* * *
Every family has one: the one relative you only speak of in hushed voices, the one who is a little more off-center than the rest of the clan, even if the rest of the clan is eccentric to start with. In our family, this role was taken by my grandmother’s younger sister, Violet.
I’m told that when Violet was younger, when my mother and her sisters were children, that she was the “cool” aunt. Trips to Asbury Park to stuff themselves on cotton candy and hot dogs were the norm, and you never knew what treasures would emerge from the depths of Aunt Vi’s massive pocketbook (that’s New Jerseyan for “purse”).
By the time I was born, Aunt Vi was no longer young, and though her body had aged – her generous bosom forming a veritable pillow on her chest, her face even rounder, her hair, dry and graying under the blonde – her brain seemed forever sixteen. My grandmother told me that her mother, while on her deathbed, begged her oldest daughter to care for the youngest: Violetta will never grow up. Not the way the rest of you have.
When I was small child, Aunt Vi was a comfort. She was funny and crazy, and sweet. She never went anywhere without a hat (this was a woman who knew how to accessorize), and I think I acquired my love of headwear from her. As I grew older, Violet ceased to be my dear old auntie, and became an annoyance, a burden. Partly, this is due to her criminally insane son, who would throw her out of the house, then take her back in and steal her retirement money, but partly it was her own design. She liked the wandering life, and used to boast that she had everything she ever needed in the trunk of her (ugly, green, enormous) car.
By the time my grandmother was in her mid-eighties, and Aunt Vi was in her mid-seventies, Violet had overstayed her welcome with almost every relative on the east coast. She often begged to come live with my parents, but her own children, and my parents, didn’t want her to drain my grandmother’s resources. My grandmother was in a care home, by then, and there was no way to fund a California home for Vi. Still the older sister worried about the younger. “I want to hear my sister Violet,” my grandmother would say. “I need to know she’s alright.”
It’s only in retrospect that I realize my grandmother knew she’d be leaving us, and wanted to be at peace. It all fits. She died while all of us were out of the country, as if she didn’t want any one of us to deal with it alone, just after hearing that Violet had been sent to a hospital, finally.
Aunt Vi liked to make deals. She played poker, made amazing raviolli, and could whistle so well you’d think it was a flue or panflute playing, and not a human being. She was funny and generous, with what little she had. I like to think that whatever kept her from emotional maturity allowed her hardships not to touch her.
She died the week after my grandmother’s funeral, in January, 2001.
As I wrote this, I realized that my grandmother’s love of the plant known as African Violet, was a tribute to her sister. One bloomed on her bedside all the time. She’d often speak to it, and touch the velvety petals with her long, gentle fingers.
V is for Violet.