Aunt Ethel

She studied with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, whom she called “Maggie.” She spent months at a time living with the Navajo and the Tutsis, taking notes on their primitive value systems. She got Ford Foundation grants to do scholarly writing in places like Paris and Hong Kong. Her academic artifacts are archived in the basement of the Smithsonian.

But the lasting image I have of Aunt Ethel is her standing in front of the refrigerator dressed in a full length quilted robe, long black hair tied in a bun atop her head, glasses hanging from a leather strand around her neck, withdrawing a new pack of Gauloises from the freezer.

She was the smartest person in the room and she flaunted it, in a subdued sort of way. A Brooklyn Jew by upbringing, she spoke English with a British accent. She took French for one year at City College, mastering the language with the inflection and cadence of a native Parisian. She knew every combination of five letters, in five different languages. And yet, I once almost beat her in Scrabble. Continue reading “Aunt Ethel”