It was a winter wedding, the very best kind, and I was attending alone because The Songwriter was out of town. Ushered into the splendid reception hall, I spied her, sitting beside my uncle at the round flower-filled table in the middle of the room. There was my seat, I could see it empty and waiting, beside her. This particular aunt had always been a bit of a mystery to me - a mystery still unsolved, for I rarely saw her. Straight-backed and starchy, she seemed to wear her propriety like a well-earned badge of honour on a cloak of unwavering religiousity that appeared, at least to me, to preclude any type of whimsy or fun. But this was a wedding reception, I told myself. Surely she’d be a bit more relaxed in this festive setting.
I squared my velvet-suited shoulders and headed her way.
“Hello, Aunt J”, I said, giving her a hug and sitting down.
We exchanged a few pleasantries about the beauty of the wedding and I picked up the golden-edged menu that lay by my plate.
“Ooh, pink champagne”, I exclaimed.
“We Don’t Drink”, came the instantaneous reply, delivered like an edict from on high, stern and autocratic, each word capitalized and underlined in invisible red.
I decided to have a bit of fun.
“You don’t?”, I asked, in what I hoped was a tone of pure innocence. “Oh, but you should! Now let’s see, you’d probably not like sherry or port. Too strong for your palate if you’re just starting out. Although those can be incredibly delicious on a cold winter’s night. But now, pink champagne! I just know you’d love that! You simply must try some when it’s served!”
I could tell by her look of surprise that she thought I had missed her point entirely. It was not simply that she’d never gotten around to having a drink, for Pete’s sake. It was that she did not approve of the practice. How could she make this clear to me?
She began to elaborate her position, just as I noticed the tuxedoed band in the corner, beginning to tune up.
“How wonderful!”, I said with a grin. “There’s going to be dancing!”
“Your uncle and I Do Not Dance”, she sputtered, her face colouring with emotion.
“Oh, but you should!”, I said with a smile, feeling ever so evil but enjoying myself far too much to care. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re good or not, everybody’s just having fun. And I know you’d both love it. What a handsome figure you’d cut on the dance floor! And it’s such excellent exercise. You must try it tonight. No arguments!”
I batted my eyes in her direction and noticed to my great surprise - barely visible, but there nonetheless - an infinitesimal smile beginning to play around the corners of her pursed lips. Apparently, somewhere, deep down deep in her corseted soul, a bit of fun still lurked. She was on to me. And then, my soul, there it was. A grin. A genuine grin. From that moment on we chatted about everything, becoming fast friends before the evening wore down.
We stayed in touch after that wedding, exchanging Christmas cards and visits. She and my uncle even drove miles to hear The Songwriter in concert, my uncle leading the standing ovation at the close of the show.
These days it seems there are chasms that yawn between so many of us. We look across at one another, unsure of the best way to construct a passable, plausible bridge. Far too often I fear we simply retreat, preferring to remain in our more familiar climate where we’re comfortably surrounded by those who applaud our views and beliefs.
I could have easily stiffened at the implied judgment of my aunt that evening we were seated together at the wedding reception. Chilled by her provincial opinions , I could have chosen to maintain a polite, perfunctory silence and the night would have passed by pleasantly enough, I suppose. Instead, as is so often the case, a wee bit of humour was all that was needed to weaken her established defenses and allow us to forge a friendship in the few years remaining before she passed away.
I am grateful I made the effort.
I thought I'd better clarify.
The above photograph is certainly not my aunt.
It's Mamie Eisenhower.
However, the countenance is strikingly similar.