Aunt Tooty

Aunt Tooty

From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul

Aunt Tooty

Where there is room in the heart, there is always room in the house.

Thomas Moore

Her American name was Aunt Tilly; I don’t know its Hebrew derivation, but to me she was always Aunt Tooty. She was the beloved substitute for my own grandmother, her sister Ida, who died before I was born.

Aunt Tooty was one of three sisters who immigrated to the United States just before the Russian revolution took place. Along with Ida and Tilly came Paulie; they were said (by their own account) to be the most beautiful, talented and sought-after girls in their shtetl. I believe it. The way they sewed and danced and laughed together, who wouldn’t want to marry them? Besides, what other girls had the courage to secretly board a train and run away in search of a better life, as the three of them had when they were teenagers? For three weeks, until they were returned home, their mother thought they were dead. The three sisters were regal, imposing women. Tall and erect, their hair was swept up on their heads just like the empress’s. They were formidable ladies who knew how to make themselves heard, noticed and respected.

But it was Aunt Tooty to whom I was truly drawn when I wanted a grandmother’s love. It was to Aunt Tooty’s house on Richmond Street in Philadelphia that I always wanted to go. It was Aunt Tooty’s large hands and long fingers I wanted to feel caress me whenever I felt sad or scared.

Her house was really an apartment behind my uncle’s appliance store. I loved the sitting room, with its bric-abrac, teacups on doilies, silver inkwell on the writing table and sepia photographs, including one of my mother as a child with a gigantic bow in her black hair. I loved the smell of chicken soup simmering in a pot in the kitchen and the sound of Aunt Tooty pounding pastry on the wooden breadboard. I loved hearing her humming Yiddish songs as she danced around the room with me standing on top of her lace-up shoes. But most of all I loved the armoire drawer I slept in when I stayed at Richmond Street. It was the bottom drawer of a huge piece of furniture from “the old country” that pulled out to create a perfect sleeping nest for a three-and-a-half-year-old. Lined with a deliciously soft eiderdown and fluffy pillows such as you only find in Europe, that tiny space made me feel absolutely safe and loved. In the evening when I grew sleepy, Aunt Tooty tucked me in to my special bed chamber, and in the morning when I woke, she was there to greet me, her ample bosom already adorned with a cameo, a lace handkerchief tucked inside her dress for emergencies.

It was in just that place on one such morning that I awoke to my beloved Aunt Tooty singing, “I have a surprise for you!” Lifting me out of my drawer, she danced me around the room and then sat me in her lap. “You have a new baby brother!” she said. “Isn’t that wonderful news?”

I knew that my mother was going to have a new baby, and I understood vaguely that its arrival was imminent when my father took me to Aunt Tooty’s. I also knew that everyone waited with bated breath for it to be a boy. Mom was forty and had two daughters already, it was the least God could do for her. But I wasn’t sure that it was wonderful news. I’d wanted the baby, and I was happy that my mother and he were safe. Still, what if Aunt Tooty loved him more than me? What if he got to sleep in the drawer, my drawer, and I had to be relegated to the couch, or worse, a bed! What if I could no longer dance on my Aunt Tooty’s feet or if she stopped slipping me extra freshbaked rugela or humentashen because she was too busy cooing over my new baby brother?

I needn’t have worried. Aunt Tooty knew exactly how a little girl might react to news of a special sibling. “Now, you know,” she said, pointing to my drawer-bed, “this is your special place when you come to see me. This isn’t someplace anyone else can have when they come here. So don’t think you can give this drawer to your little brother when he is old enough to sleep here. I’ll fix a nice drawer for him too, but not this one. Oh, no, this one is just yours.

Is that okay, shana?” she asked. (I loved when she called me shana; she told me it was Yiddish for “pretty”. Then she swooped me into her arms and, humming a Yiddish melody, danced me into the kitchen for some milk and mundelbrot. The smell of simmering soup already permeated the little room. Pulling the lace hanky from her bosom, I began to suck my thumb, fingering her cameo with my free hand. The scent of her talcum reminded me of babies.

“When can I see my new brother?” I asked. I was ready to meet the long-sought-after son who I knew would never take my place, not in the drawer and not in Aunt Tooty’s heart. “When can I see my new baby?”

“Today!” she said. “But first let’s put away your bed. Next time you come, I want it to be all ready for you.” She handed me a bag full of homemade cookies and I, in turn, relinquished her handkerchief. Together we prepared and stowed my bed, then went into the sepia sitting room to await the sound of my father’s big, black Buick, the sight of my mother and the squalls of my new baby brother.

Elayne Clift

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