Triggered by Cornstarch

My father was born the youngest of eight. He had three brothers I never knew well, and four sisters I did. Mary was grandparents’ eldest child. She was born in 1916, and followed by two boys. Adelaide was the next daughter. She was followed by Fernanda–who started calling herself Fanny the minute she left her father’s house–and then Emma. After Emma, there was a baby boy, Emmanuel, who survived only a few weeks. And then, another boy, followed by my father in 1931.

In the 1950’s, my four aunts plus their aunt and my dad all lived together in one side of a duplex in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC. At the age of 38, Mary would shock them all by eloping with an much older man she knew from work. For a time, she and her husband lived in the other side of the duplex, but that was long before I was born.

The other three sisters never married. Until somewhere around 1988, they lived together in that same house in DC. Aunt Adelaide had had at least two proposals, but as she would tell me later, she didn’t like to cook and clean for herself, let alone some man. Aunt Fanny never spoke to me about it. Aunt Emma did.

Emma adored children. I was the youngest niece or nephew she had, by almost nine years, and she doted on me. I was about seven or eight–old enough to notice things and be curious, but not old enough to have much in the way of social graces. I can’t remember the exact question I asked, but I do remember she was taken aback.

“You can’t just ask that, Kathleen,” she said. “It’s not polite.”

“I’m sorry”, I said. I was sitting on the white couch in my aunts’ living room, and I kind of slumped in to the corner.

“Sit up,” she said.

I obeyed. She rocked a little in her antique rocking chair–the one that now sits in my living room. She frowned.

“I think,” she said, “maybe you do need to hear this. I never regretted not getting married. Never. I have my own life.”

I thought about this. I didn’t know what it meant, but I would remember it.

She looked at me, and then out the window, over my head.

“I do wish,” she said, “that I could have had a child. I would have liked a child.”

I have no memory of what happened next, but if I had to guess, my Aunt Emma probably offered me a cookie or some ginger ale. She was willing to use sweets to end a conversation. Since I had limited cookies at home, and never ginger ale, I always accepted whatever she offered.

My father’s single sisters were major figures in my life as I grew up. Two of my grandparents had died before I was born, and the other two died before I was old enough to remember them. Whenever I felt sad about that, my mother would remind me that I had my aunts. I was closest to Emma when I was little, and then to Adelaide as a teen, and finally to Fanny from about the time I finished college. Of course, I had more time with Fanny. She died soon after her 90th birthday in 2014. Adelaide had died in January of 2000, followed by Emma in March of that same year.

I found myself thinking about them, and Emma in particular, this morning. Before I was more interested in my friends than my family, I would spend weekends with my aunts roughly ten times a year. Until I was old enough to insist that I could bathe unaided, Emma would help me out of the tub, wrap me up in an enormous fluffy towel, and then dust me with cornstarch. I thought that was a weird old-lady thing that I would never, ever do.

This morning, I took a shower. I dried myself, hung my towel, and then used a blue shaker to put some cornstarch into my hand. I put the shaker or the counter, and put my hands together. I took my hands apart, and paused to look at the cornstarch on both palms. I thought of my aunt. Now that I am the heavy woman in late-middle age, I understand the cornstarch.

“You win, Aunt Emma,” I thought, smiling a little to myself.

I imagined her reaction. She would laugh, and then peer at my hands. “You need to buy a powder puff,” she would say, and then shake her head. “You’re not an animal.”

2 thoughts on “Triggered by Cornstarch

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog and your reflections on how instrumental your aunts were in your formative years of development. The cornstarch scene at the end tied the entire piece in a nice bow. I could imagine your aunt in her rocking chair reflecting on her regrets of never becoming a mother. Marriage, she could do without—but children brought light into her world. I’m glad she had you to dote upon.


  2. This was beautifully written! I love the detail about Aunt Emma “being willing to use sweets to end a conversation.” It’s such a unique piece of information. Poor Aunt Emma. I’m glad she knew not to regret getting married, but I wish she could have experienced motherhood. She must have loved being with you so much.


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