After Four Cereal Bowls, my aunt never wrote another word or attempted to, a loss to art bemoaned by the literati of late millennial America. Unlike Salinger, Aunt Merry did not disappear so much as she entered a prolonged supernova state, attending every opening and event and party in Manhattan. She snorted coke at Studio 54 and posed nude and did a weekend of prison time after a Vietnam War protest.
She also initially gained her recognition by stealing one of my Mom’s diaries and delivering it to a male friend of hers who buffed up the language and used his contacts to ensure Aunt Merry obtained instant recognition as an emerging post-war American woman writer.
It drove my old man nuts, firing off checks to Catholic schools then high schools then colleges for tuition and books for his many Catholic children, while Merry resided permanently on Easy Street. It galled him when our English teachers assigned us Four Cereal Bowls to read, and he refused to pay for this particular textbook; instead he rummaged for his library card and drove to the Hale town library where he borrowed the book, determined not to pay for it and increase Merry’s royalties.
“That frigid bitch isn’t getting a nickel of my money, she’s already stolen enough of your mother’s!”
Following my father’s lead, we referred to Aunt Merry as Aunt Frigid.
My Mom did not talk about it, striking an unspoken deal with my father that if she did not have to speak about her sister’s theft, he did not have to talk about his experiences in World War Two. But when money tightened, Dad mentioned Aunt Frigid loudly and repeatedly, often picking up the phone and dialing her number to scream at her, something he never fully accomplished as Mom calmly walked over to abort the call.
As a happily married couple, they compromised. Mom religiously checked the newspaper and Time Magazine or People first, cutting out any article concerning her famous sister. Occasionally, Aunt Frigid visited with presents or sent checks to us on our birthday, all of which Dad donated to charity.
No one appreciated it because no one knew it, but Aunt Frigid hardly prospered, cohabiting with her latest suitor while she diverted half of her royalties to her former male friend, now an editor for a large publisher, who blackmailed her into this particular form of forced generosity. He made her attend parties for his publishing house and even forced her to have sex when he drank and felt powerful.
I saw Mom once leaning over on her knees, pulling weeds from our vegetable garden, and decided to ask why she let Frigid get away with it; Mom smiled and tried to explain: “I never liked to write and I still don’t. What Merry did….”
“Yes, whatever. What she did was to take something that I never wanted to see the light of day and put it out there as her own thoughts and experiences. I could never do that and I was never that strong a writer to pull it off any way. Her friend helped her mold what I had scribbled into something that people enjoy and what makes them happy. I could never do that.”
“You could have found a collaborator Mom, you could have done that.”
“I didn’t want to share and I guess I still don’t. She stole my deepest feelings as a teenager and more power to her. She knows what she did and some day she will have to answer for it, if not in this world, then then next. I am a private person and while you children can ask me anything you want… I hope you know that… I don’t want to share myself with the world.”
I let it slide and started to enter writing contests on my own, submitting to literary magazines and not so literary publications and to book publishers. Mostly I received back large envelopes that I had previously self-addressed, with my returned typed stories wedded to a very nice cover letter urging me to keep on trying. I received even more rejections from publishers than I did from girls at Hale High School and Hale Catholic during my zitty adolescence, but my Dad encouraged me to me submit my works. He believed in me and he wanted to exact some measure of revenge on Frigid.
One rule, I could never trade on Frigid’s name and faux reputation to open any doors, an easy task because of our different surnames and my own determination not to exploit the fruits of a poisonous tree.
Finally, the Hartford Courant published me, part of its “Young Author’s Series,” re-printing a story that I had written for my English class which I did not submit to a publisher, but Brother David Czpilienski did behind my back. He had sensed something passionate in a creative writing piece that I slapped together called “The Stratego Pieces.”
It was a throwaway, a story that I had made up about one of my sisters habitually defeating me at the board game Stratego, by cheating. If you have never played the game, it is sort of like chess except the other player cannot see your pieces when they are on the board, only you can. Suffice it to say that it really helps to know where the other player keeps his Bombs and Generals, and if they capture your Flag, you lose. In fictional work, my fictional sister saw my pieces when they were still face up in the box and watched where I placed each one, and then noted where I kept my most critical pieces. Like playing poker and knowing each card in the other players’ hands, she knew where my Flag was.
I won a prize and had my photograph taken with a half dozen other skinny teenagers, ran in the arts section one Sunday.
Aunt Frigid noticed. I received a long handwritten letter from her extolling my gift as a writer and promising me any assistance that I might wish for as a writer. She also included a check to me for $25.00 which I decided not to tell my Dad about, so I cashed it and it came back to me marked “NSF.” Not sufficient funds. I tore up the check and flushed it, along with Frigid’s letter, a nod to her literary largesse.
The old man found out about it and blew up, not because I had tried to cash the check but because I did not keep it after the bank returned it to me.
“Imagine the shame Frigid would have to endure with her rich friends if they knew that she was bouncing twenty dollar checks.”
“Twenty five, the amount that she tried to write the check for was twenty five dollars.”
“Even better.” Dad threw open the refrigerator and grabbed a cold Miller Lite and split it with me, figuring it was the first time I had tasted beer. “Enjoy the beer son, at least I can afford my own beer.”
We toasted to Aunt Frigid.
And she did some toasting of her own, in New York, copying clippings of the Courant with my printed story, to all of her writer and publishing friends. Now when I submitted stories to magazines, they printed them, always noting that Merry McGarry was my aunt. I was a high school prodigy, mailed a contract to compose a book of short stories, earning enough money to pay for my college tuition and room and board.
Between senior year in high school and freshman year in college, I submitted a dozen stories to fulfill my contract, all centered around a sister with a personality disorder, cheating her way through life. With my advance, I not only financed my college education, I bought a ton of records and books and even wrote my aunt a check for $25.00, which she graciously cashed. It cleared.
The book sold well, but I discovered that I only could write nasty sister tales. My grades in college suffered, even in English, with the exception of an essay that I wrote about King Lear. My professor called me in after class and set up an appointment to meet with me after her regular office hours.
At our meeting, she asked me if I wanted some coffee, which I politely declined, upon which she took down two books from her shelf, my own collection and Four Cereal Bowls.
“What were you trying to tell me in your paper?”
“Nothing really, I just completed the assignment you gave me.”
“Is that right? How come your aunt never published a single word after Four Cereal Bowls?”
I lied, “I think she got carried away in the lifestyle, partying with Truman Capote, not having any financial worries. I think that she lost her hunger.”
She opened her desk and pulled out an old letter, one that she had received back from my aunt a dozen years ago. She read its contents to me, an oral ordeal, exposing my aunt as a soul scarcely acquainted with things like words and expressions.
“Pretty bad, huh? Your aunt could not even write a comprehensible letter back to me, one of her greatest fans. Nor did she have enough money apparently to retain a publicist to handle her fan mail.”
“Are you calling my aunt an impostor?”
“I don’t have to, you have already told me. Your book, your bitchy sister essays that you have handed in to me this semester. I just put two and two together.”
“I wish you hadn’t.”
“I doubt that, you have been finking on your aunt with everything that you set to paper.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“So I was right. I’m not going to do anything with it, it’s what you are going to do with it that matters. Your stories are old and predictable, you can probably make a living as writer by churning out the same nonsense with the same horrible character. Maybe write for television. If that’s what you want. It’s not what I want. The Lear paper was good, but seriously, who wants to spend money on the other nonsense?”
It’s all I had.
Perversely my aunt had inspired me, the sheer deviousness of her undeveloped nature, yet I had never gotten beyond what she wasn’t and what she was as an aging cartoon character. I filed my papers to transfer into the business school at my college and after some blowback about my jeopardizing my God-given talent, the Dean approved my application and I became a finance major and did not publish any fictional work again.
When my aunt died I attended her funeral and Mass, which few other non-family members bothered appearing for, with the exception of fellow writers, who wanted to know why both my aunt and I had ceased creative writing after our one masterpiece. Symmetry and mystery beguiled them.
I begged off each writer, citing my fictitious grief and family business I needed to attend to. I gave them each a telephone number, not mine, but rather that of Konrad Crown, the dealer who had sold me my newest car. Konrad loved it, even putting a couple of them in the car of their dreams, assuring them that he had inside information about my aunt and me.
He had nothing and I had little more. Oddly, my aunt once asked me why I had stopped writing, given that I possessed such a gift. Again with The Gift, the ability to write clearly and in an entertaining manner as an item one bought in a store and wrapped up and given to someone for their birthday or Christmas. I told her that I really didn’t, I just cribbed my mother’s diary entries, particularly the ones about her youth. That shut up Aunt Frigid, but I gifted her, allowing her to die with her secret and acclaim.
After both my Mom and Frigid died, Dad told the secret. He had always wanted to own a sailboat, since his days in Sea Scouts and right through his attenuated tour of service in the Navy; so he threatened the publisher who had blackmailed Frigid all of those years and got a deal to expose the great literary fraud of the twentieth century. He got his advance and his boat, which he dubbed The Frigid Princess.
He deserved it, working overtime to put all of his children through school, never taking vacations or buying anything for himself, though he did not appreciate the blowback to me. Again, writers contacted me to ask if I always knew about Frigid’s skullduggery and if I based all of my characters after her. This time I could not palm them off on Konrad Crown, so I told them everything they wanted to hear, it was all true and they knew it in any event.
My Dad sold our family home and moved into his boat. While throwing things out and divvying items between my siblings and me, he handed me several spiral bound notebooks that my mother filled with her writings, long after she told me she had stopped doing so.
I read everything. She chronicled her mother dying during the Depression and how her father took on extra shifts to keep her and her three siblings alive in part, in large part to address his sorrow by staying away from home except to sleep. Merry quit high school and raised Mom and her other two siblings. Each day, after she had packed my grandfather’s lunch and sent him to work with a hug, she laid out four bowls and by the time my Mom and her other two siblings woke up, there were four cereal bowls laid out on the table with a large pitcher filled with milk.
Merry packed their lunches too and walked them to school, then started up a shift at a department store where she worked part-time, often stealing clothes so that her whole family wore new clothing.
I write again, filling out notebooks like my Mom did, with what compels me to speak. What talent that I possessed during my mean sister period evaporated, replaced with the joy of doing what I wish, a luxury that a successful career in finance provided me. I re-read Four Cereal Bowls often, recognizing my mother’s hand and restoring her to life, until I put the book down on a table, temporarily content with releasing the dead, hopefully to a better place than this.
Donald Hubbard has written six books, one of which was profiled on Regis and Kelly and another that was a Boston Globe bestseller and Amazon (category) top ten. Two books have gone into a second edition and he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame as an author in 2015. He has published twenty stories in ten magazines and had a chapter from one of his books published in Notre Dame Magazine.