I had an aunt Dot who has been dead now for quite a few years. She was actually my great aunt, though we were not related by blood, given that I was adopted. Her sister was the person I’ve always thought of as my good grandmother, who went by the handle of Grammie. She was my mother’s mother, and Dot’s younger sister.
Upon my adoption to the people I’ve thought of as my real mother and father, Grammie loved me immediately. Flesh and blood were meaningless; love was not. We were tight. Over the years we would watch lots of Red Sox games on her crappy old TV that was deeper than it was wide. She came from a generation when people called African Americans “colored,” and would still slip into her vernacular with ease, though she didn’t understand what she was doing wrong, and if there was a bigger Pedro Martinez fan in the world, you’d have been challenged to try and believe it.
She also gossiped a lot about her sister Dot. Aunt Dot was what you’d call very old school religious. She was a spinster. An actual spinster, not in the way we bandy about the term to reference a forty-year-old cousin who hasn’t been on a date in forever.
There was this vague familial rumor that once—around the time of a mid-century war, so either WWII or Korea—she was “sweet on someone,” but everyone knew this was more of an attempt to gussy up a little mystery to Dot’s otherwise drab backstory. Theoretically there’d been some slow dances at a town community center, when young couples still thought in terms—or at least had the memory of—keeping enough space them for the Holy Ghost, but even that felt like a stretch, if you knew Aunt Dot.
Dot’s principle interests in life, it seemed, were the Lord, prune juice and talking about her bowels, and terming people fat—to their faces.
Other people said hello, how are you, how have you been, but Dot sized you up, looking from your feet to your head, shaking her own considerable gourd as her gaze locked onto your midsection, no matter what was going on there—you could have a washboard tucked in your pants—and then she would inform you that, alas, you were a porker. (In later years, Dot came to resemble Gollum, which made her judgments on your level of fitness seem to have a yet more sinister certainty behind them. Once she even touched the belly of a much younger aunt of mine, and I half-expected her to say, “My precious!” as she poked about.)
The prevailing opinion was that Aunt Dot, well, kind of sucked, but that was part of part of her charm, that level of orneriness. You admired her consistency, after a fashion. Plus, she made for great stories, and everyone—though never in front of her, of course—did an Aunt Dot impersonation at cookouts that invariably prompted someone to say, “Poor old Dot,” even as they laughed and the members of the gossip gang each took a big, long sip of their drinks, a kind of toast that had never actually been official.
Dot’s recounting of her bathroom battles with her blocked passageways had a Homeric quality to them, and her saving deus ex machina could involve anything from forceps to her fingers—I shudder anew as I recall the triumphant tone in her voice, for she always prevailed, eventually—to apricot brandy to some lines from Paul to the Galatians. She viewed her bowels as a battle front. The battle front might not have made for polite conversation, but it was where the news of the day came from, and you couldn’t stint on the news of the day. Was just the way of the adult world, but it was also never too early to indoctrinate children in the realities of the front—no more so than telling them that hell was real, and hell hurt, which was a line Dot perpetually had at the ready.
You could be seven, as I was, and that would not preclude her from divesting herself of her recent multi-hour torments of ornery constipation, and how she had come through, fatigued, but lighter, less blocked, more, presumably, flowing. People who met her would say that she was a trip, if they were trying to be positive, while others would wear that ashen rictus of shock that is the facial expression version of, “Are you kidding me?”
Dot, as I suggested, was very anti-hell. She loved a good brimstone lecture, though, about what hell would be like if you landed there. These were joyless talks. Grammie, meanwhile, was full of vim, explodingly alive. She loved her grandkids and spoiling them. She loved mischief, forking you a ten dollar bill she couldn’t really afford behind your mother’s back after this was exclusively forbidden. She even had the eye twinkle thing going, such that she possessed some Santa Claus swagger, grandmother-style.
She wouldn’t stop smoking or playing the lottery, which Dot disapproved of, this being a form of gambling, and after she died we discovered piles of notebooks written in these intense numerical ciphers that amounted to my grandmother’s life work of numbers theory, which I think may have cracked open the universe for her as when Wagner got to the end of his Ring cycle. Let’s just say that she won a lot. She wasn’t especially religious, though she had a scary-looking picture of a saint in her room, but everyone had that back then. She died before the Red Sox won their first World Series in almost a century—you’d think, living as she did into her eighties, she would have seen at least one—and that made me sad, but not as sad as when she fell in the home she loved so much and broke her hip, and had to go into care at one of those establishments that, however well-meaning, smells of perpetual piss.
I’d take the commuter rail out to the closest stop to this house of ostensible recuperation—which was a well-meaning lie, as you knew and the people there surely must have known—then walk through the wooded town of Milton where my dad’s mother lived, though I wouldn’t visit her.
Initially she called me a “bastard” due to the circumstances of my birth—and that I had originated from elsewhere, and was not the flesh and blood of any of these people—though she mellowed some in later years, and there was a rumor that Aunt Dot sat down with her once, and scared her shitless about the next world. But she tried near the end, and there is a wonderful thing about being human and that is if someone softens towards you, it is in our nature—and I think it still remains there, no matter how hard we try to denature ourselves—that you will soften, too. Even with my asshole grandmother. Dot, though, was trickier.
I visited Grammie as much as I could at the piss palace, which was a cruel way to think of it, but I had to joke in order to see her that way, and she spoke mostly about returning to her home, how she was looking forward to that, even as she understood, I think, and you understood, and she knew you did—there was a lot of knowing going on—that that probably wasn’t going to happen. When she died, she did not go easily into that good night. She slipped into a coma, but the end would not come. She was taken off machines, and still there was the protracted waiting for the waiting of life—which is so much of life—to cease. I sat with her, alone, several nights, so that she would not have to die alone. And she did not.
But it was Aunt Dot who really knew something about sickness. When Grammie was out living her life, Dot took took care of their infirm, cancer-laced parents. They once had a brother named Teddy, and one of the few things that Dot and Grammie agreed upon was that this fellow was the absolute bee’s knees—they hailed from the jazz age—and he could have been a politician, they’d both race to add, trying to beat each other to the punch of the rhetorical flourish, as if nothing could be more incandescent in a person’s life, and then they would nod, in unison, sagaciously.
This Teddy loved his drink, and one night, when locked out of the family’s house, drunk out of his mind, he scaled the roof to try and find ingress through a window, and fell to his death on the pavement, a political career that was never going to happen crushed before its first filibuster. But his two sisters, sixty years after the fact, would still theorize—but in the tones of someone reading the Gospel at mass—that Teddy would’ve gotten us to the moon faster than anything Kennedy spearheaded, if only his own issues on the gravity-front had not interceded.
When they were older in life, and Dot was decades deep into her spinsterhood and Grammie had outlived her husband, they were roomies at the house the latter loved so much. Dot had the top floor, my grandmother the ground one. When you visited, it was only a matter of time before Dot would make her descent and call you fat. You’d hear her pacing around upstairs, the beast stirring, and Grammie, knowing what was about to come, would say, “Oh dear,” or sometimes, when the footsteps were really heavy—the portentous tread of a soon-to-be-manifested problem in human form—that would be extended into a “Oh, dear, bread and beer,” which also might have been a shout-out to Teddy in the ether.
The cellar of this house was the stuff of nightmares. There was a coal shoot—very old school—and shadows numberless, such that you thought goblins of some kind or other had to have at least a temporary residence here. You were told—warned—even by Grammie, which was especially worrisome, not to go down there, save when she or Dot wanted something. Then it was cool. Only, it was not cool, because Aunt Dot had created this character named Willie Winkle whom she said lived in the basement. He didn’t just abduct and murder children, but there was this seducing element as well in her narratives on the subject. It felt a little like he was going to do some other things to you that were less than ideal, even so far as basement goblins went.
Nonetheless, if Aunt Dot wanted her cribbage set, she wanted her cribbage set, so with your marching orders, down you would go for a prelude to the hell she spoke of so regularly, and she would carry herself to Grammie’s sink, where she’d take a hammer and bang on the pipes, so that an echo seemingly sourced from the fiery bowels of the earth—from someone who knew fiery bowels—would throb and ring in your brain, as Dot screamed, “Winkle is gonna get you ya! Here he comes!”
It is worth noting that on the occasions when Dot tweaked her wrist—for she was also a hypochondriac—Grammie would take her place with the hammer, this being, again, one of the very few things upon which they found accordance. Perhaps Winkle was Teddy’s ghost, for all we knew.
Dot had a way of making bad things you did, that you might not have done, become a self-fulfilling prophesy. She was at our house one time in the Boston suburbs, and I noticed her eyeing me pretty hard, wherever I went. This can’t be good, I thought. I was a small boy then, and as I made my way to the bathroom, Dot followed me, a Gollum-y bloodhound. When I got in there, I reached up to scratch my nose and pick it a little—I might have been six—because I wasn’t keen on using the toilet now that my pursuer had me cornered, but it felt like I should do something, having made the trip and all.
“There it is!” Dot exclaimed. ‘We never do this, never never,” she said, pulling my hand from my nose. “You will bleed!”
She landed so hard on that verb that it felt both Biblical and sourced from some horrific real-life gore scene she had once witnessed, a cruel blood-letting of some other child’s nostrils. My decidedly second-rate grandmother had once bellowed “Blood will tell!” when apprised by my father of my parents’ plan to adopt me, with my blood from elsewhere, so I’m thinking blood was something of a thematic staple—though in various forms—for women of this generation.