This was the woman who requested that we put an extra pair of heels in her coffin so that she could cut a rug in heaven.
Growing up, I remember women’s hands. My mother’s holding books in the soft rocking chair where we read together. My great aunt’s, roped with mazes of vein and garnished with stones, pinching dough on the cookie sheet. Hands that deposited raisins on gingerbread men and couldn’t bring themselves to stop mine from picking them off. There is a picture of Little Me sitting at the kitchen table, my sticky fingers in an open mouth full of raisins while Aunt Helen looks on and laughs.
For years I could not see over the mahogany bar in Aunt Helen’s basement where she poured her Manhattans. I caught an angled glimpse of the glass, the beads sewn on her blouse warped through copper whiskey. I remember pine and cinnamon, my cousins and I tearing open our gifts under her sentimental gaze, the faint shimmer of sequins catching in the colored lights. Always the joyful, radiant hostess, she made sure that everyone was well-fed and happy. I slid toward her glamour like iron filings to a magnet.
There was dimension to my great aunt’s sophistication, a charity and warmth in every “Yoo-hoo!” that sailed up from the basement when I entered her house. She had found a dress for my Sadie Hawkins dance to cheer me up after, 16 and newly-licensed, I accidentally backed into my best friend’s Dodge Neon. “I’m shocked he still wants to go with me,” I sulked.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, tugging on the flamenco hemline. “You’ve been friends for far too long.”
The dress was a warm grey, embellished with unfolding cream-colored roses. Aunt Helen had rescued it from a sad clearance rack at JCPenney’s, believing like the kindest of animal adopters that she could find it a good home. She smoothed the material over my ribs and stepped back to admire her work. “Do you think you’ll ever be more than friends?” she asked.
My skin grew hot. How could a woman born in the ‘20s support something that my classmates in the 21st century rejected? Justin had come out only to me, understandably fearing the backlash in our small town.
“He’s not really interested in girls,” I said.
Aunt Helen slipped a string of black onyx beads around my neck and led me to the window. “See the house next door?” A man her age had lived there alone for years. I braced myself for a story about how he was ostracized by the community for his sexuality, condemned to a life in hiding.
“I have a special friend like that too, and he lives there. Was never interested in girls, just like your Justin.” She bent her head down and smiled. “But he’s interested where it counts. This onyx you’re wearing? Loves it on me. We get dressed up together on the weekends and go out—he’s a fabulous dancer! And we can talk about anything.”
She put her hands on my hips and faced me squarely. “Those kinds of friends are very special. Make sure that when you get older, you and Justin still go dancing.”
We took regular shopping trips. They were always under the pretense of using up the McDonald’s coupon books that came in the mail, but her Filet-O-Fish was mere fuel for scavenging the department store jewelry racks. She knew the name, size, style preference, and life story of every lady behind the counter. “There’s Miss Helen!” they would cry, abandoning their posts to shuffle toward her. “Let me show you what just came in.” It was here that she taught me to match the clothes to the accessories, not the other way around, because things that shine and sparkle make us happy and we can worry about the rest later.
As she aged, I became more involved in her presentation to the world. My mother and I bathed her with hot washrags, running them over her thick skin sprinkled with sunspots. After she insisted that she could “put her face on” herself, we collapsed into a fit when she mistakenly dragged a stick of lip liner across her eyelids and snorted Oh, fuck! into her hands. I fastened an “over the shoulder boulder holder” around her stocky frame, joking that I’d be waiting forever for a bosom like hers. Next to her, my boyish frame felt like a bag of bones.
It was Aunt Helen who taught me how to be a woman in every sense of the word. I learned to float through the decades as she did: timeless, unencumbered by trends, immune to the onslaught of teenage cuts and embellishments that would have ended up in the yard sale pile before the year was out. She taught me how to embrace the alabaster skin that the tanning bed-obsessed girls at school ridiculed me for; she told me to love my small chest, because I would be able to wear all the tops she’d always wanted to but couldn’t. All bodies, according to the Gospel of Helen, were worthy of praise.
A few years ago, a series of strokes left Aunt Helen’s beloved little house unoccupied. She delightedly gave me the nursing home scoop on who was hooking up with whom, but as dementia moved into her like a fog, we realized that she wouldn’t be heading home after all. Her vibrant personality subdued to that of a shy child, taking pleasure in the simplicity of a soft bed or a warm meal. She regressed back to World War II; she waited for her husband to return from combat. She asked me about my studies—though I was well out of college—because I was such a good student, she said, and how fortunate to be going to such a nice school.
After her last stroke, I sat on her hospital bed and held out my wrist. I had worn some new pieces of jewelry because they were shaped like her favorite animal: the owl. She silently traced the eyes and beak on my wooden bracelet, ran her thumb back and forth over the rhinestone accents on my matching necklace. “Pretty,” she mouthed. Even in this state, she appreciated sparkle.
The parking lot was blanketed with snow. I tugged the curtain back so that she could see the flakes fluffy as dandelion seeds. “Isn’t this pretty too?”
“I don’t like snow.” Her mouth settled in a thin line. “It’s depressing.”
I wracked my brain as to how someone who worshiped beauty could hate the purity of snow. And then I realized that my great aunt wasn’t stillness and solitude. She was fire and pizazz. Something so clean and quiet, a slate of absence, was against her religion. This was the woman who requested that we put an extra pair of heels in her coffin so that she could cut a rug in heaven.
If she were alive today, I’d tell her that she is in my marrow. She is a presence within me every time I stand up for myself, accomplish something professionally, or express myself through fashion. Above all else, she taught me that femininity and strength can live in perfect harmony.
And yes, Aunt Helen, Justin and I still go dancing.
Photo courtesy of the author
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.