Sunday, December 17, 2017

I Promise You a Postcard, a story dedicated to my aunt

This photo of my amazing Aunt Pat was taken when she was almost 85 years old and dancing in The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies. Yes, you read that right. But dancing in the Follies was not her most amazing feat. For more than six decades, she defied society’s age expectations with fearless international (everywhere except Antarctica) travel adventures during which she always found time to let me know she was thinking of me. I’m talking postcards! Over my entire life, Pat’s prolific, cheerful, faithful, written correspondence produced a cumulative gladness in my heart.

Since Pat died in December 2004, most of my trips to the mailbox are pointless. Yesterday I happened to catch the 1952 movie Lovely to Look At with some breathtakingly graceful dance scenes. Oh, how Pat would have loved this movie, I thought. I tried to remember if she had ever talked of Marge and Gower Champion. Then I noticed Howard Keel’s name in the credits. The last Palm Springs Follies I saw featured Howard Keel! Everyone was so excited to have him headline the Follies that year, but I had never heard of him.

Ah, the generation gap. It’s a rare adult who can at least somewhat close the gap between her and her niece. I miss my Aunt Pat. I miss her childlike wonder and sense of fun. The day after she died, I was too distraught to write a proper eulogy, so I scribbled out a little story to try to capture her essence and the difference she made in my life. At the moment, I am reading Le Petit Prince in French, so am doubly reminded of this story, “I Promise You a Postcard.”

Nothing that follows is literally true, other than yes, I did purloin the premise on my first page from the first few pages of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; and yes, Pat sent me many, many postcards.


This story is dedicated to Pat Godfrey. I ask the indulgence of the children who may read this story for dedicating it to a grownup, but Pat was a much-loved aunt whose childlike wonder and unconditional love most children can relate to.

I Promise You a Postcard

Once, when I was seven years old, I saw a splendid picture in a geography book. It showed a latticed steel tower reaching 1069 feet in the air gracefully swooping up to a neck supporting a ball.  If I squinted just-so at it, I saw a person striding confidently on top of the world. I closely copied the tower with my Tinker Toys. I was even careful to build the partway-up platform that looked like the person’s belt. Here is my Tinker-Toy version of the tower:

I balanced my tower on the geography book and took it into the parlor to show the grownups. “Isn’t it splendid?” I eagerly asked.

“What’s so splendid about a witch’s hat?” said one grownup.

“. . . or a dunce cap?” cackled another.

“Isn’t it your bedtime?” queried a third grownup without looking up from the newspaper.

Sadly, I balanced my tower back out of the parlor and teetered it up the stairs to my bedroom. The tower would easily have sat on my dresser top, but then I couldn’t have seen it from my bed. Twice, it toppled from the windowsill, but I re-placed the stray sticks and finally got the tower to stay by tilting it toward the window and tucking the ball between two blinds.

This didn’t leave much room on the sill for my nightly stargazing ritual because I always rested both forearms on the sill with both elbows stuck way out and my right cheek resting on my hands in the middle. That night, I angled my elbows toward the window screen and craned my neck just a little to get the best view of the summer sky.

Sometimes, when I stargazed, I dreamed—like daydreaming, only at night, but not like sleep dreaming. You have to be awake to see the stars to do this. In that night’s daydream I concentrated particularly hard on the brightest star I saw, which was between the tulip tree and the telephone pole, just above the neighbor’s roof. It began twinkling brighter and brighter. I blinked. Was it getting closer? Yes, brighter and closer. I blinked again. Thousands of sparks skittered across the roof and then disappeared into the tree. I held my breath to see what would happen next.

“May I come in?” asked a lilting female voice from the direction of the abandoned robin’s nest in the tulip tree.

“Oh, yes, I would very much like to know a star,” I said, quickly pulling my elbows to myself to make room for her on the sill. I shall describe the star first, although her landing was also worthy of note.

She was a star, right? So I expected the top point to contain her eyes and mouth, the side points to function as hands, and the bottom two points to be like legs. But she was not shaped like a traditional five-pointed star. She was shaped like a lady.

About five inches tall with blonde hair and smiling brown eyes, she was bigger than Thumbelina and smaller than a wingless Tinker Belle. She wore a red sweater with a black and white panda on the front, red shorts, and red and white high-heeled shoes. I mean really high heels. Pointy high heels. She gently landed on my windowsill, touching down ever-so briefly, then pushing off into a tour-jété and floating to a silent stop—near the top of my tower. My star grasped the top rung with one hand, hooked one red spike on a lower rung, and struck a “Ta-daaahh” pose, smiling at me with twinkly eyes as she hung in the air.

I was speechless.

“Fun, fun, fun,” her voice bounced from bright red lips as her eyes took in the tower in its entirety.

Her flying leap had looked like fun, fun, fun, but still, I was speechless.

“You have a splendid Eiffel Tower here!” she gushed, spiraling firepole-style down a spoke to sit on the platform of the tower. “If this tower were a person, I’d be sitting on his belt,” she noted brightly. Ah, this is a person of true understanding, I thought, and my shyness melted away. I babbled on about the grownups and their hat theories and the splendid picture in the geography book. She told me she was going to the real Eiffel Tower on her summer vacation, and when she stood on this very platform, she would see the rooftops of Paris. And not just rooftops, but golden angels on bridges and fancy steeples and a shimmery ribbon of river wrapping it all up like a big present.

“It all sounds so lovely,” I sighed.

“I promise you a postcard,” said my star, sliding with a “Wheeee” down a spoke to the sill.

“Really?! But how will I know it’s from you?” I asked. “What’s your name?”

“My whole name is La Petite Pat, but you can call me Pat.” With this, she fluttered her feet in a little mock-tap dance and added, “That’s t-a-p spelled backwards” and giggled.

“Pat.” I repeated, “Pat. I will never forget you, Pat.”

“Nor I you, Janie.”

“B-b-but how do you know my name?”

“I’ve been watching you since before you were born. I’ve even sat on this very windowsill before, but always when you were asleep. Every Christmas I twinkled at you from my traditional shape atop your Christmas tree.” I felt light pricks on the back of my hand as she daintily walked her little high-heeled star-self over to caress my chin. “I’m off to my summer vacation now,” she announced as she levitated, blowing me a glowing kiss as she disappeared into the night sky.

I didn’t think to ask her if or when she would come back to see me, but the next week I received a postcard of the panoramic view of Paris from the real Eiffel Tower. It was as magical as Pat had described it. I took Pat’s postcard to school that fall for show-and-tell. But I kept it a secret that it was from a heavenly star who had danced on my windowsill.

On my birthday in August I received a picture postcard of the Pentagon with “Dear Janie, Happy Birthday! Love and hugs, Pat” perfectly penned diagonally across the message square on the back. The grownups demanded to know who Pat was. When I told them, they said I had a wild imagination if I thought they would believe a story like that. They concluded I must have orchestrated the postcard from an imaginary friend.

That night at the windowsill, I talked through tears to my star, wherever she was in the sky. I told her that once again, the grownups didn’t believe me. I peacefully drifted off to sleep, sure that she heard and understood.

In September Pat’s postcard was from Disneyland, in December from San Francisco, and in February from Oahu. So without ever leaving home, I got to see the Space Mountain roller coaster, cable cars on tall hills, and Diamond Head, a big black cliff with inky blue waves in front of it. But more importantly, I got to know that someone who understood me was thinking of me wherever she went. I read the cards carefully before putting them in a special red shoebox under my bed. With each new addition to my postcard pile, I reread them all. “Janie, you would like this.” “Wish you were here.” “Here is where I skinnydip every day at dawn.” I always blushed when I read that last one.

Months and years passed. I stopped reading all the postcards every time a new one came, but I kept them all in the red shoebox and in my heart. I still liked talking to my star in the sky, but as I grew older, my topics changed from school and toys to school and boys. One school night, I was up late writing a final-exam paper on the ruins of Troy. Resting my eyes for a moment on my forearm, I dozed and dreamt of Pat’s face close to mine. Someone’s breath brushed my cheek.

“Wake up,” she whispered. “I want to show you something.” My wide eyes welcomed the sight of my Pat again. “I wore Wimbledon whites in honor of your making the summer tennis team,” a tanned Pat beamed, pointing to shorts, shirt, and shoes that would make the Clorox people proud. “I may be your star, but you are also mine,” she confided.

Tears welled in my eyes. I felt pleased that she was proud of me, then couldn’t remember having told her about the tennis team in any of my one-sided windowsill chats. She whooshed her tiny racquet through the air in a mock-serve, then performed a pretend backhand-forehand-backhand-forehand in quick succession.

“Pretty fancy footwork,” I whistled. She smiled and pranced as though warming up for a big match.

“Pivots, Janie. In life, ya gotta pivot.” She pivoted silly-walk style, then sat cross-legged on my desk and leaned toward my face.

“I’m going to Turkey on my summer vacation. Here’s the brochure. I came to show you pictures of the turquoise waters of the Aegean Sea and olive groves and houses carved in rocks in Cappadocia.” She rolled Cappadocia around on her tongue a few times and batted her eyelashes. “I love to say ‘Cappadocia.’ Fun, fun, fun.”

“Wow, Turkey is where the ruins of Troy are. Will you see them?”

“Don’t know, but I promise you a postcard.” With that, she hopped up, tapped a little tune with her tennies on my desk and lifted off, waving goodbye with her racquet and blowing kisses with her left hand.

The Turkey trip must have been a good one because I received not only a postcard of St. Sophia in Istanbul, but also an envelope containing two photos of my svelte star sunbathing and picking olives.

More months and more years passed, marked by more postcards. From London: Dearest, brushing up on my Shakespeare. From China: Dearest, here I am at the Great Wall. From Bora Bora: Dearest, I can see fish swimming below the clear floor of my hut over the ocean. From Buenos Aires: Dearest, was here for Eva Peron’s funeral—a big event. From a Colorado River raft: Wheee! From Las Vegas: Dearest, there’s no business like show business. From Mexico: a lovely resort. From Angkor Wat: Truly awesome. From Ireland: Leapin’ leprechauns—Happy St. Paddy’s Day! From Rome: Dearest, enjoying la dolce vita. From London again: Took an aerobics class at Covent Gardens. From Portugal: Been there, done that. What’s next?

Over decades, she sent thousands of letters too, many with pictures enclosed. I liked knowing the interesting things she did. Pat visited me more times than I can tell about here. She came for all the pivotal points.

Not long ago, at a particularly low point in my life, before I had decided which direction to pivot, Pat appeared on the armrest of my worn gray garden bench. In the long shadows of a late fall afternoon, with notepad on my lap, I was gazing hard at one rosebush whose beautiful blooms spanned the whole rose-life spectrum. I was certain there was a poem in those roses, but no words came.

“Blank page?” the voice from the armrest inquired.

I looked toward the voice to see Pat dressed in an American flag-like sweater dress, wide red patent leather belt, an American flag-like top hat, and shiny white boots. Beaming from behind a bouquet of red, white, and blue balloons in her right hand, she held in her left hand a bright sign announcing “The party’s here.” The sign had red, blue, and yellow balloons on it. Toe-tapping to a few bars of “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” Pat perkily shuffled left, then right. How could I not smile at the sight? Then I remembered her question.

“Yeah, blank page,” I sighed. “I’m not feeling very poetic today. Do you see those three yellow roses? The tight pale bud with the pink edges poised to part? The one at perfect peak, lemony bright and round, with just a few petals unfurled? Then the pastel yellow plumpish rose with faded pink petal-edges curled way back?”

Pat flew to the center of the last rose I’d pointed to and sat erectly, wrapping her fingers underneath the curled petals and crossing her lovely legs in a sophisticated pose. “This rose is the woman who would join the Red Hat Society,” she said simply.

Tears streamed down my cheeks. She understood what I was unable to transfer from my heart to the page. I nodded and said, “That’s exactly it. Young, middle-aged, and old—they are equally beautiful. But I can’t think of the words to say that. Life is hard right now.”

“That’s why I thought you could use a party,” she offered, again holding the balloons and party sign out toward me. Floating down from the rose to the armrest, she performed an arabesque and anchored the balloon strings on a splinter, all in one graceful motion.

“But I don’t feel like a partying.”

“Perspective, Janie. It’s about singing in the rain,” she sang and danced Gene Kelly-style with gusto. She finished with a flourish, feet firmly planted and back arched in the posture of a person striding confidently on top of the world.

“You sure are positive about life’s possibilities,” I said admiringly. Pat giggled and reached under her belt to produce a handful of heart-shaped confetti.

“Love, love, love,” she called as she sailed upward Peter-Pan style. Red hearts rained down on me as I watched her disappear heavenward.

Soon after our garden party, during a premature snowstorm, I noticed the Red Hat Society rose’s head bowed under a bonnet of thick, wet snow. While shoveling snow near the garden, I saw a pretty glimmer near the base of the gray bench. Picking up the tiny red heart, I felt a pang of sadness mixed with happiness. Somehow sensing that this shiny heart might be Pat’s last postcard, I carried it reverently inside and placed it in the red shoebox.

© December 11, 2004 Jane Hoppe

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