Long ago Aunt Mae visited us three weeks before Christmas. She was from San Francisco, had a career, a divorce, men friends who lit her cigarettes, and a son in a military academy, all of which contributed to her aura of tainted sophistication. When her cream colored Cadillac pulled up in front of our little house on 42nd street, I ran out to meet her. She approved of East Sacramento. She said to my mother, “Better a small house here than a mansion in Fresno.” Fresno was to my aunt second only to Purgatory in places you didn’t want to be.
She took me Christmas shopping. Blond, six feet tall, she wore her height with elan. She also wore a fur coat and we breezed through Montgomery Ward’s for presents for my father and two brothers. It seemed to me that the clerks rushed to bring her ash-trays and total up her purchases. No careful browser like my mother, she examined first a large toy space gun that made a thin, beeping noise, then a coonskin cap. “Which would Danny like?” she said. She didn’t wait for an answer. “Better be safe and get both,” she said, handing them to the grinning clerk. It was the same with all the choices in all the stores: get both. In Wienstock’s where we shopped for my mother and sisters she explained her philosophy. “Money is like manure. You let it pile up and it stinks. Spread it around and flowers grow.” She had everything gift wrapped.
I got to choose where we had lunch and selected Frankie’s Drugs on J Street. If she was disappointed that I rejected Frank Fat’s she didn’t let on. She strode into Frankie’s in her fur coat and while our toasted cheese sandwiches and chocolate sodas were being made she bought stocking stuffers—filling the store baskets with shampoos, combs, key chains, pens, cards, nail polish, purse mirrors, magnifying glasses, tiny flashlights, larger flashlights, cards, magazines and paperbacks. “We’ll get some good murders for your poor mother,” she said.
It was a wondrous lunch and she left folded paper money under her plate. Aunt Mae believed in tipping and said if you could afford to eat out you could afford at least a twenty percent tip and she hoped that I wouldn’t ever, ever grow up to be a skinflint like my uncle Neal. I swore I wouldn’t.
After lunch, in a car filled with presents, we drove around to look at the trees ofEast Sacramento. “December sixth,” she said, “and you’ve still got these fall colors.” We cruised the Fabulous Forties, though I don’t recall them being called that then, and circled East Portal Park, then over to H Street to McKinley Park, then back down 41st where she pulled over to admire a clump of changing elms and maples—the colors a fantastical mix of deep fiery rose, yellow, flaring orange, umber and gold, all this under a slate gray sky. In one tree alone she counted seven distinct colors. She turned off the car radio Christmas music and we sat in silence. Then she said, “Not everybody has this. You can’t buy this.”
That night she took us all out to dinner to some fancy place downtown—nobody remembers where—but we had to dress up and go in two cars because there were so many of us. After that we toured the Christmas lights of Sacramento. Aunt Mae took occasional nips from a silver flask in her voluminous purse and graded the displays. “Paltry. B minus,” she said of one house with a modest, single string of bulbs around the picture window. But when we got back to East Sac she gave all As. Both our cars stopped in the Fabulous Forties and we tumbled out to gaze at a towering pine covered with sparkling blue and white lights. “This,” said Aunt Mae, “is the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen.” My mother said, “Oh Mae, you must have wonderful light shows in San Francisco.” But Aunt Mae took her arm and said, “No. This, right here—this is the absolute best.” It was a balmy, shimmering night, and I knew she was right.