Distant Relatives by Dawn Zera

pieces of white paper with different family member type names, family in forefront with wife, son, mother, etc. surroundingA short, bald man winks at me. His buckteeth bite on his lower lip. His eyes bounce up and down off my double Ds. He opens his arms wide and says, as if relieved we’ve finally reconnected, “Roseanne.”

I play along for about 30 seconds, then pull back from our embrace and break it to him: “I’m not Roseanne. Maybe you have me confused with my aunt.”

“Oh,” he answers, skepticism in his stare. “You look just like her.”

Aunt Roseanne is 25 years older than I, which would put her at age 47. I resolve to buy night cream and immediately start to examine my long dark hair for gray strands.

“Is she here?” He stands on his tippy toes as if trying to get a better view of other people in the packed funeral home. I’m certain he’s just trying to get a better view of other women’s breasts.

I don’t know if Roseanne is here because I haven’t seen her since I was two years old and haven’t a clue what her 47-year-old self looks like. I only know that she’s my dad’s sister, manages a dry cleaning business in Florida, and is a lesbian. And I only know all of this because I was a master snooper during my teenage years. With spy-like stealth I sniffed out my parents’ hidden caches of information: dusty high school yearbooks tucked into attic trunks, basement boxes filled with old black and white photos. One search turned up a black and white photograph of a more youthful version of my father with his arm around a chubby brunette. In the photo, my dad and the woman both are dressed in white, short-sleeved shirts and black pants—hers more like cigarette pants, a style popular during the early 1960s. Their mouths are wide. It looks as if they were laughing when the photograph was taken.

I needed to know who the woman was. She looked familiar. Dad was still at the office, working late, and therefore unavailable to interrogate. I found my mother elbow-deep in dirty pots at the kitchen sink. I held up the photograph, pointed at the brunette and asked, “Who’s this?”

Mom’s dainty nails and slender white arms were protected by long yellow rubber gloves. She glanced only briefly at the photograph, then put her head back down to focus on scrubbing.

“That’s your Aunt Roseanne,” she said.

“An aunt? Who I’ve never met?”

“Your father’s sister. You’ve met her.”

“When?”

“When you were born. She used to watch you sometimes, when we lived in Jersey.”

“Why don’t we see her now? Why don’t you ever talk about her?”

“There’s nothing to say. She moved to Florida.” She pulled the drain plug from the sink and pulled off her rubber gloves. “She lives there with her girlfriend.”

“You mean, like, kissing girlfriend?”

Mom turned on the kitchen faucet’s sprayer, and rinsed out the sink basin of dish detergent bubbles. “She likes women.”

“Is that why we don’t talk about her? Is that why Dad doesn’t keep in touch with her?”

“No. Families just drift apart. I think maybe your father just doesn’t have time to keep in touch with her.”

I couldn’t imagine not having time to keep in touch with my sister. Later, when I showed Dad the photo of him and Roseanne, he stared at the photo and smiled.

“It’s no big deal. She’s still my sister,” he said, and glanced at the photo one more time before he handed it back to me. “I still love her. We’re just both too busy to keep in touch right now.”

I didn’t doubt this as true. He worked a lot. But I wanted more. I wanted to get to know Aunt Roseanne. I had time to keep in touch with her, and I craved that family connection. My parents had chosen—when I was still in diapers and unable to voice an opinion—to leave New Jersey in favor of better working opportunities in a Pennsylvania town that was three hours distance from their relatives.

Without any regret, it seemed, they left their sisters and brothers and parents behind, along with all the family stories and inside jokes. Dad’s priorities did not include tending the familial relationships he’d grown up with. My mother’s parents had died prior to my birth. We were a family adrift at sea. While my school friends would get excited to see their grandparents and cousins during school breaks, our holidays were spent with the small family unit of Mom, Dad, myself, and my younger brother and sister.

The short, bald man at the funeral home moves on, and I push through the crowd to the casket. Everyone ignores the dead man. It’s my first funeral and the treatment of my grandfather’s body reminds me of how I treated a large, pale pink conch shell I found one time on a beach trip. I painted the shell by giving it pink stripes and green circles. This was back when the preppy look was very popular. Did that shell look better than it did when I found it? No, of course not.

 

The dead body in the coffin had at one time been Grandpa Mike. I wonder how he would react if he knew someone had gussied his face with makeup, replete with lipstick and under-eye concealer. His body has on a fine gray suit; the suit seems an odd choice, since he’d owned a junkyard in the rough neighborhood of East Orange, N.J., right up to the day he died. He really didn’t have any occasion to wear gray suits, I think, with the exception of weddings. And funerals.

Grandpa Mike’s body looks as delicate and thin as phyllo dough. Liver cancer will do that to a person–completely rob them of vitality.

I hadn’t visited my grandfather in the hospital. I don’t think it upset him. I hope it didn’t. My parents drove out to visit him, once, during the month he was there. That’s because my dad’s younger brother, Richard, called to tell him their father “wasn’t doing so well,” which turned out to be code for “is about to die.”

Uncle Richard was a bachelor. He and Grandpa Mike lived in the same, cramped, one-bathroom home both of them had at one time shared with Roseanne, my dad, and Grandma Helen. Grandma had died before I was born, of a stroke.

The last time I saw Grandpa was one year earlier, when I was home on break from college and we were celebrating my younger brother’s high school graduation. It turned out to be the first time Grandpa ever initiated conversation with me.

We had seen extensive preparations for Grandpa’s promised visits many times when we were children, and we’d always ended up disappointed. Here’s the scenario that always ensued: Dad would ask Grandpa and Uncle Richard to spend a holiday with us in Pennsylvania. They would answer yes. On the morning of their intended arrival, Mom would awaken early to freshen up the house, and shell and de-vein the shrimp.

And then Grandpa and Uncle would not show up. The lettuce would wilt quickly underneath the shrimp. Mom would wilt quickly, too. Dad would repeatedly call the home Grandpa and Uncle Richard shared, to find out why they weren’t at our house. This was before there were cell phones, and they didn’t have an answering machine. So the phone would ring. And ring and ring and ring.

At some point, Mom would explode at Dad, and retreat to the upstairs bedroom feigning a migraine. Dad would spend the rest of the afternoon outside, tending his garden.  My brother would turn his attention to his Matchbox cars and my sister and I would shrug at each other, and then sit down to eat our shrimp. And we would eat Grandpa Mike’s and Uncle Richard’s shrimp too, because, let’s face it, they weren’t coming. They were never coming.

And so, when we saw Mom pull out the good china again, and place the embroidered hand towels in the bathroom, we were skeptical. But then, surprise.  For my brother’s graduation party, they made it out to see us. I was astonished to see the car with New Jersey license plates pull into the driveway. For once, they’d kept their word. The house was full of noise; the mood buoyant. Grandpa was quiet but laughed heartily as Uncle Richard regaled us with tall tales about their Italian friends. And then, suddenly, the room we had all been in cleared out as everyone sought beverage refills, and there I was, alone, with Grandpa. I expected him to get up too and walk into the other room. But he looked at me and said, “You like college?”

He had never spoken directly to me before, from what I could remember. I was so taken aback that I didn’t know what to say.  I nodded.

“What are you studying?” he pressed.

“English.”

“You going to be a teacher?”

“No,” I said. “I want to be a reporter.”

“A reporter!”

This was back when there still were newspapers and there still were newspaper jobs, and being a reporter could be an exciting profession.  I blushed.

“Good,” he said, and smiled. And then I felt shy.

I got up and said, “I have to help my mother with the shrimp.”

And that was it. Our last words together. I wish I’d sat longer with him to hear what he had to say.

 

Uncle Richard, my father’s brother, stands near the entrance to the large room where Grandpa’s body is on display. My uncle is muscled in the style of a gym addict on steroids, and the most remarkable features on his swarthy, sculpted face are his intense hazel eyes. But it’s impossible to see the eyes now under the dark sunglasses he wears.

A weary-looking, wrinkle-faced man with gray hair bows his head to Uncle Richard.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t realize,” the old man says. His voice bleats like a lamb. “Please, Richie, forgive me. I would have visited him.” A sob catches in his throat.

Uncle Richard says nothing. I take pity on the man, a stranger, and wonder what the backstory is to Uncle Richard’s mafia don act. Whatever is going on, I don’t like it.  I turn to press through the funeral crowd to find my parents.

Dad holds court with four white-haired women, all with dried-apple faces and intense brown eyes. They are seated so close that their shoulders touch. They wear black shawls and long black skirts. Each of them holds a walking cane upright, as if prepared to hop up and step away within a split second, if necessary. They remind me of a row of crows.

“Let me introduce you to my father’s sisters,” Dad says. He seems cheerful, here at his father’s funeral, which has become a reunion for him with his family. His childhood was filled with aunts and uncles. He seems unaware how sad I am that mine was not. “This is Aunt Anna.” Aunt Anna nods, and lifts her long, thin arm. My dad takes her delicate hand in his, then leans down to kiss the top of her hand; a sign of respect. Aunt Anna smiles and nods. The introductions and kisses continue with Aunt Pia, Aunt Maria and Aunt Therese. They regard me with interest and eagerness, and I think that I will make a joke about how much their names sound like an introduction to Christopher Columbus’s ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

But as soon as the introductions are over, another person I don’t know comes up and distracts them. I sigh, and tug Dad’s suit jacket. “Who is that man talking to Uncle Richard?”

He looks over. “Uncle Jimmy.” The sour expression on Dad’s face betrays his lack of respect for Uncle Jimmy. His mouth curls as if he’s sucked on a lemon. “My father’s favorite brother. The baby. My father did everything for him. And Uncle Jimmy couldn’t be bothered to visit my dad in the hospital when he was dying.”

Then someone, another uncle, or aunt, or maybe it’s a former classmate or neighborhood buddy, clamps Dad on the shoulder and gives him a hearty handshake. I walk away to search for a chair to sit on. I’m merely a spectator at this circus that masquerades as a funeral.

I find an empty chair against the wall and sit with arms folded across my chest, eyes half-closed. I feel as if the man seated beside me has his eyes on me. I glance at him.

“You are a relative of Mike’s?” he asks. He appears to be about seventy years old. He has a grim mouth and wears large, wire-rimmed eyeglasses.

It takes me several seconds to realize he’s talking about Grandpa. “Yes, I’m his granddaughter.”

The man holds out his hand to shake mine vigorously, as if he’s just met the granddaughter of the King of England.  “Nice to meet you.”

“How do you know Mike? “ I ask, purposely using his term for my Grandpa.

“He helped my wife out. We couldn’t get an appointment with one of the best oncologists in the area, and Mike fixed it for us. Got us an appointment. And then, later, helped us with some bills.” He pauses. “She passed away last year, but it would have been earlier if it wasn’t for your Grandpa.”

I digest this information for a moment, and turn to look toward the coffin. There are a lot of people blocking the view, but I can see my Grandpa’s painted face.

“He never wanted any sort of repayment,” the man continues. “All Mike asked for was that we remember him by coming to his funeral.”

An odd thing to request, I think. But as I look around at the crowd, I start to see. There are people in uniform – police, firemen. There are old women and young men. There is a crowd here. People he touched, helped, visited. A funeral for a man who connected in different ways with many different people. I’m only sorry I hadn’t insisted he connect with me. I’m only sorry that when he tried to connect with me, I opted to devein shrimp.

 

It’s my first time in a limousine, and it isn’t until we reach a dramatic curve in the road that the full length of the funeral procession comes into view – a two-mile stretch of cars with hazard lights and headlights on. There are six of us in the limo: My siblings, parents and I, and Uncle Richard, who had been the one who decided we needed a limo. Dad asks if Aunt Roseanne has arrived. Uncle Richard says the last time he spoke with her, she told him she would be driving up to the funeral from Florida. No one has seen her.

Directly behind us is a fire engine truck overstuffed with the callalillies, carnations, and roses that had been sent as condolence gifts to the funeral home. Leading the procession are four police vehicles with their lights on. The red and blue flashes shout “Clear the way: Important dead man coming through.”

“Remember the night he called about the pony?” Mom says. She looks at Dad.

Dad chuckles. “Boy do I ever.”

I think this is the first time I’ve heard about the pony, but then, as Dad starts to tell the story, my memory is activated. And I grasp the fleeting remembrance before it disappears again.

I was five years old. My parents were exhausted from the reality of full-time jobs and raising a kid that wouldn’t sleep. It was a sweltering July night. We didn’t have air-conditioning. The three of us tried to keep cool in their bedroom, where the only big fan we had ran at high speed. The phone rang at midnight. It woke me up. I cried. It rang several times, before Dad picked it up and offered a sleepy “Hello?”

“Hey, how are ya’, boy?” Grandpa.

“Pop, it’s midnight.”

“I just won a pony for my girl.”

“OK.” Dad’s first thought, I would overhear him tell Mom later, was that his Pop was referring to one of his special girls – the girls he’d been seeing all his adult life, the girls he met at the bar, or in Atlantic City. The girls he hadn’t tried too hard to keep secret from Grandma.

“Wait ‘til my granddaughter sees it. She’s gonna love it. I’ll bring it out next weekend.”

“Wait a minute, Pop,” Dad wiped the sweat from his brow.

“It comes with a saddle.” Through the phone line can be heard lots of laughing and hollering in the background.

“Where are you, Pop?”

“Sonny’s. I won the pot.”

“Whaddaya mean? Gambling?” Dad’s voice was stern, aggravated. “We don’t need a pony.”

“Are you telling me you aren’t going to let me give my granddaughter a pony?”

Grandpa talked loud, trying to talk above the din in the background. Dad swung his legs out of bed, onto the floor, and ran one hand through his thinning hair. “I have no place to put a goddamned pony –.”

“You’ve got that big backyard –.”

“I just can’t put a pony in the backyard. Who’s going to clean up the manure? How are we going to feed it?” Dad’s eyebrows furrowed, his voice was scornful. I mimicked his face and wrapped my arms around his neck. “I want a pony!” I said. Mom pulled me off him.

“Aw, come on, son,” Grandpa said. “You mean to tell me I won this pony for nothing?”

“I can’t take the damn pony, Pop.” The phone slammed down. Dad stood up and walked out of the room. Mom tucked the sheets around the both of us and sang me back to sleep.

 

The funeral reception is held at a bar-slash-lounge that Grandpa and Uncle Richard had frequented. There is a buffet of Italian food. There are three bartenders on duty for the hundred-plus crowd. Several photographs of Grandpa have been strewn across a white tablecloth-covered  banquet table near the entrance. I examine them, trying to find out more about this man. There is a photo of him as a child in the early 1920s, dressed in knickers and a golf cap. There is one of him at the junkyard office, his head turned back at the camera. He grins; playing cards fan in his hand. I push the photos on the table around, until I find one I must pick up. In it are Grandpa, Uncle Richard, my Dad, and Aunt Roseanne holding a baby. I study the photo. Is the baby me? It must be me.

There is a tap on my shoulder, and I turn around to see the short, bald man who earlier had mistaken me for my aunt.

“I found her,” he says, and grins so that his buck teeth jut toward me.

“I didn’t know we were looking for someone,” I answer.

He sweeps his arm sideways as if showing off a car on The Price Is Right, and I see her. Aunt Roseanne. Her dark, curly hair is grayer than mine. She has worry lines around her eyes. But we both are tall, with broad shoulders, big breasts, and thick eyebrows. I feel at once that we know each other—that we knew each other all along. We kiss each other’s cheeks and hug.

“I’m your Aunt Roseanne,” she says, and still holds my arms.

“I know,” I reply.

“I’ve missed you,” she says. “My car broke down on the way up here. I didn’t think I’d be able to see anyone.”

I show her the photo and ask if the baby is me. Yes, she says, and we look at the picture together.

* * *

After the funeral, we will become pen pals. She will send me stories that she writes about her and her girlfriend Christine’s travels. The last letter she sends me will be 18 months later, after she has started chemotherapy in a last-ditch effort to rid her body of a gall-bladder cancer that had been a devastating surprise. She will be dead four months later, and Christine will send me a letter telling me how much Roseanne enjoyed our correspondence. Enclosed with the letter will be a gold-leaf pin of a rose.

dawn zeraDawn Zera, a veteran editor, reporter, and public relations guru, only recently emerged from the closet as a creative writer. Her short, one-act play, “Contemporary Saints,” was staged this fall in Scranton, Pa. as part of the Jason Miller Playwrights’ Project Invitational. When she’s not working as a college adjunct instructor or pursuing her MFA, she can be found these days in her attic, seated among composition books filled with the essays, short stories, and poems she’s revising.
Print Friendly