Sometimes a Christmas story is about a reverence for snow, cold cheeks almost burning, wet socks, the smell of guava punch with apples and cinnamon, the heat of a wood stove with gingerbread baking in its oven, half burnt potholders with crows to protect the fingers, an Aunt that plays French songs on the phonograph and, half swooning, lays her hands splayed across her chest, just above her dove-like bosom that smells ever so slightly of mothballs and talcum powder.
She was a Catholic—me a diluted Protestant—and it was the Church, she said, that had kept her single because the men of Ireland had never learned to love women, only the Virgin, and tended to abuse them—not to mention themselves—because of the nuns’ warning not to touch. Not even with the heart.
I had no idea what she was talking about, except that I wondered now and then what it would be like to touch her, perhaps when she was asleep and not so sad. I was almost fifteen and curious about bodies, not the least about my own. In a moment of questionable trust, I told my father I found myself wondering about women’s bodies. He took his pipe out of his mouth and told me that was all right and natural enough, and then said with a humpf that I shouldn’t get anyone pregnant.
That remark caused me embarrassment, and I think I blushed—which made it harder for me to see myself as the man my father was. He had seen straight into my deepest secret, which, when I look back on it, overwhelmingly had to do with Nature’s plot to make babies.
My Aunt’s name was Georgina, and I suppose she wasn’t much older than twenty-five at the time. She already had a reputation in our family for not being responsible, for herself or anything else. She forgot to take things off the stove and didn’t tighten the tops of jars, so you had to be careful that the contents—oatmeal, for example, or popcorn—gripped by their lids, didn’t slip away and crash on the straight-grained fir floor of our kitchen, creating two messes, not just one.
Georgina loved my mother’s guava punch—a fruit that was shipped from Florida each winter by her brother Antonio, and that arrived only half rotten. Georgina would carry her cup into the unheated front parlor and add sherry to it. She let me try it, and I thought it was awful, except that it made her a little less concerned about the young men in Ireland that still, at age forty, lived with their mothers and spent too much time in the pubs drinking Guinness and listening to fiddlers rattle their strings with angry jigs and reels, all the while complaining that Ireland should be fighting on the side of the Germans.
One evening near Christmas, my parents drove away in their 1943 Ford station wagon through falling snow to a cocktail party at the end of a dark New England road, to the house of two German bachelors, Herbie and Hans Wanders, who never spoke German, because of the war. That left me and Georgina alone in the house. A pot of guava punch sat thinking at the edge of the stove top. Georgina pushed it with one of the burnt crows to where it would heat up—with me watching her. Then she poured herself a cup and headed for the front parlor. I followed since, in many regards, she was my leader. She clicked on the phonograph, its orange eye lit up and, with another click, the plastic arm came alive and dropped the needle onto Edith Piaf’s “C’est lui que mon Coeur a choisi”—He’s the One My Heart Has Chosen.
I didn’t understand a word of it, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t either. We sat next to each other, with just the light of a distant street light, on the small settee upholstered in pale flowers, with our hips practically touching, and passed the cup—now fortified with my mother’s cheap sherry—back and forth, and I tried not to stare at my Aunt’s knees, which had somehow glided forward from the edge of her corduroy skirt and, at least to my memory, gleamed as if touched by moonlight.
The more I drank of the awful brew, the more I thought about things. How I too was still living with my mother—as well as my father—and how it was somehow wrong to be drawn to my aunt’s exposed knees. The punch made me warm all over, at the same time that I felt perched on the edge of nausea. The song was a walz and very emotional, and right then Georgina took hold of my jaw, brought my head up and around toward hers, and gave me what I think must have been a very un-Catholic kiss square on my lips.
I stared shocked into her eyes, at that moment lit up by the headlights of my parent’s Ford which, returning early, crunched to a halt the front of the house. The bridge over Prospect Creek, on the way to the Wanders, had collapsed, and my parents had seen the gaping black hole just in time and had stayed only long enough to drag brush across the road to warn motorists coming from the same direction. Back in the kitchen, while my mother studied us with a curious expression—possibly suspecting loose lids, my father marched to the phone on the wall, told all the listening busybodies to get off the goddam line and called the police about the fallen bridge.
Georgina, as it turned out, left for New York on the morning train and returned by ship to Ireland, which zigzagged all the way, she wrote, to avoid the torpedoes of German U-Boats. And I went on to lead a life only occasionally drawn to sherry, and more often to guava in any form—for its intoxicating smell. I no longer live with my mother, and I often thought of Georgina and her knees, until I met my first love—and then, like the men of Ireland, I forgot her.