When I got over to Littleton on the first foray across from Vermont, I was expecting to see my Cousin Lawrence, who I still considered my friend in this family, in part because he was in the arts – the theater. We had been on the phone and I knew he was up here visiting with his mother, my Aunt Alice. The only one at home when I arrived was Lawrence’s wife Maya, who had a lightness very different from Lawrence’s always carefully rehearsed and slightly sneering form of lightness. Maya had plenty to talk about whenever we met – artistic and political and also mostly silly family matters. Not so very long ago she was dancing with Merce Cunningham, so she no more than me would be a part of the world I was looking into with new eyes now. I doubted if anyone up here except Lawrence, me, and maybe my late grandmother, would ever have heard of Merce Cunningham.
Maya and I went for a drive out the woodsy Easton Road. I told her I had just had this strange memory of my grandmother telling about an important experience she had had years ago while riding with the mailman. This was the first time I had brought up anything with any relative about what I was putting together. My grandmother rode with the mailman when she did not have a regular driver since she did not learn to drive until she was 80. Aunt Alice, her daughter, still did not drive.
My grandmother had told me about the mailman one day at lunch at the long shiny table where on weekdays at midday there might be only three or four people in a place that by evening could have 12 or 20. She told me that one day long ago when they were stopped way out in countryside at someone’s mailbox the mailman had a sudden heart attack and died. What was she to do? She couldn’t just stay in the car with the dead man. And then, she told me, she saw in the sky the actual words “The U.S. mail must always be protected.”
And so since there was almost no traffic, she waited there in the car alone with a corpse for many hours. What a strange thing, I said now, the story of patriotism and words in the sky – how patriotism trumped sympathy. I saw the story aroused no apparent suspicion in Maya, who did not anyway seem to be listening. And I was now thinking of something she and Lawence had told me the previous year when I went to see a pretentious version of an opaque Brecht play Lawrence directed at McCarter Theater in Princeton. She told me that when she and Lawrence had been vesting in Littleton that year, his sister Lauryn, the one I really liked, had been there too, and Lauryn had said something about having been raped – in Maya's version maybe just once – by Lawrence’s younger brother, the one was had stayed in deep trouble with the law even after they fled New York – sawed off shotguns and kidnapping charges, a stint in the army in lieu of prison, a false identity, and then sudden death on a motorcycle. Things that everyone in this family said never happened in this family – though I was coming to see these as just the sort of things this family should expect.
Maya also talked about how she resented her mother-in-law, my Aunt Alice, giving money and trips to Lauryn’s teenage son Tom, but never to Janet’s own teenage son Eric, and even stranger, creepy actually, that when Aunt Alice spoke of Eric it was as if this now elderly woman were talking about a grown man in whom she was sexually interested.
Back at the house, I went for a walk alone on my aunt’s hilly street’s narrow sidewalk. I breathed deep in the cool mountain air that up here was always so filled with my memories. Then I had a feeling there was someone behind me. I turned. It was Aunt Alice. Aunt Alice was following me, racing after me almost, and she seemed to be looking at me almost as you would look at a lover.
And I was remembering scenes of early childhood, a time when she had been the only one around who could cut through the darkness with gaiety.