You can’t even begin to imagine the intense anxiety my mother and I felt when a telegram arrived while we were eating supper. We’d never received a telegram before, ever. Also, with my father somewhere in the Pacific, we thought something terrible might have happened to him. We believed people only received telegrams from the government…and then only after something terrible had happened.
Well, thank goodness the message, although not good, wasn’t that bad. It informed us that Aunt Eunice was arriving at Union Station the following day for a week’s vacation. Aunt Eunice…actually my father’s aunt…was, as far as we were concerned, one of a kind. Thank God.
First and foremost, she was extremely wealthy. Second, she had no qualms about using her wealth to get her own way in everything. Having no children of her own, she doted on my father…but tolerated my mother as an unfortunate accessory. I could tell from things Aunt Eunice said – and she did nothing to hide her opinions – she believed my mother married my father solely for his money. In truth, my father never had much money. Knowing how much my mother and father loved each other and how much she worried about him while he was away, I thought my aunt’s opinion was a lot of baloney.
After what I’ve said, you’ve probably guessed the commotion that followed like a shock wave after my mother read and grasped the full meaning of the telegram. Partly out of pride and partly to prove Aunt Eunice mistaken in her judgment, my mother was prepared to do whatever she could to make Aunt Eunice’s stay – which always included her two dogs, Pepper and Paprika – as comfortable as possible. This meant that special food for her and her pets had to be purchased, and my room had to be emptied of everything but the furniture, and aired. New sheets, pillow cases and blankets were to be placed on what was formerly my bed, and I was to sleep on the sofa in the living room. The kitchen floor needed to be scrubbed. The bathroom cleaned from top to bottom, and all the carpets swept. All this and more had to be done before Aunt Eunice arrived in twenty-four hours.
The following morning as we walked down the platform of the station my mother looked tired and I was angry. People who had already alighted from the train passed us, but we didn’t see Aunt Eunice. Finally, after the passengers had thinned, Aunt Eunice, in all her self-imagined splendor, stepped from the train followed by three porters caring her luggage. She wore a flamboyant purple hat with a long silver feather and a gray fox fur wrapped around her neck, the dead animal’s face staring over her shoulder and its tiny clawed feet clinging to her breast. In hers arms she embraced her two pets as though they were the crown jewels. She smiled languidly as she approached and gave us a cursory greeting.
“Oh, I just had to get out of Chattanooga for awhile,” she said. “They’re doing something or other on the river below the bluff where the house is, and I simply can’t stand the smell and the noise.” She continued walking right past us, and we turned to follow the porters who followed her with the luggage. “Oh Peter how are you,” she said as an afterthought and went right on without waiting for an answer. “You’ve grown since I last saw you.”
A snide comment no sooner flashed through my mind, when the dogs jumped from Aunt Eunice’s arms and ran down the platform toward the open tracks. Other trains were slowly pulling in and out, so I scampered after the little beasts.
“Oh, do be careful, Peter. I don’t want my little darlings harmed.”
Dashing across the tracks in hot pursuit, I lost one of my new penny loafers between the ties. Hobbling on, I soon lost the other when it got caught on a projecting railroad spike. On the three of us raced. Fortunately, they had short legs, and fat bellies from overeating, and I was able to overtake them. I scooped them up angrily and was bitten more than once by the ungrateful curs.
“Oh, my poor babies,” she said, hugging and kissing them profusely when I returned. “Oh, you’re safe now with mommy.” (If it’d been up to me, I’d have beaten the &*#% out of the wretched animals.) My mother looked at my stocking feet, then at me and smiled wanly. Her eyes told me how much she appreciated what I had done.
After I retrieved my shoes, we entered the station and Aunt Eunice led us toward a restaurant. When my mother asked her about her luggage, she told us not to worry about it. The porters would take care of it.
Aunt Eunice ignored the sign posted beside the restaurant door, stating that no pets were allowed. Seeing a frown on my face, she told me to pay no attention. “After all,” she exclaimed in a loud voice, “they allow children in the restaurant (her eyes scanned several who were seated with adults). They may as well allow pets. Pepper and Paprika are like children to me and give a lot less trouble: no pestering and snotty noses to wipe.”
My mother and I just looked at each other and said nothing. It wouldn’t have mattered if we had. Aunt Eunice was too busy talking to hear us.
As we sat and listened to her drone on between bites from her sandwich, I stared hatefully at the curs in her lap. My mind wandered to the time I had asked my father how Aunt Eunice happened to name her dogs. “She wanted names that began with ‘p’,” he said. “Ever since she read Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, married Uncle Paul, and named her big house on the bluff, Pemberley, she’s been using the letter ‘p’ every chance she gets. She even insisted we name you Peter.”
When we finished our meal, my mother paid the bill and suggested we get Aunt Eunice’s luggage, catch a cab and go home.
“Oh, there’s no need for that,” Aunt Eunice said blithely. It’s been transferred to a train that goes to Minneapolis. I’m off to see my cousin Sigurd. Didn’t I tell you I was stopping here only for a few hours and then going on to spend a week with Sigurd?”
“No,” my mother and I said together. But there was relief, not anger, in our voices.