from BOOKBINDERS: FIVE RECOLLECTIONS
[Originally published in WordWrights, Fall/Winter 1997.]
Every family needs someone like Aunt Frieda, someone who is cursed from the outset and whose misfortunes, while they strain the patience and resources of others, allow those others to measure their luck. Aunt Frieda was always vibrating. Her whole body was in minor agitation, but these tremors were only distant registers of the Bells Palsy that primarily affected her right arm.
Aunt Frieda usually held that arm against her side, so as to steady it as much as possible. Very often she would use it to carry something, a dishtowel perhaps, by pressing it against herself. When she put it and her right hand to use – for buttoning shirts or working in the kitchen – disaster loomed. At best, simple tasks took a long time. She learned to stay within her limits, and at a slow, deliberate pace, she could handle at a rudimentary level the tasks of wife and mother. Along with the psychical slowness was a slowness of another kind. Aunt Frieda had some degree of mental retardation. On top of this, her speech was a little slurred.
Frieda, who was the middle child of the five siblings, aged quickly. Everything she tried to do required enormous effort, and then maybe it wouldn’t come out right. Because she worked overtime, she was always worn out. I think the palsy interfered with her sleep, and that drugs were required to curb the worst effects of her disease. These drugs no doubt robbed her of whatever vividness her low IQ allowed.
When I was a kid, her freakiness scared me. I shunned her vibrating hugs, just as I shunned Grandpa Jake’s whiskey breath. (Indeed, sometimes he had the shakes too, but they were of a different kind.)
And it wasn’t just me. As the family misfit, she collected stares, patronizing remarks, and hostility. Frieda was a family mark of shame. Try as they might to treat her with sympathy and respect, her sisters would grow impatient and angry; they would lapse into abusive expressions. She wasn’t someone to introduce to their friends.
Frieda occasionally reacted with vehement resentment to her family’s sometimes heartless behavior (her brother Sam was the exception), but usually she just endured it. There wasn’t much she could do.
Like each of her sisters, Frieda married and raised two children. This was a miracle in itself. But her household was not a pretty sight. Mel, her husband, was an enormously overweight fellow who drove delivery trucks for a major New York newspaper. His work took place during the night and early morning hours, getting the next day’s papers to the news stands and other points of sale. He’d return home around breakfast time, relax for a while, and go to sleep. Slovenliness went with his girth, and Frieda’s handicaps could not overcome the added burden of Mel’s habits.
Frieda needed household help, and Mel worked too hard and slept at the wrong times to be of much use, though he tried. He made enough money for them to get by, and he was in a strong union that provided a good health plan. Between this and the workers’ compensation that kicked in after his many work-related injuries, they survived. But it was a bare and ugly survival.
Their children, Eddie and Mimi, did not get off to a good start. The genetic load was one factor, the environmental one another. Each has survived and made a place in the world, but when we were all kids Eddie was a wild monster and Mimi a withdrawn, sacrificial lamb. They were handsome children, though.
I’ve been told that my mother, at some point, arranged to have Frieda “fixed” so that she couldn’t have more kids.
Because Frieda’s family was so hard to take, with marginal social skills and outrageously obvious dysfunctions, we did not get together very often. When we did, it was all anxiety and tumult. As I try to remember them, one scene blends shakily into another, and no moments stand out for me now with distinctive narrative hooks. They seem to exist in space, filling it up quite boisterously, rather than in time: a sad tableau of noise, dirty dishes, unmade beds, and wrinkled clothes.
But just the other day, going through old family albums to jog my memory, I found two pictures of Aunt Frieda that I hadn’t paid attention to before. In them, she must be about thirty. One is a portrait of her alone. In the other, she is standing behind me, a small boy, her good hand resting on my shoulder. We are both smiling. The camera has stopped the action, the endless motion, the blur of agitation. In these frozen moments, there is no palsy. Nothing is falling to the floor; nothing has to be done over or with tedious slowness. The face is not contorted by severe concentration or rage or frustration or embarrassment. Aunt Frieda is still, fixed, — and she is unbelievably beautiful.