We met Aunt Vera at a Catholic church where she played the organ and helped organize events for the Knights of Columbus and Sisters of Fatima. She was the only close friend I recall mom having, not that there weren’t others, just none as intimate as Aunt Vera. That’s why we called her “Aunt”, because the two might as well have been sisters. They talked on the phone, over coffee, practiced piano together and traded sheet music. Both were classically trained pianists and it was virtually all they talked about, or so it seemed. They traded recipes from gigantic heirloom cookbooks and extolled the virtues of having one’s own spice garden. They even plotted ways to evolve our CCD classes during mass, though I would later discover this last was the beginning of the end of Mom and Vera’s friendship.
Out of church Aunt Vera visited frequently, interested in everything our family did. She was supportive in the way I imagined relatives are, and on the days we went to her house these trips were an adventure. When not watching black and white movies on her top-loading VHS player, Vera kept my younger sisters busy with old clothes for dress up and me some broken gadgets to take apart. On two separate summer vacations we spent a weekend at her sister’s cabin on the lake, with its fresh water eels and muddy bottom that squished between the toes. On Halloween, Vera’s house was our last stop for roasted pumpkin seeds, popcorn balls and cold cider.
Aunt Vera was so involved with our family Mom gave her permission to occasionally take us out of school for lunch. Since she was a teacher at Hawthorne elementary this sort of thing was allowed so long as we were back in time for class. Thinking back on it I believe Vera’s position in the teacher’s union had a lot to do with how freely she moved between schools. That, and our principal’s desire not to cross her.
One day, while we were busy being kids, mom cut ties with Aunt Vera. The sudden change was left unexplained, and when we pushed for an answer all mom said is, “Vera has a life of her own to live. So do you.” Mom went so far as to change the church we attended, attributing the switch to a dislike for the way St. Charles did things. When my older brother and I complained about losing our jobs as altar servers, jobs she initially prodded us into, we were dismissed. It was the type of non-answer I grew to intensely dislike.
None of us believed the story about Vera having a life of her own to live. With no husband or children and only one sister with a nephew, we were her family. As kids who struggled to get more than a few blocks past the house, discovering the truth took years. What we eventually found out is that mom used “she has a life of her own” as an explanation when our oldest sister ran away. It was the type of statement we know to be a lie in the same way a child comes to understand there is no Santa Claus or Easter bunny. Another half-truth hiding the problems my parents didn’t want to talk about. I always felt this was their biggest mistake with us – concealing reality’s hard truths. The purpose might have been benevolent, but in the end it fueled my desires to rebel and explore all of the things they told me were bad.
Nearly four years after Vera went on with her life I was passing through her neighborhood and decided to visit. The last time I did so my hands didn’t shake from inhalant abuse and I’d never seen the inside of a reformatory. When she opened the door shock widened her eyes, but she recovered quickly and invited me in for tea and cookies as if I was twelve, not some sixteen year old delinquent. I don’t know why I stopped by other than curiosity. Vera left our family so abruptly and more than anything I wanted perspective beyond my parents’ sphere of influence. When I said as much, the woman we came to know as Aunt Vera put her tea cup down and told me.
The principal at my grad school was gay. He decided to “come out” at a time when, in places like the rural northeast during the don’t-ask-don’t-tell era, this sort of thing was frowned on. As a teacher, godmother to my younger sisters, and stand-in aunt, Vera was offended by the principal’s decision. Her views were Old Testament and she believed such behaviors should not be modeled for impressionable children.
She said to me, “Your mother is more tolerant in her thinking and didn’t want my opinions picked up by her children.” The two argued over this and other biblical teachings, with mom championing the New Testament and Vera the Old. It all came back to the principal, though. As a member of the teacher’s union, Vera quietly began to exert pressure on the principal to resign and when mom found out she went ballistic. Her anger was all too easy to imagine.
Another four years passed before I heard from Aunt Vera again. News of my death sentence had rocked my small home town up north as if it had happened there, not in North Carolina. Vera wrote and asked after my wellbeing and let me know she would be praying that God spare me. “I still remember the day you stopped by to ask what happened between your mom and I. Thank you,” she said. “Though you may not realize it, you did this old biddy a world of good. I love you.” It was a heartfelt message; gratitude for my curiosity. She loved me for a simple act of being tolerant and willing to listen and has written to me ever since. One outcast to another.