My aunt Vicki died from ovarian cancer when I was 10 years old. She was about 35. Because she died when I was so young, I never knew her very well. But as I was growing up, people would often compare me to her. Which is a bit creepy, telling a kid she reminds you of a dead person… I took it as a compliment. She was a perfectionist. Her home was impeccably kept, everything tasteful, coordinated and in its proper place. My mother told me that Aunt Vicki would break down in tears if a dish she was preparing did not turn out ideally. She was beautiful. She looked like Natalie Wood. She once told me that if a man proposed to me, I should never say yes unless he had a diamond. She was very Christian, athletic, and had a wonderful husband and baby boy. One of those people who seemed to really have it all together, whose only fault seemed to be all the effort she put into not having any. I couldn’t tell you if she was shy or just incredibly well composed. It is probably because I only knew her briefly during my childhood that I remember her having an ethereal way about her. She was intelligent and polite, but not stern. Active and engaged, but not gregarious. Lovely and proud, but not fake. That is how she seemed to me. One of the things I remember most about her was her dog, Dusty. It was a fat, smelly, psychotic, ugly little black poodle she would have groomed. Every time I saw it, it had a different color bow on its head and matching nail polish. Peach, mint green, red… It was total madness. I think that dog must have been her outlet.
We kept a picture of my Aunt Vicki in our living room. It was a photo of her as a child, with her bobbed hair, her thoughtful eyes and the Mona Lisa smile she always wore. That’s how I see her when I think of her, not as the young housewife or the wisp of a woman confined to the living room couch, a silk scarf around her head and dark circles around her eyes. I actually don’t remember her often. There’s nothing I can do about it. I remember her when I give a doctor my family medical history or when my ob-gyn asks, and she always asks, “How old was your aunt when she died?” Then she gives me the look. Like I need to be reminded that I am at the age my aunt was when she got sick and died. Like I’m not in her office precisely because of this! I resent that this is the only person who ever vocally reminds me about my aunt. But I don’t need the doctor for reminding. My family is crazy, laid back. Not caring what others think of them is some tribal stamp and “propriety” is not even in their vocabulary. I feel like the odd one out here. I want my apartment so clean it looks like no one lives there. I become inconsolable the moment things do not go strictly according to plan. I’m a neurotic, a perfectionist and I do care what others think. I don’t know if I am shy or just incredibly well-composed. I luxuriate in propriety and think people should make the effort. My mother would find me in this state and declare, “Where do you get this? I didn’t raise you to act like this.” My grandmother would mumble, “She’s just like Victoria…”
My grandma Ruby Ladd was insane. But I don’t judge her. Ruby liked to do silly dances to Johnny Cash albums. Ruby liked to tell us stories about escaped convicts who were on their way to her house this very minute. Ruby was profoundly depressive and lonely, though I don’t ever remember a boring moment with her. Ruby had old time religion and a mean streak. Ruby had a makeup drawer that contained nothing but tubes of red lipstick. Ruby looked exactly like that lady in Grey Gardens. Ruby thought no one loved her. Considering what she gave and got in return from us, she may have had a point.
She lied about her age, so I don’t know when she was born. 1911? 1917? 1921? My grandfather was born in 1898, and she was scandalously younger than he. She was from a family of Arkansas share-croppers, ran away from home and lived in a convent while working at an ammunition factory, and eventually married my notorious Irish grandfather, who then died when my mother was 14. Ruby became the quintessential Miss Havisham. Nothing in the house changed much after my grandfather’s death, except that a brief courtship with an antiques dealer left her with even more old valuable stuff around the house, adding to the Dickensian ethos. The house was as haunted as all get out, largely because she refused to let my grandfather die. There was a little compartment under the table -the house was full of such secret nooks- in which my grandmother would leave money or treats and tell us Grandpa Ladd had left them for us. She’d speak of him as if he were still alive. She’d wake us in the middle of the night, pile us into an ancient car and drive to the cemetery (owned by our family) to “visit Grandpa.” We were just little children. Can you imagine?!
Her home was my second home. On many weekends and some school nights, my brother and I would stay with her. Sometimes I was so afraid, I would spend the whole evening in the kitchen, by the back door. In case I needed to make a run for it. Other times I’d spend hours in one of the back bedrooms, lost in a game of dress-up, to look in the mirror and see her standing the doorway, staring at me. I’d scream in fright, thinking she must have been there for some time. But for all the spookiness, it was also exciting to be a kid in her charge. The house was magnificent, wall to wall paintings, china, chandeliers, hand-made furniture, and curiosities like the buggy bench, the mounted deer head, the wine press and the whiskey barrel, the tv from the 40’s and the old telephone with the hand-crank. And the etching of two children burying a dead bird, which hung above the antique bed where my Grandpa died. Her closets were filled with silk gowns from the 30’s and 40’s, wool suits from the 50’s, fur coats, opera gloves, boxes upon boxes of jewelry. One closet was a walk in and up -there was a staircase in it!- devoted simply to hats and shoes, all in their original boxes. Dresser drawers contained intriguing lingerie contraptions that must have dated back to the early part of the century. Downstairs, she ran a beauty salon. And Grandpa Ladd’s “workshop” contained rusted old tools with mystery uses, cans of lead paint and DDT (discovered after she moved out) and a creepy old crib. Continue reading