My maternal grandfather had a brother named Meyer, but everyone called him Mike. He was a movie projectionist in Brooklyn, a job which contributed to his status as “favorite uncle” to my mother and her generation within the clan. Mike was also suited to that role in other respects: he was unmarried into his forties, he had a unique energy and creative spirit…
Uncle Mike did take a wife once his parents died; after all, men of his generation needed a semblance of normality and a caretaker. This is not to say he didn’t love Aunt Ethel, because they remained together until the day he died.
Not surprisingly, Ethel was an undainty woman; she was earthy and thick, with benign, broad features that might look at home in a Tarot sun.
My kin thought her ugly and odd and said so, but I was always fascinated with Ethel, and it seemed quite natural to me when she implemented a subversive agenda: She packed Mike up and took him to California. There was untold scandal…no one had ever left before.
Ethel came back for a single visit after Uncle Mike’s death. It did not go well, merely confirming a widening of the chasm between her and us. She stayed at our house and wanted to go to museums in “the city,” not aware that my grandmother, for all her humor and light and strength, was an extremely domestic, practical woman; the arts were suspect, and not a part of our world.
My defining moment with Ethel came when my mother showed her a poem I had written that year. I think I was 7 or 8 years old and my mother had received the poem from my teacher, then copied it to distribute in pride to all her friends, without ever having told me she was aware of, let alone impressed by, it. This was typical of my mother, who, unaware of her worth, tended to operate from a place of vanity.
The poem was drivel, albeit good drivel for my age. It dealt with lollipops and merri-go-rounds and summoning a perfect love. I was mortified when they had read it to the entire school over the loudspeaker; it compromised my masculinity and revealed me in a way that had to have been wrong—I mean, even my own mother considered it worthy of sequester.
Ethel read it and locked my eyes, “Do you appreciate poetry?”
Where would she have taken me if I’d had the courage to answer, “Yes” ?
I ran up the stairs, swallowing my truth.
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