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,