Sunday, June 12, 2011

I've been attempting to reconstruct some of the things that are on the Iomega drive, and store them someplace relatively safe. Sure, blogger might betray me too, but it has been pretty good to me for over nine years, while hard drives, diskettes, zip drives, flash drives, writable CDs have at one time or another, often at the most inopportune moment, decided to fail me big time. So that's the reason for the series of recent posts with the "my writing" label.

Bus Ride
original drafts 1997-2007

The bus smells like pee. The driver recognizes me and smiles. "So we have two for Castleton tonight," he says. I take a seat near the back and begin my mental narrative. I want to write about Aunt Jean, and hope to use the ride to summon inspiration.

If funerals can be beautiful, hers was. Except for the singing. I think of the Reverend singing hymns off-key, of Sylvia's lovely eulogy, of the gentle breeze in the Bushkill Cemetery, of my cousins. But my mind keeps going to a name, Valentine Green. If I was an actress, I would use it as a stage name. Valentine Green was an attractive woman in her seventies, the wife of my writing tutor. When I met her during my college days, she told me she thought I was a dancer. Certainly not a singer, and not from a singing family, as those hymns at Aunt Jean's funeral demonstrated.

We cross the bridge over the Hudson, then pass the K-Mart in Rensselaer. By now I am lost in thought. Aunt Jean taught me how to type one summer, on her sturdy IBM typewriter, set up in the porch which served as the office for Uncle Bob's business. It was my first job. I typed "I" instead of "1," not understanding the difference, since the child's typewriter I used at home didn't have "1." She showed me my mistake but used the envelopes I had typed anyway. In later years, Aunt Jean was fascinated by computers, and I had the chance to compensate for the typing lessons by helping her to use email when she was in the hospital. Some of the nurses would have preferred my visits be sans-laptop; they felt the Internet might be too "exciting" for her, but Aunt Jean and I defied them. No regrets.

If I had to say just one thing about Aunt Jean, it would be that she loved to read. She gave me many books when I was a teenager, mostly Gothic romances by someone whose writing we both admired, Georgette Heyer. She got them from the rare books business where she worked at that time. Once I was finished reading them, I would pass along those old books to my grandmother, Mimmie, another avid reader.

The bus is mostly empty now, having dropped off many of its passengers in the 1940s development known as Hampton Manor. I realize the driver is speaking to me, but I have not been paying attention, and am sitting too far from the front to hear anyway. He repeats his question several times before I get up and move closer. "Is the air conditioning too high?," he wants to know. "No, it's fine," I reply, annoyed at the interruption, although I know he is just being polite. The only other passenger is a regular rider, a greasy-haired woman who always spends the entire ride in a conversation with whichever driver gets stuck with Bus 32. Except that it isn't really a conversation, since it's one-way. She never seems to mind that he doesn't answer. He couldn't even if he wanted to, since she never pauses.

The driver is once again occupied with her endless monologue, so I try to resume my thoughts. Valentine Green intrudes. I remember her shoulder-length gray hair and expressive hand gestures. She was a retired actress. Perhaps, I think, it is simply too soon to write about Aunt Jean. The bus stops to discharge the woman, still talking as she exits. She retrieves a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her jeans, shakes one out, and gives a big wave to the driver. He asks me if I am getting off at the same stop as last time I rode the bus. "Yes, by the Lutheran church, where the street changes to one-way." "Well, then I guess I know which way I'm going," he says. On the Castleton bus, CDTA route maps are just a suggestion.

Back to inspiration gathering. When my sister was in the fourth grade, Aunt Jean volunteered to work at a book fair held at the school. Tables of books lined the hallway, and each class took turns going down to shop. After wandering through the aisles, Janette spotted a spiral-bound Betty Crocker cookbook for kids. Although the little book cost only $1.50, that was $1.50 more than Janette had, so she put it down and returned to her classroom. She noticed that all of the “smarter” students had purchased a couple of books, or at least one. Later that day she saw Aunt Jean, who presented her with a small package. Unwrapping it, Janette had to blink back tears. So Aunt Jean had noticed. Back with her classmates, she proudly displayed her book from the fair, Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls. Just like the better-off kids. In the more than forty years since that day, Janette has baked every recipe it contains.

Aunt Jean did some writing for a small newspaper in the 1960s. She wrote the "West Shokan" column, chronicling the weekly events of our town. She was such a character! She attended my wedding with about fifteen minutes' notice. Aunt Jean wasn't offended over not being invited earlier, she just threw on an outfit, changed "happy birthday" to "happy wedding" on a card she had and there she was. In 1996, at my husband Bob’s grad school graduation, she did not let chemotherapy stop her. She insisted on staying in the bleachers until every note of the recessional was played, and every last graduate had trailed out.

Aunt Jean was still doing the books for her last job, at the Olive Library, when she was in the hospital shortly before she died. Still worrying about the payroll. Reading remained her friend, and her sense of humor stayed intact. For two years she faced her illness, ovarian cancer, with bravery, dignity and optimism. She filled us all with hope. On Memorial Day, less than two months before she died, she gave me a crocheted sweater that had been made by her sister, Ital, another of my paternal aunts, who had been taken by cancer in 1980. It is green, brown and cream colored, and very retro. Whenever I wear my special sweater, I am a magnet for compliments from complete strangers.

I heard that Bill Green, my writing tutor and the husband of Valentine Green, got cancer one semester. He suddenly stopped working for the writing center. That time, I never learned the outcome, but I suppose there can be no doubt. The bus pulls up to my stop. I thank the driver and step to the ground.

Added (June 2011): A couple of weeks ago, I was telling some friends of my parents about how great Chobani yogurt is. The plant is at the old Kraft cheese facility near New Berlin. When my parents were first married and my oldest brother was a baby (about 1950), they moved with several of my father's brothers and sisters to New Berlin. Aunt Jean worked at the Kraft factory. The women she worked with had a softball team, and Aunt Jean joined. My mother also played for the team. Ma was and still is a way better athlete than I will ever be. You should not even put the word "athlete" and "Gina" in the same sentence, so it isn't that much of a compliment to my mother to say she's better than I am. In fact (she wouldn't say this because she's humble), I imagine she was one of the better players on the team. She has admitted, though, that she was pretty good, much better than Aunt Jean, who like me, also was not much of an athlete. However, unlike me, she was a good sport and was willing to participate and make an effort. 

After a few weeks of playing, my mother told Aunt Jean that she was going to quit the team. Why? Because superior playing skills or not, the women on the team treated her like crap. They acted nice to Aunt Jean, didn't seem to mind that she wasn't a very good player, chatted with her over ice cream after the games, but they wouldn't talk to my mother, or sit with her at the soda fountain. Apparently, her last name had a few too many vowels. Funny thing is, it is Ma's married name, and was Aunt Jean's maiden name. My mother is not at all Italian, while Aunt Jean was 100 percent, and Ma's ancestors have been in upstate New York since 1710, while Aunt Jean's parents landed at Ellis Island in 1912. But these women judged based on how ethnic the names sounded to them. Aunt Jean's married surname was British, and she'd always been called by the nickname Jean, but her given name was Concetta! So she quit too, and that was the end of the Kraft softball team for both of them. Life just brims with examples for toleration class!

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