Aunt Eva sent me postcards with exotic foreign stamps.But most exotic was her eyelid. She had only one eyelid, the other having disappeared. But by the time I knew her, she had two eyelids. It was her right eyelid that mesmerized me — the one the surgeon had contrived from her own flesh after she didn’t die.
It was thick and fleshy, wrinkled and bulging in the middle. Grandma Lee, her older sister, said that was why Aunt Eva became a schoolteacher and never married, a fate she herself had escaped by marrying Grandpa Lee. I knew already how bad it was to be the Old Maid. She spoiled everything. I hated to get stuck with Her, and never could get rid of Her from my hand.
“But Grandma, how could it just disappear?”
“It just did. We didn’t even notice for awhile.”
“How could you not notice?”
“Child, you don’t know what it was like with scarlet fever. Those who were sick were dying, and those who weren’t were so busy tending the sick, there wasn’t time to notice. My mother was just relieved that Eva pulled through.”
“Well, when did she notice?”
“Much later, when she came out of it. And we were very lucky to have a doctor good at surgery, then, out on the farm. They weren’t specialized, like now.”
“So how did he make an eyelid?”
“Out of skin from the inside of her arm. Now, quit being so nosy. And quit staring at her at the dinner table!”
“Do NOT–I repeat–do NOT stare at her,” Mama yelled at me from the back porch, doing laundry. “And do NOT ask her!”
Mama and Grandma Lee were cleaning warriors. Grandma Lee pounded dungarees against a scrub board, while Mama flattened clothes in the wringer and sheets in a mangle. Grandma Lee whipped rugs on the clothesline with a wire beater, while Mama patrolled inside as a vacuum cleaner tank. I knew to stay out of their way. From the moment they got up, girdled for the day, they fought Pittsburgh Coal Dirt.
But I loved Pittsburgh coal, chunks glowing in a bin below a chuted window underneath the kitchen. I would sneak downstairs where it was cool in summer and pick out slick shiny pieces for chalk.
Coal dust drifted down in the grey summer air from the mills along the Monongehela. It blackened all the dirt between the railroad flat houses, finer than silt and more barren. Nothing would grow between the houses but beautiful blue flowers with white dots in the center. I knew they were weeds because they popped up from cracks in the cement, not from the strips of dirt where the sun never shone. Brave weeds. I would water them with my toy watering can. Then Grandma Lee would pour salt on the cracks and they would die.
At those long dark dinners in Grandma Lee’s shuttered dining room, I couldn’t help looking. A dead rabbit hung upside down, draped on the wall in the midst of a wooden still life. I always sat opposite it and had to stare at its upside down eyes watching me eat my peas, and no amount of wheedling could get Grandma Lee to change my seat because the other side was “where Grandpa Lee sat,” and that was that.
After he retired from the telegraph office at the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, Grandpa Lee sat in his rocking chair by the radio, listening to broadcasts about “Roosha,” the evil empire, and rocked himself to death.
Aunt Eva came every Thanksgiving. On the table were starched white linen napkins, stiff and crusty in the lap, and too many forks. Cold droplets would ooze down the outside of the water goblets onto the soft linen tablecloth, but I was not allowed to dip my fingers into that cool puddle. I was to “drink my water, not play with it.” So I had no choice but to glance sidelong at Aunt Eva at the end of the table, studying that eyelash-less eyelid.
Could she open her eye all the way? What if a speck got in her eye, with no eyelashes to brush it out?
Aunt Eva was the extra person at the table, as flat and colorless as the upside down rabbit when she wore a tan double-breasted suit with peplum, tan stockings, and sensible tan shoes.
But no corset. I had to share the four-poster double bed with her, so I’d watched her undress. She was thin, her body curved, not chunky like Mama and Grandma Lee, who wore corsets, hair nets, and black thick-heeled shoes that could easily crush a kitten’s paw as it tried to drink milk beneath the kitchen sink. Aunt Eva wore thonged sandals, or plush slippers.
Aunt Eva didn’t wear a nightgown, either, but silk lounge pajamas and a brocaded dark blue kimono with red and yellow dragons running up and down the edges. On the back of the kimono two scaly red and yellow dragons faced each other, each with_blazing eye, fiery breaths mingling. Their tails curled downwards into a knot. I was mesmerized. I longed to trace the embroidery with my fingernails, just as I had the fireplace tiles. But the ferocious dragon eyes kept me immobile. Secretly, I called Aunt Eva The Dragon Lady.
Her eyelid made her look so stern. But it could close all the way. Once I had to get up in the middle of the night to pee, and in the faint moonlight I could see that puffy eyelid all the way closed. Quickly I slipped back into my side of the bed before it could open.
Grandma Lee always made me wear white cotton gloves, which bound my fingers. I could never feel the air, the sun, anything. But if I didn’t put them on, I’d be left at home.
“Germs! That’s why you wear them. See how dirty you would have gotten?” She looked at my coal-dusted glove tips.
So I didn’t get germs from escalators or elevators or streetcars when we went downtown shopping. But I dusted door handles and banisters and grates, and streetcar windows on the way home.
Aunt Eva wore white gloves, too, and hers stayed white. Once she came into Grandma Lee’s house without taking off her coat and hat, swept into the front parlor and sat on the piano stool, pumping the pedals furiously, her white gloves resting on the keys, not missing a note.
She stopped abruptly and turned halfway round. She’d seen me with her terrible eyelid.
“What are you doing here?”
The forbidden front parlor had tiles around the false gas fireplace that wanted to come loose. I had been carefully prying them loose.
“Nothing.” I crouched, staring at the magic piano keys that kept moving up and down by themselves. I couldn’t look at her. She’d even bewitched the piano.
Then she laughed. “You’ve never seen a player piano before?”
“No,” I said, easing the last loose tile back in place and standing up on top of them. “Mama won’t let me touch it.”
“Well, child, come and see how it plays itself!”
I was afraid to move off the tiles, but she spun around to the piano again, flicking a metal switch that stopped the keys. Maybe she hadn’t noticed.
She slid open a little door in the piano. “See, here’s where the rolls of paper go, and when they turn, the holes catch to make the different keys go up and down.” Then she shut the panel so no one could see the hidden roll of punched paper.
“Flick the switch and it plays automatically, like I was just doing. But it’s more fun to pump the pedals. Then you can make the music go fast or slow.”
She beckoned with a white-gloved hand. “Sit here.” I obeyed. Then she pushed the stool in so I could reach the pedals, still hovering over me.
At first the keys wheezed out notes, but then I got the hang of it. Whee! Faster and faster I pumped to make the keys pound out “It’s a long long way to Tipperary.”
Suddenly the parlor door opened. Grandma Lee’s hair-netted head poked in. “What’s all that racket?” Then she saw us. “Oh, don’t let her go so fast! And you! Slow down, or you’ll break the piano!” Then the door closed.
“That’s probably enough for today,” Aunt Eva said, taking off her gloves and hat. She went into the dark hall and hung up her long camel hair coat, returning with just her clutch purse. Reaching inside, she handed me something.
“Have a nail file. It helps to pry things loose.”
Because Aunt Eva was an Old Maid and all alone, Mama and Grandma Lee felt sorry for her. I could tell from the tone of their voices, their careful questions about her plans. They were making sure she wasn’t left out at holidays and the family reunions held in red Ohio barns.
Yet I caught a different look on their faces sometimes, wistful and faraway as they fingered her postcards to me from China or Manchuria or Singapore or Ceylon or Siam. Awe as they read faded news clippings of foreigners being “shanghaied” during the Boxer Rebellion in China in the l920’s, when Aunt Eva had been there. Envy when she brought back exotic presents,_exquisite and almost useless.
She had a steamer trunk, papered with stamped customs permits and Shanghai dents in the steel corners. When she opened it, chiffon dresses billowed out from one side — chiffon nubbly yet swishy around her knees, not stiff and slippery like taffeta. On the other side metal clamps held satin drawers in place, bursting with souvenirs — pearls, silks, milk-green jade, Ming vases, incense burners shaped like junks, tall porcelain dolls in kimonos and wide red sashes, pleated fans painted with white cranes amid bamboo, sandalwood shells of soap, carved ivory compacts, jasmine perfume, slippery see-through scarves. And for me, a teakwood box inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
On the summers she didn’t cruise the Orient, Aunt Eva lived “free as an ostrich” at Chautauqua, New York, soaking up lectures on transcendentalism, Emerson’s poetry, and music — concerts every night by the lake, recitals every noon by the fountain. She rented a cottage for the season. When I was ten, she invited me and my violin to come for two weeks and play in the children’s orchestra.
I begged to go. Even though I was still afraid of her, I liked her better than Mama. It wasn’t her oriental gifts or her fascinating stories. She answered my questions. And she hadn’t told.
I could sense my mother’s reluctance to let me go, perhaps envy, even though she didn’t care for music. But I promised to practice, so I was sent by train, complete with baggage and instructions to behave.
This time I didn’t sleep in a big four-poster with Aunt Eva, but on a cot on the back screened porch. My little space had a cardboard dresser and a music stand and metronome for practicing scales out there in the evenings. It was cool and private, surrounded by large catalpas and chestnuts. I loved sleeping outdoors with the birds and the rain, and if I lay very still, I could hear the waves lapping.
Aunt Eva slept in the big four-poster with Geneve, her lady companion. Geneve taught French at the same high school in Canton, Ohio. Over and over I whispered her name–like my birthplace, Geneva, New York–but only two syllables that floated in the air. Geneve was young and exotic; she came from Quebec, and was part French.
She had marcelled hair, like Aunt Eva’s, but hers was cropped short–a bob–shaved close in the back like a man’s, but with a black curl at the nape of her neck. It was called a duck tail, but I saw it as the tip of a heart, coming to a point at the back of her round dark head.
I had thick straight hair parted in the middle, which every morning Aunt Eva braided, and every evening, un-braided and brushed before my bedtime.
Aunt Eva’s silver-blond hair was wavy on the sides, wound tight in a high bun at the back. I never knew how long it was until one night she loosened her bun and her hair fell down to her knees in ripples. As Aunt Eva stood brushing my hair, Geneve found a silver hairbrush and began brushing and brushing Aunt Eva’s hair, too, as Nellie Melba, our favorite opera singer, sang and sang on the Red Label record on the Victrola.
At bedtime Geneve wore the navy blue silk kimono, the one with the red and yellow dragons. So beautiful, how had Aunt Eva given it away?
But Geneve still let me wear it, if I was very careful, to play wedding with my new friend, Sarah, from New York City. She played cello in my orchestra, and stayed at a cottage three alleyways down. “Here comes the bride, all dressed in….red and yellow dragons!” we screamed and laughed as we ran down the hallway runner rug into the big cottage kitchen. We never tired of Dragon Lady weddings.
Mornings Sarah and I played in the children’s orchestra, and afternoons I practiced for my daily lesson with “The Maestro,” a European first violinist from the Boston Philharmonic. Then we could go swimming. How I loved the lake! No more chlorine-filled YWCA pool with whistles and mandatory showers. Late afternoons we would swim out to the raft and back.
One day in late summer Sarah and I swam all afternoon and then went to her cottage for blintzes–much better than peanut butter sandwiches–and played a new game called Monopoly.
I lost track of time. Suddenly it was past dusk. Dark! Had I missed supper? I grabbed my swimsuit and towel and ran through the alleyways to Aunt Eva’s cottage.
All the lights were on. Waiting for me in the front porch swing, rocking slowly in the cool twilight, were Aunt Eva and Geneve. Geneve was holding Aunt Eva’s hands.
“Where have you been?” Her fierce eyelid glared.
“I’m sorry. I forgot. We were playing…”
“Don’t you have any sense of time?”
I hung back on the bottom porch step, dangling my wet towel and swimsuit in front of me.
“Can’t you see the girl has no idea?” Geneve interrupted, standing up abruptly. “Here, I’m giving you my watch. It’s Swiss, and will keep good time. So you won’t have any excuses for being late.”
I saw Aunt Eva stare at her as she removed the silver band and slipped it on my wrist.
“Thank you, thank you, Geneve.” I turned on the threshold. “Now I won’t ever be late again!”
“Hmmph.” Aunt Eva said, rising stiffly from the porch swing. “Well, child, come in and eat. You must be starved.” She held the screen door open for me. “We saved you some of your favorite peach cobbler.”
“So where’d you get the watch?” Mama frowned. She didn’t believe in frivolities, especially for young girls. It was ornate silver, old-fashioned with a big face. Unique, not like the post-war watches in the five & dime. I’d deciphered the worn script engraved on the back: Eva Shelton.
“I—uh, Aunt Eva gave it to me.”
“I was late.” Oops! Now Mama ‘d really disapprove: getting a present for misbehaving. But she let me keep it. Now I’d have no more excuses about coming home late from school.
I was sent for every summer to play in the children’s, then the youth orchestra at Chautauqua, until I left home to study on scholarship at the Paris Conservatoire. Sarah, still my best friend, stayed home to go to Julliard. Aunt Eva gave me her Shanghai steamer trunk along with my airfare, and I took it along, even though I had to pay extra for air cargo. Aunt Eva’s hair had turned white, and she’d begun to use a teak cane. Of course its head was a carved ivory dragon. Geneve, still dark and beautiful in those old-fashioned chiffon dresses, would guide her arm on their early evening strolls.
Oh, those cool evenings by the lake, rocking in the porch swing and drinking mint tea from Ceylon! How we ignored the gramophone’s crackle as Nellie Melba and Galliquerche poured liquid passion from their throats, lingering on the high C notes floating in the air.
After Aunt Eva’s death, Mama couldn’t find the dragon kimono she wanted. I smiled, knowing it was still being worn in Canton, Ohio. Aunt Eva ‘d already given me all that I’d ever needed. Airfare and a Paris allowance. The inlay-of-pearl teakwood box for my treasures. Inside, an old watch which no longer keeps time and a snapshot of two young women arm in arm, smart in the 1920’s era of fringed flapper dresses, tipped cloche hats and gloves, standing beside a steamer trunk on a wharf in front of an ocean liner, the SS Orient. I look at Aunt Eva’s drooping right eyelid, and yes, it is still winking. Right at the old metal nail file, which I still use to pry things loose.