I volunteered to look after Gwendolyn Mayes on Christmas Eve and the day after, mostly for my mother’s sake. Mom had designated herself the family martyr years ago, but I wasn’t going to let her cancel the trip she’d booked months ago with the husband she never gets to see. I happened to be heading back to Michigan so, while my mother was away, I offered myself as caretaker for my great aunt.
In both word and deed, Aunt Gwen had long since abdicated her position in our family tree. After declaring that she was no longer a part of this unit, she had withdrawn from communicating—except to boast of new friends who were now her “real family”—and she hadn’t joined any functions in ages, nor did she attend my wedding or even my grandfather’s funeral—the latter of which took me a while to get over. These affairs had happened long before she took ill and each was less than an hour’s drive away from her home. She simply hadn’t cared enough to come. I could not recall the last time I had been in her presence, or even spoken to her. Three years, perhaps? Maybe more. I did send a card for her birthday, but it was an e-card, and not my normal sealed and stamped felicitations. I recalled that when I was a kid, my mother had told me that Aunt Gwen’s birthday was the same day as Halloween. I had said, “Well that’s appropriate. She’s scary.”
The expression on her face suggested that I was had overstayed my welcome, even though I had just arrived at her apartment. Instead of a long-lost relative come to cook for her and help her dress and up her morphine doses, I felt like an intruder. I lingered a few moments too long near the front door, afraid to leave the safety offered by the nearest exit. Not really knowing what else to do, I greeted her, shuffled toward her and gave her an awkward hug. She barely returned the embrace, though whether that was due to her waning strength or lukewarm feelings, I can’t be sure. Probably a bit of both. “Why are you walking like that?” she asked disgustedly. “Nice to see you too, Aunt Gwen,” I wanted to reply, but I held my tongue and shrugged, biting back bitterness and embarrassment.
To be sure, it’s not like I expected a warm reception. My history with her was…strained, and had been for as long as I could remember. There was, for example, the kiddie lip gloss I wore in elementary school. She reprimanded my mother; thought the color was too dark and that I was too young. Wouldn’t want me to look like a whore, now would we? Then it was my reading Harry Potter (witchcraft is a sin!), the tiny nose stud I got at 18 which she said nothing about but shot me a furious look after she saw. The most egregious was my wisecrack at the dinner table about George W. Bush’s intelligence, which amused everyone but her. She not only left abruptly after my joke but soon sent my mother a letter telling her what a disrespectful a child I was to say such a thing about our nation’s leader. There would be many more episodes as I grew up, as she attacked more and more and I grew my arsenal of smart-mouthed retorts. She had strife with everyone though, not just me. Even her own daughter was estranged from her. My mother is the one person she can really tolerate, but Gwen is mean even to her sometimes: calling and saying rude things; hanging up in the middle of a conversation; sending those signature angry letters. If Aunt Gwen had ever seen any of my tattoos she would probably have not even let me care for her this holiday. But here I was. I said I’d care for her and damnit I was going to stick it out. I was grateful to live in Seattle so that I only had to brave her temperament for a day and a half. Part of me felt ashamed of that thankfulness.
That short time was exhausting. Early on Christmas morning, her television wasn’t working. I tried to fix it but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. After only a couple minutes, she yelled at me to leave it alone. Later when she had cooled down a bit, I went back and fixed it for her. Good thing I wasn’t expecting a thank you because I didn’t get one. Some time after that, she commanded me to make her bed, and be sure to “make it proper.” I’d never been so nervous folding a comforter before. Next, she told me to get a pen and paper, sit down and get under the covers with her. She wanted to dictate a letter:
“I’m outta here,” she began, and a throaty laugh escaped her. Then she looked at me, suddenly stern and said, “You’re not laughing.”
“Well… it’s sad,” I responded, and I meant this. Despite her declarations to the contrary, she is family. And despite our differences, it pained me to see her emaciated body, her hair so thin and plastered to her skull, to hear her cough up blood and ask for death to come soon. And to pass away is a sad thing. She fought with everyone, against everything, but it didn’t seem like she was fighting to live.
“Now you’re making me sad” she scolded. Geez, I thought to myself, I can’t do anything right!
I wrote the rest of the letter out for her, making sure to write in my best cursive. As I wrote, I stealthily pulled the sleeve of my sweatshirt down every so often so as to conceal the tattoo on my wrist, still desperate to avoid a homily about bodily desecration. Getting a tattoo was about the worst decision a person could make, in her eyes. Other than deciding to be a homosexual.
“Let me look at you,” she said. Not knowing what else to do, I shifted 90 degrees to face her. The corners of her mouth turned up a bit (could it be? Was that a smile?) and she told me that I have my mother’s eyes (I actually have my father’s eyes, but perhaps she was loath to say so since she despises him. I said nothing; I dared not contradict her.) As her gaze traveled downwards, she took in this year’s Christmas Day attire: my comfortable college sweats, the same ones that I had slept in—poorly—on her ivory leather sofa the night before. This ensemble displeased her, and she told me so. I became hyperaware of my appearance under her scrutiny. I quickly looked myself over, offering my aunt a weak excuse, adding that I would NEVER wear something like this out of the house. She seemed to expect a more stylish nurse, and I wished in that moment that I were exactly that instead of the bedraggled grandniece standing before her. I was on display: my wild mane of curls; my bare and tired face. Then I chastised myself for caring so much.
I asked her what she wanted to eat. She requested Cream of Wheat, which I’d made only once in my lifetime. I followed instructions to the letter, taking care also to put every bit of kitchenware back in its place. She tasted the first spoonful and spat it out, along with a command: “Fix it for me.” I asked how she wanted me to fix it; what she wanted me to do. She repeated her answer several times, “Fix it for me.” Then she added firmly, “Your mother fixes it for me!” I was confused, as you can imagine. It must have shown on my face.
“Don’t give me that silly look!” Aunt Gwen said. She laughed then; a scornful laugh. Although I disliked the snickering at my expense I told her, meekly and honestly, that it was nice to see her smiling again.
I finally figured out that there were a few small lumps in her Cream of Wheat and to “fix it” meant to remove the lumps. After that ordeal, I was uncomfortable emotionally and physically, cold, tired, and hungry myself. I didn’t want to think about the lumps in her damned cream of wheat.
She told me later that she loved me, and I was quite taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond and I laughed kind of nervously for a second, smiled and said “thank you” as a girl might say to a schoolboy who had just revealed unrequited feelings. Then I added, “I love you too”—but did I? I wasn’t sure. I am not sure even now.
My memories of Aunt Gwen aren’t all bad though. I remember us making jewelry together, stringing colorful beads on strings and carefully fastening wire. I remember a story she told me about a date she went on once when she danced too hard and her fake ponytail flew off. I remember us both lamenting our misfortune in the bosom department, jealous that my grandmother had gotten the big breast gene. And there was the time that we dressed up as flapper girls for her 1920s theme party. I will always remember her statuesque physique, the almond brown skin that was always so flawless, her raspy voice from years of smoking (sexy when not filled with judgment). But if I’m honest, I cannot say that there was ever a time that I got excited about seeing her, nor could I name one occasion when I felt like we parted ways too soon.
I realize only now I am speaking of her as if she is already gone. I suppose it’s because I know that I will never see her again once I go back to Seattle—certainly not in this life, and perhaps not in the afterlife either.
After all, I have so many tattoos.
Danielle Hayden is a writer from Detroit. Her work has appeared in Seattle magazine, Ampersand, SELF, YES! and elsewhere. She received a 2022 fellowship from the Jack Straw Cultural Center. Outside of writing, she finds additional ways to fill her life with words: she is a polyglot with an insatiable appetite for languages, an amateur calligrapher, and recently launched the website 3pistolary.com, which encourages people to write letters. Some of her volunteer work includes assisting language preservation-based nonprofits such as Our Golden Hour and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Danielle also volunteers as a court-appointed child advocate.