This morning as I entered the park I got a massive whiff of freshly cut grass. When I gazed in the distance Dog Hill was being mowed in perfectly even sections.
Made me think of my Uncle Danny and Auntie Ida’s backyard in Trumbull Connecticut.
First a little back story: she was my mother’s older sister and he, her husband whom she utterly adored – Donato was his formal 7 ply Italian name and they had two bitchy daughters otherwise known as my cousins.
She was also my favorite aunt who I played bottles with. No, not liquor bottles, store bottles like vinegar and Milk of Magnesia…we played store like two kids even though I was 4 and she was 44. She was by far the best aunt any kid could have.
We’d gather at their house most holidays because of its size and charm. My aunt loved to entertain and after digging through my memory bank I remembered the 4th of July and a huge metal trash can filled to the brim with ice and bottles of Coca-Cola and Canada Dry Ginger Ale.
I’d shove my whole arm in it up to the elbow till it felt sufficiently numb. I’d then run around pretending my arm had fallen off insisting this was why I couldn’t help set the table since I needed to look for it. I couldn’t have more than 5 or 6. Even then I was dramatic.
My uncle had a huge outdoor grill before they were commonplace to sear steaks and chicken till it was black on the outside while my aunt boiled corn on the cob in a colossal soup pot. Those were the days when I ate whatever I wanted including meat without any conscience nor edit. Hey, I was raised Italian where cow’s tongue was considered a great delicacy. My grandfather, to be funny, would chase me around the kitchen with it.
It’s no wonder I’m so neurotic.
I loved going to their house partly because of the vast lawn that was always neatly mowed. The house sat on a hill so the land sloped down picturesque like in a Norman Rockwell painting.
“Ma, how far away is summer?” I’d want to know, even going so far as to interrupt a conversation to find out. “Get away from that window Miss and stop dreaming your life away.” She was right about my dreaming since in my child’s mind I would slip off my navy Keds so my toes could wiggle in the grass I missed so.
I realize now those were the seeds of writing taking root teaching me all about the five senses. Even then I was a solitary being lost in adolescent reverie.
I loved being near my uncle while he cooked. My mother would yell to come eat at least three times before I’d listen pretending to help him load up his platters. He’d finally give me the smallest one to carry up the hill so I’d go. No one wanted to take the chance of irritating my mother who could easily ruin the whole day with a rapid mood swing. Of course she did make the best potato salad that would lend her quite a bit of leeway no matter what she did. Once when she had too much to drink she locked herself in the bathroom. All the men kept peeing outside while the women went next door to the neighbor’s house.
She’d always pick at least one fight with my father who would be dozing on a chaise alongside my grandfather already having a little too much wine. They’d both blame their lack of verve on the sun as they took turns refilling their mutual jelly glasses.
Tiger, my aunt’s beloved, overfed Rhodesian Ridgeback, would be sprawled on the patio like a sweaty throw rug you had to jump over to get inside the house. If anyone insinuated Tiggy was fat she’d take great offense and say, “He is not fat, he’s just a big boy.”
We’d sit as an extended familia at the long redwood picnic table with the striped canopy overhead eating on scotch guard paper plates, the kind barbecued chicken couldn’t soak through. My aunt hated paper cups so we had plastic goblets in assorted colors that she promised I could have when she died.
Italians are known for their spontaneous bequeathing. Of course I never got them, my two greedy cousins would never have stood for it and she did live another thirty years so who, besides me, remembered anyway.
My mother would say, “Ida you’re too good to her,” since I’d run around telling everybody I was getting her picnic- ware, as she called it, when she went to heaven.
Ah, to be little and clueless again never ever thinking life would change so dramatically.
My uncle, who was the head foreman for E and F Construction had a massive heart attack on the job dying where he fell.
My poor aunt, so devoted, was crestfallen. I remember her at the wake staring into space hardly recognizing me. I kept saying, “Auntie Ida, it’s me, Susie,” but she still looked through me like a pane of foggy glass.
My mother said she was never the same after my uncle died. It was as though her happiness had been stolen right from beneath her leaving a body without a heart that was buried along with him.
I do remember how she kept exhuming him, once from the fancy mausoleum he was first interred in to the ground then back inside again. The poor woman who took such good care of him in life said it was too cold in the winter to leave him outside as if he were a giant geranium.
My two cousins stopped talking to me for reasons I forget. One of them did accuse me of stealing a lip gloss once when I babysat, the other causing a permanent rift between my aunt and me after telling her that, when I was 16, I had an abortion. I should have stopped speaking to them but they were my only link to a childhood that was slowly ebbing away.
Auntie Ida, a hardcore Catholic, couldn’t bear the idea of me killing a baby causing the relationship so special to the both of us to end when I was 20.
I still ache when I think of it.
She also had a breach with my mother after my grandparents died so that was the end of going to her house on holidays. I always made my boyfriends drive past 226 Church Hill Road hoping I’d catch a glimpse of her watering her plants or hosing down the driveway, the Italian national pastime.
I’m grateful for those hours daydreaming from that porch window sealing in those sights and smells that still live within me – imagine how the mere aroma of sheared grass could bring back so much.
I see my aunt waving from the patio in her full apron while I stood sentry by the grill, my uncle flipping wings and steak like a short-order cook.
If I really close my eyes and drift I can actually see my goblets, at someone else’s picnic table, but still mine since she did give them to me and Auntie Ida never broke a promise.
I’m pretty sure, wherever her spirit lies, she’s not mad at me anymore understanding that people make mistakes and that doesn’t mean you should no longer love them. Actually you should love them even more so they’ll heal faster from their fall.