Great Aunt Mona’s Macabre Legacy

Great Aunt Mona’s slogan gives the mighty mythical ‘apple’ a longterm holiday.

Great Aunt Mona’s slogan gives the mighty mythical ‘apple’ a longterm holiday.

One of the more bizarre Christmas events this year was a visit to Great Aunt Mona. I call her ‘Great Aunt’ even though she’s only my aunt, it’s a bit of a tease given that I have now have kids and can bestow this aging title on her with impunity. She’s always been something of a mystery. She has a Levantine beauty about her, dark brows, olive skin. To look at her you might wonder what part of the middle-east she was from, the fact that her twin looks nothing like her and is a distinctly ‘Irish’ beauty makes the novelty of Great Aunt Mona even more miraculous.  She’s not your typical aunt either, none of them are I suppose, my aunts, but Mona has the renegade blood in her, which makes her stand apart. Where others glad-handle and do small talk, Mona pretends for no one. That is why I blanched only slightly when she suggested that I come out to her house and choose what items I wanted in her will.

‘Oh you!’ I laughed it off, but no, there it was again at the next family get-together, Mona smoking like a chimney too after dodging the cancer bullet only recently.

‘Put your eye on what you want.’ She said, ‘It’ll save me a lot of hassle.’

It was time to level here. ‘Isn’t that a bit macabre?’

When for the third time Great Aunt Mona made the request I was getting worried.

‘Is she off her rocker or what?’ I asked Mona’s best friend. Since the best friend spent a great deal of her life in embassy circles I assumed she of all people would be able to suggest the correct diplomatic response, but all she said was ‘It would mean a lot if you went out and picked what you want’.

No trip to Switzerland needed: Benzene, hydrogen, cyanide and formaldehyde. Great Aunt Mona points out ‘Where else can you find all that in one easily ingested item?’

No trip to Switzerland needed: Benzene, hydrogen, cyanide and formaldehyde. Great Aunt Mona points out ‘Where else can you find all that in one easily ingested item?’

I put it off, I did. I worried myself that Great Aunt Mona had a trip to Switzerland on the horizon, that I would receive a posthumous note after the deed saying: ‘And for you my most STUPID niece? A sack of coal. That will teach you!’ And there my sisters would be oohing and ahhing over sixteenth century paintings and chaise longues and venetian ladies’ writing desks all of them marked with little colour-coded stickers as if at a gallery – Great Aunt Mona’s posthumous but grim installation. But then Great Aunt Mona is no sweet old lady with a bad cough, or one bad enough one to fall of the perch, was there more to this, or less? She wants to reconnect with her niece, I reasoned; get to know the kids who are already leaving toddlerhood behind.

Great Aunt Mona warned me on the phone as I searched for the place missing the turn many times before I got there ‘I’ve no sweets for the kids.’

‘Don’t be worrying.’ I reassured her.

‘Kids’ I said when I was off the phone, ‘Don’t be asking for crisps and sweets from Great Aunt M. It’s not all about treats you know, it’s not all about what you can get.’ Was I transferring a wishful parsimony here to my kids? A little projected anxiety? That I might be asked to select my ‘inheritance’ and at the same time have greedy spoilt kids who wanted sweets? That would be a crass scenario, too crass for me to cope with and besides I was getting irritable. The house was not even on the GPS, it was not even addressable.

Probably the most offensive and sexist ad in the history of misguided governments with agenda. The suggestion that smoking is equated to a lack of hard-on gives is an appalling message to men who don’t smoke but have performance anxiety or medical issues.

Probably the most offensive and sexist ad in the history of misguided governments with agenda. The suggestion that smoking is equated to a lack of hard-on is an appalling message to men who don’t smoke but have performance anxiety or medical issues.

Great Aunt Mona herself came to the door wearing a hat that spelt out ‘Bah Humbug.’ The kids found this charming, she is after all the best anti-hero (sorry for the pun, it’s unavoidable) a kid could wish for, no saccharine pretense and kids don’t like to be patronized. They promptly got to running around the house, way too much at home for my liking. ‘Kids,’ I yelled ‘Take it easy.’ I mean it looked bad, it looked like we’d already moved in and me with my own house and all. I prayed that the kids would not knock over something valuable, or worse, invaluable. Great Aunt Mona offered them 7-up, I fixed them with The Look, the look that needs no words that you get somehow when you become a mother. 7-up was the slippery slope, 7-up now, what next? Paintings and chandeliers? I looked around. I felt a bit at home myself. It was a tardis of a place full of curiosities and finely collected items. Taste, Great Aunt Mona had taste. We talked. The tone, as it would be with Great Aunt Mona, assumed a certain stoicism and very little sentimentality. Two of a kind we share; insomnia, guaranteed levels of anxiety, intolerance of boredom which could mean anything at any given time, twee letters in the Irish Times that announce things like; the first of the spring crocuses has ‘sprung’, things like that, things that remind you that you don’t feel these responses the way you might, that you’re wrong for not getting it and enjoying life more somehow.

‘And what about this euthanasia stuff?’ I tested the waters ‘Why can’t we do it if we want?’ I watched her carefully for signs. The mystery still stood –was this the reason for the visit deep down? Was this the last time I would see Great Aunt Mona?

‘Agreed,’ Great Aunt Mona lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. ‘Dying slowly in an old folks’ home getting your nappy changed by strangers.’

Great Aunt Mona makes a thrifty observation on how to save money on funeral costs by absorbing some of the cost of cremation while still alive.

Great Aunt Mona makes a thrifty observation on how to save money on funeral costs by absorbing some of the cost of cremation while still alive.

‘Or even worse…’ The catastrophic thought hit me ‘Dying slowly in an old folks’ home getting your nappy changed by family.’ I watched my kids trying to lure Great Aunt Mona’s cat back in the cat flap with a stick with ribbon tied at the end. There was no way I could imagine it. Some things are NEVER going to happen. I understood it then. Maybe not euthanasia as such, but something subtler that took time, but not too much time.

‘I like the chair’ I said. The chair was an antique from God knows what era; it was on little hidden wheels like a ballpoint pen and had deep rose coloured upholstery and worn wooden arms.

‘Try it.’ Great Aunt Mona said.

I did.

‘It makes me sit up straight.’ I said, ‘I could use that.’

‘It’s yours in the will.’ She said.

I laid off praising anything else lest I was on the slippery slope, like the 7-up and the kids… except then I found THESE little gems. I nearly pocketed them straight off, they were cigarette boxes is all, empty but adulterated.

‘I thought the inheritance thing was macabre, but these?’ I picked up one box after the other reading the counter slogans. ‘It makes sense.’ I said ‘Of course you’d see through it.’

‘Well, I did used to be a copywriter.’ She said.

The ads bothered me too. I didn’t smoke anymore so there was no need for me to get personal here, but on behalf of those who do smoke the ads are insulting and heavy-hitting and not unlike those explicit pro-life campaigns that somehow manage to be offensive to everyone; man, woman, child and dammit, even the unborn.

Top Tip! Spend your money on cigs so that you’ve no money to leave in your will = no family squabbling.

Top Tip! Spend your money on cigs so that you’ve no money to leave in your will = no family squabbling.

‘And what really gets on my fucking nerves,’ Great Aunt Mona said, ‘Is that IF I have decided to smoke I FUCKING KNOW I’m killing myself, just slowly, that’s all: S-L-O-W-L-Y.’

‘Passive suicide.‘ I mumbled as I turned each box around one by one. ‘Can I keep these?’

No answer needed; in the will of course, the will.

(Thanks to Great Aunt Mona for a lend of adulterated cigarette boxes, a prize for the person who guesses what Mona is not giving up today.)

The many uses of a cigarette box...here is a a vintage Players battle-tank made by Mona for her brother (see comments). Pic courtesy of Mike Brady  who will not part with it.

The many uses of a cigarette box…a vintage Players battle-tank, one of several made by Mona over time for her kid brother (see comments). Pic courtesy of Mike Brady – who will not part with it for love or money.

A Vice To Breathe At All.

Hieronymous Bosch, 'Garden of Earthly Delights' c. 1510, a warning on the perils of life's temptations?

Hieronymous Bosch, ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ c. 1510, a warning on the perils of life’s temptations?

I’m not making any New Year’s resolutions this year. Life is a resolution in itself. Anyway, once you’ve had your first (of many?) mortality checks, time is precious and I’m not wasting any time on vices that don’t give joy, like binge drinking for example. A minor session could set you back at least two days, including hangover, think of the writing you mightn’t do? As for smoking — health damaging, unattractive, smelly – actually the new NHS ad goes deeper than that. Not only is it well shot, but it features a harassed looking bloke, a person like you or I, enjoying a lovely solitary smoke in his backyard oblivious that his cig is growing tumors before his eyes!

Screen shot NHS AD smoking

NHS Ad: Man enjoying a peaceful smoke

The subtext gets you on so many levels, you never know what’s creeping up on you while you’re taking a breather, smoker or not. Not like the peculiarly Irish moral subtext in the ad where the girl gets humanly ‘welded’ to the boy she’s snogging by a crazy speeding car? They went a bit overboard here, (hence this ad is linked here, but not embedded…who needs such gore?). Isn’t the vice unclear here? Was it the snogging or the speeding that destroyed young love? Is the ad actually saying:  Isn’t that what you get for wrapping your legs around a bloke shamelessly on a wall outdoors for all to see? Reckless hussy. Vices, vices, vices! And so many start as normal things, innocent things. They get out of hand; love, sex, socializing and their counter-parts; hate, reclusiveness, remote intimacy. Where are the ads for them?

Maybe that’s why fiction is so compelling. It explores quirk territory in a way an ad can’t mutilate. I like to give my characters vices, and not ones that will be sorted by a nicotine patch or some weedy Jan 1st resolution. For example, here’s what my increasingly unstable protagonist says in Draft 2 as vice takes hold of her in the form of obsessive love:

‘Loving him was my secret worrying quirk. It was like being addicted to something. The need, indeed, the craving for him, for his substance, his touch and his company was endless. I lived in terror of never having access to him, so in the days following his fatal words you can’t ever come here again. Understand? No, I did not understand.’

Was it the snogging or the speeding?

Was it the snogging or the speeding?

Anyway, on a day where the wagging finger is on the move to make-you-a-better-person, I wonder if excessive resolution isn’t a vice too? Deprivation can be as potent as a hit of what you fancy yourself. Isn’t deprivation a bit of a cheat? Aren’t you better off keeping your vice tangible as reminder of what could be, like that old saying: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer? Fiction, however, is another matter. Had my protagonist seen an ad for obsessive love that ended with one (or both) fatally wounded, or indeed flesh-welded at the waist, she still probably would have remained blatently resolution free.  As for the the poor aul divil in his backyard taking a breather? We know he’ll be back on his doorstep smoking when February hits, we know the tumor on the cig isn’t real. We get the metaphor, he’s not stupid, he’s just human and some of us need a vice to breathe at all.