Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Aunt Ruth and Aunt Lois

Northfield Falls Store
Aunt Lois at the general store in Northfield, Vermont, in September 2014. My mother crocheted her poncho.

My last good visit with my aunt, Lois Cooley, was in September 2014, a few days after her birthday, when I took her on a foliage drive that began in Northfield, Vermont, where she lived. On the way, we stopped for lunch at the Northfield Falls General Store. What follows is an excerpt from my book An Irruption of Owls, which chronicles my return to Vermont after 30-plus years as a nomad. It records a scene that took place in the fall of 2012, a couple of months after my mother died:

I am with my two aunts. Aunt Ruth and I have just been to the audiologist to have her hearing aids turned up. This is the third trip in a month. On our way home, we stop in Northfield for a cup of coffee with my aunt Lois. This is the routine. I am eager and not eager to have the hearing aids properly tuned—once that happens, I’m afraid we’ll let the visits lapse.
   Aunt Lois’s kitchen smells of cinnamon, coffee, and the cigarettes that she smokes when nobody’s looking. “Coffee, tea, or ginger ale?” she asks. She pours two cups, one for Aunt Ruth and one for me, and joins us at the table. “I forgot my ginger ale,” she says, and rises, goes to the fridge.
   The phone rings. Aunt Lois squints at the handset, then hands it to Aunt Ruth. “What does that say?” Aunt Ruth takes the handset and squints. “I can’t see,” she says over the ringing of the phone. She adjusts her glasses. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Ruth!” The phone stops ringing.
   “Who was it?” says Ruth.
   “How do I know? That’s what you were supposed to tell me.”
   “They’ll call back,” says Ruth.
   Aunt Lois hands me a can of ginger ale. “Here,” she says, “can you open this?”
   The tab is up and twisted, mangled, about to break off. “This is a goner,” I say.
   “Wait, I’ll get a screwdriver.”
   I pull on the tab. The tab breaks off in my hand. “See, I told you. Aunt Lois, don’t you have a church key?”
   “A what?”
   “A church key; what you open beer cans with.”
   Aunt Lois rummages in a drawer for a long time. “Where’s that screwdriver?” she says at last. She stabs at the can. “There.”
   We discuss somebody named Alice (not her real name), who married a drunk seventy years ago.   “But he sobered up ten years before he died,” says Aunt Ruth.
   The two aunts try to figure out how long Alice’s husband was drunk before the ten years of sobriety. This involves a very complicated equation that factors in the birthdays of several children, including my cousin Charles. Aunt Lois jots down figures on an envelope. “I’m not sure where this is leading,” she says.
   I have spent many hours like this with my mother and her sisters and friends during the past five years. One on one, I carry my end of the conversation, but when I’m outnumbered, as I am today, I often lapse into studied amusement. Either way, I am filled with a sense of well-being, a sense that they will always be there, just like this, funny and wise, taking care of me by whatever means necessary. Today, it is by entertaining me. They are playing a role, I know this. They do it for me and for each other. Laugh therapy.
   Aunt Lois stands in the driveway and motions as I back the car around, careful not to run over her flowerpots. I wave to her in the rear-view mirror. “I just love Lois,” says Ruth.
   “I do, too.”
   I turn left onto Main Street and point the Subaru south.
   “What do you suppose Idora would think of my wearing her hearing aids?” This is Aunt Ruth’s way of making sure I’m okay with it.
   “I think she’d be happy.”
   “I think she would, too.”

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