Authors: Patrick Dennis
Table of Contents
To the one and only
Auntie Mame and Posterity
CHRISTMAS IS NEARLY HERE AND I LOOK FORWARD to it more and more with loathing. All the shops that didn't have their holiday decorations up by Michaelmas made up for it with sheer ostentation by Halloween. Canned carols bleat from every corner. The clerks at Saks are surlier, the ones at Lord & Taylor lordlier, the ones at Bergdorf's bitchier than at any other season.
All about me I see children being led by the hand to wheedle toy department Santa Clauses out of the most ruinous remembrances. On the commuters' train each night I see fathers, burdened with bulky packages, discussing not taxes, not politics, not the market, but the complexities of assembling electric trains and English bicycles.
I hate to go to my office each day because all that awaits me is nothingâa message from that pompous young ass in the State Department saying that no reliable information has been uncovered as yet, but every effort is being made; a cable from the Countess of Upshot (the former Vera Charles) saying that she just missed making contact at the Aga Khan's funeral in July, but
she saw them at the Copenhagen airport in September; a rambling letter from my London operative, Percy (“Peek-a-boo”) Pankhurst, announcing that his detective agency is still hot on the trail and asking for yet another hundred pounds.
Even more, I hate to go home at night. Home is a Georgian-type house in Verdant Greens, a community of two hundred houses in four styles just over an hour from New York, if the train is on time. My wife and I hate the house. We also hate Verdant Greens. We only moved there when our son was born so that he could have grass beneath his feet, fresh air, and rather mediocre schooling under the collective gimlet eye of a meddlesome group of Verdant Greens mothers who have a smattering of psychiatric jargon. And now my wife and I have even come to hate each other. Our overpriced, ill-built little houseâseven rooms, two-and-a-half baths, expansion atticâhas become an empty echoing shell, the prison of two lonely, silent, frustrated people. The son, for whose well-being the house was bought, is no longer here. He was kidnapped in 1954.
When I say kidnapped I don't mean to imply anything like ransom notes and a ladder against the wall. He went away just after his seventh birthday with our kisses and our blessings. We even waved him off at Idlewild as the big Pan-American plane carried him off to India. But we have never seen himâ and rarely heard of himâsince. That was June of 1954. He was supposed to be back by Labor Day in time for school. Two and a half years have passed, and now we face another melancholy Christmas without Michael in the house. And all because Auntie Mame fancied the child and wanted to take him off on a little outing!
MY AUNTIE MAME IS A MOST UNUSUAL WOMAN. SHE raised me from the time I was orphaned at ten. Not because anyone wanted her toâfar from itâor because she herself had any desire to take on a lonely only child during her heyday in 1929. It was simply that she was my only living relative. We were stuck with each other and we had to make the best of it.
But raise me she did in her own helter-skelter fashion, to the horror of my trustee, Mr. Dwight Babcock of the Knickerbocker Trust Company, to the horror of the masters at St. Boniface Academy in Apathy, Massachusetts (where Mr. Babcock finally put me after Auntie Mame's forays into progressive education), and sometimes even to the horror of me.
We lived in many places together, Auntie Mame and I. We lived in a duplex in Beekman Place during the twenties when Auntie Mame was still Miss Dennis, still rich, and still in her Japanese phase. We lived in a carriage house in Murray Hill during the Depression before Auntie Mame found love and marriage and even more riches as Mrs. Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. For a while we lived on a plantation in Georgia with Uncle Beau. Then, when Auntie Mame became the ninth-richest widow in New York, we lived in a big town house in Washington Square. We also lived in various other places around the world until I grew up and got married. After that, Auntie Mame's addressâwhenever she stayed still long enough to have oneâwas the St. Regis Hotel. Today I don't know where Auntie Mame is living. I wish I did, because that's where my son Michael is living, too. Assuming, of course, that the boy is still alive.
But as unorthodox and eccentricâher detractors have even used such adjectives as depraved and lunaticâas Auntie Mame's methods of child care may have been, I don't think that any of the unusual things she did ever hurt me.
This, however, is not the opinion of my wife, Pegeen. When I got home to Verdant Greens last night, Pegeen was waiting at the door.
“Chilly out, dear,” I said, kissing her. “Anything in the mail? I mean like especially terrible Christmas cards.”
Pegeen knew perfectly well what I meant and went on to say so. “I know perfectly well what you mean. You mean is there some word from our child or from that madwoman who carried him off. And the answer is No. Just as it's been every day for the last four months. No! No! No! My God, Patrick, I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't even think, worrying about my baby in the hands of that old maniac. For all we know, poor little Michael may be dead and buried.”
“Oh, I scarcely think so. We'd have heard, surely.”
“Heard? What have we heard? Six cables, a few miserable scribbled post cardsâthe Taj Mahal, a bathhouse in Tokyo, a lamasery in Tibet, an apartment house in Tel Aviv that looked like a dresser with all the drawers open, the Istanbul Hilton, the Mozart Festival,
Animation sur la Plage
from Cap d'Antibes; those and about a dozen more and not one more word about our child in two and a half years!”
“That's not quite true, Pegeen. Both Michael and Auntie Mame have been very good about remembering our birthdays, our anniversary, Christmasâand very handsomely, too. I still wear that mandarin . . .”
“Christmas. How can you
the word? This will be our third Christmas without a child in the house. Don't you think everyone in Verdant Greens is talking?”
“I'm certain they're talking but it's rarely interesting enough to . . .”
“That boy's almost ten years old. I haven't seen him since he was seven. He'll never be a cub scout and
never be a den mother.”
have anything to say about it you won't.”
“Well, I grant that it sounds dismal. But think of the other things our baby is missing. Proper schooling. The companionship of children his own age. Sports. Sunday school. Christmas.”
“Nonsense,” I said, trying to be as bland and offhand as possible because I was just as worried about Auntie Mame and Michael as Pegeen, only I didn't want her to know it. “As Auntie Mame always said, I could learn more in ten minutes in her drawing room than I could in ten years at school. She was right, too. I saw more of children my own age than I wanted to. As for Christmas, she gave me some damned nice things.”
“Such as what?”
All I could remember, offhand, was a list of items that would hardly have comforted a worried motherâa live alligator, a samurai sword, a chimpanzee that promptly died, and a lifetime course at Arthur Murray's. “Oh, nothing. Just some very nice things.”
“But don't you realize that she's simply stolen our child away from us? If he were to march into this room right now he wouldn't recognize his own parents. Oh, I know her game. I'm a woman, too. She plans to take over our child entirely, to twist him around her finger, to teach him life on
termsâ life as Mame Dennis Burnside sees itâso that he'll end up just as scatterbrained and eccentric as she is.”
“If you please,” I said. “She raised me from the time I was ten until I escapedâthat is, until I met you. Do you find me so odd? Don't I manage to shower every day, hold down a decent job with a reputable firm? Do I keep a collection of boots and whips in the cellar? Don't I pay my taxes and come home every night on the six-oh-three? Sometimes I even wish I were a little more colorfulâa little less dull.”
“So do I. But that's beside the point. The point is that your aunt took our child away two and a half years ago. She promised that he'd be home by Labor Day, and here it is 1957 and . . .”
“Do be fair, Pegeen. Auntie Mame didn't say
“Don't interrupt! Bit by bit she's taken over. First a cable begging to let him stay until Christmas. I never should have consented, but I did. Then a long letter telling me how good he was at skiing and how wonderful the snow was at Chamonix and what an aptitude Michael had for French. It was the French that did it. She
what a pushover I was for Racine.”
“I've always found him rather tiresome.”
“The next thing, we heard Lady Bountiful had our little boy in an Aqualung down with sharks and barracuda and I-don't-know-what.”
“Well, you were complaining about his having no sports.”
“And then that wonderful opportunity to get into the Forbidden City, play with the Dalai Lama. Next it was a papal audience. Then the Red Dean of . . .”
“And you were complaining about religion.”
“I'm complaining about
. It was bad enough when we knew where they were. But for the last four months there hasn't been one wordânot a letter, not a cable, not so much as a line scrawled on a post card. That mad aunt of yours has probably got that innocent child smoking, drinking, taking dope. . . .”
“Now don't be ridiculous! He was sneaking cigarettes by the time he was six. You've always let him sniff away at that stuff you use to remove nail enamel. And that old father of yours had him swilling beer in his bassinet. Auntie Mame may be unorthodox, but she's not unreliable. I'm not in the least concerned myself,” I lied.
“You see! She's reared you to be an unnatural father. Well, I'm plenty worried. Sick with worry!
too young and
“She'd scratch your eyes out if she heard you say it. Besides, she makes a most colorful traveling companion. I can attest to that. She took me around the world, and where am I now? Verdant Greens. Gaining weight, losing hair, married, settled, and middle aged.”
“When did she take you around the world?”
“Oh, a long time ago. Before the war.”
“Why didn't you ever tell me?”
“Didn't I? Well, if I didn't it was probably because there wasn't much to tell. You know, Pegeen, just tourist stuff.”
“Well, we have all night. You can start telling me now. Just when was this grand tour?”
“Oh, a long time back. Ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. It was in 1937, right after I was kickedâright after I finished at St. Boniface Academy; before I went to college.”
“How long were
gone?” Pegeen asked.
“Well, it was for an indefinite stay. Almost all of Auntie Mame's visits are indefinite and she's rarely any place on time. That may account for Michael's being so late in getting home.”
“Two and a half
“Why don't we have a drink, dear?”
“Sit right there and start talking. I can hear you while I mix them. Now commence.”
“Well, there's nothing to tell, really. Michael went to India and started from there. We went the other way.”
“What other way?”
“Well, we set out in May of 1937 on the old
. What a ship that was!”
“I've seen it,” Pegeen said, handing me a drink. “Go on.”
“Well, we weren't going to take Ito. . . .”
“You mean that inane, giggling, Japanese houseman of hers?”
“Ito has always been a very good friend,” I said with dignity. “Both to Auntie Mame and to me. He did join us later, but we set off aloneâin the Deauville Suite of the
, the Captain's table, and all the pomp and circumstance in the world. Well, that's about all.”
“Go on,” Pegeen said in an I-mean-business tone of voice.
“Well, if memory serves, the
used to land in France.”
“And so we went to Paris . . .”