The Mathematics of Aunt Dolly
Michele Finn Johnson

The word mathematics comes from the Greek μάθημα, meaning that which is learnt or what one gets to know.

1918 + 97 years = where we are today. Aunt Dolly tucked away in Life Care Village, Room 207. It’s a nice room but tiny; Aunt Dolly and her high-tech wheelchair take up much of its volume.

In Latin, and in English until around 1700, the term mathematics more commonly meant astrology or astronomy. This resulted in some confusion, including Saint Augustine’s warning that Christians should beware of mathematici, meaning astrologers, but sometimes mistranslated as a condemnation of mathematicians.

My brother Michael is a mathematician. He loves astronomy but eschews astrology. When I fly back home, in part to visit Aunt Dolly, I stay with Michael. He never cooks; we eat takeout Pei Wei. When I read the tiny white slips of paper in our fortune cookies, Michael will hear none of it. I am left muttering fabulous glimmers of the future, both his and mine, into open air.

Aunt Dolly’s fortunes and misfortunes are hard to add up. It takes many visits to figure out her pluses and minuses. Her biggest minus: the man she wanted so badly to love her. He came back from the war, she said, but I’d gained weight. Twenty pounds while he was gone. Aunt Dolly’s eyes turn to glass. He walked away.

I wish my brother Michael would come with me to Life Care Village. Aunt Dolly is 97. Aunt Dolly will not live to infinity.

Her biggest plus: It is 1946. 1946 -1918 = Aunt Dolly is 28 years old. Her navy man has returned Stateside, only to find Aunt Dolly weighing in at a total-turnoff of 140 pounds. Aunt Dolly avoids pasta; she consumes only skim milk and bananas, plus one cup of coffee (no sugar) per day. I do math in my head—400 calories? Within three months, Aunt Dolly is in prime condition. Oh, his arms were so strong, she says. When he held me, I felt as light as a peppermint. Four ounces? The sailor becomes Uncle Harry.

Did I tell you about the 27-pound baby? She asks. You have, I say, but tell me again.

Michael, did you ever hear about the 27-pound baby? No?

Aunt Dolly is focused on math during my likely last-ever visit with her. There are so many people in heaven. Millions. How will Harry ever find me?

My fortune last trip: Love is on its way back to you.

The mathematics of Life Care Village, Room 207: 12 feet x 14 feet x 8 feet = 1,344 cubic feet. Aunt Dolly and her high-tech wheelchair (assuming she is in said chair and not separate from it) take up 3 feet x 4 feet x 6 feet of the room (or 10.27%). The room smells of provolone and mentholyptus. You may find yourself calculating the rate of oxygen depletion. It is easy to obsess about the hardness of Aunt Dolly’s guest chair—you compute the 23 degrees flattened out of your ass—while you listen to Aunt Dolly, learn more, learn as much as you can before she disappears.

Michele Finn Johnson’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Puerto del Sol, Necessary Fiction, Bartleby Snopes, TheNewerYork Press, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction previously won an AWP Introduction to Journals Project award. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is a member of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.