My favorite aunt, Frieda, drank her Scotch on the rocks and told me a love story. She was actually my great-aunt, wrinkled yet spry in loose, soft trousers as we clambered over the North Carolina hills, always on the lookout for shared discoveries.
If we found one, it was usually she who spotted it first. Her hand would lift in warning (quiet!) and we would espy — a Baltimore oriole, perhaps, or a doe with her dappled fawn, already melting into the brown of the leaves as we watched.
Together we fed the birds, filling the elaborate suet logs she had crafted herself with a complicated recipe she had invented, involving peanut butter and suet and other, more obscure wild bird treats.
And then we settled, each afternoon, on her breezy deck, she with her highball and I with my Diet Coke. We watched the sun drop slowly over the gold-green valley and she told me stories of another time, of her youth in Washington, D.C.
These stories were entertainingly Jazz Age, filled with hooch and flappers and speakeasies; I imagined my aunt in a beaded dress, one high heel kicked back as she flirtily kissed a raccoon-clad sharpster and sipped from his hip flask.
But on this afternoon it was a true love story; I had just confessed that I had a serious crush on a boy, and she wanted to let me know that she had been on that voyage as well.
Hers was a story of unrequited romance. John had been engaged to another girl when he and Frieda had met and fallen instantly in love.
Frieda’s tale was of secret romantic interludes, meetings in hole-in-the-wall coffeehouses and — I interpreted this myself — dark parks.
He had loved her so, yet there was no question of his breaking the engagement with Jane.
“Why not?” I interrupted.
“Because it was just impossible, that’s all.”
The affair culminated in a desperate farewell, a few moments stolen on the very evening that John and his betrothed departed on a ship bound for Europe and an empty, flashy marriage. One final melody of love before the ship’s tolling bell wrenched them apart.
And my great-aunt’s life was not the same after that. The parties, speakeasies, joyrides, and cocktail-soaked bridge games lost much of their charm for her, and their former magnetism was never to return.
It was like something out of an old movie, climactic, passionate, and yet contrived, even strangely improbable — to me. But not to Aunt Frieda: Decades later tears ran down her cheeks as she said, “If you find someone, don’t ever let them go, and to hell with what people say.”
“I still don’t see why he didn’t leave her,” I insisted.
“We just couldn’t. It just wasn’t done.”
I was dissatisfied, with the impatience of a 14-year-old, at her willingness to stick to this hideous propriety. My annoyance overshadowed my distress at her sadness, her obvious heartbreak that had remained with her for most of her adult life.
We left that story and those characters behind, and the years passed, and my Aunt Frieda is long gone.
A few years ago I learned that the boy I had the crush on had grown into a handsome, happy, gay man.
While pondering this, and feeling relieved even now that his ultimate rejection of me was not due to some personal defect, I returned to that golden North Carolina afternoon and Frieda’s love story, and finally, decades later, I was able to do what poor Frieda, the victim of a prejudice that I had been too young and ignorant to fathom, had been unable to do: I moved the characters into their proper roles, and it was not John but Jane who loved Frieda with all her heart, John’s betrothed, who, with Frieda, stole the hours of bliss from their own predestined lives, and who met for a few final, desperate moments before the ship carried away the woman, the great love, of my aunt’s life.
And then the notes of that faded love song fell into place, and the melody rang sweet, sad, and true.
Jean Ely is a writer who has read her work at Canio’s Books and the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor. She lives on Shelter Island.