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Meet Matilda

Matilda's Vase

With a background in advertising, I cringe when I hear predictable, cliché, uncreative copywriting in ads. The holidays are a big culprit as are the change of the seasons, bringing on nauseating quips like sales spooktacular and spring into savings. And the new year always provokes unimaginative catchphrases. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a snappy way to introduce the fresh direction I’m taking with my blog other than to say that I’m ushering in something that is more reflective of what I love to write about. Characters. I’ve decided to morph my blog into a series of short stories–a shlog if you will. It’s sort of a hybrid creation, mashing up a blog with a nonfiction short story.

I’m calling the new feature “Meet…”, highlighting a memorable person who was part of my life growing up or, through unpredictable circumstances, showed up for a time and left an impression on me. It’s all about fascinating people–good and bad, sweet and sinister, likable as well as abhorrent. You were introduced to Edward in my first book, a kind and gentle homeless man who touched my heart. Edward, however, wasn’t the only person I encountered by mere happenstance that drew me in. As a matter of fact, there have been many. Recently, I’ve been observing an interesting and rather strange man in town. I finally got up the nerve to engage with him the other day, though it didn’t go well. This one might need some time, but I’m determined to learn more about him and share it with you. Stay tuned.

This month, I’ve chosen to write about a woman who left an indelible mark on me as a child, one that still affects me today. My Great Aunt Matilda. My memories of her aren’t warm and fuzzy, by any means, but I don’t and can’t blame her. She was no more in control of things than I was.

Matilda was my maternal grandmother’s considerably older sister, unless you believe the rumors in the family that suggest she was actually my grandmother’s mother. Stick with me on this. Matilda was a good eighteen to nineteen years older than my grandmother when my grandmother was born, and many in the family believed that Matilda was the one who actually got pregnant and gave birth to her. Having a baby out of wedlock back then was frowned upon, so Matilda’s mother covered it up by saying it was her pregnancy, her child. Her husband died before the baby was born, so his thoughts on the matter are unknown. While Matilda’s mother, also named Matilda, was far too old to be having another baby, it was probably easier to sell the story that they’d concocted than to endure the judgement that would inevitably follow Matilda if the truth were told. With no relatives left for me to investigate this family secret further, the truth will stay buried. What I can’t bury is my memories of my aunt, though sometimes I wish I could.

I became a sort of a caregiver of Matilda’s at a very young age, though it was most definitely not my choice. Matilda was an odd and eccentric woman who never married, lived in a ramshackle little house a mile or so away from mine, and was a known recluse who piqued the interest of the neighborhood. She rarely left her house unless someone went to fetch her for a family holiday dinner or occasional trip to the store. Her time was passed sitting alone for hours in the dark with her insane thoughts and vivid imagination. Maybe she didn’t bother with lights because it didn’t much matter as she was legally blind. She was also hard of hearing, though she could manage well enough with hearing aids when she chose to wear them. Adding to her physical challenges was the loss of a leg early in life. Like everything else that surrounded her, the stories of how it happened ranged from the believable to the absurd.

By the time I was born, my Great Aunt Matilda’s career as a teacher was over and she was deep into her reclusive lifestyle. The house she lived in suffered from neglect and was an eyesore in the neighborhood, adding to the fodder and frustration of those that lived nearby. Paint peeled from the siding, hanging like sheets of dead skin, and the yard was nothing more than a swath of dandelions and crabgrass. You could smell the dust, must and mold from the house straight out the front door and all the way to the sidewalk. But the conditions she lived in weren’t because of financial issues. She had amassed a small fortune over her lifetime by living frugally, spending only enough to survive, and saving her pennies. She rarely turned on her heat even in the coldest of winters, opting to use the fireplace. She ate very little, her refrigerator typically empty but for a glass bottle of milk delivered by the milkman, usually spoiled and full of curds. From what I could see, she seemed to survive on the stale bakery she left on the counter, not bothering to wrap it up, and the curdled milk.

There was a time when I was around seven or eight years of age when the family argued about what to do with her. My grandmother and grandfather didn’t think she should live alone and, against my parents’ wishes, opted to put her in a nursing home. While their intentions were likely good, it was not what Matilda wanted and she made it well known, causing havoc at the home, and relentlessly demanding that my parents break her out of what she deemed to be a prison.

My mother and stepfather were hippies that believed in a person’s right to live as they pleased, and it wasn’t long before they agreed to help Matilda escape. For years, they delighted in telling the story of how they kidnapped her from the home, embellishing it with details of how they hightailed it out of there, burning rubber in the parking lot, leaving the nursing staff in the dust, their mouths hanging to their toes. While Matilda was delighted to be free and saw my parents as heroes, the fractures in our family over the coordinated escape, or rescue if you prefer, lasted for years. My grandparents were incensed and infuriated with my mother, threatening her with legal action. But eventually they accepted it with conditions. My mother was to take full responsibility for Matilda. She agreed. Unfortunately, I was unaware that the plan for her care, not only included me, but would fall heavily on me.

My mother informed me that I was to call Matilda every night, Monday through Saturday at five o’clock and spend exactly thirty minutes on the phone with her. Early on, she set a timer, showing me how serious she was and ensuring that I didn’t attempt to shave minutes off the clock. Keep in mind, that Matilda was hard of hearing, an ancient woman, as far as I was concerned, and as odd as a five-legged frog. Spending a half hour talking to her in the loudest voice I could muster up, short of yelling, was not a fun or easy task and if I happened to be at a friend’s house when the clock struck five, there was no pass given. I was told that I was to find a quiet place and dial her up. Failure to do so would result in the loss of friend privileges.

I learned to pass the time on the phone by singing made-up songs as Matilda clapped and grunted inaudible things in the background. When I wasn’t singing to her, I talked about anything from what I dressed my Barbie doll in that day to what I was wearing. It was usually a one-sided conversation. But the calls to her weren’t the worst part of my responsibilities, and Sunday was no day off. As a matter of fact, Sunday was the day I dreaded most.

Like clockwork, a Swanson TV Dinner was popped in the oven by my mother every Sunday around four o’clock, then wrapped in an extra layer of foil before being secured in my bike basket. As I pedaled my gold Schwinn to Matilda’s house as fast as I could, as I’d been instructed not to let the dinner grow cold.

I carefully tipped the kickstand down on my bike while holding onto the TV dinner so the food wouldn’t slide around, then tentatively navigated the rotten front stairs that led to her closed-in porch. This was the 60s, so doors were rarely locked, but I’d always knock loudly before entering. Usually, she had her hearing aids in, in preparation for my visit and would yell out in her old, warbling voice. If she didn’t respond to the knocking, I would tiptoe into the front room, hoping she’d be in her chair. I didn’t want to have to go looking for her.

Matilda was usually sitting next to the fireplace in the front room swaddled in layers of baggy floral dresses and a few moth-eaten sweaters. She wore black lace-up shoes, thick white stockings, and always had her straw-like hair pinned back in a loose bun. My mom made it clear that, if I smelled urine, I was to check the bed. If it was wet, I was to make it with clean sheets before leaving and bring the urine-soaked pile home with me. On those days, I prayed the kids on my block wouldn’t be out and notice the heap of sheets in my bike basket. Sometimes it was all too much to manage, so I’d lie and tell my mom that her bed was dry even when it wasn’t.

While Matilda was a nice enough woman and always grateful for my calls and visits, she wasn’t of her right mind. She shared endless stories about the evil next door neighbor lady who she said was breaking in and stealing her jewels in the middle of the night. She rambled on about spies listening to her through the radio, and she insisted that there were burglars in her basement rummaging through her things and taking her valuables. Like many little kids, I had my own fear of boogiemen and monsters lurking and didn’t need her adding to it.

In addition to her crazy stories, she loved to drone on about her hate for my grandmother. I did my best to steer the conversations to more cheerful subjects, sometimes distracting her with another one of my made-up songs, but when nothing I tried worked, I found myself staring at the vase on her grand piano—a piano that swallowed much of the room and zoning out. I traced circles around the inlayed flowers with my eyes, admiring its beauty. (The vase is the only thing I have of my aunt’s today, other than a few pictures. It’s prominently displayed in my home.)

The only part of the trip to Matilda’s on Sunday that I enjoyed was collecting the allowance she gave me–a one dollar bill that she neatly folded and hid under the seat of a chair on her front porch. She told me she hid it there so the burglars wouldn’t find it and to be careful that no one was watching when I retrieved it.

As I pedaled home from her house, I’d release the breath that had been held in my lungs, relax my shoulders, which had ridden up along my ears, and be grateful that I’d made it through another visit.

But there was one Sunday I’ll never forget, one that haunts me today.

After several knocks on the porch door, I let myself into the front room. I called out over and over for Matilda but got no answer. Then I heard it…To learn the ending of this story, come back next month. And don’t forget to encourage friends to visit my website and sign up for my monthly newsletter.

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