delivered the eulogy partly because there was no one else who was
immediate family, and partly because I was making up for having
been so loaded on the day she died.
Great-Aunt Fremo taught me the twist when I was six years old.
it's like putting a cigarette out," she said, then demonstrated,
her huge breasts tumbling from side to side as she mashed the imaginary
cigarette into the carpet.
was babysitting for me -- a last resort. Fremo was not babysitter
material. She was not people material for that matter. She was best
with cats and, at that time, had eleven of them living in her mid-Manhattan
studio apartment chosen for its close proximity to the Art Students
After the twist lesson she leaned in close to me and asked, "Do
you know what happened to your Cousin Margaret's friend Roz?"
I shook my head.
she had her throat slashed open right through the chain lock on
her door!" Then Fremo reenacted the terrible event -- opening
the chain lock on her apartment door and miming a knife jabbing
at her neck as she leaned in to see who was on the other side.
I looked at her, her eyes bright with excitement, and at the magenta
lipstick that always bled into far reaching wrinkles above and below
her lips, and wondered how many more hours 'til my mom would come
and pick me up.
Fremo always did that. She'd take a perfectly nice moment and, in
an instant, turn it into something scary or mean. The only person
she got along with was my grandmother Witia, my mother's mother
and Fremo's older sister.
and Fremo huddled under Grandma's big pear tree at the house in
East Rockaway, making noises together like birds. They both spoke
in high, thin, clipped voices like the movie stars of the thirties.
I am telling you he was simply deeeevine!!"
they would break into laughter, a sound between a tinkle and a shriek.
I would play way on the other side of the yard hoping they would
forget about me at least until dinnertime. I lived in dread of their
attention, their hugs and kisses. It was never enough. The more
I hugged or kissed them it seemed the hungrier they got for it.
They were too loud, too big, too embarrassing. I hated going anywhere
with Witia and Fremo. People stared at us and I felt suffocated
by them, longing for little shrunken old women to cuddle with like
the grandmothers and aunties my friends had.
had it that Aunt Fremo had been married once for a couple of months
to a bad old boy; a cowboy she tripped upon one day in New York
City. Charlie was his name. Apparently he'd had a thing for other
women. So Aunt Fremo chased him out of the house brandishing a rolling
pin. I'm sure the rolling pin thing was made up. I don't think Fremo
knew what a rolling pin was, much less owned one. She probably chased
old Charlie out of the house with a butcher knife and the family
toned it down somewhere in the telling.
was an artist. She lived for painting and for her cats. She was
usually dressed in some old black sweater that buttoned down the
front and was covered in cat hair and paint. She smelled of turpentine
and cat food, and when she wasn't tending to her cats at home, she
walked the streets and fed the cats in her neighborhood. She was
tall and striking and had big feet. She was quite a Russian beauty
in her day and she was obsessed with make-up. She always wore make-up,
even to bed. She would put on a fresh face of make-up every night
before she went to sleep because, "God forbid there was a fire!"
What she really meant was God forbid there was a fireman.
had affairs that were always brief and terrible and left her crazier
than before. When I was twelve, my family went to Rome for a few
months and Fremo came to visit us. She met a man while she was feeding
the cats at the Coliseum and began sneaking out every night to meet
him. She was 67 and sneaking out of our rented apartment to have
sex with an Italian in the alleyways of Rome. One morning she came
home limping on a shoe with a broken heel, slammed the apartment
door, ran to her room and didn't come out until the next day. My
mother comforted her as best she could, then sent me out to the
cobbler with Fremo's shoe.
the 1970s, Fremo moved to Saugus, California. I was attending college
then, in nearby Valencia, but was barely making it to classes, having
taken up a course in psychedelics and Southern Comfort which kept
me pretty popular with the student body -- my body repeatedly turning
up in a variety of dorm rooms. I remember once waking up between
a set of black satin sheets and surmising that I must have finally
conquered George who everyone insisted was gay, including George
himself, but in those days that just didn't seem like a strong argument
night the house I shared off campus had an electrical fire. I managed
to escape with only a blanket wrapped around me and a MasterCard.
Fremo agreed that I could stay with her while I got back on my feet.
was having an affair with her pool man and had twenty-seven cats
living with her in the cramped one bedroom house, a fifties-style
box with remarkably low ceilings. The place stunk of cat shit and
oil paint and chlorine, the latter because Fremo kept the pool man
on an unnaturally busy schedule. I showed up wearing stiff new Levi's
and a denim shirt purchased on my credit card, feeling scared and
vulnerable from the ordeal of the fire. Fremo welcomed me and seemed
really glad for my company. She made us tea and we talked and talked
long into the night. She expressed genuine interest in me and I
just couldn't help it, I let everything spill: the drugs I was doing,
all the men I had slept with. As I recounted my adventures, she
laughed and gasped and seemed to be enjoying herself; my escapades
of promiscuity bringing us together in a way we had never shared
before. While she made up the foldout couch for me, I thanked her
for a wonderful evening and for letting me stay.
get your beauty sleep," she said.
I kissed her freshly made-up face, her lipstick just beginning to
slide into the cracks.
I woke the next morning to the sound of a spoon banging against
metal. I got up and went into the kitchen. Fremo was stooped over
feeding the cats. As I walked over to her she turned her back on
me and slammed some cat food into another one of the metal bowls
on the floor.
wrong?" I asked.
stood up slowly, regarded me coldly as if she were meeting me for
the first and last time. "Why, you're nothing but a whore,"
she said. But she pronounced it "ho-wah" in that movie
afternoon I moved out.
PAGE 1 2
version for easy reading
material is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission|