We stood in the hallway watching her through her doorway opened just enough to peer at us as she tried to decipher who we were and what we wanted. Since we had been visiting our son in Seattle, it only seemed right to visit Dave’s Aunt Marilyn as well. But we showed up unannounced so that Dave could change his mind at the last minute if he decided not to visit her at all.
“Who are you?” She stared hard at us while she held her little terrier, who was equally suspicious of letting us in.
“I’m David, your sister’s son.”
“Who are you?”
“Your sister was Leonora, she died forty years ago. I’m David, her son.”
It had been over 20 years since Dave last saw his Aunt Marilyn. “She’s crazy,” was his good enough excuse to avoid visiting her. She continued to look at us sorting through the cobwebs of 40 years.
“My sister died of cancer.”
“Yes, I’m her son.”
She let us in. Her apartment had a dank smell, as if she had not opened the windows since she moved in six months ago. Truly, I’m not sure why she let us in. Later on she would send us a card saying that after we left, she finally realized who Dave was. Perhaps she thought we were social workers. Or maybe she was just hungry enough for company that the risk of letting in perfect strangers was not as great as the loneliness of no company at all.
“Someone stole the bong.”
“The bong to the clock, someone has stolen it.”
A grandfather clock stood among unpacked boxes scattered along the edge of the room, while pictures propped against the boxes waited for just the right place to be hung. We found a couple of chairs next to a small dining table and sat down.
“It used to make a beautiful bong, but three months ago, someone stole it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I wasn’t sure if she thought we could fix it or find the culprits and bring them to justice. She finally found a battery, pulled the clock forward, and put it in. Unlike ancient massive grandfather clocks, this one seemed like a simple box made of plywood with a face on it. “You wait, it’ll bong.” If she knew all along that all it needed was a battery, I wondered if she was playing a joke on us. Or maybe she was testing us. Her flat expression and intense eyes gave no hint.
I looked around her room of garage sale collectibles. Over our table Hindu gods frolicked on a red tapestry alive with purple and yellow flowers and tiny mirrors. A border of silver bangles framed the festive dance. “I sewed extra bangles on the picture,” she stated plainly. “It needed to be brighter.”
She then pointed to a picture hanging on the wall. “How much do you think I paid for this?”
“I don’t know.” I figured not much. It looked like a garage sale special, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“How much?” She was persistent and not easily swayed from her question.
“Twenty-five dollars,” I lied.
She got more excited, “One dollar, I got it at a rummage sale. It was a little dull, so I painted red flowers on it.” The drab painting of browns and olive greens did seem to come alive with the orange red flowers dotting its fields. I wondered if the inhabitants of the brown house in the brown painting would wake up one morning and think Spring had arrived, their dry blond colored wheat fields finally having blossomed.
The terrier, who had not been as daring to let total strangers in, began creeping from his hiding place. “That’s Christopher. He’s a nervous dog. He was lost for four days when he was a puppy. When they found him, they brought him to me.” Christopher inched closer to me, his nose anxiously sniffing for signs of danger. As he became more comfortable, Marilyn joined with him to give us a show. “Sit! Lay down! Shake hands!” Christopher watched her intensely, eager to obey her every command.
“It’s easy to train a dog,” she instructed us. “All you have to do is, whenever he does just a quarter of what you want him to do,” she jumped to her feet and began clapping enthusiastically, “Just say, Marvelous! Marvelous! Marvelous!” Christopher happily wagged his wiry tail as she cheered at his accomplishments.
I wondered what it would have been like to have Marilyn for a mother. Probably unsettling at times. Family stories describe her unpredictable, eccentric behavior. But I wondered what it would have been like if someone applauded me every time I did a quarter of what they wanted me to do.
Our flight was in a couple of hours, and we had to leave. As we walked out, Marilyn showed us a bouquet of red plastic tulips in her windowless kitchen. As she plugged them in, a red glow brightened the dreary room, softening the hard angles of appliances and counter-tops. Marvelous, marvelous, marvelous! I thought.
“Marilyn, how wonderful it was to meet you.” We embraced each other heartily though we had just met. “We’ll be back.”