
“I’m not telling you.”
“A million and a half?”
I gently prodded her in the middle of the night, hoping she might talk in her sleep. “Was it two million dollars? Seven hundred thousand?”
“I’m not telling you.”
A friend phoned, pretending to be an IRS agent, but my mother saw right through it. Tax officials rarely had Jethro Tull records playing in the background. They also, apparently, never called saying, “I just have one quick question.”
“But I have to know so that I can tell
“That’s why I’m not telling you,” my mother said.
I was working in a cafeteria then but still honored a once-a-week babysitting job I’d held since junior high. The children despised me, but there was a familiarity, almost a comfort, in their hatred, and so their parents kept me on. The family always had expensive food in their refrigerator: deli-sliced meats and cheeses. Bottles of artichoke hearts. One night as I was being paid, I told the wife that my great-aunt had died and that we now had a Cadillac and a fur lap blanket. “There’s money, too,” I said. “A lot of it.” I thought the woman might welcome me into the fine-refrigerator club, but instead she rolled her eyes. “A Cadillac,” she said. “My God, how nouveau riche can you get.”
I wasn’t sure what nouveau riche meant, but it didn’t sound good. “That little bitch,” my mother said when I repeated the story, and then she turned on me for having told the woman in the first place. A week later the Cadillac was gone, sold. I blamed myself, but it turned out my parents had been planning to get rid of it anyway. My mother bought herself a few nice suits. She stocked the refrigerator with cold cuts from the deli counter, but she did not buy a diamond or a beach house or any of the other things we expected of her. For a while the money was used as a bargaining chip. She and my father would argue over some little thing, and when he laughed and walked out of the room—which was how he always ended an argument, behaving as though you were crazy and nothing more could be said—my mother would shout, “You think I can’t afford to leave? Just try me, buddy.” If a neighbor treated her badly or someone in a shop acted as though she didn’t exist, she’d return home and pound on the countertop, hissing, “I could buy and sell that son of a bitch.” She had often imagined saying these words, and now that she could, I sensed she was disappointed by how little pleasure they brought.
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes