My father always seemed different when we visited Grandpa and Aunt Rose. He never kissed Aunt Rose even though he was strict about me greeting grownups properly – a kiss for family, a handshake for everybody else. The first thing he did was ask Grandpa if there was something to do in the yard and he would go outside even when Grandpa said there wasn’t anything that needed doing. He wouldn’t come back into the house until my mother called him for dinner. At the table Aunt Rose talked in her strong, booming voice that reminded me of TV hockey announcers. She talked and everybody else listened. My mother and Grandpa smiled and laughed at Rose’s stories, but my father looked blank as if he weren’t listening. But there was always a point when Rose would say something that would make him flare up like a match on fire.
“Why did you come back?” my father asked once, throwing his eyes high, when Rose had talked about leaving home at a young age.
“Dad can’t look after the house and property by himself and he doesn’t want to sell,” Aunt Rose snapped back.
I had waited to hear what my father was going to say, but all I heard was a loud snort before my mother cast him a look of disapproval like my teacher did when I misbehaved in class. No one spoke for a while until Grandpa said how wonderful it was to have the family altogether and how he might not be alive next year to enjoy it.
Aunt Rose lived with Grandpa in King City, a half hour drive north of Toronto, in the house in which she and my mother had grown up. Rose was my mother’s older sister. We lived in the city in an apartment that my mother complained was too small.
“Why don’t we live with Grandpa like Aunt Rose. He has lots of empty rooms,” I asked my mother.
“That would never work,” she blurted, then added, “don’t say anything like that in front of your father. He wouldn’t like it. We’re saving money to buy a house.”
“But we could save if…” I started but my mother didn’t let me finish.
“Your father believes in doing things on his own.” There was no need for further explanation.
The Christmas morning when I was ten it snowed heavily – flakes as big as marshmallows tumbling from the sky – as I opened up the presents from my parents: a long, grey winter coat with a wide black belt at the waist; knee-high black boots; and, wrapped inside a quilt, also a present, a small bookcase built by my father. We were having breakfast in the living room and listening to carols on the radio. My father and I were in pajamas but my mother was already dressed in the long corduroy paisley dress she wore at Christmas.
“You’d better get ready,” she urged. “It’s going to take longer with the snow.”
“It’s nasty out there. Maybe we should stay home?”
“Father would be disappointed! If you don’t want to go, I’ll go on my own with Jane.” My mother anchored her hands on her hips.
I ran to my bedroom to get dressed and get out of the way of their argument. Slowly I put on the pleated navy wool skirt and white, long-sleeved shirt my mother had put out for me to wear, straining to hear what my parents were saying. When I heard my father walking past my room to theirs and my mother telling me in a happy voice to hurry up, I figured my father was going with us. Even though there was something odd when he and Aunt Rose were together, I was relieved. I didn’t want to go without my father.
Aunt Rose cupped her hands over my eyes at the door when we arrived.
“Your present was too big to wrap,” she laughed, dragging me into the living room.
I squeezed my eyes shut tight underneath her fingers, which smelled of cigarettes and something sweet that wasn’t perfume, and swallowed in gulps.
“Ready? One. Two. Merry Christmas!”
I blinked to clear the fuzziness in my eyes and saw a stereo – turntable, radio, reel-to-reel tape deck and speakers almost as tall as me.
“Wow!” I flung my arms around Aunt Rose, bopping up and down.
“It’s from me and Grandpa.”
“Rosie said you’d like it. She bought you records too,” Grandpa said as I kissed him. “It makes me happy to have the family together.”
Aunt Rose had chosen my favorite singers: The Byrds, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Dusty Springfield, the Mamas & the Papas, Petula Clark. I thought about the fun I would have listening to the music in my room. I loved Aunt Rose.
“There isn’t enough space in Jane’s bedroom for this.”
“Whose fault is it that her room is too small?” said Aunt Rose.
“It’s none of your business how we live. You should have consulted Ruth or me before you bought this monstrosity.”
“You just don’t like the fact that you couldn’t make it.”
“I can move the bed around so that it will fit.” My mother tried to make peace but her voice was shaky, not like the way she had spoken earlier in the morning when she had insisted on coming out to Grandpa’s.
It was unfair. My father was mean about everything, even at Christmas. I had been dreaming about my own record player for a long time. Aunt Rose understood me so much better than my own parents. She knew what made me happy. I didn’t have to pretend to be happy when I opened her presents. She was fun. I wished I could live with her.
“Please, it’s Christmas. Ruth and Tom, here’s your present,” Grandpa pleaded as he handed my mother an envelope.
“That’s very generous, Father,” my mother exclaimed, embracing Grandpa after she had passed a card with dollar bills inside to my father.
“Thanks, Charlie,” my father said, but he didn’t sound happy.
“Tom, what about some Scotch?” Grandpa put his arm around my father’s shoulders and led him into the family room.
The family room and kitchen were attached, a long space running the length of the house with a ceiling so high I had to crane my neck when I looked up at it. The kitchen was at one end with a fridge, stove, cupboards and a large counter area, followed by a long table where we ate, and then the family room with a sofa and two rocking chairs, where Grandpa and my father now sat, drinking Scotch and looking at the fireplace that covered most of the wall at the opposite end. I followed my mother and Aunt Rose to the kitchen area.
“Is the turkey ready to cook?” my mother asked.
“Not really,” answered Aunt Rose. “I went to the casino last night and didn’t get home until very late. I got out of bed just before you showed up.” Aunt Rose smiled at me and shrugged her shoulders as if I would understand.
“You promised you would have everything ready.” My mother sounded irritated.
“Get off my back! I had a bad night.” Aunt Rose opened the fridge, took out a bottle of beer and wandered off before my mother could say anything else.
“It’s always the same,” my mother muttered, as she put on an apron over the paisley dress and rolled up her sleeves. “There’s always some excuse. Jane, can you help cut the vegetables?”
I could see my father and Grandpa sitting on the rocking chairs across the long room as I peeled potatoes, carrots, and onions. It was a good thing they couldn’t hear the conversation in the kitchen. My father would have been furious that Aunt Rose hadn’t prepared the turkey. When I had finished cutting the vegetables I saw his chair was empty; through the french windows I could see him shoveling snow around the house. Grandpa had fallen asleep, his arms crossed over his chest as if he was giving himself a hug. My mother was busy basting the turkey. I slipped into the living room to look at my stereo and records. I picked up the record jackets and admired the pictures on the covers. The musicians looked so cool and attractive – the men with long hair and turtlenecks, Dusty and Petula with their kohl-rimmed eyes and pale, painted lips. My father had to let me take the stereo home. I knew my mother was on my side and even when he didn’t like it, he usually went along with her. I was sure the stereo and speakers could fit into my bedroom, but maybe not with the bookcase he had built. But I didn’t really need a bookcase because I didn’t have many books. The bookcase could stay in the hall and my parents could use it as well.
When I had finished looking at the record jackets and reading the liner notes, I walked up the stairs to the second floor looking for Aunt Rose to tell her how much I loved the stereo and records.
Aunt Rose had the second floor to herself. I could hear her voice, angry and loud, coming from her room at the end of the hall. Was she arguing with my father about my stereo? Had he come upstairs without my noticing? I stopped and held my breath as if that would make me invisible. My father had told me that it was wrong to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, but Aunt Rose’s door wasn’t closed so it wasn’t really eavesdropping.
“I told you I can’t get the money to you today. My bloody family’s here. I can’t just leave for a couple of hours. I’m supposed to be cooking the turkey.”
My feet felt stuck to the floor. If Aunt Rose or my father suddenly came out of her room they would catch me and I would be in trouble. I should go back downstairs and pretend I had never come up; instead I ran into the alcove by the window and crouched down on my knees behind two tall plants.
“God damn it, you’ll get the money tomorrow!” Aunt Rose screamed so loud she scared me. I tried to make myself smaller by folding my body over my legs, like a snail crawling inside its shell.
My legs were cramping up from being scrunched tight and I had to stand on my knees and shake them to relieve the pain. It was excruciating, but I managed to stand and tiptoe back downstairs, taking each step slowly, gently.
“There you are,” my mother greeted me when I walked back into the kitchen. “Can you help set the table? Everything is in the oven.” Her face was shining and pink and she stretched her mouth in a wide smile. I ran and hugged her.
“Don’t worry, darling. I’ve had a little talk with your father. We’ll take the stereo and squeeze it into your room somehow. He’s right though. Rose should have asked us before buying it. It was Grandpa’s money anyway.” She pressed her lips on my head and squeezed me so tight I could smell the cloves and turkey on her paisley dress. I was glad we had our own home, even if it was a small apartment.
My leg cramps had eased and I started arranging the cutlery on the table. Grandpa was deep in sleep across the room. The french doors slid open and my father stepped into the family room, shaking snow from his coat and hat. He hadn’t been upstairs in Aunt Rose’s room after all. She must have been talking to someone on the phone the whole time. I felt guilty about eavesdropping; I wanted to tell my father what I had done. He would punish me even if it was Christmas, but then I would feel better and I could forget about it.
My father came over to my mother and me and put his arms around us both. He smelled of clean snow.
I didn’t say anything.
Author’s Comment: Initially, I wanted to write about someone who was all about appearances and false bravado. Someone who believed her own lies and half-truths. Aunt Rose could be very seductive, especially to a young child. She dazzles Jane with her expensive gifts and confidence. Jane wants to be like Aunt Rose, especially because her own father is so strict and principled. Jane sees and hears things she doesn’t understand until the Christmas when she begins to see that Aunt Rose wasn’t what she seemed to be. As I developed the story I wanted to evoke a child’s memory and touch it with a mature sensibility of what her family meant to her and how it formed her. By the time I finished, I realized the story wasn’t about Aunt Rose, but about Jane’s coming of age.