When I think of the day my aunt confronted her sister, I have very mixed emotions.
There was always a definite feeling of animosity between them, yet there was a sense that each protected each other in a strange familiar way. My theory was proved the day Aunt Rose came for a visit and old pent up feelings came to the surface, in a showdown between sisters, I’d like to call,The Day the Bullshit Ended.
It was colder than usual in the South. Frost had formed and many crops were frozen,as the farmers didn’t prepare for this in mid November. The usual temperature in North Carolina, at the coast, was 68F to a low of maybe 40F at night. The night Aunt Rose visited, it appeared she had brought the cold North temperatures of New York with her. She also brought some unexpected memories that may have been best left deep in the cedar chest of an old person’s mind.
Whatever the reasoning, she decided to have a “remember the time” discussion with her older sister, my mother. She briefly put her bags down, took off her winter coat and sat in the forbidden living room, on the Victorian red velvet couch that nobody sits on. It was basically the entryway that everyone passed to get to the kitchen. Before my mom could say anything or lead her into the permitted room, she sat, talking quite a bit, fast as per her usual way and didn't seem to notice or care about my mother’s frantic face. I followed cautiously behind to see what would play out.
“I wanted so badly to speak with you, Netta, but coming here in person was a much better idea, don’t you think so?” Her voice was rather loud and squeaky.
Mom followed her to the couch afraid to sit down or to reply.
“I'm pleased you came all the way here,Rose, but such traveling has to be hard on you, especially in the cold! Let’s have a cup of tea to warm us both. Earl Gray or a non black tea? I have green tea?”
She got up and headed toward the kitchen.
“Well, now that’s an easy decision. Earl Gray, my favorite. You remembered, how sweet. Are you having some Sophia?”
Auntie turned my way and I felt a bit embarrassed to be there for some unknown reason, as if I was intruding on two sisters, about to have a private discussion.
“Oh, I have tons of homework to do. I’ll have some later.”
I quickened my steps down the hallway straight to my room, knowing I could hear everything from there.
“She’s gotten rather odd, Netta. Is she feeling alright? You know, she’s just around the age momma was when…”
Her voice trailed off and my mother quickly replaced the missing words with her own.
“Oh, I wouldn’t mind her Rose. So busy all the time with work and college. It’s a lot to handle at twenty. Let me get us the tea, you sit and relax.”
“Yes, I suppose twenty is still young for all that. Have you heard from Gianni? How’s the restaurant business doing? He never calls me. Too busy I assume”
Netta came back into the living room with a large hand painted tray of lavender flowers, and two bone china cups with saucers. In the middle of the tray, a beautiful antique coffee pot sat, silver with a brass bottom, a white dish with sugar and Stevia in it and the best small teaspoons. She placed the tray on the living room coffee table that nobody had used since we moved here. She must be panicking, I thought with a giggle.
“Here we go. How about some tea biscuits or cookies to go with it, Rose?”
“Oh, no honey. Way too late for snacks. Just the tea to warm me is all. Now, sit. I must talk to you. I can’t wait another minute.”
I thought, from my room, hearing everything, thanks to my aunt speaking so loudly, that she was extremely anxious, but about what? What could possibly be so vital that you drive from Long Island, New York to Wilmington, North Carolina, in November, late at night? The clock clearly was chiming loud and shrill announcing midnight. Mom sat on the far end of the couch as she poured the tea brewing in the coffee pot. Her face looked worried, even from my distance.
“Ok, Rose, if it can’t wait till tomorrow, at a reasonable hour when people talk…”
“NO..NO it can’t! That’s why I’m here, now, Netta. I can’t sit there, all these miles away and think and think about this another minute, so, we just have to talk. It’s about momma and...well, about that last summer.”
She drank a big gulp of tea and mom did as well. They both looked exasperated, yet nothing was divulged. I leaned further into the hallway to hear better.
“Rose, I truly hope you’re not getting yourself all worked up again, like three years ago. Remember what Dr. Turns told you back then about calming down and taking your medication?”
“I don't need nor want those brain numbing atrocities. People are afraid to feel, Netta. Being afraid of their own thoughts can’t be good for anyone. I realized something so important a few days ago, something I thought about since momma’s birthday in May. It hit me so hard and true, like all the clouds had been lifted and the sky was bright and blue again.”
“Are you saying you stopped your medication? Does the doctor know? Why would you ever stop taking the meds you need?”
“Why? I’ll tell you why. So I can think and feel and remember, Netta. I remember now what I had all mixed up before. I remember so clearly.”
“I’m not happy about that Rose. If you need your meds you should take them. Whatever made you decide you don’t need or want them anymore. It's been awhile you've been on them. They work. You have been fine. Right?”
Mom walked across the room to the standing bar where all the bottles of gin, scotch, vodka and more were put into the crystal glass bottles with stopper tops. The only time they were ever used was when company came over, like the bank manager or the land management president. But there she was, uncorking one of them and pouring it into a large pink glass from behind the bar, no ice. She was clearly shaken.
“Well, I thought you’d be so happy to learn that my memory is back, my real true memory about that night. You know what I’m referring to, right Netta?”
She took more tea and looked rather pleased with her announcement that my mother looked frantic about. This was going to get good. I grabbed my blanket to wrap around me as I sat on the hallway rug, listening intently.
Mom came back to the couch drinking long sips from the glass and lighting a cigarette she must have found at the bar as well. She exhaled with a sigh.
“Of course I’m happy Rose, but I doubt your memory is real or clear without proper medication. You had everything mixed up back then,dear, remember that? It was all such a mess until Dr. T took over and helped you so perfectly.”
“Yes, he was a real charm, he was, but now, it all came back, the whole scene. Like it was a movie, right in front of me. The meds were making it far away and blurry. Not now.”
“So, what do you THINK you remember? What exactly?”
“The night that it happened. I saw the whole thing,Netta! It was Marcus, not Poppa. I saw him hand momma the drink. Poppa wasn't even in the house. He was in the music shed where he would play his violin for hours on end. I remember the music now.”
“Rosita, darling. You are confused. Just like before. The medicine was helping you to get things straight. Now, you are confused again.”
Mom sounded panicked for sure. She called my aunt her childhood name, Rosita, which means little Rose. Italians, Latinos, I think all cultures have a version of this. When mom used this for anyone, it meant worry or endearment. Worry for sure,was her reason now!
“NO. No, I am not confused. You and Marcus were arguing over money. You were telling him it had to be done. I assumed IT was selling the house. Momma was so sick. We knew she wasn’t going to be around much longer. And then he brought the drink for her. Poppa came in and …”
“STOP. Please just stop. Your mind is all mixed up like before. It wasn’t Marcus who gave her the drink. Poppa always gave momma her bedtime tonic. Always. You know that. The same honey,ginger, and lemon drink, warm and sweet, just like she loved it. The music was just playing on the radio.”
“No it was not. The radio was out being repaired. The window was open that night because it was warm and momma wanted the sea breeze coming in, to caress her face, she used to say. Remember? Why are YOU mixed up, Netta? It was Marcus. We had it all wrong, all these years. We must tell the detective. Tell Gianni. Sophia must know the truth. Poor Poppa. He never should have been blamed.”
My mother was walking back and forth in the living room, staring at the large oriental rug as Rose spoke. She poured another drink into the pink glass. Her expression was a cross between fear and dread. I never saw her look like that. When my grandmother died, we all assumed it was her time. The doctors said her heart wouldn’t last much longer and her mind was like mixed vegetables. Then they found something in her evening tonic, some poison, I think.
Now Aunt Rose was all mixed up like we remembered her as being. My mother was correct. She needed to get back on those meds. Marcus, my father, would never have given her the nighttime drink. And what if he did? What did that matter? I was as confused as my Aunt Rose.
“Rose, get a grip, please. This whole thing is just utter nonsense. Besides, it's been ten years and it won’t make any difference. Not at all. Momma’s gone. Poppa’s gone and Marcus is gone. Water under the bridge dear sister. Let’s go to bed and sleep now. It’s nearly one am.”
“I can't forget what I finally realized, Netta. All their money was set aside for you and me. The two girls, and Gianni would get the business. That’s how they wanted it. But you and Marcus got the money. All of it and the business. I went to the attorney and spoke to his son. He showed me the papers. It was all changed. It read, that upon Momma’s death, the money would go to Poppa. If it didn’t, it was back to you, but no mention of me or Gianni. When she died that night, you got everything. I was so sick. I didn’t know, Netta. All those drugs were making me fuzzy, not aware. That’s why you hired Alice to help me. But it’s all ok now, because I know the truth.”
“Why would you believe this nonsense? Why would the will be changed, be different? When Poppa was charged with poisoning momma, the money went immediately to us. But you were so ill, the court put it in my name, that’s all. You are wrong, sister. Now. come on, let's forget all this and get some rest. I’ll call Dr.Turns in the morning to get your meds back.”
“ I KNOW Netta. I KNOW Marcus did it. And I KNOW I was sick, but I don’t think Poppa should have been accused and charged when he did nothing at all, but play his violin that night, so beautifully. I can still hear it, through that open window. He was playing Bach. Momma’s favorite.”
Aunt Rose got up to dance to the music she heard in her head. She was dizzy and almost fell. Mom led her to the couch.
“Careful Rose. You're tired and dizzy. Come, let's go to sleep now. We can talk more in the morning.”
Mom led her to her bedroom, the pink guest bedroom. Aunt Rose was saying how she was going to tell everyone what she remembers, in the morning, and how happy she was, that she remembered.
I went back to my bedroom and closed the door. Could she have been really mixed up again, or was this the real memory? Did my father give my Nana the drink that made her heart stop? Was Poppa innocent? Who do I believe? I felt scared and uncertain. I loved my Aunt Rose and I loved my mother. Dad was buried in our family cemetery one year after that night. There’s only mom and Aunt Rose and their memories now.
I heard mom go back to the living room after helping Aunt Rose to bed. Strange how she became so tired, so quickly, but she was older now, and because of the long trip, it made sense. Mom was drinking more from the corked bottles and talking to herself. I heard her say something to my grandfather, something like, "Poppa, it wasn’t me." Then I heard her say something as if she was talking to my dad, something like, "Marcus, why did you do it? It was wrong! Why Marcus?" She must have fallen asleep soon after, as no more talking was heard. I fell asleep.
The funeral was small. Not many attended on Long Island, the family’s home for 200 years. Gianni and his wife went, a few older ladies from the rosary club, the knitter’s club, and a gardener that was employed for many years attended. The priest was a family friend who had retired, but he was there. His words were sweet and swift. I sat in the front and watched as they lowered the coffin into the black soil, still strewn about with roses, yellow ones. She wore her black lace dress, the same one that she wore ten years ago, to her brother-in laws funeral as well as her Poppa’s. It still fit, although a bit tight around the middle. And the newspaper had headline news, that Poppa was cleared in his wife’s death, ten years earlier. There was no mention of my dad or my mom. That made me smile. They shouldn’t be remembered in a bad light.
Aunt Rose stayed on Long Island in the same old Victorian house she loved since she came to America, as a child. Poppa’s violin was there in his special music house, but she moved it to the living room where the piano now stood proudly. And Gianni and I often played music for Aunt Rose to enjoy. I was sad my mother was gone, but Aunt Rose was lucid and memories kept pouring in.
I still wonder what happened that night, but it truly didn't matter, because Poppa was vindicated and Aunt Rose was happy that she remembered what she believed to be what happened. Mom was gone, dad was gone as were my grandparents. Only Gianni, his wife and I were left. And of course Aunt Rose.