When I knew her, she would sit on the couch with her knees pulled to her chest, licking her bottom lip and staring down at me from across the room. White threads wove through a tangle of dark mane, and fog filled her eyes. Coarse black hairs stuck out of her chin like spikes, wetted down by strings of saliva escaping her mouth.
She would watch me, waiting for her chance, for the moment that no one was watching her, for the second she could spring on me, wooden brush in hand. She was obsessed with brushing my hair. She was obsessed with me, it was like something from Of Mice and Men—she was my Lennie, I was the new pup.
Great Aunt Glenna was the mysterious relative who people never really talked to but only whispered about in real life. I knew very few things about the woman. She had schizophrenia brought on by a fatal car accident in which she was the lone survivor. She was locked up in an insane asylum for a while, though no one specified the exact length of time.
I don’t know if these things were true or if they were rumors or sketches of truths used for gossip. What I know for certain was that Glenna never married, never had kids, and lived with her aging mother, my Great Grandma Elkerton, in a dilapidated house in Salt Lake City. She also scared the bejesus out of me whenever my family went to visit, and every visit was almost exactly like the one before—a practice of trying to escape.
Most saw Aunt Glenna as vacant, a cloth doll with milky button eyes. She was devoid of life, sitting on that rust and cream velveteen couch, wrapped in a knitted afghan. But I knew better. She was waiting, calculating, bidding her time for a chance to get at me. And she was lightning fast and quiet as a mouse. Still, not everything about the visit was terrible.
One of the best things about my Great Grandma Elkerton’s house was all the old stuff she kept. I suppose she was a hoarder, but only in the parts of her home that she and Glenna didn’t use.
Antique chairs, tables, and headboards coated gray and furry by dust, piles of clothing, turn of the century metal rocking horses and baby strollers, moth-eaten and time flattened hats, and rusted farm tools were stuffed and stacked from floor to ceiling. One took their lives in their hands trying to make a pathway through.
However, the biggest deterrent for picking through the rooms, was the fat spider webs and pillowy white nests, linking furniture together or filling empty corners, and the overwhelming scent of rotting mothballs behind closed doors.
Once, my brothers claimed to see a giant snake slipping in and out of a back room. That room, along with the others, was nailed shut and we had to find another way to entertain ourselves. Luckily, my Grandma had something else that interested me.
The container was a tin brushed in antique gold. It had dented sides, a punctured bottom and brown painted acorns on the lid. Inside, filled to the brim, were metal and plastic buttons collected over her lifetime that rattled chaos whenever I shook it.
Once inside the can, the baubles transfixed me. I loved the special fasteners that once adorned her late husband’s war uniform and the pearl clasp from her mother’s favorite Sunday dress. Going through the tin made time disappear and my awareness of my surroundings diminish, that’s when Glenna would find an opening.
“Glenna!” my Grandma Elkerton would suddenly yell in the middle of the conversation. “Glenna, go to your room!”
I would turn around to see Glenna looming over me, the stiff brush raised like a dagger, her eyes targeting me, her tongue rolling over her slobbery face. At her mother’s command, Glenna would shrink, spin around, dart down the hallway, and slam her bedroom door.
Above the resumed conversation, I could still hear the soft creaking of Glenna’s bedroom door and knew she was peering out for the next opportunity to strike.
“Not yet, Glenna!” Grandma would yell.
After a few times of the door creaking open and slamming shut, Grandma Elkerton would tell my siblings and me to go outside and play, saving me, for the time being, of being harshly groomed.
People assumed Glenna was incapable of speaking, probably due to the strange way her lips would move like she was speaking without sound or else eating something.
She might answer, “How are you today, Glenna?” with a slight nod, but usually it was with nothing at all, not even a blink of her eyes, nothing to indicate that she had even heard the question. But I knew better.
“Come’er, Elizabeth,” she’d say, her voice low and monotoned. “It’s time to brush yer hair.”
Did no one hear her say it but me?
My response came from self-preservation and survival instinct. I would wiggle behind a sibling, trying to camouflage and disappear within my massive family of nine.
But what really turned me cold during a visit was when she got bored with the droning conversation happening between our parents. Glenna would stand holding the brush at her side and reach for me. Arthritis had gotten to her too, twisting each finger into dense curls, like bare roots of a tree wondering away from the trunk.
“Come’er Elizabeth. It’s time for a nap.”
Everyone would stop and watch, waiting for my response. I never took her hand.
“Sit down, Glenna,” Grandma would command, and Glenna would drop down with an angry grunt and shift back into the corner of the couch to watch me some more.
Sometimes Glenna would laugh for no reason. She would look through walls or the floor and laugh. It was a strange transformation. A tiny tick started in her shoulders and tugged at the corners of her mouth. My Grandma would sense it beginning and would reach over and place a hand on Glenna’s thigh. Each tick would gain more ticks until she was a collection of jerks and was suddenly barking out loud guffaws, with tears spilling from her eyes.
“Glenna,” Grandma would snap, “Go get yourself a drink of water.”
Glenna would stop laughing at once. She would snort and stand up. “Come’er Elizabeth, Mom wants us to get a drink of water.”
I wouldn’t move.
I pretended a lot during those visits. I pretended that I couldn’t speak English and had no idea what Glenna was saying. I pretended that I was blind and couldn’t see her when she motioned for me to come’er. I suddenly couldn’t hear, couldn’t speak, and became lame. Instantly, my legs were too weak to lift me from the floor to go with her. This irritated Glenna, and she would snort at me, also.
If Glenna knew there were other children in the room, kids close to my same age, also with brush-able hair, I don’t know. Why she zeroed in on me, I don’t know that either.
The last time I saw my Great Aunt Glenna was in 1986 when my Great Grandma died. She didn’t seem to notice me at the funeral, and I was relieved. I don’t know what happened to her after that. Although, over the years, certain characters from books or movies conjured her back to mind.
Glenna was the old crone poisoning Snow White’s apple. She was Lennie, too dangerous to be petted by. My aunt was the crazed attic dweller in the house on the moors that set it ablaze one night. She was the ghostly figure, aptly named Boo, standing behind the drapes of a dilapidated house in Alabama, watching neighborhood children play. However, those impressions faded as soon as I finished the book and saw final credits roll on the screen, then Great Aunt Glenna would evaporate once again.
Recently, she has come back. In my quest for figuring out who I am and where I fit in the world, Glenna has been on my mind. There is so much about her I know nothing about. She has become a phantom, a cartoon character still whispered about at family reunions.
If she were alive today, Glenn would be one-hundred-and-four years old. Anyone directly connected to her and her life is gone now. Her parents, siblings, one-time friends, neighbors, even nurses or counselors she might have known once upon a time are all conceivably dead.
No one can tell her story now. Nobody can correct the rumors or smooth out the bumps in her timeline. So, who was she?
I can’t help but compare this Great Aunt of mine to myself. If the most sensational aspects of my life were amplified somehow and just those things were all anybody knew about me, that wouldn’t be a complete picture of who I am. How could it be with Glenna?
When I was little, I was terrified of Glenna. As an adult, I see her a bit differently, now. I wonder if perhaps she wasn’t a monster, but maybe she was a human being torn apart and put back together with monstrous parts? I don’t know, but I’ve decided I’ve got to find out.
*If you know how to get old medical records from an institution or any other tips to help me on my journey, please, write me!
Aunt Glenn was a beautiful girl much loved by her mother. It’s so sad that mental illness took her future from her. Gramma Elkerton cherished her….was so grateful to have her ” home”. I loved my gramma for her commitment to her child. I’m sure they are enjoying each other now!
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