My earliest memory: I am in the kitchen of our ranch house in Euclid, Ohio on a hot summer afternoon. My Aunt Bernice, wearing the largest, warmest, smile in my entire universe, has driven her snazzy scarlet and pearl-white Nash Metropolitan convertible over for a visit. She and my mother look remarkably alike, sitting with their coffee at the round aqua Formica tale. Both are dark-haired, slim, smooth-skinned, and exude the same mixture of intelligence and exuberance. People often mistake them for sisters, even if it’s my father whom Aunt Bernice is sister to.
I must be well under the age of three, because my brother Saul, only a year and a half younger, is not in this scene—he must have still been an infant. It is the Age of Aunts. Aunts are constantly dropping by, fussing over me, having us over. Sometimes they all come at once, not just my own, but also the greats, alluring Aunt Doris, solid and dependable Aunt Mary, wisecracking Aunt Lil, all of them surrogate parents to my mother, whose father died just before she reached adolescence. In the summers they cook up huge, incredible meals that we eat in a back yard bounded by a flowerbed on either side and a row of poplars in the back.
Aunt Bernice is a lot of fun. She takes me and my brother for whirls in her two-seater with the roof down. She lives in an apartment with a turret and a bed that swings down from behind a closet door and owns a bright red wooden babushka apple with another apple inside it and another down to one the size of my fingernail.
She always brings presents. This time she has something new. There’s the rustle of a paper bag from which she draws a thing that looks sort of like one of the trees out back. She holds it from the trunk end and instead of branches and leaves it has a shiny black-and-white surface that refracts the sunrays streaming in through the open back door. She holds it out to me, and I can see that for her it’s not just a present, it’s an object of great fascination and interest, which in fact is how she approaches every object she comes across and every person she meets. I wrap my fingers around the foliage end and she places a thumb and index finger at the top and gently moves my hand down to the trunk. Aunt Bernice is leaning forward expectantly. I consider the poplar tree. Aunt Bernice glances at my mother, who shrugs.
“He likes to think,” she says.
Wordlessly, Aunt Bernice returns her fingers to the top of the object, where she pulls slightly. The shimmery surface peels off; she crumples it up and places it in the ashtray on the table. The poplar is now brown, the shimmer has turned into a gloss sheen.
Aunt Bernice was the most fun because she had no children of her own. Saul and I got her undivided attention. She was always taking us out for hamburgers or ice cream, and reveled in our boisterous behavior. She wasn’t even fazed when, as we sat in a booth in a crowded Big Boy, Saul bit me in an unconventional place, a fact that I loudly and shrilly announced to the entire clientele.
True, she had a longstanding boyfriend, a lawyer in the naval reserves with the intriguing name of Lincoln, but he was as much fun as she was. He let us sit on his lap and steer his car around the May Company Department Store parking lot. Sometime during our elementary school years they married, receiving as a wedding present a parakeet named Jo-Jo who knew how to say “Jo-Jo.” By then the Age of Aunts was long over and I happily handed her over to my new Uncle Linc, and they had two daughters of their own.
It couldn’t have been easy to be a 30-something unmarried woman in Cleveland’s tight Jewish community just a decade and a half after the end of World War II. My Bubby certainly was not happy about it. I also found it strange. When I was three, I categorized all large female human beings according to whose mother they were. It didn’t make sense that Aunt Bernice was no one’s mother. My father had explained that she was Bubby’s little girl, but I didn’t believe him because Aunt Bernice was obviously not a little girl. My brother Saul generously told Aunt Bernice, soon after her wedding, that he’d be happy to be her Daddy as soon as she could dispose of Uncle Linc.
Bubby couldn’t understand why her beautiful and talented second daughter wasn’t married. Certainly she’d done all she could to make her an attractive bride, for example by keeping her unencumbered by a serious career. When my father’s father died, shortly before my parents’ wedding, Bernice took over de facto management of the State Bottle Company. By all accounts she proved herself a talented entrepreneur in this far-before-its-time, low-profit glass container recycling business. But young men, Bubby knew for a fact, wanted stay-at-home wives, and gagged at the idea of a mate who might earn more than they. So the State Bottle Company was sold off—thanks to Bernice, at a profit that financed Bubby’s many years of widowhood. Bernice tried out LA, then New York, but eventually came back to Cleveland and went to work in an office somewhere, at a job she could discard when her true calling came.
If any of this bothered my Aunt Bernice, I certainly couldn’t sense it. On her face is a look of pent-up delight, which will break free in a torrent as soon as I—well, what was I supposed to do with this thing? I was obviously being expected to use it in some manner. I examined it carefully. It didn’t have wheels. It wasn’t round, or fuzzy. I touched the brown part with the fingers of my left hand. It was cold, and it wasn’t made out of plastic. So it seemed not to be a toy.
“It must be the chocolate,” Aunt Bernice hypothesized to my mother. “He doesn’t like chocolate.”
She gently took the brown poplar from my hand and, picking up a butter knife, swiftly scraped the brown surface into the ashtray, revealing a white interior. Then she handed it back to me.
“Maybe you should take that outside,” my mother suggested. So it was something to be used outside. I walked out the back door and stood for a moment on the small concrete stoop.
Three girls were sitting on the stoop of the next house over. One of them was Paula, my puffy-cheeked next-door neighbor. Being at least four years old, perhaps even five, she was a useful source of information about the world. Holding the now-white miniature poplar straight out in front of me, I walked over into Paula’s yard and showed her my present.
“Aunt Bernice gave it to me,” I told Paula. “But I don’t know what it is.”
Paula gave her two friends a knowing look.
“Let me see,” she commanded. I handed the object over to her.
“It’s an ice cream bar!” she exclaimed, biting into it. Before I drew my next breath she and her two friends had finished it off. She handed the stick back to me.
“So it’s to eat,” I observed.
“Yes,” said Paula. “To eat. And it’s very good. Next time she brings you one you can come back.”
Even after the end of the Age of Aunts, when I wasn’t much interested in being a nephew, I remained close to Aunt Bernice. By that time we’d moved to Washington, but on our long summer trips to Cleveland I’d spend a lot of time at her home. She and her family moved into the house that Uncle Linc inherited from his parents. A house of tiny rooms and crannies, filled with antique furniture and old books, it was a nightmare for a housewife but a fantasy land for a kid. I’d play with my two younger cousins and try to make sense of old tomes with names like “Confessions of an Opium-Eater.”
By the time I started my own family I was living on the other side of the world. My kids met Aunt Bernice only a handful of times but they had as much fun with her has I had. And when I saw her last November, after a hiatus of several years, she remembered each of my children’s characters and interests in great detail. She hoped that they would have adventures and do big things. During the same visit, she pulled my sister Nancy (born long after the Age of Aunts) over for an intimate conversation and told her that she very much wanted to make a difference in the world but wasn’t sure about the best way to do it. She was 85.
She’d been sick these last few years, in and out of the hospital, forgetful and stubbornly refusing to take her pills. Last month, she suffered a heart attack and passed away.
I walked back to our yard and through our back door. I showed Aunt Bernice the empty stick.
“It was an ice cream bar,” I said sagely.
“Yes, it was!” Aunt Bernice chortled.
I have long since forgotten most everything that happened before I was three, but that summer afternoon remains with me. Some might argue that I remember this story because of the important lessons I learned from my Aunt Bernice that day: first eat, then ask questions; he who hesitates loses his chocolate coating; beware of neighbors accepting gifts. But I really remember it because of her smile.