* Artwork: “Mirror” by Ann Marie Sekeres
“Are you staying here tonight?” Aunt Mary asks me as she takes my hand and pulls me into our pyramid of solace, solace from the conversation that is circulating around the room and gravitating towards the technically-oriented engineers at the other end of the long table and of the family spectrum.
I lean, too, into our pyramid and smile. “No, we’re staying at a hotel. Because of the cats.”
Aunt Mary smiles back with affirmation and recognition, love-tapping my hand in dismissal and leaning out of our pyramid. I face the conversation concentrated at the other end of the table, but Mary’s voice pulls me back in.
“How far away is it, where you’re sleeping?”
I lean back in to Aunt Mary. “I think it’s like fifteen minutes maybe? Not far.” I smile and lean out again.
Resting my elbows on the dining room table, I can feel the grooves of the lace tablecloth pressing an imprint into my skin. I should be participating in the conversation, but every time I try to shift my eyes and attention towards the family, my focus keeps rolling, rolling past that and onto the watercolor painting of a raven that hangs above the fireplace across the open room, onto the assortment of framed photos that document the growing-up of me and my cousins and which overfill the shelf, onto the bare oak tree outside of the wide bay–windows.
Aunt Mary reaches for the table-space in front of me. “Do you want a napkin?” Classic Mary, always offering all of us napkins and tissues, even when the situation doesn’t call for it.
“I’m okay, thank you though!” Sent with a sweet-grand-niece smile.
I turn towards the group again and intercept Gramma giving me a you-are-such-a-sweetheart smile. And an I’m-so-proud-to-be-your-Gramma hand-squeeze-plus-wink.
Mary leans into our little pyramid space again. “Are you sleeping here tonight?” She must be tired, must be trying to signal that she wants us to leave and go to bed so that she can go to bed.
I hesitate, strategizing how to best answer this question: should I answer exactly the same, for the sake of directness and maximum impact — maybe then the information will hold; or should I avoid repeating my answer word-for-word in case that triggers her delayed memory to recall, letting her — likely much to her embarrassment — realize she has just re-asked the same question for the second time? Again, that is if she isn’t intentionally repeating herself in order to signal that it’s time for us to leave.
But in that moment of my hesitation, Aunt Mary recovers herself. “Oh wait — you’re going back to your house, what am I saying,” she says with a half-embarrassed smile. “How far is the drive from here, again?”
“Well,” shorter hesitation – I should just put the truth into terms that are as close to what she said as possible. “Our hotel is about, oh, fifteen minutes away.”
Confusion. “Hotel? You don’t live around here anymore?”
I should try to brush this off. Maybe use a light, dismissive voice. It’s not a big deal, where we live is a minor detail, unimportant, not definitive, I forget too sometimes.
“Nope,” comforting smile. “We live in California!” Light, sweet half-chuckle.
What?! Her face tells me that this is news. “California.” Surprise softens to confusion, discernment. “How long have you lived there?”
Oh boy. Dad wasn’t kidding. I mean I didn’t doubt him, but it’s different when it’s in front of you. Scarier? Sadder? Certainly not funny now. Not ‘classic Mary, ahaha,’ now. Definitely not Mary-of-the-seventies, Mary-the-first-female-technical-manager-of-IBM, Mary-sharp-as-a-tack.
“Umm.” Pause. This is a good question, requires me to think, makes sense why you wouldn’t know either. “Well, I’ve –” gesture towards Dad, nephew Tom: “Well, he moved out there about…” (scrunch up face in contemplation over this complicated answer to a valid question) “…twenty-three years ago? And I’ve lived there my whole life!” Smile and raise eyebrows. Nod head. Impressive answer, right? Now let’s move on.
But her confusion, this time about her confusion, stands firm. “Oh. I didn’t know. Why didn’t I know that?” Her meta-confusion is painful to see.
It’s-really-no-big-deal face. “Oh, don’t worry about it!” Sweet-grand-niece smile. Look at my sweetness and forget about that please.
Her confusion and embarrassment relax into how-silly-of-me dismissal. “I can’t believe I didn’t know that,” she concludes. We share a mutual shrug and a mutual smile. We move past it.
“It’s so lovely to have you here,” she says to me with a loving hand-squeeze.
Yes! “It’s so lovely to be here!” And it is especially lovely that you recognize that our being here is a rare (annual or semi-annual) treat.
“So you’re staying in a hotel,” she says with a nod.
Yes! Good memory.
“How far away is it?”
Okay well I’ll take it. And I’ll do you the service of answering in a slightly new way. Because this is a slightly new question. Fair question. Warranted. “Ummm, maybe twenty minutes?”
She smiles and leans back. But there’s something in her smile — does she recognize I’ve nuanced my answer?
And was that cruel, manipulative? To alter the truth like that? Does it do more help or harm? Help by pretending her thoughts aren’t a loop unknotted. Or hurt by turning a clean loop into an irregular non-shape?
Aunt Mary takes my hand and gives it a kiss, then love-taps it in dismissal and smiles fondly. “I’m going to go get some more tissues; do you need some tissues?” I don’t need some tissues.
“I’m good, thank you,” I kindly reply.
As Mary gets up to venture into the kitchen, I tune into the other family conversations. Talk, of Christmas-Dinner plans and recent travel adventures and the cold Boston air, continues its circulation around the table, but slowly a new talk intermingles; a side-talk, but I intercept it:
“Worse or better?” I hear my dad ask his sister, quietly.
“About the same,” Margaret answers, eyes lingering over the empty doorframe.
“Have you given any more thought to Shady Oaks?”
Aunt Margaret sighs, “I haven’t changed my mind. I still think she’s best off here with us.”
“You–” My dad composes himself, “What she needs is professional care. It’s too much for you to take care of her–and of Mom–by yourself.”
“We’ve gotten along just fine for years now. I know what I’m doing–”
“How do you know what you’re doing? She needs dedicated–”
“Tom. I know what I’m doing, I’m giving her more dedicated care than she’d get at any senior home. Tell me, how is a senior home a better environment for Mary to live in than here, where she lives with her family, her twin sister? And what would Mom do? Mom doesn’t want to part with Mary either. They’re fine, they’re both perfectly fine here, happy here, better than they’d be anywhere else.”
Now it’s my dad’s turn to sigh. “Margaret, this is a lot on you, and–”
“I’m fine.” They stare at each other in silence, like two kid siblings in a childish fight. Margaret smiles softly but her eyes are sad. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
My dad is silent for a beat. “Okay, we don’t have to talk about this now.” He subtly lingers on now.
The empty doorframe fills again as Mary returns, and the dominant conversation topic returns to The Cold Boston Air. Mary addresses the whole table: “It’s so lovely seeing all your smiling faces here!”
Mary smiles at each in turn and counts up the smiling faces. Counts in her head… “Marg, where’s Richard?”
This is uncomfortable for me, and I imagine more sad than uncomfortable for my Dad and his siblings. Most sad for Gramma. But I feel unentitled to that sadness; he wasn’t my Dad, my husband. I didn’t grow up with him, he didn’t raise me, I had been six years old and didn’t completely understand what death was when he became so intimate with it fourteen years ago. I didn’t cry then, not even for my Dad. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t really live it then, feel it then. What entitles me to feel it now? A silly logic, but sensical somehow, and so in discomfort I sit in my place. Silently paying my respects to my deceased grandfather, fourteen years later.
But Gramma is strong and intelligent. She co-raised three children, two of them boys, one of them my father. She studied Chemistry in college and taught watercolor painting for years. With balanced softness and firmness, emotion and strength, Gramma knows how to remind her twin sister that “Richard is dead, Mar. Fourteen years.”
“I’m sorry, I–” Mary excuses her mistake. Visible distress. Maybe distress over rediscovering that her brother-in-law has died, but it seems more so that the distress is over discovering that her reality is off. Disorientation. Confusion, embarrassment. It’s a lot.
Mary looks down at the napkin in her hand and starts to work at reinforcing the crease of its fold.
Nobody sp— “Do you want a napkin?” She offers me.
“Mar! She doesn’t want a napkin! She’s fine, mind your own plate, you’re fussing.” Gramma shares a look with me, “Sisters, right! Hehehe.”
And with that harmless crack and that joyful laugh, the tension releases and the table releases a collective sigh, a sigh through teeth of returning smiles. Our matriarch has spoken, and we may be light again.
Aunt Mary touches my hand softly and leans into our pyramid.
She asks me, “Where are you sleeping tonight?”