In the long years of adulthood I’ve thought of Aunt Emma — Great Aunt Emma to be exact — as one of my saving graces. As a young child I was a little afraid of both Aunt Emma and Aunt Helen. They were sisters to my grouchy grandfather — oddly called Grindad — and they had very wrinkly faces – especially Aunt Emma. Aunt Emma also had a tremor that got more and more pronounced as the years went on. When I was little, that contributed to the slightly nerve-wracking mystery of her — and of Aunt Helen, by extension.
Aunt Emma and Aunt Helen lived in a part of Philadelphia called Germantown and we went there every year on New Year’s Day for dinner. This was a mysterious, magical, old-fashioned affair that involved creamed oysters on pastry shells and ice cream in a mold that Aunt Helen sliced and served. The occasion was capped by the lighting of real candles on the Christmas tree. Here’s a photo of me, clutching my stuffed animal very hard (and Christmas Tree in the background) as I meet a great great aunt on my very first New Year’s visit to Germantown…or maybe it was my second!
My mother had a sort of reverence for them and for the way of life they represented. Call it WASPish gentility. They were not wealthy, but they had that patina and seemed to live as if they were of another time. My maternal grandmother, Mimi, always felt looked down upon by them. I don’t know if it was true, but there was a tension there, mostly on her end, that I became increasingly aware of as I got older.
In our family of Roosevelt-hating Republicans, Emma and Helen were different. They were Democrats and went to plays and concerts and didn’t have a TV. The older I got, the more fascinating they became — especially Emma, who taught at South Philly Girls High and was the more worldly of the two, basically supporting Helen.
They traveled a lot, Aunt Emma and Aunt Helen. They’d go to Europe, not on prearranged tours but in inexpensive ways, like on freighters. And they’d stay for a long time, going to off-the-beaten-path-places and having adventures that seemed very brave and exciting to me. I remember one story they told of a train ride in Italy where they talked at length with some players on an Italian soccer team. And I’ve images of the two of them sitting in an outdoor cafe in Athens when the military coup there was happening in 1967.
I spent one weekend with them in late elementary school, and was very nervous about spending a weekend alone with them. These were, after all, people that I only saw once a year — maybe I’d been with them about 10 times in my young life at that point. They were kindly, wrinkly, and mysterious strangers.
The weekend was at once filled with activity and somehow quiet. We went to see The Taming of the Shrew — my first experience of a Shakespeare play. We went to a church fair in Germantown and went walking in the Wissahickon Park, where we serendipitously came upon an obedience demonstration by the K9 Unit of the Philadelphia Police.
The whole weekend was magical, perhaps most because it was such a quiet time in its way. I don’t remember conversations, though I know we must have had them. One f my most vivid memories is of sitting in their living room reading a book and drinking acrid Philadelphia ice water while they prepared supper, having refused my help. Supper, I’m sure, was simple, and the mattress I slept on, as I recall, was filled with horsehair. (Any chance that’s an apocryphal memory? Perhaps.)
Mostly I just remember the calm quiet, and the small surprise I felt at being able to navigate it all by myself. I felt more grown up when I got home — at once proud and relieved. A rite of passage and surprise of surprises, I had gotten through it and actually enjoyed the experience.