It was a dark time.
The year was 2004. I was 12 when my mother loaded up a U-Haul truck and drove my six-year-old sister Lana and me 500 miles south from everything we knew—including our father after 20 years of marriage. In her North Carolina hometown—a small insignificant place nothing like our home in Brooklyn—my mother stepped into newfound independence, stopped wearing her wedding ring, and began working for the first time in over ten years.
Because she worked the night shift as a correctional officer in the town over, she dropped us off at our great aunt’s house instead of leaving us home alone every night. My Aunt Bank must have been about 75 or 80 at the time and was extremely bony. She lived alone in a dilapidated house and had a lazy guard dog that she kept chained to a tree in her front yard. I don’t believe my mother was very close to her but she was the easiest option.
My mother beamed with pride every Friday, when the teller slid her week’s pay under the partition window at the check-cashing place, even though it was significantly less than the spending money she once received from my father. Every night my mother packed her lunch for the next day—whatever leftovers we had and a can of Pepsi—and returned the next morning just in time to drive us to school. I learned very quickly that the creature comforts I was accustomed to—restaurant meals, newly released Nike’s, cable television—were relics of a former life that no longer existed.
Unlike our two-family home on our tree-lined block in Brooklyn, my mother shoved us into a two-bedroom box on the edge of town. It had belonged to my grandmother before her death and sat abandoned on two acres of land, surrounded by sprawling, overgrown weeds and a graveyard of rust-covered pick-up trucks. The house was weathered and square, with a dilapidated front porch that creaked loudly each time we walked across it. Its wooden floors gave us splinters and were the same ones my mother ran up and down as a child. After many years of neglect, the house needed plenty of renovations. My mother took up the challenge and spent every day after work chipping away at a long list of repairs, employing local handymen for any tasks she couldn’t do herself. Lana and I each had our own bedroom, while my mother converted the living room into her own. The living conditions were a far cry from our previous home, but that didn’t prevent my mother from skillfully decorating each room like an elegant English manor—the product of her obsession with British period pieces and the glossy pages of interior decorating magazines. She has such an intuitive gift for color arrangement and transforming dollar bin fabrics from Walmart into stylish draperies. So much so, that in another life, she would’ve been an interior decorator.
I didn’t really know my aunt too well or why we called her “Aunt Bank” when her first name was Ophelia. Before we moved down South, I only saw her in photos. In person she was frail, with wrinkled, cinnamon skin, saggy breasts that swayed when she moved, and a hunchback that peaked out of her nylon nightgowns like a knoll. And then there was her voice—a small, shaky vibrato mixed with a Southern drawl—that forced me to strain my ears when she spoke. “Wehhhll looook who it issss” she would say each time she opened the door to let us in.
Her house was a hodgepodge of antique furniture with squeaky plastic coverings, yellowing dollies, and tacky dollar store paintings. There was nothing cozy about it, just like there was nothing particularly cozy about her. She had an odd way of interacting with me. Any time I hugged her I was met with a limp pat on the middle of my back. It was almost like she felt pity for me. Pity that I believed she cared. When she smiled at me, it was mechanical as if she had to remember what to do with her mouth. Whenever she reheated leftovers on the stove, she always served Lana a larger portion of food and a dinner roll. When it was my turn, she carefully spooned each sliver of chicken and potato as if she were rationing food. It went on like that for months until I began to pack my own food.
Aunt Bank, I learned, was a righteous woman. A title church ladies use to describe a God-fearing woman who is guided by her strong faith in God. Every Sunday morning, a van would pull up in front of her home and take her to the church. Unlike the old house gowns she wore around us, Aunt Bank’s church clothes were stylish and impeccable. She emerged out of her home wearing suits in rich, vivid colors and an assortment of matching hats. She always read the Bible until she dozed off. We would find her slumped over on her plaid futon with the Bible still in her lap. Growing up in Brooklyn, I overheard stories of Aunt Bank’s husband being a cheater and her youngest child overdosing in a Bronx apartment. Maybe that’s why she threw herself into religion.
One day I came to Aunt Bank’s home with red fingernail polish. “Do you know what kinda girls paint their nails red?” she asked while I read an old copy of Jet magazine on her bed. I looked down at my engine red nail polish and began to shake. “I’m not sure Aunt Bank” I said, staring down at my hands.
“She don’t know Lana. Can you believe that now?” she said laughing, as she turned to my sister who was coloring.
“S-L-U-T-S. And God don’t like them.”
I sat on the bed frozen, pretending to be invisible as my skin began to feel sticky and my eyes welled up. Lana was too little to understand the gravity of her words. She kept on coloring as I quickly began scraping off my nail polish in a panic. I didn’t know what a slut was but I knew I didn’t want to be one.
Every night, right before the sun set Aunt Bank and Lana went outside to kick an old soccer ball around in her front yard. I was never asked to join and understood that it wasn’t worth asking either.
Aunt Bank would let out a small laugh and yell “Goal!” each time she scored. Every few minutes she had to pause for a moment to catch her breath. When they were done Aunt Bank would give Lana a plate of sugar cookies and a glass of milk before falling asleep on the futon.
It may come as no surprise that when my mother called to tell me Aunt Bank died I didn’t react. I can’t even remember what month it was.
“How?” I said flatly.
“In her home. They found her dead on the bathroom floor,” she replied.
Aunt Bank’s bathroom was located on the opposite end of the living room and had a small window that was always kept cracked. At night when I had to pee, my thighs shivered on the toilet. I pictured her tiny body sprawled out on the cold, blue bathroom tiles unconscious. The cool wind gently sweeping against her skin as the house stood still.
Almost ten years had gone by since I last saw Aunt Bank. We moved back to Brooklyn during my eighth-grade year, and the time I spent in North Carolina became a dreary, suppressed memory.
Over the years Lana and I would laugh about Aunt Bank’s inexplicable disdain towards me, coming up with carefully concocted theories to explain her behavior. Did she have a deep-seeded hatred for biracial children or did her medication cause her to experience random mood swings?
“But that doesn’t explain why she loved you so much,” I’d say to Lana.
“Maybe because I didn’t look like you. My skin was darker and plus I was a child.”
I’ve thought about Lana’s words a lot. My rational mind tells me to trust the simplest explanation: Aunt Bank found my presence painful. I don’t mean the type of pain that carries a slight discomfort which fades with time. I’m talking about the kind that imprints on you and never leaves. When I sort through the fragmented pieces of my memories of her I see a woman who lived in a binary world of Black versus White, who picked cotton alongside her siblings until sundown, who used bathrooms for “Colored only,” who survived in a world that constantly reminded her it didn’t want her. Even though I’m not White or White-passing, I’m still what my cousins down south refer to as “high yella” because of my olive skin tone and mixed race. I’m the obvious enemy, child or not. If the only thread holding it all together is family and I bear no resemblance to anyone on my mother’s side, how could Aunt Bank call me kin?
Recently I was on the F train when the subway doors opened to reveal a short woman in a navy pants suit entering the train. A familiar aroma followed her as she found a seat on the crowded train car. Its composition, reminiscent of a woody trail, consisted of strong musk with hints of vanilla. This phantom scent summoned an old memory I had of Aunt Bank and her perfume. She kept multiple glass bottles of the same perfume all over her nightstand at various levels of fullness. She only wore perfume on Sundays for church service. For a brief moment, Aunt Bank was with me on the subway. While I can’t fully say I miss her or her scent, it brings me comfort now to know that she didn’t dislike me, just what I represented and I can live with that.
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