Great Aunt Tana trudged to my grandmother’s house every Saturday with her canvas bag filled with wonders. She was a short, rather rotund elderly lady who had a sweet smile and sincere hug. I looked forward to her visits because it also meant we were having a special lunch. I loved Auntie dearly, but as a kid of seven, I had no idea she was a thief.
The Saturday lunch always struck me as beyond the means of our small Sicilian family consisting of my mother, grandmother, and me. I wondered why it was so different when my two aunts and my Great Aunt Tana visited on Saturday, when most days we ate baloney and cheese sandwiches.
It was only after the passage of many years, that I realized the food was a celebration of sorts. Those Saturday lunches were my great aunt’s show. She was the one who brought the loot. My mom, well, I guess you could say she was the fixer as well as the fence.
I was too young to understand what really was going on, so my memories are mostly of the delicious lunch. The table tucked into a small corner of my grandmother’s kitchen was called a nook, with wooden seats on either side. On those Saturdays, this table was laden with food—luscious Genoa salami; thin, succulent slices of provolone cheese; ripe red Roma tomatoes; sinful ricotta and fresh Italian bread, all from the local Italian grocery. But more important than all else (to me, at least) were the tangy Gaeta olives—so addictive that I never seemed to get enough, until Grandmother slapped my hand.
The women always gathered by 11:30 in the morning. Aunt China was there as was Aunt Marguerite, my mother’s married sisters. I was the only kid because my mother and I lived in Grandmother’s house. Otherwise, I’m sure they have excluded me from the business at hand.
The most important person in this lineup, however, was Great Aunt Tana, my grandmother’s younger sister. I loved Auntie because she was different from my stern, no-nonsense grandmother; she never failed to give me a reassuring pat on the cheek, as if saying everything was all right because she had arrived. The women in my family, however, hinted in various ways that Auntie was a bit dense. They would raise their beautifully penciled eyebrows in a quizzical look when she said something they thought was silly.
I don’t mean to imply my family didn’t love her; they did, but Auntie’s view of the world was limited. She never spoke about current affairs—maybe a remark or two about a movie star—but nothing of import that mattered to the rest of the women. They chattered about the current fashions, like the halter dress Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch, or how to squeeze money from their budgets to buy more clothes. Auntie’s main concern was her parakeet, Buddy, and her one friend, Mrs. Reed, who lived in the same apartment building as Auntie and who also worked at Goodwill Industries.
Greetings were always effusive when Auntie arrived, and Grandmother carefully took her bag and carried to the large mahogany table in the dining room. There, without much fuss, the contents of the bag would be pulled out and examined thoroughly, then passed along to the others. Auntie always stood back from the table with a proud grin on her simple face.
The bounty she brought was gold bracelets, rings, necklaces, and broaches. Sometimes gemstones were embedded in the jewelry, even diamonds, although not often. Most items were in perfect condition, others broken in some way—bent chains or missing clasps, bracelets that needed a new fastener or a safety chain. After a month’s accumulation of the loot, my mother would judiciously sell the plunder to an old man in Glendale who owned a pawnshop. They would then distribute the cash among the five women.
Auntie’s booty came from Goodwill Industries where she worked for years as a seamstress, repairing donated clothing. The explanation—given to me as an inquisitive child—was that Auntie was allowed to take donated items because her wages were so low. I accepted that explanation for a long time until I grew older and began to gain perspective into my mother’s family who were professional dancers from the era of vaudeville. They were beautiful women and handsome men who lived on the road and often took whatever wasn’t nailed down from boarding houses and cheap hotel rooms. That free-thinking habit was exhibited—much to my horror and the inevitable argument—when, as an adult, I would take Mom to lunch at a nice restaurant and she would scoop up a handful of sugar packets or slip a large soup spoon that she fancied into her purse.
Two years ago, after Mom died, I found a metal box hidden in a large basket of towels with names of long-gone rooming houses emblazoned on them—stuff easily lifted and pushed into a suitcase lo those many years ago. After prying the box open, I found broken pieces of gold chains, innumerable gold clasps and fasteners, and a pair of fine needle-nosed pliers. I suddenly remembered Mom sitting in the kitchen nook repairing the jewelry from Auntie. Only then, did I fit together the meaning of those Saturday lunches, realizing that my auntie stole from an organization that turned donations into jobs for the disabled, people like herself.
It took a month to sort through Mom’s belongings. As trash bag after trash bag piled up, my embarrassment over my family’s thievery tugged at my subconscious. Many nights, I wondered what I could do that would somehow make up for their larceny.
A few weeks later, when the large truck pulled into Mom’s driveway, I breathed a sigh of relief. Everything Mom owned went to Goodwill—even the metal box. It was the only way I knew to absolve my family’s bad karma.
Geraldine Birch (geraldinebirch.com) has been a newspaper reporter most of her life, having worked for various community newspapers in Southern California and Arizona. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Arizona Republic, the Christian Science Monitor, Opium, Six Hens, Fiction Attic Press, Santa Fe Writers Project, and Reed Magazine. She is the author of three books, The Swastika Tattoo, Sedona: City of Refugees, and Vision of a Happy Life: A Memoir.