The blue veins on the back of her hands looked like rubber bands that lay in the junk drawer. I could count her thin, corkscrews of hair one-by-one, if she'd let me. But Aunt Jo never let anyone touch her, least of all, us kids.
She haunts my mind, my great aunt and her obsessions.
Her tissue thin brow laced with worry. Always worry. Her jutting lower jaw in constant motion. A mutter of Hail Marys under her breath. Her huge ears like Ed Sullivan's mouse friend, Topo Gigio.
When I was five, we lived with my grandparents and Aunt Jo. My grandma—a mother in times when my own wasn't there—lay in a fetal position most of the time, a massive stroke the barrier between us.
From my favorite perch on the stairs, I spied the shoed feet that went from room to room, my mother's mostly. She wore a path from my grandparents' bedroom to the bathroom, brushing past my little form on the stairs. Up she'd come again with a tray to feed my grandma.
Aunt Jo's too-big, black Mary Janes were the only other shoes that shuffled along the worn linoleum with regularity.
In the bathroom, she would chant a prayer over running water. She'd scurry back to her small room and hang things on the clothesline my grandpa had strung for her above her bed and chair. Paper money, handkerchiefs, rosaries, everything that touched her hands was scrubbed. Her dresses and slips, cardigans and coats dulled and wore thin with too many trips through the mangle and tub washing. We kids entertained ourselves by moving her things and causing her to scream at us.
Even though she used them in large quantities, Aunt Jo didn’t smell of bleach, or Ivory soap or even lye. Instead a cloud of dime store talc followed her. White powder dusted and caked on her clothes, stockings, and the black Mary Janes. There were splotches on her shoes, likely from the water that dripped from her hands after she washed her things.
At night, her stockings bunched at her ankles, her legs glistening with guajac oil. My mom said it was an ointment from Germany. I thought the foul smell could chase away demons.
Aunt Jo didn’t drink tea because someone told her that the Chinese crushed the leaves in their bare feet, climbing into large vats to do so. She carried a handkerchief to the table to wipe the silverware, not trusting that it was clean. She never left the house without gloves on, and I never gave it another thought because every woman wore gloves back then.
Photographs my grandpa took populate my home. My mother and her siblings were all born by 1920. I'm reminded of what they survived: Influenza of 1918, two world wars, the great depression, Korea.
“Eighty-three and she died a virgin,” my mother would say. And, often called Aunt Jo just plain “not right.” But she outlived all of her siblings.
Looking at the pictures of all of them—all gone now from things like strokes, diabetes, old age, not viruses—I stand at my kitchen sink, grab the bar of soap, run the hot water and wonder if my dear, obsessive-compulsive great aunt was on to something.