“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.

I nodded.

“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.