Word Gets AroundUltra 2012 Canada
My Aunt T is allergic to everything. She belongs to an organization of other people who are also allergic to everything. During one of our weekly phone conversations she tells me about her “club”. The members can’t have a convention or even a meeting because of allergic reaction problems relating to transportation and hotels.
No one can leave her “safe spots”, she tells me, because the rest of the world doesn’t understand. “They think of us as crazy or neurotic.”
I looked up the word neurotic and I now see Aunt T in a different light. My mother is almost never available for these Sunday talks with her sister. She’s a therapist and is always on call Sunday nights. When Aunt T phones, mom is most likely to have left on an emergency to see one of her clients. Mom says that depression sets in over the weekend when people are alone and not socializing and that’s why she hears from them on Sunday nights. “Be a good girl and talk to Aunt T for me,” she says on her way out the door every week. She does stay home and talk to Aunt T every fourth Sunday because she can get someone to cover for her she says.
Mom must be meeting her clients at a bowling alley because she always leaves with her bowling shoes in her pocketbook. I only found out because I went into her bag looking for a stick of gum. Okay, so maybe I snoop. That’s what twelve-year-old girls do. If it’s not her pocketbook, it’s her dresser drawers I poke in while she’s not around. We’re the same size now and I can fit into her dresses but she doesn’t like me wearing them even though I offer to let her wear my clothes. Mom’s very possessive.
Aunt T says the happiest day of my Dad’s life was the day he died because he could look forward to not being bossed around anymore. I was an infant, so I didn’t know him, but still I think that Aunt T shouldn’t say that to me so often. She and my mother are always putting each other down to me. Mom is polite to her on the phone and even sounds concerned but all the while she’s talking To Aunt T she’s making faces and gestures. Mom doesn’t have patience for her sister. She has great patience for her patients. I know—I hear her on the phone with them. I wonder if she would have patience with Aunt T if she became one of Mom’s patients. I asked Mom about it and she said that it’s not ethical to have your sister as a patient.
“Why don’t you ask your Aunt T how she knows so many people like her if none of them can get around?” My Mother says. “I know your mother put you up to asking me that,” Aunt T says, “but I’ll tell you anyway. It’s very simple. Word gets around.”
Makes sense, I thought.
“Bullshit,” Mom said when I told her.
It doesn’t help Aunt T’s case that she’s allergic to almost every food known to man with a few interesting exceptions. “I don’t understand it myself, “she tells me while chewing on a pretzel she has shipped in from the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. She makes loud cracking sounds over the phone with each bite she takes into the hard pretzel. She can eat any fruit, except grapefruit, as long as it comes from Harry and David. Mom says T always hated grapefruit—even as a kid. “Thank God for Omaha Steaks,” Aunt T tells me, “or I’d never be able to have any red meat again.”
There’s more. She can eat Skippy smooth peanut butter, Welch’s Grape Jelly and Arnold’s Seeded Rye Bread. And, what I consider a real lucky break; she can eat Dominos pepperoni pizza. There’s more, but it’s not a long list. “Why I can eat Mallomars and not Oreos is a mystery to me,” she says.
Mom says that she can solve the mystery. “Your Aunt T is a wacko, and that’s my professional opinion. “Don’t you find it strange that she can only eat food that can be delivered or ordered from a catalog, or food she loved as a kid?” she asks me. “The mind works in mysterious ways,” I tell Mom, using the same phrase she has used to explain things to me over the years when she hasn’t wanted to take the time to go into detail. Mom looks at me as if I’ve crossed over to the enemy.
We didn’t hear from Aunt T for two Sundays so Mom called her on Monday. The phone rang about a dozen times and then Mom heard it answered and knocking against something as if someone dropped the receiver. Finally she heard Aunt T yell “hello.” My mother made the crazy sign with her finger next to her head and said, “T, can you hear me?”
Aunt T yelled for Mom to yell so she could hear her. “Why do we have to yell?” Mom asked. “Because I’m allergic to holding the phone to my head. It came on suddenly and causes rashes and pin prickly feelings. I’m lying with my head on the floor just inches away from the phone,” She yelled.
“Have you thought of getting a speaker phone?” Mom asked. “I can’t hear you,” Aunt T yelled. “I’m getting a speaker phone this week and then everything will be back to normal.”
“That’s a frightening thought,” Mom said softly. “I heard that,” Aunt T yelled. “You were supposed to,” Mom said. “I was testing a different vocal range.” Aunt T’s phone suddenly went dead and Mom told me she hoped T would not get a phone for a while.
Aunt T called the next day to try out her speakerphone. It was also voice activated so she wouldn’t break out from dialing. Aunt T kept mom on the phone for an hour. I wasn’t home so I had to hear all the details from Mom’s point of view. “T was always different,” Mom said. “Even as a kid she did outrageous things to get the attention she craved.” “What kind of things?” I asked.
“In seventh grade she carried balloons around for a week and when she spoke she inhaled helium first. She only stopped after she was suspended for a day.” “What else?” I laughed.
“She dressed our cocker spaniel in her baby clothes and pushed her around the park in her old baby carriage. Whenever someone leaned over the carriage to have a look at the baby the dog would snarl and try to attack the person. She did that for an entire summer.” “She sounds like a fun sister,” I told Mom. Mom just looked at me as if to say you don’t know the half of it.
Aunt T and Uncle Mel sold their house in San Francisco that looked over the bay because she woke up one morning allergic to the house. There wasn’t one room in the house that didn’t cause her some kind of discomfort. Uncle Mel called Tara and Tanya, their twin daughters to come in and talk to their mother. He wanted them to talk her out of this latest craziness but instead they accused him of being insensitive.
They both left school to find a home that their mother could live in and they succeeded. In an alternative magazine they found a trailer in the woods that was owned by a woman who was allergic to everything but the trailer. She’d had it stripped down and cleaned with this special chemical combination that was recommended for “their” disease and she and her husband lived there for seven years. They took pictures and brought them back to their mom and then their dad drove out to see the trailer. The land was gorgeous. It was just outside of Santa Rosa on two acres of mostly pine trees with a brook. He was devastated—giving up his great City house to live in a trailer in the woods. Their mother liked the pictures and pushed their father to buy it and sell their San Francisco home. He compromised and bought the trailer but rented out the house. For a year they lived together in this tiny trailer that was really no more than a large camper and their father commuted to work in the city.
At the end of the year both his patience and the lease was up and he moved back to San Francisco alone and visited on weekends. Then his visits went from every weekend to one day a weekend and finally to once a month. The girls have very little contact with him although they stay in the house in San Francisco during school breaks and summers. Sometimes they stay with their mother but they find it too traumatic. They still blame their father for abandoning her and see no correlation between their behavior and his.
Uncle Mel’s been calling Mom quite frequently and Mom only has the greatest sympathy for him. “That man’s been a saint,” she told me. “The things he’s put up with would have driven anyone else away years ago”
The next week she told me she was going to San Francisco for a conference and I asked her if she was going to see Aunt T since she was going to be in California anyway.
“California’s a big state,” she said. “This is all business and I won’t have time so don’t even tell her I’ll be out there. It’ll just make her feel bad.”
Soon after Mom asked me not to mention that Uncle Mel has become a frequent visitor.