Aunt Eva Wore Hats
by Tabitha Blankenbiller
The wives and martyrs in my family tree are faintly remembered for who they bore and what they lost, chronicled in genealogy documents that read as dry as bleached desert bones. Sarah Morse married Henry Morse on November 21, 1896. It was the 20th wedding certificate issued in the Appleton township registry. They had three sons: Saul, John, and Peter. A daughter, Emma, died at birth. The children remained in the Appleton townships, where they married… and birthed… and died over and over for hundreds of pages.
And then there is Aunt Eva. Aunt Eva wore crazy hats.
I have one such hat in my closet, handed down from my grandma after I grew up and it was clear that I had inherited our family’s generational strain of eccentricity. My fate was clear by the time I was 25, when I enrolled grad school to study writing and filled my home with cats. Aunt Eva’s hat is green velvet, faded from what I imagine 90 years ago to have been a blazing verde. The hat is coiled by gold thread, and a coy veil of brown netting peeps out from the top. It’s the sort of fascinator I’d pay way too much for on ModCloth.
“She would want you to have it,” I was told. But from the few years I knew Aunt Eva, I can’t picture that being the case. She couldn’t stand us kids, her great-nieces and –nephews. When obligated to be around us every year at the family Christmas party, she stuck staunchly in the living room with the adults. Of all the grown women in the room, she was the only one who was not a mother. Even as a hunched old woman in the corner chair, this single fact—her essential otherness—commanded an aura of badass in my eyes.
She didn’t watch as we opened the identical present she bought for us kids every year: a box of chocolate-covered cherries. The cheap kind with chalky chocolate and cough syrup cherry goo embalming a candy sphere I can’t envision ever being part of the natural world order as fruit springing from a blossom, coaxed by sunlight. Whether she made a pilgrimage to Bartell’s Pharmacy every Christmas season to buy a dozen, or stocked up one year and doled them out until she was gone is anyone’s guess. I can’t remember a single word passed between us before she died. She was 85; I was seven.
The fading old lady is not who I choose to remember. I want to know the young, vivacious girl who wore my hat. By all accounts and a box full of sporadic photographs from her roaring 20’s youth, she was lovely, with matching gloves and hats and shoes for every occasion. She worked her way up to Township Postmaster and bought her own motor carriage. She went to parties with Charles Lindberg and his pack—in my imagination she’s Daisy Buchanan, traipsing through atriums with an Old Fashioned in one hand and a cigarette in the other, feather headband and garters and dreams of being in motion pictures.
“I think they just had coffee together,” Mom told me later. They didn’t have those sorts of parties in Groton, South Dakota. And by the time I was born, she’d given up her vintage wardrobe and style for thrift store rags. “She had plenty of money,” Mom assured me, “but I think she was too beyond caring what anyone thought of her at that point. Why bother dressing up?” The hats were packed in the basement, in hibernation until her late estate sale.
But now, the hat is mine. And I sew the tatters of her history together with my own.
As a child, I tried on destinies like shoes. I loved the glimmer of the first wear, and the freedom to kick them off when they felt tight. It was in this age of made-up futures that my mom shared her own childhood dream with me. “When I was young, I wanted to be an airline stewardess,” she said. She would have taken flight in the seventies, when air travel was still Don Draper luxury, and Southwest was famous for go-go boots and hot pants, not bags flying free. The pictures I saw of her in high school and her wedding immediately after, as a lanky girl with a coast-to-coast smile and thick Black Beauty hair, wore the role perfectly. My mind knotted the jaunty scarf around her neck and crowned her with the uniform cap.
“But then I had you,” the story ended, a conclusion that was meant to be happy. For her, it was. She loved being a mother the way people love to paint or trail the Dave Matthews Band. Some people are simply born to do it. The way I saw it though, she got shafted. Where was the adventure in watching me do stupid crap like eat snacks and wander around the library? I didn’t like kids even when I was one. We didn’t have any stories, couldn’t make decisions, knew nothing about the world or the people in it. I counted every day as a thankful step closer to being a grown-up, to having a real life and a chance to make history. Being a kid, or making more useless halflings, only got in the way of everything else worth having.
I tallied every dream I had: I want to be the first female president. I want to write a book. I want to live in a city loft with two-story windows looking out on the skyline. I want to be a Disney animator. I want to open a restaurant and a bed and breakfast and a farm. “But then I had you” was a nightmare. I hated my unborn, conjectural child for even theoretically disrupting me.
As a kid, every story seemed to bear this ending. And then she was a mommy. It was the letdown to adventure and trailblazing, what I saw as so much potential robbed by an inevitable next generation. I can still feel the disappointment when I found out that Laura Ingalls Wilder had Rose. No more running barefoot at the shores of Silver Lake, no more moonlight sleigh rides with Almanzo. This was supposed to be the happily ever after. You stepped aside. It was normal.
I shoved Rose’s Little House in the Ozarks to the back of the bookcase, and re-read On the Banks of Plum Creek 13 times, freezing my heroine in an amber of possibility as unending as the prairie.
“Do you have Memorial Day plans?” the nail technician asked me. She didn’t actually care; her voice was as flat as a week-old two-liter. This was the fourth pedicure of my life, at age 28, right after moving to Tucson from Portland. I was used to a lifetime in the Pacific Northwest of patterned knee socks and thick boots. The land of perpetual flip flops had forced me to finally be kind to my feet.
“We’re thinking about going to the state fair,” I said, referring to my husband and me. We were still learning street names and restaurant options, only a month into life in a state we hadn’t seen before our moving truck arrived.
“Oh, that’ll be fun for the kids,” she said, and her voice lilted into a vague interest.
“I don’t have kids,” I said. The woman’s eyes, which had been shifting from the graying foot bath water to the window to her own nails, suddenly flicked up to meet mine.
“Why don’t you have kids?”
The dark brunette, with a round face and stories of jailed boyfriends, couldn’t have been more than five years older than me. The question was a common one as a married woman a few seasons away from turning 30. But few people were as hostile as this woman, who looked at me as though I’d suggested setting up a neo-Nazi summer camp on the other side of her street.
“I don’t really like kids,” I said, which was the sturdy foundation I built my childless house upon. From there it grew to hold an I Don’t Want to Bring More People into a Rapidly Deteriorating Environment kitchen, I Can’t Afford to Give Them the Life I’d Want To dining room, I Could Never Be as Good a Mother as Mine Was library, with What If They Grew Into a Rapist/Murderer/Republican crown molding. My reasons to take the blue pill each night were personal and political, deep and petty.
“You would like your own kids,” she said. Which is true; I’m sure I wouldn’t go through labor and end up despising what came out. But the philosophy of “we’ll probably grow to like it” seemed more apropos for converting carpeting to tile, not committing to a lifetime of motherhood.
“Well, I don’t think it’s for me,” I said with a tepid smile as I contemplated how much I could knock off a tip for sheer annoyance.
“You will have kids,” she said, fishing my right foot out from the muck for a callus-whittle. “You’ll see.”
I hear this often, from new parents and veterans, as if each is placing a hex on my vacant womb. Just wait. You’ll see. You’ll turn 30. Everything will change.
“You say that now,” they say to my polite rebuttals, my occasional rants. In their ears, my words are the ramblings of a woman too young to know herself and what she wants. I am the weirdo who doesn’t want what they have, who shrugs when they claim I don’t know what I’m missing. Sleep? Time? Energy? A house that doesn’t smell like Goldfish crackers?
I choose not to have children in an age where we have the right to choose. In theory, of course. Aunt Eva chose to remain childless after marrying in the 1940’s. She moved from working as a teacher (damn kids) to running the town general store, working her way up to postmaster of her South Dakota township. I can’t imagine what the sleepy town made of a wife earning enough money to buy her own motorcar and submitting poems to Ideals Magazine.
“They say she insisted on separate bedrooms,” Mom told me recently, now that our conversations have become more like those between old friends.
I like to think that she drove by these houses of neighbors gossiping about her marriage, her money, her strangeness, her indecency. Slowly, so that between wiping shit off of rashy bums and calling her names, they might catch a glimpse of her out the window, driving the shiny perfect vehicle her brains and tenacity brought. Crisp white gloves, a neat coat of lipstick, a green velvet hat skewed to the right of her sharp bob. I hope she smiled, and that their eyes met just long enough for them to see that yes, she knew what she was missing.
Jessa has updated her Facebook profile picture.
Except Jessa hadn’t updated her picture. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a real picture of Jessa. Her face had been commandeered by Damion, her 2-year-old son. Damion’s first unsliced apple consumed of his own volition. Damion picking Cars out of the DVD cabinet. Damion and his bare ass at the city park. Jessa’s face has ceased to be relevant.
I don’t know how life is treating Jessa when she’s not nurturing her offspring. My old co-conspirator for happy hours and girly day trips to wine country and Ashland, the girl I used to call my best friend, when I still knew her as a person. Not an identity distilled down to caregiver. She hasn’t given an update on herself in months. Not even when I text or call her privately, out of the public digital eye. How are you doing? I type on my phone, or say into her voicemail. I miss you.
Miss you too! She writes back sometimes. Dami is teething. Ugh, it’s been a nightmare. Poor little guy! I feel so bad for him.
This is usually the point where I give up. I answer, hollow and pithy, oh that sucks! My vague commiseration is all that is left from what I want to scream into Jessa’s ear: Where did you go? What happened to the wry woman I first met at work, who could charm the credit account out of any client just over the phone? Who won every single sales contest because she was way too clever and funny for anyone to say no to? Who wanted to backpack the Silk Road and purposely never write about it just to prove how much she hated travelogues? Jessa, the woman who couldn’t find a man who could keep up with her in an argument or a hike. Jessa, the woman who used to shudder at the word “mommy” right along with me, who made an annual tradition of toasting the Roe v. Wade decision over lemon drops. Jessa, who used to refer to her thoughts and actions as her own and not the convergence of we. Where did my friend go?
I did not recognize this woman, now without a face. The Jessa I knew wouldn’t have quit a job she was brilliant at. She wouldn’t have slipped into an undertow of breastfeeding schedules and nap routines. She wouldn’t cancel out on lunch dates because it was library story day, “and Dami loves library story day.”
I try. I meet her—them—when I can, shuffling around my office’s lunch schedule to fit Dami’s siesta timetable. I bribe his attention with cookies and attempt to steer the conversation with Jessa toward world events, or literature, or at least trashy pop culture minutiae. I temper my annoyance when she refuses to set Dami down long enough to bite into her own sandwich. I listen to laments on sleep training and school district prospects and try to remember that I’m not a mom. I can’t understand. I need to be supportive. What if Jessa still needs a friend? But the more I keep trolling for glimmers of old Jessa, the more I realize that I’m not trying to save her from herself. I’m trying to save her for me, the selfish half who refuses to accept that someone so like, so dear could vanish.
And where Jessa used to live in my heart, in a nook of friendship, now twists into the sickest fears I have of motherhood. Perhaps the same fears that sent my Aunt Eva packing to a separate bedroom from her husband, to choose being strange over becoming what she dreaded. I realize that Jessa’s metamorphosis was extreme: most people I’ve known transition back into a stronger, wiser version of themselves by the time the kids are learning to talk. I’m so glad to have them back, I don’t bring up the time they posted a photo of two days’ worth of dirty diapers piling up with the caption “So many cute poopies!”
But Jessa never came back. When I run up against her wall, the buzzing hive of Mommy and Dami-dom that either caged or crushed the woman I used to know, I fear that I could vanish just as easily.
I would love my own children. All I was, I would pour into these little others. I would be overbearing, insisting on a kitchen stocked with only locally-sourced foods and a playroom devoid of plastic. Wooden toys and art supplies, nothing with batteries. Only kindling for budding imaginations. I would take thousands of pictures and write doting entries in baby books, marveling at how quickly days and months and years slipped my babies further from my grasp. I would have to surrender them to the world, with all of its hurts, where they could be bullied. Lied to. Let out. Let in. Disappointed. Diseased. Destroyed. Each chip away at innocence would be another regret I would bear in a lifetime of second-guessing. What did I do, didn’t I do? Could they ever forgive me?
I dread the fierceness of my love, the obsession that would swallow me whole. I know I’m bad at balancing passion. A one-track mind, my mom would say. I have to be the best at everything I do. And I can’t do it all. After spending nearly three decades trying to sort out who I am, I’m finally someone I like. I don’t want to lease my mind and heart out to what my nail technician might consider nobler, selfless ambitions. I love what I am doing with my life—is making myself happy instead of making people an act of selfishness? How can you be selfish against someone who doesn’t exist?
I don’t know if there is anywhere as impractical as the Nordstrom accessories department. It’s a place where logic and common sense go to die. How, in any circumstance, should a lacquered cotton bag cost over a thousand dollars? An iPad case cost more than the gadgetry it chics up? The Betsey Johnson and Juicy Couture jewelry, with giant ice cream cone and cotton candy charms, is as versatile as Bjork’s swan dress.
I love this quirky nook, though. I have to walk through on any trip to the store, even if I’m using it as a shortcut between the parking garage and the mall’s Jamba Juice. I pause and consider these odd fashion accents in all their possibilities, planning where I would wear a painted coral headband (a moonlight beach party) and tights with the constellations mapped around the calves (a new planetarium opening gala). Never mind that people don’t throw these events, or that I’m not invited. I get lost in the possibilities of expression, of creating the perfect scene for just the right moment. Some people unwind with yoga. I prefer style meditation. People aren’t happy in the same ways, I have begun to remind myself. It is my odd girl credo.
A year ago, I walked into the mall and wandered toward the Nordstrom accessories like any visit. This day, however, there was a beacon catching my eye from all the way across the store. I couldn’t make out what it was, but I could see tulle. The plume of a feather. A vivid cobalt hue topping the charts that spring, the same shade of the graduation dress I’d bought a week before.
The placard next to the display read “Derby Fascinators.” Angled on headbands, they were light, flowery little hats. Part bow, part bloom, they capped off a head like a gift to the universe. I picked one carefully off the plastic model head and flipped up the dangling price tag. Sixty dollars. About half the cost of my dress.
Maybe I won’t like it, I thought, heading toward a mirror. I placed it on my head.
I had never felt so fabulous.
I brought it up to the counter, running through all the reasons why this was a credible purchase to make, like how it looked custom-made for the elegant, understated cocktail dress waiting in my closet. And besides, I was commencement speaker. If ever a role called for a fancy hat, was the voice of the graduating MFA class not a good one?
As the sales girl delicately wrangled the wispy ostrich feathers into a big, tissue-filled hat box, I imagined the same box, brittled and yellowed by decades in a closet, plucked from the home I’ve left behind. A great-niece wanders in, away from her siblings and relatives, more interested in what the adults are doing.
What’s that? She asks, the tattered silver Nordstrom still catching a gleam in the light.
Looks like an old hat, a stock uncle says, shaking his head. All the random crap this woman accumulated, sucking up a perfectly good Saturday. He looks down at this more curious member of the next generation batch, then passes the box into the small set of hands. I bet your Aunt Tabitha would want you to have this.
She peers into the paper at this small piece of an aunt not quite like the others, the one they said spent fifty years happily married and only birthed stories. What was she like? The girl wants to know.
And the uncle tips his head back laughing, recovering only long enough to spit out the simple legacy I dream of: “Aunt Tabitha? Oh god. She was a nut.”
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a Pacific University MFA graduate currently living outside of Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in a number of journals including Barrelhouse, Hobart and Brevity. She Tweets food porn and cat pictures @tabithablanken.