My brothers and I over the years took to calling the old lady—after we had recounted some new horror story—“a real piece of work.” This phrase means something precise to me in my mind at least, but I am not quite sure how to translate into other words. I think it means something like what people mean when they say of somebody, “he is just impossible.”
I am not sure what that means either; for certainly to be impossible a person must first be possible. But whatever it means, my brothers and I didn’t take to calling the old lady that until later in life and we had managed to emerge a little from her emotional strangle hold. We had achieved a sort of distance which allowed us to express a very, very grudging respect for her abilities to make us (and herself) incredibly miserable. I think that’s implied in “a real piece of work,” a grudging, very grudging respect.
If this applied to the old lady, it also applied to her sister, Aunt Susan, who was also a real piece of work although apparently crafted by a different craftsperson. While the old lady was Miss Goody-Goody Two Shoes (whatever that means), oh so prim and proper with her lips that touch liquor will never touch mine holier than thou attitude, Aunt Susan was sort of large and blousy, if that’s a word, gregarious, not above hinting at cleavage and certainly not afraid of a drink.
So we have Saint Old Lady and Sinner Sue; at least that’s how our mother tried to make Susan feel. Susan for her part had grown up belittling Saint Old Lady and continued to do so making remarks especially about her attire and her weight. Although for many years, the Saint had all the leverage since she had a god fear husband and god fearing children, and my Aunt didn’t have anybody after her son, Skipper, died at the age of 13 or so of bone cancer.
And before that her career with men had been, for women of her generation, a bit of a walk on the wild side. During the war, she met a man, had intercourse with him unmarried, became pregnant, and waited while he went off to the war after they had married in TJ. She waited and waited; the child came along and still no husband. Plus, the letters had stopped coming. She got herself together somehow and went back to Arkansas where his family was only to find out he was already married. There stood his wife right there on the porch, with one child standing beside her, and another in the oven. And basically they just laughed at her and told her to get lost.
So Aunt Susan was a single mother. I expect there have always been lots and lots of single mothers either de jure or de facto. But she was one before single mothers became a topic of conversation. And somewhere along there she had an affair with a married man, no less. I met him once. I got a call from Aunt Susan to come have a drink with her at a bar over in Lemon Grove. I guess she had come back to visit her old stomping grounds and she cottoned to me because I had spent time with her dead son.
And this guy comes in—the adulterer, I mean—and I don’t know what I expected—but he is pretty tall, sort of stooped over, nothing to speak of really, and wearing one of those god awful polyester suits fashionable at the time. The affair—that was long over—but they had remained friends. So I finished my drink and after a bit I left.