The Light Touch / So much blossomed at the Garden Arms
Updated 8:17 am, Tuesday, January 10, 2012
For several years, later in her life, my Aunt Natalie lived at the Garden Arms, a complex of suburban apartments. She and her husband, Nathaniel, had been together for more than 60 years but never had children. I had the honor of being their surrogate daughter.
Aunt Natalie, a petite and attractive woman, moved through her days with an air of insouciance and elegance. She dressed in loose-fitting dresses that flowed when she moved so that she looked as though she was floating through life rather than walking. Her makeup was applied with painstaking precision: two pink puffs of rouge adorned her upper cheekbones, which, at first glance seemed somewhat jarring and flamboyant.
"Those are my angel kisses," Natalie said. "Every night after I fall asleep, angels ascend my bedroom and plant soft kisses on my cheeks."
That was only one of the stories Natalie liked to tell. Until I was 10, I believed all of them to be true.
Early on I learned that Natalie wasn't my real aunt but my mother's dear friend, so adored by our family we inherited her as a relative. She embraced this title willingly, telling people she was an aunt first removed. Removed from what, I wasn't sure.
"Uncle" Nathaniel was a feisty yet debonair man who had been a law professor at Columbia University, where he taught for many years even after he retired from the practice of law. Like his wife, he was equally well-dressed, always sporting a bow tie, tweed jacket and wing-tip shoes. He carried a small tin of sen-sen, popping one in his mouth just before leaning over to give me a hug. Like Natalie, Nathaniel was aromatic. He wore an after-shave cologne that smelled of licorice and spice, while Natalie was bathed in a floral scent reminiscent of summer nights when the honeysuckle was in full bloom. One whiff and I was reeling. Everything about her seemed romantic and mysterious, and when she placed a drop of her perfume behind each of my ears, I felt romantic, too.
Natalie and Nat were inseparable. They traveled to exotic places, spending their nights drinking champagne over leisurely dinners. Nat played songs on their grand piano while Natalie belted out show tunes and waltzed around the room, swinging a boa and smoking cigarettes from a mother-of-Pearl holder. Having grown up in the flapper era, Natalie had kept most of her tiered ruffled dresses. The tops of her stockings were rolled into place by a lace garter with tiny rosettes on each side. On several occasions, she allowed me to wear the garters on the tops of my knee socks so that I looked oddly seductive. Natalie was ahead of her time by the sheer fact she couldn't care less what anyone thought. She did more for my transition from childhood to young adulthood than anyone else ever had.
"Don't corrupt my daughter," I would overhear my mother warn when Natalie once gave me a half glass of wine mixed with water.
"Oh don't be ridiculous," she snapped back, "a little wine is good for the complexion."
No one ever won an argument with Natalie or dared to even try.
One January morning, following a night on the town when the two had danced the night away, Nat fell flat on his face on top of Natalie's favorite Oriental rug. He died instantly. He was wearing a silk paisley robe and a cravat around his neck. For a while I believed that he might have tied the knot too tightly and choked to death, but a fatal heart attack is what did him in.
After that, Natalie sat in her living room, curtains drawn, sipping sherry and crying into a silk lace handkerchief, which, she reminded us, Nat had bought for her on the Champs Elysee in Paris. She stopped wearing makeup except for her false eyelashes, which she batted long and hard to wash away her tears.
"What will I do now?" she poured her heart out to my mother while I sat on a puffed velvet chair, eating chocolate covered cherries.
"You should sell the house," my mother said. "You can't rattle around here all day. There are too many rooms filled with too many memories."
"Memories are all I have," Natalie wailed. "Not to mention, my dresses, hats and jewelry. Nat loved buying me precious gems."
Two months later, Natalie, her clothes and her jewels moved into The Garden Arms.
The Garden Arms was exactly that: a garden of floral splendor that wound around the property as welcoming as a giant hug. My mother joined her weekly for tea, and often I was brought along as an antidote to Natalie's depression. My job was to paint pictures from a portable watercolor kit and a large sketch pad that accompanied me on all our visits. Natalie critiqued each one, and hung a few on her walls, making me feel like a budding artist.
Months passed. Natalie worked through her sadness by taking up needlepoint and flower arranging. She met a few women -- also widows -- all of whom took a liking to me and treated me like a favorite pet. So much attention was lavished upon me that I began looking forward to these outings, which in summer, always included lemonade and vanilla wafers as we sat under a large wisteria tree.
The Garden Arms was a departure from the reality of school, piano and dance lessons. Here, I was transported to a magical place where roses dripped from lattice trellises and hammocks punctuated the lawns. Walking around the yards, one immediately entered another time. At any moment I expected Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler to appear from behind a lilac bush. There was a main building: the social hall, where concerts were presented with cookies and punch served afterward.
Natalie had kept most of her possessions, and so her apartment was smartly appointed, still maintaining a feel for her past life. All that was missing was Nathaniel, whose portrait hung over the fireplace, which Natalie delicately fanned with a feather duster once a day. A few years later, another man, Aubrey Clark filled in the missing pieces. Natalie's lethargy lifted. After that, The Garden Arms was never the same.
For most of my childhood and into my adolescence, this oasis became my retreat from the ordinary. For me, it was more a world of fantasy where I could wile away a few hours sequestered under a weeping willow in the damp, green afternoon, making journal entries in my leather bound notebook and writing love letters to my first boyfriend. It was under that same tree that I read many of the classics, studied for my exams and unburdened my soul to the robins and squirrels who nested high above me. It was also at the Garden Arms where Natalie decided to write her memoirs.
"My life has been too extraordinary to let pass into oblivion," she announced one afternoon. And so, pen and tablet in hand, she and I scribbled away, interrupted only by the Good Humor truck, ringing its welcoming bell as all the apartments emptied out en masse for ice cream.
Right to the end, slightly deaf, blind and a bit shaky, Natalie continued to sing show tunes at her grand piano while my mother and I sang along. She never did complete her memoirs, but she gave it an excellent start. She had completed 52 pages, which she left to me along with some of her jewels, a few dresses and envelopes filled with sachet leaves I kept inside my dresser drawers. For a while, every article of clothing I owned smelled of lavender and eucalyptus.
At her funeral, Natalie lay in repose in a white padded casket befitting her persona. A long-stemmed rose rested in one hand, two pink "angel kisses" on her cheeks. Despite her 95 years, she was still a beautiful woman to the end. Many of her friends had died, but Mr. Aubrey Clark -- himself pushing 96 -- was there. When he bent down and kissed the coffin, a tear fell on top of Natalie.
"It was love at first sight," he told me later. "I'm in her memoirs, you know."
If Nathaniel were alive, she would have punched him in the mouth.
Judith Marks-White shares her humorous views every other Wednesday. She can be reached at: email@example.com or at www.judithmarks-white.com