My aunt began screaming at her. Nonstop. For what seemed like hours, we
waited in the bedroom as our aunt yelled and Linda cried. “I told you not to
goddamn go buying them anything!” she bellowed. “You don’t have a job, do you?
So you don’t have that money to spend! And now they’re gonna love you more than
me!” In our room, my brother and I stared at the school boxes, the carpet, the
walls, and each other. Eventually, Linda appeared in the doorway, barely able to
talk because she had been crying so hard.
“It’s okay” I said, holding my school box out to her. “We don’t even want ‘em.
We can take em back. Right, Dennis?” Dennis nodded and held his up, also. Linda
said we would not have to take them back, but we should take the boxes to the
kitchen to show Aunt Juana. Dennis and I looked at each other in terror. The only
thing worse than having gotten the school boxes in the first place was to have to
show them now to Aunt Juana.
“It’s okay” Linda said. “I’ll go with you.”
She walked us through the living room into the kitchen. When we arrived,
Linda said, in a voice far too cheery, “They wanted to show you their new school
boxes!” Aunt Juana fawned over the cardboard boxes as if we were showing her
bricks of gold, and all four of us pretended Linda’s face was not streaked with tears
and that Holy Armageddon had not just transpired in that tiny, Oklahoma kitchen.
When I was a child, I had been mildly curious that Aunt Juana had no
children, but I later learned, through my dad, she had gotten pregnant during her
second marriage and chose to abort both the baby and the marriage. Dad said he
had begged her not to end the pregnancy, pleading that he and Mom would raise the
child as one of us. As generous and heartfelt as that was, I don’t believe Aunt Juana
could have given up control of her child. It had nothing to do with my parents’
generosity. How could Aunt Juana live with knowing her child was growing up just
miles away from where she lived? So she made the only choice she had. This was
1962 and there were few success stories of single women with children in
Oklahoma, let alone women with children and “roommates.” She never had
children, but I believe she wanted them desperately. She filled that void with an
extreme love for dogs — a love, some might say, which bordered on the eccentric.
There are large professional portraits of her dogs, through the years, meticulously
lining the walls of her home. When one of Aunt Juana’s dogs dies, it is given an
elaborate funeral at a pet funeral home and is laid to rest in a pet cemetery with an
I couldn’t focus on the wrapping of presents as my mind kept wandering to
thoughts of Aunt Juana. I stopped in the middle of wrapping a present and decided
to call her. I hadn’t called her in years, and I would surprise her with a simple call of
holiday good wishes — a phoned-in Christmas card. I dialed her number from
memory because, even though I hadn’t dialed it in years, hers was one of the first
numbers I memorized as a child.
“Hello?” she said.
“Aunt Juana, it’s Rick!”
There was a short pause.
“Yes, Aunt Juana! It’s Rick!”
I stifled a giggle, thinking, How many Ricks can she know?
But then she spoke again.
“Well what do you want?” she said threateningly, firing each word into the
A familiar heaviness filled my chest – an echo of so many memories of her
from childhood. “Oh, I don’t want anything,” I replied casually.
“Then why are you calling?” she hissed.
“I’m . . . I’m just calling to . . . wish you . . . a Merry Christmas!” I stammered.
And then she slowly and coldly spoke the words I’m sure she had rehearsed
and ruminated on for months, anticipating I would eventually call.
“Well I don’t want you to ever fucking call here again” she said. “And here’s
why. What you wrote in your father’s obituary would have broke his heart. So I’m
done with you, you piece of shit. Don’t you ever call here again.” She slammed the
receiver and hard I could almost feel it shatter.
How quickly emotions can shift and align, once again, with our wounds of the
past. I was dumbfounded. What had I written? What was in the obituary that would
have made her react like that? Then it occurred to me. I didn’t write my Dad’s
obituary. My niece wrote it. Hillary, my minister brother’s lesbian daughter, had
recently come out to me and was still developing a coming out plan for telling her
father, the family, her young son, and her co-workers. I did a Google search on my