I have a cousin. Let’s call her Agata. She’s my mother’s first cousin once removed, she’s my parents’ downstairs neighbor, she’s my parents’ landlord, and she’s driving my mother around the bend, which is bad news for everyone.
Agata is in her early ’70s. She’s always lived in the same apartment, since she was kicked out of the convent at a young age for, we suspect, being a holy terror. She lived with her mother – let’s call her mother Pia – until Pia slipped on ice on the front walk and ended up in the hospital, soon after which she died.
I was close with Pia. When I was a freshman at Northwestern, I walked Pia all the way to my Italian class, a hundred pounds soaking wet in her car coat, gray curls, glasses, and headscarf, to be a special guest. The class so delighted her that she sat with her stockinged legs in the aisle, her bony arm propped up on the back of her seat, cackling and heckling my professor so exuberantly for an hour and a half that he couldn’t teach the class. In the mornings she would sit in the addition at the back of her flat, sipping bouillon and burping and talking in Italian on her rotary phone to her priest in Evanston and her relatives in Italy. I had to use the phone one time, and I still shudder; it smelled like her close-together teeth. Even in her seventies, she climbed in her housedress from a step stool into the kitchen sink to change a light bulb, risking life and limb. She was my hero.
Visiting Pia and Agata took some nerves, because for the entire visit, they talked over each other. The fact that one person was talking never discouraged the other. In fact, it encouraged them to increase their volume and rapidity of speech. In was, in effect, like being yelled at for two hours, with pasta.
Agata has always been quirky. She doesn’t talk, exactly; she barks. These days she has ruddy cheeks and unkempt white hair. She’s utilitarian to the bone, the kind of person whose life revolves around finding alternative uses for plastic jugs of laundry detergent. She wears oversize sweatshirts and wind jackets. Everyone else – even you, especially you – is “stupid.” These days – perhaps because of how Pia fell on the ice – Agata wears a white crash helmet buckled under her chin every time she leaves the house, including to garden in the back yard. She’s big on labels – every light switch in the front and back stairwells is labeled, for example – and she is big on signs, which we’ll get to in a minute.
One of the last times I visited my parents, I decided to go downstairs and visit Agata. She might be crazy, but she’s my crazy.
My mom shook her head when I told her.
“Take a sweater,” she said and walked out of the room. Dad came in from his office, taking a break from his primary activity, which is updating his profile picture on Facebook.
“Are you going downstairs?” he said. “Do you have a sweater?”
I stepped into the stairwell, which was so dark I had to feel my way downstairs. Agata opened her front door, shuffled to the light switches, and barked, “Let’s see if you’re as stupid as your mother!”
“What?” I said.
Agata demonstrated how to flip every light switch, barking out a story about how my mother couldn’t figure out her system. My mother is sensitive to being called stupid (as one might imagine) because when she was in high school one of the nuns told her parents she would only be good for factory work (my mother has two graduate degrees and has exhibited her art all over the world, including recent exhibitions – like, this year – in Greece and England. Take that, Saint Whatever-the-Fuck). Also no one can make fun of my mother except for me, because I’m the only one who’s good at it.
My visit with Agata that day consisted of me sitting in the middle of her couch, freezing my tits off and listening to her retell the story of how I stayed with her and Pia when I was 15 and decided to spend the night at my cousin’s friend Pierre’s house without asking them (or telling them) and how Pia screamed at me for an hour and then called my parents long-distance in England (a big deal in 1992) to scream at them about me.
“Your goose was cooked!” Agata cried.
“I’m 38 now,” I said.
As it turns out, Agata the quirky cousin is Agata the nightmare landlord. And the worst of it is that when she’s not in your face, she’s passive-aggressive.
She has rules, most of which, my parents discovered after finding a website on local tenants’ rights, she has made up, for everything from how to sort the recycling to which slivers of the backyard my mom can use to plant her hostas. Agata once dragged four of my parents’ lawn chairs and their two-wheeled barbecue (this really irritated my father, as Agata also “bent the little thing that allows you to adjust the draft of air,” he says) and dumped them into my mother’s flowerbeds, because my parents didn’t move them back into the basement fast enough. If you know anything about small town politics, fucking with somebody else’s flowerbeds is WAR. And the amazing thing about all this is Agata doesn’t move very fast – she limps from childhood polio – so these actions are highly premeditated, slow-motion declarations.
Recently, even though Agata keeps a tall, plastic plant in the front stairwell, she called the city of Evanston on my parents about the back stairwell, where my mother keeps a small table with decorative baskets and potted plants. Agata didn’t mention her unhappiness with the table to my parents and didn’t mention the call to the city. The inspector walked into this family dispute, shook his head, told my parents their table was fine, and took pains to tell Agata my parents are good tenants.
“We hear her down there all the time on the phone telling [another relative] how stupid we are,” says my mom. “She just wants us to obey.”
But my mother, the first female administrator in the Quincy, Illinois, public school system to wear pants (circa 1972), is not one to obey.
The most enduring, visible, and contentious example of the war between apartments 1 and 2 is the sign on Agata’s back door. It faces into the stairwell so my parents have to look at it every time they enter and leave the building. This is the sign:
First, Agata used a ruler. And some thought went into the wording, down to the handwritten “Posting copy” in the top right corner, WHATEVER THAT MEANS. Then there’s the title: “Homestead/Household Security.” Since, you know. It’s not just a home, it’s a homestead.
The sign is divided into “Problem” and “Solution” – with the author going for clarity, as it’s well-known that some people, especially some people’s pinhead cousins, are stupid.
The first problem sounds reasonable enough, although it might be an overstatement to call it a problem: “Lost students looking for their friends (who live across the street).” As I’ve written before, my parents are surrounded by Northwestern University students. The entire neighborhood feels besieged. But this is not new, and lost students are the least of it. Drunk students are the worst of it (and I was once one of those, but that’s for another post). Also, as my aunt once pointed out, decades ago, the students across the street probably did not appreciate the fact that my Nonno, God rest his soul, regularly drank half a bottle of gin and then, instead of using his toilet, wandered out the front door (three doors down from Agata and Pia) and PEED OFF THE PORCH INTO THE YARD.
Second problem: “Gypsies, salespeople, thieves who won’t break in, but will come in thru an open/unlocked door. Also wasps, hornets.”
OK. Gypsies. Maybe immigrant Italians still have some deep-seated racism against the Roma people, but Agata was born in this country and GYPSIES ARE NOT A THING HERE.
Third problem: “Animals (dog/coyote size).”
Coyote population in Evanston, Illinois: FUCKING ZERO. Well, maybe not zero. Nature is encroaching, as she will. But FUCKING NEXT TO ZERO.
The solution? “KEEP THE OUTER BACK DOOR CLOSED & LOCKED” and “Latch the gate closed.”
Here is a picture of the superiorly made security gate that, when latched, keeps out all manner of lost students, gypsies, thieves, dogs, and coyotes:
As you can see, when this gate is closed and latched, there is no way any human or animal could get around, over, or, say, through it.
Even my father, the sweetest, most gentle, most repetitive guy you’ll ever meet, has lost his temper with Agata. He’s never lost his temper with me, and during the years 1991-1994 I gave him plenty to lose his temper about (hiding a boy in my closet after homecoming, being driven home in the back of a police car after sneaking out to meet the 24-four-year-old local rock DJ, sneaking out of Pia and Agata’s house to spend the night at my cousin’s friend’s house, etc.).
And the sign beneath the sign? That’s the pain point: Agata is keeping a HASHMARK TALLY of every time my parents leave the gate open. This sign has been up since July of 2015, and my parents have to walk past it to get to their door. And this sign, of all things, is what is slowly cauterizing my mother’s insides. So far, she has considered:
- Adding hashmarks on the sign to up her tally
- Tearing the sign down
- To the right of the hash marks, drawing a line in red across the white space and at the end writing, “Our Goal”
“I don’t like what she’s turning me into!” my mother shrieks.
For when relatives get you down, this recipe is a gimme:
• Heat some frozen mixed berries from Trader Joe’s (or as my mother, and many people in the Midwest, call it, “TJ’s”).
• Scoop yogurt into a ramekin.
• Scoop in berries, walnuts (for protein), and flax seeds (for constipation).
• Eat slowly, plotting your eventual escape from life above Agata, that holy terror and marker of hashes.