“Camping With Aunt Fi” by Daniel Adler
For years I’ve been trying to understand my feminine side. I don’t just mean being more empathetic and compassionate, or trying to understand my anima, though that may be part of it. I mean how I am threaded into the world around me.
It wasn’t until I left America for an art history fellowship in Scotland that my initiation began. For one, being in Scotland allowed me to see Aunt Fi again. When I first arrived, I hadn’t seen Aunt Fifi for twelve years, even though she was always my favorite aunt. She used to babysit me when I was a child, when my parents would go out on dates. We’d stay up late dancing and eating pizza. Then Aunt Fi got pregnant and moved to Ireland and she and my mom had a falling out; why I wasn’t even sure. But I knew that I had come to Scotland because it was close to Ireland, and this way I could bring Aunt Fi and my mom together again, to bridge their two-decade-long estrangement.
Aunt Fi probably knew it too. She was thrilled to see me again. She said we have an unbreakable bond—always did—and that I’m like one of her children.
Aunt Fi is a Catholic with mystical tendencies, which I have too, though Aunt Fi says I have to work harder to cultivate them because I’m less receptive, since I’m not a woman. Every time I saw her, I felt like I did. Cultivate them, that is. I visited six times that year. Hopped on a fifty-dollar flight to Dublin, took the bus down the road and “mucked in.”
That first day after breakfast, I noticed a small plate hanging in the hall. It depicted an icon of the Virgin with the Christ Child. I mistook it as a replica of the icon painted by the Russian painter Andrei Rublev, but in fact he copied this one. That is, the reproduced image on this plate was of the original Theotokos of Vladimir, painted by an artist long forgotten by the steppe; the plate itself manufactured by a corporation in China, just as anonymous as the original painter. The image of the Theotokos of Vladimir shows Baby Christ snuggling up to his mother. It is the first icon to depict Mother and Child this way, in the Eleusa, or “tenderness” style.
“You like it?” Aunt Fi asked me.
“Take it.” She pressed it into my hands. Aunt Fi’s hands are bigger than mine, with long fingers and broad palms—Muldoon hands, working hands, she said. Mine I’ve inherited from my father; thick, with short nimble fingers.
The plate bearing the image of the Theotokos of Vladimir is the centerpiece of my altar.
Howth is Aunt Fi’s favorite place, but not so much the magical green hills that overlook the sea as the lighthouse at the edge of the pier where she once celebrated a New Year’s with an ex-boyfriend; The Bloody Stream, the bar where over the past two decades she’d celebrated various evenings with Jamie, the man who almost became her husband, and their friend Matthew. The Bloody Stream is a pub converted from the former Howth railway station. The January sun shone faintly through a damp mist. We both had wool blankets around our shoulders. Aunt Fi blew on her Irish coffee. “Tell me, Ian, I’ve done okay, haven’t I?”
She waited for my reply before she took a sip.
She was talking about being a single mom. When she found out she was pregnant, Niamh’s dad didn’t want to be involved. Aunt Fi moved to Ireland so she wouldn’t have to face her family’s judgment. Grandpa Doon offered her the ancestral house. She met Jamie, Damian’s dad, and soon she was pregnant again. They agreed to marry, but he left her at the altar. Jamie’s since asked Aunt Fi to marry him again, but she’s always said no.
Still, he comes over Sunday nights with dinner and rubs her feet.
Aunt Fi doesn’t work anymore, what with her hip and her arthritis. Her pension gives her enough to live on.
If anything in the house needed repairs, she’d have to take out a loan, or ask Jamie for help. The house isn’t big—two bedrooms—but it’s conveniently located ten minutes from Dublin City. When Grandpa Doon bought it sixty years ago the surroundings were potato fields; today they’re prime real estate.
“When I was pregnant with Niamh, all my neighbors came to see me in the hospital. Three of them cried when they saw me pushing her in her buggy up and down the street. And I saw that that’s life. I’ve learned so much from being here in Europe. So if Claire gets pregnant you better have that baby because once you see it, you’ll know it doesn’t matter if you have a million dollars or a sausage.”
At home, Aunt Fi changed into her magenta fleece robe. It was pocked with holes from burning cigarette ash. She lit a cigarette on the stove and swiveled toward me. “Now I gave you the key so if you’re having a meltdown and you say I need to get out of here, you don’t have to text Niamh or me, and if I’m not here, you can just muck in and do your thing, and I’ll be in the garden, having a cigarette and a glass of wine. It’s so nice that you can come here and hang out with me. Now that the excitement’s settling down into contentment you’re such a comfort to me, Ian. You know who’s like that? Damian.”
On cue, Damian comes in, shoulders hunched, six feet tall, mumbling in his thick Irish accent, goes to the refrigerator.
We moved into the garden, wrapped ourselves in blankets, and sat across from each other with our feet up on the same chair. I wanted to ask Aunt Fifi why she was estranged from my mother. Aunt Fi said, “She spread lies about me, that I stole from her. But I never did.”
I said, “Maybe she told people you did because she was jealous of you. Jealous that you had the house. Jealous that Grandpa visited you all the time.”
Cigarette in one hand, glass of sauvignon blanc in the other, Aunt Fi became serious. “You know what she did? One night after Ma died, she called me up and said, Jack and I have rights to that house. I got off the phone and was scared because she could be ruthless. I told Daddy, and he said, Oh don’t mind them.” Aunt Fi lit another cig from the burning embers of her last one and she leaned for her wine. “Oo,” she winced.
“My body’s giving up on me. I need a new hip, but I don’t wanna do it. It’s the arthritis. Look.” She held up a curled pinkie finger. “I can’t straighten it any more. But that’s what happens when you reach my age. You know,” she grinned coyly, “I was something before central heating.”
Exuberance seemed to be Aunt Fi’s dominant characteristic. The energy she exuded was so strong that I wondered if it was possible for that abundance to destroy her. In the same way, my mother’s compassion became vengeance when she imagined she’d been wronged. Isn’t that how most of us decline and fall, by allowing our strengths to grow unchecked?
“So what happened with Anne and your dad?”
I told about how when I was fourteen and Mom suspected Dad of cheating on her. He told her he wanted a divorce. They agreed to separate, but one night they were fighting and it got so bad Dad had to call the cops to get Mom to stop coming after him. The cops took her to jail.
Aunt Fi erupted in laughter, “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I can just see her.” She wiped an eye with the back of her index finger.
“It was very traumatic for me,” I said. “I had to testify to an officer.”
“I know, I’m sorry, I’m sure it was. So what happened after that?”
“Well, Mom spent the night in jail. My friend’s parents picked her up and she stayed with them for a week or
so. But she never forgave Dad. She still hates him, even though Dad always asks after her. She won’t even say his name.”
“Aww. She always did that, though. If you crossed her once, that was it.”
We sat thinking. I knew I had to bring Aunt Fi and my mom together again, to bridge their two-decade-long estrangement. A squeaking came from the back of the garden. “That’s the Fairy Tree,” Aunt Fi said. “Its branches are rubbing together. You know about hawthorn trees? You’re not supposed to touch them. When I moved here twenty-one years ago it was in bloom—I plucked a flower from its branch. Three hours later I fell off a bike and broke my arm.” She grinned her strong white teeth, cigarette between her fingers, and cocked her head. “You’ve never heard the rhyme, Every shepherd tells his tale under the hawthorn in the dale?”
“Now if you need to use the toilet, you go up there and do your business and flush once before you wipe, then you wait a few minutes for the toilet to fill up again and if it’s not working put your bits and pieces in to the basket and bring it down. No one gives a shit. It’s the coffee. And all the food here is so fresh. Don’t be surprised if you’re walking down the street and you think you need to fart, and you have to run into the closest Mackers to use the toilet…”
The kitchen was silent when I came down from my shower, save for the slush of the dishwasher. Aunt Fi was moving through the garden, back to me as I sat before the window, warming myself in front of the radiator. My toes were numb from her leaving the back door open to release “the toxins”—what toxins?—the toxins. Thirty-six degrees outside with eighty-nine percent humidity and a thin rain falling: arthritic, bone-damp cold—god knew what toxins. The tops of the beech trees blew in the gray sky, Aunt Fi dragged a folded lawn chair across the grass in her magenta robe and pink Crocs. She lifted it above the pot and brushed against the dormant rose bush, which sprung back like a jack-in-the-box. Down the concrete path, wrists bent, long fingers splayed, careful not to slip, she’s fallen in the muck before, thought weighs on her brow, what is she thinking, she looks up and sees me typing through the window in front of the radiator and her face alights, she opens the door and says, “So just come back when you want, you might have a morning in Edinburgh where you’re having a meltdown—and if I’m gone you make something to eat, what’s wrong with that? I used to do that with Anne all the time, but she was hurting. I think when you’re hurting you’re angry at the whole world, and I’ve—but what I’m saying is, just come over, you have the key, and you’ll be fine. I’ll go, Oh hi Ian you want a smoke and a glass of wine? Okay, I’m gonna take a shower and then we’re gonna go shopping.”
I began to daydream. I looked up the Andrei Rublev version of the Theotokos of Vladimir. I clicked to a link about the Andrei Tarkovsky film based on the fourteenth-century icon painter. I’ve always been fascinated by the medieval era and its savagery: in the film, a horse falls down a flight of stone steps during a Mongol invasion set in Vladimir; gold from a melted crucifix is poured down a bishop’s throat before he is tied to a horse set to run; a young bell-maker confesses in tears that his father never told him the secret of bell-making before he died, only his instincts led him to create the bell that rang, which prevented him from being beheaded by the Grand Prince. When I first saw Andrei Rublev, the severity and arbitrariness of life and death in that cold land in an era so remote struck me as so real and distant from my own world that I entered deep into Wikipedia k-holes about medieval Russia, as if by learning more about that time I could approximate it in my own experience, in something realer than my banal office job and routine. I imagined I could remember experiences from a past life I might have lived during the medieval Rus era, that by researching more about it, I could summon experiences from then, experiences so remote that they would have a different texture or color, and would appear hazily, or in the black and white Tarkovsky used to film his early masterpiece.
From upstairs the shower stopped running and a moment later the bathroom door clicked. Aunt Fi called, “Be down in a minute Ian! Your aunt is going to look beautiful!”
An hour later we were in Penney’s and Aunt Fi was forcing me to try on a pair of green combat boots with a white sole. I didn’t really like them, but it’s her will can be adamantine. “Do you like them? Aren’t they kewl?”
She says ‘cool’ like Niamh, but her daughter grew up here, has the accent, and Fi still sounds like she’s from the Bronx.
“Walk around. How do they feel? Here, you need some new socks. You like these? Take those off and put these on. Now try the bigger size. The women like it when you wear big shoes, it makes it look you have a big cock—”
“I dunno, Aunt Fi. I don’t really need ‘em.”
“Yeah. I have a pair of boots.”
Aunt Fi pursed her big lips and stared at me from under her raspberry beret with her big hazel eyes.
“I mean, I’d rather get something I need. Like those handkerchiefs.”
“Fine,” she said. “Then get the handkerchiefs.”
I was planning to go into town with Niamh, who had the day off from the makeup counter at Brown Thomas. Before I left, Aunt FiFi came back from the corner store and pulled a wad of bills from her pocket onto the kitchen table. Her fingers moved to her forehead, “I just had this feeling, I was thinking of Daddy and it was like he was telling me to give you and Niamh money so you can have a fun day out.”
I refused once, knew it would do no good.