Aunt Lydia’s Castle – São Paulo, Brazil
Aunt Lydia lived in a fancy neighborhood in São Paulo, far from the northern part of town where I grew up. Her street was lined with manicured ipês roxos, the trees that explode in purple flowers in the spring and summer, splashing color onto an otherwise very grey city. Aunt Lydia, my fathers’ sister, was not the loving type, but she was our rich relative.
We visited her twice a year: for Christmas dinner, and once again months later for a special family reunion. My father always cooked and her husband bought all the wine and special imported snacks: chestnuts, walnuts and sardella. Aunt Lydia never cooked and she worried constantly about a clean kitchen. She had long auburn hair, always coiffeured to perfection in a high, fat bun on the top of her head. She had pale skin and she always wore make up. Differently from my mom, who just owned a couple of shirtdresses with belts, aunt Lydia only wore pants and tops that looked expensive.
“She wastes so much money in clothes she wears just once”, my mom used to say.
My aunt’s feet were also pale, her toes looked like pearls. She loved platform sandals, exactly the type of shoe my mom never bought. My mom hated her own feet, she said they looked like chicken feet, so no open sandals for her.
Another contrast: jewelry. My mom wore only a wedding band and Aunt Lydia carried heavy gold bracelets, pearl strings and diamond studs, even when she was at home or when she went to the market. I always thought she felt uncomfortable with all that extra weight on.
Her apartment looked like it wore jewelry too. Most of her furniture had gold trims, heavy handles, complicated details. She had closets and drawers for everything, a lot of space. In our apartment, if we pulled a suitcase from the top shelf, everything else stuffed up there fell on our heads. I loved to go to Aunt Lydia’s just to look at it, all that organized space, even if she didn’t allow me to touch anything. At least at home my mom played games sitting on the rug with me.
On our way to her dinner parties we used to take a cab. We had to cross a tunnel just before her neighborhood emerged, a threshold between the ordinary and the enchanted. At that point, I could even smell my favorite thing in her home, the delicate porcelain bowl she kept in the powder room, full of colorful miniature soaps shaped as roses. Aunt Lydia was really mad at me on the day I washed my hands with them, loving every moment of it: their size, closer to my own, their dazzling perfume of flowers.
In our house we just had Palmolive, it smelled of olive oil.
“They are just decoration, we are not supposed to use them!” she yelled.
I didn’t care. The smell of roses stayed on my hands for a long time. It still does.