#71 Romance Or Revenge?

The summer of 1985 was busy with a trip across country, a final, and I do mean final visit with my mother and on the way back east, a reconnection with my aunt. She was delighted to hear from me when I called from Kansas and I found my way to her a few days later outside of St. Louis.  She was still in the house she and my uncle built with their own hands. He was long gone. They had divorced back in the early 60’s when people didn’t get divorced. She had been living with Harold for decades and was very private about that. I had then lived with two men, and we seemed to have a lot in common. She was the youngest of four. My father was the oldest.

My aunt who had no children had always remembered our birthdays, holidays and graduations. But we lost touch after that. I appreciate now how difficult that was for her since my mother hated my father’s family and made it so difficult. On this visit, she and Harold took me to see the magnificent Clydesdales and museums as if I were nine. It was delightful since I hadn’t lived near any family, ever.

We had breakfast together and were like girlfriends catching up. She was comfortable talking to me about her life, perhaps because I lived far away. I was surprised when she told me that she and Harold had flown all the way out west to our town for my father’s funeral in 1967. I had no memory of that. She said my mother ignored them and they weren’t even invited back to our house. That had the ring of familiarity. I then climbed into my car to return to Pennsylvania.

A few years later I went back to St. Louis and met my cousin’s daughters for the first time. I hadn’t seen my cousin since I was12. My aunt took us all to dinner. She sat next to me as my cousins and I chattered. When you have so very little family, little family means a lot. The server asked my aunt about her meal. She had barely touched it. I hadn’t noticed how silent she had become. When we went to her house, that’s when she complained to Harold about how terrible her meal was. My cousin, whom I barely knew, and I looked at one another with total recognition. Her mother and my father, holding in resentment, and then bam. 

My aunt and I stayed in touch. She shared stories of her childhood with my dad, their stern father and frightened mother. It was a gift. She said that once my dad visited her as the older brother, to meet the man in her life, Harold. One night they were all out with friends and conversation was about a recent rape in St. Louis. My father was quiet, and then said that if that ever happened to his daughter, he would kill the guy. She knew that story was another gift to let me know what I didn’t; how much I meant to him. She understood his temper and how it had damaged our relationship.

About 1995 she called to say that she had gotten a letter from my uncle; former uncle I guess. She was emotional and didn’t know what to do. They had been divorced about 35 years and at last the letter was filled with remorse and apologies for his really really bad behavior decades earlier. She feared that he wanted something, probably money. Should she answer the letter? I thought what harm could answering him do? He might make amends and ease some of her pain. His letter had been delivered to her through Harold, making it more complicated. They had all known one another long ago.

A year or so later Harold became very ill, and his family was moving him into a nursing home. Her situation with his family was precarious. She then told me that he had never divorced. His wife was Catholic and would not allow it. I asked if she had ever talked with him about it. And I couldn’t make this up. She said, “I’d bring it up about every ten years. And he’d say, ‘I’m working on it!’ ” She wasn’t even certain that he had brought the subject of divorce up.

My dear aunt waited decade after decade for Harold to divorce and marry her. By then she was about 80. He was older and she was not fully recognized by his family. She was sad about his illness; distraught about the way she was being treated. By then she had sold the old house and was alone and lonely in her condo.

So enter my uncle. That’s the way I knew of him so that’s the way I refer to him here since I do not name those who are still alive. He befriended my aunt, long distance. When Harold died, my uncle stepped up his contact. She was deeply depressed and was sleeping by afternoon.

I had left the man in my life, #56 It Takes Two. I was working long hours and coping with my own failed love life, again. My aunt reported more and more of my uncle’s calls and letters. She was terrified that he wanted something, but he talked her into visiting him in Texas. By the time she returned from that trip he had asked her to marry him. She was thinking about it. He had married two or three times again, and divorced at least twice and I think widowed once.

She talked with lawyers about a pre-nup. It did seem a good idea to be protected, even emotionally. She dragged and dragged her feet. He talked her into letting him move back to St. Louis. She made him stay in the basement of her house. I believe she was trying for a fresh start, even reclaiming her emotional virginity.

I went out again to St. Louis to interview them about how love had returned at 83. I felt hopeful, caught up in the notion of romance late in life. I even envisioned a play or screenplay maybe with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

My uncle talked and talked about his terrible behavior and I was impressed by his candidness.  He went to church every day and was talking with his priest. They had bought a new house so they could start over again together. Or he got her to buy a new house. He had no money. They adopted a cat. And I went with them where he had found a dog he just had to have. I saw them reliving their past. Back in the 50’s they had a beautiful Collie and a cat when they were building their house. They were also bickering again.

One day when they drove me around St. Louis they pointed out where they got their marriage license, twice. They divorced, then, my uncle’s mother talked my aunt into marrying him again. I doubt if my father ever knew that.

It looked like there would be a third wedding. I couldn’t get there in time for that, but agreed to help host a reception a week later. My cousin and her daughters and grandchild would be there. I wrote my brother inviting him to join me. I never heard from him.

By now it was over 50 years after their first wedding. Their original Best Man and Matron of Honor were at the reception. Since my aunt was not Catholic, at that time she could not have non-Catholics in the wedding party. The women were nearly strangers, but became friends. I don’t even know if any of my family attended that first wedding. I met my uncle’s niece and her husband. They seemed nice.

My cousin however did not like my uncle. She knew much more than I about his behavior so many years ago. She distrusted him openly. I tried to be supportive of my aunt who was now paying for two houses. And he wanted a new car. I had no idea of her finances. She had worked all her life, and in fact worked part time until she was eighty. She was not a woman of means, just good credit.

By about 2004, when I spoke with her on the phone she was slurring her words. I went out again to visit. By then they were in the third house. They kept moving farther out of St. Louis and away from her friends. And he was horrible, screaming at and punishing that beautiful dog.

We were all in the kitchen one night and he was itemizing again about how bad he had been. My aunt grew silent. By now I knew the signs of her withdrawal. He said he never had a successful marriage. Suddenly she stood, nearly knocking over the chair. She stormed back to her bedroom. He had hurt her. They were married about 15 years the first time and she was shattered that he didn’t count that.

I tried to explain to him what happened. Then I went down the hall and knocked on her bedroom door. No response, so I opened the door. I found her in her bathroom hugging her cat in her arms. She was sobbing deeply from her shoulders, only no tears would come. I took her in to sit on the bed. I put my arm around her and she continued to sob. She kept saying what a foolish old woman she was. She had not followed the pre-nup. He was blowing through her money. She confessed that he was a Walmart greeter when she visited him in Texas, and was fired for inappropriate behavior. He lived in squalor.

He opened the door and she screamed, “I want a divorce.” He retreated.

I told her that whatever she needed to do I would support her. After about an hour he tapped on the door again. He said he just wanted to know where he was sleeping that night, and she said, “here.” With that he knew he was all right.

The next morning he was out and she and I sat and talked while she smoked one cigarette after another. She talked about killing herself and with 60 years of smoking she already was. I had worked on a crisis line in college and knew enough to keep her talking to see if she meant it. I asked how she had considered doing it. She said she’d drive a car into something, but she didn’t drive anymore. She considered slitting her wrists, but it would make a mess, something she would never do. I offered my high-rise apartment in Pennsylvania if she wanted to jump, trying to keep things light. She did laugh. We had always laughed together.

She was in agonizing pain from a back surgery. A pin was pressing on a nerve. She feared he was messing with her medications. He had started handing her drinks in the afternoons, combined with pain pills and antidepressants. She gave me phone numbers of all her doctors and begged me to call them. At her medical appointments he did all the talking and it wasn’t the truth.

So much for the romantic story I wanted to believe.

I went into the guestroom and made the calls. I also got addresses so I could keep in touch for her sake. One doctor said he suspected that there was drinking. She was an intensely private person and I hated doing this. But that doctor assured me that he would keep a closer eye on things. I let my aunt know that I made the calls and she acted as though she didn’t know what I meant.

That afternoon my uncle took me to a Cardinals game. It was the moment when I began to appreciate baseball and the Cardinals. But that is a joyful story to tell another time. When we returned she was fidgety and unhappy and went to bed even earlier than usual. He handed her pills with a drink and stayed up and watched TV.

The next morning my aunt started yelling at me, making little sense. She had told him that I called her doctors as if it was my idea. She was terrified of what he would do. She screamed and told me I had to leave that minute. She was frightened and frightening. Just a couple of days earlier she was at the airport so happy to see me. I was on my own and there was nothing I could do.

My flight was later that evening, but I packed fast. Having no idea of the cost, I left some cash on the table for my baseball ticket. I sat with my suitcase on the front steps to figure out what to do. That’s how fast she pushed me out the door, as if my uncle was watching. Instead of calling a cab for the airport, I called my uncle’s niece and she and her husband came to pick me up. They lived nearby and took me to their house where we talked about it. They assured me that they would keep an eye on things. They also told me that they got my aunt to go to their financial advisor. Uh oh! That sounded like a needle across a phonograph record. They took me to the airport. How naïve I was, confiding in them. They never responded to my calls or emails.

Back in Pennsylvania, feeling helpless I wrote her doctor expressing my concern though I had no legal rights. I also let my cousin know what had happened. She hated my uncle and now he was keeping her away from my aunt. I was devastated but was beginning to grasp just how terrified she was. I researched services in St. Louis about some sort of intervention or protection. But I was now no part of her life.

Though she was frail, she had another back surgery at 85. My cousin said that when she and her daughter tried to bring my aunt’s cat to the hospital, he barred them. When they did get in to see her, he had removed all flowers and cards from the room. My aunt was in a lonely painful stupor and never recovered. She died in the hospital. All I could do was send flowers and my love.

My cousin believes that he never forgave my aunt for getting the house in their divorce 50 years earlier. He got her to buy him two houses, sold them and moved into a retirement community near his niece and of course inherited whatever there was. My cousin said he bought a $50,000 organ, which he doesn’t play, to impress a young woman. For some reason my cousin still visits him regularly. She saw everything and believes that he caused my aunt’s death. From this distance I believe that he certainly expedited it.

This was not the story I wanted to write.

I went back to St. Louis a couple of years later. My cousins and I went to a ballgame. But the main reason for the trip was to visit my aunt’s grave. By the time we got there it was nearly dusk, and deer were leaping around us. With the help of flashlights we found her grave. I said a few words and we all went for Mexican food. She never got to enjoy the great-grand-niece and nephew who were with us and would have made her so happy.

I remember her big soft brown eyes, unlike the blue of her siblings. She was the one who took care of their impoverished mother. She worked hard as a proofreader all her life. She had no children and loved her nieces and nephews.

My aunt and I were a lot alike. For a while she was family. Her name was Janet.

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One Comment on “#71 Romance Or Revenge?”

  1. Sylvia says:

    Heartbreaking – there is no other word for it. In so many of your stories, one can pick out foibles of their own lives. Thank you for having the bravery to look the dark side of humanity square in the face and declare it aloud!


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