Friday, May 19, 2006

A Visit from Bea’s Nieces (1)

Nan and Margot are daughters of Bea’s little sister Dorothy. Bea seems to recognize Nan, who is older. Propped up in bed, Aunty Bea receives them both for a spell before her nap. I then take my cousins to the beach. Nan wonders out loud why we didn’t see more of each other while growing up.

“Bea and Dorothy always argued,” Margot points out.

I tell Nan that, in some ways, I think my father wanted to protect my mother from her family.

Upon our return, we join Bea for cheese and crackers, a gift from Nan’s successful career-girl daughter, the cheese expert. Nan helps Bea drink white wine through a straw. Nan has brought photos, so I get out Bea’s collection. I provide her glasses, which she puts on, then announces she now sees better without them.

Nan shows Bea various shots of family members, asking questions as we go along. Grandma Bertha stands in front of a rambling house in Montclair, New Jersey, with Bea and her siblings. Most of the photos were taken in the twenties, before the stock market crash changed the family’s fortunes. We ask about Bea’s life then.

“One week I had a date with a different man every night,” she recalls, not without some amazement.

“Mom said men liked Beatrice,” Nan comments. “You were pretty.”

“It helped. Helen was really the most beautiful of us all, when she wanted to be.”

I peer at a photo of Helen and exchange glances with Nan who also remembers Bea’s older sister as an unhappy adult, divorced and bitter.

“Here’s a photo in her wedding dress,” I say.

Helen does look stunning.

“You must have been at her wedding,” I prompt.

“I was IN her wedding,” Bea corrects me. “I had just gotten back from a trip through the Panama Canal, so I was all tan. I’m afraid I rather upstaged poor Helen.”

We laugh, but it must not have been funny for the bride.

Nan has a number of photos of our grandmother, looking rather dramatic, dark Gothic photos. It is hard to imagine what life was like for women back at the beginning of the century. When we show Bea a photo of Bertha’s family and comment on the fact that she had six siblings, Bea says simply, “There was no birth control.”

We look at photos of Uncle Hunter and Uncle Bob.

“They both lived unhappy lives,” Nan says.

Her mother and mine sent money to Bob, who liked to gamble.

Nan has more questions, but Bea prefers not to remember the complex family dynamics of her childhood. She is tired and wants to rest.

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