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The Golden Mean
By Antonella Gambotto-Burke

I only have one aunt, and she is related to me by marriage and not blood. My mother is an only child and my father has a younger brother and my aunt married my father's brother after he pestered her. I call her Auntie Drac after the caps fell off her two front teeth, briefly leaving her -- or so she said -- with funny pointy bits that once were teeth and this image (my elongated and long-throated aunt with slanting eyes and little fangs) made me laugh so much, she really bristled.

A few weeks ago, she traveled to Santa Fe from Sydney to visit her eldest son, who is to be married for the second time later this year to the same woman. (They first married in Las Vegas, an act which rippled ecumenical waters.) I am the senior of seven cousins, intrigued by yogis and litigation, addicted to reading, prolix, mad for Bill Laswell (sitar, monotonic declarations, bass), and I have A Past: with my cowboy hat and skull-and-crossbones beanie and antique Javanese bronze Buddha head and love of standing on my head, I am probably the most eccentric of the seven.

This hat thing -- a source of mortification for my poor husband -- first manifested at the aforementioned cousin's fifth birthday party. My aunt had arranged each party hat to the right of every paper plate: the girls were to wear flat chamber-maid numbers and the boys all got glorious Merlin hats encrusted with rivers of real glitter. Even at seven, I rebelled against sexism and so swapped my dumb cardboard headdress for the sparkling golden minaret which I then jammed on my unusually large head (I take a man's hat size). Strutting out into the sunshine, I was as resplendent as a king, and posed for photographs with my knees apart until my mother cuffed me: You're a girl!

But I digress. In Santa Fe, my aunt sought a house of God in which to pray. She has always had a passion for metaphysics and has ardently practiced Catholicism all her life. As the French say, she is spirituelle. Where my mother's attention is held only by diamonds and movies starring Tony Curtis in his prime, my aunt studies the symbols of other worlds, homeopathy, naturopathy, and, in order to please my very particular uncle, Italian cooking, trying not to mind too much when he asks her to fry brains. She is also taking embroidery classes so that her eldest daughter (a merchant banking-type who is also to be married, but for the very first time) will know the pleasure of walking down the aisle wearing a garter embroidered by her mother's love. (Her other daughter, who marches for peace and wears little bells and dated a part-Polynesian idealist, leaves for Thailand in eight weeks to work with the poor.)

In Santa Fe, my Auntie Drac found the most exquisite chapel she had ever seen. Built in the 1870's and inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the Our Lady of Light Chapel is the first example of Gothic architecture west of the impious Mississippi. Rose window and bas-relief of da Vinci's The Last Supper aside, it houses a thing of wonder to architects and engineers: a thirty-three step spiral staircase, the full weight of which rests on the final tread. There is no central or flanking support, and for years, there was no banister. My aunt said that from the ceiling, it is no more than a nautilus shell, as beautiful as spiral nebulae or sunflower heads or the numerical sequence -- 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 -- discovered by Leonardo Fibonacci, the thirteenth century mathematician whose numbers correspond with the Golden Mean.

Symbolically, the Golden Mean represents Source in every sense. The curvature of the spiral correlates to the feminine. (My lean aunt will object to this; of the two, my uncle is the more curvaceous.) Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York finds its expression in the spiral, as does The Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq. This spiritual dimension is not accidental. Birth and death: one spirals into the other, and then again. Thoth, the ibis-headed Egyptian god of the moon, magic, and writing, is depicted as having a spiral on his head, and popes also enjoy spirals on their scepters. The Sufis spin themselves into a trance, as my brother and I once spun around our living room until the world itself reeled and we lay on those cold marble floors, laughing and queasy and woozy and exhausted, sharing the same spiraling DNA.

My aunt surrendered to the staircase's mystery: the thing was built by a carpenter who then vamoosed. This man -- believed by the Sisters to be their patron, Saint Joseph the Carpenter -- appeared from sunny nowhere on a donkey on the ninth day of a Novena (nine days of devotions) with his hammer and a T-square and big tubs in which to soak the wood. Intuiting the flaw in the chapel's design, he built a staircase to the choir loft that would not further compromise the compromised congregation. Aesthetically, it has the ease of a Strauss waltzer. There are no purchase records of the materials and he asked for no payment. My aunt was awed.

The miraculous, she says, is everywhere. She refuses the prosaic as Hollywood starlets recoil from fudge; she will not countenance pessimism, and expends energy on hope. She is so loved by her two adult daughters that they call on her most every day. Meaning is important to her, and religion is a school of meaning. Outside the chapel, she bought me a silver Navajo bear paw pin because it represents -- or imparts -- strength and healing. She drew a smoochy mouth on the envelope -- the top lip on the flap; the bottom, on the envelope itself -- but when she licked it, the lips did not meet and so she filled the space between them with teeth: a Cameron Diaz smile.

I knelt down in the chapel and prayed, she said, and then I started crying because I thought of you. She prayed and prayed I would be helped, and prayed and prayed I would be healed. While I -- then a molecular cloud of sorts and little more -- silently stared at my white bedroom walls and out of the window at nothing, she walked the streets of Santa Fe and implored God on my behalf. My darling 32-year-old brother killed himself at midnight on October 19, you see, and more clearly than anyone, my aunt -- with whom, because of tiresome Mafioso-type interfamilial wrangling, I have had little to do with over the years -- saw that great big holes had been shot through my heart and head and that if someone didn't help me stanch the flow of blood, I, too, would drift away and die.

This loving equanimity of hers rests in her heritage. My Auntie Drac (whose maiden name incorporates that most beautiful of English words: free) is not Italian but Australian, and her searing frontier love is the reason my cousins are half-sane. The Royal Tenenbaums were modeled on my family of origin, or so I thought when I sat and wonderingly watched that movie, and my uncle -- whilst by no means as operatically peculiar as my law-changing father (essays on the legal implications of Gambotto can be found in universities around the world) -- is also strange. He sits at the head of the table and whenever my aunt leaves the room, steals the fruit. She cannot stop him. Doctors have warned him of dangerously high sugar levels and wavering difficulties with insulin, but it really is, as John Malkovich so memorably shrugged in Dangerous Liaisons, beyond his control. Like a 160-pound possum, he creeps into the kitchen after she has gone to bed and ferrets through the cupboards for her stash of peaches or bananas or grapes.

The man would don a balaclava and climb in through a bathroom window with a crowbar for a nectarine. (During the day, he feigns respectability in some capacity for the government.)

His mother -- my Nonna Mentina -- was a narrow-waisted battleaxe from Piedmont with solid gold ball earrings that stretched her lobes so that in gusts of wind, they swung like that pendulum in Edgar Allan Poe's sepulchral pit. (Interestingly, my grandfather bore a resemblance to Vincent Price.) Her breasts were heavy and she was delicate in build, but also housed a ferocity since seen only in Pinochet. She poured boiling water on feral kittens and bought chickens live in order to decapitate them (this sadism was justified with palaver about freshness).

It is not difficult to picture her grunting over a sink of blood in the same way the disemboweled Mishima grunted when that sword missed his neck and instead plunged into his back. She ruled a household of three men with rare confidence: they cowered when she roared. Any one of them could have overwhelmed her, but did not dare. (When my twentysomething father was late home, she would shove his mattress down the stairs and into the garden).

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