I try to call my Great Aunt Doris every day. She’s ninety-years old and lives alone. I love her desperately and as she gets older, especially of late as she becomes more feeble, my love seems to be picking up velocity, overwhelming me almost, tinged as it is with panic — I’m so afraid of losing her.
I usually call her around six o’clock and when she picks up the phone, she always says, “Hellooooo,” drawing out the o’s to sound like a society lady, but when she’s not feeling well the o’s aren’t so drawn out, so I like it when her affectation is present. Daily, we have just about the same conversation.
“Did you need any money?” she says. “Don’t be ashamed to tell me. Aunt Doris is here to help you.” Sometimes she speaks of herself in the third-person, like a professional athlete.
“I don’t need any money,” I say, “but thank you.”
“Have you had your dinner yet?”
“No, I’m going out.”
“Treat yourself to a steak. You’re not a vegetarian any more, are you?”
“No, not a vegetarian.”
“That’s smart. A steak is good for you. Wear a hat when you go out.”
My period of vegetarianism about fourteen years ago still haunts her and she’s been telling me to wear a hat for over thirty years.
“Well, I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” I say. “I love you.”
“I love you more than that,” she says.
* * *
My great aunt was raised in Saratoga Springs, New York, one of six children, including my Grandmother Nancy, who died several years ago. When my great aunt was ten her mother died and she and Nancy had to take care of their father, the house and the boys (three brothers), as well as the infant son of their sister Anna, who had died in childbirth.
When she was fifteen my great aunt started working as a manicurist in a beauty shop, Fresham’s, where she attended to the wealthy ladies who came to Saratoga for the racing season, and this was to be her lifelong profession.
In the thirties, she’d follow the wealthy set — working at different Fresham’s — by the seasons: Saratoga in August, New York City in the fall, Miami Beach in the winter, and resorts along the Eastern seaboard in the spring. By the forties, she was in New York full time working in the salon at Saks Fifth Avenue. She had a brief marriage during the war years, followed by a ten-year marriage in the fifties, and then in the sixties she was single again and worked for many years in the barbershop at the Harmonie, a private men’s club off of Fifth Avenue. In my family, she was legendary for being a wild, great beauty: a tiny, stunning, voluptuous red-head, who had many lovers. A sort of Jewish Holly-Go-Lightly.
She wasn’t able to have children and so my mother, her sister’s daughter, was like a child to her and I, later, was like a grandchild, and clearly her favorite. All throughout my childhood, she’d come to New Jersey to visit us for weekends. I loved to meet her with my mother at the little station — she’d descend out of the bus in her colorful dresses and heels, and kiss me a thousand times, but I didn’t mind.
When she was in her mid-seventies, my great aunt lost a breast to cancer and for the last twenty years, she has lived in Queens in her tiny studio apartment. Her couch is her bed, the place is cluttered with antiques, but kept neat, and there are many paintings on the wall. My favorites are these small water-colors done by a French lover of her’s, whom she met in Paris in 1947. All of them feature a tiny red headed woman with an hourglass figure — you see her sitting in a cafe, standing on a bridge over the Seine, kissing a lover on a park bench under a night sky.
* * *
Two weeks ago, I went to my great aunt on a Sunday, as is our habit. I make it out there about twice a month. When I can’t make it, she always says to me, “If I can’t see you, we still have our telephone romance.”
Right in her subway stop is a little florist and I picked up some irises. Aunt Doris smiled so happily when she saw me. I hugged her to my chest — she’s very small — and stroked her hair, which is no longer flame-red but has faded to a pretty strawberry blonde.
Our routine is to have lunch and then play gin-rummy, but before playing cards I told her I wanted to talk to her about her life, that I was going to write an article. We sat on her couch.
“You already know everything,” she said.
“I want to make sure I’ve got the stories right.”
“What should I tell you then?”
“Just some memories. What do you remember from Saratoga?”
“From Saratoga . . . I remember when mother died. I was ten years old and Nancy was eleven. I knew that a person wore black. So we went to the dime store and bought black dye and put our kerchiefs and gloves in the dye, and when I finished my hands were black, couldn’t get that off. Washed. Scoured. For two weeks I walked around with black hands.”
Eighty years later, my great aunt sometimes still cries about this — her mother’s early death took away her childhood and shaped her whole life,.
“What do you remember from working in Saratoga?” I asked.
“Let me get my thoughts . . . How old was I? Sixteen. Working at the Grand Union Hotel. A woman came in for a manicure. She was looking for prostitutes, but I didn’t know that. This was in the thirties. She says, ‘When you come to New York call me.’ I was supposed to go to New York until the season started in Miami Beach. There — ”
“Don’t say Miami. Miami Beach. There I had the experience of manicuring the wife of the writer Damon Runyon. She was a bitch. After I put four coats of polish on her, she rubbed it off. Said she wanted to see if red heads had a temper. Can you imagine? I also took care of Mrs. Jimmy Walker there, the wife of the mayor of New York.”
“What happened to the woman who was looking for the prostitutes?”
“The madame? I called her when I got to New York.”
“What happened? You didn’t work for her did you?” This would have been new information. The family didn’t know about this!
“She told me she wanted me to be a prostitute, and that was the end of that, naturally. I said, ‘You’ve got the wrong girl.'”
“In thirties is when you had the abortion?” I asked. It may sound like I was being rude, but my great aunt and I have talked about everything for years.
“Yes, that was the thirties. When I had that I went to the drugstore. ‘Al,’ I said to him. ‘My best girl friend is pregnant. I have to help her.’ So he gave me the name of a doctor, also in Brooklyn. I got an appointment, a private house. This wasn’t legit. Got me on a table, not even an aspirin. Spread my legs. Not even an aspirin! Took an instrument, hurt like hell. Wonder I didn’t die from the pain. Lasted ten minutes. He says, ‘You stay here until I tell you to go home.’ He comes back a few minutes later, I’m still bleeding, says I should go home. I go home and I tell Nancy it’s my period. It was my secret. I didn’t tell anyone. Two days later I stopped bleeding. And then it became a memory.”
“Did that keep you from having children?”
“More or less, I think so . . . Let me get my papers, there are things in there that’ll be good for an article.”
She went to a drawer and removed an envelope stuffed with letters and clippings — obituaries of her Harmonie Club clients, who were well-to-do businessmen.
She began reading the obituaries, and she came across one, a yellowed piece of newspaper, and kissed it. “This one I loved,” she said. “Had a real crush on him. We had an affair. He was so sweet. He cared for me. What people I had in my life. Good people.”
“When did you have an affair with him?”
“I don’t know. Before he died! I can’t remember everything.”
She found another obit. “This one was crazy about me. Those were good days. I had my apartment on 15th Street. I had my little dog. He didn’t like the dog.”
“Did you have an affair?”
“Not really. He just liked to be near me. He wasn’t interested in sex. Neither was I. His car would drop him off at my house. He’d just sit on the couch. Liked to be near me.”
“How many lovers do you think you had in your life?”
“What’s your idea of a lover?”
“Someone you had sex with.”
“I don’t know. I can’t figure that out. I was very active in sex. I was sexy.”
“Make a guess.”
“That’s it? Your whole life?”
“You want to add two, add two. I didn’t screw around with everybody. These were men who stayed. But I didn’t play it right. I screwed my life up.”
“I had offers to live on 5th Ave. I had wonderful chances. I was too . . . not pious . . . too righteous. I always knew the difference between good and bad and I always chose good. I should have relaxed and done a little bad. I should have stuck with one good man and not cared if he had a wife. Now look at me.”
“Are you saying a man would have taken care of you?”
“Sure. Why would I be a mistress to him if he didn’t give me a car, an apartment. I wouldn’t have to live like this on a couch. These were wealthy men. Not salesmen. The mistress sometimes gets more than the wife. Don’t you know that?”
We looked at the clippings for a while longer. “I wish I knew some of the people I used to know,” she said, and then she put everything back in the envelope.
We were quiet, and then she said, “What’s happening with you lover-boy? You pop out girl-friends like pizza pies.”
“I’m still hung up on this one girl,” I said. “She doesn’t want to be with me. Did you ever have that, where you think about someone all the time?”
“Worse. The people are dead. They never come back. But time heals and in that time you just run away from it, and running away means you get involved with someone else quick . . . Where is this girl?”
“Out of the country. Has a new boyfriend.”
“So let him enjoy her. It’s past tense. It’s gone. If you don’t want to get over it, it will stay with you, that’s for sure.”
“Should I try to get her back?”
“A lot of fish in the ocean, brother. Lots of fish.”
“But how come I can’t stop thinking about her?”
“Like me with all the people in here” — she squeezed the envelope — “but you have to go on without thinking. If you can’t work up a veneer around your heart you’ll wind up going to a psychiatrist and throwing your money away . . . Know what makes a person strong? You have to take failure. Another person had to experience what I had to experience, they’d go on the booze and stay on the booze until they dropped dead. You don’t see me doing that. If I had to take my life serious, I’d be up shit’s creek.”
“I wish I could get over this girl.”
“You pine for her. Bullshit. I wouldn’t give her a minute of my time. She doesn’t think of you. It’s a one-sided affair. What’s good is that you don’t need her. You’re intelligent, respectable home, good-looking, you’re not out of prison — you don’t need her. Choose a good woman. Not a cold tomato. Forget her.”
“Of course I haven’t been to prison!”
“That’s because you’re from a good family.”
“Anyway, didn’t you ever pine for someone?”
“No, not me. I want respect. If I don’t get respect, they can go fly a kite . . . Where’d you get this haircut?”
“My neighborhood, why?”
“I don’t like it. It’s not tapered in the back. Looks like a wig.”
That cracked me up, so we stopped talking about love and went and played cards. As usual, she won. Then she walked me out to the elevator. I hugged her while we waited for it. “I worry about you,” I said.
“Don’t worry about Aunt Doris. I’m a survivor. It’s my job to worry about you.”
“All right,” I said, consoled. The elevator came. I got in and held the door. “I love you,” I said.
“I love you more than you know,” she said and she leaned in and kissed me goodbye.