-Previously published by the The Santa Fe Writer’s Project Tobie Helene Shapiro is a composer and cellist who has also worked as a visual artist, cartoonist, graphologist, and professional chef. She was a columnist for the East Bay Phoenix and has been published in American Writer’s Review, Bluestem, Entropy, Songwriter Magazine, The Monthly, The Penmen Review, Pisgah Review, The Coachella Review, and in the anthology Fire in the Hills: A Collective Remembrance (1992). She has attended numerous writing conferences with The Opening and studied with Andy Couturier. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her family.
No Magic At All
“Civility. Service. Humility. And. Duty.” These were the words that were spoken from my aunt’s first finger. We had to watch out and not be the target of that finger.
We called her Auntie Rachel, but she was really our great-aunt. She was our mother’s mother’s youngest sister, but we were sure she had to be older. We all talked as if we remembered Gramma Frankl, but really only two of us were old enough. The others think they do, but they’re just remembering what they were told. She was petite and had ink-black, curly hair that she’d had bobbed in the ’20s. To us she was old, very old, because she had wrinkles and refused to tell her age. It was rumored among the four of us that she must have been over forty when she died. My older brother, Zeke, and I remembered when Gramma Frankl died. She died less than a month after Mom and Dad died, so we were tired from funerals, crying, and sweet talk, from living in other people’s euphemisms. We remember Gramma’s funeral. That was our first real lesson of reckoning with Auntie Rachel. She stood us both on chairs and dressed us all up. I remember standing stiff, refusing to bend my elbows while she cranked my arms into a starched, black dress.
She didn’t talk to us, and we didn’t talk to her. We just stared down at her as she worked on us, pulling us here, straightening our arms out to measure us from shoulder to wrist, tapping our ankles with her first two fingers so we’d rotate, tapping our cheeks so we’d turn our heads. She had a hundred straight pins sticking out of her mouth, and she pulled them out one by one to set Zeke’s cuffs and my hem. Then she basted it up quickly. She was like a whole skeleton with no joints. If she bent anything, it would have to break. That is how I always thought of her.
Our Gramma was so different. We used to wonder how they came from the same family. Gramma Frankl was a little wild, what the other grown-ups called “unorthodox.” She would dance with the vacuum cleaner, had a generous laugh and a beautiful voice. She knew a thousand songs, half of them in Yiddish.
Zeke remembered more of her, of course. Maybe what I remember of Gramma Frankl is my vision and wishes confused with Zeke’s stories. Zeke’s stories mesmerized me; he told them so well. When he told stories, he strung together all the events that kept our lives in order. He conjured all the happiness, sorrow, and fear. I took it all in eagerly, kept it for myself. People can put memories in your head that way. That’s what I mean about what I remember and what I might not. I just can’t know. Did I really take a hole punch to her dress until it looked like Swiss cheese? Did we all spit out our food when she fed us dinner? Did she really lock us in the closet where the spiders lived? I believed that for decades until one day I stopped to think. “A closet where spiders live?”
I was only five when our parents and then Gramma died. Everything became a trick of the light. At that age even life and death were like magic. I thought of death and of us who remained as Saturday prayers that were lost on their way to God because someone had mumbled a prayer or had not invested joyous or powerful enough hopes in that prayer to deliver us, to make our lives glisten and sparkle and dazzle God into noticing us. Or maybe someone had not touched the Torah with a kiss one Saturday morning as the procession passed by. So many things from our lips to God’s ears could have gone wrong.
I told Aunt Rachel that we needed the right incantation. Where was the prayer, the blessing, or the section in the Torah that, if we read it in Hebrew, perfectly, would bring them all back?
“No one ever comes back when they’re gone. No one ever has. No one will. Not even you. Oh, I know. You think I’m that mean old Aunt Rachel for telling you this. But there’s the truth.” She snapped her mouth shut.
Because no other female relative was left who lived nearby, we, all four of us—Zeke, eight; Ariel, five; Louise, three; and Becky, ten months—were entrusted into her care.
“Why can’t we go live with Uncle Ike?” I was begging.
“That is the stupidest, most ridiculous idea I have ever heard.” She cut me off sharply. “Three little girls are simply not to be put in the custodial care of any man, even if that man may be, by accident, related. They are untrustworthy and unsuited for this kind of work. And your brother should stay where his sisters stay—as an example. He is the man of the house now. We will need him.”
“The man of the house” struck Zeke’s face with shock, horror. Whatever Aunt Rachel meant by that, this is what Zeke believed: at eight he was now the breadwinner, house repairman, disciplinarian, wise elder; he had been promoted suddenly from eight-year-old boy to adult male. He shuddered into his new role.
“I shall have to leave you whining in the hallway.” She assessed the scene, quite correctly, and closed her bedroom door behind her.
We were left standing there, staring at the door. Zeke turned his face to me, now too grown up to cry, and asked in stifled terror, “Do I have to be her husband?”
What did I know at five? The question scared me, scared me for him. But “man of the house” had been thrust upon him, and even at five I knew what a man of the house did or was supposed to do—what our dad did.
“I guess so.” I whispered because I was uttering a secret, something forbidden.
What did I do to poor Zeke that day? I’ve felt a sting of guilt ever since. I think the fun was knocked out of him; certainly he tried hard to stop being a child. And what success can you have with that at eight? He failed, of course. And I failed him. I wasn’t the one who cursed him; Aunt Rachel did that. But I failed him.
When we went to live with Aunt Rachel, three of us shared a bedroom. The man of the house had to sleep in one bed with me and my little sister. The baby slept in Aunt Rachel’s room in a crib while our aunt slept in a big, fancy bed with a shiny bedspread. We knew she did it to taunt us.
All our clothing, our books, and a selection of our toys were put in bags and boxes and shuttled to Aunt Rachel’s apartment. She told us that she could not fit any of our furniture into her apartment. It was small, just two bedrooms. She was purposeful in our transition. Her decisions were well thought out. “What is best for you” was the phrase we repeated to each other whenever something disagreeable happened, whenever one of us was scolded as well as when we were praised. Because it was best for us, she left behind the photographs and any tangible memories of our parents. Maybe it was a kindness. If she had hung their portraits on the wall, given each of us a personal memento, would we have lingered at the photographs, treating them as altars? What is the blessing of forgetfulness?
I hated her. We all hated her. In a way hating her kept us together as a family, as Mom and Dad’s children, not Aunt Rachel’s. When she crossed me, when she humiliated me in front of the others, if I hated her hard, refused to look at her, kept my mouth shut and did whatever she said with cold loathing, then I was being faithful. Then I was who I was supposed to be, not who she wanted me to be. Cold loathing was what I intended anyway. What it probably amounted to was more like whining in the hallway—sometimes all four of us—a lot of whining in the hallway.
When we had our fun, our mischief, our giddy fits, we had it all without our aunt. We could ignore that it grated on her, that she demanded decorum. We could forget hating her. So we did that a lot.
We remained in the sphere of Auntie Rachel’s authority until we proved our independence and scattered to our private progresses, linked by secret histories. And I reclaimed myself, found out that I was right, that I was wisest as a child, that there is magic in life and in death, and that the magic can only be leached from its natural home in us by a sort of frenzied, violent, stubborn bluntness that would leach a river from a rock. We all four watched Auntie Rachel live and die and be buried with no magic at all as we four lived on with our dark and brightened myths and our passionate tragedies.
She was the last of her generation. She passed away at ninety-eight. I was notified by a cousin I’d never heard of. He sent me the obituary. It was spare but kind: her name; her dates of birth and death, separated by a dash; a very brief eulogy including the words “heart of gold.” The four of us came in for the memorial service at her synagogue, the one we had all gone to willingly, by suggestion or force. She’d already been interred the week before. The distant cousin read from a written speech and then asked if anyone wanted to say anything: anecdotes, fond memories, respects. We looked at each other, passing the glances among us. I am sure we each felt responsible at least to acknowledge her. Several times I thought I would stand, but I couldn’t think of what to say. She deserved for someone to say something, something caring or grateful. I was hoping that Zeke would volunteer but he didn’t. Each of us thought one of the others would speak, and so we looked down at our laps, like students hoping not to be called upon, as the chance to speak ticked past. Our unknown cousin was unnerved by the silence in the room and graciously ended the memorial with a blessing.
We four were the last to leave. There was so much to say, and of course we said very little of it. Zeke and I walked very slowly outside and paid our respects then in confidence. I told him how I’d hated her, thought she was cruel, brittle, empty, and mean, as if it was her calling. But Zeke saw her differently. He said he thought she was sad. She was sad from being an old maid. She thought it was shameful, so she must be lonely, heartbroken, bitter, and she never had her myths or her fantasies proved or broken by living in them.
I imagined her lying in her coffin, finally looser, more relaxed, her hands at rest below the only smile she was ever given. I finally got to think of her quieted and finished, unable to rule me, and I decided that Zeke was right. I was sorry if I’d stolen any of her magic by seeing her at such an angle. But how could I help it? We were all children, if we’ve ever grown up.
About the Author
-Previously published by the The Santa Fe Writer’s Project
Tobie Helene Shapiro is a composer and cellist who has also worked as a visual artist, cartoonist, graphologist, and professional chef. She was a columnist for the East Bay Phoenix and has been published in American Writer’s Review, Bluestem, Entropy, Songwriter Magazine, The Monthly, The Penmen Review, Pisgah Review, The Coachella Review, and in the anthology Fire in the Hills: A Collective Remembrance (1992). She has attended numerous writing conferences with The Opening and studied with Andy Couturier. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her family.