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My Racist Aunt
By Todd Levin

Life with my racist aunt wasn't all it was cracked up to be. There were difficulties, to be sure. For one, her clumsiness threatened to jeopardize her own safety, and the safety of anyone in her immediate vicinity, with startling regularity. My racist aunt suffered from a lack of physical coordination unprecedented in our family and, in the opinion of more than one accredited specialist, unprecedented in the history of medicine. In fact, there was a time when medical professionals would crowd my racist aunt's doorstep, clamoring to examine her cursed eyes and inner ears. They poked and prodded and triggered quick bursts of compressed air, hoping to etch their way into The New England Journal of Medicine or some other such well-respected record of rare physiological phenomena.

Unfortunately, all tests proved inconclusive, which pointed to the diagnosis our family had already made long ago without the benefit of medical degrees: that my racist aunt's particular brand of compromised physical coordination was less likely a product of ocular or neurological disorder than plain old, garden-variety goofiness. One orthopedic surgeon, a Dr. Evan Kraus, offered the following diagnosis to my uncle:

"Your wife's body is -- how can I put this? -- her body is constructed like a ramshackle house."

My uncle narrowed his eyes, and my father, sensitive to these very subtle expressions of crisis, moved closer to his brother. Dr. Kraus continued.

"You see, it -- and by "it" I mean, of course, a poorly constructed home or, in this case, your wife's body -- exhibits no signs of symmetry whatsoever and not one single correct angle -- and therefore has no discernible center of gravity for balance and support. It's really quite remarkable."

My father placed a hand on my uncle's shoulder. This was a move I'd seen before, and knew it served two purposes. It was both a gesture of consolation and a subtle attempt to pin my uncle to his chair, to restrain him from attacking Dr. Kraus.

Unfortunately, Dr. Kraus' suggestion was no less accurate than any of the others we'd received from previous doctors, if a bit tactless. In my racist aunt, the relationship between gravitational pull and body was a tenuous one, sliding back and forth constantly, following its own secret schedule.

So, trapped in this condemnable structure, my racist aunt continued to move about in a patternless teeter, clutching chairs and the arms of couches as she went, all the while blinking and squinting her comically magnified eyeballs from behind a pair of owl-sized spectacles. The lenses of her glasses were so thick the average person could slip them on and see atoms smashing on the surface of objects, providing the intense prescription did not induce a seizure or messianic visions first.

With glasses like those, my racist aunt should have been able to see danger afoot as soon as she stepped into a room -- with those glasses she should have been able to see through walls, detecting movement before she entered a room -- but even the twin Hubbell Telescopes strapped to her round face did nothing to prevent her from stumbling head-first into buffet tables and filing cabinets. She also bumped into swiftly moving targets, like other human beings.

And when there were no objects to knock over or no humans to bruise, my racist aunt steadfastly refused to abandon hope. She would merely drop to the ground, from a standing (or, on a few occasions, seated) position. These episodes were unpredictable yet frequent enough to elicit a stern warning from her job supervisor.

"You must stop falling down," he said. "It's a danger to yourself, a distraction to your co-workers, and an insurance risk to this entire company. You have been warned. There. I've warned you."

How many times can one fall down at work before it becomes an occupational hazard? Six? Seven? Twenty? Consider this: whatever that number, my racist aunt surpassed it, and by a quantity impressive enough to shift attention from genuine human concern to double-secret probation. My racist aunt probably fell down more than any other stenographer in the history of New York State's Office of the Comptroller. One year, for her office's Secret Santa party, she received a seat belt.

When my racist aunt wasn't getting strapped into an office chair for her own physical health, she was practicing the exquisite art of saying the first, and worst, thing that slid across her mind on any occasion. She felt not entirely uncomfortable settling her low heft into a lawn chair in the middle of a family reunion and, with a plate of barbecued ribs on her lap, and a quick adjustment of her portable telescopes, announcing, "Wow, I barely recognize anyone. You've all gotten so fat!" Before anyone had a chance to react with anything but stunned silence, my racist aunt would fix the party with a grin and then resume absent-mindedly shoving pork ribs into her great, toxic mouth.

Never short on laughs or malice, my racist aunt would weigh in giddily on any variety of subjects for or about her collected audience. On the subject of a cousin who just left the room: "I really thought Rachel was nice today. I can't think of anything I hate about her now, except her haircut." On her own, humbling battle with obesity: "I guess it's too late for me. I'm too fat now, just like my daughter." On my brother, who turned a slightly troubled adolescence around very nicely, and his new job as a Probation Officer: "How many people have you shot?" On the terrorist "situation" and the growing domestic suspicion of Arab-Americans: "I'm not racist; I just prefer whites."

Be sure that each of these well-aimed daggers was sheathed in pink chiffon giggles. Her ability to burst into ridiculous laughter immediately after dropping a verbal bomb had a disarming effect and, conscious or not, it was probably the only thing that kept us from having her medicated or deprogrammed. Her disgraceful behavior meant she had to be confined to her home, for her mouth drew no social boundaries. Public outings were exhausting, and usually required detailed explanations as my racist aunt ricocheted from location to location, offending every makeup counter sales representative, grocery bagger, and traffic cop she encountered.

If we ever lost her in a department store, we could follow the trail of dropped jaws and frozen stares that we knew would lead to my racist aunt. After making a procession of formal apologies -- "she hasn't been herself these days" -- or slightly more informal ones -- a slowly spinning finger pointing to one's own head or a quick booze-tipping pantomime would suffice -- we'd inevitably find her. Typically, she was explaining to a salesperson the advantages of being African-American. "You must love being colored," she'd insist. "Your afros dry so quickly, you don't even have to spend money on things like rain caps or umbrellas. You must save so much money -- it's hard to believe so many coloreds are still on welfare." Then my racist aunt would smile sweetly and wobble off to her next victim, making sure to lose her footing once or twice along the way.

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