Friday, January 05, 2007


My aunt's Christmas card from Hungary, the aunt I am named after, my father's only sibling, his younger sister who in old photographs is pretty and laughing who now is mostly stern and weathered, the older she gets the less she smiles. Her Christmas card, which came because we were just there, it is not a tradition that she sends me a card, her card was mostly about some Hungarian author who, she said, has been translated into English and we should both read him and then we can discuss him because something about Hungarian literature. This kind of thing in a Christmas card felt very familiar -- it's like only giving children educational toys -- you know? Something akin to the work ethic, I think, except what is especially familiar to me here is how instead of lightness, frivolity, warmth -- the kind of thing a Christmas card from an aunt who had been genuinely happy to see you might be an occasion for -- it's used as a little literature lecture, and considered higher quality because of it.

My aunt dresses severely and plainly with no attempt to be pretty, in fact a definite attempt not to as if vanity were a sin she must not commit.

I knew my grandfather had once been a Protestant minister. When you're Catholic, which I was though not as utterly Catholic as some, all Protestants are the same. It wasn't until this last visit that I figured out he was a Calvinist, a Presbyterian -- which I don't know much about but there's not much tolerance for frills and leisure in that church. And I started to see how those tendencies had trickled down through my father to me.

My mother is very no frills. She grew up on a farm during the Depression way out in British Columbia with six brothers and sisters. She doesn't know what to do with lace or fancy gloves or a low-cut dress. So, though my father is one for the parties and theaters and custom-made suits, he thought my mother would be the right kind of person for a wife -- not for a girlfriend, not for someone to get scented letters from, but to build a home with and raise proper children with -- a home and children he could dare show his parents and the people from the office.

When I was eighteeen I found a Playboy magazine in a bottom drawer of my father's rented room at the Yale Club. Which kind of sums up what I'm trying to say. The Yale Club room -- spartan but proper, a gentleman's room in a supposedly gentelman's club with naked chicks tucked into the bottom drawer.

My grandmother -- my dad's mother -- was another severe one. Even though she was Catholic there was nothing Latin about her. She wore flat lace-up shoes, straight skirts and sweaters, again with zero attempt at color or frill. She was a schoolteacher and looked like one though you almost missed it. She had a pretty face and pure white hair that curled beautifully around her face.

My aunt looks like her mother's daughter but she doesn't have those soft white curls, the pretty face that defies age.

Years ago I went to visit my aunt. I hadn't seen her since I was a child and didn't know her at all. I'd been living in Greece with Natvar and Natvar had always liked having current issues of Vogue magazine around. They made him feel wealthy. In Greece Vogue magazines were expensive. So I took my aunt a Vogue magazine. She smiled politely. Now I can't think of a worse present to have given her.

I don't think my father is a natural Calvinist. Perhaps its straitjacket explains some of his inner damage. My father seems very damaged to me, like shards of broken pottery held together with a little bit of sticky tape.

And my aunt makes me angry. She's practically a nun -- I was about to tell you all this stuff, like the crosses in her room, like the Catholic books her shelves are filled with -- and then I remembered her talking about some progressive feminist theologian she was working with and I got hit by a wave of guilt that I was mis-representing her, that I don't know her at all.

Anyway, I think of her angry face that she has allowed to grow ugly, her ugly-on-purpose clothes and I get mad. I don't want her -- and that -- to keep me prisoner.


Anonymous said...

This story reminds me of my own family. Thank you for writing it.

jamie said...

I don't like this story. I disagree. I don't think you should write things like this about your family.