She was known as Aunt Fifi, though her real name, poor thing, was Philomena. She was actually a great-aunt of mine, and though I didn’t know her well I do remember how she used to curse the postmasters of northern Minnesota. “They’re felons,” she’d snap, stubbing out a cigarette and immediately shaking another from the pack. “Not only do they read my mail, they intercept it. There are federal statutes involved here!” She’d light her Salem, take a deep drag, narrow her eyes, exhale, and continue. “They’re all in cahoots. The postmasters, the proprietors of these mouse-infested dives, the chambers of commerce, probably even the governor. It’s all about money, of course. God forbid that my honest opinions should cause them to lose a single nickel.”
Fifi’s monologues were provoked by a peculiar circumstance. Every August, she and her husband, Vern, would spend a week at a cabin-and-Alumacraft resort on one of our fair state’s lesser-known lakes. Vern loved to fish, Fifi loved to read trashy novels and smoke, and so they spent their days on the water, Vern with his Tupperware tub of black dirt and nightcrawlers, Fifi with her Once Is Not Enough and her Dreams Die First and her coffee can full of mentholated butts. In the evenings they’d drink Hamm’s beer and play hearts, and after Vern went to bed Fifi would write postcards to her younger sisters, Joan, Ruth, and Marie. Why did the sisters have such comparatively plain names? No one remembers. The bigger mystery, to Fifi’s mind, was why so few of her cards ever seemed to arrive.
She never got an answer, which is just as well. The postcards were safely delivered, of course. It’s just that the sisters had made a pact to pretend they hadn’t been. Joan, Ruth, and Marie were of the opinion that Philomena was a negative person and shouldn’t be encouraged to vent her considerable spleen. They’d heard enough of her bellyaching over the course of their lives, and they drew the line at acknowledging the vacation postcards. Still, they saved the cards—mostly generic shots of log lodges, weathered docks, narrow beaches, sunsets edged with serrated pines, and walleyes, dead on stringers or leaping toward the landing net—and all of them ended up in the hands of Marie. After Marie’s death, this past May, a distant cousin sent the cards to me, bundled in overextended rubber bands and bearing a Post-it that read, sardonically, “Enjoy!” If this means I’m considered a Fifi-caliber griper, so be it. I did enjoy them. Most vacation communiqués are instantly forgettable. Fifi’s were not.
What the hell, Ruthie? Why do these cabins have to be so poorly built? The brochure said knotty pine, not shoddy pine. V. leaned against the wall and got a sliver the size of a kitchen match in his rear end. I Mercurochromed it for him as Princess Grace was otherwise engaged. Place smells of damp and mold, sink tub & throne are solid rust stains, Stuart Little and his gang are scooting around inside the walls doing God knows what all night long. They call them housekeeping cabins and somehow that makes you think the cabin is going to do the housekeeping. Hah! This is a vacation from what again?
Fifi could get a lot on a postcard. Maybe the alcohol and the nicotine canceled each other out; in any case, her handwriting was minuscule, crisp, always legible.
Jojo, this is the worst dump yet. Sitting here at 1:15 a.m., moths and millers and June bugs (in August yet) hitting this cheap bulged-out screen beside me. White wings and insect bellies in the lamplight, ugh. The boat leaks so all day long we’re bailing. My smokes got wet. Cabin next door full of children, sticky selfish sunburned ungrateful shrieking brats, they’ll be up at the crack of dawn. They asked me my name, I told them Philomena was a virgin martyr and I thought she had the right idea. Mother of this clan makes crown roast for dinner—I make Lipton soup and tuna sandwiches. The only kind of fish V. can procure. Kitchen is a joke, plus it stinks.
Jo: This a.m. Vern in casting his bait hooks my reading glasses right off my head and flings them into the lake. Worm juice in my hair and how am I going to read The Other Side of Midnight? Sexy book—you want to borrow? Makes you long to go to France rather than Bemidji. Then again what doesn’t? Finally saw a loon this morning after all these years. Cute, but big deal. I’m no fan of birds. Rats with wings. We went to a local “supper club” for dinner tonight. Inedible. Weak drinks. Got back to the cabin and there’s a skunk eating our garbage. Guess he had a run-in later, because this whole part of the world smells like your worst nightmare. V. snores on. All this squinting gives me a headache.
A few years later she was directly addressing those she believed were surveilling her correspondence.
Dear Wendy [i.e., Governor Wendell Anderson] and you too Marie—Saw you on the cover of Time magazine a while back with a northern on a string (my Vern just goes for panfish) and what I have to say is what about the bait shacks? You walk in and the hoses are hissing, there’s a smell that makes you think we never left the primordial ooze, the minnows are all bunched up in big murky tanks, flicking around in there like guilty thoughts. The guy who sells you your worms has scales stuck to his cheek. The good life. The kid at the golf course “clubhouse” which is no bigger than the bait shop has a tee jammed in his teeth, he reeks of last night’s kegger, he leers at you when your husband turns to look at the used golf balls. You think there are lovely cool shadows under the pine trees but no, it’s not an absence of light, it’s a presence of mosquitoes. And if there is a God, why would He give the plant life in a cold northern lake such a quality of sliminess? Last night a bear ate our boat cushions.
For the last 10 years of her life she was dying of cancer, but it didn’t change the tone of her postcards. Well, not much.
From 1988, two years before she passed away:
Marie, it’s six-thirty and a tornado is going to kill us all tonight. Thunderheads miles tall to the west, air all coppery-greenish and full of electricity. No basement. I expect to be impaled on a pine tree, which as you know I hate. Spindly scraggly gnarled-up things with sticky trunks. We’re about to watch our doom come right across the lake, and even so I can still smell the mold under the sink in this godforsaken sty. V. says throw him a Viking funeral. What the hell, I’ll go along for the ride. Put us in one of these holey boats, set the motor to troll, point us toward open water. No need to burn the ship, it’ll explode all on its own. I’ve never seen such a rusty unsafe gas tank in all these summers, and that my dear is saying something. P.S. Wish you were here.
Contributing editor Jeff Johnson remembers when a six-horse Evinrude was something to write home about.