Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Anyhow, enough of that.
So...who remembers having an unexpected pleasant visit with one of your elderly neighbors when you were a kid? Perhaps a visit that left a positive impact on you, maybe even for life? I'll bet you can recall somebody eccentric who lived on your street. You know, maybe an important or even a revered person.
I vividly remember a childhood conversation with such a neighbor, and I'd like to share my experience with you.
LESSONS FROM AUNT MARGARET
by Joseph Lupoli
My eyes were tired. I had been reading for about four hours. First it was The Happy Hollister's and National Geographic, then I had just finished reading the “H” volume of my new pictorial encyclopedia set. “I” was next. The aroma of something being fried wafted into my little study from the kitchen—liver and onions? My mother was preparing supper to have ready for when my father came home from work. And then, over the noise of rattling pots and pans, she announced the dreaded words:
“Frankie, I think you should visit Aunt Margaret.”
I rolled my eyes and rested my head on my hands while searching for a clever and convincing excuse.
But the best I could offer was a meager, “Aww, c'mon. Do I really have to, Ma?”
She stood there, hands firmly on hips. “You can’t sit in the house all the time. I want you to visit the neighbors…it’s nice and sunny out.”
There was no getting out of it this time. My mother had been asking me to visit Aunt Margaret for two weeks now. I thought it was enough that my parents presented me to all their relatives, friends, and everybody they ever knew, on a whirlwind tour starting from the day they adopted me two months ago. But apparently they weren’t done. Now I was expected to walk around the neighborhood and knock on strangers’ doors and say, “Hi, I’m Frankie, and I’ve come to visit you.” When would it end? Or will this ‘let-us-show-off-our-new-son' business go on indefinitely?
“Come on, Frankie," she said, her tone now a bit softer. "Put on your coat and walk across the street. She’s old and hardly ever gets visitors.”
Great. Just great. "Okay, okay,” I mumbled with annoyed resignation.
My mother watched from inside the door as I slowly meandered down the driveway toward our wooden gate. I remembered that my father told me Aunt Margaret was a retired grammar school principal and she won all sorts of awards. And that she had upwards of forty cats. I heard him and Ma talking about her being jilted at the altar—according to him, the groom never showed up and she never dated again. She became a spinster. It was all said sympathetically.
I thought about how terrible it must have been for her to live with a heart that broken. I had to laugh to myself though—my school grades were sure broken, but I still had to go to school. And who knew what my loud-mouth father told Aunt Margaret about me. He probably spilled his guts about everything. I hoped I wasn’t paying a visit just to be lectured to. After all, Aunt Margaret wasn't really my aunt; she was just a neighbor.
As I reached our gate-latch I stopped and looked directly across the street at her home. It was a large brown clapboard house with a windowed, closed-in porch surrounded and completely shaded by large pine trees and maples in her little front yard. Those five unruly Hartwick kids who lived next door to Aunt Margaret were playing in the street. They were very loud, but incomprehensible—just a lot of screaming and stuff.
I stood behind my fence and peered out at the street just like we orphans did from the huge back yard at the Children’s Home in the city. My new yard was small and bordered by a white picket fence; not like those tall black iron gates at the orphanage. This neighborhood was not at all like the city. It was just a quiet dead-end street with houses and trees and fences—not much else. Plus, I was an only child; I even had my own room. So why would I care to venture out beyond our little fence? I never felt the inclination to wander outside those big gates at the orphan…
“Frankie! Go on.”
My mother opened the screen door to coax me. Then I heard it slam shut.
“All right, all right, I’m going!”
So I warily maneuvered my way past the staring Hartwick kids to Aunt Margaret’s chain-linked gate and, once through, I saw the two brick steps that led to her maroon front door. Those steps reminded me of the morning I noticed her sitting on them. She was in a nightgown and house robe, and on her lap sat a squirrel eating nuts from her hand. There was another squirrel at her feet waiting patiently. I found it amazing that a wild squirrel would trust a person enough to sit on their lap.
The doorbell made a deep rich series of pleasant lyrical sounds. A couple of minutes went by as I waited. Great! She’s sleeping! I can tell my mother nobody answered and I‘ll get a reprieve. But just as I turned to leave, the doorknob turned. My heart sank. What was I supposed to say to her? And how long was I supposed to stay?
As soon as the door opened, a new scent rushed to my nose. The smell was not unpleasant and it calmed me somewhat. Then Aunt Margaret appeared from in the doorway. Her soft grey eyes greeted me first, welcoming and non-judgmental. Hi, Frankie, please come in. It’s so nice to see you. Then she smiled and spoke:
“Hi, Frankie, please come in…”
“Hi, Aunt Margaret, I umm…I’ve come to visit you.”
“Well, I’m glad you did,” she said with honest enthusiasm.
She gracefully extended her hand toward a light tan couch. “Please sit down. I’ll hang up your coat.”
So I sat on the couch and Aunt Margaret took a seat in a large padded chair with a colorful shawl draped on it. We were just a couple of feet apart. The couch was very comfortable.
That sure was simple.
Aunt Margaret wore a similar gown and robe as when I saw her that earlier morning. She was a smallish and frail woman, but not underweight. Everything about her appeared soft—her voice, her small nose, her long white hair; even the few wrinkles on her round light colored face were soft. Her face exuded a sort of gentle understanding.
And it looked to me as though her eyes have felt pain, a kind of pain I couldn’t identify with and may never experience. Aunt Margaret’s entire stature radiated life and humility and compassion. I thought lousy students like me were supposed to feel nervous around school principle's—even if they were retired. It then occurred to me that a sermon about my poor grades was probably the last thing on her mind.
“Your eight years old, Frankie?”
“Yes,” I answered as a calico cat brushed up against my pant-leg.
“That’s Pinky…Pinky, say hello to Frankie.”
I reached down and petted Pinky. She was a friendly cat.
“How many cats do you have, Aunt Margaret?”
“I have forty-two little darlings. Do you like cats, Frankie?”
“Yes, cats are great. I don’t like dogs though.”
“Well, a dog bit me once,” I minimized without going into detail.
The last thing I wanted was Aunt Margaret digging into uncharted territory—such as why I was sent the orphanage in the first place.
And so Aunt Margaret and I talked about cats for a while. She told me how she took in stray cats and how she was able to hand-feed squirrels. As we bantered, I began to look around and noticed an endless array of crystal and porcelain figurines neatly arranged and displayed in various locations about the room. There was also a large grandfather clock and many pictures and paintings on her walls. Everything was placed just so and there wasn’t a speck of dirt or dust in sight.
“Can I get you something to drink, Frankie?”
My earlier nerves made me thirsty.
“Okay, may I have a glass of water?”
“Yes, of course. I’m going to have some tea. I’ll be right back.”
Aunt Margaret left then returned with three cats trotting closely behind her. When Aunt Margaret sat down, one of the cats, a black and white kitten, jumped on her lap and immediately curled up and closed its eyes. The other two lay sprawled near her feet. Pinky leapt on the couch next to me and put her head on my lap and began purring. This was tuning into quite a cozy visit. Aunt Margaret told me their names as I petted them.
“How do you like your new school here, Frankie?”
Uh oh—maybe not that cozy. Here was the set-up I had suspected. But maybe I’d be able to steer her away from school talk by being direct right off-the-bat.
“I don’t like school because it’s boring and I can’t do math…but I like to read,” I answered while defiantly looking her square in the eye, almost daring her to scold me.
Aunt Margaret surprised me by laughing. She leaned close to my ear.
“Boys aren’t supposed to like school,” she whispered. “And I can tell you read a lot because your pronunciation is perfect. It’s not the end of the world if you can’t learn mathematics. I was terrible in math too, you know.”
At that, we both laughed. My laugh was from relief.
Even though I found it hard to believe that an award-winning teacher could be weak in any subject, I was just grateful that Aunt Margaret mentioned nothing more of school. She was a perceptive lady and I was a very thankful kid.
Then she reached and took a thick beige photo album from a self and handed it to me. In it were childhood pictures of her, her only sister, and many animals, both wild and domestic. The second half of the album contained newspaper articles and pictures of her as a teacher and then as a principal, some with smiling students and faculty members surrounding her. Aunt Margaret seemed to find joy pointing at each picture while telling me the names of all the people and what they were like. Her memory was astonishing. Some of the pictures went back to the 1930’s. She described every photo in vivid detail and her enthusiasm appeared to heighten when I asked her questions. I truly was interested in all those pictures and articles. I liked learning about what life was like in the old days.
Aunt Margaret and I chatted and laughed as though we’d known each other for a long time. It was that easy. While petting Pinky, I noticed a little black box on a small round table next to her. Since that box sat at arms length from Aunt Margaret’s chair, I surmised that its contents must be very important. But despite my curiosity, I made no mention of it.
At some point, I sensed she was tiring. As I was about to thank her and bid my good bye, the enormous grandfather clock suddenly announced another hourly chime.
Amazingly, I had been there for four hours!
“Umm…thanks for letting me visit you, Aunt Margaret,” I clumsily told her as I stood up. Pinky wasn’t prepared for my departure and she hooked a claw in my pants pocket to protest my taking away her headrest. I gently unhooked her little paw.
“Frankie, I’m so glad you came to see me. You’re a very unusual young man; you’re fun! And you should steer clear of Those Hartwick and Mulligan boys’", Aunt Margaret exclaimed, with a bit of fury in her voice. "They’re so loud and mean.” She shook her tiny fist in the air. “If I ever catch them throwing rocks at my squirrels again…!”
“Oh I’m sorry for getting get so worked up, Frankie. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“That’s okay, Aunt Margaret; I understand.”
And I did.
“Frankie, please feel free to visit me as often as you like, even when you’re sad and worried.”
Hmm. So my folks did tip off Aunt Margaret that I am a "disturbed child." And she remembered. There was no getting away with much around her—not that I cared to. Aunt Margaret did seem want my company with no ulterior motive. Maybe she just liked me? I wasn’t going to disappoint her.
“Yes, Aunt Margaret; I’ll visit you a lot.”
With that, her eyes tilted joyfully again. She believed me.
And I did visit her often. My school grades grew even worse, but Aunt Margaret never bugged me about it—as though she knew the real reason why, even if I didn’t. As the years rolled on, I fell in and out of friendship with the Hartwick and Mulligan kids—and I made sure they never went near her squirrels, even if it meant fighting them.
Then one day, Aunt Margaret died. I was fourteen and it was my first funeral. She looked happy; like she was just napping. I was surprised so few people were there—only a handful. How could that be, I wondered. Wasn’t she renowned as a great teacher and motivator? And even the few mourners there seemed indifferent, as though inconvenienced into a disagreeable courtesy call. They weren’t really mourning Aunt Margaret. I was very put off by the whole facade and later, while alone in bed, I wondered if a normal person would morn and cry. It was easier for me to justify that if there was a Heaven—and there had better be, then Aunt Margaret’s soul probably zoomed right up there the moment it left her body.
The next day, my father told me that Aunt Margaret’s little black box contained nitro-glycerin tablets. She had a severe heart condition—she suffered numerous small heart attacks for many years. I guess God needed her up there to lend the insightful understanding of her listening ear to those in need.
Around the following year, some big-shot politicians named Aunt Margaret’s old school after her:
A few decades too late, I thought. Her former pupils and faculty coworkers had long forgotten about her living alone in her brown clapboard house. Isn’t it sad how certain people aren’t recognized as great until they leave?
Still, those of us who have suffered losses devastating enough to lead us into head-first tailspins of self-loathing and worse; we know the score. The lucky one's among us who do recover from such spirals, know to hold tight a piece of our heart to a glorious person once known; we see her forever alive and wishing with her last breath to turn an old photo album back into the people she loved so dearly. Ultimately, Aunt Margaret's lesson to me was that there is no futility in mortality. And I realized that sometimes the worlds best medicine for a troubled child can be rendered by the simple, serene wisdom of an elderly person with enough understanding to let life happen at its own pace.