The Face at the Window

My earliest memory is of the face looking at me through my bedroom window. I remember immediately feigning slumber because I deduced the face was there to make sure I went to sleep rather than get up to any shenanigans. I recall I was a strong-willed mischievous child who fought going to bed, especially when I believed interesting things to be happening in the adjacent rooms. Often, one of my maternal grand-parents would quietly sit on a chair in my room to ensure that I didn’t get up and engage in non-sleep activities. Looking back, I now find it strange that, even when she was around, my mother never took part in the ritual. However, the face, yes, the face, with its black hair and barely distinguishable dark features obscured by shadow, was often there. The street lights in the road beyond gave the head a halo-like silhouette. Far from fearing such an apparition, I found comfort in its demeanor and regularity. I regarded it a welcome watcher.

At that time, I lived in a small house with my grandparents, Mimi and Pop. I say, “I lived with my grandparents” for although my mother also technically domiciled with us, she frequently disappeared for weeks on end. How I loved the times when she was in residence. Her vivacity was contagious. We all felt it as she thrust our quiet home into temporary chaos. Often, she would spend entire days dedicated to me transporting me into a world full of fun and delight. Over time I became wary of these seductive times for they served to make her sudden absences more difficult to handle.

I remember one visit. I must have been about five or six years-old at the time, when Mama took to reading bed-time stories to me. She moved one of the living-room easy chairs into my bedroom so that we could cuddle together in its embrace. She smelled sweet and her long wildly luxuriant blond hair caressed my shoulders as I nestled my shock of straight black locks against her warm breast. I let her voice, which was always tinged with laughter, wash over me like the waters of a gurgling stream. It was heaven. The day everything got spoiled was when she was reading me a story about angels. As she turned the page I interrupted her to ask,

“Is the face at my window my guardian angel?”

“What face?” My mother’s voice sounded angry, and I instinctively knew she disapproved. I thought quickly,

“Oh, I sometimes imagine an angel. Is that bad?”

“Yes, my darling, faces at windows, real or imagined, are not good. I want you to tell me if you ever see one again.”

“But Mama after I’ve gone to bed I can’t get back up!”

“This is different. You have permission to get out of bed to come and get me.”

The next day she installed a black felt black-out over my bedroom window. I complained bitterly about my dismal windowless room, but Mama was emphatic. A week later, she packed up her nurse’s uniform and clothes into her back-pack and left on another of her jaunts. Mimi and Pop let me move into her bedroom. It was a second-floor room which looked out into the crown of a huge oak. Now there was no possibility of a face at that window. I don’t know for sure, but from time to time I thought that I saw the face looking at me from the sidelines of a playground, through the fence around the school play yard, or across the street as I boarded the school bus.

Mama continued her comings, and goings and sometimes sad men appeared looking for her. They were a mixed group from around the world; the English doctor who had served with her during an African Ebola crisis, the Thai, who knew her from the 2004 tsunami; the Pakistani from the 2005 earthquake. They kept coming. Their stories carried a repetitive theme, how her presence had brought hope, and even happiness, to a group of people struggling under dire circumstances. It was obvious that each was hopelessly in love with her and wanted to re-connect. Mimi and Pop let them stay a few days and then gently ushered them back to their lives without her, much as we were doing.

When I was about twelve Pop died, and Mimi sold the house and bought a smaller bungalow in the same neighborhood. She said that it was better suited to her advancing rheumatism. I was thrilled by the house, especially my bedroom which had a large window overlooking a manicured front yard. After we had been living there a few weeks, I saw the face again. It was partially in shadow again illuminated from behind by the street lights. I was happy for I liked the face which seemed to smile at me with a friendly grin. I decided that it would be best not to mention anything to either Mimi or my mother when she came to visit.

Time passed. The face continued to appear periodically even though it immediately disappeared if I moved in an attempt to make contact. Like the strangers who came looking for Mama, I knew the face to be a masculine one. I clung to the belief that he was my guardian angel and didn’t want me to acknowledge his presence. Sometimes I made up stories for myself to the tune that he was my guardian angel sent as a substitute for my missing father. Things might have gone on in this way except when my English teacher gave our class an assignment to write about their fathers I decided to write about the face in my window.

The resultant uproar was unexpected and immediate. The school called Mimi and together we were sent for a session with a visiting school counselor. We met in the tiny nurse’s office. The counselor was an attractive young woman who seemed to me to be not much older than I. She told us that my story fascinated and worried her, for, she explained, children are not supposed to see faces at their windows, real or imagined. Mimi said nothing; she just sat there, while I instinctively knew my story was a mistake. I liked my face and didn’t want to give him up. The counselor’s demeanor was quietly reassuring, but I was wary, determined not to be seduced by friendly good looks. On the spur of the moment, I decided to add voices to the face in the hope that the package would convince everyone that it was all my vivid imagination.

That backfired, a second session was scheduled with a doctor who was called in to assist. His large portly body with strained buttons across his chest changed the tone of our meeting. I was given an extensive barrage of tests. I thought that I was doing well until he leaned toward me and began to ask questions about the voices. I kept quiet for I realized that my fabrication was back-firing. He asked,

“How many voices?”

“Can you tell if they are male or female?”

“What is said, what message?”

I stared at him, acting dumb while my mind raced. I didn’t know what people’s inner voices said to them. I knew that I ‘d have to say something or my ruse might be discovered. Keeping my voice very low, I whispered,

“Sexual suggestions!”

A great hush descended over the room. The young councilor twisted her fingers together and looked down at the floor. The doctor leaned forward with a smirk on his face; I sensed he was enjoying this. I turned to Mimi and pleaded with my eyes. I think that she understood, for she announced,

“That’s enough: can’t you see that you’re distressing the child?”

I hid my face in her chest to further reinforce her statement. I thought to myself that maybe, one day, I’d become an actress.

By this time, I think even Mimi was becoming convinced the professionals were right, and I was having delusions. I was prescribed a medication. I managed to convey my unquestioning, obedient, acceptance of both their diagnosis and recommended treatment. Mimi and I picked up their prescription at the pharmacy. I carefully read the drug company description attached to my bottle of pills and systematically flushed a pill a day down the toilet.

At my next appointment, I reported experiencing nausea when I began the treatment but told them this had worn off in a week. I hoped that this additional fabrication would help to convince my audience that I was obediently taking my meds. The doctor nodded approvingly and delicately inquired about the voices and face at the window.

“Oh those,” I waved my arm dismissively, “gradually faded and are gone!”

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief, believing my problem solved. I joined them, elated that my ruse had hoodwinked them. The consultation room hummed with the vibes of content people.

When I got home that evening, I decided that enough was enough, the face needed to unveil himself. I created a large sign on the back of an old science fair project. It read, “Who are You?” I propped it up against my bed in full view of the window. I went outside and looked in as the face did to make sure my writing was clear. It was, I knew he couldn’t miss it. A couple of weeks later, I got my answer. His message was written in bold letters on a similar piece of foam-core. I read “You KNOW who I am!” I leapt out of bed and ran to the window, when I got there he was gone leaving the board propped on the window sill. Early the next morning I retrieved it and stored it standing against my initial message.

When Mimi died, Mama appeared out of nowhere. She arranged an intimate memorial service. He came to the funeral home standing at the back his face, for the first time ever, fully illuminated. I was tormented by a plethora of mixed emotions; a deep sadness at Mimi’s death, coupled with a sense of completion as I watched my mother greet the face. I surreptitiously watched them, and realized she recognized and knew him. When she got ready to depart on her next jaunt, I was formally introduced and went to live with him; the most stable person in my life.

Graduating Mischief.

Late at night, after the cleaning crew had finished, graduating high-school valedictorian, Helen and her best friend, crept along the school corridor. They carried mobile phones illuminated as flash lights and grocery sacks filled with used jeans and shoes which they had obtained from Goodwill. The familiar spaces loomed eerily at them and they shivered partly from fear and partly from excitement. In the half-light strange shadows moved across the walls and familiar colors were muted into grays and blacks. They entered the girl’s toilet. They placed a pair of old shoes and scrunched down pants in front of each commode, locked the cubicle and squirmed out under the partition.

They crept back past the row of classroom doors to the elevator and stair lobby. Graduating seniors are permitted to use the elevator and so they called it. It arrived and ponderously opened its doors. They entered and glibly pressed the button for the ground floor, however the elevator did not stop at ground it went on to a lower level. During school hours this level was blocked, but now the elevator stopped and opened its door to a completely new world. Helen shone in her light to reveal a long passageway with pipes and cables bracketed to the walls and running overhead. At this point the prudent might have retreated back into the elevator and re-pressed the ground floor button; but Helen and her companion were still basking in the thought of a mission accomplished. Each wondered whether the passage led somewhere, to secret rooms, a concealed vault, something mysterious, somewhere that, during their twelve years at the school, they had never even dreamed of its existence.

“Let’s see where it goes!” said Helen. Her dumbstruck friend nodded in agreement.

They stepped into the gloom. The elevator doors closed and for a moment they felt fear gripping them, but then a light, probably triggered by a motion detector, went on. The place didn’t look so spooky now. The two girls began to walk. After a hundred yards or so the tunnel split. They paused for they didn’t want to get lost. While they were debating options in whispers they both started for they heard the sound of footsteps coming towards them. There was nowhere to hide, so they stood holding hands waiting for whoever or whatever was approaching.

“I wish we hadn’t come.”

“Me too.”

A figure appeared in the gloom and as it approached it began to materialize into not a ghost, or a zombie, but into the figure of a man. The girls were still filled with fear for meeting a strange man in a hidden tunnel which no-one even knew existed didn’t seem like a good situation. What if he turned out to be a rapist or murderer who inhabited this underground domain? When he got close enough for them to see his face they saw that he was wearing the uniform of a school night-guard. He carried a gun in a holster on his hips.

“What are you two doing here?” He asked. His voice was kind but stern.

“The elevator doors opened, it was the wrong floor. So, we entered.” Came their lame reply.

“This place is OFF LIMITS.” He said. “I need your identifications asap.”

Right there in the tunnel he took their names, class, addresses and contact information. He wrote everything down in a small notebook which he balanced against the wall. Then he hustled them back to the elevator and escorted them out of the building. They parted in the parking lot and each drove home in haste.

Helen’s heart beat was still elevated when she got home. She decided that she had better confess to her mother immediately, for she expected severe repercussions the following day.

“I shall probably be de-frocked” She told her mother. To her surprise her mother wasn’t angry, indeed quite the opposite, she clapped her hands and said,

“I love spunk! Bravo! Don’t worry about school. You are graduating that’s all that’s important.”

By morning Helen and her friend were calm enough to be able to enjoy the conclusion of their prank. At morning break a crowd of girls stood in line looking at a row of locked doors. After a while, they became impatient and several stooped to verify occupancy.

“Someone’s wearing the ugliest shoes!” came a comment from the class favorite.

“They are all wearing gross shoes!” agreed someone else.

“Who are they?” came their collective cry.

The conspirators stood in line smiling sweetly.

As for the rest of the accomplices’ nocturnal adventure there were never any repercussions it was as though it never happened.

Gabby Garter

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Before I encountered Gabby, I didn’t like snakes. It might be more accurate to say that I hated and feared them. My attitude was not unique; indeed, I think that it is a repugnance shared by most of humanity. Thinking about this makes me wonder whether our aversion dates back to Eve’s encounter in the Garden of Eden; or perhaps, there is something about the secretive slithering snake that triggers an innate human hatred. I like to believe that my reaction was rational, telling myself that it was founded on the simple acknowledgement that some snakes are poisonous.

It all began one balmy evening with a full moon flooding our garden in eerie beauty, and Dan, my husband, and I stood together admiring the serenity and loveliness of the night. Then, Dan decided to pop into our garden to adjust one of our solar-powered night lights. He wanted it to better highlight our pond feature. Instead of doing what he intended he immediately came back to the house to get me. I joined him. The night was beautiful and carried the aroma of jasmine. I paused to enjoy the moment, but Dan was hyped up and urged me down to our small concrete patio. That is when I also saw the snake. It was about three feet long and, in a gruesome way, attractive with a distinctive pattern on its body. Curiously, it was almost inert and made only a slight movement when Dan tickled it with a stick. The sight overwhelmed me with irrational fear and loathing. I turned to look at Dan as he aimed his ubiquitous mobile phone and took a picture.

“Look at its segmented tail. It’s a rattler.” I said. I shook with fear thinking how it could easily turn and strike with a venomous bite. “You have to kill it!”

By now both our hearts raced, and Adrenalin flowed. I regret to report that Dan took a gardening spade and slaughtered that snake by pinning its head to the concrete. It struggled for a while. When we deemed it to be dead Dan scooped up its body with his spade and tossed it in a long-arced projectile into the greenbelt behind our house for the ants to finish off.

Now that the crime was over, we felt a tinge of remorse about our destruction of life and retreated to our home office. We Googled the image. We discovered that it seemed that we had murdered a harmless garter snake not a rattler. We felt guilty and tried to rationalize that the two species have similar markings. We read on that garter snakes are beneficial to humans as they kill rats and mice. This knowledge triggered an “ah ha” from us as we recalled a reduction in the rat menace which plagued our garden shed. We also observed that there were fewer frogs croaking their mating songs at night after rain. To lessen our shame, we told ourselves that the next time we would be less hasty and more tolerant.

Fate tempted us for two days later we spotted a much larger, similarly-marked, snake who quickly glided into our garden shed and disappeared down a drainage pipe. A few moments later she put her head out and looked around. Our Googled authority told us that female garters are larger than males, and average about three feet. Our female, who we instantly named Gabby, was even longer. I’ve observed that most people over-estimate the length of the snakes they encounter and assume this to be a human frailty in direct response to fear. However, in Gabby’s case, I do not exaggerate, she was a giant snake at four to five feet in length. As we first saw her in early May, I assumed that she had just been impregnated, probably by her recently murdered spouse. I speculated that he was sluggish that night after a session with Gabby. I consoled myself with the speculation that he died happy.

Garter snakes, and incidentally, rattlers are ovoviviparous. This means that their eggs hatch internally, and they give birth to as many as 98 babies. I read that pregnant snakes are hungry so, a day later, when I dug up a fat bug chrysalis instead of ejecting it into the greenbelt, I placed it in front of Gabby’s drainage pipe. When I returned to put my spade away the chrysalis was gone. The following day I went through the same routine with a similar result. The next time that I went to the shed to retrieve a spade Gabby poked her head out of her drainage pipe. She looked at me as if asking for her food. I quickly went into the garden and dug up a couple of earth worms in our compost pile. When I returned, there was Gabby expectantly semi-emerged from her home. She took the worms from me with a swift strike.

Over time, Gabby and I struck up a friendship. I’d feed her morsels from my gardening exploits, and she became increasingly friendly until she took to accompanying me into the garden so that she could recover her spoils as they were unearthed. Our garden has stone strewn paths, which appeared to annoy Gabby so one day she slithered up into my wheelbarrow and rode to our destination. I wasn’t exactly pleased by this development as I generally load the wheelbarrow with tools and garden refuse. By now, Gabby was even larger and sported a rattler-like tail just like her murdered spouse. Seeing it gave me a sense of justification for our nocturnal killing, for surely it was a reasonable mistake. Every day Gabby became more one of our family and less garden snake.

One day when we had heavy rains, I worried about her home in the drainage pipe and delivered an abandoned dog basket complete with blanket to the shed. Gabby examined it with her mouth open to better use her vomeronasal organ. The smell must have pleased her for she thanked me by twisting her long body around mine before slinking into the basket and curling up in the folds of the blanket.

Unfortunately, Gabby gradually became discontented with her garden role and began to follow me to the house. She attempted to enter by stealthily moving between my feet when I opened the door. I turned and chided her, “NO” even though I know that snakes have limited hearing. On the first few occasions, she accepted my instruction, but one hot summer day when we had torrential rains in the form of a blown-out stalled hurricane Gabby came to the glass patio door and rapped on it with her head. The noise of the rain and the storm made noises difficult to decode, but I thought that she made a noise like the rattle of old bones. I did not open the door.

Summer was coming on when Gabby encountered the man who came to read the gas meter. He knocked on my door,

“Lady, you have a huge snake out there. It looks like a rattler.  I can’t read your meter.” The man was trembling.

“Oh, no Gabby is NOT a rattler,” I said “she is a harmless, and beneficial, garter snake.”

“I don’t know,” said the man as he shuffled from one foot to the other, “I just can’t read a meter with that THING lurking around. It’s just not proper!”

I realized that the situation was getting out of control, and worried that Gabby might not integrate well with visiting grand-children. I decided that, although we had something special in our relationship, it had to end. “After all,” I told myself, “Gabby is only a small-brained snake.” So, I lured her into my car and drove five miles out of town to an entry into the Barton Creek Greenbelt where I dumped her. I told her that it was for her own good, and that she was better off out here where no-one would mistake her for a rattler and put her life in danger.

Five days later Gabby reappeared. This was serious, for she appeared hurt and angry. She reared her body up outside our glass garden door and rattled her tail. I was terrified and called the local animal rescue group who, due to Gabby’s great size agreed to “adopt” her for one of their displays. When they arrived, they confirmed that Gabby was a poisonous rattler not a harmless garter snake. I did not watch the capture.

A week or so passed and I went to visit her in her new surroundings. She seemed lethargic and looked mournfully at me though the glass. She died a few days later.

Kent and Helen – short story

On 2/6/2013, I posted a story “A Dip With Helen” in which I introduced Kent, his mother’s erudite cat Mack, and his niece Helen. Due to Kent’s father’s two marriages Kent is about the same age as Helen. Kent is attracted to Helen and is thwarted by their uncle / niece relationship and society’s mores associated with unions between such close relatives. On 2/26/2018, I posted “The Hidden Treasure”which is another story about Kent. This story doesn’t mention Helen and doesn’t completely jibe with the 2013 story, although minor edits could make the two stories fit together. From this you can tell that I rather like Kent and so write this story about him.

KENT HELEN TREE 

Kent had been cleaning out his mother’s house for several hours before he came to her photograph albums. He took them to the dining room table to study carefully. He paused to enjoy every image of his niece Helen and book marked the pages on which her image appeared. There were only a few: the one of them sharing a bath as children: the one taken at his father’s funeral and the one of them in 2008 standing wet-haired under a “NO SWIMMING” sign at Pedernales Falls. He gathered the albums up and set them by the front door to take to his car. He would look at them again when he returned to his apartment. He didn’t need the photographs for his memory of her was vivid, but somehow having pictures and being able to touch them gave him a thrill. He stroked her luxuriant hair and outlined the curve of her lips. He traced her teasing eyes and blushed as he fondled the curves of her shapely body, as if the contact brought her closer. He shut his eyes and could see things not recorded in the albums. He saw the hidden pool at Pedernales Falls. He saw her seductive naked body slicing through the water. He felt the cool clear water against his body. He heard her voice.

He shook himself out of his reverie and spoke to Mack, his recently deceased mother’s cat, “It is such a shame that, although we are the same age, I am her uncle.” The cat meowed back, and Kent continued his monologue, “Yes. I know that an uncle / niece union is legal in Texas, but not in all States, but wouldn’t she and her parents frown on our having children?” Kent reached and stroked the cat who arched his back in response, “She is so beautiful, and I mean spiritually as well as physically. Humanity needs her to have children. She has to have children!”

Mack stood on the table and looked at Kent. He locked Kent’s eyes into glass-eyed cat stare. When Kent turned away he noticed a small snippet of paper torn from a newspaper lurking under Mack’s paw. He lifted the cat’s soft paw and looked at the paper. On it, he read the word ‘Helen’ accompanied by an e-mail address. It was written in his mother’s unmistakable hand. The newspaper date was a few days before her death. Kent’s mind flooded with questions. What was his mother doing with Helen’s phone number? If she hadn’t died suddenly might she have given it to him or did she intend to use it herself and if so why? He stroked the cat and as he did so he concluded that this was a subliminal message from his mother that a liaison with Helen was acceptable. As he thought about it he became increasingly convinced that this was maternal encouragement from the grave. He decided that he should waste no time, he shoved Mack off the table and opened his computer. He began to type.

His e-mail was a rambling affair in which he alluded to the fact that they hadn’t seen each other for several years, gave a brief outline of his activities and finally asked for her news. After he pressed “send” he re-read it again and wished that he hadn’t sent it for it seemed too brash. How surprised he was to get an almost immediate response. He learned that, yes indeed, she did remember him, and no, she was not in a relationship. Kent stood up, raised his arms in the air, shouted “Halleluiah” and danced around the table. He snatched up Mack to join in his jubilation. The cat did not appreciate this familiarity. He added meows to the halleluiahs until Kent set him down.

There is only so much that you can cover by e-mail and after a few weeks of daily exchanges, Kent suggested that they advanced to the telephone. They talked every evening, discussing the news, books, art, life, religion, and philosophy. They never alluded to their uncle / niece relationship and didn’t meet as Helen lived in Houston and Kent in Austin. There came a day when Helen, now a licensed architect running her own projects, informed Kent that her office had landed a project in Austin, and that she would be making a few business trips to Austin. Did Kent want to get together?

For their first date, for Kent regarded this business trip of hers a date, Kent took the day off work and met Helen at the airport. While he stood at the bottom of the escalator bearing down the incoming travelers, he worried that he might miss her but when she appeared, he had no doubt. His heart raced. He greeted her with a hug. He wanted to kiss her on lips right there on the concourse but restrained himself. He escorted her to the Magnolia Café on Lake Austin Boulevard where they ordered pancakes and coffee. Perhaps the excitement of their meeting or the day’s schedule stole their appetites for they drank their coffee but didn’t eat much. Kent drove her to her meeting, and late afternoon picked her up. She said that she had a busy day scheduled for the morrow, and so he took her to Mozart’s for a light supper overlooking the lake. When he dropped her off, he snatched a quick curb-side hug and a promise that she would be back. He sat mesmerized in his car watching her retreating figure until she disappeared, and he lost himself in dreaming about the impossibility of a real relationship with this love of his life. A uniformed airport police person broke through his reverie by tapping on his windshield with the admonition that he “move along please.” If only I could, he thought, as he drove slowly away.

Helen made a few more visits to Austin, and Kent managed to persuade her to spend a week-end. He talked one of his married female colleagues into letting Helen sleep in her spare room, for he still worried about where this seemingly doomed romance was going. On the one hand, he worried about their blood relationship and on the other, he was so addicted to the joy of her presence that he couldn’t give her up. He escorted her to Pedernales Falls, and they ate a picnic overlooking the waterway. Then they scrambled gazelle-like down over the smooth rock and crystal-clear pools. Their ‘secret’ pool was still there glittering in the sunlight. Kent wanted to relive that moment when they had slipped naked into the waters for an illicit swim, but this time, there were other visitors around and swimming was out of the question. They sat upon a rock and dabbled their feet in the water. Kent reached for her hand and held it. She turned and smiled at him “Yes. I remember” she said. He drew her into his arms and kissed her. She responded with equal longing.

“What shall we do?” he asked, and seeing her sad smile went on “I want to see you every day. I want to marry you. Oh Helen, how I love you!” He paused.

She didn’t move or draw away but looked at him with tears in her eyes. “Kent, I love you too; but what shall we do about this uncle / niece thing? I know that we could get married but would either of us be content with adopted children?”

“My Helen, my beautiful darling Helen, will you marry me and adopt children?” Kent was now on his knees before her. The bare rock surface cut into his patella but he hardly noticed.

Suddenly Helen was her usual bubbly self. “Get up. You fool,” she chided “Of course I’ll marry you, let’s talk to my parents.”

Kent and Helen arranged a weekend in Dallas with Helen’s parents. On Saturday afternoon, Kent found himself alone with them. He found it strange to be sitting there thinking of ways to ask his brother become his father-in-law. It took him half an hour to get to his point, but eventually he asked them to bless a union between himself and Helen. He bravely went on to admit that he knew their blood relationship gave such a marriage restrictions. He explained they had agreed to adopt children. At this point, Helen’s parents looked at each other and nodded.

“We have to tell him.” Said her mom.

“What, tell me what?”

“Well, Kent, your mother wanted this kept a secret, although just before she died, she told me that she was thinking about telling you. The truth is that the man we both knew as father was not your biological father.”

“What do you mean? Dad was not my dad?” Kent’s mind was in turmoil.

“Your Dad was your dad, just not your biological parent.”

“So, Mom had an affair, and they stayed married?” Kent was getting increasingly unhappy.

“No, your Mom did not have an affair. Let me explain, before they got married our father had a vasectomy because he felt that he was too old for any more children. However, as you know, your mother was a licensed practicing mid-wife and eventually told our father that she desperately wanted a child. Out of his devotion for her, he agreed to let her be artificially inseminated, and you were the result. Your biological father is some medical student somewhere.”

“So,” Kent’s head was spinning, “Helen and I are not related biologically – we can get married and have children!” He stood, hugged his brother and future father-in-law, raised his arms, and shouted “Halleluiah!”

Aunt Peggy – a memoir

Aunt Peggy wasn’t really an aunt. Indeed, I’m not sure how she and I were related. I think that she was the daughter of my father’s mother’s brother making her my father’s cousin. She was never married and carried my father’s mother’s maiden name. My father was an only child. He was modest and introverted such that, throughout my childhood, apart from his ailing widowed father, my Grand-pop, I never met any of his relatives. Until the appearance of Aunt Peggy in my life, I firmly believed that he didn’t have any; consequently, her materialization was a surprise.

It happened during my second year at University College London. I was a good student but so focused on my studies that I was incapable of making friends. This situation was further compounded by two factors; first my gradual emergence from Anorexia which had haunted me for over five years, and secondly my living arrangements. I lived in a “Student Rooming House” owned by the University. It was a lovely Georgian building scheduled for future demolition and temporarily converted into rooms for students. My room was on the first floor above ground level. I shared a tiny kitchen with the other two rooms of the floor. We used a communal bathroom located in the rear of the building on the landing between the first and second floors. This was shared between the rooms on both floors. I liked my room with its tall window and inaccessible Juliet balcony. The balcony had a beautiful Georgian wrought-iron balustrade which I photographed, and drew. Apart from the tiny kitchen, we had no communal area and didn’t interact with each other. Most weekends I would go from Friday evening to Monday morning without talking to anyone who knew my name. I was miserable.

This all took place in the late 1960s when telephones were still a luxury, indeed I don’t recall how I made or received calls; most of my communications were by letter. My father faithfully wrote every week; how I enjoyed his letters. They were always written on a folding flimsy blue air mail letters. His handwriting was small and since he only took his pen off the paper to change lines, the words blended together. Normally a fast reader, I’d have to take it slowly to decipher his meaning. I wrote back every Sunday evening. I attempted to be upbeat but my unhappiness often bled onto the pages of my text. Sometimes my mother wrote. He letters were long and literary written in her legible hand, she included wisdom about the future and exhortations on how to face my demons.

Aunt Peggy’s invitation came through the mail. She suggested a Sunday afternoon tea in her home in her home up Finchley Road. From my father’s letters, I gathered that he had asked her to make contact in an attempt to bring someone friendly into my life to break my loneliness. It was his attempt to make sure that I talked to someone who knew my name during those long weekends alone. There was no direct underground route from my rooming house on Bedford Way close to Russel Square tube station to her house in Hampstead. I took the Piccadilly Line from Russel Square to Kings Cross and changed to the Northern Line to get to Finchley Road. Upon arriving at Finchley Road tube station, I took the bus to her house. A house in London is a luxury, and Aunt Peggy’s was the best. It was a rambling red-brick place covered with Virginia creeper. It stood in its own gardens slightly set back from the main street. When I arrived, I looked in awe at this huge edifice and wondered if she lived alone.

Aunt Peggy turned out to be a matter-of-fact sort of woman of about my father’s age. She wore a tweed skirt, sweater, pearls and flat shoes. She looked comfortable in her home, which was furnished with non-descript antiques. Even though it was Sunday afternoon tea was served by a maid. We sat in her living room, with me perched anxiously on the edge of my chair as, I balanced a cup of tea and small plate laden with sandwich and cake. Conversation was strained as I was shy and awed by her home and presence. Half way through our tea joyous voices erupted in the hall, and two laughing girls came into the room. Aunt Peggy introduced them as her nieces and lodgers. Instead of showing an interest or asking questions of these girls with whom I must have been distantly related I politely shook hands and sank back into my chair to watch their happy interaction with their relative and landlady. I could tell that they had a special rapport and learned that Aunt Peggy shared her large home with a bevy of nieces.

The travel to and from Aunt Peggy’s took over an hour, so that, in conjunction with the tea, the entire excursion took in the order of four hours. Although I liked my interaction with Aunt Peggy, I didn’t exactly look forward to my visits because they took so much time. It was time I thought that I could otherwise have invested in studying. In June, at the end of my third, and last year I was awarded my degree. The Queen mother was scheduled to preside over our graduation ceremony and to hand us our official degrees. Unfortunately, this auspicious event was driven by her schedule and was set to occur the following April. The College made up for this by hosting a celebratory reception and tea for new graduates and their families. My parents couldn’t make the trip down from Durham, and so I invited Aunt Peggy to join me.

The on-campus event was the only time that I ever saw Aunt Peggy outside her home. She most graciously accompanied me to the reception which must have been very boring for her – it certainly was for me. Afterward, they served tea accompanied by cream puffs and other whipped cream filled cakes. Because the food was ‘free’, and I felt an obligation to eat as much as possible, this supported my emergence from Anorexia, which had swung me into a binge-eater. I loaded my plate and ate ravenously. I recall Aunt Peggy calmly remarking,

“If you eat like that you won’t remain slim.”

After that event, I never saw Aunt Peggy again. Life went on for me. I did a year out in Edinburgh. My mother died. I finished my studies at Newcastle University close to my widowed father, moved back to London for my first architectural position, became licensed, met my future husband and emigrated to America to be with him. I always believed that Aunt Peggy’s kindness was due to a sense of obligation coupled with a love of young people rather than any rapport that she may have felt for me. I sent her Christmas cards with my news scribbled inside next to the standard pre-printed Hallmark greetings. She never responded and so in time I took her off my Christmas card list.

Thirty years later, I received a strange letter from a London Solicitor inquiring whether I was myself. The Internet wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today and I wondered how they had found me. I confirmed my identity and several months later received a check for approximately $5,000. Apparently, Aunt Peggy had remembered me, and left me 0.1% of her estate. I accepted the gift as I had accepted all Aunt Peggy’s graciousness and generosity. However, this time I felt saddened that I hadn’t given back more to this very special lady.

The red shoes

Yves Saint Laurent platform sandalsThe moment that Candice saw them, displayed in Nordstrom’s shoe department, she knew that she had to have them. She stood and stared. It was early Saturday afternoon. Someone played the Moonlight Sonata on a piano tucked under the escalator, and the air was cool, laden with a faint smell of perfume from the in-store perfumery. People moved around her for it was the busiest corner where the route from the main Nordstrom exterior entrance intersected with the route to the Nordstrom mall entrance. Candice was oblivious to her surroundings; she murmured her promise – one day you will be mine.

The color was what initially caught Candice’s eye. It was a rich, vibrant, alluring red. If asked, she would have described the shoes being “lipstick red”; for even though there are many shades of lipstick, lipstick red is the most intense red available. If pressed further she might have added that the red was artist Cadmium Red; the reddest, purest red in a rainbow. Candice hesitantly touched one of the shoes. She picked it up. The leather was soft and supple. She ran her finger over the smooth, shiny, outer finish. She turned it over. The label read: “Yves Saint Laurent, tribute platform sandals, $795.” Candice coughed, $795 for a pair of shoes! A young man, obviously a shoe salesman as advertised by his elegant suit, materialized and approached Candice,

“Would you like to try them on?” he asked.

Candice blushed, “Well, yes and no, $795 is an awful lot.” she confessed. He nodded and waved his hand, “Actually, it is a very good price.” He waved a hand toward the rest of the shoe display. “Most of our named designer shoes, such as Prada, go for a lot more, and I mean, a lot!” He gently took the shoe from Candice and carefully set it back on its pedestal.

Candice sighed, “Maybe another time!” she said, for she already knew that she was destined to own a pair of these shoes. When she got home she searched the internet for resale designer shoes and eventually found a site which carried two pairs of Yves Saint Laurent tribute platform sandals listed at $435 pair. One was in her size. Candice thought this to still be a stiff price, but she also decided that the fact that one pair was her size was surely fate. She rationalized that if she wore these shoes to their upcoming design presentation at the office, her elegance would so impress her colleague, Luke, that he would ask her out.

Candice worshiped Luke, and although some rumored that his unattached status was because he was probably gay, she believed otherwise. His athletic body, healthy bronzed skin, fair hair, and elegant dress sense, coupled with his design skills, clouded her perception. She was thankful for every moment that they worked together even though, she admitted to herself that, she was the one doing most of the work. The upcoming design presentation was to present their SD (Schematic Design) for their client’s proposed new corporate offices located on a campus in north Austin. If their client approved their design, the team would be authorized to proceed into DD (Design Development). Candice had prepared most of the drawings and managed their team of student architectural interns who had made a site model. Normal office attire was casual but for design presentations the team generally dressed up; the men in suits and ties and the women in skirts and heels. Candice bought the shoes. She planned to wear them, topped by a short charcoal grey skirt and black blouse with a red and grey pattern on it.

On the day of the presentation Candice arrived at the office early. She cleared the conference room of drawings and residue from a previous in-house work session, pinned up the SD drawings, placed the model on the table, and set up a projector and PC for Luke’s Power Point presentation. She met the office receptionist who set up a side table laden with breakfast snacks. Freshly brewed coffee would arrive just before the client.

With everything in readiness Candice slipped off to her corner of the office to put on her new shoes. They imparted a unique sense of her own worth. Her recently manicured toe nails shone a matching red. She knew that she looked good and felt as though she walked on air although, in actuality, the shoes hurt her feet and obliged her to move more slowly than was her custom. At the last moment Luke appeared. He approached her with deference which she took as a response to her looks. He seemed a little irked by her display of drawings as he said that his PowerPoint presentation included copies of all the drawings and covered all bases.

Paul, the client representative, turned out to be an intense young man of about the same age as Luke. Candice, with her new shoe-induced self-confidence, looked him over while Luke made his presentation. Tall and slender, his dark suit accentuated his short curly hair, but where Luke’s good looks appeared somewhat contrived, this young man was obviously self-confident and at ease with himself. His handshake was firm and his smile unaffected lighting up his face and making his deep brown eyes twinkle under thick lashes.

When they paused for a coffee break Luke approached Paul and it seemed to Candice that he was attempting to flirt with him. She instantly wondered whether her ideal man, Luke, wasn’t so perfect, and might indeed be gay, perhaps explaining why he showed no interest in dating any of the available unattached women in the office. When they resumed their presentation, Paul launched into a series of questions about the design. Luke, normally fully in control, became flustered and flicked through PowerPoint attempting to find the appropriate drawing. Candice stood up, her red shoe induced self-confidence gave her impetus. She knew that she looked good as she walked to the drawing on the wall and answered Paul’s question with ease. Paul suggested a design variation. In no time they had the drawing on the conference room table, and covering it with tracing paper, began sketching. Lunch came and went; Candice and Paul worked on. Mid afternoon Paul declared that he was pleased with their work; SD, with the design revisions of that day was approved. He continued to address Candice and inquired whether she could deliver an updated set of plans as the “official’ approved SD to his office on Friday afternoon the following week. Candice, still feeling beautiful and confident, nodded in acceptance.

At the appointed time, at week later, Candice stood in Paul’s reception area waiting for him to emerge. She wore a navy suit, red camisole and, of course, her confidence-inspiring red shoes. Paul came out to greet her, gave her his signature firm hand-shake, and escorted her to a conference room where he gave the SD plans a quick overview.

“You included all the revisions which we discussed. It looks good.” He reached out his hand and shook Candice’s “Full steam ahead into DD!” Candice felt a surge of emotion run through her body. She looked into Paul’s face.

“Thank you!” she said starting to withdraw her hand, but Paul brought up his second hand and warmly clasped hers,

“How about we go out and celebrate?”

Candice nodded, “I’d like that!”

Their dinner was a success. They discussed architecture and other mutual interests. Over the next few weeks they had several more enjoyable dates. Each time Candice wore her red shoes and an outfit selected to complement them. She told herself that Paul had fallen for her because of the way she looked with them on. Then, over dinner Paul reached across the table took her hand and asked,

“Candice, will you consent to be my official girlfriend, and accompany me to meet my parents?”

“I’d like that!” came her happy response, although inwardly she wondered how he would respond to her on the inevitable occasion that she wore different shoes.

“There is something which you need to know.” he said. Candice held her breath, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t be something relating to the shoes.

“I trust that this doesn’t change anything,” he went on, “but I want you to know that I am color blind. It runs in our family. If all goes well and we advance our relationship, I am told that there is a high probability that any male children would, likewise, be color blind.”

Time – a poem by LEMS

The other day I was  going through some of my father’s old papers and came across this poem which my mother, LEMS (Lucy Edith Mary Stansfeld, wrote. It was dedicated to him. It appears to have been written in 1968 shortly before she died. I  find it beautiful and moving, worth of being shared. I regret that I didn’t know that she was writing at that time so that I could have discussed it with her.

My purse is nearly empty – this my pain,
to eek the few base coins that still remain.
How prodigal the shining gold I spent
thoughtless, thriftless, and incontinent
And there is none on whom to blame my loss,
this was no crock-of-gold to turn to dross,
But amply and sufficient from my birth
what I have wasted could supply this dearth.
TIME is the currency, DEATH the empty purse
few had more coin, and few have used it worse.
Tip in my hand my last poor pence, weigh my finds,
open my palm to look again – the brightness blinds!
All that was scant and dirty, base and old,
the alchemy of love has turned to gold!