As Aunt Peg would have said, “Isn’t that somethin’?”
I remember my Great Aunt Peg as a kindly old woman who seemed to be in a perpetual state of amusement. She ambled about with her stout frame and white hair, her sparkling eyes framed by glacial grooves of laugh-worn wrinkles, her cherubic mouth always somewhere on the continuum from Mona Lisa grin to tooth-baring smile.
Her infectious laugh was gentle and silly. It began with a short, guttural warning, followed by a cascading repetition of rollicking chortles. A-hill, hill, hill! A-hill, hill, hill, hill! If you didn’t happen to think that the object of her outburst was funny, it was no matter to her – she just went on a-hill-ing, and you couldn’t help but be amused yourself by that silly laugh.
She was a childless widow by the time I came along. Though she lived only a block away, I never visited her, as it was the custom for her to visit us. Then one day, by circumstances I do not recall, I found myself the sole guest in her modest home.
I was perhaps nine years old, and I must have known I was due for a visit of some length, for I remember bringing along a small collection of treasures to show and tell. We sat before a coffee table in her ordinary living room, sunlight filtering through the window from the quiet intersection that bordered her corner house. I embarked on a detailed lecture concerning the assorted items I had arranged on the table. Aunt Peg sat patiently and attentively through my thoughtful discourses on the merits of one trading card over another and the means by which my portable slide viewer worked.
“Oh, how ‘bout that, it has a little battery inside,” she enthused, “a little battery, a-hill, hill!”
When at last I had exhausted my knowledge and fell silent, Aunt Peg was ready to take her turn. She fixed her whimsical countenance upon me and asked, “Have you seen my tent room?” Her casual tone made it sound as though she was referring to something everyone had in their homes. Nonplussed and inquisitive, I followed her into the hall.
Something caught my eye along the way, an optical interference that felt totally out of context. I heard Aunt Peg’s footsteps stop as she turned to find me staring into her bathroom.
“Oh, you like the wallpaper? A-hill, hill! My nephew Bob put that up for me, too.”
Her nephew Bob. I felt a twinge of jealousy at the mention of his name, for I, too, was her nephew Bob, only I was still being called Bobby by everyone. Aunt Peg’s Bob was a mystery to me, someone to whom I was not related in any obvious way and whom I had never met. He did not live here in town, that much I knew, and it was clear from the way that Aunt Peg spoke of him that she was very fond of him.
What kind of man was this Bob? If the bathroom wallpaper was any indication, he was certainly unlike anyone I knew. The pattern was an aggressive, black-and-white tessellation of trance-inducing op art, all dissolving chessboards and the suggestion of checkered spheres that seemed to expand from the wall in bulbous apparitions about the towel rack. Sitting on the toilet must have been a trip into psychedelia, leaving the occupant with a sense of being lost among a sea of holes. I decided then and there that, whomever he was, I liked Bob.
With my senses somewhat scrambled, I followed Aunt Peg down the hall to a doorway from which dangled a curtain of stringed beads and plastic gemstones. She parted the colorful obstacle, and I stepped into another world. A rosy warmth suffused the space, bathing a simple card table and chairs with a crimson glow. The unremarkable furnishings were dominated by great swaths of burgundy fabric that drooped from the four corners of the ceiling and gathered in the center above a hanging tiffany lamp. The effect was surreal. I felt as though I was inside a carnival fortune teller’s tent.
“Isn’t this something?” chortled Aunt Peg. “Bob dreamed it all up and did it all himself. Now I can sit under a tent any time I want, a-hill, hill!”
“That’s really neat!”
“I’ll say! And that’s not all!” She gestured toward a tall box with dark, wooden sides and a rectangular section of beige material stretched over its near face. “Can you guess what this is?”
I had no idea. Before I could think of a response, Aunt Peg pushed a button on a nearby stereo console, and the box came alive with sound and light. Multicolored pinpoints glowed and pulsated to the steady rhythm of a pop song.
“Wow! He made that?”
“Yep. Now I can sit in my tent room any time I want and watch the lights and listen to music. How about that?”
We sat down and played a few games of Go Fish. I kept glancing at the swirling colors of the stereo speaker, wishing secretly that Aunt Peg would notice my admiration and give the fascinating creation to me. It didn’t seem likely, though. She seemed as delighted by the coveted object as I was.
In the course of the afternoon, I learned that the mysterious Nephew Bob had left his mark throughout the house, adding elements of dramatic flair and progressive décor here and there. There was a once unremarkable wardrobe, formerly of a pedestrian brown finish, now antiqued and concealing a television behind its distressed panel doors. And the coffee table at which we had sat earlier turned out to be anything but ordinary. Underneath the newspapers and magazines that cluttered its glass surface was an oval pedestal made from an old washtub, its interior filled with artificial plants that could be observed through the tabletop.
“This is Bob’s, too,” beamed Aunt Peg as she pointed toward a framed print near the stair landing. “See if you can guess what it is!”
I gazed up at an abstract painting composed of large white rectangles bordered by smaller quadrilaterals of yellow, red and blue. It was an appealing pattern, but I could not discern what it was supposed to represent, if indeed it symbolized anything at all. “Did a kid paint it?” I ventured. It seemed plausible.
“Oh, no,” chuckled Aunt Peg. “This is a famous painting by a famous artist, and it shows what it’s like in New York City. Pretend you’re a bird flying over the Empire State Building and all the skyscrapers, and you can look down and see all the streets. See all the yellow taxi cabs? If you squint your eyes like this, it’s almost like a real picture. Isn’t that somethin’?”
“Wow!” Now that she explained it, I saw everything she could see. In fact, I couldn’t stop seeing the concrete idea behind the geometric abstraction. Never again would I be able to look upon the image as a mere jumble of rectangles; from now on I would be soaring high above the crowded streets of NYC. “I can see it now! How did you figure that out?”
“Bob told me all about it, a-hill-hill! He says you wouldn’t believe how exciting a big city like New York is!”
I turned to study Aunt Peg beaming at the painting with childlike fascination. She, herself, was a totally accessible portrait of happiness. Her unassuming house was full of wonders in which she delighted. Whether it was the vibrancy and whimsy of the decor that endeared these treasures to her or the mere fact that they were created and installed by her beloved nephew Bob I could not tell. But sharing them with me and seeing my awed reaction seemed to please her as much as anything could.
Before I began my short walk home, I felt a surge of curiosity about the mad interior decorating genius who had transformed her home into an eccentric art museum. “Aunt Peg, is Bob going to do any more neat things in your house, like the tent room?”
Her ever-present smile waned for just an instant. “Bob lives in San Francisco now.” Then her effervescent enthusiasm bubbled over again. “But he told me in his last letter that he’s finally going to be able to come back and stay for a visit sometime soon!”
As it happened, I never did meet Bob, nor did I return to Aunt Peg’s house. She continued to attend our various family gatherings, and as I grew older, she began to regress. By the time I was a teenager, she had moved into a nursing home.
Hindsight affords me the knowledge of just how unsophisticated Aunt Peg was. She was one of the jolliest, friendliest people I’ve ever known, yet she was blissfully ignorant of much of the world. That there might be any significance to the flamboyant dress of her nephew Bob, his flair for progressive interior design, and his abandonment of the intolerant Midwest for the friendlier surroundings of San Francisco was absolutely beyond her comprehension. Did she know that the painting he hung in her living room was a mass-market print of Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie? Probably not. Tragically, that childlike perspective included a literal faith in the words of others. She truly believed that Bob would return one day.
I was in my late teens when I last saw Aunt Peg, my one and only visit to the nursing home. It was a dark and unpleasant place filled with offensive odors and unsettling noises. The only thing worse than the atmosphere was the shock I felt upon encountering Aunt Peg, who had been transformed from a stout picture of jollity into a bony and defeated wretch. Her thin wrists were secured to the armrests of her highback chair, in which she slumped forward and glared. She was experiencing a reaction to her medication, we were told, causing her to inhale sharply and suck her puffy lower lip into her mouth every few seconds. My mother tried to offer pleasantries and maintain a positive outlook, but Aunt Peg was unyieldingly bitter.
“No…no…I never…” she wheezed, “hear from Bob…he…never comes.”
It was a horrible visit, compounded by the fact that the situation was unlikely to improve. When at last it was time for us to leave, I leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Goodbye, Aunt Peg.”
She continued to wheeze and draw her lip into her mouth, her head bobbing backward with every inhalation. Her eyes remained fixed at some distant point, and the spotted backs of her clenched hands rose up from their restraints.