I was barely eight and it was my first “big” adventure, at least that I can recall. My parents had taken me to New York to marvel at the World’s Fair, just as their respective parents had taken them when they too were eight. Alas, my sister Polly had the misfortunate timing of birth and was not quite three. She spent that duration with my grandmother in DC and certainly remembers nothing of that time.
But I was fortunate. I had Hal and Margy all to myself for the long car trip from Chapel Hill, as they quizzed me in spelling and engaged me in story-telling, sing-alongs, and atypical road games. We arrived somewhere in the city late, late at night. Years later, I’d discover that it was closer to 9:00PM and we were, at that point, in Brooklyn.
We spent the next few nights with my Tante Lisl, who was a fabulously eccentric woman of near eighty. Lisl had a huge and elegant apartment overlooking a park … filled with antiques, memorabilia, and the most curious of curios. The room that I slept in housed her magnificent cuckoo collection, with clocks from all over Europe rather artfully positioned on the walls. Those chirping timepieces enthralled me, as my only prior reference had been those seen in cartoons. Never mind that they surely came in direct conflict with my parent’s objective that I sleep soundly in my bed.
Lisl fascinated me. She wore odd clothes, which years later I’d describe as rather Bohemian. She handily dominated a room which, mind you, is no easy feat whenever my father is in proximity. And she colorfully and vividly recounted many tales of her adventures of touring with Isadora Duncan. Lisl, it seems, had been a dancer, much to the dismay of her family. She was considered several notches past avant garde, even approaching scandalous. Both of my father’s parents had been born into families in the Mannheim/Heidelberg region of Southern Germany, families that were driven by both education and teaching. Tante Lisl, my grandfather’s aunt, had somehow found a different road which first took her to Paris and then all over the world, until she retired in the late 1920’s. She had spent the next thirty-some years, refining her eccentricities and enjoying the camaraderie of New York’s artistic community.
Lisl was simply unlike any adult woman-person I had met up that point in my short life. Although, admittedly, I have met very few since. She was capricious, totally engaging, and never restrained by family, as she never married. In fact, a few days later, when Hal and Margy were readying me for my first day at the World’s Fair, I actually asked if I could stay back with my aunt. Of course, though, I knew at some level that I had no choice.
We toured the many exhibits, marveled at their grandeur and scale, and enjoyed exploring various cultures. But by mid-afternoon each day, my mind turned to Lisl and what the night might hold in store. One evening, she took the three of us to a Greek restaurant where my father became perhaps a little too curious about and observant of a certain belly dancer. On another, she invited several of her eclectic friends for a smörgåsbord of exotic victuals, reminiscences, and (for Hal and Margy) libations.
Later that week, we left New York to pursue the next leg of our pilgrimage: Toronto by way of Niagara Falls. That amazing, over-the-top, and seemingly endless natural wonder, however, still ranked behind my aunt!
By that point, my imagination and comprehension had both been saturated as our vacation settled into a rather typical sixties’ road trip. In fact, these many years later, I remember little else, except that I achingly missed my little sister and my buddies back home.
You see, I was the only child from my group of friends, and probably St Thomas More Elementary, who had ventured to New York — with all the sites, the few memories, and the precious and judiciously doled souvenirs. It took the passing of several summers before I had the epiphany that all children think their holidays are special. Such a truth is protected by several codicils in the Unabridged Parent’s Handbook.
And, more importantly, I was the only one with a Tante Lisl. Unfortunately, I never saw her again; she passed away just a few years later.
For many years, whenever I mentioned her name to my grandmother, she would roll her eyes and offer in familial disdain and in her still strong German accent: “that Lisl!”
(Image: “In Her Course” by Thomas Barbey.)