I just got to see 3 photos posted on Facebook of my father, his sister and brother in their WW2 uniforms looking incredibly young and beautiful. My Aunt Ellie has dark hair, something I never saw in her later days because her hair was white. My dad and Uncle Jim are in their Army Air Corps uniforms and it’s heartbreaking to think of my fresh faced twenty something uncle sitting dead and shot up in a fighter plane behind enemy lines.
My dad never talked of his brother, but he had a picture of the plane his brother flew and was shot down in hanging on the wall near his desk. I wish he had, because I feel as though some part of my dad got shot down and killed with his brother. I know my dad’s Dad died when he was 9, and the loss of his brother in later years must have been huge.
The few pictures I did see of my Uncle Jim was him and Dad when they were kids swimming at Agate Pass and then in college where they were both swimmers and divers.
Seeing Ellie in her prime is a little heartbreaking too. By the time I was old enough to know her she was a harsh and puzzling enigma around which my father suffered moods I didn’t understand. I remember visiting her for holidays and being heavily rebuked for picking up a small metal sculpture she had on her coffee table. She was exceptionally generous at Christmastime, always sending us all tons of gifts, often hand knitted, sewn or woven over the years, but her generosity was laced with a condescending and cloying poison that clouded the pleasure of receiving the luxurious gifts.If she was there when we were opening her presents, she couldn’t be praised enough and held court as though we owed her lifetimes of affections we could not feel. Yet there she was with her gourmet home cooked dinners and opera tickets, poodles and gifts every year like clockwork.
My father could not find the will to completely cut her off though he’d rage he never wanted to see her again after yet another disastrous and toxic holiday encounter. My aunt seemed to oscilate between love and hate,worship and punishment. I began to see as I got older how my father was fawned on, manipulated emotionally and then cut to shreds periodically by his sister. With his parents and brother dead and gone, and little to no contact with all his northwestern cousins he’d long been estranged from, she was the only blood family he had, so he’d eventually go back to see her, and she’d shit on him sooner or later every time. And each one of us nieces had our eventual season of falling into her castrating embrace, invited to talk and/or stay over, eat special food, bribed by special gifts. Invariably the hammer would fall and the subject would be how inferior my mother was, how unworthy for her brother, though he too, was somehow a disappointment to her.
Before I graduated from high school I was invited/summoned to my Aunt’s home in Marin for a “fitting” of a specially created pink “ensemble”. She measured my then thin and young body for a waist fitted long skirt that was cream colored knit over pink satin taffeta, which she sewed for me and was ankle length and flowing. On the top she gave me a pink long sleeved blouse to be tucked in with a white and pink knitted shell to be worn over the blouse. This was a design no ordinary knitter could produce. She bought me elegant, tan, high heeled sandals with thin straps which I loved and kept for years. The only thing missing was a pink and creme lace parasol.
All this care and attention was gratifying for a short while, but quickly destroyed by the reality of her complete inability to give a damn about how I felt. The outfit, unique and beautiful as it was, was unwearable in my world with the practically Victorian high necked blouse, long sleeves and hot, uncomfortable, shell. I was her Barbie Doll for a couple of afternoons and that was that, though I kept the outfit for years on it’s special hangers in plastic. Cinderella never made it to the ball. Her Fairy Godmother was busy drinking White Horse Whiskey.
Ellie had married late and had a couple of good years with her husband, an admiral, living on a Florida Navy base. But when he was retired, he had a bum ticker, a heavy drinking problem, no money, and several ex wives who swooped in the minute she bought a house for herself and him to try and collect back alimony he’d defaulted on. She found him on the floor dying of a heart attack; he’d been told to stop drinking and he didn’t. So she had her losses that she never spoke of also. She went from there to teaching English at the College of San Mateo, and living just over the hill from her brother.
She made it to retirement and lived in relative splendor in her own home until she decided to cold turkey it off alcohol. She was dead within a year of that decision. I ended up living in her house for over a year while we waited for the estate to settle. During her later years I had visited a few times, only to be shown again and again, that her barbed sensibilities were the same for all. No one could measure up to her standards. I sent her a birthday present one year and received a cold, vituperative letter informing me just how poorly we nieces had treated her in the face of her generosity in all the years of her life.
And yet she left everything to us: money, belonging, her house.