They stand in a photograph frozen in time: the three Graces or three Graeae. At times, when I was growing up, I thought they turned into Gorgons—but not all at the same time because their loyalties were fluid. Aunt Lilly and Aunt Vallie would gang up on Mom, then Aunt Vallie would support Mom against Aunt Lilly whenever they had an argument. Aunt Lilly and Mom also formed an occasional alliance against Aunt Vallie who was the oldest and always knew best, invariably getting on her sisters’ nerves.
Studying them in the black-and-white photo posed against a faux marble backdrop highlights the differences in their personalities. Aunt Vallie stands erect, exuding confidence from her elegantly bobbed hair to her polished smile. Always the tomboy, Aunt Lilly shifts her weight onto one hip, staring languidly into the camera. Mom, the youngest, slouches uncertainly against the back wall, caught between two taller older sisters who never trusted her to drive the family car or prepare dinner.
They are all modeling their bridesmaid dresses from Cousin Regina’s wedding. In another, color-touched photograph Aunt Vallie is wearing mint green, the color of money. Aunt Lilly is flamboyant in daffodil yellow. Mom is pale, cerulean blue. In
the color photo the rainbow colors blend together in a homogenous whole and they smile at the photographer, forever young and vibrant. Here in this gray monotone portrait they seem like fossilized flowers preserved in stone, suspended in time. The similarity of the dresses enhances their personal dissimilarities.
Staring into the past from my stance in the future, I realize that these three twenty-something sisters are poised on a cusp of transformation. The Great Depression then World War II will buffet them like a great wave, washing away this rainbow moment. But for this fragile instant their eyes shine with hope. They are mercifully unaware that Aunt Vallie will break off her engagement and have her diamond ring hammered into a pendant that she seldom wore. Aunt Lilly will marry a man she met at the Army Air Force Base and move to Texas. He will be hideously disfigured when his plane crashes and burns. She will hate having to go to work to support her children.
Mom marries a veteran who returned home on crutches because her other beaus deferentially stepped out of the way. She panicked on her wedding day when she couldn’t find her white shoes. My dad’s best man, a practical joker,
suggested they hide in the vestibule as Mom crept up the aisle, walking slower and slower, afraid she had been stood up at the altar. Another woman would have run crying from the church, but not the shy girl slumped against the faux marble background with her sisters. Aunt Vallie, her maid of honor, must have reached the altar first. Did she smile and nod to Mom, encouraging her to creep forward?
Aunt Vallie had the courage to attend Business College without a high school diploma and become a career woman before careers were fashionable. Aunt Lilly hated school. In retrospect, I believe she was broken by nuns who forced her to use her right-hand when she preferred her left. The sour taste never left her mouth. “Mama should have made me go to school,” she wailed years later. Grandma tried and failed. I don’t think Aunt Lilly ever forgave her. But she forced herself to work, to stay with a crippled husband although she had been automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church for marrying a divorced man. “If you make your bed, you have to sleep in it.” That was the family motto.
In the end Aunt Lilly had a few good years and a taste of heaven. She retired, lounged on her French provincial furniture watching her favorite soap operas, ignoring the
canker pains nibbling at her intestines although she could have gone to a doctor—she had good insurance.
Aunt Vallie masked the growing tumor in her kidney with Bufferin until she was too sick to move. By then her cancer had spread. What you don’t know can hurt you.
After Dad died Mom got a dog to keep her company. She travelled as much as possible until she misplaced her mind, along with her good jewelry, but she still managed to outlive everyone.
She’s still alive today. Her face looks out at me from my mirror as I metamorphose into her little by little. Soon I will become her entirely.
Published in Stories