If Aunt Hattie ever changed expression, I never saw it. Her face always looked the same- impassive, unmoving, surprisingly unlined for a woman of 93 hard years. She lost everyone in her immediate family through tragedies and long, sad illnesses, including both of her children in a car crash, and her husband to the slow march of prostate cancer. The toll of grief alone should have made her look like a crone, and she plainly did not. Her skin was clear, unblemished by age spots, the tone that a woman half her age. The flesh was taut and firm, nearly unlined except minor places around the eyes. It was unnatural, as if she were made of wax, a living Mother Cabrini incorrupt from the effects of age. I was pushing 55 and looked every year of it- I had to know her beauty secret.
The birthday candles made her face glow as we placed the cake in front of her on a TV table. “Blow Aunt Hattie! Blow and make a wish!” Her small remaining family (a second cousin and her daughters, plus me) and the housekeeper Alice, a petite Haitian woman who worked for my aunt for many years, gathered around her chair, the same one where I always saw her, unmoving as her face. I did see her, of course, in the kitchen or at church, things like that. But her gravity centered on the armless upholstered chair next to the front window, a side table with her books, lamp, and a small sterling box to her left. Fifty years I witnessed her sitting there; each visit I made, it was where I saw her nest, her spot, home base. Now she hunched forward in that seat, pursed her lips, and made a weak stream of air that barely tickled the flames on top of the cake.
I leaned over. “Oh Aunt Hattie, let me help.” I blew the candles out, the smoke from the glowing wicks streaming around her stony face making her squint. I fanned the fumes away with a napkin while the relatives clapped and took the cake away to cut it. Hattie looked up at me, her brows forming a shallow vee, a slight wave instead of furrows crossing her forehead. The expression on anyone else would look like a slight yawn; on her still face, I knew she was thinking hard about something.
“I’d like to talk to you about an important thing, Mae. I just want to wait until this crowd calms down.” She looked over at the three people in the dining room moving plates and napkins. The housekeeper went outside to smoke a cigarette so I sat down on a chair and pulled it close to my aunt.
“It’s just Clemmy and her daughters. You can talk to me.”
“Maybe you’re right. Clemmy doesn’t listen to me anyway. I told her I didn’t want a fuss for my birthday. See what she’s doing?”
Clemmy turned and smiled when she heard her name. “Just a minute Aunt Hattie! We’re almost ready to party!” She picked up a two liter bottle of ginger ale and began pouring it into bright red plastic cups.
“I’ve got to tell you how to be, Mae.” Hattie looked at me with clear green eyes still fringed by heavy black lashes.
“You’re going to tell me your beauty secret? You’re the youngest ‘old lady’ I have ever seen. You really don’t look a day over 50.”
“I’m not talking about beauty, you vain thing. I’m talking about preservation, staying alive, the way to be.”
She looked so small. It was the only thing that had changed about her in the many years I knew her. Age took away her height but not her youthful looks. “What do you mean?” I said, but Clemmy and the girls (middle-aged women, really) came back with the cake and ginger ale, interrupting us.
Hattie spent five minutes anxiously pecking at the grocery store cake on her plate, looking at me with large round eyes, giving her nieces narrow, hard stares. I didn’t understand her desperation, chalking it up to that strange anxiety some elderly develop over minor things, reacting like frustrated toddlers over the smallest of inconveniences. I smiled at her and nodded; she rolled her eyes and slumped. The cake was dry and I washed it down with ginger ale. Hattie didn’t drink hers. We all finished the small celebration, and Clemmy, with “girls” in tow, left for home while the housekeeper puttered about in the kitchen pretending to clean.
Hattie reached over and took my hand. “You need to know the way to be.”
“You said that, Aunt Hattie. Are you talking about your beauty secret? I don’t understand.”
“You think I look young because of some creme or lotion or soap that I use? Maybe I lasted this long because I wash my face every night?” She stood up, creaking as she rose. Her hands shook, and she waved them in my face.
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” I stepped back from her.
She sat back down firmly and an “oof” blew through her lips harder than when she tried to blow out the candles. “Beauty secret. That’s my Mae. Looking to be pretty. I know what you call me.” She paused between sentences. Her words had a dark atmosphere, a weight I swear I could almost lift. “I’ve heard those names you use.”
It was a joke between me and my husband. She had to be drinking from the Fountain of Youth. We called her Hattie de Leon, The Portrait of Hattie Gray, The Curious Tale of Hattie Button. There were many pictures of her through the years showing her at vastly different ages, but somehow all looking the same. She was the former county magistrate and performed thousands of marriages for five decades, always from her home, more often than not directly from the chair in which she now sat. The wall behind her was covered with hundreds of photographs of newly-married couples standing next to my aunt. Some of the people looked happy, so in love the images almost vibrated the communication. Others looked scared or uncomfortable. One memorable groom from the 1950s, a real ducktail greaser, leaned sideways against his bride, a lopsided grin and a dullness to his eyes that shouted “I am knee-walking drunk!” Every photo started new lives, new beginnings, except for Hattie. Her image remained static throughout the years, like a wooden Indian in front of a cigar store, a life-size cut-out prop, Photoshopped into many lives. I felt like she earned those names we called her, a sort of badge of honor for being timeless.
Aunt Hattie reached for the silver box on the table beside her and placed it in my lap. “Here, Mae. Here’s the way to be, my beauty regimen, if that’s what you want to call it. You might as well have it.”
“But it’s your birthday! I should be giving you a gift!”
We stared at each other for a minute. Her expression went back to the blank canvas that it always was, deadpan and inscrutable. The room was so quiet all I could hear was her regular but shallow breathing. “Go on and open it!” Her whispered voice was hypnotic, slow and measured.
I looked at the object in my lap. Just a silver box, not a particularly big one. It was pretty not but not ornate, a bit tarnished and dusty. “Hattie” was engraved in script across the top. I opened it.
“There’s nothing here, Hattie.”
“Then that’s the secret you want to know.” She smiled at me, something I rarely saw her do. “ Years ago, when I was a young woman, I found myself in this room right next to my father. You know he was the magistrate before me. I watched him perform so many weddings, start so many lives. Some started as happy couples, so not so happy. The potential was there for so many paths, so many choices to make.”
“What has this got to do with an empty silver box, Aunt Hattie?”
“Let me finish my story. My father saw how happy I was when I witnessed for the marriages, how all that potential filled me with joy. One day, after I witnessed hundreds of weddings, he came to me with this silver box. He told me he was going to retire and that I should run for the office. He gave me the box and told me that it contained everything that I would need to be happy and beautiful for the rest of my life. It’s still got exactly what he passed on for me that day, and now I pass it to you. Read the inscription on the inside of the lid.”
I turned the silver box over in my hands, touched that she would share something her father had given her with me. I opened it again and read the engraving on the inside of the box. It was a bit difficult to see it in the gauzy light that was coming in through Hattie’s window, so I held it under the lamp beside her chair, The letters became clear. I was reading the secret of eternal youth straight from my great grandfather.
How anti-climatic. Hattie had no secret to be young and pretty. Her looks were probably genetic, on the side of the family that I was not blood related to at that. All that “way to be” talk was just an old lady rambling, some unknown Buddha-complex infecting her thinking. I put the box down. “Aunt Hattie, I think you ought to keep this box, maybe give it to Clemmy.”
I walked out of the old house a few minutes later a little sadder, my forehead a little more furrowed in disappointment, my face tight and resigned. Hattie came to the window to watch me leave, waving at me as I went down the wooden steps leading from the porch to the brick sidewalk. Alice was standing beside her and opened the window when Hattie tapped her shoulder. Hattie leaned out of the open window and spoke, her voice much stronger than when I was in her parlor.
“Remember, Mae! All you need for happiness is nothing.”
The understanding came to me, driving away from that old house, that old woman, that old way of life. She had found her niche early on and had not moved. It wasn’t the search for happiness that was important- it was the end of the search that mattered. Everything that I was looking for was already inside me. I cleared my mind as I sped the car down the highway, letting go of anger, anticipation, and my wrinkled brow.