When I was growing up, Old Maid was a card game that, along with Go Fish and Gin Rummy, occupied us kids on rainy days. It was also a derogatory term, not to be spoken in front of Aunt Betty, my mother’s unmarried older sister who had “bad skin” and lived with my grandmother in a row house in South Philly.
Betty was to be pitied. Although no one ever told me the details, it seems she had never been in love or, more to the point, no one had ever proposed. Every Saturday, I met Aunt Betty at the Eagle at John Wanamaker’s. I can still see her in her Ann Fogarty dresses, white gloves and extra-narrow Andrew Geller shoes. (If she had a trace of vanity, it was about her feet.)
Our routine was always the same. First, she’d pour through racks of impossibly expensive clothes in the Wanamaker’s designer salon, debating the merits of Dior and Balenciaga as if her life as a civil servant at the Frankford Arsenal called for spangled chiffon evening gowns. Then, we’d catch a matinee at one of the opulent movie palaces on Chestnut Street, usually a romantic comedy starring Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Rex Harrison.
Afterwards, over dinner at the Pub Tiki or Horn & Hardart, Aunt Betty would order a whiskey sour, light up a Pall Mall, inhale French style and speak of things never mentioned in my home. She’d talk of an article she read in The New Yorker (my parents’ reading didn’t go much further than the Evening Bulletin) or of a play she saw on Broadway. My parents would only let me have dessert if I finished my entrée. Aunt Betty, a naturally thin woman, had no qualms about skipping the main course and diving into a second helping of chocolate whipped-cream cake.
I knew I was supposed to feel sorry for her, but I often wondered who had the better life: Aunt Betty, who took mysterious holidays in London and Paris; or my mother, who was lucky to get a weekend in Wildwood?
As I graduated from amiable childhood to rebellious, wild-haired adolescence, I found better things to do with my Saturdays — art classes and hanging out with kids my own age, playing Bob Dylan records. When my father heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” one time too many, he’d unplug the stereo and yell, “You’re going to wind up an old maid like your Aunt Betty!” I’d run crying to my mother who would assure me, “No, dear, you’ll never be an old maid.”
Flash forward a couple of decades. My father was right. I’m a woman of a certain age who never married. But I’m not exactly convent material. I bypassed Lindsay Lohan’s list of 36 lovers when the Bee Gees were still at the top of the charts. I worked in the fashion industry in Manhattan and the film biz in L.A., and I became a writer — all because of Aunt Betty’s passion for beautiful clothes, movies and books. She even inspired my wanderlust, from riding the Orient Express to trekking through the Amazon.
As I look around at other women of my generation who, for one reason or another, never married, I can’t imagine Old Maid, the ugliest card in the deck, applying to any of us. We are all bright, attractive, vibrant women who, like my Aunt Betty, side-stepped traditional domesticity for a second helping of chocolate whipped cream cake.