BUBBLE-WRAP

Aunt Bessie was not really my aunt.  Around 1960, she’d married my widowed grandfather and, as such, put herself in an impossible position. Grandpop was the beloved father of three grown daughters. These daughters had deeply loved their mother and venerated their father with devotion and awe.  As a result, at any family event, Aunt Bessie was dissected like a fly being flayed, one wing at a time, by a ten-year-old boy.
“She’s got those funny shoes on today,” noted one of the daughters.
“Her wig is off center,” observed another.
“I bet she’ll fill up the tea-cups half-way,” predicted the third.
“Maybe only a third of a cup today,” said the first one. “There’s a drought.”
All three laughed.  As a result of repetition and, yes, more than a grain of truth, Aunt Bessie’s foibles became family lore. I recall one gathering at my grandfather’s house in honor of my eighth or ninth birthday. In our family, like many, it evolved that only females were responsible for buying gifts. This was unfortunate for me since Grandpop’s more generous nature wouldn’t prevail.  Instead, the woman who famously recycled wrapping paper before “recycling” was even a word, held my fate in her hands.
I spied a misshapen package on a table in the corner of the room, wrapped in creased holiday paper that I knew was destined for me.  By its shape, at least, I knew it wasn’t a tie.  Instead, it was a wooden train engine, exactly the same as I’d received the year before, with the $1.49 price tag still attached.

*****

A decade later, after Grandpop had died, Aunt Bessie lived alone in Atlantic City.  She may have been the last person to move to that town before casinos opened in the late 1970’s to complete its downward spiral.

My mother dutifully visited Aunt Bessie once or twice a year, which was infinitely more than her sisters did.  On one occasion, when I was home from college during a winter vacation, I went along.  We parked beside her windswept apartment building adjacent to the boardwalk.  Angry, grey clouds spread drizzle around screaming seagulls.  Seeing boarded-up storefronts, we worried whether our car would be there when we returned. It was hard to imagine that Atlantic City had once been renowned for sunlight and fun.

Once inside, we walked down a dimly lit, green-wallpapered corridor to Aunt Bessie’s door.  We knocked several times before the noise of the television quieted inside, Aunt Bessie opened up.  Barely five feet at her tallest, she appeared to have shrunk several inches from when I’d last seen her. She peered up at me through thick glasses.
“Oh, my, you’re so tall. Which one are you?” she asked.

*****

During the ride from Philadelphia, my mother and I speculated whether Aunt Bessie would have made a dessert or merely bought whatever was on sale for our visit.  I guessed the former.  My mother predicted the latter.
The apartment was tiny, but neat. My mother enthused about how clean it appeared. Aunt Bessie explained that a cleaner came once a week.
“She’s Puerto Rican, or something like that. I pay her $10. It should only be $5, but what can you do?  People want so much.”
She directed us to a tiny dinette.  On a paper plate was evidence of my mother’s  wisdom – not even a name brand, but generic, store-brand cookies.  My mother looked at me and nodded.  Aunt Bessie offered us a choice of tea or freeze-dried Sanka.  I chose tea, just to see how full the cup would be. Sure enough, she only filled it half-way.
We struggled through polite conversation for half an hour. I told Aunt Bessie about life at college and about my soccer team. She didn’t seem very interested but did perk up when I mentioned that the dorms were coed.

“You mean there are girls where you live?” she asked, surprised.

After my mother filled her in on other developments in the family, which Aunt Bessie tenuously followed, the conversation wound down. She didn’t ask any questions.
“Well,” said my mother, after an awkward silence. “We’ll head home now.  We’ll visit again soon.”
“Wait a minute,” said Aunt Bessie, as we rose from our seats.  She walked slowly into her bedroom and emerged a minute later with a small package of hastily scrunched bubble-wrap, held together by a piece of tape.  She handed the package to me.  My mother looked surprised.  I felt something small but hard inside.  I was glad it didn’t feel like a train engine.  When I pulled the tape apart I held a silver dollar from 1892.
“That’s the year I was born,” said Aunt Bessie.  “Remember that.”
Aunt Bessie died before I saw her again.  But I still have the coin.

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