My aunt died yesterday.
And this morning, well before the crack of dawn, the smoke detector went off.
Five ear-splitting "chirps" a minute. Which brought my son Nino, who is staying with us for the holidays, bounding up the stairs.
With good reason. It was Nino's absentminded neglect of the bathroom ceiling fan (broken, my absentminded neglect) that burned down half the house seven years ago. Not that I'm bitter. Half the house actually needed burning down, since it was apparently the only way I was going to convince my husband Anthony to do any redecorating.
"Did you hear that?" Nino asked anxiously, the emotional scars from that incident on full display. It took us twenty minutes and three Google searches to discover that the smoke detector was chirping for no good fucking reason at all, other than it was old and needed replacing. One Amazon order later, the problem was solved.
Nino went back to bed. I didn't. Anthony slept through the whole thing. It was 6:30 am and I had the whole house, gloriously quiet, to myself. Time to reflect.
The smoke detector going off did not surprise me. The year my mother died, the smoke detector mysteriously went off, also at Christmastime. Three nights in a row. For no obvious reason, only at night. Sleep deprived and more than a little frustrated, I told my friend Kathy about it, and she said, "Connie! That's the spirit of your dead mother ruining your Christmas!"
She was right, of course. My aunt was my mother's little sister, and not to be outdone. So, good Sicilian American woman that I am, I consider the chirping smoke detector as a message from The Other Side. Where my mother and my aunt got together and decided, "Let's wake up Connie. It'll be fun."
My aunt was all about fun. She was a (very) wayward teenager, a wife (twice), a mother (four times), a bartender, a clown (professional), and a pilot (!). In the '60s, she was all about gold lamé, blue eyeshadow, hot pants, and Priscilla Presley hair. She went on a second honeymoon. She had a Leap Day baby. And a player piano. And took banjo lessons. My aunt painted my nails and bought me rock-and-roll records. When I became of age, she would leave me with her kids and the keys to her car. And packs of unfiltered Pall Malls lying around the house. When she had a drink, it was Kahlua, straight. She was my godmother, and I was the flower girl at her (first) wedding.
The night her mother (my grandmother) died, the family decided that the funeral should be on the following Monday. And my aunt told her brother, "I can't do Monday, I've got tickets to Vegas." Which pretty much set her reputation forever in stone as far as the rest of the family was concerned.
I didn't care. I loved her and she loved me.
And she could bake.
Here is one of her masterpieces, Red Velvet Cake. With a frosting (not the cream cheese stuff) like nothing I've ever tasted since. I'm going to reprint it just as she sent it to me, and you can try to figure it out. Because that way you'll be able to hear her voice.
But she never did. Oh, well.
I have something to look forward to.
*ice box = American Sicilian for "refrigerator" i.e., do not freeze. You've been warned.