Aunt Sophie broke her hip tying back the peonies. There is a big vegetable garden out back, now mostly overgrown, that my great-grandmother planted with asparagus for her exacting husband during the lean years between the wars. Out front, she also trained wisteria vines up the porch and planted peony bushes at the top of the hill. Aunt Sophie felt responsible for keeping the front of the house, if nothing else, looking neat. And when the peonies bloomed in May, like they do every year, too big and heavy for their stems, she went in with a ball of twine to restrain them and tripped on a root and fell.
Aunt Sophie is my grandfather’s second cousin, but they were both the only children of only children and so each other’s childhood playmates by adult decree. Aunt Sophie is six years older, which compensated some for her being a girl. She moved into the house on the hill before my great-grandmother died; Aunt Sophie moved in to take care of her. Grandpa and his children lived more than an hour away by car, and they could not drive to Baraboo each time Grandpa’s mother felt dizzy, so Aunt Sophie came in their stead, and she stayed because she didn’t have anywhere else to go.
She managed to flag down a mailman from where she lay, supine in the garden. The mailman called an ambulance, which took her to the hospital, and the hospital called my mom. I suppose they must first have telephoned some nearer kin. Aunt Sophie has a daughter, who I met once when I was very small but I don’t remember, who ran away to California in the sixties, and ultimately received a doctorate in something called intergenerational psychology from an unaccredited university, but who, as far as anyone knows, has always had a minimal relationship with her mom. Cousin Elsa might have told them to call Grandpa, who would have told them to call the daughters-in-law.
My mom arrived as soon as she could. She said Aunt Sophie had already said something racist to one of the nurses when she got there, but the nurse explained that it happens a lot when you gave the elderly strong drugs. Aunt Sophie was in a lot of pain. They said she might not walk again, or if she did, she might need a walker from now on, and that things like going to the bathroom, or tying her shoes, anything that involved bending, would be very difficult. They screwed a metal pin into her hip that night.
The daughters-in-law, my mother and my four aunts, worked out a schedule where they would take turns visiting Aunt Sophie in the hospital and cleaning out the house. They kept her in the regular hospital for ten days after the surgery, because she was slow to wake up and she kept fainting when they tried to get her out of bed, or else trying to sit up straight and then growing suddenly weak. She had a hard time breathing and swallowing, so for a while they put her on an all-purée meal plan, which she found both insulting and gross. On the tenth day, they told her blood pressure was stable, and she demanded to go home. But she couldn’t get out of bed yet without help, or walk more than a few steps when she did stand up, so they sent her to a rehabilitation hospital in Verona, a nursing home, where she could stay for up to one hundred days, or longer if we paid.
Meanwhile, I was released from another hospital in Chicago. Aunt Sophie and I were discharged on the same day. It was clear that I would not finish the semester, and possible that I would not finish medical school. I didn’t want to go home. My mother, who had been driving round trip from Baraboo to Chicago, and only stopping in Milwaukee to change clothes for the past four days, didn’t much believe in therapy, but she believed in helpfulness and frugality, and she was not about to rent an apartment for me while I looked for work, if that was what I was getting at. She thought I should take a job at a hospital in Milwaukee, preferably something menial, like nurse’s assistant, until I got myself pulled together and decided if I wanted to finish school. And I could help the boys study for their SATs and help her with laundry and grocery shopping and trips to the dump, which she was behind on, God knows, between poor drugged up Aunt Sophie, who called her hospital gown “this ignominy” and kept trying to sneak out of her room, catheters and all, to attend to her toilette, and nervous wreck me. My mother, on some level, I think, felt that medical school was a selfish choice, and that pride goeth before a fall. I was so embarrassed that my hands had gone numb. Look, I said, if you take me home, I am going to have a panic attack.
Eventually, like Aunt Sophie, I would cease to notice the intractable, thin layer of grease that seemed to seep outward from all cracks and crevices of the kitchen, or the damp state of the carpets, or the dust that, because I have a mild form of asthma, sometimes, just before I went to bed, would make me double over and wheeze. But in those first days I, along with my mother and aunts, was appalled. They had cleaned the house from top to bottom with vacuums, sponges, brooms and mops, and nothing seemed to make a difference, they said, except the finger bowls full of baking soda that Aunt Mary had placed in all the corners, which helped absorb the close, organic smell of the downstairs rooms.
My mother said I was taking some time off, but the aunts were sharp enough, and they didn’t ask me any questions, they just kept saying I was a real saint to look after Aunt Sophie and told me about their own children’s lives. Sam was going to astronomy camp, and Silas was lifeguarding, and Janet was going to Mexico for the summer months. My mother and father got married and then had me—those things happened in very rapid succession, I believe—while they were still in law school, and I am the oldest cousin by half a generation.
We set up a bedroom for her in my great-grandfather’s, study, so that she wouldn’t have to negotiate the stairs. The aunts made casseroles and put them in the freezer. My mother made arrangements to drive out to Baraboo with Peter, my oldest little brother, who just got his license, in separate cars, and then drive back in one car, so that I could use her old van. Aunt Hattie and my mom were there on the day we brought her home, flanking her and supporting her from underneath the elbows as she made her way gingerly up the front steps. Thank you, girls, she said, and then promptly fell asleep.
If Aunt Sophie was surprised that I had moved into one of the upstairs bedrooms, she didn’t let on. She was selfish in that funny, childish way; she was pleased that I had moved in, would be unsurprised if I stayed, and equally unsurprised if I moved away. I drove her to and from physical therapy and heated meals for her that the aunts had frozen. She could shower alone, sitting on a chair, but she could not get in and out of the tub, so she would call me once she had undressed, and I would steady her as she climbed in, politely averting my eyes, and help her climb out again when she called to say she was done, and then we would both pretend to forget that part of our routine. They say that most people who break a hip over the age eighty do not regain full mobility, and most people over eighty-five die from complications within a year. Aunt Sophie was eighty-nine—actually, we believed Aunt Sophie was ninety, but she believed, and so the hospital believed, that she was eighty-nine—but she appeared to be rapidly recovering her strength. It must have brightened her life some, to see so many people, to have so many appointments marked in green ink on the calendar over the kitchen sink. She went from leading a solitary, intermittently extremely solitary, existence to having a live-in niece and six physical therapy classes a week.
“The instructor said something very flattering today,” she told me the second day driving back from Verona. “He said—he is a charming young man, Elizabeth, you would like him—he said I was naturally very limber and graceful in my movements. I said to myself, heaven knows I am not anymore, but once in my life I was, very limber. When I lived in Turkey I was the best dancer of all the secretaries, and I spoke the best French, which made me very useful—to the embassy, you know—and also popular with the diplomats and military men.”
She was a liar. Some held that the lies had grown more elaborate and implausible with age, were evidence of the slow onset of dementia. Others held Aunt Sophie had told outrageous lies since she was a little girl; the quirk had only grown more pronounced as her social inhibitions withered away.
She had, through family connections, briefly worked at the American military base in Wiesbaden after the war. She might have once lived in Turkey, who could say? There was a sad story about a British officer and a broken engagement, which Grandpa sometimes told when Aunt Sophie was not there. She wrote her mother to say that the British officer was going to divorce his wife and marry her, and her mother announced Aunt Sophie’s engagement to all of Baraboo. Her father, by way of his wife’s family, owned the First Bank. They planned a large wedding. But then she came home, still Sophie Mann, and her mother had to find another husband for her. That was how she married Chip, Grandpa says, and produced her one daughter, Elsa. Chip died young, and Aunt Sophie didn’t talk about him. When she was married, Grandpa must have been just old enough to understand what was going on.
“Very limber,” I agreed.
It was very hot in July, and the whole dusty house seemed to stick to you when walked through it. Neither of us slept very much. I started serving dinner late. She would nibble birdlike at English muffins if I made them for her before her therapy, and then in the afternoon we would drink coffee from tiny cups and eat store bought cookies on the porch in the heat. She had heavy, anthropomorphic silver coffee service from her mother, whose pots poured from pursed lips and stood on garland-ringed human legs. She also had an unmatched set of tiny coffee cups, ceramic sheaths without handles that sat in copper sleeves whose handles one could grasp only with a pincer-like thumb and index finger. From Turkey, she said.
She was very interested in my love life. I had had the same boyfriend all of college, a dependable, chubby poet named Jake, with whom I had had a sad but not too sad break-up in the winter of our senior year. We still talked on the phone sometimes, but we both knew all along, I think, that we didn’t like each other enough for more than that. That is in itself sad, I suppose, the idea of lukewarm romance. None of this satisfied Aunt Sophie. She would question me about Jake, what kind of people did he admire? Was he a romantic or a pragmatic character? I often said I didn’t know. It becomes harder to describe someone, the more time you have spent with them; he was a pragmatic romantic, I said. I sometimes wore a necklace he had given me, two rough silver beads he had made in a metal working class on a sliver chain he had bought. I wore it as a little memorial to my little sadness, and as a reminder of our friendship. Mostly I wore it out of habit. It was the one ornament that I had brought with me, the holes in my ears having suddenly grown very tender last winter and closed up, and it dressed up my jean shorts and tank tops, which I wore most days. Aunt Sophie was convinced that the necklace meant that hearts had been broken, that Jake and I would cherish tragic flames for each other for the rest of our lives.
Both of Aunt Sophie’s husbands were, my dad says, losers, and she didn’t like to talk about them. But she saw great loves thwarted, smoldering in the breasts of almost everyone she knew. Grandpa, for example, was supposed to have been in love with a Japanese woman when he was part of the occupying forces after World War II. According to Aunt Sophie his mother prevented the match, insisting he marry Grammy instead.
I lost the little silver necklace one Saturday at the laundromat. I was wearing it when I left the house in the morning, and not wearing it when I got back, and I went back to the laundromat and looked all over the floor and the benches where I had been sitting, and even looked in the washers and dryers I had used. I felt sad but relieved to have lost it, to have let it so unceremoniously disappear. But when I told Aunt Sophie she screwed up her wrinkled face in sympathy and cried. There is something sadder even about the little talismans that other people invest with power than the little talismans that belong to you.
After coffee she, with her old bones, would nap, carefully arranging herself on her back, but not letting her toes point in, as not to disturb the bolt in her still painful hip. In the evenings I would run, and at nine or ten I would shower, and then at ten or eleven I would make a real dinner. Aunt Sophie showed me where I could still find asparagus in the garden. She pointed out the kitchen window because she couldn’t get down the back steps. My father, and the other uncles with him, I assume, had set up a bank account for my use while I looked after Aunt Sophie. Our combined allowances far exceeded the meager pension checks she was used to living on, and, once she had been made to understand the new financial arrangements, she loaded the grocery cart with lamb chops and steak. Aunt Sophie could come grocery shopping with me because she was willing to push the grocery cart—she was not willing to use her walker in public. I would grill on the front porch, and we would eat on the wicker furniture, our plates in our laps, mosquito candles burning. After dinner, we would make milkshakes, sometimes two rounds a night. Aunt Sophie seemed to have forgotten at some point how properly to feed herself, or lost the will to do it, and had starved in the gentle way of the unattended elderly. That summer she was making up for lost time. I have to keep up my strength, she would say.
Aunt Sophie had been distributing her worldly possessions among the young and vital, as she put it, for many years. For my eighteenth birthday she had given me two pairs of gloves, because we both have small hands, and one egg-shaped, Jungendstil brooch that she said was set with emeralds. I doubted the emeralds part, but I did wear the broach in college a lot. It is the size of a sand dollar, with heavy, globular hands of soft metal holding the green stones. In August she gave me twenty-seven mohair sweaters. Before she went to college, from whence, as the only daughter of the owner of the only bank in Baraboo, she was expected to return with an eligible bank-president-to-be, her mother had taken her on a shopping trip to Chicago. There they purchased twenty-seven mohair sweaters, one of every shade.
She returned in the spring of her freshman year, for reasons that remain obscure, and all the sweaters came home too. She said they were in the attic somewhere, and that they might not fit me because I was bigger in the chest than she had been, but that I was welcome to take them if I liked. I might need them, she said. She observed at the hospital that the lady doctors dressed very well, just like doctors’ wives, under their white coats, and that, as they kept the whole hospital the temperature as cold as an ice box, they wore some very nice sweaters, even in August.
There would be a big family party on Labor Day Weekend. We believed she would be turning ninety-one, but the cake would say Happy 90th Birthday, Sophie! According to Grandpa, Aunt Sophie’s mother had disappeared for six months just after the United States entered the War, but she wasn’t married until the following June. And Aunt Sophie, according to my great grandmother, by way of Grandpa, was much too tall until about third grade. This information was already second hand, though; Grandpa wouldn’t enter the world until six years after Aunt Sophie’s birth, or seven years, depending on the date you used. And now there was none left among the living who could verify the story or deny—except, perhaps, for Aunt Sophie herself, but she, of course, one was not allowed to ask. Grandpa and the five uncles and all of their wives and kids would drive out. The daughters-in-law would bring potato salad, and the small children would be given balloons.
Aunt Sophie’s fantasies about my future were as difficult to deflate as her fantasies about her own past. Sometimes she thought I should be an opera singer. I do not know why she thought this; perhaps it was an end toward which she herself had once aspired. She told me I would have to go back to Germany for my musical training. Those were her words, back to Germany. It was the only place in the world where they still took opera seriously. Aunt Sophie’s forbearers had, after an abortive revolution in the spring of 1848, arrived here, in the wilderness. They taught their children to read Latin. They did not know how to farm. Aunt Sophie grew up seeped in the lore of the enclave, of Weimar and of wolves. Grandpa’s mother made her take dictation in Sütterlin. She thought opera was perhaps a higher path than medicine, all in all.
“My Mother, you know, was a student of Liszt.” She would say “I had a very good music teacher when I was a girl, too, Mr. Pratt. He told me with training I might have been a concert pianist, can you imagine that! Right up until, well, let’s see, right up until the bank failed. A concert pianist!”
The unselfconscious lies Aunt Sophie told about herself did not needle me, as I know they needled some of the other members, the patriarchs in particular, of our exactingly honest clan. In my home children were neither permitted to lie nor were they lied to; belief in Santa was discouraged at an early age. Aunt Sophie was unconcerned, though, about the real possibilities, the causal relationships, and the plans laid for my future, and for that I was grateful.
I didn’t like when she lied about me, though. It felt invasive and too easy. Once we had a neighbor come in, a woman who made something called “twig furniture” in her garage next door, to see if she smelled gas—she didn’t—and Aunt Sophie told her that I was spending the summer in Baraboo to rest my voice. I stiffened but did not correct her. Then another time, in late August, shortly before her birthday, I had a piano tuner come in from Pipersville to look at my great grandmother’s piano. Regardless of whether or not Aunt Sophie would play it, I thought it would give her pleasure to have the instrument in good repair, and that my father and uncles, whose patrimony it was, would not object if I sent them a bill after the fact. It had been raining for two days, chilly, unseasonal rain. The piano tuner was a barrel-shaped man with a perfectly round bald spot, almost like a tonsure, on the back of his head. He was attractive, in that unexpected way of short, muscular men. Aunt Sophie sat in an armchair behind him and watched as he worked.
“My niece, you know—actually she is my second cousin’s granddaughter but she calls me Aunt and I call her Niece—my niece is a doctor. She is an orthopedist but has taken a leave of absence to look after her Aunt—I took a fall in May, you see—to help me recuperate.”
I felt compromised. I was reading a murder mystery in a window seat, where I could watch the rivulets of water run down the outside of the glass and then seep through and pool around the unused ash trays on the sill. My hair was wet from a trip to the drug store. I had worn sandals and they had raised big wet blisters between my big and second toes. I ignored Aunt Sophie’s chatter, but after the man left I told her it embarrassed me when she said things about me to other people that weren’t true.
I can’t blush. In the pseudo-sciences of earlier centuries the inability to blush was sometimes linked to criminal behavior. Dark skinned people, they thought, incorrectly, did not blush, ergo they felt no shame or remorse, ergo they posed a threat to the larger society. Actually, blushing is not linked to skin color but only people’s varying sensitivity to those chemicals, which trigger the dilation of blood vessels and capillaries in the face; plenty of black people do blush and plenty of white people can’t. But my body has a fierce and varied arsenal for announcing physiologically, anxiety, embarrassment, and shame. My hands get clammy, my stomach hurts, and sometimes I get short of breath or hear a high-pitched buzzing in my ears. Sometimes I have to hide in bathroom stalls and count until an episode is past. I was embarrassed at Aunt Sophie’s birthday, first for her, then for myself, then for all of us there. We had the party in a park at the foot of the hill, Union Park, where we always do. The park has a bandstand and half of an Indian mound, the wing and body of what would have once looked like a bird in flight if viewed from an airplane; though, the mound predates air travel by many centuries, the signs say. Perhaps it was an image meant for other birds. The picture is too low and too wide to comprehend from the ground. At eye level it looks like a septic bump or low earthen wall, and in the fifties they ran a county highway through the bird’s left wing and part of his head. In one of my earliest memories I am walking the perimeter, and my father is holding my hand. I was embarrassed first for Aunt Sophie, who wore a shiny choral sheath and jacket that she had worn for her second wedding in 1964. She wore also a large hat and orthopedic shoes. She was delighted with the party, and she took too much potato salad. She was telling my father about the compliments her physical therapist had recently paid. She was thinking of having him over for dinner. He said she was very limber for her age. My father’s face gave nothing away, but I could imagine his mounting contempt—not the kind of contempt one reflects on or airs, the kind so natural it does not merit attention, not even the attention of the person inside of whom it grows. I was embarrassed for myself, too, Aunt Sophie’s ally and special friend.
Then the cake came out, white cake with whipped cream frosting and strawberries. It was actually four cakes cemented together with two long seams of cream. My mother had driven out with the individual cakes in the back seat of her car and assembled them at the house on the hill. She was worried there would not be enough to go around; there were twenty-four of us in all. In slices of strawberry arranged like scales or fallen dominos she had drawn a boarder and written across the center a large “90.” In the upper left-hand corner she used red frosting and a zip lock bag to scrawl, “Happy Birthday, Sophie!” The smallest of the cousins were collected back to the table, and we sang as my mother and Aunt Hattie processed the cake to the table from the car.
“Elizabeth has a real voice,” Aunt Sophie told my father, once we were all seated again, passing paper plates around. “I have encouraged her to study music. I have an ear for these things. Mr. Pratt believed I could be a pianist, and, as you know, my mother was a student of Liszt.”
Aunt Sophie’s mother was born in 1900. “Franz Liszt died in 1876,” I said. As soon as I said it I knew it was wrong, not factually wrong, but the wrong thing to do. Around the table the aunts and uncles looked taken aback, embarrassed for me, and my father looked particularly severe. My mother changed the subject, asking if Aunt Sophie ever got a chance to practice, now that the piano in the house on the hill was again in tune.
Oh, she said, oh not really. Aunt Sophie, too, seemed embarrassed, much to my surprise. One of the smaller cousins, Eric, age ten, full of promise, popped a balloon.
Aunt Sophie said she was worn out and repaired to her bedroom, my great-grandfather’s sometimes study, even before the last guests left. I suggested that we take a walk around the bird, allowing my mother to drive Aunt Sophie up the hill and help her mount the front steps, cane in hand, unobserved. After everyone left, and I had taken out the white bags full of paper plates and the plastic bin of soda cans, and the cool of the evening had set in, I knocked on Aunt Sophie’s door. Did she want her Vogues? She had accumulated many decades worth of ladies magazines which she had me move about the house in stacks five or ten years thick. Or a cup of mint tea? Mint had taken over a large swath of our largely untended garden, choking back vines that I believe, from the their flowers, may have once produced squash. I tried to prune it back, collecting rubber banded bundles in the fridge, but we never used them fast enough. She said no, but some half hour later she called from her bedroom and said, yes, please she would like her current stack of Vogues.
There is a family tree in my great-grandfather’s study, framed and mounted on the wall. In his long years of able-bodied unemployment, after the table slide factory his father left him went out of business, my grandfather’s father took up genealogy, along with astronomy, violin making, and the rugged life. He was a great admirer of Teddy Roosevelt. The male branches are complete, back to Johann the rope maker, father to Johann the physician, born in seventeen twenty-five. The wives’ names are missing, until “Gräfin Agnes van Boist, Duchess, 1826-1888” who had the misfortune to marry beneath her and flee to America the following night. Aunt Sophie referred to her with a doubled title, “my great-great grandmother, the Duchess Gräfin van Boist.” Under the weight of her two titles, Duchess Gräfin Agnes van Boist learned to kill her own chickens and pull a plow.
The tree tapers to a point at my grandfather, the only son of an only son. A facsimile of this family tree was given to Grandpa for his birthday last year, with his five sons and their families, like roots of a plant in a too small pot, appended. I imagine it must have been stifling for him, this house. What it was like for Aunt Sophie, I cannot say.
Grandpa’s mother and Aunt Sophie’s mother didn’t get along, but my great-grandfather insisted that his wife include Aunt Sophie in the after school lessons she prepared for Grandpa. Grandpa’s mother studied English and Classics, and provided for her husband and son by teaching correspondence courses from the kitchen table. It was Grandpa’s mother who, as Aunt Sophie says, kept the larder full. Her Phi Beta Kappa key is still in the silverware drawer. I believe Aunt Sophie spent a great deal of her childhood in this house, under the stern and perhaps unwelcoming tutelage of her mother’s cousin’s wife.
My own mother has speculated that Aunt Sophie could be the natural daughter of my great-grandfather and his then unmarried cousin, heiress to the First Bank. That would explain the conflicting birthdays. Aunt Sophie’s grandparents, who were also my great-grandfather’s grandparents, would have turned up a groom for their already delivered daughter. My great-grandfather was already married to my great-grandmother then. They too may have colluded to turn up a smart young man, interested in banking, not overly nice. That would make Aunt Sophie Grandpa’s half-sister, and an illegitimate stepdaughter of sorts to his mother, for whom Aunt Sophie cared in the last years of her life. Perhaps they both understood the secret and convoluted relationship by which they were bound. My mother believes Aunt Sophie knows that she is Grandpa’s half-sister, but that Grandpa does not know. My father, my mother says, would also not know, and it would only antagonize him to ask.
There Aunt Sophie lay, in what may have been her father’s study, may have been weighted, viscous with meaning. Or maybe not. I was solicitous and she was quite cold, but she let me help her change out of her wedding dress and into her bathrobe.
She would forgive me my indiscretion; though I couldn’t have said that with certainty then. We would arrive at an uneasy truce, but then in November she would fall again. The piano tuner would be back, adjusted the very lowest octave. He would strike the octave then the fifth then the thirds then the octave again. I would be upstairs in my bedroom folding mohair sweaters. I would have decided to fly by night. And there she would come, hurrying up the walk, a small figure in a large hat, and she would wipe out on the front-stairs, and I would have to stay. She would recover more slowly from the second hip replacement, spending many weeks in the hospital, and refusing sometimes for days at a time to leave her bed. She would become belligerent with the hospital staff, mildly paranoid, and come to depend ever more completely on me. I would bring her treats in the hospital, venison sausage, for which she would develop an insatiable appetite, and a kind of current bread. I would begin an affair with the piano tuner, whom I would ultimately marry. I, too, would develop an interest in furniture made of “twigs.”
When Aunt Sophie died, she was back in her own home, the house on the hill, reading Vogues from the nineteen seventies. In the real seventies, her daughter was already grown and gone, and she was about to marry her second husband, the mailman, whose mail route she would inherit at his death. I was Easter time. She had only been home from the hospital for a few weeks. I had started sleeping through the night again, suddenly and without explanation, so I was asleep when she went. When I woke up the next morning, the television was still on, and she was cold in her chair. They buried her in the family plot, on a day when the ground was newly soft, and all the lady’s heels sank down into the sod. They buried her between her parents and my great grandparents and, a few rows behind, the Duchess Gräfin Agnes von Boist.
At night, in the rolling farmland around the Rock River, you don’t see the blights of rural poverty or urban sprawl, but only the dark contours of the ground. I went for a run late, after Aunt Sophie’s birthday, once the air had cooled and she had turned out her light. She claimed that she slept little, but assumed on principle the form of sleep, eyes closed, breathing even, lights out, for a few hours every night. It could be true; the very old sometimes shed their need for sleep. I wore a reflective vest, a birthday gift from my oldest little brother, and, like a disenchanted Hermes, reflective stickers at my feet. Out on the dark county highways the shadows of the corn, early feed corn, with thick, broad leaves, stood half again as tall as me, undulating with the low hills on either side. The air carried the scent of silage, and of dirt. There is something old and reassuring about the smell fertile land. We are safe when the fields are full.