Aunt Hariet on a bad dayThe door burst open as if it had been tapped by Godzilla and Aunt Harriet strode into my suddenly diminutive abode like the Collossus of Rhodes looking for a village to stomp. The fact that she was smiling as she did it sent shivers of ice up my spine so cold an Arctic glacier would have grabbed its hat and slunk off to the tropics in shame.

“Ah,” she said, showing all her teeth (which looked to me as if they’d been sharpened but moments before), “my favorite nephew. How are you, Ponsonby? Get a job yet?”

Doomed, that’s what I was. She was marshalling her forces early. There was to be no preliminary bout this time. “Aunt Harriet,” I said, trying out a carefree smile with what I suspect was a minimum of success. “What a pleasant surprise. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? I would have killed the fatted calf and laid in a supply of your favorite snacks. Still eating your chickens raw and with the heads on?”

She fixed me with a gimlet eye. (I never knew what that meant until Aunt Harriet fixed me with hers for the first time some years before. Once you actually experience a gimlet eye, you can never mistake it for anything else.) “Ponsonby Quincannon Braithwaite, is that any way to greet your favorite aunt, the aunt who has protected you like a mother tigress protects her cubs when the rest of your family plots your descent into the hell of work and duty? Or have you forgotten how I saved you from being forced to take over your mother’s Save the Snails campaign?”

I shuddered at the memory and my defenses almost crumbled. Aunt Harriet had indeed interceded to spare me the ignominy of tramping the countryside trying to convince militant gardeners to stop the gratuitous slaughter of baby snails who might be innocently camped out on their lettuce leaves enjoying a quiet lunch. “No, I haven’t forgotten, Aunt Harriet.”

“Or the time your father wanted to install you as Chief Pea-Forker on his pickle plantation?”

“No, Aunt Harriet.”

“Good. Then I trust you will, as the faithful and grateful nephew I know you to be deep in your heart – assuming you have one – cease and desist this boorish sniping and welcome me in the manner to which I am entitled.”

“Yes, Aunt Harriet.” Defeated, I kissed her cheek and ushered her to the best chair in the joint. She sank into it like a grizzly bear might sink into a field of moss. My Aunt Harriet, you see, is an imposing woman. Somewhat over five feet-nothing and weighing something less than Averill Harriman but more than Britney Spears, Aunt Harriet bears a unique resemblance to a welterweight boxer in a fighting crouch. She might look merely thin (well, thin-ish) to the casual passer-by but a trained eye would be drawn to the hard musculature of her upper arms, rumored to have crushed nephews like used tissue paper when she forgot her own strength during a welcoming hug, and the trim but trunk-like legs seasoned by the fires of six-day bicycle racing and weekend jaunts up the sides of assorted Himalayan mountains.

“I’m sorry, Auntie,” I said, a possible strategy for waylaying her assault suddenly sprouting when it was least expected. “That wasn’t a very friendly greeting, but I’m afraid I erroneously assumed that since you arrived without calling first, you most likely wanted to drag me into one of your nefarious schemes. It was an unworthy suspicion, and I apologize for it. I’m sure you simply came to visit a nephew you cherish and admire. We’ll say no more about it. Tea?”

I had the satisfaction of noting a nonplussed contortion of confusion cross her face. For one bright and shining moment, she didn’t know what to say. It was a small victory and didn’t last long but we take our pleasures where we can find them.

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