“Mama!” Helen’s voice came bounding around the side of the house, down the grassy slope toward the family garden. “Mama!” She called again before appearing herself around the corner. She stopped short of entering the garden and squinted at her grandmother with increasing agitation. “What are you doing out here?”
Mama, who was known to her peers as Vera, lifted her face and greeted Helen with a gracious smile. Her mischievous eyes glinted in the shade of her worn, straw hat. “Hi Helen, you’re back early.”
“I am,” Helen remarked curtly. “What are you doing out here?”
Vera sighed with contentment, then gradually lifted herself from her prayerful posture on the ground.
Helen stepped urgently forward to help her, but was prevented from entering the garden.
Vera held out a hand in protest. “I’ve got it, thank you. Besides, I don’t need you bringing all that anxiety into the garden.” Chuckling, she added, “The cucumbers don’t do too well with it.”
Helen sighed impatiently. “I wouldn’t be anxious if you stayed inside and rested like you were supposed to.”
“Rest, rest, rest. I’ve had about all the rest that I can take. If I rest any more, I might as well be dead.”
The latter part of her grandmother’s remarks pierced Helen’s heart. She silently glared at her.
Vera picked up her basket along with the tools of her disobedience and met Helen where she stood on the grass. She stopped in front of her and quietly observed her.
Helen’s glare persisted.
Vera dared to give her a kiss on the cheek. “I’m sorry.” She then started off toward the front of the house.
Helen followed at a distance. When she entered the house, Vera stood at the kitchen sink washing the eggplants she’d picked from the garden, while softly singing an old hymn:
Soon and very soon
We are going to see the king
Soon and very soon
We are going to see the king
Soon and very soon
We are going to see the king
She stopped singing for a moment and said, “I really do feel fine Helen.”
“Feeling fine for a moment and being well are not the same thing.”
Vera continued to sing:
Hallelujah, Hallelujah we are going to see the king
No more dying there…
Helen did her best to button up her agitation and muster gentleness before saying another word. “You have to take this seriously–”
“Honey, doctors don’t know everything. Gardening and a little sun never hurt anybody.”
“Mama!” She erupted.
“Alright! No need to get vexed about it. All I did was go out there to pick some eggplant.”
“What for? It’s not like you needed to cook anything. I told you I was coming home early and bringing lunch. And if you really needed it for some other reason, you could have sent the person that I PAY to help you around the house to get it!” As an afterthought, Helen asked, “Where is she anyway?”
Vera left the eggplant to dry off by the sink and joined Helen at the kitchen table.
“What’s for lunch?”
Helen lifted one final container from a grocery bag and set it on the table. “Did you hear me? Where is the housekeeper?”
Vera gracefully sat in the chair nearest Helen and began intently surveying the feast before her. “You and I both know she’s a babysitter and not a housekeeper. Anyway, she was having a family emergency, so I told her she was free to leave.”
“What?! When was this? And why didn’t she call my office to talk with me first?”
Reaching up gently from her seat, Vera placed a firm hand on Helen’s arm. “Hey, that’s enough now. Sit down and let’s enjoy our lunch.” She took in a deep breath of the aromas filling the air above the table. “Everything looks and smells so good. Well done.”
Helen sighed, momentarily conceding the argument with her grandmother. She sat abruptly. “Neither you or the housekeeper are off the hook for today.”
Helen’s unforgiving gaze lingered on her grandmother.
Meanwhile, Vera had started eating. She hummed and nodded in approval as she savored a bite of roast lamb.
Helen shook her head, sighed, then responded. “I thought you might enjoy that. I asked the counter manager how they prepared it. It sounded pretty close to Daddy’s recipe.”
“It is pretty close to Daddy’s isn’t it? Not the same, but close.” She took another bite and chewed on a memory of her late husband. “My God that man could cook!” She smiled broadly as she sat comfortably cradled in the warmth of past and present.
Helen observed her grandmother quietly, still amazed at the old woman’s uncanny ability to find wonder amid the frailty of life.
“We had good times cooking together too.” She beamed with nostalgia.
“You know he planted the garden. He had this great dream that we would all enjoy nurturing it together and that we would all–”
The familiar words of her grandfather’s dream jumped readily out of Helen’s heart.“–enjoy feasting on the fruits of our labor together.” As she spoke, the image of her grandfather materialized before her and filled the empty chair across the table. “Daddy was such a romantic,” Helen said, smiling at the projected image before her.
“He was, wasn’t he?” Vera reached beside her to rest her hand on Helen’s arm. “I miss him.”
Helen breathed in deeply as her grandfather’s image vanished. “Me too.”
Vera gently brushed her fingers across Helen’s arm. “In moments like this, I always think, ‘it would be so nice if your sister was here.”
Helen recoiled. “I’m pretty sure she doesn’t share your sentiment, Mama.”
“You don’t know that. When was the last time you talked with her?”
Her head cocked to one side, Helen looked at her grandmother incredulously. “Is that a sincere question?”
“I don’t have to talk with her to know that. If she wanted to be here, she would have been here. It’s not like she hasn’t had the opportunity.”
“Maybe it wasn’t about having an opportunity but an invitation.” Vera retracted her arm and resumed eating.
Helen retired her fork unto her plate with finality. “…Okay? You have to help me understand that one because I really don’t.”
Vera dabbed her lips with her napkin before looking up to respond to Helen. “What I’m saying is–”
“–You’re saying that Sarah needed an invitation to her own home, which I find that extremely difficult to believe. And you’re implying that I’m somehow at fault for withholding an invitation from her.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have said it like that, but yes.”
Vera’s words pierced through an already tender spot in Helen’s heart. “Why do you always defend her?”
“Honey, I’m not defending her. I’m just–”
“Yes you are, Mama. You always do.” Helen’s countenance slipped further in dejection. “You always have.”
Vera heard, with resounding clarity, every word that Helen spoke and felt with searing sharpness the pain that underpinned each one. As she opened her mouth to speak, she was interrupted by an unexpected knock at the door.
The women exchanged curious glances in the silence that followed the initial knock.
Helen glanced at her watch, then returned her attention to her grandmother. “I’m not expecting anyone. Are you?”
“No,” Vera responded, shortly after which she was struck with an inkling. Suddenly energized, she arose from the table and started hastily toward the front door. “What time did you read?”
There was another round of knocking.
“I’m coming!” Vera hollered as she neared the door.
“Mama, I thought you weren’t expecting anyone?” Helen pursued her grandmother. “I hope you didn’t invite any guests over here. You’re in no position to be entertaining!”
“Stop fussing will you?”
Vera interrupted a final round of knocking when she pulled the door open.
Sarah, a wide-eyes, young woman, with a strong resemblance to Helen stood at the door.
Helen was stunned. She stared at Sarah, unable to pin down one single emotional response to her presence. Her eyes went from Sarah’s own and made their way down until they landed on a small suitcase on the ground next to Sarah.
Vera on the other hand, wore a warm smile that broadened with her bubbling excitement until she erupted into a hearty, “Hi Honey!” Vera stepped excitedly unto the porch to embrace Sarah.
“Hi Mama,” Sarah responded, before kissing her grandmother on the cheek.
“You’re so early,” Vera continued, “I thought you were coming in time for dinner? Helen and I haven’t even gotten things ready for you yet.” She released Sarah from her closed embrace and held her hands in the air so that she could examine her. “Look at you?”
Sarah maintained an endearing smile, although she was slightly mortified by her grandmother’s gesture of celebration.
The stress incited by her sister’s unexpected appearance, heaped upon the stresses accumulated over the course of Helen’s day seemed much too much for her to bear. The pounding of her heart, which had grown deafeningly loud, threatened to dislodge her ear drums and crack her chest cavity. Furthermore, one of her eyes had begun twitching. “Well, this is great.”
“Looks like you didn’t need an invitation from me.”
Vera stood even closer to Sarah. She put an arm about her waist and gave her a bit of a squeeze along with a reassuring smile.
Sarah didn’t notice her grandmother’s smile at all. Her eyes were locked with her sister’s. “What?” She asked.
“Now that you’re here, I don’t think there’s any need for me to stay. I’m gonna head back to work.”
“You’re going back to work? I thought–” Sarah started.
Helen had marched off into the kitchen to retrieve her work bag and keys from the counter where she’d left them. She returned to find Sarah and her grandmother inside the foyer, and the front door shut.
Sarah made another attempt to address her sister. “Helen, I passed by your office on my way here, your secretary said–”
Helen interrupted. “Keep an eye on your grandmother will you? I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“She’s supposed to be resting,” Helen said, speaking to Sarah while eyeing her grandmother. To Sarah, she added, “You can spare a few hours to be with your grandmother right?”
“Helen–” Vera started.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sarah asked.
Helen sighed and turned away. She opened the door swiftly and slammed it shut behind her.
Her eyes glued to the door, Sarah asked rhetorically, “what was that about?”
Vera placed her hand firmly on Sarah’s shoulder. “Let’s give her some space to cool off.”
“Cool off from what? I just got here, she can’t possibly be angry with me.”
“Well, not all anger is new, Dear,” Vera responded, her face tilting slowly downward as she spoke.
“I’ll be right back,” Sarah announced. She rushed out the door, unintendedly slamming it behind her. She hurried around the front of the house toward the garage, but hadn’t the chance to make it to her intended destination, because Helen’s car came purring down the driveway. Moved with rash determination, Sarah turned from her course and entered the driveway into the path of Helen’s car.
Panic-stricken by the sudden appearance of her sister in the path of her car, Helen drove her foot unto the brake pedal, bringing the car to a jolting stop. Helen’s eyes were filled with lingering terror as she looked at her sister through the windshield.
Sarah peered back sternly.
Helen was certain that her heart would explode and this was not something that she could afford. She tried desperately to steady her breath, all the while, her hands tightly gripped the steering wheel and her feet kept the brake pedal pinned against the floor of the car; she could move nothing but her breath.
Sarah came around to the front passenger seat and entered the car. “What was all that about Helen?”
Still in a state of shock, Helen responded quietly. “Why would you do that?”
Sarah proceeded as though Helen had not spoken at all. “I just got here. Can we at least try to be cordial before getting into all the drama?”
“Are you insane?!” Helen erupted. “Why would you jump out in front of me like that? I could have ran you over!”
“And why is that such a problem? Run me over with your car or your attitude, either way I’m left knocked over, aren’t I?”
Hands still on the wheel, foot on the brakes, and eyes fixed forward, Helen responded. “Could you please get out?”
Sarah reckoned with the overwhelming fact that she was not welcomed in Helen’s company, but decided she would stay. “No.”
Turning furiously toward Sarah, Helen shouted, “GET OUT!”
“I haven’t seen you in five years and that’s the best you can say to me?”
“Who’s fault is that Sarah?! Who’s fault is it that I haven’t seen you in five years?!”
“It’s mine, okay! It’s my fault!”
“You’re absolutely right it is, so don’t bring up any of that nonsense about me not seeing you, as though you didn’t have the deciding choice in the matter.” Helen realized that Sarah was not going anywhere. “You don’t have to get out. I will.”
Not even a moment after Helen’s door slammed shut, Sarah had climbed out of the car as well and pursued her.
“It’s not like you made any big efforts to reach out to me, Helen.”
Helen stopped abruptly, then turned around. “Sarah, your grandfather, the only father that you had left, passed away…you showed your face for five minutes at his funeral and left. Your grandmother, the only mother that you have is sick and…” There was no more saving face. Helen wept bitterly through her words. “You haven’t come back to look at her or check on her or to even put her mind at ease seeing that you’re okay.”
“I know,” Sarah responded.
“…Well that’s great. Since you’ve come to such awareness, why don’t you take yourself inside, sit with your mother and make up for lost times.” Helen turned to walk away once again.
Sarah could not let her. “Helen, I’m sorry, I didn’t know how to handle it all. Staying away seemed like a good thing at the time but–”
“I didn’t know how to handle it all either! I lost mom and dad too you know…And I lost Daddy…and…” The words to articulate Helen’s thoughts amassed with great density in her chest; rather than rolling forth, they simply sat there. “…and…” with great force, she was able to push the words out. “…everyday I see her,” She pointed to the house where their grandmother observed them from a window, “might be the last day because she’s dying and I can’t handle that either. My business is failing and everyday it feels like I’m just falling apart, like my heart’s gonna give up…so excuse me, but I don’t have the bandwidth or the strength to be bothered with your moment of great revelation, self-pity, guilt, or whatever this is. Just go. Go, live your carefree life far away from here.”
Helen turned away from Sarah. She walked to the end of the driveway, turned the corner when she got to the road and continued walking till she vanished from Sarah’s sight.
Sarah swept some tears off her cheeks and took a deep breath. She contemplated following Helen. After all, As much as she thought it good to enter the house and ‘make up for lost times’ with her grandmother, she doubted that she had the courage to do so alone. She took another deep breath and decided to go inside.
Vera met her at the door.
“Were you watching all that?”
“Listening too.” She brushed her fingers gently across Sarah’s cheek.
“…I know it doesn’t even come close to making things right…but, I’m sorry I haven’t been here.”
“You’re right. Sorry never did change the past, but you are here now and that might just make a difference in the future.” She kissed her on the cheek, reached for her with one hand, and with the other, took up her suitcase.
Sarah quickly recovered the suitcase from her. “I’ve got it Mama. Thank you.”
“How was your trip here? Are you hungry? Helen picked up some food from the supermarket, we could heat it up.”
“I’m not really hungry, thanks.”
“Well in that case, get some rest because we have quite a day ahead of us.”
“I don’t think I could rest right now either, Mama.”
Vera stopped suddenly and looked directly at Sarah. “Helen will be back, you know,” she said with unwavering assurance.
Sarah instantly released some of the physical tension she was holding.
“It may take a little while, but she’ll come home.”
Vera started walking again until arrested by Sarah’s voice.
“How can you be so sure?”
“You two are my children and I know you very well.” She turned her face toward her bedroom and said, “Let’s get some rest, maybe Helen will be proud of us when she comes back. God knows that’s all I ever hear from her these days.”
A slight smile snuck up on Sarah. She embraced it as she watched her grandmother gracefully sweep across the floor. In her prime, to encounter Vera in the garden was to encounter ‘the farmer’, a sturdy force of nature with passionate hands and mysterious wisdom. In the classroom, she was a compassionate leader, but in every other context, she was an enigmatic presence, undeniably crowned with captivating beauty, fierce passion, astounding insight, and regal grace. Sarah rejoiced in her heart over all these things, until her joy slowly slipped away with the knowledge that her dear Mama would soon slip from this life.
For several moments after Vera disappeared into her bedroom, Sarah stood at the center of the family room, slowly scanning every nook of the space in mournful contemplation of the bounty–whether through moments of joy or sorrow–that fear and shame had stolen from her. After a while, she resigned to sitting on the sofa. Sitting later gave way to reclining and reclining to slumber.
Several hours later, Sarah arose to an inviting aroma emerging from the kitchen. She slowly lifted herself from the sofa and drifted sluggishly into the kitchen. When she entered, Helen was at the island drying its surface.
“Hey,” Sarah said softly.
“Hi,” Helen responded frankly. “Dinner’s almost ready.”
Sarah looked out through the window behind Helen. A thin veil of darkness was beginning to settle over everything. “I can’t believe I slept that long.”
“You must have been tired.” She turned to pick up a small tray from the countertop behind her and set it on the island in front of Sarah. “Can you take this to Mama?”
“What is it?” Sarah asked, looking down at the two small tablets next to the glass of water on the tray.
“They’re for pain.”
Sarah placed her hands on the handles of the tray, then immediately retracted them and looked up at Helen. “Can we talk?”
“Not now,” Helen responded.
“Fine.” She picked up the tray and started obediently toward her grandmother’s room. Although she didn’t understand the complexities of all her sister had become, she was confident that Helen remained one who was true to her word; ‘Not now’ meant that there was hope for later.
As Sarah neared her grandmother’s room, the jubilant sounds of an ongoing television game show floated out to meet her. Vera beamed softly as she sat in bed with her eyes glued to the screen. Sarah chortled as she came to the foot of the bed.
“You’re still obsessed with Family Feud?”
“You can blame your grandfather for that.” She laughed heartily at a joke made by the host. “Steve is something else!”
Sarah lifted the glass with one hand, then extended the tray with the tablets toward her grandmother. “Here.”
“I feel fine, thank you.”
Sarah raised an eyebrow. “You do?”
“Do you hear this man? What kind of answer is that?!” Vera called out, now trembling with laughter.
Sarah glanced at the screen. She too found the man’s response amusing. Her eyes lingered on the show with delight until she remembered why she had been sent to her grandmother’s room. “Come on, Mama, please take them. If Helen sent it, that must mean to need it.”
“Since when did business expertise make your sister a medical expert.”
“You know she’ll come in here and make you take them.”
“I’m not convinced she can make me do anything, but she is welcome to come in and watch the show. A good laugh might be just the appetizer she needs before dinner.”
Unable to counter her grandmother’s argument, Sarah resolved to enjoy the show with her until dinner. She returned the glass of water to the tray, placed the tray on the trunk at the foot of the bed and climbed into bed next to her grandmother. As they sat shoulder to shoulder, Sarah’s heart was comforted by the warmth of her grandmother’s presence, the earthy, sweet fragrance of her skin, and the symphony of deep, round tones, that was her laughter. Her head slowly fell unto her grandmother’s shoulder. “I’m really glad I’m here.”
“I’m glad you’re here too, Honey.” Vera leaned over and kissed the crown of Sarah’s head.
“It sucks that Helen hates me now…”
Seeming to produce it out of thin air, Vera lifted the remote in the direction of the television and muted the sound.
Sarah’s head popped off of her grandmother’s shoulder as she came to attention.
“Sarah, Helen knows just as well as you do, that you’ve made a host of choices that had difficult consequences for the whole family–”
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
“The fact is that every time you left, when you could have stayed at home, or you stayed away when we really needed you to come home was heartbreaking.”
Although Vera had not been vocal about it prior, Sarah understood in that moment that her grandmother had been just as hurt by her absence as Helen…if not more. The only difference between Helen and her grandmother was that where her grandmother had found the grace to forgive her, Helen had not.
“Your sister doesn’t hate you, she’s just hurt.”
“Do you think she’ll ever forgive me?”
“Absolutely. I think she will. And I think that you will also forgive yourself. I think that you’ll both get through this.”
“How are you always so sure?”
“Do you really think I lived to be this old by a total lack of conviction?”
Sarah marveled at her grandmother. “You’re amazing.”
“You know what else I’m sure of?”
“Your sister is on her way here to make me take those blasted pills. Hand them to me please.”
Sarah did as she was instructed.
It was just as Vera had said. Helen entered the room at the very moment Vera swallowed the last of her water. When she entered, Helen’s first order of duty was to locate the tray that she had send Sarah with.
Vera lifted the glass with a smile as if making a toast.
Sarah forced back a laughter.
“Dinner’s ready,” Helen said. When she had turned away from them, she too chuckled.
Although the family had a formal dining room that was fully furnished with a beautiful table and chairs, the kitchen was preferred. Vera and Sarah followed Helen from Vera’s bedroom and all three gathered around the dinner feast that Helen had prepared.
Sarah’s smile was softened by a profound sense of nostalgia as her gaze swept over the table. It was evident by the baked eggplant parmesan and grilled Salmon, that dinner was prepared with her in mind; those were her favorites! She lifted her gaze from the table in hopes of catching Helen’s, but she had dashed off into the kitchen. Sarah, turned instead to her grandmother. “I forgot how important food was around here.” Her eyes glistened as she spoke.
Vera took her place at the head of the table; it was a seat she had not occupied in five years. Sarah sat on her right hand and Helen returned with a pitcher of grapefruit juice, to sit on her left. Vera extended a hand to each of her granddaughters, after which all three lowered their heads.
“Lord God, thank you for all that you have given us in your son. Thank you for this beautiful meal, and thank you for each other. Amen.”
Helen and Sarah echoed Vera’s declaration of ‘Amen’ before lifting their heads and commencing with the meal.
“Thank you for dinner, Helen. Well done.” Vera touched Helen’s shoulder gently as she spoke.
“Thanks, Mama.” She hesitantly locked eyes with Sarah, who had been staring at her longingly. “How is it?”
“Great…Thank you. You baked the eggplant very well…And the Salmon, did you marinate it in a bit of ginger?”
“It’s really good.”
“I’m glad you liked it. I made enough for leftovers of everything. Feel free to take some with you when you leave…It should be good for a couple of days at least.”
While Sarah remained undoubtedly grateful, she was made a bit tense by the later part of Helen’s statement. “It should last a couple of days huh?”
“Yes,” Helen reaffirmed.
“Is that all the time I’m welcome to stay or is that all you expect of me?”
Helen continued eating.
Helen turned to her grandmother. “Mama, would you like me to pour you a drink?” She reached for the pitcher.
Vera shook her head disapprovingly.
“Helen, for God’s sake, I know you hear me talking to you.”
Helen turned sharply to Sarah. “Yes I do and I’m choosing not to answer you. Is that okay?”
“It’s rude, don’t you think?”
Head down, Helen muttered, “Don’t even let me begin to characterize some of your behavior.”
“What was that? Say it out so we can hear you.”
“Why is it that everyone has to bend their will to your every whim? Yet, getting any kind of semi-sacrificial support from you is just out of the question.”
“Come on Helen. You wouldn’t know how to receive support even if it plowed into you on the freeway.”
“Fantastic. Let’s leave the conversation there then. You have nothing to give and I’m incapable of receiving.”
“No! No, no, no, no!” Vera protested. Don’t you know the whole universe is listening as you speak these curses over yourselves?!”
Helen exhaled loudly. “Sorry, Mama, there’s no need to get upset.”
“Well, I am upset and you should be too. This is no way for sisters to talk with each other, much less about each other.”
Sarah took the opportunity to redirect the conversation. “I know that I don’t have the best track record of being helpful…or present, but I wanna change that. And as far as more time spent with the family, things are working out for me to be able to do that.”
“Great,” Helen remarked incredulously.
“Helen,” Vera warned.
Addressing Helen, Sarah continued. “You probably don’t know how to receive support because you haven’t gotten to practice in a long time.”
Helen remained silent, chewing as much on her food as on what Sarah had just said. After a while, she looked up and confessed, “That’s an interesting way of looking at it.”
Vera was content with the apparent ceasefire in their verbal war. She resumed eating. Sarah picked up her fork as well and the three ate in silence; their silence was underscored with quiet contemplation and the hope of understanding.
At the end of dinner, Vera stood and began to gather the plates.
Helen and Sarah protested in unison, “Mama!” They exchanged a glance and turned back to their grandmother.
“We’ve got it,” Sarah assured her.
“Okay. I’ll be looking to see you both in my room later for tea and more of Mr. Harvey. Don’t be late.”
“What kind of tea would you like?” Helen asked.
Vera pondered the question before answering with, “would it be too much if we had ginger tea having had ginger marinated Salmon?”
“There’s no such thing as too much ginger,” Sarah declared.
“We’ll bring it in an hour,” Helen added.
The young women watched solemnly as their grandmother exited the room. Although her body soon disappeared from sight, their eyes lingered in the direction she had gone until her invisible train disappeared as well.
“So,” Sarah began, “what would you like me to do?”
“What do you want to do?”
Sarah contemplated the question. Whilst she was doing so, she recalled their individual roles in cleaning up after dinner when they were girls. “You wanna stick to our old jobs?” She asked with a fond smile.
“Sure.” Helen returned Sarah’s smile, but it was evident that just as her heart was out of practice in receiving support, her face was out of practice with smiling.
Sarah went directly to the drawer next to the kitchen sink and pulled out an apron. She slipped it over her head and tied the strings that were hanging at the waist behind her. They worked together to quickly clear the table. Afterward, Helen stood back and waited while Sarah categorized the tableware so that it “made more sense” before she began washing.
“I can’t believe you still do that?” Helen chuckled as she observed her.
“I do. It makes–”
“–more sense’…I remember.”
Sarah’s smile softened, then slowly dissipated.
“What is it?” Helen could feel the weight of unspoken words in Sarah’s gaze.
“…Thanks for always making room for me to be myself…”
“…You were my baby sister. It was part of my job… especially when mom and dad died…”
Sarah gave Helen a half-hearted smile, then turned to face the sink. She turned the faucet on and allowed the hot water to run until the levels rose such that she could begin submerging the plates. While she waited, she stared pensively into the pressurized stream dispensing into the basin below.
Helen gathered some clean towels to dry the dishes and came to stand next to her sister. She said what she had held back a moment earlier. “…You know, making room for you to be yourself wasn’t just a job that I had, it was one that I also enjoyed…I think that ‘s part of why I got so mad at you at times…as we were getting older, I mean. I hate seeing you live beneath your potential…whether it’s in your relationships or other parts of your life.”
Sarah listened intently, to the point of quieting her breath so that it would not impede her hearing. Several moments after Helen’s voice ceased in it’s audible form, Sarah lingered amid the affirmation that echoed in the atmosphere.
At last, steeped in the welcomed effect of Helen’s words, Sarah spoke. “Can I hug you?”
Helen’s heart thundered wildly, provoked, not by the threat of frustration, but the threat of freedom. She flung her arms wide to make room for her sister. In so doing, she experienced the unexpected sense that she was also making room for herself. Within the space of each other’s arms, these sisters found themselves at home. They found themselves in the space that they each had longed for at various moments during their estrangement.
When they finally released each other, the women got on with cleaning the kitchen. Afterward, Helen prepared the tea which they ceremoniously carried to their grandmother’s room.
Vera sat upright in bed, cradled by several feather pillows and soft lamplight, which was frequently fractured by the festive show lights emanating from the television screen. She perked up as Helen and Sarah crossed the threshold into her room. “I see tea and more importantly I see smiles. Come on in.” Vera eagerly began to launch the pillows that filled the space around her onto a small sofa to the left of her bed.
While Sarah approached the bed extending a cup of tea to Vera, Helen moved quickly to intercept one of the pillows being launched off the bed.
She caught it mid-air and placed it on the sofa. “What are you doing?” She asked, shaking her head.
Vera giggled before turning to Sarah to receive the cup of tea.
Helen picked up the remaining extra pillows from the bed and stacked them all on the sofa. After doing so, she climbed into the bed and sat at her grandmother’s side. Sarah hopped unto the opposite side of her grandmother and cozied herself beneath the covers.
As Sarah extended her hand toward her own cup, Vera interrupted her.
“Oh, wait Honey! Before you get comfortable, I need you to do something for me.”
“What is it?”
Helen also leaned in with curiosity.
“Go into my closet and look in the corner behind the stacks of decorative boxes…”
Helen scrutinized her grandmother through squinted eyes, meanwhile Sarah listened with the eagerness of one being primed for a treasure hunt.
“…you’ll find two gift-wrapped packages, bring them out here please.”
Sarah hopped out of bed and made her way quickly to the closet.
Helen grinned amazedly, again shaking her head. “What are you up to?”
“You’re about to find out aren’t you?” Vera flashed Helen a mysterious smile, then slowly lifted her cup to her lips for a sip.
While they awaited Sarah’s return, a question from earlier in the day returned to Helen’s thoughts. “Why didn’t you tell me that Sarah was coming?”
“I meant to tell you. I was contemplating the right time to tell you, but it just worked out that I ran out of time. She was supposed to arrive around dinner rather than lunch.”
“I should have guessed last week when the grocery list had all the ingredients for her favorite dish. Except for the eggplant off course, which you had the heart to go crawling around that garden to get.”
There was a tinge of pain in Helen’s voice, the sound of which went off like the striking of a gong in Vera’s ear. She reached across the side of the bed where Sarah was going to sit and placed her cup on the nightstand. She then pivoted her body toward Helen, taking her by the hand. “I would have crawled through that garden for you too…I’m sorry for paying more attention to your sister than I did to you.” Vera caressed her cheek. “You always seemed so brave that I made the mistake of thinking that you didn’t need me as much.”
A tear fell slowly from Helen’s eye unto Vera’s thumb. “But I did.”
Vera’s heart ached. She had lost so many opportunities to demonstrate her love to Helen in the ways that were needed. Her heart ached with the thought that her time in the life that they knew was up and she could in no way make up for opportunities lost. She lifted herself slightly and kissed Helen’s forehead.
Just then, Sarah returned. “How did you get those gifts behind all those boxes, Mama?”
Vera released Helen’s face and they both looked at Sarah.
Sarah stood still as she tuned into the atmospheric shift that had occurred in the room. “Are you two okay?”
“We’re okay,” Helen assured her, sweeping traces of tears from her cheeks.
Sarah continued forward, came unto the bed, and placed the gifts unto Vera’s lap.
Vera lifted one of the packages, which was wrapped differently than the other, and handed it to Helen. “This is for you. Happy Birthday.”
“Mama, I know you know it isn’t my birthday.
Vera lifted the other gift and handed it to Sarah. “And this is for you. Happy Birthday.”
Helen and Sarah exchanged glances that were amused at first. They slowly became somber and then mournful as they realized the reason that their grandmother had given them early birthday gifts.
Vera went on to say, “These may only be opened in this house on your respective birthdays.” She locked eyes with Sarah whose birthday was before Helen’s. “Is that understood?”
She turned to Helen and asked the same question.
“Yes, Mama.” Helen agreed.
“Good. Now put them aside and someone, hand me the remote.”
While shifting to set her gift aside, Helen felt the remote wedged between her and her grandmother. “Here,” she said, handing it to her.
Vera leaned back and increased the volume on the game show. Sarah set her gift aside and snuggled up to Vera. Helen sat in the solitude of her thoughts and stared at the gift through the dim light around them. She couldn’t bring herself to let it go.
“Remember, not until your birthday, Helen. Now put it aside, you’re missing the show.”
Helen reluctantly set the gift unto the edge of the nightstand beside her and nestled into her grandmother’s side. She wove her own arm around her grandmother’s and rested her head on her shoulder. Rather than watching the show, she closed her eyes to remember her dear Mama. She wanted to remember all the moments of mischief and magic, those of pain and comfort, those filled with laughter and celebration, feasting and mourning. She wanted to remember the moment they were in, the soft light, the laughter of her sister in harmony with that of her grandmother, the warmth of her grandmother’s arm, and the tickle of her silver hair. So, she held on tightly to her arm and remembered.
The following morning, Helen awoke first. She purposefully made her way from the living room, where she and Sarah had fallen asleep, and walked to her grandmother’s room. She was going to check on her and ask what she wanted for breakfast. When she came to the door, she was prevented from entering by the keen awareness that the room was empty. Ahead of her, she saw the shape of the grandmother on the bed, yet, the room was devoid of her presence; something dreadful had happened in the night while they all slept.
Moments after Helen had arrived at the door, Sarah came running up behind her. “Helen! Helen!” She called despondently until she met her sister at the door to their grandmother’s room. She stopped abruptly beside Helen.
What they had dreaded, the thing as inevitable as time, was upon them. Neither one could enter the room. Sarah slowly slipped her hand over Helen’s and held it tightly. They stood together at the door in silence.
To my dear Mama, my grandmother Vira. Getting to grow in the shadow of your regal grace was among the greatest blessings of my life.