In the boxes, there are photos of us all growing up, but it’s Aunt Lou’s beehive that always garners gasps of awe from strangers. It sits on her head, easily 18 inches high with densely-packed, graduated black curls resembling the shako worn by the Queen’s Guard.
I think sometimes people remember their peak, when they felt they looked their best and then try to make time stand still. Hers was the 1960s when Uncle Tony left her for another woman.
My aunt was left with three boys and a house in her mother-in-law’s name.
Aunt Lou’s lawyer was a wealthy widow who went back to law school and opened a practice that gave legal aid to poor women.
My aunt had never worked and had to rely on her brothers to help financially.
Aunt Lou, or Luisa, had once been a beautiful woman with black hair, olive skin and snapping dark eyes. Her wedding photograph showed her in all her splendor – tiny waist, great skin, shining hair in lustrous curls and with a knowing, snow-white smile that said, “You wish you were me.”
She would tease her sister, my aunt Julia, about her red hair and freckles and call my other aunt Froggy because of her big eyes. She was the beauty of the family.
Now almost 15 years later, a streak of gray marred her jet-black hair. Her tiny waist had widened and make-up became a chore. The Colgate smile disappeared, she wore her son’s clothes and her shoulders slumped in defeat.
“I can get you this divorce and alimony,” the lawyer told my aunt. “But first let me ask you one thing – do you really want this divorce or do you want him back?”
My aunt’s dark eyes filled with tears. “I want him back.”
The lawyer nodded as if this was nothing new. “The next time he comes to see the boys I want you to have gone to the beauty parlor and had your hair and nails done. I want you to wear a new dress, new shoes and make-up. He needs to see what he’s been missing.”
My aunt wasn’t convinced, but she borrowed money and did as the lawyer instructed.
A month later my uncle asked if he could come back home.
As soon as the boys were all in high school, Aunt Lou started working. She didn’t stop until she retired almost 30 years later. About the same time she stopped wearing the beehive and reminding Uncle Tony of what he put her through.
When he died, she stopped going to the beauty parlor and cut off her hair, letting it come in white which was a shock to everyone. She said she forgot to take her medicine for diabetes and then was taken to a convalescent hospital for dialysis. After a few months she said she wanted to go home, to the same little house she shared with her husband and three growing boys.
She died two weeks later.
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