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She was an apparition of loveliness.

 
 
Patricia Walkow
Memoir - The Lady on the Landing
 
 
 

The Lady on the Landing

 

 

She was an apparition of loveliness.

            In her fifties, Aunt Mary stood on the broad landing at the top of the stairs, her left hand holding the railing, looking at the girl who was ascending the stairway. The woman's dark hair was swept off her forehead and gathered in the back with a brown and white feathered barrette, just below the crown of her head. Round clusters of pearls at her ears framed her face and there was the slightest hint of rouge on her flawless skin. Her V-neck dress was made of gray silk and fine white lace decorated the V-shape. A simple, elegant strand of pearls complemented the neckline. Her shoes were black suede, with a small flirty peek-a-boo opening at the toe; the one-and-a-half inch heels were thick, 1940s style, fashionable when she married over thirteen years earlier.

            "Aunt Mary," the eight-year-old girl asked on this Sunday afternoon, "may Mommy borrow your big aluminum baking pan?"

            "Come," she said. The girl followed her to one of the wonderful storage areas beneath the broad eaves of the house and selected the pan she thought her mother wanted. Her mom often borrowed kitchen items from Aunt Mary.

            "I am going to make macaroni next week. Do you want to help?" Aunt Mary asked.

            "Maybe."

            "Well, if you don't want to help, just come up and watch."

            "OK."

            Aunt Mary was the older half-sister of the girl's mother. Both women had the same mother, but different fathers. She and her husband, Uncle Alex, lived on the third floor of the big house in Brooklyn, New York. The girl's parents had outfitted the third floor with an expansive live-in kitchen, a full bath, a bedroom and a small living room with a faux fireplace. Tucked snugly in the large attic of the 1920s house, it had wonderful built-in closets and storage spaces.

            The couple paid monthly rent to the girl's parents. There was no special, separate entrance to their apartment; it was a one-family house.

            Every night when Aunt Mary and Uncle Alex returned from their jobs in New York's garment district, they would visit with the girl and her family for a few minutes and then climb the stairs to their little place. The upward trek included one set of broad steps and a landing, another set of broad steps followed by another landing, then a third, final set of steps. This last set of stairs turned right, leading to the final landing, where the girl admired her Aunt's gray silk dress the day she asked her for the big aluminum baking pan. Aunt Mary always wore her high heels, gloves and a hat when she ascended those stairs after work each weeknight.

            She may have had a dead-end job in a garment factory, but she always dressed like a lady.

            Always.

            It was a stark contrast to the girl's mother, who became a hausfrau in 1946 and decided to dress down for the rest of her life, except for special occasions. Aunt Mary's meticulous attention to her appearance contrasted with the girl's mother's decision to wear shapeless thin cotton muumuus, cheap open-toed slide-in slippers and white anklets practically all the time. Childless Aunt Mary may have had time to tend to her appearance but four children undoubtedly detracted from the mother's capacity to spend time on herself.

            Aunt Mary became an ideal. Spending time with her and Uncle Alex "upstairs" offered the opportunity to see a woman who could be emulated. Her shoes were lovely; her dresses elegant but simple, her perfume subtle and her patience endless.

            Sometimes on Sunday afternoon some of Aunt Mary's nieces and her nephew would climb the stairs to visit; usually Uncle Alex had his stationery and fountain pens in front of him, taking up a third of the kitchen table, which could seat as many as eight comfortably and ten if it was necessary. His fountain pens were things of beauty. Some were white mother-of-pearl, others were wood, one was onyx, and a few were rich, gray, glossy steel. Each Sunday he wrote long letters to one of his sisters, or to other relatives or friends in Italy, telling them of the events of the preceding weeks.  It was the 1950s, and Italy, along with the rest of Europe, was still recovering from the effects of World War II. Aunt Mary and Uncle Alex sent packages of household goods and clothing several times a year. But it was the letter-writing the girl enjoyed most. Sometimes Uncle Alex would read the letters to the children and if there was an Italian word they didn't understand, he would translate it into English for them.

            While he was attending to his correspondences, Aunt Mary would usually be busy doing something in the kitchen; sometimes she sewed or mended a piece of clothing from her cushiony rocking chair near the picture window at the sitting area within the kitchen; other times she might cook. Making macaroni was a big event for her, and her nieces and nephew were always invited to participate. It wasn't called "pasta" for the Italian family; it was simply macaroni.

            Aunt Mary prepared the dough and rolled it out on the plastic-covered and floured kitchen table, making strands of linguini or hat-shaped macaroni, or shorter strands twisted into corkscrews. Wisps of flour would float on the air above the dough, and Aunt Mary would often wipe her hands on a simple, bright white linen tea towel from Italy. She wore a white apron draped from her chest to the bottom of her dress, with a long set of ties she wrapped around her waist twice, before tying them in front in a neat bow. And she always wore earrings. The girl liked to watch the macaroni-making process, but her unsophisticated palate preferred Ronzoni. Only when she was older did she appreciate the authenticity of her Aunt's glorious creations. Aunt Mary's meat sauce, called "gravy" had a hearty flavor and was thick with small chunks of beef and pork. Seasoned with parsley, basil, oregano, and a hint of garlic, it was a joy to taste and better than the sauce the girl's mom made. Its heady aroma permeated the house.

            The girl's mother frequently reached a breaking point as she tended to children, a husband, and a house and couldn't invest much time in laborious recipes. The mother swiftly exhibited frustration and anger and in those moments Aunt Mary tried to calm her with a soft and soothing voice—a balm against strident shouts and easy slaps directed at the children. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. Aunt Mary was a pressure-relief valve whose presence allayed the anxiety the girl and her siblings experienced during their mom's outbursts.

            A few weeks after the young girl turned eighteen, she came home from her freshmen college classes one day and found her mother sitting in a chair at the kitchen table. Her red eyes and pile of used tissues told the teenager her mother had been crying for a while.

            "What's wrong, mom?"

            "It's your aunt."

            "What happened?"

            Mom looked at her daughter and whispered, "She has cancer."

            The word "cancer" was not said aloud then. It was muttered quietly, as though to hide a hideous, dirty secret.

            "What kind?" the girl asked.

            "Uterine. It has spread already."

            The girl did not know what to say. Despite their differences, her mother and Aunt Mary loved each other deeply.

            "Are they going to do any treatment?"

            "A hysterectomy and radiation."

            "How long do they give her?"

            "Maybe a year."

            She hugged her mom.

            Fighting back tears, the mom asked, "Why don't you go upstairs and see your aunt?"

            "After I change my clothes."

            The girl climbed the stairs to her room and as she changed her clothes she felt, well, inconvenienced. She did not want to have to live in the house with the disease.

            Her annoyance embarrassed her, but it was real.

            Reluctantly, she ascended the stairs and made the right turn to her aunt and uncle's quarters. Aunt Mary was sitting in her rocking chair, reading the Il Progresso, the Italian newspaper. She approached her aunt and kissed her on the cheek.

            "Aunt Mary, mom told me about your illness."

            She nodded her head to acknowledge her niece's comment, but Aunt Mary didn't, or couldn't say anything and continued to read the newspaper. Adorned with a pair of simple round gold earrings, she wore a thin, flowered house dress with dainty blue roses. The girl gave Uncle Alex a hug, and he started to cry.

            As close as their quarters were to the girl's bedroom, the climb up the flight of stairs to their apartment was the girl's most difficult journey during eighteen long, poignant cancer months. The house seemed veiled with a depressing and desperate pall she resented. She dreaded seeing her aunt deteriorate and hearing her uncle cry. Aunt Mary and Uncle Alex were two of the most in-love and devoted-to-each-other people she knew. They were always gentle and kind with each other.

            Uncle Alex was becoming exhausted with his caregiving and Aunt Mary's painful cries tortured the rooms of the house until her morphine achieved its full effect. Their friends visited, climbed the stairs, and made the right-hand turn one last time to say goodbye.

            On the night of December 21, 1968, the night the teenage girl met the boy who would be her future husband and only a week after her older sister's wedding, the girl lay in bed at three in the morning and heard her Uncle call out "Suzy, Suzy" for her mother. Mother and dad headed upstairs to Aunt Mary's apartment. Then, the sound of jagged, guttural breathing echoed through the halls, and the teenager who was almost a woman suspected what was happening.

            She had come out of her room. Her mother's voice was calm.

            "Honey, come up here. Your Aunt Mary just died."

            The girl climbed the right-curving stairs and entered her aunt's bedroom. Aunt Mary, a shadow of the woman she loved all her childhood, lay at peace, wearing small gold button earrings. Uncle Alex was sobbing at the foot of the bed. The girl went to him and placed her arms around him. She didn't need to say anything.

            But he did.

            "Why didn't you come up to see her more often? She loved you so much," he gasped between ragged, heart-broken breaths.

            A teenager has no answer to that question.

 

            A few months after Aunt Mary's funeral, Uncle Alex returned to the country of his birth to live with one of his sisters in Caserta, Italy, northeast of Naples, on the Mediterranean flank of the country.

            On the day of his departure from the U.S., he wept into one of his big, white handkerchiefs while leaning forward over the rail on the ship's deck, after everyone had hugged and kissed him goodbye. The girl's boyfriend was with her, and many years later he told her it was one of the saddest scenes he ever witnessed.

            The following year, her mother often asked for items from Aunt Mary's kitchen, a space now devoid of daily life. Whenever the girl, who was a young woman by then, was asked to "go to Aunt Mary's" she would do so with trepidation, always feeling uneasy in the apartment. Indelible memories and physical mementoes of Aunt Mary and Uncle Alex's gentle, loving, refined lives were everywhere.      

             She sometimes sat in the upholstered rocking chair by the large window, imagining Aunt Mary reading the paper or sewing a button on a shirt. Often she would open the large wood buffet drawer where her uncle once kept all his pens, expecting him to tell her she should have asked for permission. He left quite a few of his pens behind when he moved. Inevitably she would picture him sitting at the head of the table, arranging his elegant stationery and positioning his blotter and inkwell as he prepared to write to a relative in Italy or to a World War I buddy he served with in the Italian Army. His back was to the large set of windows shaded by a leafy Sycamore tree.

            On an autumn Saturday afternoon, mom asked the girl to fetch a kitchen item from Aunt Mary's collection of pots and pans. One of the three pantries in the attic extended deep into the eaves of the house and remained fully stocked with all manner of cooking gadgets. It looked just as Uncle Alex had left it the day he moved to Caserta.

            The young woman, no longer a little girl, climbed the sets of stairs and half way up the third set, she made the right turn to the top landing.

            A silent lady stood on the landing, her hand resting on the rail.  

            Still poised at the bend in the stairs, the young woman felt the hair on her neck and arms stand at attention as her scalp tingled so strongly it almost buzzed.

            The lady on the landing had dark hair. It was brushed from her forehead and clasped in the back with a brown and white feathered barrette. Round clusters of pearls at her ears framed her face and there was the slightest hint of rouge on her flawless skin. Her V-neck dress was made of gray silk and fine white lace followed the V's shape. A strand of pearls draped gracefully around her neck and extended just shy of her cleavage. Her shoes were black suede, with a small flirty peek-a-boo opening at the toe; the one-and-a-half inch heels were thick, 1940s style.

            She was an apparition of loveliness and a gentle smile graced her face.

            As though an external power forced her to speak aloud, the young woman knew exactly what the lady on the landing wanted to know. 

             "Uncle Alex is in Caserta."

 
 
 
 

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