Friday, May 17, 2013

Aunt Bella & the crabs

Every time I tell this story it's a little different, although it leads to the same revelation. 
 For many years I had a strange, not especially pleasant memory of being in my Aunt Bella's kitchen in Somers Point NJ, watching her dump a basket of fresh live crabs into a cauldron of steaming water, slamming on the lid, & the lid bouncing as the poor crabs tried to escape. Now, Aunt Bella could be a fearsome person. She was one of my grandmother's younger sisters, & I hardly understood there were matriarchal tensions in that generation of Irish-American women, often angry ones, but these tensions did not preclude their strong sisterly bonds, which were nobody else's damned business. I was a grand-nephew. Yes, I was under her protection when in her home, she would have died for me, but she was under no obligation to show it openly, as my grandmother was.  
 I occasionally mulled over this memory, picturing it, panning it like a camera. Then one day it came to me: Aunt Bella must have barely cracked 5'. I was well below the stovetop looking up at her through a cloud of steam. I was three feet tall. The water was boiling, the crabs died instantly, & the roiling water made the lid rattle.
I recall trying to explain to one of my siblings that I don't write "history," I don't  even write "autobiography." What I do is simply a combination of the personal anecdote composer John Cage wrote for his books & used in some of his compositions, & the sort of conversations poets have in diners following readings. Writers from families with   strong ties & regular social occasions like holidays have a far greater number of childhood stories, more detailed, than I have.  One of these writers, who grew up in a tight Irish-Catholic family in Pittsburgh, abandoned her blog because the memories  poured out into long, funny tales, every post became a major writing project.  You can't do a regular blog that way.

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