Mount Olive, North Carolina
When they suggest changing the location of the family reunion, I am first to speak. I clear my throat a few times—something that irritates me when anyone else does it—and then, with my eyes focused on the crystal vase of scarlet roses centered on Ducee's kitchen table, I begin. I remind them that we've always had the reunion in North Carolina; why break tradition? Tradition is big in the McCormick family.
I see Ducee nod, which gives me courage to continue. Since there are more family members in this region, I add, making all of us fly to Wyoming would be senseless. Wouldn't it be easier and much more logical for the Wyoming group to fly here? They are younger. I mean, should Ducee really fly at her age? And her heart condition, don't forget that.
Cheyenne, Wyoming, residents Aunt Betty and Uncle Jarvis, who are spending the weekend with Ducee, look uncomfortably across the table at each other. In unison they blurt, "Oh, Nicole, of course Ducee shouldn't fly." Then they apologize to Ducee for even making the suggestion.
"Oh my, what were we thinking?" Aunt Betty reaches her round pink arm across the table toward Ducee, tipping the flower arrangement; Uncle Jarvis grabs the vase just in time. Aunt Betty croons, "Oh, Mother, I don't know what came over me."
I gnaw on a thumbnail and stand to wash the dishes. They don't need to be apologetic about their idea; they just don't need to give it any more consideration.
So nothing has changed, and once again, this July, the family reunion will be here in Mount Olive. We'll make the usual food—potato salad, chicken salad, honey-baked ham, corn on the cob dripping with butter, green bean casserole, delicate egg salad sandwiches on white bread, and of course, traditional homemade pineapple chutney. We'll spread the checkered tablecloths over the rickety picnic tables in my grandmother Ducee's backyard and cover ourselves with insect repellent and eat until the stars flicker out one by one. Great-Uncle Clive will swing the great-grandkids in the tire swing as Maggie, Ducee's white-pawed donkey, brays and nibbles at ripe blackberries growing over the edge of the wooden fence.
The Wyoming group—Aunt Betty and Uncle Jarvis, Kate, Linda, and their spouses and children—will inevitably wonder how we handle the humidity and tell us a few dozen times that the air is less sticky in Cheyenne, until Cousin Aaron drives them in the church van to the coast. Then, after splashing in the salty waves as they watch the sun set over the Atlantic, they will smile and say how lovely the ocean is and what a blessing it is for us in Mount Olive to be so close to this spectacular view. For a moment, they will envy us, their bodies not at all bothered by southern summer stickiness.
Ducee knows, though. She lifts her chin and adjusts her bifocals and I know she knows. She's thinking that Nicole doesn't care if we have Japanese squid and octopus at the reunion, as long as it means keeping the gathering here in Mount Olive. Just don't make her get on an airplane. That's what Ducee is thinking as she nods and wipes her pale lips with a pastel linen napkin.
No plane ride for me. Ever.
Last time I was on a plane I threw up three times. I was only two and don't remember it, but I'm sure things haven't changed. Just the sound of planes racing overhead is enough to pump fear into my veins and churn my stomach.
Great-Aunt Iva says that everyone is entitled to at least one phobia. She adds that if you have any Irish McCormick blood in you, you are most certainly entitled to even a few more.
On a crisp February afternoon, Iva, Ducee, and I sit around the kitchen table with bone china cups of tea. They ask how I am. We've just made three gallons of pineapple chutney and we're still in Mount Olive pickle green aprons. We're pretty wiped out; that's what this chutney-making tradition does to you. Hours and hours of slicing pineapple and adding spices while standing over a simmering pot can really sap your energy. That's why, after the chutney is sealed in jars, we allow for plenty of time to relax with hot ginger tea.
Ducee adds black tea leaves to freshly ground ginger root and seasons the mixture with lemon juice and sugar. She boils this concoction with distilled water because she is convinced that distilled water creates the best tea. She says it's common southern knowledge.
"I'm fine," I reply. Quickly, I take a long drink. The tea scalds my tongue.
Ducee glances at me, raises an eyebrow, and waits.
She can wait all afternoon; I am not about to tell her anything more. I reach for a grape from the fruit bowl and admire the carnations in the crystal vase.
"You've been in another world," Ducee says. Her greenish-blue eyes soften as she studies my face.
I force a smile. "Really, I'm okay." Sticking my thumb into my mouth, I chew a ragged nail. Nail-biting and fear of flying are my two known weaknesses. The other ones I work at hiding from everyone else.
Iva lights up a Virginia Slims, stretches her long, slender legs, and crosses her ankles. When she does this, it's as though she thinks she's the original Ms. Virginia Slims. She says she hopes we can have cucumber sandwiches at the reunion. "You know how much I like cucumbers thinly sliced on white bread." She exhales and adds, "Peeled, of course. Never did like the skin of a cucumber, not even the ones we grew growing up on our farm."
Ducee shakes her head, causing her gray curls to bounce. "Not at all proper." She enunciates each word as I do when teaching. "I told you before, Iva. It isn't done."
Iva asks, "And why not?"
"You can't have both egg salad and cucumber sandwiches at the same party." Ducee states this as though it's a fact, like the population of Mount Olive, which happens to be 4,427.
Iva's hazel eyes widen behind her silver-rimmed glasses. "Says who?"
"It's common etiquette. All southerners know this. Take pimento cheese, for example. Our southern classic. However, it cannot be eaten with egg salad, either."
"I've never heard any of this before and I've lived in North Carolina all my life," Iva says, her voice laced with aggravation.
I roll my eyes at Iva. There is no point in my aunt continuing with her desire to have cucumber sandwiches. When Ducee mentions etiquette, it's useless to argue. My grandmother thinks she is the queen of etiquette, at least southern etiquette.
Once, as a young girl visiting her during summer vacation, I asked Ducee what the name of her book was. Puzzled, she questioned what I meant.
"Your book you wrote," I said. "The one about how to wipe your mouth on a cloth napkin and how to kiss cheeks."
Ducee played along. "Oh, my book of important Southern Truths." She patted my arm. "Yes, that's it, yes. They are written somewhere, I'm sure. Emily Post or Mrs. Vanderbilt."
I was nine before I realized Ducee had not written a book on etiquette; she just liked to talk about certain ways one should conduct oneself—her renowned Southern Truths. I do admit I was disappointed and couldn't bear to tell my classmates at my elementary school in Richmond, Virginia, that my grandmother in Mount Olive, North Carolina, had not authored a book, even though, yes, one day in third-grade show-and-tell I proudly shared she had.
As the afternoon sun shifts behind a cloud and darkens the kitchen, Iva takes a slow puff on her cigarette. She exchanges the cucumber-sandwiches topic for her grandson-in-law. "I just don't know what Grable is going to do about Dennis. She's having to live the life of the single parent." Grable is Iva's granddaughter who is thirty-five, four years older than I am.
I know nothing about marriage, since I've never been married. I would like to be married, I think. But some nights, I watch my aquarium of saltwater fish swimming in their tranquil patterns and wonder why I'd want to bring chaos to our home. My fish and I are doing quite well without a human male mate.
Iva inhales, blows out a smoke ring, and says, "I knew Dennis was no good from the get-go."
"Yes, yes," Ducee chimes, a frown encompassing her brow. "We all know that he reminds you of Harlowe."
Harlowe, named after the river in North Carolina, was my great-aunt Iva's third husband. He was known for a temper that caused him to throw cans at the kitchen walls. When he threw six cans of pork and beans in one afternoon, Iva marched out of her house for the lawyer's office. The divorce was final twelve months later. Iva, known for always having a man by her side, has yet to remarry. After Harlowe's frenzy, she's decided gratitude for being alive—not six feet under due to an accident caused by tin cans—is enough reason to be content.
Iva slides the cardinal ashtray closer and twists the butt of her cigarette into the body of the red bird. "Harlowe was impossible." She lets go of the butt like she let go of him.
Right when I think we're going to hear a pathetic Harlowe story, my aunt sighs, cups her chin in the crevices of her palms, and lets silence take over.
After a moment she cries, "Why has Grable followed in my footsteps? Sure as the sun, she married a man who doesn't appreciate her."
"She was in love," Ducee tells her younger sister brightly. "Grable saw the moon rise and set in his smile. Remember their wedding day?"
I don't. I was invited—Grable is my second cousin, or something like that—but I didn't make the wedding. Three days prior to the event, I came up with the brilliant idea to free my backyard from overgrown weeds. I must have pulled the wrong weeds because I ended up with the worst case of poison ivy ever. Grable was covered in white and delicate flowers. I covered my body with prescribed triamcinolone acetonide and sat in a tub of Aveeno, trying to ease the constant desire to scratch.
"It rained." Iva's face is covered by a sour expression. "It was cold and wet. I must have stepped in six puddles before I even got inside the church. My feet were soaked the whole day. My red dress has a mud stain that to this day hasn't come out."
I did see the pictures of the wedding. Everyone looked happy, except for Iva. It is hard to smile, I guess, when your feet are wet.
Ducee smiles. "Oh yes, yes, it was a beautiful ceremony. The church looked exceptionally pretty with all those tulips. I'd never seen so many colors in one place." She shifts in her chair to look Iva in the eye, but Iva turns away from her sister. Her sigh fills the kitchen. I can hear it lift out of her lungs and span
the ceiling and the lemon-colored walls.
Ducee traces the rim of her teacup with a bony finger. Slowly she says, "You aren't in control of everything or anybody. Remember that, Iva."
If I ever compile a list of my grandmother's sayings, this one will be at the top.
We know she will add another part to her thought, and she does. "Good things happen in fleeting moments. Enjoy what you can—those moments are sometimes all we get." She focuses on both of our faces and then, "Yes." There is a long pause as though she is remembering something almost lost, like one of those long-gone fleeting moments she wants to recapture in her mind. "Yes, that's it, yes."
Iva finishes her tea, pushes her cup and saucer toward the middle of the table, and smacks her lips. "Well, Grable's not having any good things happening these days. Having to do it all alone and then when Dennis does decide to come home, he has no patience for Monet. She is his daughter." She lights another cigarette and coughs.
I think of Grable and Dennis's three-year-old, Monet, the child no doctor at Duke or UNC hospitals can figure out. The child is wild, and my patience for her runs thin. The last time she overfed my fish, I screamed at her. Then I felt awful and bought her a coloring book and pack of Crayolas. Grable has aspirations that Monet will live up to her name and be able to paint like Claude Monet.
Grable also thinks Dennis will cut back his hours at the law firm, take some time off, and fly with her to an exotic country, preferably Costa Rica.
"Monet is a treasure," Ducee says with feeling. "Trying, but if you listen to her heart, she is charming."
Both Iva and I give Ducee looks as if she's lost her mind.
Iva crumples her empty cigarette pack. "Don't know why God made her the way she is."
Ducee starts to speak, but Iva interrupts. "I know, I know, you're going to say His ways are not our ways. And to trust Him and not doubt. Birds of the air." She waves her cigarette in front of her face. "I know, I know." She clears her raspy throat. That action always makes me quiver.
"Actually," Ducee says, "I was going to ask if you wanted more tea."
Iva places the end of the Virginia Slims in the ashtray and stands. "No, got to get to the Friendly Mart."
We know why. She just smoked her last cigarette. We watch her untie her apron and fold it on the back of the chair. She ruffles her dyed-platinum hair by running fingers through the roots. Her smile shows her gold molar. She thanks her sister for the day, extending her arm so that Ducee can touch it with her lips.
"See you tomorrow at church," Ducee says as Iva pulls on her short fur coat and fastens the pearl buttons.
Iva coughs. "The Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise." She squeezes my shoulder before striding for the front door. Iva is tall—close to six feet—and she has a way of easing across floors when she walks, like a waterbug skimming the river's surface.
Ducee tilts her head and looks at me through smudged bifocals. "Is it Richard?" she asks after Iva leaves the house.
I sigh. "Richard and I broke up last night." There, I've told her. Why does my grandmother always win?
She nods as though she already knew. That woman knows me like her famous family chutney recipe. When she looks at me, I swear she can see the missing ingredient.
"Why don't you come over for dinner after church tomorrow, then?" She pats my hand. Her hand is tiny, the skin thin with age spots and protruding purple veins. "I'll make barbeque chicken." She smiles, adding, "With the Smithfield sauce you like so much."
A moment passes and the silence eats at her. "Nicole, dear? You okay? Anything else you need to tell me?"
Can she see into my mind?
"No." I can't tell her that I've received a beautiful poem from a carp owner in Japan. Surely when she looks at me she doesn't know that, does she? I have also dreamed of him, although I have no idea what he looks like in real life.
Since the death of my mother, Ducee has practically raised me. Although I lived with Father until I graduated from high school, during those years, my summers and school breaks were always spent at Ducee's house. She knows I have a mole the shape of an apple on my lower back and that even at age thirty-one, I continue to sleep with a cloth kimono doll.
But there are still lines I draw. She doesn't get to know everything.
Sometimes, though, on chilly, dark nights when the only sound in my house is the humming fish tank, it would be nice to sit in Aunt Lucy's wingback chair, curl my legs up under me, and just spill it out.