Auntie Rabbit Ears
(or The Angel of Death)
I remember listening to Gramma and especially Grampa tell stories. I once asked Gramma if Grampa’s stories were true. She said they were the absolute truth, though they might be enhanced a little bit. And now I find myself passing down the story of Auntie Rabbit Ears – true, but maybe a little enhanced.
Neither family approved when Letty Navarre married Grigory Prochazka.
Both families were Catholic, but the French-Catholic Navarres thought the Polish-Catholic Prochazkas were too ‘holy’, what with all the little shrines in the house.
Meanwhile, the Prochazkas thought anyone who missed Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation was destined for a warm afterlife. The issue was never fully resolved.
The Prochazkas considered the Navarres to be somewhat less than American since they couldn’t trace their lineage back much beyond the Civil War. The Prochazkas were proud to say they could trace their American Heritage all the way back to a patriarch who came to America with Kazimierz Pułaski (because said patriarch was given the choice of leaving the country, or rotting in jail for his frequent brawls). The issue was resolved when both families learned their assorted sons fought in the war as soldiers or sailors. In fact, Grigory met Letty, a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital, where he was recovering from an infected war wound.
Both families thought the other ate strange things. The issue was resolved at a Christmas gathering for the newlyweds. Mother Navarre (nee McCoy) made bread pudding with bourbon sauce. Mother Prochazka (nee Pilczak) made fudge caramel cream mazurek.
The Navarres were Nash people. The men all worked on the line, and some of the women worked in the office. Grigory was an engineer at Allis-Chalmers. The issue was resolved when it became evident that Grigory was good with tools, and not afraid of heights – extremely useful characteristics when your in-laws own a boarding house with a leaky roof.
The Prochazkas were relieved that at least Letty was white, not Japanese like that war bride Bobby Wisnicki brought home (whom he met and married in Manila, which is definitely not in Japan). Grigory and Letty thought it best to wait until after the bread pudding and brandy sauce before mentioning that Letty’s great-grandparents were a Kentucky slave and an Indiana dairy farmer.
Letty and Grigory were fruitful, and multiplied – seven times.
Mary was first. Zofia (my mother) was last. Ana, the second child, was stillborn. Then came Piotr, Paul, and Nikolas. Then came Emma.
Nikolas is probably the most interesting member of the family. Started smoking at twelve, had his first (of many) Blatz at fourteen, dropped out of school at sixteen, and left home shortly thereafter. He went to Racine, and got a job at the Nash plant, where he learned to make keys and test ignitions. For a time, he lived in public housing in Joliet, Illinois, his skills plus his taste for beer having led him to abscond with a Nash in Waukegan. Unfortunately, the top-of-the-line Ambassador Custom belonged to a Waukegan police officer. Uncle Nik returned to Milwaukee, and got a job as a mechanic for the Miller Brewing Company. Somehow he managed to keep that job for twenty-five years. He was the first of the uncles and aunts to pass, heart disease, emphysema, and cirrhosis of the liver all vying to punch his exit ticket.
But that’s another story. I started out talking about Auntie Rabbit Ears, didn’t I?
Aunt Emma was the youngest, as I said. In all the years of her life, I never heard her say a cross word. When we walked to Walesh’s grocery store (or butcher shop, or whatever it was) on Greenfield, dogs would bark at us kids, and come up for a sniff. They never barked at Aunt Emma, never sniffed at her. When she walked by, they either went away, or more often came to lay down beside her. Aunt Emma conversed with crows – the bird kind, not the Indian kind. I’ve tried, and they only squawk at me. Aunt Emma? Some of them would actually fly to her, and eat from her hand. On one of the rare occasions when I sat still with her long enough, I heard a crow squawk to Emma, to which she replied, ‘You’re welcome.’ The crow squawked again, and Emma said that yes, it was rye bread because Mother hadn’t had time to bake this week. The crow squawked again, in a slightly different manner, and Emma said yes, she would get another piece for the crow to take to his family. When she set down the piece of bread, the crow let out a happy ‘bwaaack!’ Emma said ‘It’s nothing. Go feed them.’ The crow let out a much more subdued ‘buck’, took the bread, and flew off.
If I’d seen anybody else do those things, I’d have said she was bats. But Aunt Emma was . . . different?
On those walks to the store, when we passed Schauer’s bar, if she heard arguing – which was almost always – she’d step in and say ‘Hi everyone, isn’t it a nice day?’ The arguing always stopped, and people always had a good chat with Emma.
Of course, Mumma would have a royal conniption fit when she found out her kids were sitting on the steps at Schauer’s while Emma was in the bar. Mr. Schauer usually gave Emma enough Eskimo Pies for each of us. Long after she was gone, Mr. Schauer’s son said his Dad told him Emma Prochazka saved him more money from spilled beer and broken glassware, than she cost him in Eskimo Pies.
She knew every word in the dictionary. She could type faster than most people could talk. She worked for years at Marshall & Ilsley Bank, typing letters and documents for bigshots in the legal department. She told the story of the new lawyer who refused to let her change a spelling error in a letter. He was back, with a red face, two days later, having learned from his boss the word was ‘encroachment’ – not ‘enroachment’. She played the piano with grand enthusiasm and considerable skill, but nobody was going to mistake her playing for Liberace’s – mostly because the old Decker piano was only tuned every few years, and then by a neighbor who claimed to have ‘perfect pitch.’
When the Prochazkas and the Navarres got together at Christmas or birthdays, Grampa Grigory always played his accordion. Gramma Letty and Aunt Emma always played a couple of duets, and Aunt Emma always played the piano and sang ‘God Bless America’. When jazz singers don’t know the words to a song, they do what they call scatting. Mumma didn’t know the words to ‘Roll Out The Barrel’, so she did the polka equivalent of scatting. Cousins from both sides of the family tree agreed that the singing and piano playing were dumb.
I wish I could go back there one more time, and sing ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ again.
Well anyway, I guess I told you kids once before about the fact that Aunt Emma had one leg shorter than the other. One shoe had a lift, maybe three inches. She walked kind of funny, not because of the short leg, but because of the weight of the shoe with the lift. Most people didn’t realize her right arm was shorter than the left. When she played solo on the piano, she moved a lot more than most ‘family’ pianists. Folks who didn’t know her thought she was trying to act like a professional musician. We knew better. Aunt Emma never tried to act like anything. She always just was.
Kids can be incredibly mean and hurtful. ‘Aunt Emma’ soon became ‘Aunt Tenna’, and then ‘Auntie Rabbit Ears’. Aunt Emma never complained about the childish insult. In fact, she embraced the ‘Auntie Rabbit Ears’ tag, using it to sign cards with Christmas and birthday presents. When we stopped in for a visit, she would say ‘Come give Auntie Rabbit Ears a hug!’ We did that obligingly enough because she always gave big presents. She wasn’t like Aunt Bertha from the other side of the family, who always wanted a hug and a kiss, and who always smelled like Viceroys.
I remember the year she gave us all Sony pocket-sized transistor radios. I got a tan one, which I hung from the rear view mirror on the Corvair. I used to impress my friends by making that little radio dance and smack the windshield. But that’s another story, huh?
The First Door
When Auntie Rabbit Ears was about twelve, Gramma Letty took her to St. Luke’s. They put on clean white lady-like gloves, and nice (but not too fancy) hats. The bus was a little late, but Emma didn’t mind. They could probably have walked, but the bus was more fun.
An elderly neighbor’s husband was deathly ill, and Gramma Letty thought the neighbor lady could stand some comforting. When they entered the hospital room, the man’s breathing was coming in gasps and rattles. His eyes were closed, and he didn’t seem to respond to anything or anyone around him. Emma told her mother the man wanted his head raised. Gramma Letty, being a nurse, saw no harm in it, and cranked the head of the bed up about eight inches. The man’s breathing evened out almost at once. The man’s wife was exhausted from days and nights of watching her husband linger. Letty hugged the woman, and took her out to the hall for a few minutes. When they came back into the room, the man was sleeping peacefully, with his face turned toward Emma. She had a hand on his chest. Maybe fifteen minutes later the man opened his eyes, and looked around the room. Then he closed his eyes, and his face went curiously flat. Letty felt for a pulse, and found none. She pulled her stethoscope from her purse, and listened for a heartbeat. None. She pulled the cord to summon a nurse.
As they waited, Emma hugged the neighbor lady, who seemed to have shrunk six inches.
‘Mr. Hibbert just wanted someone to show him how to open the door.’
‘Thank you Emma. I think I want to go home now. Letty, will you take me home?’
As they were walking down the hall, Emma asked her mother if the man in the next room was her patient. Letty said no, he was in a different ward – post op. Emma said she wanted to talk to the man. Letty said she shouldn’t bother him, and Emma promised to only stay for a couple of minutes. Then she popped into the room before her mother could object. In less than a minute Emma popped out again.
‘Momma, can I have a nickel? Mr. Grandt wants to listen to some music.’
Letty always kept a coin purse full of nickels in her pocket, to feed the coin-operated radios in the hospital rooms. She thought it was sweet that Emma wanted to help the man – Mr. Grandt – so she pulled out the coin purse, snapped it open, and handed Emma a nickel.
In a few moments music wafted from the room – first a bit of the Andrews Sisters, then a bit of Spaghetti Rag, and finally some kind of orchestra music. It was still playing when Emma came out of the room.
‘Mr. Grandt is okay now. He wanted to listen to Moonlight Sonata. I’ve played parts of it, but it’s too hard for me.’
Mrs. Hibbert watched what was going on. When they started for the door again, she said ‘Letty, Emma is an angel.’ Letty took it as a compliment, and thought no more of it until much later.
The next morning, when Letty showed up for her shift in the maternity ward, there was a definite buzz in the air, and it wasn’t from the over-strong coffee. Apparently, there had been two deaths yesterday, on the same floor, within a half hour of each other. Old Mr. Hibbert went from his latest and worst stroke. No surprise there. But that Grandt fellow who was in for gall bladder surgery went without a peep. Well, nobody knew for sure when he went. When the duty nurse came on, she looked in and charted him as sleeping well. But at five, when the nurse’s aide tried to wake him, his hand was cold and stiff. So he must have been dead for a while.
The head nurse, Bellin was livid, and earning her nickname – ‘Bellerin’. Dr. Frist was scared shitless that he was going to be found negligent somehow. Mr. Reeves, the Administrator, was behind closed doors, cleaning his glasses every three minutes. The nurses figured Grandt probably died of a heart attack (he was overweight, and smoked), but there were plenty of live people to worry about.
Letty kept her peace.
There was a boy in Emma’s high school class. His dad was driving to work, and planning to drop the boy off. A drunk driver (no, not Uncle Nik) ran a stop sign. The dad was banged up pretty good, but he recovered. The boy went through the windshield, hit the hood of the other car, and whatnot. Emma was on her way to class, and got to the accident before almost anyone else. The boy was bleeding bad from a couple of places. Emma held his hand. When the ambulance arrived the medics didn’t even bother to try reviving the boy.
Emma didn’t make it to class that day. She went back home, changed clothes and soaked the blood out of them as well as she could. Then she waited for her parents.
Letty knew about the accident, but didn’t know Emma was there. The soaking clothes were her first clue. Emma told her the whole story. Every item of clothing Emma had been wearing, including the shoes, went in the trash. They went out immediately, and replaced it all. Letty knew from the hospital that getting rid of bloody clothes was an important first step in moving past a bad loss.
Emma was there when Uncle Nik passed. They say it was messy.
Uncle Nik’s wife had died years earlier in a car accident. She drank as much as he did, and she drove a car into a telephone pole. The steering wheel did her in. Uncle Nik barely managed to be sober for the funeral. By then Uncle Nik had been on his job twenty years, and they kept him on for five more. When he retired in sixty-something he went to hell in a handbasket. One day he keeled over at the Piggly Wiggly, and they took him to County General. There were all kinds of relatives from Milwaukee coming to see him, but his three kids from Chicago, Detroit, and Boise never showed up. The cousins said it was inconvenient of Uncle Nik to get sick when his kids weren’t out on parole, which was really unfair, since only Nik’s daughter’s husband was in jail in Michigan.
Uncle Nik scrambled and grasped to stay alive. He cried, and clung to visitors – so much so that most people only came once. He told the Priest he didn’t want Extreme Unction, he wanted a Winston. He told Letty he was afraid he was going to hell, and he was going to meet his wife there. After about two weeks of coughing, cursing, gasping and drooling, Uncle Nik was near the end. Letty told the family as much. Most of the kin, and all of the neighbors weren’t of a mind to make the trip to County General. Emma and Letty hopped a bus, got transfers, and headed over.
As soon as Uncle Nik saw Emma, he went into a state – and it wasn’t Wisconsin either. He began blubbering (between coughs) about how he didn’t want to die, and how he was afraid he was going to hell.
Letty thought they should leave, but Emma said no. Then she put a hand on Uncle Nik’s forehead, and straightened what little hair he had left.
‘Uncle Nik, you’re not going to hell. That’s not how God works.’
Uncle Nik started to cry, but it was a different kind of crying.
‘Emma, you’re the only person in this world who’s never lied to me. I don’t think you’ve ever told a lie, have you?’
Uncle Nik closed his eyes then.
‘Mumma, if you want to go home, it’s okay. I can catch the bus later.’
‘No Emma. He’s my brother. I’ll help you with this one.’ The words just came out. Letty barely knew what she was saying.
They say Uncle Nik died a couple of hours later.
Letty asked Emma if she wanted to visit anyone else before they left, but Emma said no, it was time to go home and have supper.
I was going to say, ‘curtain call’, but that’s too bad a pun, even for me.
One by one, over many years, Auntie Rabbit Ears presided – well, that’s not really the word I want, but I can’t think of another one that’s better – presided over the passing of friends and family. Her grandparents, her parents, all her Milwaukee aunts and uncles. A couple of cousins, her brothers and sisters, and some of the closest neighbors, too. Now, they didn’t all die on the spot when Aunt Emma showed up. Some of them waited to have dinner first. But from Old Mr. Hibbert to her sister Zofia – my Mom – and probably a few after that, she helped a couple of dozen people open the door. Auntie Rabbit Ears never married, never had kids, and survived all of her immediate family. They say she was found in a chair, with the sheet music for Moonlight Sonata on her lap
I wish she was still alive, because some day I’m going to need her to help me open that door too. Maybe she’s there waiting for me. That’s a comforting thought. I’ll ask her to play Sugar Lips, or maybe Stranger On The Shore.
Who wants an Eskimo Pie?