Aunt Julia was my mother’s best friend. One day in 1968, at the age of 57, in her penthouse apartment which was a block from downtown Montreal, she broke free from the life she loathed, drank vodka, took a handful of sleeping pills, fell into the bathtub and drowned.
We had known that she was on an irreversible slide toward self-destruction, however, we were helpless to intervene. We had neither legal standing nor a blood relationship. All we could do was watch, wait and weep.
Like many women of her era she had no marketable skills and was defined by her husband’s position and means. If she had wanted to leave there was no place to go.
My mother met her when they were young women during the 1930s. They married at the same time, and each had a son named Robert. Although, Julia was not a family member, we called her Aunt to indicate a level of intimacy and respect beyond friendship.
Our home was in a suburb of Boston. We had a few acres, a pond and an orchard. It was about as different from Montreal as it gets. I visited my Canadian family each Christmas, from my eleventh birthday until I went to College. Even after I was married, I returned with my husband and young son for occasional visits. It never ceased to amaze me that life in Montreal was so formal and genteel. It was also far more complicated than our simple life in the States. I enjoyed the differences and I loved my Aunt. She was my personal celebrity.
Julia was different from any other woman I had ever known. Unlike my mother who was known for her many artistic talents and home making, Julia was “famous” for her beauty and style. She was fragile, almost transparent, as she would glide from room to room before settling softly into a velvet settee. She was feline in her movements. Nervous in her demeanor. Strawberry blond hair was cut to shoulder length, and frequently tied back with a silk scarf. Her jewelry was understated and her clothing, the latest haute couture.
When she settled, there was sure to be a crystal ash tray near by, and in her hand, a slim silver lighter which she would casually flick open to light her cigarette. Wedgwood boxes held the cigarettes; tea was served in Royal Doulton cups and biscuits on a silver tray.
My mother lacked drama although her presence was undeniable. Julia, on the other hand, was theatrical and at the same time unassuming. It was her manner that fascinated me. She had élan. She was the epitome of elegance and grace. Her breakfast was carried upstairs on a tray. She wore lace negligees late into the morning. And a maid scurried after her, cleaning up dishes and ashtrays.
I do not remember Julia leaving her house to go food shopping. Groceries and pharmaceuticals were ordered over the telephone and delivered. Everything was brought to her door. No money ever exchanged hands. This included catered meals, which were unheard of in my suburban American town.
However, there was a dark side to her life. It became more evident as the years passed.
She was completely dominated by her over-bearing husband. She did not own anything. She did not have license to do anything on her own. She was not permitted to make decisions. My ‘uncle’ was a man of impeccable taste and he wanted everything and everyone around him to be part of his aura of excellence.
Julia was supposed to be perfect and he made sure that she was. My aunt was examined and rated on her appearance and demeanor. She was chastised, even ridiculed in front of us if she did not behave according to his wishes. While we received his warmth, she was the object of his scrutiny. It made us all uncomfortable, and yet no one interfered. We pretended not to hear.
When Julia poured her drinks it was from cut glass decanters. The ice would make a lovely noise as it clinked against the crystal goblet. She took her pills from a tiny silver box that was inlaid with ivory and amethyst. The elegant containers fooled us all. One could not even think of Julia as a drunk or an addict. She just drank cocktails and took something for an occasional headache. After all, we rationalized, there was a difference.
As the years passed, it was inevitable that Julia’s youthful glow would diminish. With her family grown and no occupation of her own, time weighed heavily upon her. She pursued painting and spent a lot of time with her books. But eventually she became a recluse, closeted in dark rooms with masseuses and maids. The door was closed to visitors. We rarely saw her dressed in her fine clothing and understated jewels.
Quietly and sadly she left our world and lived in the shadows. Sometimes she would call us in the middle of the night. Her slurred speech made no sense. Sometimes she was crying. There was little that my mother could do but listen and weep back.
We were not surprised to hear of her death. It was expected. There was some relief. I don’t remember the ceremony. I do remember the cemetery. It was the first time I had been to a burial where little shovels of dirt were ceremoniously thrown on the closed coffin. The clunking sound made me shiver. The thought of throwing dirt on Julia seemed indecent. Maybe fairy dust or white sand, but not dirt. Not on Julia.
When we returned home after the funeral we tried to recall the wholesome strawberry blond of her youth. We remembered how free she was when she visited us and how formal and restrained she was at home in Montreal. We speculated as to the whys and wherefores. We wondered if there was more to her secret life than any of us knew.
Did my uncle hold her fast because of the alcohol, or did he strangle her emotionally until she turned to drink for solace?
I supposed that the real cause of her death was aging. She had not been encouraged to grow old gracefully. And so, rather than ask him for permission, she decided to take matters into her own hands and end the whole wretched thing her way.
©Ande Bliss 2012
EPILOGUE: This is based on a true story. The first and last paragraphs are suppostion. We not know if her death was an accident or deliberate. Point is she was out of control and there were better choices for her.
As I said, her death was expected...not warranted.
Suicide accomplishes nothing. The world will go on without you. Those you leave behind.... Live. And while you become but a sad memory... they live.
A friend of mine thought it would be a great idea to end her life. She figured her family would be very sad. But when it was explained to her that they would go on and all that she would be was a wretched memory... She re-thought the situation...got rough and tough with the world, re-married...and lives.
Suicide accomplishes nothing.