Travels With My Aunt
It was to be the very first summer since childhood in which I would not be indulging in every delectable treasure (natural and otherwise) that Eastern Long Island had always laid within my ravenous reach. I was off to Paris. And I was taking my Aunt Ruth as my travel companion.
When I was a little boy, I thought Aunt Ruth was Katharine Hepburn. Or vice versa. I would see old Hepburn movies on TV and in that faulty, hammered out logic of early boyhood, I figured the two women were one and the same. Aunt Ruth had the same regal looks, the same lanky figure, same authentic bootstrap philosophy, with the same pithy wisdom. Perhaps the confusion was amplified by so frequently seeing Aunt Ruth in magazine ads, or on the golf course in her tailored slacks with her straight auburn hair trailing her remarkable swing. In fact, the first money I ever made in my life was as her caddy. Only eleven years old, I was escorted to the Shinnecock Hills course to tote her golf bag for eighteen holes. She took pleasure in pointing out that this was one of the few clubs progressive enough to have welcomed women golfers from their very inception, almost a century earlier.
Aunt Ruth married quite young to a famous sports writer, more than a decade her senior. When he died in his prime after a long bout with cancer, she married a magazine photographer and began her own career as a photographer’s model. They were a glamorous couple and their work assignments sent them traveling separately and sometimes together to exotic places which I loved to hear her tell of. But when Uncle Bert also died far too young, I became, in a manner of speaking, Aunt Ruth’s main squeeze. And I was the primary beneficiary of that arrangement. It was she who first took me to see the Lighthouse at Montauk Point and to marvel over the exhibits in the Keeper’s House which dated from the mid nineteenth century. She took me to see the house where Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner created their works in Springs, East Hampton and changed 20th century art.
“That dilapidated little shack rocked the art world?” I asked, incredulous.
“Size and frailty have little to do with virtuosity,” Aunt Ruth reminded me.
Before and after the summer crowds invaded, she took me to Albert’s Landing and dropped me off there with my friends, so we could become expert at sand soccer. And whenever there was a question about the rules of play, Aunt Ruth was the final arbiter.
“Hey Blue Team,” she’d call out. “Defending players must be at least five yards from the ball when it’s kicked. Don’t make me get out my tape measure!”
When it was time to head to college, she was there to see me off with her usual sage advice. “Darling, like so many people your age, you tend to make decisions based on your own amusement. Amusement is nice, but it won’t sustain you. And a lifetime of amusement is a life wasted. Surely I’ve spoken to you of Horace Mann, father of American education.”
“Yes, Aunt Ruth. Countless times.”
“’Be ashamed to die, until you have won some victory for humanity.’ –Horace Mann. And not a word in there, my darling, about amusing oneself.”
If I had to take a tally, I’m certain Aunt Ruth has earned more than the requisite single victory on the Horace Mann scorecard.
But for a lifelong high scorer, it’s only recently that Aunt Ruth’s autonomy has been put in question. She had reached an inflection point, and somehow, all without my notice.
Always a fan of the health benefits of long walks, she’s made them a part of her daily routine. But recently, when she had been unable to find her way back home, Adult Protective Services was brought into the picture. They required guardianship for her. And I was it. What irony that the woman who
taught me all the most important lessons in life was now under my guardianship.
Which got me to thinking: now that my main squeeze had morphed into a very senior citizen, is it not a kind of long overdue payback to take this treasured lady off to Paris with me for perhaps one of the final summer adventures of her life? “Oh, the places we’ll walk to,” I tell her. I download information and pictures of the Eiffel Tower, the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre, Fouquet’s on the Champs-Elysees.
“Are you sure this is such a good idea?” she asks me. “Sometimes you do get carried away. Need I remind you of that careless investment of yours in Earth Shoes? To this day I can’t remember anything so ugly attached to the human foot. Bunions were less hideous.”
“Aunt Ruth, you’ll be with me all the time. I’ll never let you out of my sight.”
“Great. Just the way I want to see Paris again: on a leash,” she countered. “When those Frenchmen get a gander at me, you think I want my nephew in tow?”
“When I was a kid, Aunt Ruth, you were the one who dazzled me with stories about France. I thought you’d jump at the chance for a return visit.”
“It’s a sweet thought, and I love you for it. But darling, I’m afraid that ship has sailed. It’s all I can manage just getting around in my own house these days. At this stage of the game, I simply can’t afford to delude myself.”
“But you’ll be escorted by someone who adores you. And who’s savvy enough to duck out of sight when those Frenchmen come calling.”
She tilted her head back and chuckled. And I’m instantly transported to early childhood again when I couldn’t sort out the difference between Katharine Hepburn and Aunt Ruth. “Dear, dear boy. Nothing fools us better than the lies we tell ourselves.”
“I’ll kidnap you and take you hostage.”
“No need. I’m always happy to be with you. But darling, look around. Haven’t we got our own Eiffel Tower in the Lighthouse? And as for the Palace at Versailles… well, have you been to Meadow Lane in Southampton lately? We got dozens of Versailles, right here in our midst. And I’ll take the menu at Pierre’s on Main Street over the liste des prix at Fouquet’s any day.”
Sometimes the peculiar scramble of fate plays out in such a way that every absurdity suddenly becomes logical. As it turned out, Aunt Ruth’s last travel itinerary did not include a journey to France. It was a trip to East End Hospice where we had our final visits together.
Putting on a brave face and forcing an air of cheerfulness is an act of utter futility, particularly when the woman for whom you are creating the performance sees right through you. We spoke of the past. We spoke of my future. And oddly enough, we spoke of Katharine Hepburn and Horace Mann, both of whom Aunt Ruth could still quote by heart. Hepburn said: “If you want to have a thrilling life, do the thing that terrifies you the most.” Aunt Ruth said she was always struck by that remark, but was happy that she was able to garner sufficient thrills with only a minimum of personal terrors.
And then we turned to Horace Mann and his admonition to “Be ashamed to die…”
“’…until you have won some victory for humanity,’” Aunt Ruth repeated with a look of doubt in her eyes. “That one troubles me. What do I have at this late point in life? Scrapbooks full of magazine ads: a Gucci handbag draped over my shoulder; a Sara Lee cake served with a pretend smile to my pretend magazine ad family.”
I had to chasten her. “But, Aunt Ruth, you’ve led an exemplary life. I’ve never heard you utter an unkind word about anyone or anything. With the possible exception of Earth Shoes.”
She protested, “That’s passive; not active. Or… as your uncle used to say: ‘That’s defense; not offense.’ Horace Mann was talking about taking action. Offense. Activism.”
“What about me, Aunt Ruth?”
The disturbed look in her eyes was now replaced with a glimmer of hope, perhaps even of joy. “Yes, you! Maybe you, my darling. You are my one victory for humanity. Your uncle used to say, ‘When the ball comes to you, kick it.’”
“I wish I had known him.”
“Wish I’d known him myself,” she said with a wry smile.
I squeezed her hand and choked out: “My beautiful Aunt Ruth.”
“Can you do that for me, darling? Kick that ball, whatever it may turn out to be. And you… you will be my victory. Because… if you’re not… what have I been doing but killing time? And now… time is killing me in return.”
“Listen to me carefully, woman. You are my beacon, Aunt Ruth. You are my lighthouse. Now and forever.”