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Tastes


ISSUE:  Autumn 1982

Increasingly—perhaps because there are so few of her sort around any more—I think of my Aunt Nancy. My first, strong picture of her is before she was married: golden, curly hair ablaze, singing in her high and happy voice, “Yip I Yaddy I Yoodly Yay!” It was about 1913; I would have been five. Her hair really was golden, not yellow, not red, but the color of gold wire. I thought it looked glorious with the jade green scarf she occasionally put on. My grandmother considered such a strong color unladylike, while my mother could not conceal from her expression how cheap she thought the effect, even though she adored her big sister.

To me, however, Aunt Nancy was the voice of the morning, counseling up, up, and away. “I don’t care what becomes of me, as long as you sing me that sweet melody,” the song went on. She was the Girl of the Golden West except that she lived in Hartford, Connecticut and gave violin lessons. My mother explained to me Aunt Nancy was a concert violinist— their mother had decided on careers for both her girls, a grave decision in those days. Aunt Nancy, however, had no gravity about her; she was laughter and gaiety, and took such adventures as diving into the surf with me in her heavy black alpaca bathing costume, coming to her knees, and long black stockings and black canvas shoes.

We had known each other since long before 1913, though. Aunt Nancy loved to tell people of how she was sitting in a pension drawing room in Brussels, the year she studied with Ysaye (a signed photograph of him, looking pensive, hung on the wall of her stucco house later on), entertaining a German baron, when a telegram was handed to her which announced my arrival.

Aunt Nancy cried, “It’s a girl! It’s a girl!” and dashed from the room to tell her mother (who of course had chaperoned her abroad). The story always ended, “So perhaps the baron is still sitting there, through the two World Wars, waiting for me to come back.” She knew she was attractive to gentlemen. Nothing ever fazed her, except my mother’s taste.

My mother, as diametrically different from Aunt Nancy as night from day, was given to brooding and sadness, yet possessed a magic gift, and not only as a painter. Her taste was unerring, unpretentious, exquisite. What she selected was always somehow perfect. In her quiet way she was aware of her unique powers. Once when some one of us did not consult her on some choice, she remarked, “I would have thought you would want to avail yourself of my taste.” We almost always did. To this day I don’t know whether I really dislike gladioli, or whether it is merely that I remember my mother pointing out how the tips blossomed last, giving, she said, a hideous effect.

My father, who had received no such gift from the gods even though he, too, was a good painter, used to dispose of the whole matter by exclaiming in imitation of an Irish brogue, “Ahh, ye’ve got the iligant taste.”

That elegant taste enabled her to create beauty out of nothing. Out of a much-mended teapot and an all-black alley cat we had taken in, she arranged on the dining-room windowsill, in front of a snowstorm, a composition that, rendered in charcoal, won her prizes and sold for a considerable sum. Could Aunt Nancy have drawn the picture, her first act would have been to buy, for it, a new, sound pot. She saw things as most of us do, for what they represent, not for what they purely look like. She did not reflect. She loved life and people and embraced them with both arms.

My Aunt Nancy’s enthusiasm for me lasted long after the telegram came. She used to declare that I was her little girl. I, impelled by stubborn loyalty, insisted I was my Mamma’s little girl. “And I am your Mamma,” she cried. Baffled, I defined my terms. “I’m the lady who is washing her hair’s little girl.”

Yet when Aunt Nancy was married I was her own child, for what was, of course, her day. I was, however, the one and only, world-famous flower girl, with a wreath of pink silk rosebuds for a crown; it was my day, too. The wedding was in our garden—hence, subject to my mother’s taste, beautiful— though at that point I cared nothing for beauty, nothing for taste. Aunt Nancy and I were queens, swelling around in our white dresses, the world our domain. At one point my feelings rose to a point where I just stood still and squealed. (I was six.)

Later, I went up to an obese woman swathed in draperies and said, “I don’t like fat ladies.” It gave me immense satisfaction. Only after the rice and the napkins and bits of food had been raked out of the garden did I receive my first, agonizing explanation from my mother about thinking of other people’s feelings.

Aunt Nancy had married a red-haired doctor with a red moustache, and gone to live in an old Hudson Valley town. Her family-in-law might have daunted even her, they were so very ecclesiastical. Two priests were among the doctor’s siblings, and one became a bishop. They all adored their golden girl and dropped in on her incessantly. The violin lay, waiting, on the top of my grandmother’s piano, I observed when I went there on a visit. My father—a minister’s son and so lacking undue awe—used to poke fun at them; it made a sort of refuge against so much piety.

Aunt Nancy had taken great pleasure in furnishing her stucco house, built specially for her across the street from her family-in-law’s tiled-roof Italian villa. The doctor admired teakwood, so all the woodwork in the house was teak. Gold tea-paper, handsome and costly, lined the living room. There was an orange Chinese rug on the living-room floor. Lamps with Tiffany glass lampshades stood about. There were several objects, among them an Agnus Dei and a reliquary, that Aunt Nancy herself—with her mother’s aid—had bought out of disused R. C. churches in her travels in France and Belgium.

I thought it all looked very grand, very opulent, and just like Aunt Nancy. I, too, took great pleasure in it on that first visit, until my mother came to pick me up and take me home. The minute my mother entered the living room, however, I saw it would never do. My mother never said disagreeable things, but although I was only eight, maybe nine, I could read her like a book. The tea-paper that had seemed so agreeable became merely conventional; the glorious Chinese rug, garish. Something inside me collapsed like a penny balloon.

Something inside Aunt Nancy began to collapse, too. I don’t know whether her in-laws were too holy for her or whether being the doctor’s answering service was too much. She continued to love everybody, to say Yes to life, but there seemed no Yip I Yaddy about her anymore.

For a married woman, it was no doubt just as well. “I don’t care what becomes of me” is hardly a suitable theme song for a doctor’s wife. From ruling the world she had stepped into the position of bearing its burdens—a very different thing. She did use to carry her infant daughter like a heavy sack on one hip, crying, “Cash paid for rags! Cash paid for rags!” to mask her abject adoration, but her taste did not improve. She merely aped my mother’s taste. I suppose we all did, but in her it was, somehow, more conspicuous.

As years went by, against her gold wallpaper appeared blue and white Chinese export plates. My mother loved blue and white (though she would never have put it on display). Stiff Early American chairs like those in our parlor at home appeared in that hitherto luxurious setting. Emulating my mother’s taste for huge bunches of shelled honesty did not make Aunt Nancy’s room in better taste. They merely made it not in her taste. I’m sure she would have preferred red florists” roses.

As I grew up through my teens, I thought less and less of my aging aunt. I’m afraid “corny” was the word I probably used. She had given up the violin in the interests of being a good wife and mother; besides, she could never have practiced, with all that dropping-in. My mother, not so much ignoring as unaware of any other calls upon her, still devoted herself wholly to her art. By now I thought almost not at all of my aunt and her predictable good spirits, boring house with banal interior, humdrum husband, and insufferable in-laws. Moreover, if I thought anything, it was that I was thereby being loyal to the ideas and tastes of that lady who had been washing her hair so long ago.

Eventually, of course (and with a resounding boom) it dawned on me there was something badly crossed up in any imitation of my mother which would leave me with unkind feelings toward somebody who, to my mother’s taste, was an utterly delightful person, adorable no matter what she did.

Aunt Nancy lived to be very old. The doctor died. Their only child, after placing her mother in a well-recommended nursing home in another state, returned to her own home abroad. Aunt Nancy ended her days in an infinitely cheerless building strung out at length like a rudimentary motel. There was no room in which the patients could congregate; she was alone day after day, looking at TV (which my mother, who had died neatly and expeditiously by then, had scorned to turn on). Sometimes the in-laws made the trip to see her. Mostly though, Aunt Nancy looked over and over two typewriter paper boxes heaped with old photographs, and postcards sent her by family when traveling abroad. To her apparently they were perennially fresh and interesting.

I used to stop at a hotel and spend the day with her on the way driving from the South, North, and vice versa. The nursing home had cut off her still curly, now dun-colored hair. This did not seem to depress her. She lay in bed, for her bones were crumbling. She was 87. One day I stopped to see her on my return trip home, and the nursing home informed me that Aunt Nancy had died.

It was a dreadful shock. They’d had my address and telephone number for years, but they had not bothered to notify me. As far as they were concerned, simply the next of kin was out of the country and should be written to. Aunt Nancy’s ashes were deposited wherever the crematorium puts its remains. Although I did manage to obtain a copy of her death certificate, I never found out where she lies.

It makes me feel better to recall the last time I did see Aunt Nancy in her bleak surroundings. After we had spoken about how we missed my mother, we turned to other memories and laughed a lot. At one point, suddenly, incredibly, Aunt Nancy exclaimed, “When I first wake up in the morning I’m so happy I could squeal!”

Yip I Yaddy I Yoodly Yay.

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