My Aunt Meliné (pronounced Mel-inAY not Mel-een…don’t get it wrong or she’d be pissed!) was a total bohemian- a dancer, artist, jewelry designer, hair stylist, and real estate agent, who never met a sparkly trinket she didn’t love. Growing up in Cuba, she was known as Maria, and when I was born I was named after her. As a child, I worshipped Auntie Meline for her exotic and dramatic nature, her artisan ways, and her vintage flea market with flair fashion. She wore bright and sparkly clothes, scarves, sequined berets, and tons of costume jewelry.
Auntie was a dance instructor at a studio in Detroit back in the old days, and she used to try to instruct Laura and me on everything from the cha-cha to tango to flamenco. I got my first set of castanets when I was about 6. She would grab my wrists and say, “follow me, Marrrria, to the rhythm…teeee-la-laaa!” Her singing voice was nothing to speak of, but that woman sure knew how to dance.
She occupied the second floor of the house in Detroit she shared with Auntie Susan and my grandmother. Her boudoir was a little girl’s play land. The walls were covered in a mix of Asian art, still life flower paintings, and odds and ends collected from random bazaars and travels. One of my favorite paintings was an image of a flamenco dancer, a rose dangling from her black tresses, a white ruffled dress, and castanets, twirling to music played by guitarists in the background. I would stare longingly at that painting, trying to imitate her pose, dreaming of being a dancer like that. Another painting that adorned my aunt’s wall was a portrait of a lovely woman in a red sari, with dark hooded Armenian eyes and soft wavy dark hair. The artist had written in the lower corner, “To my little gypsy darling.” It was a painting of my aunt, probably done by one of her many suitors. She always had a private little smile on her face when she passed that painting, as though she were recalling some dalliance from long ago.
Auntie was a stunning woman, even in her eighties. She had an exotic, delicate beauty, with an overlay of fierceness. She could be sweet as honey and then lash out with a fury in a moment. We always wondered why she never married or had children. My dad said it was because no man could handle her. I can see why that was true. With no husband or children of her own, she focused on adoring my sister and me. She loved to show us off to her friends, gripping our forearms and dragging us over to meet them, trilling in her Cuban accent, “These arrrre my darrrrling nieces! Aren’t they beayoooteeful?” We’d roll our eyes in embarrassment and shake hands with these strangers, and she would beam with pride and then drag us to the next people we just had to meet.
The other night a good friend looked at me over the dinner table and said, “you know, don’t take this the wrong way, but when I look at you I see a gypsy. I don’t know where that came from, but I see it.”
I was startled by this statement, and yet filled with great peace. I had a vision of Auntie there next to me, twirling in her flamenco skirts with wild grace and abandon.