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I delivered the eulogy partly because there was no one else who was immediate family, and partly because I was making up for having been so loaded on the day she died.
My Great-Aunt Fremo taught me the twist when I was six years old.
"Lovey, it's like putting a cigarette out," she said, then demonstrated, her huge breasts tumbling from side to side as she mashed the imaginary cigarette into the carpet.
She was babysitting
for me -- a last resort. Fremo was not babysitter material. She was not
people material for that matter. She was best with cats and, at that time,
had eleven of them living in her mid-Manhattan studio apartment chosen
for its close proximity to the Art Students League.
she had her throat slashed open right through the chain lock on her door!"
Then Fremo reenacted the terrible event -- opening the chain lock on her
apartment door and miming a knife jabbing at her neck as she leaned in
to see who was on the other side.
Aunt Fremo always did that. She'd take a perfectly nice moment and, in an instant, turn it into something scary or mean. The only person she got along with was my grandmother Witia, my mother's mother and Fremo's older sister.
Witia and Fremo huddled under Grandma's big pear tree at the house in East Rockaway, making noises together like birds. They both spoke in high, thin, clipped voices like the movie stars of the thirties.
"Lovey, I am telling you he was simply deeeevine!!"
Then they would break into laughter, a sound between a tinkle and a shriek. I would play way on the other side of the yard hoping they would forget about me at least until dinnertime. I lived in dread of their attention, their hugs and kisses. It was never enough. The more I hugged or kissed them it seemed the hungrier they got for it. They were too loud, too big, too embarrassing. I hated going anywhere with Witia and Fremo. People stared at us and I felt suffocated by them, longing for little shrunken old women to cuddle with like the grandmothers and aunties my friends had.
Legend had it that Aunt Fremo had been married once for a couple of months to a bad old boy; a cowboy she tripped upon one day in New York City. Charlie was his name. Apparently he'd had a thing for other women. So Aunt Fremo chased him out of the house brandishing a rolling pin. I'm sure the rolling pin thing was made up. I don't think Fremo knew what a rolling pin was, much less owned one. She probably chased old Charlie out of the house with a butcher knife and the family toned it down somewhere in the telling.
Fremo was an artist. She lived for painting and for her cats. She was usually dressed in some old black sweater that buttoned down the front and was covered in cat hair and paint. She smelled of turpentine and cat food, and when she wasn't tending to her cats at home, she walked the streets and fed the cats in her neighborhood. She was tall and striking and had big feet. She was quite a Russian beauty in her day and she was obsessed with make-up. She always wore make-up, even to bed. She would put on a fresh face of make-up every night before she went to sleep because, "God forbid there was a fire!" What she really meant was God forbid there was a fireman.
She had affairs that were always brief and terrible and left her crazier than before. When I was twelve, my family went to Rome for a few months and Fremo came to visit us. She met a man while she was feeding the cats at the Coliseum and began sneaking out every night to meet him. She was 67 and sneaking out of our rented apartment to have sex with an Italian in the alleyways of Rome. One morning she came home limping on a shoe with a broken heel, slammed the apartment door, ran to her room and didn't come out until the next day. My mother comforted her as best she could, then sent me out to the cobbler with Fremo's shoe.
In the 1970s, Fremo moved to Saugus, California. I was attending college then, in nearby Valencia, but was barely making it to classes, having taken up a course in psychedelics and Southern Comfort which kept me pretty popular with the student body -- my body repeatedly turning up in a variety of dorm rooms. I remember once waking up between a set of black satin sheets and surmising that I must have finally conquered George who everyone insisted was gay, including George himself, but in those days that just didn't seem like a strong argument to me.
One night the house I shared off campus had an electrical fire. I managed to escape with only a blanket wrapped around me and a MasterCard. Fremo agreed that I could stay with her while I got back on my feet.
She was having an affair with her pool man and had twenty-seven cats living with her in the cramped one bedroom house, a fifties-style box with remarkably low ceilings. The place stunk of cat shit and oil paint and chlorine, the latter because Fremo kept the pool man on an unnaturally busy schedule. I showed up wearing stiff new Levi's and a denim shirt purchased on my credit card, feeling scared and vulnerable from the ordeal of the fire. Fremo welcomed me and seemed really glad for my company. She made us tea and we talked and talked long into the night. She expressed genuine interest in me and I just couldn't help it, I let everything spill: the drugs I was doing, all the men I had slept with. As I recounted my adventures, she laughed and gasped and seemed to be enjoying herself; my escapades of promiscuity bringing us together in a way we had never shared before. While she made up the foldout couch for me, I thanked her for a wonderful evening and for letting me stay.
"Lovey, get your beauty sleep," she said.
And I kissed
her freshly made-up face, her lipstick just beginning to slide into the
"What's wrong?" I asked.
She stood up slowly, regarded me coldly as if she were meeting me for the first and last time. "Why, you're nothing but a whore," she said. But she pronounced it "ho-wah" in that movie star way.
That afternoon I moved out.
Several years later, Fremo was diagnosed with cancer. It was slow and terrible. It took two years for it to claim her, and her neediness was both moving and repulsive to me. If she had been difficult to be around before, now she was almost impossible. She was so angry at her illness and the inept way in which my mother and the rest of the family tried to care for her needs. The food they brought was too salty. Her apartment too lonely. (She had fled with her cats back to New York City and her beloved Art Students League after just a year in Saugus). During stays at my parents' apartment she complained that it was too cold, or too hot. She drove them crazy. Only Trini, their longtime housekeeper, and Rachel, my paternal grandmother, could tolerate her irritability. Rachel is central casting for an Italian grandmother and was always in my parents' kitchen sweating and cursing, the bottoms of her arms covered in flour and jiggling while she stood at the counter making dough for pasta. Trini was from San Salvador and spoke no English. She and Rachel had cross-pollinated a language between Italian and Spanish that only they could understand. As for me, I was living uptown. I was in and out. Working, dating, partying. I was a kiss on the cheek and out the door. I was no help at all.
As the end
neared, Fremo went into the hospital. Rachel and Trini set up camp, making
sure she was cared for and clean, that her hair was washed and that she
had her make-up.
I popped by to see her one day. Rachel and Trini must've been out getting lunch, because Fremo was alone in the room. She raised her head toward me and I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. She had painted her eyebrows red with her lipstick liner and her lips were lined black with her eyebrow pencil. She greeted me with a big smile and I sat down on the edge of the bed and held her hand. It was the only visit I had ever paid her where I didn't keep checking the time. I sat with her that day until Rachel and Trini returned.
A week later
the call came.
Rachel and Trini came running down the hall and grabbed me.
"This is it!" they said in all languages. "It's happening."
They pulled me along towards Fremo's room.
She was sitting straight up in bed, her eyes alert and wide open as if she were seeing something very close up. She was moving her hands up and down and around. I thought at first she was gesturing at something but then I realized that she was painting. She was painting and she was dying.
If I could re-do what happened next it would go like this: I would have crossed into the room and sat with her on the bed and followed her fingers and the imaginary brushes that fluttered from them. I would have stayed until she had filled her last canvas and I would have told her that it was her best work ever. But I didn't. I turned away and told Rachel and Trini that I wasn't feeling well and I was going back to my apartment to try to get some sleep. Then I ran down the hall toward the elevator.
"Let me know if anything changes," I called back over my shoulder.
My apartment is covered in Fremo's artwork. It's one of my great regrets that my eye was too dim to appreciate what a really talented painter she was while she was still alive. After she died I inherited all her artwork and furniture, so I hung some of her paintings to cover the bare walls. I have fallen in love with her work and with the models she used, with the reflection of Fremo's loneliness in their eyes. Her best painting is of a model named Susie -- a full-bodied, big-breasted nude in a chair. She is wearing nothing but a hat with feathers, and high heels. She smokes a cigarette and regards her audience directly and without shame.
I found nude photos of Fremo as I was sorting through her things. There were three. In two of them, she was with a man. He was wearing a suit and they looked very happy together; she, demurely posed on his lap. In the third photo she is alone, seated on a chair, her legs wide open exposing herself to the camera. I do not have the feeling that there is anyone in the room with her. I imagine her setting up the camera and then running to the chair and spreading her legs in time for the shot. A private moment that she forgot to throw away.
Trini and Rachel sat in the front row of the funeral parlor. Trini was praying in Spanish and Rachel was praying in Italian. The Rabbi was winding up his remarks. Since my parents were still away on business, I was left to assist with the arrangements. There were a couple of distant relatives, a neighbor from Fremo's building, an acquaintance from art school. Really we should have invited her cats. They were closest to her. They knew her best. But the one cat that she'd managed to keep during her illness had barricaded himself in Fremo's closet the day she died, and for three days attacked anyone who tried to get him out. Rachel and Trini wore Band-aids on their hands. Under the sleeves of my dress were scratches that ran the length of my arm.
I rose to deliver the eulogy. As I walked up to the podium I looked down at Fremo lying in the open casket. That morning we had dressed her in her silk leopard skin pajamas and hired a professional to do her hair and face. When we finished, we stood back admiring our efforts.
"Lovey, you look like a million bucks," I said as Rachel and Trini murmured their approval. Then we folded her arms over her chest and tucked her vinyl make-up bag under her hands.
"My Great Aunt Fremo taught me the twist when I was six years old," I began as I stood at the podium and looked around at the other five mourners who had spread themselves out in the funeral parlor in an attempt to look like a crowd.
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