Happy Ninety-Fourth Birthday, Auntie Lee!

The piece below is an excerpt from a memoir in progress–WIFE, MOTHER, VIRGIN, WHORE?  NO, ZIA!


She’s off every Monday.  In the summer we go to the beach in Milford, Connecticut, where cousins Peggy Albano and Josephine D’Ambroso have cottages.  Francis, Teresa, and I (Michael is not yet born) wear bathing suits of cotton tartan, identifying us as members of the same clan.  Our beach bags overflow with wide-striped towels, navy and green, as well.  When Auntie Lee comes downstairs, though, she is all gold and white, her strapless movie-star suit subdued by a shift that reaches her knees.  Her gold sandals have tiny heels that I already know will sink into the sand.  No hat for her, but a French Riviera creme to bronze her.

She is like us and different at the same time.  Part of the household every Sunday and Monday, always cleaning surfaces to gleaming, never shirking a sink full of dishes or corn for shucking.  But after the work is done and she emerges from the shower, she looks as if she’d never labored at all.  Fresh and gleaming herself, ready to face the world.  So she was by ten in the morning this sunny summer Monday.

In the kitchen, aproned Nonnie and Mommy in her sleeveless yellow sundress with two wide “V’s” back and front prepare our lunch–Sunday’s leftover veal cutlets on fresh, crusted bread, bananas and pears, cookies with pink and white frosting from Ortone’s Bakery on South Main Street.  If we don’t eat them as soon as they come out of the cooler, the frosting will melt and, no matter how fast we lick our fingers, the sand flies will find us.

In Daddy’s borrowed Rambler station wagon, we listen to News 88 AM, a New York City station.  His voice deep and fast, the announcer tells people with lung problems and little babies to stay inside.  Teresa wins the front seat because she is still the youngest.  Fran and I draw an imaginary boundary line between us in the back and pull our plastic sunglasses down from our heads over our eyes.  As soon as Auntie Lee picks up speed on Cooke Street, the rush of humid air from outside makes me drowsy and I lie back onto the seat while we travel state roads not quite highways to Milford.

At the beach, we each stand on a corner of the old pink chenille bedspread so it doesn’t blow away.  When Auntie Lee lies stomach down on it, we fuss over who will get a spot on the edge, who next to her.  She is reading VOGUE.  I can tell what she likes or doesn’t by the way her face moves as she scans the photos.  The three of us lie down, too, but not for long.  Older boys make a ruckus at the water’s edge, and we skirt around them carrying Teresa’s plastic tube, Francis’s miniature submarine, and the bathing cap I’m supposed to wear but don’t.

The rule is no one goes into the water unless Auntie Lee is watching.  I look back at her.  She is propped on her elbows, thick-framed sunglasses glinting, waving and nodding okay.  Only when we are soaked, playing so hard we forget her does she walk toward us glistening, then bends down to the water to splash her arms and neck.

“Stay!  Stay!” we shout.

She never learns to swim, but loves the salt water, the sand, the sun.  We all sit down at water’s edge to catch the slap and the pull of the waves.  Sometimes we sing silly songs or pretend we see pirate ships, monsoons, England, France.  Mostly we squeal, surprised each time the water licks us with its salty tongues.  She is a grownup who plays.

But even with wet sand on the back of her suit as she stands to return to the blanket, Auntie Lee decorates the beach with her glamorous style.  For all her care of us, she is rarely mistaken for a mother.  The carryalls she uses to lug our toys and lunch are not decorated with cartoon characters or grocery store names.  Some are bright orange open-weave straw, formerly used to carry groceries on daily trips to market in Amalfi.  When a bag does have writing on it at all, the script reads the name of a fashion house, its signature hand white or red against black canvas.

Auntie Lee doesn’t so much direct us as she begins an action herself.  So when she gets up to dip both her hands into the water and shakes them twice, we know to do the same.  Because she gives so few orders, we rarely feel the need to protest.  We follow her up the rise of sand like hungry ducks.

When we eat our lunch, she opens one of the pressed linen dishtowels we use for napkins and lays it across her lap.  She sits straight with her long legs crossed under the cloth.  She looks as if she is at a formal dinner.  We try to mimic her with limited success, sand filling our towels’ crevices, olive oil drizzling from our sandwiches onto our suits.  Auntie Lee tests the sugared lemon water from a thermos, then fills our plastic cups.  I lick the sweet crystals that make their way to my lips.  We drink greedily and long.  And though we eye each other knowingly, Francis, Teresa, and I do not even dream of actually seeing who can belch the loudest.

“How nice,” she never fails to say when we are done.

I feel accomplished then, as if I’ve passed some kind of test.  Fran and Tre, too.  As if she’s decided the three of us are fit for public view.