Her aunt Jane wasn't a shrinking violet by any means. She drank, but not nearly as much as Uncle Russell, and over the years she had perfected the art of looking trod upon. At home she wore her long-suffering weariness like a wrap around her shoulders; however, when there was a fight, she was the far more aggressive and caustic of the two.
They were a complete contradiction when they were out. If a couple could have a split personality, they were the perfect specimens. It was almost as though they were channeling Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In public Uncle Russell was funny and sociable; at home he was belligerent and sullen, the degree depending on the amount of alcohol he'd consumed. To strangers, Aunt Jane was outgoing, even friendly. It was almost incomprehensible how these two could present such a different portrayal of themselves-locked in a horribly dysfunctional marriage and seemingly miserable at home, and yet the life of the party everywhere else.
Had they always been this awful? Allison couldn't remember. Her sister protected her from most of the ugliness until Allison was old enough to fend for herself. She didn't know what she would have done without her. Charlotte had held things together, but several years earlier she finally reached her limit and severed all ties with their relatives. It was Oliver who convinced her to do it.
Charlotte met Oliver on her first day of college. She had been awarded a music scholarship because of her talent with the flute, which she had taken up in high school. She had a natural gift for the instrument, but it had also become her escape. When things became too stressful in the house, Charlotte would retreat to the bedroom she shared with Allison and play her flute. The lilting sound took her to a peaceful and calm place, away from the turmoil outside her door. The flute also gave her a future.
Oliver was working on his law degree and happened on one particular afternoon in September to be passing through the music department building, taking a shortcut to the library, when he heard a beautiful melody coming from a small auditorium. Intrigued, he stopped to look through the open door and saw Charlotte standing on the stage playing the flute in front of a small gathering of students. He was so mesmerized he took a seat in the back row and listened, and when the session was over, he followed her into the hall and introduced himself.
Oliver and Charlotte had been dating only six months when they announced they were getting married. Allison feared she'd said yes to the first man who had asked her just to get away from the constant fighting. She understood her sister's need to break free, but she worried that Charlotte was too young and was behaving rashly. In hindsight, Allison could see that it was the best decision her sister ever made. Oliver was perfect for her. He loved the same things Charlotte did, and more important, he was a good and caring man. After graduation he worked in Boston, and then when Charlotte finished her degree, the two of them moved to Seattle, Oliver's hometown. He took a well-paying job with a prestigious law firm, and Charlotte became a member of the philharmonic. They now lived in a beautiful home in a suburb by the bay and were very happy.
While they were still living in Boston, Charlotte and Oliver had tried to maintain a cordial relationship with her aunt and uncle for Allison's sake, but it was difficult. Each time they visited them, Oliver saw how it affected his wife. They would be in the house for less than a minute and the criticisms would begin. Charlotte would try to be respectful and accommodating, but by the time they were on their way home, she would be so beaten down Oliver barely recognized her.
The breaking point came the day they stopped by to deliver a birthday gift to Aunt Jane. Birthdays were never grand celebrations, at least not for Allison and Charlotte. Will, on the other hand, was treated like a crown prince on his birthday. And when it came to their aunt and uncle, Charlotte and Allison were expected to show a due amount of appreciation. The only reason Charlotte continued to remember her aunt's and uncle's birthdays after she had moved away was to keep the peace. Allison was still in high school at this point, and Charlotte didn't want to cause any dissension that would make things worse for her sister.
Since she and Oliver didn't have much money, Charlotte had taken great pains to find the prettiest silk scarf she could afford. When her aunt unwrapped the box, she stared at the contents for a second and then said, "Oh, it's a scarf." She didn't take it out of the box. She set it aside and looked at Charlotte expectantly, finally saying, "Is that it?" Charlotte nodded, her face turning crimson. Oliver saw the hurt and anger come across his wife's face and decided he had held his tongue long enough. He went after Aunt Jane with a vengeance, telling her how cruel she was. At first, Jane looked shocked that he would be speaking to her in such a way, but when he called her ungrateful for not appreciating Charlotte's thoughtful gift, she lashed out, again recounting everything she had done for Charlotte and her sister. The shouting match didn't last long. Charlotte and Oliver were quickly out the door. On the way home, Charlotte burst into tears, and all the years of pent-up rage came spilling out. It didn't take much persuasion on Oliver's part to convince her it was time to do something about the poisonous relationship.