My Aunt Florence was a cross between Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who worshipped a pearl for its flaws and lived for the sound of the sea--and Martha Stewart on a good day, who could fold sixty napkins into doves without breaking a thread and glue holly berries back on a bush to make a centerpiece with ninety even tangential points. The likenesses rather end there, however; Aunt Florence was never indicted by a grand jury, and she chose a tub over the ocean for her morning bath.
She was a gift of interesting contradictions. I prefer to call it the math of knowing oneself even if you can't add two and two and come up with four. She knew exactly what she loved and never apologized for her priorities. Her three schnauzers were always beautifully groomed and pathetically trained. They slept where they chose and piddled where it suited them. I was allowed to sleep in her bed any time I awoke in fright. “Fear,” she said, is an “ageless thing; you can own it, just don't go around showing it to men.” I loved what came out of her mouth. One morning I told her she snored. “I do not,” she said, incredulous: “Women breathe deeply with a distinct cadence.” I slept with a pillow over my ears and never touched the subject again.
While dirt was considered part of a shelf and marginal notes were welcome in books, as kids we were cow-tied for bringing a bottle of salad dressing to the dining room table. It had to be poured into a suitable china pitcher. Salt belonged in a saltcellar, and the good knives were dutifully washed by hand so the handles stayed intact. Florence never wore slacks but she loved to go barefoot. Mud was her favorite manicure. She never left the house without lipstick and pinching her cheeks one at a time--for blush. The dogs could lick her face, but she wouldn't put her tongue on a stamp. “It's tacky,” she said and wetted the sponge on her writing desk. I loved such firm discrepancies.
Aunt Florence wasn't much of a cook. Truth be told, she sautéed mushrooms until they turned black and blue and shrunk to the size of an eraser head--and her casseroles all contained four staples: a can of cream of chicken soup, cubed turkey, cheese, and breadcrumbs crushed from stuffing mix. She changed the cheese, added frozen vegetables, and anointed each dish with a different name. Then she recorded the menu in a diary because “you never serve the same dish twice to the same group of women in a six-month period.”
Though cooking didn't call her name as hobbies went, she made perfect crêpes from scratch for my father every Sunday he was at her house. I can still smell the batter in my dreams. Plain flour, eggs, and milk, whipped into toasted lace spread out like a round snowflake, then rolled in a little tunnel, sprinkled with fresh lemon and a dusting of powdered sugar. They came from the kitchen skillet one at a time and I was the lucky ring bearer for this ceremony of unspoken love. My father would read the morning paper at the table, his fresh linen napkin neatly perched on his lap. The newsprint on white was never discussed. My father ate twelve crêpes, always twelve. He would have shared, but I was perfectly content to chew on Cheerios and carry his plate back and forth like a butler in King Arthur's Court.
When breakfast was done, the dishes were cleared and often stayed sticky in the sink, gathering flies until dinnertime. Sometimes, they sat for days if she wasn't in the mood to cook or clean and we had TV dinners or bags of chips washed down with Coke and ice cream for dessert. My stepmother called it insanity. I relished the presence of whim.
Impatience was Aunt Florence's favorite trait in a woman. Rumor has it that when she and her husband Warner bought a cherry wood dining room set on a cross-continental train trip, the table itself, two big leaves, and eight Duncan Phyfe chairs rode in their Pullman car like kings and queens while the couple practically slept standing up. Waiting for the acquisition to be shipped was out of the question. She bought what she wanted exactly when she wanted it. There are two musts in a marriage, I learned: true love followed by separate checking accounts. Uncle Warner knew the rules and so did we. Every glass had a coaster under it, but we could run through the house at the speed of sound and slaughter all the walls. “We can always buy more paint,” she said, and went back to reciting Tennyson from a chair beside a roaring fire.
Some evenings, when I was in boarding school and living with her on the weekends, she'd lounge on the patio, sipping on gin, completely involved in watching a sunset. “It's the only thing in orange I can stand,” she quipped. When the city of Portland built a skyscraper that blocked her view of the Columbia River and the lights of the bridge, she penned thirty-six letters to the mayor himself. “Anything that tall,” she said, “is bound to fall down and I'll be cheering from the sidelines.” It was funny back then; today it would be filed as a terrorist threat and the FBI would have trampled her petunias and lost their standing invitation to Sunday brunch.
Though Aunt Florence was certainly no alcoholic, she could mix a batch of Christmas eggnog that would have put Ernest Hemingway and George Burns to bed at 8 p.m. sharp, probably in the same bed. The stuff went down like a cross between a milkshake and a slice of pumpkin pie. If all the elders in the family got crocked, I was allowed to stand on a ladder and wash the special china cups--all rimmed with paint in 14k gold. She bought everything in sets of twelve. “Insurance for breakage and divorce,” she quipped, “two concrete constants of the modern world.”
Next to bookbinding, reading, and arranging flowers, Aunt Florence's two favorite hobbies were redecorating and moving furniture. The whole house was a classy version of Let's Make a Deal; when you opened a door, you never knew what on earth you'd find. I discovered at age six that if I didn't trip over a hammer, a box of nails, and a ring of carpet samples, I'd wandered into the wrong house by mistake. It's a good thing nobody in the family was blind; they'd never have made it to the bathroom and back in one piece.
When she bound the books she dearly loved, Florence was an uncompromising perfectionist. She painted the filler tissues by hand, did all the gold calligraphy, and sculpted the leather from cowhides she bought in England. The mantra of fastidiousness, however, did not apply to housekeeping. When my stepmother called me a slob for not cleaning up my room, Aunt Florence repeated my Uncle Warner's words--recited right before their wedding vows in place of “The Nicene Creed”: “I don't care if there's dust on the piano as long it isn't in your brain.” It was a slick exit from the stage of guilt that belongs in the medicine cabinet right next to the Band-Aids and the calamine.
Aunt Florence was usually slow to anger, but if you wanted to raise her hackles, all you had to say was this: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” To which she had a sage reply: “No wonder the population of agnostics is at an all-time high; if you have a choice between drowning yourself in a good book and a bucket of ammonia, take door number one. Nobody's ever gotten chapped hands and a crappy attitude from an essay by Mark Twain.”
Who needs Prozac with memories like this? When I get my knickers in a twist over typos in a poem or find myself fretting about mismatched socks, I hear her say: “Get a life or move to the moon; you're wasting all the sunshine here.”
Bio: Janet Buck is a three-time Pushcart Nominee and the author of four collections of poetry. Her essays and humor have recently appeared in the “Mississippi Review,” “McKenzie Magazine,” “Tapestry,” “Gifts from Our Grandmothers” (published by Crown, with a foreward by Anna Eleanor Roosevelt), “PageONE,” “Moxie Magazine,” “L'Intrigue,” and dozens of journals world-wide.