Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Travels with My Aunt

There is a book called Auntie Mame that tells the wonderful story of the madcap adventures of a boy and his eccentric aunt.  There is a line in it that I like a lot.  “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving!”  Whenever I watch one of the movies that were adapted from that book I always think about my Aunt Lisa.

First things first.  Lisa is not really my aunt. She is my wife’s aunt.  She is not what you typically think of as an aunt.  She is only three years older than my wife and I and as such grew up with others in the family around the same age more as a cousin. Lisa has many fine traits. She is a smart, well-read, spiritual, attractive and successful woman who started her own business and has done well.  She also is to a certain extent crazy.  I don’t mean she has a mental illness.  She’s just sometimes plumb crazy.

After my mother passed away the next year after our wedding Karen and I started going down to see her family in Louisiana for the holidays.  We would always spend time down with her family for Christmas and a few days, and then go up to Shreveport to spend some time and New Year’s with Lisa and her family.  Many of our favorite funny stories involve incidents that happened during our New Year’s visits.

Lisa had this wall hanging (maybe she still does).  It was a kind of a country-style portrait of Santa’s head.  His beard was made of hay.  She hung it over her fireplace.  She asked me, “What do you think?”  I said, “He looks bit more like Jesus than Santa Claus.”  After that she, and then all of us, kept referring to it, irreverently, as Jesus Claus.  One time when we were all sitting down to dinner before Lisa’s traditional New Year’s Eve party we suddenly smelled smoke.  Lisa had put lit candles on the top of the fireplace and they had caught the hay on Jesus Claus’s beard on fire. We quickly put it out.  Lisa shook her head sadly and said to me, “Darling, I almost killed Jesus Claus. That must certainly somehow be a sin.”  Then she laughed that big laugh of hers.

There were other New Year’s incidents over many years. In Louisiana fireworks are a big thing at that time of the year.  One time during a drought we set the neighbors’ backyard on fire with bottle rockets.  Another time during a freak blizzard I saw Lisa being pulled behind a truck on a makeshift saucer sled.  This was not when we were young. I think this was when we were into our forties or at least pushing them.  During one visit my daughter, Meredith, came to me and said, “Miss Mary is pulling Aunt Lisa up and down the street in a wagon.”  We went outside and there was Lisa in a Red Flyer, a glass of wine in her hand, laughing.  It was early in the evening so I knew it was Lisa just being Lisa.  I said to Meredith, “There is a reason we call her Crazy Aunt Lisa.”

Lisa can sing quite beautifully and often has at church and with other spiritual groups. She sang “The Lord’s Prayer” and “The Wedding Song” when I married Karen and it was amazing. I remember one night, when Lisa was visiting us at our house in Chicago, that we all went to a club that was considered very upscale and, for the lack of a better word, “cool.” She spontaneously got up on stage, sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” and brought down the house.

Lisa came to visit my in-laws, who also live outside of Chicago, one summer and during her visit I picked her up after work to bring her down to the town we live in now.  I took her to the Irish pub because I wanted to talk to one of the managers about some things we were doing.  One of my favorite guys, Brian, was behind the bar.  Brian is from Dublin.  I introduced my aunt, Lisa, to him and asked him to get her whatever she wanted. As I walked towards the office he followed me down the bar.  He leaned over the end and said in a low tone, “So, Tom, what is this with your “aunt?” He actually did air quotes.  I said “She really is my aunt….well, my wife’s.”  He winked and said, “I’ll be sure not to mention your “aunt” to anyone.” He did the air quotes again.  I put my hand on my head and went into the office.  When I came back out into the main bar there was a group of guys all clustered around Lisa trying to buy her drinks.  I said “Break it up, fellows.”  They all went back to their seats. I looked at Lisa and just shook my head.  She took a sip of her drink. She said, giggling, “Darling, I can’t help it that I’m pretty, charming, and fun.”  Again I shook my head. I smiled. “No, I guess you can’t.”  

When my kids were younger we rented a condo on Daytona Beach and invited Lisa and her youngest son, who is right around my sons’ age, to come and stay with us for part of the trip.  Lisa needed a break and we were very happy she could come.  We all had a wonderful time together playing games and splashing in the waves. There was one early evening when we got locked out of the apartment and could not find anyone to let us back in.  I tried to figure out what I could do with a bunch of tired kids in wet bathing suits, and I was getting very frustrated.  Lisa said, “I got this.”  She sashayed in her yellow bikini over to this big, strong-looking college kid in an Arkansas Razorbacks hat that was sitting by the pool.  She talked to him for a bit, pointed to where our unit was, and then the next thing I knew he was he was scaling balconies up the side of the building.   Fortunately, we had left the sliding door unlocked and he was able to let us in. Lisa kissed him on the cheek, said “You are my red-necked angel, darling,” and closed the door on him.  She came into the living area and said, “You just need to know how to find resources.”

Later that night after we had put the kids to bed or at least got them settled down, Lisa and I decided to take a walk on the beach.  As we strolled down by the ocean she told me about something very serious, significant that was happening and challenging her in her life.   When we had circled back and returned to the hotel we sat for a bit on the wooden landing of the steps of the stairs that led down to the water.  While we talked some more Lisa suddenly started crying, sobbing.  She leaned in against me and I put my arms around her.  She said, “Tom, I have been so happy this week. I don’t want to go home.” I had seen Lisa emotional and teary-eyed, I had seen her angry, I had seen her rightly indignant, but I had never seen her sad. It disturbed me greatly.  I held her and said “It will be alright, darling.”  And eventually in the months that followed it was. The next time I saw her, Lisa had found her happiness again, which made me glad.

Although Lisa and I stay in touch all of the time, calls and e-messages, because I don’t travel well on long car trips anymore I don’t see Lisa as much as I would like to.  She and the man she married a couple of years ago, Jeff, came to visit us last summer.  I hadn’t seen her in person in three years.  One morning she came out into my garage studio and sat across from me.  It was like old times again, having long talks like we always did late at night.  As I watched Lisa share, gesture in the big way she always does, and laugh, I thought everyone should try to live their lives in a similar way, to some extent, to how Lisa does…with such exuberance.  Life is a banquet to my Aunt Lisa and I’m glad I’ve always been an invited guest at her table. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t smile, laugh, and love the world as much as I do and I know she does too.