The men stood with their hands in their pockets, their necks uncomfortably ringed with seldom worn ties. Women, their hands loaded with casseroles and hot pots, meandered in and out of the front screen door, letting it slap shut with a bang each time. One of the men in the group nearest the steps turned and shaded his eyes as he saw me approaching.
“Well, here now! Is that you, Peggy?” He walked toward me, his hand extended in welcome and a smile across his face.
“Yes, I’m Peggy…and you’re…?”
“Paul. Brad’s boy.”
Ah…so you’re my second cousin.” I didn’t remember him, but I recognized his dad’s name as my father’s cousin.
“Yes. How’s your dad?” Paul asked.
“I’m afraid he can’t travel anymore. His health won’t allow it.”
“Well, we’re all getting older. Sorry to hear he’s not well.”
“Thanks. Is…Grandma Virgie in there?” I pointed to the screen door and Paul looked toward the house.
“Yes. She wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s what her kin have always done…so…” Paul shrugged.
I nodded politely. “I suppose I’d better go in. Is Aunt Sylby-?”
“Yeah. She won’t let anyone take her away from Grandma. I know it’s not right to speak ill of the dead, but I don’t understand how Sylby can be so sorry to see her mama go…Grandma Vergie was…well…everyone knows what she did to Aunt Sylby.”
I shook my head and solemnly headed to the porch. Inside, the house was dim and smelled of stale wood smoke, fried bacon, and “Evening in Paris” perfume one of the women was wearing. A lady hurried across the room, wrapped her arms around my neck, and pulled me close.
“Peggy! It’s good to see you! Oh, my. I miss your dad, I surely do. I wish things were different…it’d be so good to see he’s well and whole. We’ll all just have to wait for our Heavenly bodies, I suppose, to know those day again.” My dad’s oldest sister, Aunt Claire, held me tightly, tears glittering her eyes.
“Do you think Aunt Sylby will recognize me?”
“Well…you know how she is…I kind of doubt she’ll even notice you, Peggy. She took it hard, though we all know Mama Vergie didn’t deserve her devotion. My, my, my.” Aunt Claire shook her head, wiping her tears with her apron. I glanced around the room and noticed the open door to Grandma Vergie’s bedroom. Aunt Claire nodded at my questioning look.
Aunt Sylby turned to me as I entered the room. Her face held the naïve innocence I’d always known, but the recent scar that Grandma Vergie had been responsible for raised a red, irritated welt under her right eye. Tears tracked both cheeks and she wrung her hands repeatedly.
“Mama’s not waking up…Mama won’t talk to me…can you make Mama wake up?” I looked beyond Sylby’s shoulder and saw Grandma Vergie stretched out on her bed as though she were taking an afternoon nap. Her profile remained sharp and hawk-like, the predatory visage not a bit softened by death.
I felt a bitter childhood memory press forward of Grandma Vergie slapping Aunt Sylby all over her head and ears while Sylby threw her scrawny hands out to fend off the vicious blows. “Stupid Girl, stupid and dumb and ugly…why the Lord ever let you be born is beyond me!” Had I imagined the sly look of satisfaction in Grandma’s curled lip as she pummeled her frustrations out on poor Sylby?
I shivered at the awful memory. Aunt Sylby took my hand and pressed a kiss on my palm. She seemed to have suddenly forgotten her pitiful questions and was looking at me with adoration lighting her face.
“Jesus loves me…this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Aunt Sylby sang quietly, while her weak and lisping words exposed her advanced age.
“Yes, Aunt Sylby. Jesus loves you…this I know…”
She giggled and twisted away, her gaze once again finding the body of her mother. She gasped.
“Mama? Are you going to wake up now?”
“Aunt Sylby? Won’t you please come and have a bite to eat?” I cajoled.
She slowly turned her eye to mine, grabbed my hand, and smiled, the red scar hiding in the wrinkles of her face.
“Jesus loves me…this I know…for the Bible tells me so…” she sang again.
I hugged her to me, and led her away from her mama for the last time.
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