The Portrait of a Traveler

The ashtray of my great aunt P was silver-plated alike the old mirror sitting on the shelf under the window; it was an ashtray with a nude fisherwoman hauling a net for stubs and ashes with her strong arms, and, who knows, perhaps a goldfish would have appeared there to fulfill three essential wishes in everyone’s life.

Aunt P gave up smoking a long time ago. She used to smoke the finest Romanian cigarettes available in her youth. But she was a poor woman all her life, as well as the great majority of my relatives. Then she grew old, going through some interesting transformations for a single woman in the city: her large dark brown face warts went discolored, her legs became hairless, her hair became brilliant white with a tint of blue-violet gentian tincture used by many old ladies, her nails got curved and thickened, even though she still used her precious manicure tools, because in fact my aunt did not forget the way of life she adopted in the hair salon where she had worked. In the last ten years of her life, my aunt gradually lost her sight, but she was still able to wash herself under the shower alone, even though she did not quit for 15 years her room strangely built with six walls instead of four.

Times were spinning around my aunt’s house like a toy globe in a child’s hand, meridian after meridian. In the 60s her third husband died, leaving her to care for the three elder relatives. Her husband had roots among White noble Russians (he was a white émigré), and he found refuge with modest financial means in Romania. Coincidentally, my aunt’s brother was a different kind of adventurer, a former worker in the construction industry and traveler in the Arab countries, who had spent several years in a concentration camp in Russia, because he was a prisoner in the Second World War. Aunt P too had traveled in her youth around the world, as a stage dancer, together with a friend. She had pictures with her in beautiful ballerina white dresses. In addition to the hair salon, she worked as a public servant in a state institution. In the ‘70s the trolley wires circled my aunt’s home, and then they disappeared. In the ‘80s my aunt often walked around the city to visit her sisters and brothers and in the suburbs area too, to take a breath of fresh air and stretch her pretty legs on a lounger in the sunlight. She loved very much herbs of all kinds, to refresh her blood, but she was a perfect hostess for her younger relatives when they congregated around her round and small table for a card game named Ace of Spades, staking on very low value coins. In her later years she began to stitch and make superb needlework and to decorate cushions according to her Hungarian origins traditions, with incredible craftsmanship for the hand of an apprentice.

In the ‘90s, my aunt, aged almost 80, had traveled with some fear on a plane over the ocean in the U.S.A. to attend a wedding of one of her nieces from an elder sister. She was always the same lady with impeccable manners and a small head standing with her curled hair and her pink lipstick on her mouth over her thin and quite tall body, more and more fragile. My aunt’s house was neighboring the government’s building, and on the ground floor they set up kiosks for petty merchandise. Only the framed pictures of my aunt were the same: her husband, brothers and sisters, and relatives from afar.

I visited her from time to time and she joked that she was the doyenne of age in our family. I still have a few old books received from her. In her youth she loved rumors about celebrities, in her old age she listened to the radio sitting on her bedside. When I was young she said about me that I was like Lapusneanu, a Romanian ruler, who said “if you don’t want me, I still want you” and I could not agree to that. I loved my family with all my heart. Before she died, she synthesized the wisdom of life in a few words: “It’s better on the ground floor than in the basement, that’s what I think, and while my Lord still left a living time to me, it should be lived”. This woman was shrouded in a fragrance of mystery, but in reality she was simple like jar pickles. She kept the flavor of times gone by, but she was spiced with herbs and resistant, yet open minded. She has given me a few things before she died, but I only preserved her simple, cheap Romanian coffee cups and saucers. Yes, she had liked coffee and she died on New Year’s Eve, probably as a result of the aggravation of her aorta aneurysm and other age-related illnesses. Because the staircase to her apartment (which she no longer could descend for a long time), was twisted to a maximum, they came down first with the coffin and then with her in a blanket. I thought that’s exactly what her life was: twisted like ivy around some men, twisted, but fragile, rambling on devious paths in mysterious ways, where not all people sleep between four walls. And at the end of her journey my aunt offered once again a proof her proverbial capacity of adaptation. At the graveyard gate it was snowing, it was a very peaceful and thin snowfall, gracious like her ballerina days…

There are many other stories about aunt P which I regret I did not write in time before forgetting them. There are stories about her adventures with unknown men in cheap motels, whose advances she had surely rejected and the memory of her own youth in photos with Greta Garbo looks.

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Categories: Memories, prose | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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