Everything was quiet at home – too quiet, actually – when a disturbing telegram arrived at our door. With my father in service overseas, my mother and I immediately feared something terrible might have happened to him. But as it turned out, the telegram was from Aunt Eunice. Based on past experience, we probably should have guessed it was from her. But Aunt Eunice was the kind of a relative one kept out of one’s mind as much as possible.
In one of her short sentences, Aunt Eunice informed us she was coming to stay with us again. After reading that aloud, my mother sank into the closest chair and the two of us groaned. It seems Aunt Eunice was in Mankato (wherever the hell that was). Way up north in some untracked wilderness, I supposed, because Aunt Eunice had told us, when we last saw her, she was on her way to Minneapolis to see cousin Sigurd. When I asked my mother where Mankato was, she just shrugged her shoulders and pointed north.
Let me say openly that my mother and I would have paid big bucks to have received a telegram from Aunt Eunice telling us she and cousin Sigurd were enjoying each other’s company. You know the kind of message: “having a wonderful time; wish you were here,” that sort of thing. But we weren’t that lucky. And even if she was enjoying herself (impossible to believe), she would never have admitted it or parted with a penny of her legendary wealth to tell us in a telegram.
Instead, we learned Aunt Eunice and cousin Sigurd had argued (no surprise to us) and their differences were now irreconcilable. She planned to board a train in Minneapolis that afternoon and fully expected us to meet her when she arrived in Chicago late that night. As usual, she didn’t bother to tell us the time of the train’s arrival or how long she planned to stay.
After our dread somewhat subsided, my mother, in a quiet voice, said we should accept Aunt Eunice for what she was and be as nice to her as possible. Outwardly, I accepted her decision to overlook my aunt’s effrontery, but privately, I wanted to wring her neck like a chicken.
By the time my mother and I had cleaned the apartment from top to bottom (why I don’t know, because we had just cleaned the place a week ago), moved my bedding into the living room where I would sleep on the sofa for the duration of Aunt Eunice’s visit, and arrived at Union Station, we were a pair of spent forces.
Aunt Eunice, as fresh as a daisy, stepped from the train with her usual flourish. The only thing missing was a red carpet and the blare of trumpets. In her arms she cuddled Pepper and Paprika, her pet pugs, which she treated like royal heirs. How lovingly she hugged them! Cradled them! Pressed them close to her bosom! And how I watched them like a hawk, ready to pounce if they made the slightest attempt to escape from her smothering clutches! Past experience had taught me train whistles and smoke-filled stations excited them. I stared at the two with threatening eyes and waited, canine strangulation uppermost in my mind. But they and I knew in their obvious obesity they couldn’t outrun me.
The excessive quantity of Aunt Eunice’s luggage in the taxi meant, on the way home, I had to sit in the front seat beside the driver with three suitcases on my lap and feel the razor-sharp claws of Pepper and Paprika trying to scratch my neck. Every time they were close to drawing blood, I reached back, swatted them and suffered an angry rebuke from Aunt Eunice. Then she petted the dogs to soothe them and spoke to them in baby-talk. If she left our home before I murdered the vicious curs, it’d be a miracle.
When the cabman pulled up in front of our apartment, he cleverly remained seated while my mother and I struggled to unload Aunt Eunice’s luggage. He wasn’t looking to get a hernia on her account, and I admired his nonchalance during the whole business. Needless to say, my mother paid the fare.
Aunt Eunice, diamond bracelets on both wrists flashing in the light of the street lamp and a ring on her finger with a ruby large enough to choke a horse, never blinked an eye when my mother handed over the money to the cabman. Standing with a half-smile (which I wanted to wipe off her face with a quick right to her jaw) Aunt Eunice waited impatiently while my mother and I carried her luggage into the hall, unlocked the door and then carried it into the bedroom where she was to sleep. It took three trips. Thank God, we lived on the first floor. Aunt Eunice might have had two corpses on her hands if we had lived any higher.
Every time I passed Aunt Eunice with the luggage, I did have a few moments of private pleasure, watching her pets gnaw on the little front paws of the fox fur that formed a stole around her neck. They were almost gone, and the voracious beasts were well on their way up the dead animal’s feet. I earnestly hoped to see them proceed even further before Aunt Eunice left us.
When we later sat down around the kitchen table, my mother and I just looked at each other while Aunt Eunice droned on about one inconsequential thing and another. I only half heard her say something about my mother’s table cloth – it was too bright; something about the kitchen curtains – they were too dark; something about my mother’s hair – it was too long; and something about her dress – it was too short. When the total of these disparaging remarks registered on me, Aunt Eunice was closer to death than she knew.
Fortunately, she changed the subject by telling us she wanted to go downtown the next morning to Marshall Field’s. My mother paled, and my blood pressure went up a hundred points. We were both thinking of the money we didn’t have.
“They have wonderful jewelry at Field’s,” Aunt Eunice was saying, “and a nice selection of cosmetics. They have a special face powder in a particular shade that I have never been able to find in Chattanooga.” (Personally, I thought she was lucky she couldn’t buy it at home because it made her look like a ghost). “Oh, and I wanted to see their objet d’art.” (Whatever the hell that was)…but my mother simply gritted her teeth and smiled. I awoke to my impending peril when I heard Aunt Eunice say I was to accompany them.
After an exhausting day and a boring evening, listening to Aunt Eunice babble about herself and her innumerable ailments, my mother and I fully expected to have nightmares when we went to bed. Falling asleep, listening to Aunt Eunice’s guttural snore, we discovered we weren’t wrong. They came in droves.
Fred E. Schwartz owned and operated Baybury Books in Ephraim. He has written four books of essays, including Seasons on the Peninsula, on Door County. Fred was the publisher of the Baybury Review for six years, and also wrote numerous reviews and columns for other publications in the area.