My Uncle Eddie had died. This was not unexpected; in fact, to me it seemed like it was about time because he had a tendency to wet the upholstered garden chair from which he amiably reigned over the living room. He was blind and deaf, and spent the day shining feeble smiles to anyone he sensed was in his orbit. He was in sniffing distance of the enormous television; maybe he enjoyed its warmth and vibrations.
But since death was not an every day event, and because the tones in which the adults spoke changed so dramatically, I was shocked all the same. My grandparents flew up from Florida. They stayed with Uncle Eddie's wife, Tante Annie, who sold girdles at Ohrbachs by Queens Plaza and lived with Ella, Eddie's sister. Tante Ella did nothing anymore.
In the front seat, my mother was stinking up the car with Yardley lavender, which felt like having a porcupine open up in your nose. She was next to my Dad, from whom emanated a more benign Old Spice that made me want to bury my nose in his neck. The strength of the perfumes was usually either a sign of how serious things were or that we were going to the ballet. My parents murmured to each other, sometimes in German, as my brother and I sat silently, no seat belts back then, pinned to our seats by the admonition not to mess up our best clothes for the funeral.
I thought of my job assignment for the day: I was to stay with Uncle Eddie's sister, Tante Ella, and keep her company while all the others went to the funeral. I had a plan along the lines of Heidi, involving good cheer and healthiness, which would save Tante Ella from her sorrow. I was thinking of warming up some milk in a pot because that was a key to Heidi's success with the sick rich girl. When everyone returned Tante Ella would be happy.
There was a very long cemetery along the Long Island Expressway on the way to the apartment where Uncle Eddie, Tante Annie, and Eddie's sister Ella lived. The cemetery hung like a half apron around three tall smokestacks where I imagined they burned the people before they buried them.
My friends explained, with the kind of jubilant certainty that only American kids seemed to possess, that you had to hold your breath going past the cemetery or you would die. The plumes of smoke from the stacks always pricked fear and the air out of me. The usual elation I felt seeing the skyscrapers of My City didn't help today. We turned off at the cemetery's edge and I gasped for a new breath to hold.
My grandparents and my father's cousins and their big Catholic families were crowded in the kitchen and the dining room. My Oma hugged me to her enormous, moth-balled, woolen bosom but paid no attention to me. There was no time to sit on her lap today. My grandfather stood in charge, glowering as usual, getting the family in line as he prepared to lead the procession for his dead brother. My mother was silent, prickly with fear, watching. Dad did his best to get along with Ray who made seatbelts and Ken who drove a very big truck. Their kids shifted uncomfortably in their best clothes. We just looked at each other.
Shoes on the linoleum made slight sucking and slapping sounds. There was only stollen and hot coffee. The candied fruit in the stollen was always such a disappointment. It looked sweet and gummy but it was harsh, sour, nothing like candy. My brother and I shook our heads "no" in derision to offers of it.
I took my post near Tante Ella, staring at her toes, each foot's set turning sharply away from the other, as though caught in long disagreement and expressing repugnance for each other. She sat in a high-backed chair, chomping at the air to align her dentures.
"Hi Tante Ella," I shouted.
She nodded. My brother looked at me and shook his head. Tante Ella turned to me. Her milky blue eyes teared so strongly I waited for them to overflow and slide down her smooth cheeks, and drop off one of the sacks that hung below her jaw lines.
"I'm going to stay with you when they all go to the cemetery," I shouted. The shouting interrupted the adults murmur. I looked and saw many heads shaking at me.
She looked in the direction of Uncle Eddy's chair.
"Would you like some stollen?" I tried.
She nodded. I hissed at my brother who brought back a piece on a plate, gave it to Tante Ella, and backed away. We watched her jaws and teeth go at it.
"Do you want your sweater?"
I purposefully strode to her bedroom, my patent leather shoes clicking on the linoleum.
It was a narrow space with a bed along one wall beneath a window and next to a chest of drawers. My father said Tante Ella had lost her fiance; in World War I and spent the next 60 years cleaning houses and saving money for her nephews, including my Dad. I got the sweater out of the drawer. It was one of two, neatly folded, sitting on yellowed newspaper. The room smelled of Tante Ella, some bony kind of odor. The room was dark and thin and I wondered what would happen if I didn't get married. I rushed out of it.
The family left the apartment, taking my brother as he stood, caught in the midst of weighing whether it would be worse to go to a funeral or stay with Tante Ella and me.
"She'll be fine," I heard them say, not knowing if they meant Tante Ella or me, and the door was locked three times.
I turned to Ella. Would you like coffee? Would you like the television on? Would you like me to read to you? Would you like me to make you something to eat? Are you sad about Uncle Eddie? Do you want to go to the toilet? Do you want the radio on? My questions seemed to put her to sleep. Ella's head was on her shoulder, her eyes closed. I waited and watched Queens through the window and looked for the smoke stacks. The silence was heavy. I wondered if anyone would notice if I left the apartment and went outside.
With a snap, Tante Ella was awake. "I want to die now," she said.
"Oh Tante Ella, you can't."
"I want to die now," she said louder. "It's my turn."
Coffee? Stollen? TV? I begged.
"No," she screeched. "No more. It's over. I had enough. I want to die now." She dropped her head into her hands and moaned. It wasn't crying like I recognized; it was a dry sob from which just a trickle of a cry could escape. I could hear her teeth clacking.
On the floor near her chair, I started to cry, too. I hated this apartment, I wanted out of it. I hated Tante Ella and the terrible food and everything in German. I hated her doing this to me. I hated the prickly smell of pee and coffee and the silence. How could she live like this? I would never have a fiance; and never clean anyone's house and never live out my life with my brother.
I leaned my head on Tante Ella's knee, wrapping my arms around her ankles, looking for a place to nestle in her bony shins, but not finding it in her, not in this apartment in Queens. I held my breath and waited.
After a while, I felt her bony hand on my head, heavy and still, like a cap. I pulled my head back to look. Was she dead? Her head was against the side of the wing of the chair. Her lower jaw hung down and her teeth jutted out. She was still, and the room was thick with silence.
"Tante Ella, are you okay?" I took her dry, cool hand from my head and looked at her knotty fingers. She did not move.
Would I get in trouble if she died? What could I say to explain how I let her die?
"Tante Ella, Tante Ella," I shouted, on my feet, shaking her shoulder.
She woke with a gasp, her jaws clamped shut over her dentures.
"What? What?" she started.
"Are you okay?" I asked. "Can't you please stay awake?"
"Ach," she said. She waved a hand dismissively at me and snuggled back into her chair, closed her eyes again, her body heaving a sigh that sent shudders through her chest and caused her mouth to resettle and her hands to jerk. Soon she was sleeping; I could tell by the movement of her nostrils and the way her body would be wracked by a sigh from time to time.
I sat on the couch and waited, my arms wrapped around my knees against the heavy silence of the apartment lying like chill fog, marooned on the couch across from Tante Ella.
When the others returned my feet sprouted pins and needles when I tried to walk.
"Are you okay?" my mother asked, making a beeline toward me.
"Mousie, how are you?" my grandmother asked, right behind my mother.
Then they looked at Ella, sleeping in the chair. My grandmother adjusted Ella's blanket so that it covered her bare feet. They looked back at me.
"Did Ella give you any trouble?" my Oma asked, kneeling down near me.
"Well, she said she wants to die," I whispered, my eyes welling up, as I leaned towards my Oma's shoulder.
"Ach, Ella, she does that all the time," my Oma said, kissing my forehead. "Come, help me put some cold cuts and cheese out. I got nice rolls."
"You're such a good girl and a big girl," my mother said, her hand caressing my hair, as my Oma led me into the kitchen.
I made a beeline to the kitchen but turned to see Ella, looking out the window, towards the stacks. "Would you like some more stollen?" I shouted.
BIO: Coming soon . . .