What Makes Her My Great Aunt
One summer, in my young adulthood, I stayed in the guest room of my miniature Aunt Sylvia. I call her my miniature Aunt Sylvia, but she is actually my Great Aunt. As aunts go, she really is great, but she is also a very, very small human. I am convinced that she is the prototype on which George Lucas based the character of Yoda. She is tiny and wise and unforgivably adorable.
I don’t remember how I wound up staying in her guest room for the summer. I don’t know if I didn’t want to be in my parents’ apartment or if they didn’t want me there, if it was my idea or if Sylvia suggested it. All I know is that at a time in my life when I desperately needed to feel independent, but was not at all prepared to live independently, Aunt Sylvia opened her home to me. She accepted me warmly and I treated her home as my hotel in the callous, unthinking way that only a young, self-certain college student can. I’m sure I was rude and insensitive in any number of ways. I know I repeatedly borrowed twenties from her, always promising to pay it back and genuinely believing that I would do so very soon. I was absolutely sure that fame and the fortune I erroneously believed would automatically accompany it, awaited me. This would allow me to repay all the accumulated twenty-dollar loans from my great and tiny aunt, a forty-dollar poker debt to a college friend and any number of other small debts accrued over the years.
Even as I borrowed money, I spent unwisely. I bought pot regularly, a habit I later learned served as self-medication against fairly severe depression. I often took cabs rather than utilizing public transportation and, while I pretended that I did this because I tended to run late, in truth it was part of a pretense of financial comfort, a conviction that if I behaved as though I was doing very well, real success would rush in to meet me.
I cannot for the life of me place the exact date, find any surety as to whether this was all during the summer that I was the Stage Manager at the Light Opera of Manhattan or the summer that I interned at the Dramatists Guild, Xeroxing and reading submissions for their Young Playwrights Competition. Maybe those were the same summer. I do know it was a time of grinding poverty for me, made endurable by the beautiful, rent-free living conditions provided by Aunt Sylvia and her Upper East Side hospitality. She had a housekeeper who made my bed and did my laundry along with Sylvia’s in that apartment that my aunt had owned and occupied for so long that her phone number began “SA7.”
I fantasized that someday I would be as old as she, an age that is just twenty-years or so away now, and that I would have a guest room to spare. I imagined that I might grow up to be as generous of spirit as she was, as kind, as nurturing as she could be in her supremely practical, unsentimental way. I imagined that this was what a decent grown-up looked like. Only, you know, taller.
I could see her decency and could imagine developing it, but I had no idea how to exhibit it, how to emulate it. I was too young to have proper empathy for another human being, too self-involved to open myself to even the imagining of another person’s perspective.
Sylvia was seventy then and had been a clinical psychologist since the forties, as near as I can figure it. Maybe even since the thirties. I think her first book was published in 1950 and I know several years went into preparing that manuscript. A nineteen or twenty-year old man-child, I never explored what this meant in terms of professional development and personal self-determination for a small woman operating in a powerfully patrician pre-feminist culture.
I stayed with her for a couple of months in the mid-eighties, a time of self-indulgence and conspicuous opulence. I worked in the arts and attended an expensive college steeped in traditions of demonstrative liberalism and the kind of free thought that is possible only for those affluent enough to have free time and to believe, because their parents are the ones paying for it, that in a capitalist culture even time and thought might actually be free.
I could not imagine what it was for Sylvia to come into her adulthood during a national depression. I could not see past my own day-to-day experience, my own egotistical endeavors and my secret fears of personal inadequacy to know how arrogant and stupid and selfish I must surely have appeared to this lovely woman who gave me a home and a safe place to return to in the wee hours when I was finished smoking with my friends, discussing our bright futures and undeniable talents.
Many years later, after I had graduated college and moved to Los Angeles where I had taken still more time to turn into anything like a self-sufficient grown-up, I visited her on a trip to the East Coast. She welcomed me and I drank coffee in that big apartment on the Upper East Side.
It had been at least fifteen years since that summer when I stayed with her, probably closer to twenty. Still, something had been on her mind since that time and she asked me about it. She told me that once I had asked her for twenty dollars and she had given it to me. She did not say, “loaned,” but I remembered with a wince that I had thought of every one of those twenties as a loan, had marked each one carefully in a notebook that also contained bits of poetry and lyrics and jokes for my nascent stand-up act. She said that after handing me this twenty she had chanced to look out through the window of that high-up apartment and had seen me, far beneath her, hailing a cab. It had troubled her deeply, to see me spending so freely when clearly I had no money to spare. She had felt taken advantage of – though that is my inference and not something she said; she had felt cheated, conned, an enabler of ill-considered spend-thriftery.
I tried to explain to her that I had been deeply invested in a pretense of prosperity, that I had genuinely believed that if I just behaved as though I was wealthy, everything would work out okay for me. I was fairly sure that she did not understand how such a belief system could exist; the idea was wholly foreign to her experience of the world, as baffling to her as the piety of true, faithful religiosity is to me when I encounter it. I hoped that, at the very least, she had understood that I was no longer that young, unthinking, uncaring man, and that I had grown into a responsible adult, but the impression created all that time ago was probably far too strong to be so easily corrected. I suspect that in order to withhold any indication of judgment about the incident so troublingly remembered, she retreated into the habitual psychiatric detachment techniques of her profession.
Recently I received an e-mail inviting me to my Miniature Aunt Sylvia’s 100th birthday party in New York. I mulled it over all day while my wife was at work. I came up with lists of justifications for travelling East to the celebration. The truth is, it is not travel I can easily afford, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. I feel an affection for this woman, a real love that is not quite reasonable given the amount of actual time I’ve spent in her presence over my lifetime. She was kind to me when I was young and frightened. I have not seen her in quite a while. I wanted to go, but I wanted to have my end of the conversation fully prepared before bringing it up to my wife who is, by nature, far more frugal than I.
When Nancy got home I opened with a simple statement of fact. I said, “There’s going to be a 100th birthday party for my Miniature Aunt Sylvia.”
Nancy said, “Well, you have to go to that!”
I felt relieved and loved and taken care of. I threw away the complex arguments, the rationalizations. I said, “Yeah. Also, I want to.”
She said, “Book the flights. We’ll figure it out.”
She wasn’t even thinking about the money. Her only concern was how she’d manage to get home from school in time to walk the dogs while I was away.
I worried about what I could give to this century-old woman as a birthday gift. She has done quite well for herself over the years. Her apartment on the Upper East side alone has to be worth at least a few hundred thousand dollars and as far as I know she’s still working and writing and providing for herself. I couldn’t think of what she might need or want that I might be able to present.
I made calls to book an East coast gig to coincide with the trip, a gig that might allow me to write off the expense of travel. It occurred to me that this was the sort of sensible, financial thinking of which Sylvia might approve. I wondered how the timing would be in terms of getting from the party to a performance venue if I booked something on the same night. I considered whether I’d have time to do public transportation or if I’d need to take a cab. I knew, quite suddenly, what I had to give Aunt Sylvia and I chuckled at my own stupidity for not having thought of it sooner.
I dug through the closet in my office. I pawed through old journals and note-pads until I found the one with the right coffee ring on the cover, the one with the numbers written in it by a much younger me, long, long ago.
On the 17th of this month, I will travel to New York for the 100th birthday of my Great Aunt Sylvia. Now half her age, I will present to her the only gift I can think of that might have any real meaning. Having grown up the best that I knew how, I will give her an envelope into which I have tucked the full amount owed: one-hundred and eighty dollars borrowed in twenty-dollar increments over the course of a summer when I was young, and stupid, and she was a trusting, seventy-year-old girl.