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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Destiny Manifest and Machine Knit

There was a rush basket and a river involved in my winding up as a part of my family. I regularly get an Amen! on that score from those who know me well. As my pal M noted, I'm not just an ideological sport in my family, there's physical dissimilarity, too.

The lack of physical resemblance is at least partly the result of personality. I don't have the Superfans accent. I have body language very different from most of the family, and I'm overall more reserved and introverted than either my parents or my siblings.

In still photographs, the difference falls away, to some extent. When my little brother attended good old St. Mary: Star of the Sea grammar school, my mother worked as an Office Lady (and yet, Stink remains the most normal of my siblings, go figure). Because of this, I learned that they cruelly keep class pictures on file (there go all thoughts of running for office). My mother dug out my photos and another office lady looked over and said, "Why is Steve wearing a wig?" Sure enough, we both bore the default Clan Og face at that age.

On an eerier note, my parents have a framed photograph that probably dates to 1880 or so. I am the spitting image of the woman in the photograph, and we have no idea who she is.

The photo came to us via my father's Aunt Elsa, a life-long spinster who worked as a See's Candies lady in San Francisco. About once a year, she would come to Chicago to stay with us and visit various other relatives on my dad's side. I can't now recall whether I really enjoyed her visits or not. I know that my mother and older sisters found her critical and exacting, which amounts to a chorus of yodelling pots and kettles. I do have a vivid memory of the fight that ensued when she scoffed at my sisters' obsession with their appearance, boasting that she only washed her hair (long, thick, and beautifully silver) once a week.

I do recall one moment of clarity regarding my feelings about her. When my genius parents decided that the best possible present for a seven year old was not, in fact, a Snoopy snow cone machine, but the news that our family was about to get bigger, I burst into tears. My mother asked if I understood what she meant, but I was too firmly in the grip of despair to answer. She turned it into multiple choice

Evil Mother: "Does it mean [our dog] is going to have puppies?"

Traumataized Waif: "NOOOO!" (although, incidentally, she did have puppies just a bit more than a year later).

Evil Mother: "Does it mean Aunt Elsa is going to come live with us?"

Traumatized Waif: (Knowing the answer is no and suddenly realizing how much better it would be than the alternative) "NOOOO. You're gonna have a BABY!"

In the early 80s, my dad got a call from some of Elsa's neighbors. They'd noticed that she seemed a bit out of things and were worried that she couldn't take care of herself any longer. He flew out to San Francisco, and found her quite physically ill. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and my dad flew back to Chicago with her. A few weeks later, he flew back to make arrangements to clear out her apartment and have her things sent to Chicago.

Among these was a Tiffany Vase with a piece of masking tape on the bottom pricing it at $3. There was also a beautiful secretary desk replete with fascinating drawers and cubby holes containing a lifetime's worth of curious objects. Many times I resisted the urge to dismantle an intricately folded silver certificate dollar bill, knowing I'd never be able to restore it to its original state. There was also a wealth of personal tidbits that she'd have died before revealing. For example, she took dancing lessons at an Arthur Murray studio for years. The photograph was also in this desk, oddly enough not displayed in the top hutch, but tucked away in a hidden drawer.

Once we had her back in Chicago, doctors here realized that she didn't have any kind of cancer at all. Some of the symptoms she'd been experiencing had been caused by her eating efferdent tablets, having mistaken them for alka seltzer. She was physically sound and mentally failing. She spent about three years in a few different nursing homes before she died on Thanksgiving Day in 1987.

I was the last family member to see her alive. At the time, I was fairly involved in volunteer work through my Parish Youth Organization. About once a month, we visited nursing homes and played bingo with the patients. I'm sure I'd been told that Elsa was sick, but somehow it hadn't penetrated that she was Sick. I skipped the last game and went up to her room, because I'd promised my dad that I would. I sat uselessly by the side of her bed for a few minutes talking awkwardly in her direction (she was unconscious by this point), and thought how much she would have hated having her hair down and all in a mess. At the time I felt foolish and put upon, but when my sister told me the next morning that she died, I positively howled in grief for a woman I was far from close to. Sometimes grief just sneaks up on you.

This morning I was trying to think what to wear, and I pulled a green knit dress from the back of my closet. For no reason I can think of, I haven't worn it in years. I'm considerably greyer and more faded than I was the last time I pulled it out. I pulled it over my head in the bathroom, and as I reached up to clip my hair into my traditional sloppy bun, I was struck by my strong resemblance to Elsa (who always seemed to be wearing a neat little suit in nearly this same color when she visited), and thence to the woman in the photo.

Portly Swedish genes will out, I guess.

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