Sunday, July 07, 2013

Evelyn

Growing up, I often studied our extended family in my efforts to understand just where my parents were coming from. It didn't help much. My mother's family, in particular, were an enigma to me. They were all so very different.

One summer, I spent a week living with my Grandmother and her sister (they lived together, two little old ladies keeping each other company in their twilight years.) My Great Aunt Evelyn, Aunt Evie for short, was a source of endless fascination. She wouldn't go anywhere without her cardigan - a light-weight, white affair that was hand-crocheted. It didn't matter if it was hotter than Hades outside. She would furrow her brow and say, "Well, there might be air conditioning!"

If we had to be anywhere on a schedule, we made sure to leave well in advance. Aunt Evie would need loads of extra time to scan the apartment to make sure we didn't "forget" anything. She would check the stove, pressing the off button for each burner 4 times while muttering, "Off. Off. Off. Off. OK. Off. Off. Off. Off. Good." Then she would go from room to room to be sure the lamps were all turned off. Finally, there was the locks on their front door. The deadbolt on top and the lock in the knob down below...the lower lock done first before the door was closed, again 4 times to be sure. Then the deadbolt was turned, with a key, four times to be absolutely sure it was secured. Sometimes we would all be piled on the elevator (they lived on an upper floor of their senior apartment building) and Aunt Evie would exit suddenly to try the door knob one last time.

I've always wondered if she experienced a stove fire, or some kind of electrical mishap with a lamp, or a break-in; but I never had the nerve to ask. And yes, I realized years later that she exhibited classic symptoms of OCD. She was still fascinating to me.

I guess I should give a little background about Evie. Family lore and stories I remember from over the years told me that she was very smart. Back in a time where it was unusual for women to receive advanced education, she won a full scholarship to study Math at university. She was engaged for many, many years to a very nice man but he eventually grew tired of waiting for her to set a wedding date and broke things off. Evie was very attached to her parents; especially her mother. My great-grandmother apparently did everything for her, like Evie was a helpless and hopeless child, well into Evie's adulthood.

Evie lived at home until her mother died (her father had passed some years earlier.) My grandmother took her sister in after their mother died and took on all of the responsibility for her sister's care and feeding, so to speak. Evie didn't even know how to do her own laundry. The math scholar! I got the impression that she was one of those super smart people who, at the same time, seemed to lack common sense. Book smart but not street smart.

Evie had a few different jobs, but I remember my mother saying she worked as an accountant for a department store for many years. She contributed to my mom's childhood household by helping to support and raise my mother, her sister and brother. Mom was especially close to her aunt. Aunt Evie spoiled her rotten, buying her clothes and trinkets when Evelyn's more practical sister had said no to my mother's rather expensive tastes. Mom painted a tragic portrait of a lonely spinster, spending her nights alone, chain smoking in her attic bedroom - reading or listening to the radio.

And so things remained. After the kids had grown and started families of their own, my grandfather passed away, leaving Evie and my Grandmother with only each other for company. Grandma and great aunt Evie...for my entire childhood they were a pair. I remember when they sold their duplex (my aunt and her family had lived downstairs and Grandma and Evie lived upstairs for many years.) They moved into the senior apartment complex in downtown Troy, NY.  Since neither of these sweet old ladies drove, it made things easier on them. Almost everything was within walking distance or a short cab ride.

My mother says my aunt was always very religious. She was devoted to the Virgin Mary and prayed all the time. She had many religious statues, crucifixes, rosary beads and medals. After they moved into the city, church was now within walking distance, so Evie would walk there. Often. Sometimes every day. And oh how she loved to go to confession. I remember one story my mom told me about how even the nice priest got a tad tired of hearing Evie's constant confessions and told her not to come back until she'd committed a mortal sin. That still makes me laugh. I can picture her bible on her dresser and the little blue prayer book devoted to Mary that sat on her night table. Just before Evie died, she gave that prayer book to me along with a bust of Mary that doubled as a planter (there was an opening behind Mary's head to put a plant) but I used it as a place to keep prayer cards and my rosary.

My beloved great aunt also stood up for me as my sponsor when I was confirmed (a Catholic thing.) I look back at those pictures and she had such a huge, proud smile on her face. She had a glow about her. Almost...beatific. I honestly thought she'd missed her calling. She should have been a nun! She lived like one, after all. 

Back to that week I spent with them one summer.  You might think that spending a whole week in a senior apartment complex with 2 elderly ladies was the height of boredom for a young teen. Nope!  I'd brought a good book, they had a TV, we went for a walk somewhere every day, we did chores (hanging out in the complex's laundry room was the social nerve center of the whole building and man those elders could gossip!) and we'd talk. I heard endless stories about when my mom was little and all the things they did when they were younger. There were some chairs out on their small balcony with a great view of the city. It was fun to sit out there, read and watch city life go by.  Then I finished the book I'd brought. With days still left in my visit, I needed something else to read, stat! I asked my Grandma if she had any books I could borrow. She told me her sister was the real reader. That gave me pause. I didn't want to read anything religious. Grandma laughed and said "Didn't you ever notice your great aunt always has a book in her purse? She reads allll the time. Especially in bed." Huh. Sounded just like me. Grandma pointed me in the direction of Evie's bedroom and told me to look under the bed.

Jackpot! I found a treasure trove of...romance novels!  Romance novels?! That was a surprise. I'd never noticed the kinds of books Evie was reading before. I dug through the stacks until I found a book that sounded interesting in a box tucked way under the bed. I took the book and sat out on the balcony and blasted through 10 chapters before I knew it. Woo was that book spicy. Racy, even. Steamy! Parts of it were making me blush. This was my sweet, super religious great aunt Evelyn's book? Wow!

At dinner that night I mentioned to my great aunt that I'd borrowed one of her books. Grandma had said it was ok, since I was looking for something to read. She asked "Which one?" so I showed her. She squeaked, blushed, stammered something unintelligible, paused dramatically for breath, then asked how much I'd read. I told her I was riveted and had read 10 chapters in one afternoon! She chuckled, then excused herself from the table. She came back minutes later with 3 more books. They were all by the same author and she told me to take them home with me. That was the start of my romance novel addiction. Months later I joined the Harlequin Romance book club. Ha! It probably lasted about 3 years before Steven King and other horror novels stole my interest and I cancelled the book club.

I still had the occasional Daniel Steel book or the like sneak into my stacks of to-be-read piles. Even to this day I enjoy a good romance.

I still think Great Aunt Evie should have been a nun. That is, if nuns are allowed to read steamy romance novels. Thinking about her still makes me smile. She was such a character! And a great influence in my life. I miss her.

Great Aunt Evelyn and My Grandma Madelyn (sisters)

1 comment:

Donna said...

What an excellent post! Loved every word.