My aunt died. It happens. I liked her though. She was a bizarre lady -- some days you couldn’t get a word out of her, some days she jabbered on like a parrot, eyes to the ceiling, hands waving at her sides. She always had some new Thing, some schtick she was working on. She was going back to school, she got a new job, she was trying out some new diet, some new boyfriend, something different with her eye makeup. She was into shawls around one Thanksgiving, then it was those Adidas tracksuits. She shaved her head, grew it back, cut some bangs. Every time I saw her, something was different.
The last time we ever spoke, she was going through a turtleneck phase, and was into macarons.
“The coconut things?” I asked.
“No.” She rolled her eyes, a joke between us where she pretended to be someone very refined who looked down on my uncultured ways. “Those are macaroons. I’m talking about macarons, the little French sandwich cookies. The crispy ones. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see them.”
She had taken me to some new bakery, where the macarons were, she insisted, “the bestest in the world.” She told me to get the pistachio kind.
“I’d tried making them at home,” she confessed, “But they weren’t very good.”
“Since when do you bake?”
“Oh, I’ve been baking for a while.” She seemed hurt.
“I don’t remember you ever baking.”
“It’s been a while. I’m getting back into it.”
The one thing I remember being consistent was her black coffee. She never drank it any other way. She dipped her macarons into it, left them in there for a few seconds too long (in my opinion) then chewed them in her weird way, where her lips moved too much and I could hear all the movements her tongue and jaws were doing. I looked away, grossed out. We were on high-rising stools near the window, and I studied the outside, the trees shaking their green spring leaves, the cars all bucking over the same pothole.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asked, still chewing.
“I dunno. Haven’t decided yet.”
It seemed a bizarre phrase to use for someone my age, “grow up.” I’d just turned eighteen -- I thought I already was a grown-up in the eyes of the law. I kept my eyes focused on the street. I had been annoyed that day, for no particular reason, and though I loved my aunt, I didn’t want to talk to her, or really anyone.
“That’s funny that you don’t know,” she said. “I thought all you kids nowadays know exactly what you want. I thought I knew exactly what I wanted when I was your age.”
She sighed. “I’ve lived every life but my own.”
I didn’t ask her what she meant. I didn’t really care -- I just wanted to go home. I thought of it later that night, and kinda wished I did ask, but I never got the chance to.
Another thing, she lived in a treehouse. A nice one, professionally done, with working plumbing and everything. It sits atop a fat oak tree and has a ramp zig-zagging to the front door. After she’s died, someone has to go through all her stuff, sort it out, but everyone else is old and scared of heights or else doesn’t are enough to bother. It’s a long drive to get there too, a drive apparently only I can make.
I bring my friends with me. I don’t ant to be alone in a dead person’s house. There’s lot of shit to carry out too -- she had been a bit of a packrat.
Me and my aunt were friendly, but not crazy close. She appeared in my life only every so often, more fairy godmother than family member, so when my friends asked if this was “like a respectful thing or a fun thing” I had answered “fun,” insisting that it was no big deal, that I was fine, that we could make a relaxed cabin weekend out of it. I think they brought edibles, and definitely had much sunnier dispositions than I was comfortable with, considering the task at hand, but it was too late, I had already insisted on solemnity being optional.
“Dude, your aunt really was the coolest,” Sherry says as the car pulls up next to the oak tree. Out of the four people I brought, Sherry and I are closest, and she’s been most appropriately somber.
“She was,” I say. Honestly, I don’t really know. Living in a tree house, it’s one of those fun, quirky things you’d brag about as a ten year old but is just weird when you’re, what, forty, fifty? I don’t even know how old the woman was.
The treehouse is composed of three rooms: bathroom, bedroom, kitchen-slash-living room, each one way smaller than in an on-the-ground house. It’s made of wood, nicely paneled, like a lake house cabin. Smells like one too — cinnamon and cloves and dry leaves.
Once inside the house, it doesn’t take long to find her collection of vibrators. One, a chunky and bright pink appliance, was left absentmindedly to charge on the bathroom sink. I realize that this clean-up will probe straight into the most private parts of her life. Her death had been sudden; she hadn’t the time to tidy up.
We have a dozen folded-up cardboard boxes, and after unfolding them, we label each one — “clothes,” “bedding,” an especially big one for “knick-knacks.” Then begins the process of sorting her entire life into these boxes.
We go slow at first. The categories we established are limited — does a vibrator count as a knick knack, an electronic, an “other?” Then there’s the element of sentimentality. With every new thing we find, there’s an accompanying chorus of “awwws.” A photo album full of film photos from thirty years ago, my aunt smiling with someone new on every picture, her hair changing on every page. A few coffee-stained love letters tucked away in an old book — I don’t recognize the name of the person they’re addressed to. There’s post cards from Niagara Falls and pressed flowers peeking out from old calendars. A lifetime’s worth of memories squirreled away in little caches all around the house.
But it’s a hot day, and the treehouse’s air conditioning is no match for a humid Southern summer. The packing is taking much longer than planned, and our carefulness, sentiments, and organization drip away the sweatier we get. At this point, we’re not carefully folding old robes or tenderly leafing through the handwritten margin-notes of dog-eared novels — we’re just tossing things into hopefully the right boxes.
“She’s got a lot of beach-themed shit in here,” says Sherry, wiping sweat off her brow as she seals away another box. Indeed, the beach motif is prevalent — shells on every bookshelf, paintings of waves, framed photos of pelicans and seagulls.
“She loved the beach,” I say. I think she did. I remember her saying something about it once.
From the other room, someone calls, “Why would she buy a treehouse if she likes the beach?”
Another voice echoes, “Right, you could definitely buy a really nice beach house for the same amount of money.”
I can’t answer that. I don’t think even she could answer that.
We plan to bring the items to some thrift store. It’s a nice cycle-of-life, bits and pieces of my aunt scattered throughout other people’s houses, still holding traces of her yet also living new lives. Most are already thrifted, objects out-living generations of owners.
She liked thrifted things. She told me it was like having personal stylists for everything.
“I can’t just go to TJ Maxx and pick out a new pot for myself,” she’d told me. “How am I supposed to know what to look for? But when I buy this pot thrifted, I know someone else had looked at it and thought it was good enough to buy. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me!”
I think when we bring these items to the thrift store, they won’t believe one person owned them all. Except for all the beach stuff, everything is horribly mismatched, truly as if a million different people picked out each cup and cheap souvenir.
The last room to be cleared is the kitchen. Her fridge doesn’t have much in, some old coffee, expired eggs and milk, a mushy avocado. The freezer however is stacked with frosted-over boxes. I take one out — they’re macarons packages in plastic trays. She seems to have bought way too many at once, more than she could eat.
I want none, and let my friends eat all of them. Macarons are such bland cookies. I can’t see how my aunt liked them.
“How long had she lived in this house?” Sherry asks, stuffing the last pistachio macaron in her mouth.
“All my life,” I answer. A sudden memory floats up, me as a child, sitting cross-legged and eavesdropping on my mother talking all excited on the phone. She was gossiping in that fake-outraged voice used for family drama.
“Yes, she’s buying a treehouse!,” mother exclaimed all scandalized into the receiver, “like to live in! She told me she saw some lady on some home improvement show buy one and decided she just neeeeded to get one too! I tries to talk her out of it, but noooo.”
I decide not to tell my friends about that. It doesn’t really matter anyway.
We return to packing after our snack break. No one seems to even remember the edibles or the idea of a fun weekend. We just want to be done.
Finally, as the pre-sunset sunlight bathes us in gold through the windows, we’ve cleaned the house bare, save for the carpets and the furniture. We carry the boxes to the car, packing the trunk full, and sigh with relief when we finally sit down.
Sherry turns to me. “What are you doing with her body?”
“Cremating, I think.”
“You should scatter her ashes on the beach. I think she would love that as a final resting place.”
It’s a great idea, one I later relay to my mother. She thinks so too. But after we actually go through with the cremation, it turns out no one has the time or the energy to drive all the way to the beach. For now, my aunt remains in a unlabeled ceramic box on our mantle. Usually I forget it’s there.