She never told me where she would go on the nights that she would leave home in my father’s absence; I didn’t have the insight then to ask her. Prior to leaving, she’d tuck me into bed. Pulling my forehead to hers, she’d remind me of who I was.
“You’re as bright as the sun, the darkness is afraid of you and you don’t ever have to be afraid of it. You have the heart of a lion; no matter what happens, nothing can break you if you don’t let it.” Lifting my face to align my gaze with hers, she would complete her affirmation with: “You’re my daughter. I love you with my whole heart and I always will, no matter what.”
She would kiss me on the forehead and ask me to lay down. Eyes wide open, I’d remain still in the disarmed darkness until the sound of her car driving off faded.
The memory from my childhood was dispelled by the sound of the doorbell. Seven o’clock arrived sooner than I’d hoped. I took a deep breath and inclined my healing heart to brave what Friend had assured me would be an opportunity for me and the rest of the family.
“I’ll get it.” I said to my aunt who stood beside me in the kitchen. I folded the towel in hand and returned it to its place before starting out toward the front door. I came to it and pulled it violently open against the resistance of doubt. Mother stood across the threshold with a vibrant summer bouquet and an eager smile. I examined her quietly for moment, confounded by her apparent renewable sense of…hope. She thrust the bouquet towards me.
“I don’t know if you ever developed a taste for flowers. I thought your aunt might like them.” She threw her gaze momentarily past me into the hall behind me. “Is she around?”
“Yeah. She’s finishing up in the kitchen.”
She beamed quietly.
“You can come in.”
She took two steps in, then stopped to wait for me. I closed the door then overtook her in order to lead her to the kitchen. My aunt intercepted us before we could make the turn in.
“Sister!” My mother exclaimed joyfully.
“Hey Sister,” My aunt remained unmoved as she received my mother’s embrace. Then releasing her promptly, she said, “should we go into the dinning room?”
My mother looked to me for confirmation. “Are you ready?”
“That’s fine,” I retorted, mirroring my aunt’s tone. As I looked at my aunt, awaiting her lead into the dinning room, I observed something I hadn’t the opportunity to notice previously. Disappointment wrestled with the warmth in her eyes as she regarded my mother.
“Wow, I really like what you’ve done with the place Sister!”
My aunt turned to lead us to the dining room. “Thanks,” she said, her face turned away from my mother’s.
“What an opportunity to grow up here, huh?” She reached out to touch my arm as she asked.
My flight response, suggested I that dash out of reach. I didn’t. I continued steadily beside her toward the dining room. My arm did, however, stiffened as her fingers made contact. “…Yeah.”
I reminiscently studied the grandeur of the hall through which we walked and considered other parts of the house per my memory. While it had been “impressive” to call the collective of images my house, I had spent my residency there longing for ‘home’, a place I was certain could only be christened as such by my mother’s presence. I looked at her. She smiled. I looked away.
“Alright. Here we are.” My aunt stepped into the dinning room, positioning herself behind a chair at one end of the table. “You could sit anywhere you’d like,” she said to my mother.
My mother turned to me. “Where are you sitting?”
I indicated the chairs closest to the one that my aunt had selected. “It makes the most sense for us to sit in these three.”
“Okay.” Then suddenly aware of something, “Is the rest of the family not joining us?”
“No. Not this evening.” My aunt responded gravely.
“Why is that? Didn’t you tell them that I was coming?”
“They’d made other plans before you decided to come.”
My mother’s smile dissolved and her gaze was now fiercely locked with my aunt’s. “Did you help them make those plans because I was coming?”
My aunt dismissively diverted her her gaze from my mother to me. “Excuse me.” She started toward the kitchen.
My mother drew in a deep breath. “Do you need a hand?” she asked my aunt.
My aunt turned back to look at her. “I’m fine. Thanks,” she responded frankly, before turning to leave.
I quietly pulled out my chair and took a seat while my mother strolled through the dining room admiring various items on the shelves and walls. She didn’t address me for several moments, uttering a number of ‘wows’ in response to her findings throughout the room.
“She always had great taste in stuff….” My mother thought aloud. The end of her exploration was punctuated by a sigh. She joined me at the table. “Thank you for inviting me to dinner here…I’m sure it took some work to convince your aunt.”
Neither of us spoke; she seemed to relish the opportunity to simply be in my presence. Meanwhile, I foraged through my mind for some means by which to liberate myself from her unyielding gaze. “Would you like some water?” I quickly took up the water pitcher and began to fill the three drinking glasses. Her eyes, thankfully, fell from my face to my hands.
“So, how are things?” She asked.
“….Things are fine.” I had finished filling each glass and was once more vulnerable to her attentive eyes. I glanced toward the kitchen in hopes of seeing my aunt. There was no sign of her.
“How is work?” My mother asked.
“Yeah…it is.” I felt myself start to stiffen with the uncertainty of how to proceed in conversation.
“Your aunt mentioned you were up for another promotion?”
“Yeah. I got the position.”
“That’s great! Congratulations!”
“Thanks.” Her burst of enthusiasm disarmed the awkward tension restricting my responses.
“You were always so bright! Do you enjoy what you do?”
Silent consideration of my work evoked a smile. “…I do.”
“That makes me so happy.”
No longer seeking to evade it, I searched her gaze. I didn’t find what I supposed I might — self-seeking masked by adulation — instead I found pure admiration.
“Thank you,” I responded before reaching for my glass.
“Now, tell me about the young man I saw you with at the cafe.”
I frantically returned the glass to its place, nearly spilling its contents. “…There’s nothing to tell.”
“Oh really? You two seemed to–”
“I don’t know him.”
She lifted her palms in surrender. “Okay.” She then brought her glass to her lips, shrewdly concealing a broadening smile, the lingering effects of which I observed in her eyes. After forcibly taking a drink she returned the glass to its place, then with an appearance of the utmost sincerity, “you’ll tell me about him when you’re ready.”
“There’s nothing to tell!” I erupted insistently.
My aunt reemerged with fierce preparedness. “What’s going on in here?” She looked to me for authorization to act on my behalf.
I diverted my attention from my aunt to my mother who laughed wholeheartedly at my evident bashfulness to discuss my interaction with Suitor. I shook my head in disbelief, inadvertently shaking off the annoyance that had began to creep in. Her infectious laughter evoked a smile from within me. I turned back to my aunt. “We’re fine.”
“Help me bring the food to the table,” my aunt instructed.
My mother composed herself enough to arise from her seat. “I’ll help as well.”
“We’ve got it,” my aunt said. She turned to me. Placing a hand on my shoulder, she directed me into the kitchen ahead of her. “Are you okay?” She asked once we were out of earshot.
She sighed. “Remember what we talked about. The minute you start feeling uncomfortable about this, we can ask her to leave.”
“I’m fine. I promise.”
My mother was on her feet when we came back into the dining room. The spirit of wonder-filled exploration that had previously inspired her was corrupted by unease. Seemingly distracted, it took her a moment to notice our entry. She turned from an article of wall ornamentation toward the table. She saw my aunt first. “Oh! Are we ready?”
“I like that piece on the wall.” She made her way back to the table. “It looks like part of the set that mom had.”
Her hands firmly gripping the back of the chair, my mother stopped short of sitting down. She took a harried breath, then slowly descended into her seat. “Everything looks good Sister.”
“Thanks.” My aunt turned her gaze downward to pick up her dinner plate. “Help yourselves.” She began to add select items to her plate.
“Alright, what is it?” My mother asked.
“What’s what?” My aunt retorted.
“Don’t start anything with me Sister. Mary wanted to invite you to dinner and you made it.”
“I did make it.” She stared at my aunt. “Is that what bothers you?”
My aunt said nothing. She continued to load her plate with food, compiling a much larger portion than she would ever consume.
“You’d prefer it if I called to cancel, wouldn’t you?”
My aunt’s dinner plate could hold no more food. She released it with open agitation unto the place mat in front of her. “I told you not to start anything with me Sister!”
“You’d prefer it if I was…” she hesitated, then “…someplace else messed up so that you could step in and be the hero.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?! You should be grateful that–”
I sat mutely while a ticker displaying images of familial conflict from my childhood circled through the mind. As when I was a child, it seemed that I could only be a helpless spectator to the increasingly violent scene unfolding before me, but lifting my head, I beheld my reflection in a mirror on the wall. I was no longer a child.
The tabletop echoed my resolute indignation as my hands crash landed into it. “Enough!” I had a voice. “We didn’t come here to argue, we came to have dinner….and maybe meaningful conversation. If we can’t have a conversation, I suggest we all eat in silence.”
I had their attention.
“I haven’t slept, thinking about this…occasion… I’m exhausted and starving, so please, can we just eat?”