My aunt sits across from me. I have settled in the one rocking chair in her home and my eighteen-month old toddler is climbing onto my lap. “Nurse, Mommy! Nurse!” he demands. He’s weary, always so after a car trip. His eyes are heavy, he longs for the comfort of my breast. “Do you mind?” I ask. “Oh not at all,” she smiles as I lift my shirt and he, my baby, latches on greedily, sleepily, gratefully.
My aunt – Golda is her name – smiles gently, watching me, watching him. She is silky and soft, fragrant and old, so old. Yet she curiously observes the two of us and I venture, “What was your son like at this age? Do you remember him at this age?”
She lights up. Truly, like a lamp switched on, she is aglow as she recounts how he nursed, how he slept through the night early on, how he was forever cheerful, never fussy. No, not ever. What a delight he had been to her, to his father. What an absolute joy.
I remember him, her son, my cousin. He died five years previously, and although I’d heard of him my entire life, I’d met him only a few years before his death. At that time he was in his early fifties, thirty years older than me, and he had returned home to help his mother run the country store after her husband, his father, died. My young husband and I, freshly married, stopped in at the store expecting to surprise my aunt. But she wasn’t there. Instead, he was there. Or, at least, I figured he was my cousin, for who else could he be? I explained who I was, how we were related, and he struggled to understand. As I repeated my parents’ names, “Jim and Lucile. I am Jim and Lucile’s daughter,” he finally remembered, or pretended to. “Oh yes, them!” he mumbled, and vaguely smiled. He attempted to speak, but he could not quite form a sentence. In silence, I purchased a pack of gum, gave him a dollar, watched uncomfortably as he strained to make change. Indeed, he couldn’t. We left with weak good-byes. “Tell Aunt Golda we were here. So happy to have met you at last!” He nodded, tried again to smile.
Aunt Golda was sixteen years old when she gave birth to her only son, a beauty of a baby, a charmer from the moment of his birth. My parents knew him as a gleaming, exquisite, joyous child, full of cheer, sweet deeds, good intentions. And brilliant. Oh yes, a brilliant little boy who adored all, was adored by all. They knew him too as a brave young man – off to war at eighteen years of age. And they knew him as a returning World War II hero, wildly decorated, including with the Purple Heart. He had survived the Battle of the Bulge and met up with a gorgeous French woman, fifteen years older, who he brought home on his perfect uniformed arm. The kinfolk, the neighbors, the entire little town now not only adored him, they revered him. They were skeptical, however, of his wife, Monique, whose name they pronounced ‘Monick’ in their heavy Texan drawls.
After his return, he sold cars, then insurance. He and Monique moved to another town, a larger one where prying eyes and nagging tongues did not judge him for his choice of a spouse. They had a child but, after many years, they divorced. This was a great tragedy in our extended family, as husbands and wives simply did not divorce, even when the men were, in the words of my father, “drunks, womanizers, no goods.” Which, in fact, my cousin had become.
No one understood what happened to him. Why he married that “foreign” woman. Why he moved away to Beaumont, instead of staying near home. Why he cheated on his wife. Why he lost job after job. Why he drank and drank and drank. Why he died of cirrhosis.
But on this day, in my aunt’s tidy home, my son satiated and dozing in my arms – so new and fresh and lovely and loved – we do not speak of her son’s hard life, of the war that sent him home physically intact but mentally and emotionally battered. We do not speak of the few years before his death, when he lived in this house with her and she experienced the loss of a son still living, the heartbreak of a son dying a debilitating, painful death.
We do not speak of his transformation, how the awards for bravery in battle took away his freshness, robbed him of all joy. We do not speak of how young he was and how, sensing his youth, his bright future, he brought home a wife, fathered a child and tried to support them. And in the end, when he seemed beyond hope, he returned to his mother, to help her, he insisted, in her old age.
As my son sleeps in my arms, what strikes me is that my aunt has not given up on her son. No matter that he suffered, ruined the lives of others, relinquished responsibility to those he loved and who loved him. No matter. She remembers his baby smell, his wide eyes gazing up at her as he fed, his pealing laughter and softness, cleanliness. His tender touch. His breath.
No matter. He was her perfection. And even now, more than sixty years later, the wreck he became buried five years before, he remains so, her purest gift, her precious one, her most beloved.
And I know, I am certain, that I will be the same. Regardless of what lies before me, before my son, I will return to this fresh moment, this golden sharing as I sit with my aunt who smiles wistfully as she tells me of her perfect baby boy, as I cradle my own cherished one in my arms, firm and steady and safe.
Molly Seale has most recently published essays in Hippocampus Magazine and Hotel Amerika as well as ON YOUR OWN, an anthology of poems and essays about widowhood. She holds an MFA in Theatre from the University of Texas and was a Fulbright-Hays grant recipient in the Performing Arts to the former Soviet Union. Her essay, “Illness,” was included in Robert Atwan’s Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2014. She lives in Makanda, Illinois.