My father had an old aunt who lived in an apartment building just outside of Philadelphia. She was a widow, and childless, although she had a daughter who had died, which made me very curious about her on many levels. I spent hours asking my mother what had happened to the aunt’s husband, why she hadn’t gotten a new one, what had happened to her daughter, and how was it even possible for a daughter to die before a mother. My own mother had few answers for any of these questions, which only served to create fertile ground for my imagination to determine what Aunt Margaret’s life was really like. Many years later, when she died well into her 90s after moving into a nursing home, my imagination of what went on in her life was ignited again when her Will and Testament was read and the majority of her assets were distributed to an Indian Reservation, which by all accounts she’d had no relationship to whatsoever.
There was one thing we did know about Aunt Margaret, though. As children, my cousins and I spent hours talking about it, laughing about it, analyzing it, figuring out how to make fun of it in front of our parents without getting into trouble, devising ways not to laugh about it in front of Aunt Margaret, and creating a separate space for it in our family folklore. She was cheap. Even worse: we suspected she had money.
Whether she did or not, I’m still not sure. She lived a long life, so much of her money would have been invested in her own care as she aged, but I know that after the Indian Reservation got their cut of what was left of it, there wasn’t a lot left for her nieces and nephew.
There was grand irony in all the fun we had talking about her cheapness: everyone in the family was cheap. Her own nieces were stuffing sugar packets in their purses at every restaurant they entered. When a visitor came to one of their houses and was offered coffee, it never came out with a cube or a sugar bowl, always a paper packet, and typically a variety of colors—the pink, the blue, the white. Her sole nephew, my father, was not exempt from going to great lengths to save money, and I guess I got at least a few of the genes, too. Let’s just say my husband once said that in my world, “paper towels are like gold.” I could say that my aversion to paper towels has more to do with an aversion to conspicuous consumption and a desire not to create needless waste, but I’m sure I did inherit a few of the cheap genes.
I’m not handing out the Declaration of Independence, though. No way. Say what you will about the lack of paper towels in our household, I will not wrap up a document, invite you to come visit, tell you I have a gift, get you excited, and give you a Declaration of Independence. That’s what Aunt Margaret did. To talk to my cousins today, they say it was a gift that went to every cousin, every year. The reality was probably so different. Maybe a couple of us got it one year, maybe some of us were let down by equally useless gifts—we will never know exactly how it worked.
While I sense my cousins still feel slighted about going over there each year, being subjected to the doilies and the chevron-patterned, crocheted afghans that were full of dust, only to walk out with a Declaration of Independence, my own sore feelings about Aunt Margaret’s gifts revolve around the thank you note I labored over each year. It was a task that seemed to take so much time, not because I didn’t yet possess the ability to write clearly, but because I didn’t possess a flair for fiction.
“Thank you for the wonderful Declaration of Independence. I can’t decide whether to put it next to the Billy Squier poster or the Cheap Trick album cover I have framed next to my bed.” No, that wouldn’t work.
“Thank you for the Declaration of Independence. I have a strong desire to learn more about the founding of our country.” Not any better.
I pleaded with my mother to get out of this task, but it wasn’t happening. I believe my strongest argument was that thank you notes should only be required when the gift was well-received. Anything less was promoting dishonesty, something that should be avoided at all costs. Writing this thank you note would, in fact, be hypocritical and disingenuous.
In hindsight, maybe I did have some fiction-writing skills.
The thank you note was painstaking, but it was completed every year, and the process is repeated in our own household, over 30 years after the Declarations of Independence were handed out. Every time a birthday present arrives, a thank you note goes out. A painstakingly-produced, tear-inducing, television time-stealing thank you note. As a parent, I continue the process of requiring the kids write the notes because we appreciate the gifts, and showing gratitude is an important value to instill—whether the gratitude is truly felt or not.
At this point, I’m fairly sure the stories about Aunt Margaret’s cheapness are so much colorful than the reality of it. I don’t get together with my many cousins very often, but the few times we do, we never fail to roll out the Aunt Margaret stories. We still hold on equally to both the myth and reality of Aunt Margaret, and we talk about the Declaration of Independence and laugh together, which is undoubtedly the best gift Aunt Margaret ever gave us.