I used to count the multitude of tiny blood blisters on her back. Her large body was tightly packed into an armored bathing suit. She was the only woman at the pool who put her lipstick on before she got into the water. She swam gracefully, careful to keep her feathered bathing cap from getting wet. I used to sit curled into a little ball following her with my eyes in total fascination.
My Aunt Leona loomed large in more than her physical appearance. She led an ordered life and if you were with her—you led one, too. I used to stay with her for a couple of weeks every summer as a child. She spoiled me rotten and planned every detail of my life for 14 days. We would go to the grocery store and she would say, “Get anything you want.” Anything I want? Powdered donuts, ice cream, pita bread. No request was too weird for Aunt Leona but I always had to wash it down with prune juice. For those two weeks each summer I found it easiest to forget myself entirely and just float along.
She glides across the water like a jewelry box ballet dancer. Her feathered bathing cap flutters lightly in the wind. The sun dries the tiny pearly beads of water on her back.
Aunt Leona was beautiful. I used to stare for hours at her “modeling shots” taken in the 1940s. They pictured: Aunt Leona rubbing her high-heeled feet as she sat on the side of a rocky mountain path; a spotless Aunt Leona sitting high upon a horse in the middle of a rodeo; a totally confident and warm Aunt Leona donning skis on top of a quaint little slope. Now, the Aunt Leona I knew wouldn’t get on a merry-go-round, take a walk in the grass, or go further than knee-deep in the ocean for fear something terrible would happen. But the contradictions only made her more fascinating to me because the same expression she bore knee-deep in the ocean was the same one she had high on the horse. And behind that expression I could almost hear her voice saying, “I am in dominion of all I see. I am in perfect control.”
I can’t see her legs under the water and it makes her look like she is moving by some invisible force. Whatever it is it keeps her pace steady and even.
My aunt took me on countless vacations. Wildwood Crest, New Jersey. New York City. Lake George. She took me shopping and swimming. To concerts and scenic overlooks. To art shows and plays. These excursions always had tight itineraries. No time for side trips, laying around, or between-meal snacks. She bought me dresses for high school dances and fixed my hair for parties. She got up at seven a.m. to bake and lay cookies on a three-tiered tray for my wedding. Everything she did was smooth and practiced. I saw her as someone who could conquer any situation and make it manageable, someone who could take chaos, grab it by the throat, and choke it into submission.
My aunt was a study in balanced perfectionism. She never got in over her head. She never went out of the house without being appropriately and stylishly dressed. At weddings and parties, she slid across the dance floor with my uncle the same way she slid through the water at Hammonds pool. And through it all she always had the same expression.
Her hands move in circles in front of her, swirling the water around her painted nails. There is silence as the sun dances across the pool. There are other people but they are diminished by her presence.
My aunt had the longest and most noble battle with breast cancer in history. In 1983, when I first heard her dire prognosis, I immediately fell down the stairs of my Philadelphia apartment into a heap of blubbering tears. My roommates, desperate to help me, exclaimed, “They have some drugs these days.”
Some might credit the drugs for my aunt’s 18 years of struggle with this awesome disease, but I believe it was her will and her will alone that kept her alive. Even in her last days when she was in a hospital bed and gasping for air—she was beautiful. And in her eyes I could hear her voice—steady, maintained, and unwavering.
I close my eyes so I can hear her breathing—but I can’t. All I see is that graceful body, that feathered bathing cap, and that face. She is in dominion of all she sees, she is in perfect control, she is at peace.