She was cartoon comical, my Auntie Verna, but darkly so.
Auntie Verna came to visit us in Dryden, Ontario, unannounced, every year or two, her fortunes always in apparent flux. In 1960 she arrived broke and mascara-smeared on the bus from Minneapolis; in 1961 she came alone in a rented Cadillac from Winnipeg. In 1964 she pulled up in a dented Chrysler with Nebraska plates driven by a man from New Orleans called Leon who chewed tobacco, swore occasionally but extravagantly, and skilfully plucked the strings of his shiny, National Reso-phonic guitar late into the night with fingers stained orange by nicotine.
Leon called Auntie Verna his “little pin-up girl.” He took long pulls from a silver hip flask all day: “swigs” Mother called them— a condemnatory word that she forced slowly out of her pursed lips like poison.
Auntie Verna was a fascinating and alarming enigma. How could she be Mother’s sister? She wore garish red lipstick and spoke like Betty Grable. She was loved by Mother as a sister through obligation… but not as a friend. Mother maneuvered around Auntie Verna the way one maneuvers around a dog that might bite or a horse that might kick.
Normally imperious and unyielding, Mother readily ceded power to Auntie Verna during her visits. She did so out of a blend of caution, duty, pity, perplexity and unease that was palpable, even to an eleven-year-old.
“She’s gotten away with murder all her life. She takes no guidance from anyone. I’m not going to be able to change that now,” Mother said. These strong words drifted up to me in my bedroom at the top of the stairs, punctuated by the clinking of cups, saucers, plates, glasses, pots, pans and cutlery. Mother washed; my dad dried and hummed his usual assents.
“God help us if Danny ever finds her carrying on with Leon in the basement bedroom,” I overheard her say to my dad once as she went about the house emptying ashtrays of waxy, crimson-stained butts before turning in for the night. I could imagine her stern and disapproving expression then as my face lit up privately with its own red bloom of embarrassment.
Auntie Verna’s last name had recently changed to Moore. Mother couldn’t guess how that had come to pass, and didn’t inquire. Leon was a Desaulniers, so that wasn’t it. “She was born a Macenroe, like me, and has worked hard to blacken our name ever since.”
Auntie Verna had “a past.” She collected names the way long-dead Grandmother Macenroe collected Belleek. “Now she’s the Moore of Babylon, may God strike me down dead for saying it,” Mother muttered.
For four years Auntie Verna had been “Sister Maria Eufemia.” That was before they kicked her out of the convent she entered after they kicked her out of Fort William Collegiate for doing something unmentionable at the Intercity Drive-in with the unmentionable Vince Spadoni.
Auntie Verna wore hats. The most memorable of them was a little grey cigarette girl’s cap with burgundy piping, perched at a dangerous angle. Out of it sprouted a tall yellow daisy— an asterisk of sorts that seemed to qualify Auntie Verna the way an asterisk qualifies a word or a phrase. It was a gaudy, plastic asterisk that signaled, no confirmed, that Auntie Verna should not be taken at face value— that she had ‘a past.’
“Look below, read further,” it said to me, this asterisk. I balked. I wondered then, what would happen if I were to look below, read further and learn more.
For example, would I come to know the meaning of that terrifying yet transfixing whimper— caught somewhere in someone’s throat, suspended midway between innocently imagined polarities of pleasure and pain— that slid out like a soiled and ungrammatical love letter from beneath the basement bedroom door where Auntie Verna and nicotine-stained Leon lay that day I passed by it, having been dispatched downstairs by Mother to fetch up a bag of peas from the freezer for lunch?