Here’s how Aunt Felicia would describe herself: a renowned concert pianist whom shopkeepers bowed to and teenagers consulted about love; the recipient of mash notes, standing ovations, and a tsunami of roses thrown at her feet.
We, her family, however, felt her true talent was an uncanny instinct for planning a visit when you had the flu or were on a diet or the toilet was clogged. Then there was her inability to pick up a dish or a restaurant check or make a bed. “My plane lands at suppertime,” she’d announce.
No matter the weather, she’d be wearing her mules. They were always bridal white satin fluffed with pompoms, the backless heels slapping against the floor. Aunt Felicia’s dumpling of a body teetered on its pedestal of mule-shod skinny legs, ready to topple. Her wide cheekbones, aquiline nose, and masses of pitch-black hair commanded attention.
A Washington Times obituary noted that Aunt Felicia emigrated from Europe in 1929. One of her students put the year at 1938. The later date might have explained her desperate self-preservation. But those charged times were never mentioned within earshot of curious children.
Maybe her stories weren’t that grandiose. The same obituary reported she studied music in Berlin and Vienna, debuting with the Warsaw Philharmonic at 18. She’d married an “artists’ representative,” then divorced when divorce was rare and scandalous. Had there been lovers? Had those mules been kicked off under illicit beds, in the backs of limousines?
At nearly 60, Aunt Felicia married a much older dentist who lived in DC. When my husband and I were touring the nation’s capital, my mother suggested we give her a call. Aunt Felicia greeted us in a kimono, red toenails peeking through the satin mules. “Alas,” she apologized, her voice in full tremolo, “my piano is out being refinished.” In the dining room, mismatched gold-rimmed plates rested on a tattered Happy Birthday paper tablecloth, sporting frolicking Disney characters, balloons, and streamers.
I don’t remember what we ate, only the Miss Havisham-ness of the experience, its finale scored with espresso served in demitasses. Why was my husband signaling me? I followed his finger. My cup was missing its handle, now broken into a dangerous sliver. Served in a cracked bowl, the tricolor ice cream brick was rapidly soaking the table covering. Oblivious, Aunt Felicia trilled on. Could things get any more absurd? They could. Through the open window, something rustled, flew in, spun crazily around the room. A bat. Aunt Felicia screamed. My husband ran to the kitchen for a broom, tongs, a paper bag.
We said our goodbyes. “Next time,” Aunt Felicia promised, “my piano will be here for me to play for you.” She never did. She died in 1996 at 101, her hair as black and full as when we were kids.
Years later, I discovered that the Library of Congress possessed, in the collection of Leonard Bernstein, two items that had belonged to Aunt Felicia, now archived in Box 48/folder 67: an invitation to a gala in her honor at the National Press Club and a fawning letter to Bernstein. “Dear Maestro,” she’d written, then described meeting the conductor in Lenox and the thrilling coincidence of his wife’s being also named Felicia. She invited him to her Monday musicales, signed off as “a great admirer.” Though amazed that Bernstein had saved such items, I was disappointed in their lack of glamour. How much better to imagine opening Box 48/folder 67 and uncovering two white satin mules, tucked one into another, pompoms pristine, poignant, and enduring.
Mameve Medwed, author of five novels, is at work on a series of essays about her eccentric relatives. Send comments to email@example.com.
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