Every time she came to visit, my brothers and I would hide out in the basement, barricaded behind boxes and musty suitcases, terrified that crazy Aunt Fay would somehow find us. For years we lived in fear that during one of her monthly visits to our home my grandmother’s spinster sister would find us. She was kind enough, always bringing us candy and gifts, but she smelled weird. Everything she touched carried the scent. It made me want to throw up. Years later, I was able to identify the pungent aroma as moth balls.
I was asked to go to her home and transport her to a medical appointment. She was ailing, and I suppose that my sense of obligation got the best of me, and I agreed to go. I had planned that she would meet me outside, and then I would assist her into the back seat of the car, purely for safety reasons, and whisk her to the doctor’s, windows open in order to avoid the toxic fallout that regularly seeped out from her pores and enveloped everyone within a 100 foot radius. But, as often happens, the best laid plans get all mucked up.
I arrived and had to go into the house to assist her in getting ready. The entire house was filled with the stench of poison. There were moth balls everywhere, strategically placed in every cupboard, closet and drawer. They were placed in candy dishes and ashtrays scattered about the house, and left loose atop the television and hi-fi. Aunt Fay loved music, and as I rummaged through her collection of assorted alphabetized jazz albums, I found moth balls hidden every few letters. It appeared that this crazy old woman was anticipating some kind of invasion from The Moth People. If she was right, she was clearly well prepared. On the other hand, if she was wrong, then clearly, she was out of her mind.
By the time I got her into the car, after politely refusing her repeated offerings of candies from the mothball laden dishes, I was beginning to experience the effects of exposure to the toxic fumes. I was stomach sick, and my eyes were burning, but it seemed to have no effect on Aunt Fay, who by the way, insisted on sitting in the front seat, claiming she became car sick riding in the back, all the way to the doctor’s office.
She spoke to me about her life and though I have no idea if what she told me was true or just the ramblings of a crazy, old woman, it was an interesting life. She was born in Russia and just as the Bolsheviks mounted their horses, the family fled, and settled in North America. She was a secretary by trade but would frequent jazz clubs where she appeared as a singer, and claimed to have known Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong. She told me that she also painted, had met a man, got engaged, but unfortunately, he was killed fighting the Nazis in France. And yet, despite her talents and celebrity acquaintances, she had no money, and no current friends to speak of. I felt sorry for her in a way, but I couldn’t be certain that the sympathy was real, and not just the effects of the brain disease I was sure I had developed from inhaling the scent that emanated from her clothing.
Following the appointment, of which she didn’t speak during the ride home, I dropped her off, and we went our separate ways. I didn’t see her again until 6 months later. She had passed away, and at her funeral my brothers and I were asked to be pallbearers. I swear I could smell the moth balls rising up through the sealed casket, burning holes in my head. We all suspected that she died from toxic poisoning, but apparently it was an aneurysm. Interestingly enough, and I suppose it was after I took her to the doctor, she had bequeathed me her jazz albums. It was pretty cool, actually. I still have them all, and on occasion I do listen to those old recordings. I am particularly fond of the 1957 Verve Records recording of Billie Holiday’s ‘Songs For Distingue Lovers’ which, to my surprised is autographed by Ms. Holiday. Or perhaps not. I have often considered the possibility that this crazy, old woman forged the signature herself. It doesn’t really matter though. In the end, she turned out to be okay.