My grandfather’s sister was a giant of a woman who, even in her bare feet, towered over the other females in the family. Her name was Mary. She wore rough tweed skirts and sensible shoes, and in winter she wore a beret. She steamed into a room like a ship nearing port. Never once, in any physical endeavor, did I see her hesitate. She was stern and old-fashioned, frightening to children, and she believed in naps. If the top of your head didn’t reach to her elbow, you belonged in your room after lunch, napping.
She herself was an ardent napper. When she came to visit us in New Jersey she slept in my grandparents’ guest room on the second floor. It was cool and dark, even in the middle of the hottest July day. She’d rise from the table after a large plate of tuna fish salad or a BLT and announce, “I’m going up for a little lie-down,” then off she’d go, full of what my mother called “vim and vigor.” An hour later she’d reappear, looking younger and sleeker, descending the elegant spiral staircase like someone in a movie.
One day, when I’d finally grown an inch or two taller than the need for naps, I was sent upstairs to wake Aunt Mary. Her energy had waned that summer. She was as commanding as ever but it took more out of her and I was old enough to notice. Yet I was young enough to think it would pass, like a mild cough or a sore throat. My job, in the meantime, was to make sure she didn’t sleep through the afternoon.
Her door was open and I stepped in and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. She looked surprisingly small in the bed. I called her name—I was afraid to touch her—and the first thing she said when she opened her eyes confused me. It was a command: “Get me my leg!” I gaped at her and she repeated the order and I gaped some more. “My leg!” She pointed. I followed her arm and in the dimness of the room my eyes came to rest on something for which life had not prepared me. Standing in the corner was a foot, shod with one of Aunt Mary’s sensible shoes, and attached to the foot was a calf, a shin, an entire lower leg wearing one of Aunt Mary’s flesh-colored knit stockings. I looked at her and back at the leg. “Just bring it,” she said wearily. I did as I was told. It was heavier than I expected. I thought of her energy, her energetic response to life itself, and I tried to imagine moving with all that force and grace while dragging the weight of this leg. She seemed to read my thoughts and leaned forward and whispered, “You wouldn’t have liked the older models, dear. Solid wood. This one’s the Cadillac of prostheses. Made of plastic!”
Margaret Erhart’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005, Hypertext Magazine, Nashville Review, and Cagibi. Her novel, The Butterflies of Grand Canyon (Plume), was a finalist for an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona. Find her at: www.margareterhart.com.