The dream came every night, a twilight visitor showing up unannounced. Standing on the shore of a deep river, I see the silver water is glimmering in the darkness. My aunt stands across the river. She wears a gray gown, and barefoot she wades into the river and gestures for me to come to her. I am afraid. I know I will drown if I enter it, but I long for her as her arms reach out to me.
When I walked into her home that day, my aunt looked thin and gray. She lay on a love seat in black silk pajamas, smoking a thin More cigarette in an ivory cigarette holder. I called her Net because as a baby I couldn’t pronounce her name, Jeanette.
It was bright and sunny in San Jose that late September, but the air was still, and I felt a pressure running through my shoulders and chest to speak to her. I was timid. I had driven up from Los Angeles to spend time with her but didn’t know how much time we had.
The living room was in the Japanese style: black and gold ceramic Japanese lamps, lacquered coffee tables. The walls were arranged with Asian woodcut paintings of nature scenes, and the house was filled with golden Buddhas. They had three Siamese cats but no children of their own. My aunt and Uncle Dan, a Greek man with a loud voice that could vibrate glass, had loved Japan. They had fallen in love while both were in military service in Okinawa. Uncle Dan was charismatic and opinionated; he was a traditional Greek man with fixed ideas about everything from the way people should dress to how much lemon to squeeze on fish.
My relationship with my mother was a puzzle box I could never open. I was her youngest child, born out of wedlock in 1957 when she was 42 years old. She was from a large family in Georgia, her parents and five siblings Southern Baptist to the core (though Aunt Net chucked her Southern Baptist upbringing for a more secular life the minute she left Georgia and joined the military). My mother refused to tell me anything about my father, her family, or details of our life after my birth, despite my relentless questioning. I can only guess that she was rebuked and abandoned by her family at that time, a single unwed mother in 1950’s Georgia. Aunt Net and Uncle Dan had married and settled in San Jose, and somehow my aunt convinced him to let my mother and me stay with them; Aunt Net saved us. One of my earliest black-and-white photos showed me as an infant, lying across a white blanket on Aunt Net’s coffee table, her hand gently stroking my back with one hand, a cigarette drifting a tail of smoke in the other.
I looked like my aunt¬—the same eyes, same hair color, the cleft in our chins. My mother would become upset when strangers would walk up to them when I was a toddler and turn to my aunt and tell her what a beautiful baby boy she had. Aunt Net would say that my mother would “have a hissy fit” when that happened and would chuckle with her rough, smoky voice.
I was less than a year old when my mother was hired as an au pair for my stepfather, who was then a divorced father of three children. His wife had left him and the kids. He was the only father I ever knew. My parents were Pentecostal, born again Christians, and although my stepfather loved me, he could be physically abusive. Our strict religious upbringing meant that movies, theater, and most forms of entertainment were taboo.
In my early childhood, my relationship with my step-siblings was distant and wary, in large part due to the tension of a stranger replacing their mother, so my early life was a solitary one. My aunt and uncle doted on me. I was in essence their only child, and my mother would often let me spend the weekend with them; being with them gave me my first glimpse of a world far more vibrant and alive than the gray, dreary and repressed one I knew at home. Their backyard was a bamboo jungle filled with winding paths. I loved spending time there as a child, and I was often saddened to return to the abuse and somberness of my home. Their home was exotic and exciting. They took me to the movies and sometimes to nightclubs. I would sit sipping my Shirley Temple while they smoked and laughed with friends listening to a lounge singer with a blonde bouffant hairdo.
The day that I drove up from Los Angeles to see Aunt Net, Uncle Dan was out of the house. He needed a break and went off to a hardware store.
My aunt handed me her lighter and I lit her cigarette. It was a ritual we’d performed a hundred times. A gentleman always lights a lady’s cigarette, “Your hair needs cuttin’,” she said, taking me in like a falcon eyeing a rabbit.
“I know. It’s the style now,” I replied.
She grunted. “Some style.”
Growing up, especially in adolescence, Aunt Net was my confidante and guide in life. I was bullied in school and unpopular, and I would often try too hard to make friends and be liked; “Let people come to you, honey. Ease up. If they don’t invite you to a party or somethin’, just do your own thing. They’ll come around,” she told me in her Southern drawl.
Aunt Net was an excellent seamstress; she made most of her clothing, including some suits for me, all from patterns sewn expertly like a Saville Row tailor. One Saturday afternoon as I sat beside her at the sewing table, she meticulously measured a pattern for a summer dress, black-eyed Susans on cream-colored cotton, her hands nimbly pinning the pattern to the fabric; I whined about the boredom of school and how time dragged on slowly every day. She put down her scissors, lit a cigarette and lasered me with a look.
“You listen to me, boy. Time is all we got; even boring days are a gift. You’re young now, but when you get older, a day will pass quicker than a sneeze. Forget about money, cars, all that horseshit. Time is the one thing you can’t get back, not for all the money in the world,” she said.
The news that she had lung cancer stunned me. She was the first person I had been close to who had a terminal illness: I had never lost anyone to death. I was twenty-two, and I depended on her more than I ever had.
A year before we got the news about Aunt Net, my girlfriend had dumped me, and it hurt like nothing had ever hurt before. Every day I woke up with an ache I had never experienced. I was usually the one who broke hearts. Now fate had evened the score.
On my girlfriend’s birthday I had tried to bring her roses in a lame attempt to win her back. As I pulled up to her apartment, I saw her leaving with her new boyfriend, kissing him before she got in the car. A sharp blade of jealousy cut through my intestines as I pulled away quickly and drove back to my apartment.
When I got home, I called my Aunt Net. I hadn’t been able to express any grief over the breakup even though everyone in my family knew I was hurting. The minute I heard Aunt Net’s voice, I broke down. She listened and spoke to me softly, reassuring me that the worst was over. Before she hung up, she said, “Whatever you do, don’t call your mother. She can’t take it. I’m the one you need now.” I hung up and knew this was the truth. She was one I needed to give me solace. She knew that if I had reached out to my mother, it would have made me feel worse. Somehow, my mother would have made my loss about her, and I would have spent the call comforting her.
My Mom called and said my aunt “wasn’t doing too good. You better get up here.”
I drove up from Los Angeles. The growth of her cancer was a truth my aunt refused to yield. I was afraid of losing the shepherd I trusted to guide me. She looked at me and I could feel her reading me; “So, how is your acting career?”
“Not much to speak of. I’m trying to get an agent and I just finished a play. Los Angeles is tough.”
“I still think you should have been a veterinarian; you’re so good with animals.”
“Good with animals. Not so good with math and biology.”
Her feet began to cramp, and she handed me lotion and told me to rub them. I massaged the cramped muscles gently but could feel her jerk with a sharp intake of breath. I continued kneading softly while she smoked and stared out the window, “I have something I need to say, and I’m afraid there won’t be time to say it,” I said.
“Don’t,” she murmured in a warning voice.
“I don’t want you to die, and I never get to…”
“Don’t!” she pulled her foot from my hands and glared at me. Her eyes were dark, her pupils dilated with a rage that made me flinch. The clock ticked; someone drove past her house. The silence lay between us.
“I love you so much,” my voice cracked, and I couldn’t look at her.
“I love you too, darlin’.” I could see her eyes were wet. She moved to get up and I helped her to her feet; “Your Aunt Net is tired and needs to lie down. Why don’t you be a sweetheart and get the hell out of here.”
I walked out the door and to my car. I turned and could see her in the window watching me, her arms crossed with one arm raised, holding a smoking cigarette in her black silk pajamas. Her face was in shadow, and I couldn’t read her expression.
The funeral was two weeks later. I stared into the open casket and had the sensation of looking at a stranger, a mannequin in a coffin. I couldn’t find words to express this loss. I had wanted her to know how much I depended on her wisdom and love and how much I dreaded a future without her. When she left my life so suddenly there was no time to ask: What am I supposed to do once you’re gone? I was left with only my mother to turn to, and a lifetime of bad advice and manipulative suggestions. Selfishly, I had wanted my aunt to speak of her illness, so I could speak of my grief. That was too real for her.
She had always caught me when I fell. Her love made me feel safe. Her sharp-tongued wisdom had guided me in the dark. I swallowed the bitter knowledge that I would go on living without her goodbye. She was my second mother—the darker, stronger twin to the one who gave me birth.
My birthday is coming soon, and I feel her absence keenly as I turn sixty, the age of her death, and I wonder what our lives would have been together. She was wise in the ways of the world, and I have longed for her counsel. I have missed the arms that held me without judgment. Now, she comes to me in sleep, standing by the river. It’s hard to wake and let her go.
Michael Cannistraci’s essays have been published in Entropy Magazine, Literary Medical Messenger, The Evening Street Review, Bright Flash Literary Review, the Bangalore Review, The Dillydoun Review, East by Northeast, Stonecrop magazine, Hindsight Iris Literary Review and the 34th Parallel. He was finalist in the Pen2Paper Literary Contest and The Good Life Review Literary Contest (He/His/Him)