August 23, 2018

crazy aunt rowena

Aunt Rowena really would have just shot her ex-husband instead of mucking about with pillows.

Her sons both died decades ago and she's the only other family member I know of who lives by crazy meds.

Her nascent insanity precedes all of that.

There are snatches of memory and snippets of anecdote that I hold, because we aren't really a talking, communicating family on my daddy's side, though on the rare occasions when we gather, the bonhomie flows freely.

Memories and anecdotes ....

... of the weekend I brought my to-be husband home to meet my family.  My daddy's entire side of the family met at a Quincy's Steakhouse, including Grandma and a random second cousin and three great-aunts I hadn't seen since Homecoming at church the previous September.  Aunt Rowena sat across from us.  The only table large enough to accommodate us all was in the non-smoking section.  Aunt Rowena coped with the absence of ash trays on the table by using her empty baked potato peel.  The idea caught on among the great-aunts.  A waitress came over to say something about the cloud of cigarette smoke and complaints made by other diners, but she stopped when she caught my aunt's piercing glare, daring her, daring her, and instead turned and went to find a manager, who never appeared.  I remember seeing a half-eaten yeast roll beside her potato peel full of smoldering butts when I tucked two one-dollar bills under the side of my plate.  If I had had more cash on me, I would have left it.  Any waitress who had to contend with Aunt Rowena deserved a twenty.

... the story about Aunt Rowena visiting one of those nail salons in the mall, one that was run, in accordance with stereotype, by Korean women.  As she sat having her nails polished and buffed, she looked around the shop, and her eyes fell on the Buddha statue hanging on the wall above the next table.  There was a tray extending from Buddha's lap, and on the tray, four cups of green tea.  Aunt Rowena stared at it for a little while, and then asked her nail technician, "Is that tea?"  "Yes?" the technician replied.  After a moment, Aunt Rowena asked, "Can I have a cup?"  This upset the technician greatly.  "No, no!  It for him!  It for him!"  Aunt Rowena said bluntly, "Well, he ain't going to drink it!"  I'm not sure she was allowed to stay and get the little decorative stars on top of the nail polish.*

... the birth of Aunt Rowena's first son, my cousin, out of wedlock.  The story goes, she was in the hospital, ready to come home with the baby, and my granddaddy went to visit her and give her a ride home (she didn't own a car, or much furniture in her run-down apartment).  He asked her what she had at home, and she just blinked at him.  "What do you mean, what do I have at home?"  Granddaddy quizzed her and realized that Aunt Rowena had no earthly idea what to do with a baby.  There was no crib, there were no bottles, there were no blankets or diapers.  She had never heard of breastfeeding and there was no formula.  He went out and bought all of those things, set up her apartment, then retrieved her and my cousin from the hospital.  History says she must have picked up on things as she went.  My cousin made it to twenty-five years old before leukemia took him.

... my son's funeral.  Aunt Rowena made the long drive from the mountains and arrived twenty minutes late.  Her three-inch heels clicked and echoed during the moment of silence in the middle of the funeral service, echoed off stone walls and stained glass windows, along what seemed like a mile's length of wood-floored aisle, until she reached the front pew and joined family members.  Her perfume was an unfamiliar censer swung in Lutheran air.

After the service, she pulled me aside and pressed an opal ring encrusted with tiny diamonds into my hand.  It seemed enormous to me.  She said it had belonged to her Aunt Rowena, her namesake.  Then she walked away and got into her car and left the church parking lot, heading home as abruptly as she had arrived.

Aunt Rowena and her aunt had been close when my aunt was a teenager, and she received the ring from Rowena one day, a propos of nothing, unaware that divesting possessions was a glaring portent of her aunt's suicide a few weeks later.  Now that I had a crazy aunt and a son had died, the ring passed to me.  I couldn't decide if it qualified as an inheritance or a cursed object.  To this day, it sits in the dark, in a jewelry box in a drawer.  I guard it, but I won't wear it.

... Aunt Rowena holding me when I was three years old, carrying me around our living room, trying to sing me to sleep.  I was born with an "ear for music" and Aunt Rowena was born with a bucket that would not, no matter how carefully she carried it, suffer itself to contain a tune.  I'm told that instead of falling to sleep, I lifted up my head and said plaintively, "Please don't sing, Aunt Rowena.  I'll go to sleep, I promise!"

... the night she went to hear my daddy's band play in a bar.  Aunt Rowena had gotten up to hit the ladies' and was scooting between people seated at two crowded rows of tables, most of them holding cans or sloshing glasses of beer, excusing herself as she went along.  To hear my daddy tell it, he was up on stage singing and at the same time, watching a scene unfold wherein Aunt Rowena, while pushing through the rows, accidentally bumped into one man with her butt and unknowingly pitched him forward against the table, splashing beer all over the guy seated across from him.  The newly-dampened man apparently was not a friend, and the newly-bereft-of-a-full-glass-of-beer man, immediately after being shoved into the table by my aunt, was then punched right in the face.  It didn't take long to turn into a real group-effort bar fight.  The bouncer threw some people out.  My daddy says that Aunt Rowena never even knew it had happened.  The bar was loud anyway and she just went to the restroom and by the time she came back, it was all over.  She was oblivious.

... the arsenic story itself.  What really happened:  Aunt Rowena was eight months pregnant with her second son, and her new husband beat her regularly, even during pregnancy.  She began poisoning him with small amounts of arsenic, not enough to be fatal, just enough to make him terribly sick.  One night when he was vomiting, she leaned over and whispered, "And if you ever lay a hand on me again, I'll finish the job, you son of a bitch."  He didn't beat her any more.  They didn't stay married for much longer.  Aunt Rowena was a single mother again.

Aunt Rowena lives several hours away and I never see her or talk to her.  She isn't really the "aunt" kind.  So I will never know her on any real level, and she'll always be a character in memories and anecdotes, her truth stranger than fiction.

*I don't know if that is even something that happens because I have never been to a nail salon of any sort.  I bite mine.  Or forget about them.

1 comment:

  1. I adore people like your Aunt Rowena who live by their own code. We have a few interesting people in my family as well but none, as far as I know, who laced their nemesis's food with arsenic. Good for her, though. Sounds like the SOB deserved it. I enjoyed reading about her.