06 December 2012


Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the 2006 edition of the literary journal Peregrine. I've posted it on my web site before, but not since converting to the blog format. Hope you enjoy!

When your Red Ball moving van pulled up in front of our house on West Clinton Street in Elmira, New York, and you honked its horn because you liked making people jump, our family’s way was to grin and bear it.

The Virgin Annunciate by Carlo Crivelli
You had at least one run a year between your house in Emporium, PA, and ours. My folks pretended you were welcome then complained about you when you left. When momma and her sisters got together back in Dayton, PA, they made fun of you, called you “boisterous” and swapped stories that always ended with “If it wasn’t for Aunt Minnie, we wouldn’t put up with that Roy Beck.”

Momma told you after your first visit she didn’t mind you and your son Richard, but she wasn’t feeding and making up beds for your other movers—quieter men than you, some with better manners, but not relatives and so people we didn’t have to take in.

I remember you as plenty rough around the edges but never mean. You laughed a lot and said things to kids other grownups wouldn’t say. Your big voice hurt my littler ears. Your plow-horse shoulders and arms squeezed me hello and goodbye hard. And you kissed my cheek with too much suction but, thankfully, no drool.

Once we visited you in the hospital in Sayre, PA, just over the state line, and you untied your robe and showed us the feeding tube planted in your stomach. Daddy said you didn’t know what you were doing because of the pain medicine. Momma said if she stayed any longer she’d have a stomach ulcer too. And you said the doctors took out three-quarters of your stomach. I wondered what was left for a tube to go into and couldn’t move my eyes from where it disappeared in folds of belly like the roots of the red rose that twined around the paper-bark birch in our front yard. Nobody said why you were in a hospital so far from home.

Once we came back from grocery shopping and saw your semi-trailer idling in front of our house, parking lights awinkin’. You couldn’t see into our car in the dark, so we drove on past. We circled ‘round to the street below and parked at the Young’s house. Mrs. Young—momma called her Bobby—stowed our milk and meat in her fridge for a while. And when us kids got sleepy and you hadn’t budged, all five of us tiptoed the groceries across the lawns and up the hill to our back door. We put everything away without turning on lights, changed into our jammies, and still you hung on, hoping we’d come home and save you a few dollars on a motel.

Finally daddy gave up and flipped the switches, and in a few minutes you rang the bell and we took you in. Momma told you we’d been to dinner at the neighbors and just got home. She always told me not to lie, so I stayed suspicious of you because where you were concerned she broke her own rules. Did you really believe her? Was my momma a good liar?

Annunciation by Fra Angelico, 1450
When momma’s sisters visited a year ago June they said Aunt Minnie was still alive and alert, in her nineties. You passed over a long time ago, and none of us noted it. Richard runs the Red Ball now and doesn’t pay much attention to his stepmom, but his son and daughter-in-law look after her. She still lives in that rambling pink house with all the stuff you loaded into the moving van when her momma died. One of my uncles said you and Minnie fought with her brothers over the roll of toilet paper on the holder in the bathroom. And the last time I saw your house—thirty years ago or better—I figured you won the lion’s share of those battles.

My aunts talked again last summer how Minnie spent time in Torrance. Torrance! They still said it like it was tornado! Once I asked momma what Torrance was and she said, “an asylum.” When I frowned, she added, “a mental hospital” and spun one finger in a spiral at the side of her head. No one ever said why Minnie went there, but daddy always made sure to mention you were the one who sprung her. They said you wanted to marry her—your wife had died and you needed a mother for your boy—but no one wanted to let you because you were cousins and it wasn’t civilized. Then you showed ‘em a place in the Bible where it said it was okay as long as the light of life had gone out, and they had to let her go home with you. I didn’t know what any of it meant, though I was sure a place named Torrance could douse anyone’s light.

Aunt Minnie made you a good wife, I expect. I could tell by the light in her smile when we visited even so. Now that I’m getting to be the age she was when she was in Torrance, I dream about her. And in my dreams she is called crazy, even though she acts just fine. In one dream I live with her, except we have made the house bigger and built it around the little pink one. The living room is an auditorium with a stage for performances and bright red couches for watching. She leads me into our kitchen—tidier and bigger than hers in real life (mine too)—and shows me shelf after shelf full of bowl after bowl of beeswax—all lined up like sunny soldiers at warm attention, the smell sweet and wild. And then I dream she really is crazy, that I’m crazy too, and a voice says crazy is sacred and protects us both.

After that I asked my momma, getting up in years herself, the why of Great-Aunt Minnie. Why was she in Torrance? Momma said when Minnie didn’t marry, she lived with Gramma Thomas, her momma, looked after her, but started acting funny. I remember my Great-Gramma Thomas—stern and still, stone deaf—and I shudder to think about sharing a house with her. Still I ask, Whaddaya mean, funny? And momma said one day Minnie went into her bedroom and turned on the gas heater but didn’t light it. They put her in Torrance before she blew up the house, and she was in there a year or so. You visited her and told ‘em Minnie wasn’t crazy, she just needed someone to make a home for her and care about her, and then you did and she never acted funny again.

Annunciation by Salvador Dali, 1956
Weeks later, you popped into my mind’s eye, middle of the night when I was drifting back to sleep. I didn’t know it was you at first—it’s been a while since I’ve seen you or thought about you, and you looked out of place in my living room. But it hit me later that it was you who took a seat at my writing group, as if a regular. And you sat on my sofa where Sandra always sits—the petite lady with the short silvery hair who fits that corner like a crisp marker in the dog-eared leaves of a much-read book. But your ungainly body called out for a bigger space as you slung your left arm across the back and shifted sideways. I bet you carried sofas bigger than mine on your back and up flights of stairs, lugging, lugging, all your life until your heart exploded.

Then my living room fell away, and you stood beside a field, newly planted. You wore the same baggy rolled-up jeans, T-shirt and red-heeled Rockland socks, their thick oatmeal cuffs turned down over the tops of mud-caked Wolverines. The wide brim of a tattered straw hat blocked the glare from the setting sun. And I watched as you knelt on one knee, opened your arms to the tumbled earth and invoked the seeds to grow.