I took my aunt Edith pretty much for granted while she lived just a few houses uphill from ours. We both eventually inherited our family homesteads and stayed put there. When I was but a boy, Edith would babysit me. Throughout the war years, she would escort me to patriotic civic events, pledging me to promise not to tell her mother that she smoked those endless Chesterfields she so much enjoyed.
Edith had a quietly attractive friend in her schooldays and beyond, but she herself was, at least on the outside, an extrovert, even a clown, using her social skills to disguise her insecurities, as we all do. “I was intimidated, both by my mother’s glamour, and also by my kid brother’s incredible artistic talent. I couldn’t compete with that, so I gathered seashells on the beach and strung necklaces. That was the limit of my craftsmanship and my vanity.” And yet, Edith was able to use her imaginative instincts with beads and bangles to get through the depression and the duration, enter the costume jewelry industry and thus save her birthplace from bankruptcy and her family from failing and from falling from grace and good.
Among my imprinted impressions of my father’s half-sister, who was also my mother’s cousin, there was the era of my cub-scout training in how to tie a proper knot with a piece of rope. “Can you come up and teach me how to do that? I can translate the hemp into gold and make us both a fortune!” And I did, and she did. She rose to become a major figure in the economy of the factories that sent our designs around the world. Of course, Edith gave me an “identification bracelet” and a signet ring for my bar mitzvah. I confess I have lost them or perhaps given them away to some pretty girl somewhere. Anyway, they don’t exist as such except in my fond and grateful memory.
I came home from college to attend her wedding – was it at the Narragansett or the Biltmore Hotel? – and also to visit the new couple’s apartment. Within a year, they were back on Summit at the corner of Creston, where they renovated the parlor and the garden. I might stop by at dawn to munch a muffin and hitch a ride to my RISD office with Edith, who had returned to her studio world – again to make ends meet. We had ever so slightly drifted apart during my Yale days. I think she thought I had lost touch with her world, its concerns and its borders of thought. I was reaching and stretching, but she found me sophomoric. Our relatives are usually right about us. We need a hiatus before we reconnect.
Edith became, in time, the very memory and guardian of our family’s past. We met Teresa Wright of “The Best Years of Our Lives” at Rhode Island College. We wended our way to Oakland Beach on a shared pilgrimage to summers long ago but never far away. She had always wanted me to imitate the scriptwriters of the Hollywood of yore, when siblings would argue about the claims of necessity versus art, but with the Jewish content disguised and even the talents and businesses hidden. Not the movie industry but Carnegie Hall, not Rumanian immigrants but Italians standing in for the Jews.
Edith suggested I could translate all the disagreements among the cigarette smoke and the littered ashtrays in her kitchen and by her hearth. She had played her roles (sometimes in Noel Coward comedies) at the Barker temple to the dramatic arts on Benefit Street; it was time for me to play my part – to pick up my pen and sketch her, or our, world in words.
When Edith passed away, her son Joel brought downhill to me the photographs from their attic and a few tokens of the era before his own birth and boyhood. I rediscovered my aunt among her papers. The great American novel exists personally within the postcards and photos of each of us. It depends upon the local newspapers to publish such chronicles for whoever may make the most of the glimpse into the glass of collective history.
Edith was a hard worker and a seeker of fame, fortune and friendship wherever they might be. Aren’t we all?
A postscript: Next door to her abode, there was a twin residence, and once upon a time her aunt and cousins lived there, until the ladies of the manors quarreled, and the taxes and expenses of the period split the compound. Aunt Becky was my father’s aunt, my own great-aunt. She had survived the pogroms of tsarist, imperial Russia and comforted herself with a safe and proud American identity, at her card parties, with a glass of good whiskey, legal or not, and with her four children and, later, numerous grand-children.
“Are you related to them?” people sometimes asked me. Becky had a joyous quality that didn’t seem quite to fit the more introverted concerns, anxieties and affectations of the Finks. “Yes, indeed,” I would answer with a teenage smirk of pride. In the late years, I made a film about the World War II veterans from our family, and I interviewed Aunt Becky at the Home for the Aged. She was by then blind, but her thick white hair and her accent and her lively chatter and her warm greeting endeared her to me, as always. My job in life ... is to remember … and to celebrate!
MIKE FINK teaches at RISD and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.