MY RACIST AUNT.
Life with my racist aunt wasn't all it was cracked up to be. There
were difficulties, to be sure. For one, her clumsiness threatened
to jeopardize her own safety, and the safety of anyone in her immediate
vicinity, with startling regularity. My racist aunt suffered from
a lack of physical coordination unprecedented in our family and,
in the opinion of more than one accredited specialist, unprecedented
in the history of medicine. In fact, there was a time when medical
professionals would crowd my racist aunt's doorstep, clamoring to
examine her cursed eyes and inner ears. They poked and prodded and
triggered quick bursts of compressed air, hoping to etch their way
into The New England Journal of Medicine or some other such well-respected
record of rare physiological phenomena.
Unfortunately, all tests proved inconclusive, which pointed to
the diagnosis our family had already made long ago without the benefit
of medical degrees: that my racist aunt's particular brand of compromised
physical coordination was less likely a product of ocular or neurological
disorder than plain old, garden-variety goofiness. One orthopedic
surgeon, a Dr. Evan Kraus, offered the following diagnosis to my
"Your wife's body is – how can I put this? – her
body is constructed like a ramshackle house."
My uncle narrowed his eyes, and my father, sensitive to these very
subtle expressions of crisis, moved closer to his brother. Dr. Kraus
"You see, it – and by "it" I mean, of course,
a poorly constructed home or, in this case, your wife's body --
exhibits no signs of symmetry whatsoever and not one single correct
angle - and therefore has no discernible center of gravity for balance
and support. It's really quite remarkable."
My father placed a hand on my uncle's shoulder. This was a move
I'd seen before, and therefore knew it served two purposes. It was
both a gesture of consolation and a subtle attempt to pin my uncle
to his chair, to restrain him from attacking Dr. Kraus.
Unfortunately, Dr. Kraus' suggestion was no less accurate than
any of the others we'd received from previous doctors, if a bit
tactless. The relationship between gravitational pull and body was
a tenuous one in my racist aunt, sliding back and forth constantly,
according to its own secret schedule.
So, trapped in this condemnable structure, my racist aunt continued
to move about in a patternless teeter, clutching chairs and the
arms of couches as she went, all the while blinking and squinting
her comically magnified eyeballs from behind a pair of owl-sized
spectacles. The lenses of her glasses were so thick the average
person could slip them on and see atoms smashing on the surface
of objects, providing the intense prescription did not induce a
seizure or messianic visions first.
With glasses like those my racist aunt should have been able to
see danger afoot as soon as she stepped into a room -- with those
glasses she should have been able to see through walls, detecting
movement before she entered a room - but even the twin Hubbell Telescopes
strapped to her round face did nothing to prevent her from stumbling
head-first into buffet tables and filing cabinets. She also bumped
into swiftly moving targets, like other human beings.
And when there were no humans to bruise, my racist aunt would simply
fall down from a standing (or, on a few occasions, seated) position.
These episodes were unpredictable yet frequent enough to elicit
a stern warning from her job supervisor.
"You must stop falling down," he said. "It's a danger
to yourself, a distraction to your co-workers, and an insurance
risk to this entire company. You have been warned. There. I've warned
How many times can one fall down at work before it becomes an occupational
hazard? Six? Seven? Twenty? Consider this: whatever that number,
my racist aunt surpassed it, and by a number impressive enough to
shift attention from genuine human concern to double-secret probation.
My racist aunt probably fell down more than any other stenographer
in the history of New York State's Officer of the Comptroller. One
year, for her office's Secret Santa party, she received a seat belt.
When my racist aunt wasn't getting strapped into an office chair
for her own physical health, she was practicing the exquisite art
of saying the first, and worst, thing that slid across her mind
on any occasion. She felt not entirely uncomfortable settling her
low heft into a lawn chair in the middle of a family reunion and,
with a plate of barbecued ribs on her lap and a quick adjustment
of her portable telescopes, announcing, "Wow, I barely recognize
anyone. You've all gotten so fat!" Before anyone had a chance
to react with anything but stunned silence, my racist aunt would
fix the party with a grin and then resume absent-mindedly shoving
pork ribs into her great, toxic mouth.
Never short on laughs or malice, my racist aunt would weigh in
giddily on any variety of subjects for or about her collected audience.
On the subject of a cousin who just left the room: "I really
thought Rachel was nice today. I can't think of anything I hate
about her about her now, except her haircut." On her own, humbling
battle with obesity: "I guess it's too late for me. I'm too
fat now, just like my daughter." On my brother, who turned
a slightly troubled adolescence around very nicely, and his new
job as a Probation Officer: "How many people have you shot?"
On the terrorist "situation" and the growing domestic
suspicion of Arab-Americans: "I'm not racist; I just prefer
Be sure that each of these verbal daggers was cloaked in pink chiffon
giggles. Her ability to burst into ridiculous laughter immediately
after dropping a verbal bomb had a disarming effect and, conscious
or not, it was probably the only thing that kept us from having
her medicated or deprogrammed. Her disgraceful behavior meant she
had to be confined to her home (fortunately, in her professional
life retirement came just before dismissal on grounds of excessively
poor equilibrium), for her mouth drew no social boundaries. Public
outings were exhausting, and usually required detailed explanations
as my racist aunt ricocheted from location to location, offending
every makeup counter sales representative, grocery bagger, and traffic
cop she encountered.
If we ever lost her in a department store, we could follow the
trail of dropped jaws and frozen stares that we knew would lead
to my racist aunt. After making a procession of formal apologies
- "she hasn't been herself these days" - or slightly more
informal ones - a slowly spinning finger pointing to one's own head
or a quick booze-tipping pantomime would suffice - we'd inevitably
find her. Typically, she was explaining to a salesperson the advantages
of being African-American. "You must love being colored,"
she'd insist. "Your afros dry so quickly, you don't even have
to spend money on things like rain caps or umbrellas. You must save
so much money - it's hard to believe so many colored people are
still on welfare." Then my racist aunt would smile sweetly
and wobble off to her next victim, making sure to lose her footing
once or twice along the way.