Aunt Fran is a nun. When I was a child her cheeks bulged out of a starched wimple. Then Vatican Two liberated her theology and unclamped her face. For a few years she had short grey curls. But her natural hair withered in sunlight and for the past forty years she’s worn a Pat Nixon-style grey wig. Like many old people, Aunt Fran is shrinking. My oldest living family member, who was standard size when I was a child, is now barely five feet tall, and weighs less than 100 pounds. Unfortunately the wig is the same size, which makes her a bobble head with a walker.
Since two-thirds of my time visiting Aunt Fran is driving, and since the Mass Pike is an over-familiar road with poor radio reception, I go to the library the day before to get a book on tape. I like to listen to history. During my years of long work trips I chewed through serious stuff: Nathanial Philbrook’s Mayflower; David McCollough’s 1776; Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals; Al Gore’s Assault on Reason. But long drives are rare these days. I wanted something fully digestible in six hours, so I lightened up and plucked My Horizontal Life off the library shelf.
I’d heard the name Chelsea Handler the way I know Ryan Seacrest and Jessica Simpson; representatives of popular culture who filter through the ether but don’t intersect with any sphere of my life. The jacket promised humorous short stories. Wary of hype, I also picked up a David Sedaris backup.
It rained so hard all way to Albany and all the way back I hydroplaned across the Berkshires. Chelsea proved to be good company, a blond Jewess with an eccentric father from a big New Jersey family. Except for observing religion on a different day, I felt right at home. Her stories, one-night-stand tales with a dental floss of narrative thread, were more funny than obscene though I winced when she turned scatological.
My aunt lives in a gigantic compound of 1960’s boxes on a hill, built at the height of America’s Kennedy clan / Sound of Music fascination with Catholicism and nuns. Built to accommodate over 600 novitiates and sisters, the Provincial House now shelters less than 100 women, almost all over 80. Dorm rooms have been repurposed for nursing home care.
Aunt Fran is among the lucky. Her mind is sharp, her walker provides mobiity, and as long as you sit on her right side and talk very loud, she can hear. She’s not as feisty as she was back in her glory years with Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker, but any of us would be grateful to have her faculties at age 92.
She’s sitting on one of the dozen or so plastic-covered sofas in the foyer when I enter. We hug. I report on my children’s activities. I’ve brought slides of my trip to Cambodia. She’s interested, until she’s not. Aunt Fran’s always been inpatient and as we age, our peculiarities only grow stronger. Enough of that, she shouts in the overloud voice of the deaf, and we walk down to lunch where the smattering of old women fills a quarter of tables. There is a crucifix on the end wall next to a garish Pepsi dispensing machine. The juxtaposition makes me anxious. The wounded, dying Jesus just a foot away from bubbly refreshment.
We visit for half an hour more after lunch until Aunt Fran announces she is tired. I escort her to her room and I depart. During the drive home Chelsea Handler succeeds in bedding a Vegas male stripper but fails to get under her hot gynecologist. I wonder whether there’s purpose to Chelsea’s antics, I seek a parallel between the twenty-something hedonist and my ancient aunt who’ve consumed my day. But there isn’t. I’m just another guy plodding through the years. Doing my duty to the generation before me and bewildered by the one coming up behind.