I’ve been organizing some of my old pictures and I came across this one: my parents, my brother and I, 40 years ago. I kept looking at the picture and I quickly remembered when and where it was taken.
I must have been five years old when my family took a trip to my father’s hometown and I remember the visit we paid to an elderly couple, my father’s aunt and uncle. They were in their eighties, no children, and they both had some health problems. We didn’t get to see them very often, given the fact that we were living in different cities situated far away from each other. My parents wanted to visit them as a courtesy, and for me, that was the first time I met them. And the last one. I didn’t get to see them again; after that visit, I just heard my father talking about them from time to time.
I don’t have many memories from when I was five years old. But despite my young age, or maybe just because of that, that visit remained very well imprinted in my memory. What I vividly remember about that visit is the elderly couple’s bedroom. Even though it was situated on the second floor, I felt like I stepped into a cellar. My mother had to take my hand and lead me in. As I cautiously walked in and looked around the gloomy room, I noticed that it was shadowy and cold; to me, it seemed chilling, almost lugubrious. The walls were off white, and the foggy windows were covered with dust that would barely allow the light to penetrate the darkness. The air was stale, and I could feel the smell of what it represented for me then – old people, probably a combination of drugs and a poorly ventilated room. The rug was worn out and stained in a corner, and the floor was squeaking. There were old postcards stuck between the huge, antique mirror and its frame. As my parents started talking about things I didn’t understand, I continued scanning the room. A large bed was the main piece of furniture, and it was taking too much of the space in the bedroom. All the other pieces of furniture seemed dark and dusty, and there were way too many for the size of the room. Right next to the bed, tens of medicine bottles were lined up on the dresser. I distinctly remember the huge painting above the bed that was dominating the room; it made me feel uneasy and intimidated. The painting had a dark background and represented a beautiful, naked woman lying on her side with an arm underneath her head. The other arm was holding something in front of her chest. It was all unclear, and looking carefully, I realized it was a foggy, whitish smudge. It all looked eerie, and I clenched my mother’s hand harder and harder.
Looking around, my eyes noticed the human fixtures in the room: the Aunt and the Uncle. My Aunt was probably bedridden because she didn’t leave the bed during our visit. She didn’t talk much, and I cannot recall many things about her. I didn’t know her. She was a stranger to me, and it looked like she wasn’t that happy to see us. The Uncle was healthy enough to slowly walk around the room and make some conversation, but even he seemed tired and sick. He was very skinny. His face was pale, almost ghastly, and wrinkled, and his lips were thin. He was wearing a beanie because he was bald , and he had a nightgown over his pajamas. They both seemed to be some characters from a horror movie and I expected in any moment for some roaring creature to come out at me from underneath their bed.
Even though I wanted to leave that place as soon as possible, the whitish smudge on the picture was still haunting my mind. The visit didn’t last long, but for me, a five-year-old girl, it felt like an eternity. I didn’t say a word. I understood that my parents were happy to see our relatives again, but I couldn’t wait to leave that house. By that time, I was already tense, and I still couldn’t understand why we were there. Right before we left, I gathered all the courage I could muster and I asked, almost whispering, pointing to the naked woman:
“What is she holding?”
To my surprise, the bedridden Aunt giggled and confessed:
“That used to be a skull, but because it looked too harrowing, I preferred to wipe it out.”
Years have passed and that experience is still alive in my memory. I am not sure if I felt terrified by the idea of a painted skull in that gloomy bedroom, or relieved that the Aunt didn’t like it and tried to get rid of it. Leaving that house, however, I started to like my Aunt. At least, she didn’t like the skull. Neither did I.