Tante Astrid

I realized a few years ago that I don’t qualify as an authentic Marxist. Not because I deny that wealth needs to be redistributed. It does. For me there is a moral imperative involved as well. Rich people need to be punished. We all know they didn’t get where they are through hard work (I am talking the rule, not fictional exceptions to the rule), and probably fucked someone over, probably many people, in their transcendence of sustainability. Not only do I think there is a moral imperative that the rich be divested of their wealth, punishments for them ought to escalate geometrically according to amount of wealth. A sadistic component infuses my belief system. I saw Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and while I was charmed by its innocence — perhaps a little too swayed by the equation of Eighteenth Century French Royalty with 80s New Wave musicians who looked back to the Eighteenth Century for hair styles and inspiration — I still think that Louis the 16th should have been publicly castrated before he was decapitated and his wife slowly burnt at the stake.

That said, in my ideal purge one rich woman would be spared. That is my Aunt Astrid.

My previous blog posts might give the impression that I was raised without a legitimate mother figure. If that were true — if my biological mother were the sole parental figure in my life — I’d be a raving psychotic or at the bottom of a river somewhere. In reality, my cold Swedish, aunt, was often there for me.

My uncle Samir was of the first post-Nasser generation to be educated in the Egyptian school system. This is back when Egypt sought to create its own, authentic, intelligentsia. Like his 8 brothers and sisters, Samir was trained in multiple languages in school. I know for a fact he knew German and Dutch. Another one of my uncles was a fluent speaker of Russian. My mother came out of high school sounding like a native speaker of French and English (this wanton influence deluded her into strutting around the streets of Cairo, avoiding the steaming brown piles of merde who were her countrymen, while she acted the role of a young Catherine Deneuve). After college, Samir was hired by Honeywell for whom he was constantly on the road. One morning, on a business trip to Stockholm, he passed by a shop window. Astrid, nubile and fresh, was in the middle of putting together the latest display of wares. Samir looked at her, did some quick calculations, and decided “I want that.” He quickly wooed her and brought her back to Egypt. In Cairo, they had a daughter, Sue, and then five years later gave birth to my cousin, Ali, back in Stockholm. Shortly after he was born, they all moved to the United States and learned English together.

I once asked Astrid why she was so quick to get married and move to a foreign land where the language must have been utterly incomprehensible. In her lingering Swedish accent, she answered, “Sweden is boring. I was bored.”

Astrid is always bored. Boredom has been the monotone that sustains her. She flourishes in boredom. Every summer, whether she and Samir, as well as their kids, Sue and Ali, were in Cairo, Alexandria, or later their homes in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, or Singapore, my mother would get “sick” of my brother and I and give herself a vacation of two to three months by mailing us off to Astrid.

Astrid does not hug. Astrid does not smile. Astrid does not read. Astrid shops, gambles, chain smokes, drinks her Heinekins, gets face-lifts and watches her money on MSNBC. I can understand why my cousin is so traumatized by having such an apparently cold mother. I, on the other hand, needed Astrid’s boredom as a relief from my own mother’s constant state of upset. I breathed in her second-hand smoke like it was pure oxygen.

Out of crazed, overt, bitterness, my mother enforced absurd restrictions. As little kids, she strictly forbade us from watching two shows: Three’s Company and The Love Boat. I’m sure she found Three’s Company lewd and of The Love Boat, she would angrily shout, “That’s not how love works!” Astrid knew of these rules so during our summers with her she would actively encourage Ameer and I to sit with the family to watch The Love Boat. Having moved to Egypt when my mother was only 11, Astrid was intimately aware of how full of shit she was.

Once during a road trip to Malaysia from Singapore, we hadn’t eaten all day long and stopped at a mall. Astrid led my brother and I straight to Kentucky Fried Chicken and ordered a meal for each of us. I remember my mother throwing a fit about this. “They can’t eat chicken here. They’re going to get dysentery.” For several minutes, she ranted about dysentery until Astrid put down her fork, looked my mother straight in the eye and asked point blank, “Are you having your period?” At that initiation of hostilities, I yanked my little brother away from his food and cheerily announced, “we’re going to take a look at the record store.”

Astrid and my mother had conflicting beliefs over food. Astrid’s ideology was that we should be allowed to eat. During our summers with her, Ameer and I were always given fresh blueberries with our cereal and chips and raspberries with lunch. We would help Astrid pick tomatoes before she’d send us off to gather berries. She was no normal suburban housewife. She did not socialize with the neighbors or practice fake public warmness. Sure, Samir, on the rare occasions he was home from business trips, would sit down to watch Barney Miller or Welcome Back Kotter and shout out, “Astrid get me some falafel and turkish coffee!” and she would agreeably oblige. Yet she always acted the equal. Once, my mother left us with Astrid while she went on a business trip. It was the usual with a visiting Astrid at our house. Ameer, Astrid and I transitioned into our annual symbiosis, but when my mother came back from the trip early, and caught us in flagrante eating the steak and eggs Astrid cooked us, she began to harangue my aunt: “If you cook them food, they’ll never learn to be independent,” said my Libertarian, Ayn Rand worshiping mother. “They are 8 and 10, retorted Astrid.” “They can make themselves breakfast,” countered my mother. “Not when you don’t leave them with any groceries,” snapped Astrid. It was a seminal moment for me as Astrid stood up for our human right to eat breakfast in peace. With our mother, we never received lunch money or had groceries to use for school lunches. We’d simply binge eat on the rare occasions that she chose not to go to the gym and did some goddamn shopping instead. Eventually, I’d learn to just go do it on my own.

Of me, Astrid will be complimentary: “Looks have never been his problem.” During OJ’s trial (she pronounces it Ooooh Jjjay), she was absolutely convinced of his innocence. She would argue fiercely that OJ had been framed. I used to think this was the most ridiculous thing ever, but at one Thanksgiving I saw how she wielded her OJ love as a deadly weapon. My cousin Sue, now married, still a bitch, had invited the Joneses over. The Joneses were the couple who used to own an identical townhouse down the street and were now invited to the huge new house to stew in thoughts of nowhere-mobility. Every time we saw them, the husband would get sloppy drunk and sentimental. He would blather on to my brother and I how we should learn to appreciate one another because one day we would be the best of friends. He’d tear up talking about how inseparable we would become. Ameer and I were united in our hatred of this guy and our queasiness whenever he spoke to us. There was something vaguely homosexual and incestuous about his fantasy-tinged speeches to us. While he was a disgusting old softie, his Mexican wife was a true barracuda. I would watch her scan the house with her eyes, pricing the furniture and knick-knacks, jealous of the wealth Astrid brought to her daughter’s home. At this Thanksgiving dinner, she sat across from me rattling with jewelry and making a spectacle of herself at the table.

“Did you hear about the blacks and Pioneer Chicken?” she asked everyone. I saw Ali tighten up and look at me. I was the darkest person at the table, and particularly interested in where this was going.

She began to tell us of the latest controversy involving “the blacks” and their social complaints. Apparently, the blacks were complaining that “Pioneer Chicken is making their men impotent.” She commented that this might be a good thing. I remember Sue’s Japanese mother-in-law, Momo, a former Geisha girl during World War II who had been seduced from her husband by a Swedish-American GI, speaking up and asking “Who? Who is the black?” “The BLACKS!” loudly explained her son, Paul. “The African-Americans, Ma!” Ali was wincing, my mother blithely eating, and I, while mentally cursing my brother for being off at Yale and having Thanksgiving with friends, was formulating something especially bilious to say in response. Astrid beat me to the punch. “Do you see that ham you are eating? That ham comes from Oooh Jjjay. It is from his company, Honey Baked. It is a Honey Baked ham.” While I’m sure many at the table probably considered it one of Astrid’s usual non sequiturs, it was obvious she had deflated the rampaging racist across from me. I recall seeing one of Astrid’s rare private smiles almost break out.

It was in Las Vegas where I came out to Astrid. She wasn’t really interested. Pretty bored by it, actually, and wanted to go shopping at Kenneth Cole. The only time I’ve ever seen her animated and happy, though, was a few minutes later when I asked to bum a cigarette off of her. “You smoke? You smoke!?” It was in the parking lot of the Bellagio, where Ali and his ex-wife, Laurel, and I tried to figure out where Astrid belonged in the world.

“What place did you like the best?” we asked. Copenhagen. No. Cairo. No. New Jersey. No. Pennsylvania. No. Singapore. No. California. No.

“Las Vegas. I like Las Vegas. Here I can have my own room, gamble, smoke and eat at the buffet.”

Astrid’s needs are simple. Dat once told me after a dinner with her, “Your aunt smells like money.” “Yeah,” I told him. “When I was a fat kid she’d bribe me to lose weight. A dollar a pound.” Of course, she was totally cheating me. She now lives with her daughter, Sue, son-in-law and three grandkids. She and Sue have made a profession out of shopping. The house is filled with stuff, pelf. She goes to the third world and snaps up Praying Men by Thai artisans, orders rugs woven by poor Indians, covers every square inch of the walls with paintings by Chinese artists, and spends thousands on gifts to her daughter, such as an auctioned Bruce Springsteen guitar. Spending her inheritance makes her happy, or, it fills up the time. She can’t stand being made aware of wasted time. If a hostess ever makes her wait at a restaurant, Astrid will tower above the waitress, simply standing there, glaring through her sunglasses, until the waitress panics and finds a table.

Her views have always been Enlightened but heavily mediated. Ali tells me that at Mother’s Day lunch, she announced, “America is ready for a black President because of the President on 24. His name is Palmer.” Ali told me this, proud that she no longer uses the word “Colored.”

Principles be damned! I have decided that from now on, every Mother’s Day belongs to my Aunt — the only rich person whose life should be spared.

One Response to “Tante Astrid”

  1. Luches Says:

    Awww, Darkness! You have some light! (very sweet).When I was growing up my aunts would always take me aside to conspire against my family; and when I was 15 and had to flee for my life, I was allowed to come and burrow and leave too, when I wanted. Extended kinship networks rock!

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