Sunday, January 10, 2010

Aunt Francis


This is Aunt Francis, in the hollyhocks, in the marsh that sat behind Burying Hill Beach, in Greens Farms, Connecticut. Its probably summer of 1908, maybe 1909. Francis was my grandmother's older sister. The house that sits on the hill behind her is Red Oaks. It was my great grandfather's summer home -- from that grand porch, my grandmother told me, you could see the Long Island Sound stretch on and on until it met the other side, Long Island don't you know. Their winter home was in Bridgeport, only 20 miles away...the Bridgeport home was sheltered from the cold sea winds I suppose, but I always thought it odd that their summer home and their winter home were so close. All that effort, to pack everything up and move the six children back and forth every year.

This picture was taken only a few years before my great-grandmother, Francis' mother, would die. Her death would change everything for Aunt Francis and my grandmother and their four brothers. Their father would marry their mother's nurse and they would all be sent to boarding school. My grandmother and Aunt Francis went to Emma Willard in upstate New York where they cried every night for their mother, and their father.

This is what I know of Aunt Francis. She was very beautiful. Like a young movie star and she wrote poems, amazing rhyming poems, stacks and stacks of them. My grandmother kept Francis' poems in her bedside table, and when I was young she would pull the poems out and read them to me. The poems are gone now. She wrote poems about my grandmother, and her brothers -- John, Jarvis, Glover, and Austin. She wrote a poem about my grandmother's horse Silver Lining. She wrote poems about her dead mother and her father, whom she worshiped. The poems were melancholy and full of music and love.

Aunt Francis was married once, to George the lawyer. They had two sons. They lived in a grand house on 10 acres next to my grandmother's house...they both received 10 acres of former onion farm from their father as wedding presents. But Aunt Francis sold the house when she divorced George the lawyer. She wasn't living there by the time I moved in with my grandparents -- a large Irish family was living there and sometimes I would play with the daughters and tell them how their house once belonged to my Aunt Francis. I remember exactly two things about that house. It had a laundry shoot that traveled from the third floor to the cellar -- the Irish boys liked to throw things other than laundry down that shoot. And there were bars on the nursery bedroom window -- Aunt Francis had her first son not long after the Lindbergh kidnapping and she insisted that the bars be installed. My grandmother and Aunt Francis were obsessed with the Lindbergh kidnapping, which frightened me to no end as a kid.

When she was young, Francis was a well-known socialite. She and my grandmother appeared in the papers of Fairfield every time they had a party or played a tennis match or went on a trip -- Those Jennings girls are at it again! They set sail on the Queen Mary this Saturday morning for points east -- the Azores, Gibraltar, Barcelona, Rome, Palermo, and Tunisia. Bon Voyage!

But the young images of Aunt Francis never matched the woman I knew while I was growing up. By then Francis was on the skids. Her sons had grown and moved far away -- one became a school teacher, the other a piano player on cruise ships. You see, the money ran out and Aunt Francis ended up living on the streets of Newark with her boyfriend Charlie. Charlie hung himself one night and Uncle Glover had to go rescue Aunt Francis. He brought her back to Connecticut and put her in the hospital where they tried to dry her out, it was only temporary.

Her sorrow over Charlie and her slide from fortune was incurable, but my grandmother and her brothers found Francis a housekeeping job and this saved her life. The job was a bit of an embarrassment for everyone though, because it was with Miss Bedford. The Bedfords and the Jennings had been equals at one time. The families both owned large stretches of land on Connecticut's Gold Coast, Beachside Avenue, Westport. The luck of wealth ran out for the Jennings, but it smiled on their neighbor, and Miss Bedford still held the wealth that her father had amassed.

Miss Bedford lived alone with her dogs in a grand stone and clapboard house that boasted an apple orchard and ancient weeping willow trees on a great lawn that languorously unfurled and ended at a cement and stone sea wall that dropped down to her rocky private beach. There you would find a private boardwalk that was so weathered it looked to be constructed from driftwood. It went far enough into the water, that when the tide was out, you could walk the boardwalk to its end, descend the staircase, and be in the deep to swim. I distinctly remember this beach because my grandmother took me their in my first few summers in Connecticut. Its the beach where I learned about the wonders of the Sound, without really knowing how to swim yet...I discovered the barnacles and the mussels, the seaweed, the horse shoe crabs and the jellyfish. Best of all was the Rock. There was this rock the size of a Volkswagon, and I climbed all over that rock. Fiddler crabs lived in tiny holes that decorated the salt beaten surface of this rock...they would pop in and out with their pale pink little arms, and pinch at the air and at me. I imagined that rock to be a carriage sometimes, it had this wonderful ledge on the side that faced the shoreline and you could sit on it, even when the tide was high, and dangle your legs into the cool salt water. It was from that ledge that I drove my team of horses to every adventure I could think of.

So this was where Aunt Francis landed, not exactly on her feet, but at least Miss Bedford was willing to give her a chance. Miss Bedford was very gruff, and independent. She never married and never gave you the impression that a man was at all necessary to her life. She knew Aunt Francis' foibles and she was in some ways more a patron to Aunt Francis than an employer.

Francis lived in an apartment over the expansive four car garage. And she was given a car to run errands, a 1969 Volkswagon Bug, baby blue. Francis did everything a house keeper was supposed to do and not supposed to do. She maintained most of the time, but fell hard off the wagon often. And when she did, it was my grandmother who Miss Bedford would call, sometimes in the middle of the night, "Mame, your sister is drunk again..." And so Mom would go over there and tend to Francis. Sometimes Aunt Francis dove so deep into the bottle that the only way to bring her back to the surface was to put her in the Tank. The Drunk Tank, as my grandparents liked to call it, was a part of the hospital that many in our community disappeared into for short periods. I learned far too young what it meant to dry out, go on the wagon, to be on the skids...and it was from observing Aunt Francis that I learned about the DTs (Delirium tremens) -- Mom had to take me with her to see Aunt Francis in the Tank, for some reason I couldn't be left home, and she told me to wait in the hall, but I followed her and looked through the crack in the door. There was Francis, tied to the bed crying her eyes out because there were birds flying around the room. I looked for the birds. There weren't any birds...

When Aunt Francis wasn't on the skids and she was maintaining, she would stop by to see my grandmother. She'd roll up the driveway in that VW bug, that seemed to have a new dent every time we saw her...stone walls popped up in her way frequently. Francis had this voice, and I can't put it any gentler than this, she had a voice that could shatter glass. It was hard for me to see how she could be my grandmother's sister, because Mom's voice was quite polished and soft, loud, but always pleasant. But Francis was still beautiful despite the beating she had given her body -- she dressed neatly in tweed suits and cashmere sweaters, leftover from the Salad Days...she even had a fur coat. Her hair was still slightly golden and she always, always smelled of Elizabeth Arden's perfume Geranium...the powdery lovely smell would linger long after she left. But the thing was, the thing that drove me crazy as a kid when Aunt Francis would come to visit for the afternoon, was that she'd let herself in the kitchen door, take a glass out of the cabinet, fill it with cold water, take her false teeth out and immerse them in the glass, which she then left on the counter. It was like she was taking her shoes off to get more comfortable and relax in my grandmother's company. The sight of that glass with her teeth floating in them, like something in the Museum of Natural History, made me slightly queasy.

Aunt Francis died not long before my seventeenth birthday and I inherited her car. We were a family of Volkswagons...my grandfather drove a navy blue fastback 411 and my grandmother drove a gold fastback 412 with a Porche engine. The 412 was about the coolest car ever, and until I inherited the Bug, Mom let me drive the 412 anytime I needed it. It was terribly fast.

When we went to pick up the Bug, you could barely see that it was baby blue for all the dents and the rust and the muffler was gone, but I didn't care, it was my car now. My grandmother insisted that we take it to Bruno for some work. Bruno's German Carworks was on the Black Rock Turnpike, way up there near Bridgeport. And Bruno was the most German German I have ever known. He was stop-your-heart-handsome -- he had short sandy curly hair and his face was always covered in grease, but it was his eyes that took you down. Bruno's eyes were aquamarine and they hypnotized you as he told you what he was going to do to your car. Bruno was Paul Newman's race car mechanic...he would put a Porche engine in anything -- if you gave him a cardboard box with wheels on it, Bruno would put a Porche engine in there just to see how it might go.

Bruno shook his head when he saw my shameful little bug. He said to come back in a couple of weeks...I looked at my grandmother and said with the grim impatience of a teenager, "I could be dead by then!" But the weeks went by and I lived despite time dripping by. I thought how could changing a muffler take so long?!

Mom took me up there to get my car and it was hidden away in one of Bruno's dark greasy garage bays when we got there. Bruno was very excited when we pulled in, "Well den, are you ready to see your new car?" I was perplexed, but we went into the shadows of the garage, and there it was, but it wasn't the car the Aunt Francis had left me, it was now a fully restored 1969 Volkswagon Beetle. Bruno wanted to put a Boxer engine in it, but Mom wouldn't let him, so he put a fully rebuilt VW engine in it that put any other bug engine to shame. He had put four new fenders on the little car, and repainted the whole thing -- she gleamed. The heat worked, a rarity in VWs, and the upholstery had been repaired. It was about the most perfect little blue thing in the world, almost as perfect as Bruno's sea-glass colored eyes.

I drove the VW right through high school and then it traveled with me through college -- it drove up mountains in North Carolina and down country roads that needed to be explored. But one day the electrical system started to go -- the horn would blow randomly or puffs of smoke would come out of the dashboard. It was time to sell my little car. I advertised it and a woman called, she wanted her VW mechanic in Greensboro to look it over. I drove my worn little car over there hoping it wouldn't blow its horn or smoke when we got there. I was honest though, I told them that the wiring needed some work. The mechanic asked me where I got the car and I told him Connecticut. And then he opened the rear hood and peered in at the engine -- a grin overtook his face -- "Where did this engine come from?" I told him Bruno built that engine and the big man said, "I don't know who Bruno is, but lady, this is an engine!" The woman bought my little bug for $1,500 no questions asked.



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