A response to a letter from a most beloved aunt.
You might want to read this first.
Dear Aunt Astrid,
I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read your letter. I fear I’ve exhausted the titles in father’s study and having never been particularly interested in ancient architecture or migratory birds of the Northeast I was teetering on the very edge of madness. I’d much rather hear about how you’re passing the time in your Brooklyn flat. My assumption is that yours is a glamorous life compared to mine which has, due to pestilence, begun to resemble something of a second childhood. Though often it’s unclear if I’m the child, or if one or both of my parents have reverted to the callousness of youth.
Mother sneaks out, have you heard? I’m not sure if father has written, I’ve seen him sitting at his desk scribbling but there’s no way to know if he’s posting you a letter or writing me out of his will. If you’re unfamiliar however, allow me to inform you that you are the younger sister of the most menacing sneak.
In inky-hued clothing, as if I can’t see her bright red hair whisping out from beneath her gardening hat and concerningly bold blue eyeshadow peeking from above a surgical mask, she steals away in the family car. Only just yesterday I thwarted one of these attempts, and only then because she’d run out of protective gloves and had to resort to the use of potholders over her hands, which resulted it in taking longer than usual to maneuver her keys. On these journeys, she conducts provisional shopping or procures bottles of spirits she then hides in her wardrobe and steals swills from as if she’s not allowed to drink as much as she likes. I certainly have no problem with her inebriation, quite the opposite! It is my preference that she stay quite pickled. At least then I have confidence she can’t remember her way out the back door. Honestly it’s like containing a feral cat in a bucket.
When she’s not angling for a jail break, she’s complaining about her intestinal ailment which is precisely the reason she’s never allowed out in the first place. I’ve never in my life wished a stronger immune system on a member of the human species but my prayers go unanswered, daily. It’s not enough that I’ve been forgotten by my friends and metropolitan home, I’ve been thoroughly abandoned by the Lord himself. It isn’t uncommon to find a unique guttural noise emitting from the atrium, which upon investigation turns out to be nothing more than Mother sprawled on a floral chaise lounge that grandmother bequeathed to her against Father’s wishes while she laments her captive status and fans herself with the daily papers. I’ve started putting gin in her tea for a little peace and quiet, though if we could keep that between us.
You’ll be delighted to hear that you’re not the only member of your immediate family who has taken to the robes. Mother floats about the house in silk pajamas, billowing Japanese kimono open and trailing behind her as if she’s creating her own wind. The dogs keep nipping at it, assuming it’s a phantom of some kind. She immerses herself in French fashion magazines though she does not speak the language, and occupies the telephone for nearly half the day calling anyone who has the misfortune of having a telephone number she’s committed to memory. Yesterday I received a communique from Ingrid Montgomery, her college roommate, asking me to convince Mother she’d moved or died, whichever was more believable in my view.
At least Mother has found occupation. Having installed myself at the family estate for want of adequate space in the East Village and a genuine concern for the soundness of my parents’ marriage without proper supervision, I’ve also inadvertently become my retired professor father’s forced and only pupil. Thrice weekly I’m summoned to the sitting room where I’m lectured, against my will mind you, on topics ranging from ancient horticulture practices to “banking for beginners,” as he’s charmingly christened it. Each time he patters to his study to retrieve supplemental materials I bolt from the room as if evading a grenade and hide under my bed the way I used to when Nanny would come after me with the pink lotion for Chicken Pox. Following my departure one can only assume he continues to impart his wisdom on Gerald, the German Shepherd Mother permitted him to acquire last year. They’re the best of companions and can often be found sharing a biscuit over tea.
Father gives me no peace. Perhaps a repayment for my inability to sleep late on weekends as a child? One can’t be sure. Last week I tried sunning myself in the garden—on your recommendation, thank you, I know the outcome was not your intent—and after approximately seven minutes of warm glow and quiet, a pair of oversized garden clippers were dropped in my lap and I was commanded to make something of the southern hedge. I don’t mind telling you I forced the shrubbery into a most suggestive shape so as to not be dragooned into landscaping again.
When the three of us dine together, it’s a comedy of confusion. Three separate versions of each meal must be prepared to suit each individual’s tastes and dietary restrictions, and more often then not I take the lead in the kitchen as I don’t want those two in close proximity to one another in the presence of so many knives. No salt in this dish, twice the oregano in another, and if dairy touches anything in Mother’s vicinity she throws the plate. We’ve exhausted the everyday servingwear and she’s now making her way through the good wedding china. I’ve started leaving kitchen windows open on the off chance it saves me a mopping of the floor.
Once at the table, no conversational topic is either off limits or within the bounds of propriety. I’ve learned things about my parents relationship that therapists can afford send their children to private school on. If you know where Mother keeps the pills, do be forthcoming. In light of these discussions and revelations I think you’ll find I’ve quite given up food and learned to sustain myself on little more than the fermentation of grapes. My parents bicker at each other like the winner is going to receive a trip to Tahiti at the end when in reality if it was within the limits of the law I would box them up and send them there myself. If you had a chance to dine with Cousin Edith’s four year old twins the winter she tried to convince them that chocolate doesn’t exist, you’ve some idea of the level of maturity I’m treated to every evening.
I refuse to breakfast with them, quietly stealing down to the kitchen for toast, coffee, and any berries my mother hasn’t murdered in a blender before the rest of the house stirs and I’m found out. I’ve learned to lock my door by shoving a laundry hamper in front of it and placing volumes H-Q of Father’s encyclopedias on top. On a good day I go unnoticed until 11am.
The one thing all three of us agree on is a revival of Cocktail Hour, a tradition most beloved and long lost. Mother plays records and shuffles about in satin slippers while Father mixes a batch of some roaring cocktail he has half the ingredients for that he read about in a book. This evening’s selection is something called a “Mary Pickford” and I don’t care what’s in it as long as it’s a cure for the judgmental remarks of your own parents.
My friends in the city often write. It’s hard to tell who is in a more lamentable situation these days, me with two overgrown Sunday school pupils throwing grapes at each other each time I turn my back, or poor Stacia and Rosalie who live one floor up from a man who eats nothing but boiled cabbage and refuses to replenish the batteries in his hearing aid. No one is top spirits these days, it seems.
Still, your letter revived in me a sense of calm and optimism that was most welcome, as I received it following an afternoon of badminton in the garden with Father who’d lost his racket and was content to use the heel of an old shoe. Mother insists on flirting with the poor mail carrier and won’t bring the post into the house until she’s heard a full accounting from him of all neighborhood gossip, which then turns out not be gossip at all but public announcement, as she makes him scream it in her direction from a distance of six feet. I happen to know he is actually married to a lovely man named Harvey, I saw them at brunch on the lake last summer, we all enjoyed the yogurt parfait.
If I come out of this quarantine speaking to either or even one of the people who gave me life on this earth I will be most astounded, but don’t be surprised if following the lifting of travel restrictions I arrive at your doorstep with my bags and sorrows in tow. I’d intended to write more and perhaps convey more optimism, but that will have to wait until we correspond again. I’ve just heard a glass break in the foyer and I’m not sure if a vase has fallen or if someone is breaking in to take refuge in our halls. I’d almost prefer the latter, as some variation in company does sound quite nice.
Your loving niece,
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, a lot.