Characterization: Wanda

…so, anyway, Wanda looked at him with murder in her eyes and said—nothing.

It’s funnier if you knew her, truly.
But if you know me, you know a little about her.I rarely write of my father’s family; not because of lack of interest, but because of lack of knowledge. My father has several siblings, most of whom are still living, but whom I have not seen in years. Moving seven hours away virtually guarantees that you lose touch with many of the family figures that you counted as regulars among your childhood holiday celebrations.

Wanda is my father’s second oldest living sister. Of his siblings, she is the one who lived nearest to us in my childhood years, and thus I knew her best. My father is nearing 60; through remembrance and a hint of guess, I believe Wanda to be near 70.

There are people whom you look at, at any age, and their sheer force of will makes you shake your head in surprise and astonishment. For me, Wanda has always been one of those people. I can only imagine the royal tyrant she must have been as a teenager; I only knew her as an adult, when she had polished her brassy, lovey, bossy image to a keen, sharp shine.

I don’t have to wonder if she was a spitfire then. She is one now, and that answers my questions.

She married Sherwin, a man whose incredibly sharp intelligence and wit was matched only by his total relaxation in manner. In temperament they were complete and utter opposites: she blustering, outspoken; he patient, methodical. He was an accountant—and a geek. She made things work. He started the businesses they owned, but they never would have prospered without her.

Wanda had the same dark blond hair that my father had—in fact, the same hair I have now, minus the reddish tinge. As I grew up, her hair color faded, and she began to dye it—shades ranging from blond to red, depending on the year and her mood. I am round like her—we both would have breasts and hips in abundance, even if we were slender.

In my manner of fussing over visiting friends and family I see echoes of her, and realize that I picked up more of her traits than just her physical likeness.

Have I described a bossy, brassy, loving, fierce woman? She was all that, and more, and less, and everything in between. I remember sitting in her kitchen and talking with her as she washed dishes after a Thanksgiving dinner. I remember chasing the cats, playing with the computers (back in the 1980s, mind you, when computers were not quite the children’s toys that they are today)—but most of all, I remember her kindness.

If I’m restricted to one story about Wanda (and Sherwin), I tell the story of the day of my grandfather’s funeral.

Mind you, this was my mother’s father, and Wanda is my father’s sister. My grandfather was of no relation to Wanda and Sherwin, but they drove the hour and a half each way for the day of the funeral—“to help.” Did she? I have no memory of what she did that day, but having known her since my childhood, I don’t doubt that she did.

We buried my grandfather that day, and we grieved. In the Southern tradition, every relative within driving distance came to my grandmother’s house and brought approximately sixteen tons of food. After everyone but immediate family (excluding Wanda and Sherwin) had left, we settled in at the kitchen table with some of the prepared food and finally, slowly, tiredly, began to eat.

We began to talk. It will probably not surprise you one bit to learn that most members of my family have a penchant for storytelling. Wanda and Sherwin easily qualify.

The stories went on. Sherwin took over the conversation, and began to tell dirty jokes, and suddenly we were all screaming with laughter. In a day that had had absolutely no levity whatsoever, we were sitting around a kitchen table, digging into casseroles and listening to dirty jokes and laughing so hard we could barely speak.

Sherwin began to take little digs at Wanda every few jokes; good-natured jabs that left her just seething, waiting for a chance to hurl a scathing comeback in his direction. My family—my grandmother, my extremely-pregnant sister, my parents, and my new boyfriend Jeff— sat, waiting to see how long it took her to get back at him. He knew it was coming. She knew it was coming. We knew it was coming.

We just wanted to see the fireworks.

Suddenly, Sherwin started talking about retirement, and what he planned to spend money on after he retired. Smoothly, without a grin or a wink, he started talking about Wanda, and how that, since she was turning 65 the next year, they could start living off of her Social Security income.

Up until that moment, I had never known Wanda’s age. I switched my gaze over to her, just in time to see the deep, blotchy red begin to rise from her neckline to her hairline. Sherwin continued talking, and Wanda continued to turn redder and redder, and then Sherwin stopped what he was saying and smoothly murmured, “Oh, I’m sorry, dear, was I not supposed to tell them how old you are?”

We howled. Sherwin sat back in satisfaction, zinger delivered, and began to laugh. Then Wanda started laughing too: the look in her eyes read something like “I’ll get you for this later, you brat.”

We laughed—and it was good. Cathartic, gleeful. Tears of laughter, even. We resumed eating, and Wanda and Sherwin gave each other good-natured glares for the rest of the evening.

Few people have the love—or the necessary chutzpah—to come to a family gathering on the saddest of days and leave their family not grieving, but laughing.

One time recently, Dad said I reminded him of Wanda. I found myself thinking that there were few people in this world that I’d be happy to resemble. She’s one of those few.