They are in every family; the aunt and uncle who always show up at birthday parties, weddings, and holidays and the cousins who just ignore them. In my family that was my Aunt Marcella and Uncle Neil. Family photos are full of black and white images of kids mugging for the camera, adults drinking beer and passing overloaded platters of food and every once in a while my father shows up wearing a sombrero. The only consistency I’ve ever noticed in these pictures is that somewhere in the background you will see my prim and proper Aunt Marcella in her polka-dot dress, her lips pursed and eyes glaring at the chaos around her. Imagine my surprise when after I became an adult I found out that my straight-laced aunt was a tennis pro.
Long before I started looking at Aunt Marcella and trying to visualize her in a short white skirt effortlessly executing a backhand, I hadn’t given much thought to her at all. I knew she was born in another state and that she wasn’t Italian or Catholic like the rest of us. She was married to my mother’s older brother Neil who, to say he was a quiet man would be an understatement. My Uncle Neil always seemed more like Aunt Marcella’s chauffeur than her husband. Every Friday afternoon their big black car that looked like something Edward G. Robinson would have used to escape from the cops, pulled into our driveway. Uncle Neil would walk elegantly around the car and open the door for Aunt Marcella. It was just about this time that I ran for cover so I don’t think I ever witnessed them actually entering the house. It would be about 15 minutes later that my mother would call out to me to come and say hello. I would dutifully walk into the living room and while I’m sure Aunt Marcella would have preferred a full blown meeting-the-Queen-curtsey I usually just waved and said, “Hi.”
My mother never made me sit down and visit because I think she was nervous whenever I was in the same room with them. Aunt Marcella and Uncle Neil weren’t used to being around kids. We weren’t allowed to help with the dishes at her house because she thought we’d break her china. We weren’t allowed to be in any photos that she took because my older sister and cousins used to stick out their tongues and cross their eyes and “ruin” all her pictures. They had a son, my cousin Jack, who was married and living in another state but I don’t think Jack was ever a kid. In every picture I saw of him he wore a suit and a bowtie just like Uncle Neil and he never crossed his eyes. Also, there had been a couple of incidents on their recent visits that had made my mother uneasy.
There was the time my best friend and I showed up fresh out of her pool in our bikinis and walked past Uncle Neil to get something to eat. Apparently Aunt Marcella thought our 11-year-old ironing board bodies were too obscene for my uncle and she took my mother to task. Then there was the time I let my dog in the house and he decided to dig a plastic tampon applicator out of the trash and deposit it at Uncle Neil’s feet. And of course there were Uncle Neil’s fingers. He only had about seven fingers and my cousins and I were fascinated watching him pick up coffee cups and fill his pipe with tobacco. Conspiracy theories ran rampant among the cousins as to how Uncle Neil lost his fingers. I heard everything from how they were shot off in the war to having them bitten off by a rabid-crazed dog.
In contrast to Uncle Neil’s fingerless hand Aunt Marcella appeared flawless. Her iron gray hair was always neatly curled without a strand out of place. Her polka-dot dresses were perfectly ironed and didn’t even wrinkle when she sat down. She wore lace up black “sensible” shoes; the kind of shoes that stores never display in their windows. She spoke softly and perfectly and since she still had all ten of her fingers she was able to point and curl her pinkie when she sipped from her china tea cup. And, she didn’t believe in frivolity of any kind. We were always given books or stationery as birthday presents. One year my cousin Joni and I got matching gold charm bracelets depicting historical information associated with Michigan and every birthday after that we were given another charm to add. Needless to say we were not all that enthused to open presents from Aunt Marcella and Uncle Neil. Not when other relatives were giving us Creepy Crawler sets and Barbie dolls. I just assumed Aunt Marcella didn’t want anyone to have any fun including her. That’s why I was shocked to learn about her career in tennis.
The tennis information came to me by way of one of our big family dinners. We were all gathered at the huge table in my Aunt Margaret’s basement devouring the multitude of courses that kept appearing. As usual, the cousins – though we were now all chronologically considered adults – were all crammed together at one end and the aunts and uncles were seated at the other. While the combined voices of everyone trying to out-shout each other to be heard over the din was deafening and the sheer number of flailing arms and hands we Italians use to speak could have knocked someone senseless, Uncle Neil and Aunt Marcella sat quietly together eating their dinners while using the proper knives and forks. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about but if the cousins were all together in the same room as Aunt Marcella it was a pretty safe bet we were talking about her. I do know that I asked my cousin Nancy if she thought Aunt Marcella ever wore sneakers. “Only when she’s playing tennis,” Nancy calmly replied. I waited a few seconds for everyone to start laughing and for Nancy to admit she was only kidding but no one said anything and Nancy wasn’t smiling.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Tennis? TENNIS? Aunt Marcella plays tennis?”
“Not anymore,” Nancy said. “She teaches it now. She’s a pro at some club.”
“But, she’s like 80 years old!” I protested. Again I looked around the table at my sister and my other cousins and they were all nodding their heads in agreement. Then Nancy went on to explain how my aunt had always played and taught tennis and that she couldn’t believe I didn’t know. During this earnest explanation I kept stealing looks down the table at Aunt Marcella as she quietly continued to eat her dinner and sip her tea. Every once in a while she would nod at someone and softly join in the conversation. “She has medals and everything,” Nancy said. “I’ve seen them. I’ve also seen her play. She runs across that court like greased lightning.”
“Does she also wear one of those visors on her head?” I asked Nancy.
“No. That won’t fit over her wig.”
“HER WIG?” I screamed. “She wears a wig too? Next you’ll be telling me Uncle Neil is her ball boy.”
“No. He can’t hold onto the balls,” my sister says as she holds up one hand and wiggles her fingers.
Now, this was all becoming too much for me. How could this woman that I’ve known my whole life be so different from who I thought she was? From that night on I began to see her in an entirely new light. I would listen attentively when she spoke waiting to hear her mention her tennis game. I couldn’t quite picture her in a short white tennis skirt yet but I was slowly starting to envision her in sneakers. I even kept a close watch on her wig. In fact, between Aunt Marcella’s wig and Uncle Neil’s missing fingers they now became the most interesting relatives to watch. Yet, I still never heard her mention even one tennis match.
As the years went by and the aunts and uncles got older, the family gatherings happened less and less. Uncle Neil passed away and Aunt Marcella went to live with Jack in another state so I completely lost touch with her. Of course her name still comes up every once in a while when the cousins are all sitting together laughing about the family. One day while we were reminiscing I said to my cousin Nancy, “I still think it’s great that you got to see Aunt Marcella play tennis.” Suddenly, there was complete silence around the table. “What? I said. You told me once that you saw her play.” And then everyone burst out laughing.
“I can’t believe you thought I was serious,” Nancy said. “I was just teasing you. Aunt Marcella never picked up a tennis racquet in her life.” I looked around the table at my family who I’m sure now thought I was the most gullible dolt in the lot. For years now I’d believed the lie that my conservative Aunt Marcella was the Martina Navratilova of our family. All eyes were now upon me and I felt my face reddening and all I could manage to squeak out was, “What about the wig?”
“Oh, that was true,” Nancy said. But I’m not so sure.