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Gifts From The Rich Aunt

Aunt Celeste, my mother’s aunt, and her husband lived in a mansion with innumerable rooms in an exclusive suburb of New York City. She was attractive in a subdued way, ladylike, conservative, soft-lipped with slightly puffy features, well-kept, but never sexy. Aunt Celeste had what one did not properly refer to, especially my New York Post Democrat parents, as servants, but they were. A husband, the grounds caretaker and chauffeur; and wife, the cook, laundress, and housecleaner. They lived in an apartment over the garage and had been with Aunt Celeste for years.

Uncle Ford (Fordcastle the III), square-jawed and handsome in his younger days as a military officer, sat at home in the cavernous living room, smoking a pipe in one of the scrupulously matched upholstered chairs. They’d never had children, and I never dared imagine them making love. Never even saw her without her legs crossed.

They both played golf at the Westfield Country Club--and on weekdays, unheard of in the middle class. Every winter, to escape the cold, which, after all, was a personal affront, they went to their ultra-luxurious enclave in Palm Beach, Florida.

Their life couldn't have been more opposite to our own. When I was about 12, my upwardly-mobile parents moved from a cramped apartment in Riverdale, at that time little more than Bronx spillover, in a psychologically huge leap to a town that had just begun to develop in the mecca of Westfield. Carved from the woods, the spanking new development of identical homes but with different-colored facades, had streets named for poets and writers, an ideal symbol for my parents' aspirations to culture and matching their subscription to Saturday Review.

From the three-bedroom, three-level palace with a real patio at 12 Chaucer Place, my parents made friends on Poe Street, Milton Court, Wordsworth Avenue, and Shelley Lane. Their lawyer was on Browning Drive. My brother's grade-school chum and his dog, whom my brother was in love with, lived on Shakespeare Boulevard. My best girlfriend lived in a split-level on Keats, and my first adolescent boyfriend in the cul-de-sac Tennyson.

Aunt Celeste gave my parents the down payment for the house. This was one of many "gifts" from her it took me years to understand.

And the others . . . Periodically, maybe once every two months, my mother would go out for the day with Aunt Celeste. Around 10:00 in the morning, my mother would get dressed up, take the car, and not come back until 6, just in time to hurriedly slap supper on the table, usually leftovers blanketed in tomato sauce.

She always returned with shiny bags and boxes. They had thick, gold rope handles and logos of stores that I came to wonder at, long for, and fear mightily. The logos were the epitome of those who lived in the rarified atmosphere of Aunt Celeste's world: Saks, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's, Bendel’s, Bonwit Teller.

The stores my family was most comfortable in for school and Sunday clothes, monetarily and every other way, were Alexander's, Gimbel's, and Macy's. For very special occasions, like when we all were invited to Aunt Celeste's on major holidays, my mother would take me to a store called Best's in the next town, the growing hub of the area. This store was a cut above Macy's, with wider aisles and saleswomen who actually talked to you.

The days my mother drove out to Aunt Celeste's, she'd make sure to come back just before my father got home from work. She would immediately carry all those bags and boxes up the half-flight of stairs to her bedroom and hide them somewhere.

Then she'd change quickly--I could always hear her closet door slamming--into her everyday clothes and clatter right down, acting too normal. She'd busy herself with pulling out all the aluminum-foil-covered dishes to stick in the oven quickly so my

brother and I could have supper on time.

It never occurred to me to ask what kind of a time she had or how Aunt Celeste was. We didn't make that kind of conversation in our house. Even though my brother and I were cared for and given to, as children we weren't exactly people. For my parents to share real parts of their lives was just not done. This wasn't because of any stricture or principles of child raising on their parts, but because, well, children weren't exactly people.

The main way I learned about what was in all those shiny bags and boxes was when I'd hear my mother on the phone to her best friend, our next-door neighbor at 10 Chaucer. Wherever my mother was in the house, I could hear her. Even though each of the three levels was separated by a whole half a stairway, you could hear everything, whether it was the record player, the TV, a phone conversation, or bathroom noises.

I'd hear her telling Leila how they went to lunch at the Bloomingdale’s Café, had lobster salad and baskets of tiny rolls, and how cute Aunt Celeste was with her local golf tournament scores and maid problems. Then my mother promised that very soon she'd show Leila all the things she just got. That's how I first heard about the coat.

One Sunday in December, for church, was the first time we saw it. It was heavy wool, a subdued, tasteful plaid of wine, olive, and a hint of blue on a cream background. Tight-fitting at the waist, the coat flared out below, with a stylish wrap belt of the same

material. The collar, though, was the showstopper. A wide V of luxurious fur plunged down to meet the first large, self-covered button.

I'd never seen such a magnificent coat, and when my mother put it on her face transformed, as if she lunched daily in the Bloomingdale's Café and had only hired help problems to concern herself with. Her face took on a new look, nothing like the breakfast dishes in the sink, full laundry hamper, list of chronic errands watching her from the kitchen clipboard, and my father’s silent rages over who-knows-what.

Two months later, she'd again go to lunch with Aunt Celeste and come back with more of those bags and boxes, and sometimes silvery full-length clothes bags. In a typical year, she'd return with two or three suits, several pair of real leather shoes, a couple of designer “good” dresses, and a matched set of luggage.

Once in a while, when Leila wasn’t available and before my father got home, my mother was unable to stand not sharing her bounty. She’d take me into her bedroom, shut the door, and draw out one item after another from the bags and boxes. She’d hold them up in front of her, walk over to the full-length mirror, and turn this way and that. Sometimes she’d put on one of the good pair of shoes and parade up and down. I’d laugh and applaud, feeling privileged to be let in, but, gawky, self-conscious teenager, recognize I could never carry off such splendid, beautiful outfits.

I wasn’t exactly jealous of the gifts, although I could never imagine wearing such finery myself. What did bother me was how my mother gloried in the clothes. When she modeled them, wholly uncharacteristically she laughed, blushed, strutted, stood straighter, and sucked her tummy in. I was repelled by her acceptance of the gifts, as if they were her due, and thought she was greedy.

Intimidated by Aunt Celeste’s grandeur, I never felt comfortable with her when our family was invited for those occasional holidays and couldn’t imagine going to Bloomingdale’s for a luncheon. When the sessions in my mother’s bedroom yielded to the supper necessities, I went to my closet and put on a sweatshirt. And resented and envied at the same time all those gorgeous, expensive clothes.

I never thought about why Aunt Celeste gave the gifts. Apology for marrying so “well” when her family barely made it through the Depression? Wanting a pretend child of her own? Holding onto a sense of family connectness? After all, my mother was her deceased sister’s daughter.

Nor did I ever know how my father felt about the gifts. After my mother’s initial squirrelling away, she wore one of the dresses or suits when they went out to concerts and of course looked wonderful. The best I can say is that he saw and boiled silently.

Maybe I was jealous; maybe I wished I could feel confident enough to go to lunch too with Aunt Celeste and accept and wear such grand gifts. Even as I grew to young womanhood, neither my mother nor Aunt Celeste ever thought of asking me. Maybe I yearned for their special bond and wished I had something like it with my mother.

But now I see, as I couldn’t then with my adolescent self-righteousness and low self-image, what the coat and all the other gifts from Aunt Celeste meant to my mother. They made up, at least a little, for compromises she’d made in marrying late, the sacrifices of her art (studied at the Sorbonne) for homemaking and children, the difficult man who presented himself when she and all the women relatives thought she’d be an old maid. She weathered his unpredictable rages and silences and accepted the futility of any words or actions that could bind his wounds. After all, she was entitled to a little joy.

Much later, when my mother and I finally started to talk, I learned that it wasn’t the clothes themselves she cherished, although they certainly transformed her countenance. It was what they represented—Aunt Celeste’s favor and love, proof of surrogate mother/older sister. Aunt Celeste represented caring. That caring was something my mother had rarely felt, she confessed, either from her parents or my father, whose own needs and alienation from himself took all her energy.

So, much later still, I understood. I forgave her for all the shiny boxes and bags, how she looked like a different person with a Bonwit’s label at her neck. And I fervently hoped, with tears, that the clothes had done everything my mother needed. I silently thanked Aunt Celeste for giving her all those gifts.

Bio: Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne, PhD, has published over 700 pieces in literary and academic venues. Her handbook, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation, addresses doctoral candidates’ nonacademic difficulties. In Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams, Noelle helps readers reach their lifelong yearnings.

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