Everything was perfect, picturesque even, on that clear August morning. Now, in retrospect, I recognize that idyllic beauty as masterful irony, as if God Himself, only half-concealing a grin, had said, “Look here, a prime sunrise for you in exchange for your great-aunt’s soul.”
On this particular day, many years ago, I stood in the kitchen making an egg sandwich when my mom’s phone rang. My little My little brother and sister were both still asleep, and my dad sat on the couch watching ESPN. I pushed a piece of shredded ham through a finger-sized hole in the screen door and dropped it into our basset hound’s open mouth. For eight years, nearly half of my life, I had been feeding him scraps through that hole and nobody knew about it. It was our little secret.
My mom hung up the phone and frowned at my Dad, a deeper frown than usual. “Bill,” she said, “turn the TV off for a minute and come in here please.” She then motioned to me. “You too, Landis.” She disappeared down the hall, presumably to wake the kids. This had family meeting written all over it.
I picked up my plate and brought it to the table near where she now stood, stone cold like an ancient Greek sculpture. Both of my siblings wiped their sleepy faces and sat on the floor. Their bloodshot eyes caught mine, like, what’s going on?
“Bill,” my mom said to Dad, “I need you in here too.” He sighed and made his way to the table, sitting next to me and looking at my plate. I offered him half my sandwich, but he refused with an amused chuckle.
Mom sat in her recliner and adjusted her glasses, waiting for us to be quiet. Finally, she said, “Everything we love vanishes, and yet everything lasts forever in one form or another.”
We all exchanged glances, wondering who died. If we had the time we might have been placing bets.
“That’s something I was told a long time ago when I was just a little girl.” She turned to me. “Landis, I don’t want you to be upset. Agnes passed away last night. In her sleep.”
I wasn’t upset. Disconsolate was a better word. Devastated. But I held myself together just fine until Mom asked me if I was about to cry. I don’t know why people had to ask that question but it always happens at some point. Of course, the flood gates opened, and I was out the door.
As soon as my house was out of sight, I found my cigarettes and tapped the pack hard against my wrist. Just a month after my first cigarette and I was already using them as a coping mechanism. Great.
I walked the block, coughing and choking and looking over my shoulder for the police, but mostly remembering all the little moments I had shared with Aunt Agnes: the mornings spent at her house while my parents worked, her warm hugs, her smile, all the superficial little nothings that kids remember about their dead relatives. I wished for rain, for wind, for a tornado to take me to the Land of Oz. None came.
The service was held at the local funeral home two days later. Both of Aunt Agnes’ husbands were long gone, and so were most of her friends, so the audience consisted mostly of family, her in-home hospice nurse, and a gaggle of old bitties from her church. An old man with piercing blue eyes walked up to us and offered his condolences, hugging each of us and shaking my dad’s hand.
“I knew the ol’ girl real well,” he said. “She was a mighty opinionated woman, bullheaded even, but boy was she headstrong.” I’ll never understand how he thought that was a compliment.
Presently, the preacher stood in front of his podium and said a few words. I looked around and realized I was the only one crying. My parents, aunts and uncles, and all my older cousins were straight-faced like it was any old church service.
We were given the chance to pay our last respects. I didn’t realize the coffin would be open. When it was my turn to see her, I saw deep frown lines on her face for the first time. Her mouth looked like a gray rainbow.
My mom touched my shoulder and said, “She didn’t love much, Landis, but she loved you more than anything. Don’t you forget that.”
After the service, we drove in a line to the cemetery where she was buried next to her brothers and sisters. The family, mostly Aunt Agnes’ seven daughters, did everything in their power to speed up the burial process. One of them sang a gospel song while a family friend played the violin. A pretty song but not especially heartfelt, just like the rest of the ceremony.
Everything was said and done within the hour. In the car my mom said, “We’re all going to Aunt Agnes’ house for food.”
“Who’s going to live there now?” I asked.
“She left the house to Kathy since she’s the oldest. I don’t know what she’s going to do with it.”
My dad said, “Probably sell it for coke,” under his breath, and my mom nudged him and gave him that look she always gives him when he makes inappropriate jokes in front of the kids. I was the only one awake anyway.
“Mom,” I asked, “why wasn’t anyone sad at the funeral?”
“What do you mean, honey?”
“People are supposed to cry at funerals, but nobody was.”
“I cried a little,” she replied.
“I didn’t,” Dad muttered.
Mom nudged him again, harder this time. She was silent for a minute as she took a left turn and then a right. “Your Aunt Agnes softened a lot with age, especially after you were born, but some of the family still hasn’t gotten over the things she’s done to them.”
I said nothing.
“You don’t need to worry yourself with them. Just remember the good times you had with her. Nothing else matters.”
“I know, Mom.”
When we pulled up to Aunt Agnes’ house, a group of my older relatives were outside smoking cigarettes and chatting amongst themselves. We said hello and walked past them into the house. I never wanted a cigarette so bad. The dining room table was covered in food: potato salad, baked beans, corn chips, potato chips, a tray of carrots and celery with ranch dip, and triangle-shaped ham and cheese sandwiches. Otherwise, the room was unchanged in any way. Aunt Agnes’ pictures were still hung up on the wall, her TV left untouched, her peppery smell still lingered.
“Can we eat?” I asked, pointing to the table.
“Not yet,” my mom said. “You should go see where your brother and sister went.”
“They ran that way to play with the other kids.”
“You don’t want to play?”
“Can’t I sit with the adults?”
“Maybe next time.” She put her hand on my shoulder and gave me the look of pity that only a mom could. “The adults are going to be talking about Aunt Agnes, and they’re going to say some things you don’t want to hear. Remember what I said earlier?”
I nodded and looked at the floor.
“Cheer up. After today you can hang out with the adults any time you want. How does that sound?”
I faked a smile and ran off to the back yard. Aunt Agnes’ old dachshund waddled up to me and smelled my leg. “Where’s your toy?” I asked the dog. “Beanie, where’s your toy?” Beanie walked a few feet and plopped down near her rocking chair and snorted. I sat in the chair and pet the dog like Aunt Agnes used to: pat twice, then head to butt twice. “You’re sad too, huh?” I asked, lifting his face to mine.
“Landis! Come watch me catch a fish!” my little cousin yelled from the dock.
“Not right now, John. I don’t feel good.”
I pet the dog for a few minutes trying to bond with him, but something was eating at me. The way the family acted at the funeral perhaps, maybe what my mom said about Aunt Agnes. Something.
Two more little kids opened the door and ran down the stairs toward the gate, and then another followed and closed the door behind him.
“Hey, Brandyn,” I said quickly.
“What’s going on in there?”
“Just talking. Wanna come play?”
“No thanks. You go ahead.”
“Hey. Wait a second,” I said.
“What is your mom going to do with Aunt Agnes’ house?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. She doesn’t like it here.”
“What’s wrong?” Brandyn asked.
“Yeah. I just miss Aunt Agnes a lot.”
“Go play,” I said, frowning.
I watched Brandyn run to join the other kids, who were all stooped over a flopping fish on the dock. I stood up and slipped inside the house, shutting the screen door noiselessly. The adults were gathered in the living room, most holding plates of sandwiches and chips. I’d never seen this much of my family in one place. My mom and dad were seated on an old brown loveseat, the same one I used to sit in every week to watch Clint Eastwood movies. All seven of Aunt Agnes’ daughters were there. Even my mom’s brothers and sisters were there. The whole room was full to the brim with these people. These were my folks, my kin, my flesh and blood, but I barely knew them. Our whole family was like the Earth after Pangaea, all fragmented and separated into different continents. I crouched behind a small table and listened.
“I’m tired of the lies and the half-truths,” my uncle Kevin was saying, his double-chin jiggling with every utterance. “All you girls need to put the past behind you. It’s done now.”
I scooted outward so I could see better. My mom nodded in agreement with her brother. “Kevin’s right,” she said. “If we’re going to bring this family together, we have to come clean with each other. We have to air everything out and start fresh.”
“It’s too late for that,” Kathy said, crossing her legs. “What’s done is done. You can’t change the past.”
A woman, who I assumed was Kathy’s sister, Paige, said, “Now that Mom’s gone, why can’t we give it a try?” I’d never seen her in person before, but my mom always had stories. I looked at Paige: the oversized glasses, big floppy crocheted hat, the cigarette pack and lighter gripped tight in her hand, she was a hip old lady if I ever saw one. Then she said, “In all my years I’ve never felt like we were a real family. Sure, we used to get together on holidays, but—”
“Where’s our invite?” my dad said. I shook my head at his terrible timing.
“That’s what I’m trying to accomplish, Bill,” Paige replied, waving her hand dismissively at him. “I want to get to know those beautiful kids of yours. I want to be a family again. That wicked old woman isn’t hovering over us anymore, keeping us apart. She’s gone.”
“Amen,” Elisha said, raising her glass. She stood up and gave Paige a one-armed hug, and then Kathy, and then the rest of her sisters, stumbling clumsily as she did so. She pointed at each one of them, addressing them respectively. “Like, a lot has happened between us in the past. Mom has caused us all stress and anguish, but Melissa and I want to be a part of this family again. Isn’t that right?”
“Very much so,” Melissa said. She and Elisha had a different father than the rest of them, I knew that much.
“Riddle me this,” Kathy said, her eyebrows raised high like vultures. “When Bob left after the incident, why did you both stop talking to us? When he left, you left, and we never heard a peep from either of you.”
“Why do you think?” Melissa said, pointing with her beer, the liquid foaming and sloshing from side to side. “It’s not like we wanted to be ostracized from the rest of you guys or anything. Mom said we weren’t allowed to talk to her, or any of you, ever again if we went with him. What were we supposed to do?”
“Why’d you go with him then? Why not stay here with us? Especially after knowing what he did to Rebecca?”
“Yeah, you could have just stayed with us,” Rebecca said, then looked at the floor. “Your father. He was a very bad man.”
Elisha scoffed. “Mom sat back and watched what happened to you and never said a word about it. She could have called the police, but no. She wouldn’t do it.”
“Maybe it wasn’t her place, or maybe Bob threatened her,” Zoe, the youngest, added.
“Not her place?” Elisha said. “No, she’s just a wicked soul and that’s all there is to it. I’m glad she’s gone. Maybe now we can fucking move on with our lives.” She filled her glass with more alcohol. “Here’s a toast to mother. Good riddance.” And she tilted back and drank.
“Oh, real nice,” Kathy said. “I hate the woman as much as you do, but—”
“What’d she ever do to you?”
Everything went quiet. Kathy finally spoke. “You don’t know? Alright, I’ll tell you then. I wouldn’t stand for your father molesting your sister, so I called the cops on him. You know that’s what he was doing, so don’t even deny it! Tell her, Rebecca. Tell her what Bob did. I tried to get Mom to call the cops on his sorry ass, but she refused. ‘Oh, Bob would never do that,’ she’d say. Bullshit he would! So I called the cops. They didn’t do anything about it either. I told her I’d kill him myself if she didn’t put a stop to it. She told me to pack my bags and get out, and so I did.” She sat back with a smug grin. “That’s what she did to me. So don’t think you’re the only one here with a goddamn chip on your shoulder.”
By this point the tears were already staining my shirt. I got up and went back outside and sat in Aunt Agnes’ rocking chair again. The kids were still downstairs fishing. Beanie still sat underneath the chair. I wiped my tears and sniffed hard, almost choking on phlegm. “Did you know about all this, Beanie?” My whole body trembled.
Paige opened the door and lit a cigarette that looked a mile long. Exhaling a cloud of smoke, she said, “Hi Landis. How are you today?”
She was quiet for a moment, smoking and lightly touching the hanging wind chimes. “I saw you watching us,” she said with a soft smile.
“I know you and my mother were very close, but I also knew this was something you needed to hear.”
“I wish I never heard it.”
“Don’t say that. She loved you, you know. You needed to hear it, but what happened in the past should stay in the past. All that should matter to you is your relationship with her.”
I sniffed. “Do you think she was a bad person?”
“A bad person?” Paige asked.
“Like Elisha said. She said Aunt Agnes was a wicked woman.”
“It’s not as black and white as that, dear. After my dad died, Mom went through a very rough time. Things got even worse when she remarried, God bless her. My step-father was a horrible influence on her. He drank alcohol constantly, allegedly molested my half-sister, threatened Mom verbally, maybe even physically. I used to pour their whiskey down the drain at night when they were asleep.”
“Really?” I asked.
“All the time. They never found out who was doing it.”
I wiped my face. “She was always so nice to me, so sweet. I just don’t get it.”
“People change, sweetie. Humans are environmental creatures. We feed on our environment and let it control us. When my mom had an abusive husband, she became abusive herself. When she started drinking, it only got worse. At some point after my dad passed, and after my step-father left with his two kids, and after us five all left the house, Mom found her saving grace: religion. Whether there’s a God up there or not doesn’t matter. What matters is she gave you what she could never give us, and if I were you, I wouldn’t take that for granted. Cherish it with your life.”
I didn’t say anything, but I knew she was right.
“I don’t believe people are inherently wicked,” Paige continued, “we’re not created that way. We turn that way when the circumstances allow it. It’s like when you’re making a good soup. Put too much of any one ingredient and it’s going to taste bad. Too much of anything can be a bad thing. Such is life.”
“But how can I remember her how she was, knowing all the bad things she did?”
“Forgiveness. I can sense that you’re a strong person. Forgive her for the bad things she did. And even more-so for the bad things she allowed others to do.”
“Do you forgive her for what she did?”
“I’m trying. It’s going to take a while for all of us I think, but you’ll see it’s possible with time.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Paige.”
“You’re welcome, sweetie.”
“Uh, I heard what you said about wanting to get to know us kids better. I want to get to know you too.”
I reached out my hand and we shook on it. She finished her cigarette and squeezed my shoulder before going inside. I thought about Aunt Agnes and stroked Beanie for a long time after that. If there was a God, I hoped he was as good at forgiving as he says he is.
I got a fishing pole from the shed and went downstairs with the other kids until it was time to go home.