The family is becoming increasingly concerned about Aunt Willow, my mother's oldest sister, the one who has adopted an environmental stance more radical than you might expect from a woman who, until recently, proclaimed as her personal motto: "More More More!"
But now it's "less less less" and she is vigorously pruning — her closets, her cupboards — which is all well and good, but for some reason the concept of anonymous re-giving holds no appeal for Willow. She has turned her back on the Salvation Army Thrift Store, as well as numerous consignment shops in her neighborhood, and has chosen to recycle her old garbage in the direction of her relatives, whether we like it or not. And we don't like it.
It began last year when she sent everyone a tuna can for Hanukkah. The cans were empty — either a plus or a minus, depending on your opinion of tuna fish — and haphazardly adorned. Some were lined with cotton balls, some with felt; some with what appeared to be bits of old socks. You either got a tuna can with used gift-wrapping paper taped around the outside, or one that was entirely undisguised and looked exactly like what it was: albacore or light, solid or chunky, packed in water or in oil. Nothing was left to the imagination.
Aunt Willow enclosed notes, written on the back of used envelopes, instructing us that the tuna cans could now be used to store our tchochkes and what-nots. But in typical Willow fashion she admonished us. "Why do you continue to accumulate tchotchkes?" she demanded, in her large loopy handwriting. "Down with tchotchkes! Go Green!" she added.
We all disposed of the tuna cans immediately. I know this because we have a cousins list-serve and some of us (naming no names) did not actually recycle the cans, but tossed them directly in the trash. (I know, I know: shame on me.) And since none of us are inclined to accumulate tchochkes and what-nots in the first place, Aunt Willow's Hanukkah gift was appreciated by not a single soul.
For my birthday last spring, Willow sent me a paperback copy of Crime and Punishment. It was the very copy she'd read in college, copiously annotated, margin notes on nearly every page. It came as no surprise to discover that Aunt Willow had an opinion about everything. "Raskolnikov!" she scribbled on page two, "get a new hat already! Where are your brains?"
I consulted with my cousin Lilian. She received a book for her birthday as well, a tattered volume of Hamlet. "Zee, it was horrifying," she told me. "The things our aunt wrote, nobody should have to read that. There were curses in 4 different languages, including Danish. She's totally ruined Shakespeare for me."
Over the course of a year the entire family has been subjected to similar assaults, as Willow ruthlessly clears her bookshelves. Cousin Harry, who's always been a little twitchy, is worried that the Peter Pan she foisted off on him could land him on the "dangerous persons" list with homeland security. He buried the book in his backyard, which is something Harry could do because he lives in Tenafly; anyone else would have thrown it down the incinerator chute in their apartment building and been done with it. Now his sister, Rosalie, who is even twitchier than Harry, is afraid some dog will dig up the book and Harry will be hauled off and never seen again. His fingerprints are all over that Peter Pan.
My own father became apoplectic when he saw Willow's margin notes in her old copy of Portnoy's Complaint.
"Why didn't he stop reading it?" I asked my mother. "Oh you know how it is," she said, "it was just like watching the Jerry Springer show, you can't stop yourself. He had to read to the very end, even though he hated every second of it."
I'm worried about what this Hanukkah will bring. Mom's already warned me that Aunt Willow's been going through the letters she received, and saved, over the last seven decades, reading each one over and over again. We suspect she will now return them to those senders who are still alive.
Who wants to be reminded of what you wrote to your aunt from summer camp in 1961? "Made three laniards today. Went swimming. Stepped on a worm."
And knowing Aunt Willow, she won't merely return our letters to us, she'll persecute us. "What do you mean, 'stepped on a worm?' What kind of maniac murderer are you? You're no niece of mine, Zee Zahava, you're a regular Raskolnikov."
I've never dreaded a holiday as much as I'm dreading this one.
Perhaps I should strike first. I could always send Aunt Willow an empty tube of toothpaste: "For storing your long skinny tchochkes and what-nots," I'd tell her.
But I won't. Why start a war you know you can't win?