Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Erika Drezner
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
My Great Aunt Ita
My Great Aunt Ita died before I met her. She lived in a Victorian candyhouse filled with secret passages and doors to nowhere, where she bred dogs and combed hair and insisted her nieces share the bed. She was a chainsmoking whip of a woman, from what I’ve heard; I say I wish I could have met her. My mother insists I don’t.
My Great Aunt Marceline is a great-grandmother as well. Her eyes are ringed and marked with age and what might be minor cataracts, but I legitimately cannot tell. I was never close with her, but I know her children: they serve me tilapia and pasta in lake houses lined with photos of grandchildren and fishing trophies; they come to stay in my house over breaks and give me pictures of the president.
My grandfather died two months ago, the day I would have begun my final trimester of ninth grade. He was a cowboy at heart and a Republican by the voting card, a firm believer in well-oiled guns and well-fitting boots and caring for little but Judaism and his grandchildren, loves that came off respectively as an inspired brightness to the day he died and tough-love of a magnitude that makes me weep to think about too hard.
My grandmother is soft, and seemingly desires nothing more than sparkly things and to spend time with other women. She keeps a good home which, with a standing electronic piano and a porch covered in flowers, is preserved to the point that it feels like a mausoleum. She has more snark in her than she wants you to think; when my cousins make a joke, her laugh closes her eyes and shows her silver teeth.
My male first cousins love cards and dice, and bear a similarity to my two first loves so striking that I wonder what Freudian garbage I was smoking. My female first cousin taught me girltalk and sleepovers and my earliest concept of heterosexuality. We wore matching hats; now we wear matching boots. They play me indie music in their alien cars from alien states, suburbs as different and familiar as my city slicker right hand. I cannot help but love them.
My final first cousin is a mystery—tall, bald, and Southern. He deals in automobiles and motorcycles, more Texan than all of us despite being so close to Oklahoma. He gives strong hugs that smell like motor oil. His mother, my first aunt, is a similar enigma, taller, older, and similarly pecan pie. Their town is three square miles and a little over a thousand people, and it’s where my first aunt moved after a bitter spat with her father involving money and men and refrigerators. Her husband, my first uncle, wears novelty ties and doesn’t speak, and, spat aside, my mother says he was her father’s favorite son-in-law.
My sister is all I want to be and a reminder of all I’m not, with a better body, a better face, and, seemingly, a better idea of who she is, who our family is. With the same casual ungraspable elegance as everyone else, she is more talented, more sure, more beautiful than I am. Even my closest friends comment on her beauty with a frequency that makes me jealous no matter how many times I insist nonetheless that I’m not. My father recorded the stories he told her in childhood; by the time he was telling mine, the housing crisis was revving up and he was barely home before bedtime.
In Austin, time slows to a thick plum jelly and I bake on my aunt’s trampoline for days. When I wake up, I’m no longer in Austin, Texas, or even America, but somewhere halfway in between the vertex of the parabola made through my jumps and the bottom of the deep end of the swimming pool where I was a mermaid at age seven. When I awake, in their alien cars, my male cousins bring me to buy tiny dice and comic books that border on illicit; my female cousin brings me to see movies about female empowerment, and we talk about our love for Robert Downey Jr.. When my sister comes, we all go shopping and eat chips and embarrass each other. We roast marshmallows at gloaming and jump into the pool afterwards to wash off the grease, and we all say “Goodnight, I love you.”
I have exchanged fewer than a thousand words with my eldest cousin, Texan oil motorboy, but if I saw him from a mile away the smell of gasoline would be like a hug.
After the funeral, all four cousins, even motoroil Texan, and my sister, go out for ice cream. I wear too-big boots and refuse to weep. I struggle to believe that the hands scooping artisanal ice cream into my mouth shoveled dirt onto a grave hours prior.