Thursday, March 11, 2010

Antique Tobacco Tin

Once, when I was in my late teens or early twenties, quite out of the blue, my Aunt sent me this charming little Russian tobacco tin. I have no idea why. I didn't know my aunt well. She was my father's older sister and lived in another state. We saw her a few times during my childhood, when we took family road trips to visit my grandmother in Texas. She came with her kids to visit us a few times in Colorado.

My aunt always seemed like a breed apart. Her husband and sons were spectacularly handsome. They had the easy-going, debonair manner of the wealthy, like Cary Grant in a 1950s romantic comedy. Uncle B. was one of the principal citizens of their mid-sized city, where he owned several thriving businesses. To my childish eyes, they were like royalty. Their homes -- they moved whenever my aunt wanted a new place to decorate --seemed so enormous, so sophisticated and modern. I had never known people who had professional decorators choose their furniture and knickknacks. Everything in my aunt's homes matched -- even the antique books on the shelves, which were purchased not for their contents, but their covers. Recently, I saw one of the houses that had so impressed me. It was a nice mid-century ranch, decently sized, but, as I can now see, nothing special.

My aunt was fun and funny, with a big laugh just like her mother. But as I got older, I began to dislike her. I understand now that I was shaped by my mother's own dislike for her sister-in-law. Maybe it was jealousy -- Aunt G. was beautiful, thin, and rich. But more importantly, mom resented that dad's family always treated her as an outsider, never as one of the family.

Aunt G. passed away a few years ago. Her husband of 65 years, who had lived in the same town his entire life, remarried less than a year later and moved to the coast with his new wife. Oddly, the new wife shared my aunt's first name.

In the years since she died, I've learned more about my aunt's early life. Like my father, she was raised by a mother who, in the vein of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, was not "a mother woman." She was old enough to be aware that her father was a drunk and drug addict, to feel the sting when he abandoned the family, to know the scandal of having a divorced mother.

I had known this part of the story, in the abstract sort way you come to piece things together in a family that doesn't talk about its secrets and shames.

But I recently learned there was much more to Aunt G's life. In the early 1940s, when she was just 20 or so, she fell and love and married. Like most men of his generation, her husband joined the service in World War II. Trained as a pilot, he was sent to Europe when Aunt G. was pregnant with their first child. Her husband was shot down, captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. But Aunt G. didn't know that for months. The records reported him as MIA. Newly married and pregnant with her first child, Aunt G. lived alone in a tiny apartment over a garage, pining away for her lost husband. Their baby was a year and a half old when he finally came home.

So, this little box holds more than just safety pins. Now, about the box itself, or where my aunt got it, I know next to nothing. It is Russian. I can't read most of the words on it, but I do recognize the word tobacco. And the year 1842. It's a pretty little object, a good receptacle for safety pins. And a nice reminder of an aunt I hardly knew.

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