Growing up, our family spent every summer traveling to Norway to visit relatives. When my American father married my Norwegian mother and we decamped to the U.S., my dad promised he would bring us back once a year, and he always did.
We looked forward to those trips and eagerly started packing our stuff weeks ahead of our departure. We stayed with our beloved grandparents and explored the Norwegian wilderness with uncles, aunts and cousins. My grandfather was my favorite: quiet, modest, generous and with a sweet tooth that could rival Willy Wonka's. My grandmother is the opposite: outspoken, quick to laugh and as bright as a sunny day. She always told me about how difficult it had been to be accepted by my grandfather's wealthy family. She had a very humble upbringing, and my great-grandparents were less-than-thrilled with my grandfather's choice in a bride. Nevertheless, he adored her and they married when they were both quite young. My mother was born a few years later. By then, my great-grandparents had fallen prey to my grandmother's lovely demeanor, and they soon fell head over heels in love with their first grandchild. This newfound adoration didn't bode well for my great-aunt Foster. (My grandfather's sister: She was called "Foster" which means "aunt" in Swedish. My mother tried to call her "auntie" when she was little, but Foster protested, saying it made her sound old.)
My grandfather and his sister were the only progeny of a wealthy businessman and his wife. As the sole daughter of a well-to-do family, Foster was doted upon and spoiled with gifts and lavish clothes and toys. It became clear over the years that she struggled with psychological problems as she battled eating disorders and depression. When my mother was born and her parents' attention was diverted, Foster was unhappy, and took to throwing fits and showing the baby just how displeased she was with the newest member of the family. My mother grew up with an aunt whose fits of jealousy and rage, not to mention her out and out dislike for her niece, led to a lackluster relationship between the two women.
Fast forward 15 years: My mother was happily married to my father and had two young children. We would visit with Foster in those summertime trips out of familial duty, but neither my sister nor I was comfortable in her presence. Foster lived in a crumbling mansion, which had actually belonged to her parents -- in fact, she died in the home where she was born, never having moved out of her parents' house. Visiting her home was like being in a museum, and as a young child, there's nothing worse than a place where everything is off limits.
Though she was austere in her affection, my great-aunt was polished in her look. With the money that my great-grandparents had left her, she was outfitted in the latest fashions, always topped with a fur coat. But much like Edie Beale, there was always something off about her appearance. Her hair was thin and her teeth were damaged, most likely due to her life-long battle with bulimia. Her makeup was always garish and bright pink lipstick usually ended up on her teeth. I was always happy to climb into the haven of my grandmother's lap on those rare visits to my great-aunt's crumbling home.
Foster died in 2001. My mother, who had grown to appreciate her over the years (love would be a strong word, but she did appreciate the woman who looked so much like her beloved father and who had kept my grandmother company in the years after my grandfather passed away), attended the funeral with her brothers and her mother. Afterward, they went to her home to sort through her belongings. There, they found piles upon piles of fur coats, expensive skirt suits, fancy dresses and enough jewelry to make the Queen of England jealous. She had over 30 bespoke skirt suits, all handmade in Austria. When I asked mom where she wore all this finery, she smiled and said, "To do the dishes."
After all the difficult years between my mom and her aunt, my mother acquiesced her share of the loot to her sisters-in-law, who happily snapped up the furs and couture. When mom told us that she didn't have it in her to inherit belongings from an aunt with whom she had never had much of a relationship, my sister and I were dismayed. These were bespoke skirt suits and fur coats, after all! But we understood that no amount of material objects could change all those difficult years between the two of them, and to revel in her fripperies felt like a betrayal of sorts. We don't need Foster's clothes anyway; my sister and I are lucky enough to have a mother who opens her closet to us and who is happy to share her Chanel suits and Lanvin heels -- as long as we return the favor.