March 25, 2010
I apologize for what I am about to say, specifically about my Sunday School teacher, Miss Cummings, and also my dad’s older sister, Lenore. What did they do? Frighten me half to death, that’s what. My mother tried convincing me that they were God’s perfect children, that I needed to love them, see them as God did, but it was hard. Sure they were sweet, but they were single women in a married world. That’s how it was with old maids. There was always a defect there, some flaw that made them unpopular with the opposite sex and scary to children.
Like most girls born in the fifties, my sisters and I were raised to be wives: We had the right moral instruction, good education, proper training in etiquette and ballroom dancing and stylish clothes from New York City department stores. Even the toys I got for Christmas provided perfect training for future wedded bliss: an E-Z Bake oven, a little Hostess Buffet and miniature percolator that made real coffee.
We dreamed of brides, flowers and cake, my sisters and I. After Sunday School, after we’d changed out of our Sunday best, we held practice weddings in our basement—with dolls. My mother played Handel’s Wedding March on the record player, Carol wore a black choir robe and read from one of the many Bibles in our house (we each had one, in addition to our own matching copy of Science and Health). Rita, next oldest, had us round up all our dolls. She and Molly walked them up a makeshift aisle in pairs. Sandy threw rice. I carried daffodils picked from the edge of the lawn. And then, with God as their witness, five trolls, three Barbies, Tressy, Patty Play Pal and Chatty Cathy all got married to Mickey Mouse.
There would be no Mickey for Miss Cummings and Aunt Lenore, alas. Miss Cummings was the only single teacher in the Sunday School and she was definitely the right age to be a wife. Pretty, too, but she had this deformity, a severe burn from her wrist to her pinkie, that made the skin look like it had melted, then frozen in place. And though most of the time, she kept it hidden under her cardigan sweater, that was not the case when she opened her hymnal to sing. I would have rather watched our next door neighbors from the Ozark Mountains butcher chickens in the front yard; I would have rather watched them, gut the chickens and boil them before plucking their feathers, than have to sing Feed My Sheep next to Miss Cummings and see that monstrous hand of hers. Concentrating on the Beatitudes and 10 Commandments after that was really hard, I tell you. The sad thing was, she had such large eyes, Miss Cummings. Large, brown eyes with lovely, long, dark lashes. But they seemed lonely, at least to me.
Lenore’s predicament was different. To begin with, she wasn’t a church goer. We invited her to come with us many times, but she never did. What else? She was six feet tall; she towered. Do you know she told me her height ruined her life? Can you believe it? She never talked about herself much. She was private, but she did tell me that.
Was it her height—or that she was prim? What kind of person goes camping wearing a pair of white sharkskin pants, pressed daily with an iron warmed on the campfire, you may wonder? What kind of person bakes lemon meringue pies in a baking box out under the pines, as Lenore had done as a young woman?If these were the signs of a life careening toward ruin, why didn’t she change course? Perhaps it was because everything else seemed to be in her favor: good posture, clear skin, delicate features and small hands and feet. She was well-dressed: wool Villager houndstooth slacks, flat Pappagallo shoes, a gold pin with coral strawberries on it that was a gift from her boss. She drove a Mustang and owned a neat ranch house in Palisades Park, New Jersey. She was a secretary.
On the downside, she’d never had a boyfriend—probably never even been kissed, as far as my sisters and I could tell. We did suspect that she liked her boss: if you complimented her on the strawberry pin, she would smile slightly and mention his name, but had anything gone on there? He was married, so it would have been a sin. That much I learned from Miss Cummings. And Lenore was too proper, besides. I’d hugged her several times, and she never seemed to enjoy it. She definitely wouldn’t enjoy kissing, that’s for sure.
What did she enjoy? Well, a few nice things and a lot of weird things. She liked skiing, for example. But she also liked writing thank you notes, making jell-o molds and doing dishes—and she seemed to thrive on serving other people. See, she’d made this deal with my dad and their other brother. They got to go off to college and then to war and raise families; Lenore stayed at home with their parents, taking care of them both until they passed. Her earthly reward? When she was older, they’d take care of her. So that’s how she ended up a spinster, other than being too tall and fussy. Anyway, Lenore spent every Christmas and holiday with us, and she was forever doing things like clearing the table when everyone was still eating and volunteering to take the smallest piece of cake for dessert. I thought this was great, but my dad always said no, Vicki is the smallest, she gets the smallest piece of cake. And the girls will do the dishes.
We all resented that. I mean, if Lenore was happy clearing the table and letting the rest of us sit around and enjoy dessert, I thought we should let her. But my mother said that would be taking advantage.
Taking advantage? Is that bad?
And so, my dad ordered her to sit at the table when she did not want to, and we served her the biggest piece of cake, which she did not eat. We gave her gifts of cologne and writing paper when it was her birthday—because what else does a spinster need, but to write thank you notes and be sweet smelling? She was included in every family milestone, every graduation and birthday and anniversary. We had crazy, over-the-top Christmases, with piles of presents from Bergdorf Goodman and Saks and Bloomingdales and great Easters, with plenty of chocolate bunnies and Easter egg hunts. And there, on the sidelines, wearing her sufferer’s expression of woe and her favorite strawberry pin, would be Lenore, a witness to our collective joy, but not a participant in it. What can you do? At least Miss Cummings had God for companionship. Lenore just had us.
So, to sum up, here’s what I’d learned by age 12: spinsters were lonely and often unhappy. Whether because they were too tall or had scars, either physical or psychological, they were not popular with boys and they were often martyrs, which meant they were good at making you feel guilty and sometimes, scared. In contrast, I was popular in the sixth grade, I had been the lead in the school play and had been asked to go steady multiple times by a variety of boys and had made out with Jamie Becker whereas my Aunt was 52 and had never been kissed and probably never would.
Lord knows, you don’t want to end up like that.