|Aunt Mary 1931|
My uncle Harvey hated cigarette smoke so I chain-smoked him out of the kitchen. Then I asked my Aunt Mary what the happiest time of her life was. Without hesitation she said it was the time when she had a job working in Hudson’s Department store in downtown Detroit and she and another shop girl went out on the Bob-Lo Boat after work.
That’s all she said.
She didn’t say she’d danced under the stars in the arms of a stranger, or that she and her friend had a drink and got the giggles. She didn’t describe the wind in her hair, the heave of the waves or the sights passing ashore.
I don’t remember if I pressed for details but now it’s too late to check the facts. Aunt Mary has been dead for eighteen years or so, and before that she’d been loopy with dementia for two or three.
But I’d heard her.
I knew that my aunt had spent her youth caring for her siblings and working in the family restaurant. Their restaurant was in a non-Jewish neighborhood and my aunt was not allowed to date non-Jews, so when Jewish Uncle Harvey came in to eat and took a shine to her, she was trapped.
When he brought a ring to the restaurant and proposed she said no, but he showed the ring to my grand mother and that was that. Aunt Mary was a very obedient daughter.
In the way of children, I was vaguely aware that my aunt took care of my aging Grandmother, and that none of the other kids did, including my own dad. It seemed understood that this was Mary's job as the oldest daughter.
I knew too, that Harvey was a bully, or at least that I didn’t like him.
But it wasn’t until much later that the things I saw alarmed me. Like when my uncle decided it was time to move out of their house to an apartment that didn’t take dogs. By lucky happenstance, the realtor he was working with fell in love with my aunt’s dog, Sandy, and offered to take her to live on her happy farm with children and room to run.
My aunt couldn’t deny her beloved Sandy a life like that. Sandy was never seen again.
Then Harvey decided they no longer needed a second car. Aunt Mary defended this, saying she was like a fancy lady with a driver! In reality this meant that she couldn’t meet with her Mahjong girls, or go to Pioneer Women luncheons, or anywhere else unless Harvey had no other plans and was in the mood to take her. And it meant she never went out alone again.
Uncle Harvey went to the library every day to read the financial papers so he wouldn’t have to buy them. My aunt would prepare a list of books and tell him he didn’t have to run around the stacks looking for the books, he just had to hand the list to the librarian when he got there and pick up the books when he was ready to leave. But he didn’t.
A woman in the apartment upstairs lent my aunt romance novels which was better than nothing. By the time I learned this, I was old enough to alert the other relatives to bring my aunt books, and to send her books myself when I thought of it, which was maybe twice.
Then, when my aunt got too addled and confused to clean the apartment or prepare meals for him, my uncle put her in one of those piss-smelling institutions where they tie the old folks to wheel chairs and park them along the walls. My uncle however, passed his own last days in a much spiffier place.
But Uncle Harvey isn’t the only one to blame. Among my deepest regrets is that I stood by for all those decades of abuse. Why didn’t any of us help her see a way out? How can we live with the fact that the happiest moment for her was that one tiny evening on the Detroit River when she was on her own and free?