Panorama of San Bernardino

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Aunt Tilly's House

Tomorrow morning, I am driving my mom to Orange County in the morning to visit my Aunt Tilly in the hospital.  She has a collapsed lung and the doctors aren't sure if she is going to make it. 

Growing up, we visited Aunt Tilly on a regular monthly basis.  My mom took us out of school so we could go with her.  She hated driving to Orange County by herself.  On the way there, my sisters and I made faces at people through the dusty windows of my mom’s brown Pinto station wagon. 

When we fought she screamed, “Fucking cut it out girls!”  We knew to stop immediately or else we risked getting slapped.  Driving with my mom was always dangerous, she drove erratically and told people off as she went.  “Asshole!” she yelled when someone cut her off and honked her horn at them at least twice. 

Once she even shouted, “Fuck a duck!”  We had to pinch each other to keep from laughing out loud. 

My mom hated semi trucks, she closed her eyes if they got too close.  I couldn't stop myself and always warned her, “Mom, be careful, the truck is . . . .”  She usually turned around and glared me into silence before I could finish my sentence.  At least she opened her eyes.

“Ayyyyy,” my aunt Tilly said as she opened the door to her three bedroom house in Buena Park.  As I plopped down on the plastic covered sofa to read my book, she crooned, “Hola flaca (me), hola gordita (Jackie) y hola bonita (Annie)." 

You know tias, they have to differentiate.  It would be too easy to say, there goes Judy’s little girls.  No, instead she had to us fit into little boxes.  The skinny bookworm (“Jenny, mija, get your head out of the book and eat something, I made some rice”), the chubby black sheep (“tttt tttt ttttt-jackie, slow down, save some for the rest of us, Judy, you gotta watch this one, she’s got John’s genes”) and the perfect one (“ohhhh, anna, come here sweetie, esta bonita”) 

The thing is, these labels tended to stick.  Throughout our lives, we three sisters believed these labels, then rejected these labels. perpetuated these labels, then disproved these labels.  But, within our family, our roles tended to stay the same.  It’s easier to regress than progress I suppose.

Tilly smoked a cigarette every five minutes.  When she lit up, I watched the smoke as it rose like fog from the butt she had just snuffed out a minute before.  

Oh and don't forget her five Siamese cats.  The cats sat throughout the house perched on tall towers.  She loved those stupid cats, especially the meanest of them all, Tabitha, who hissed at anyone who tried to pet her. 

The story goes that Tabitha bit the tip of Tilly’s finger off and Tilly put the little piece of finger in a Dixie cup, covered it with ice and took it with her to the hospital where the doctors sewed it back on.  She kept the cat. 

Tilly wore these crazy mumus with pink backgrounds and purple flowers, she called them her housedresses.  With her blond hair piled on top of her head, she looked like Mrs. Roper from Three's Company.  She had a wild laugh, like a cross between a horse's neigh and a hyena's cackle. 

Whenever they started to laugh, I could tell that she and my mom were reliving their days growing up around the corner from Knott’s Berry Farm,  Back then, Knott's was a real farm.  My mom was fourteen when she met Tilly at the bus stop.  My mom had just lost her mother and she was lonely and sad.  She and Tilly became best friends.  At sixteen, Tilly married my mom’s brother Frank (otherwise known as Pancho).  

Tilly and my mom switched between Spanish and English.  When they spoke Spanish, they thought we didn’t understand, but I usually figured it out.  I can imagine my mom back then hunched over Tilly's dining table drinking her coffee, alternating sips with laughter.  She laughed so hard that I saw the back of her throat.  Mom never laughed like that at home. 

They had dirt floors back then, or so they said, and Tilly and my mom talked about all the crazy stuff they used to do.  Like how they used to go on double dates and how Tilly used to sneak into Pancho’s room late at night.  They talked about how my mom was the only brown girl in her class and how my mom didn't know English. 

They sometimes even talked about my mom’s son David who died after being hit by a car.  David was my mom's son from her first marriage and he died before we were born.  Tilly used to watch him for my mom.  He was deaf and always acted up.  

Tilly reminisced, “Judy, remember when he locked you out of the house and tore up all the money in your purse?  That boy was crazy.”  My mom got a look in her eyes like she was remembering his face, “I know, he was wasn’t he?” she replied.

My mom was a completely different person at Aunt Tilly’s house, calmer, younger.  It was almost as if my mom and Tilly became their little selves when they were together. 

And, I wish that I could be transported back to those days at Aunt Tilly's house, to see them together again, just like that.


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