By Karen Brode
Mother sat on the couch reading the paper. I had been playing outside all day, and she reminded me to take a bath, but I paused to I ask her if Aunt Opal was still coming for a visit.
She sighed and said, “As far as I know, she’s going to Poppa’s house in Bells and she will probably come here in the morning.”
At that moment, we heard a car drive up and Mother looked out the window. There was her sister, Opal, trying to get out of her car.
In a hurried voice she said, “Change your play clothes and put on some shoes. I don’t want to hear Opal talk about you running around barefoot like the…”
Her voice trailed off as she looked in the mirror. She brushed through her hair, as if that might help her look more like June Cleaver. Then she sprayed some “Evening in Paris” perfume on her neck.
She did all this in the time it took Opal to get out of the car. It always took my aunt a long time to exit a car. Everyone in the family had tried to guess what her weight was. It was a fairly agreed all around that she weighed at least 400 pounds.
Even though I was only 8 years old, there was something about Opal I didn’t like that didn’t have anything to do with her weight. There was just something about her. For starters, I had heard my mother talk about how her sister had treated her when she was a child. It made me mad that my aunt would tell my mother she looked just like Hence Lawrence, the ugliest girl in the county. After all these years, my poor mother still carried that thought around and probably believed it.
“Hazel! Karee! I’m here!” Opal yelled from her car.
I looked at Mother and said, “Will you please tell her that my name is Karen, and not Karee?”
Mother shook her head no. “Hopefully she won’t be here long and you can just let it go.”
“Well, if she’s going to call me Karee, I’m going to call her Lardbutt!”
Mother bent down toward me and said, “Don’t you ever say anything like that again, especially to poor Opal!”
We walked out on the porch and Opal motioned for us to go out to the car.
“I’ve got a new car! Did you notice?” she asked as she hugged us.
“Look her over and see if you can find the antenna,” she challenged. I didn’t see one. What I did see in the backseat were several very big suitcases and the dreaded wedge pillow.
“Give up? Well look at this back windshield,” she went on. “The antenna is inside it!”
Mother walked up to look at the window and said, “What are they going to think of next?”
Once we moved all Opal’s things into the house, she collapsed onto one of the chairs and said, “I’m just so tired after that drive from Fort Smith.”
I wanted to ask why she had even bothered to visit but Mother looked at me sideways and I knew I would regret saying anything like it.
Just then, Opal looked at her watch and said, “Oh my gracious! My favorite TV program is on now. Do you watch The Fugitive?” She mispronounced fugitive, but I didn’t say anything. I felt myself grow smug in the idea that I was smarter than she was.
Mother asked if her sister was hungry.
“Oh now, Hazel,” she responded. “I might could eat just a bite, but I not much. I stopped for a hamburger in Texarkana.”
Once again, I looked at Mother and knew I’d better not let my thoughts be known.
Mother told Opal to go ahead and watch her program while she rustled up some supper for us.
“Don’t cook anything special for me,” Opal yelled from her easy chair. Then she turned to me and said, “I never miss this show! It just keeps you on the edge of your seat thinking maybe he will be able to find the one-armed man before the cops find him! See, he was a doctor and he came home late one night and his wife was dead. Well, it’s coming on now, I’ll tell you more later.”
When The Fugitive was almost over, Mother called us to the kitchen for supper. I couldn’t watch as Opal struggled to get out of her chair. I knew I would laugh and Mother would be so ashamed of me. She wanted to raise a daughter with manners, and I tried to be that kind of daughter, but I didn’t come by it naturally. Once she had warned me not to climb in the front yard tree while Opal was there. My aunt was old fashioned and she frowned upon such behavior. I didn’t want to put on airs for Opal, but for my mother’s sake, I always refrained from climbing the tree when Opal was around. Even so, I tried to imagine what she would do if she saw me hanging by my legs on one of the lower limbs and the thought of it made me laugh.
Opal said grace over the meal, blessed everyone she could think of, and finally said Amen. Mother had some smothered steak left over from lunch, and her sister reached for the plate first. She took two large pieces leaving only one steak on the plate.
Mother’s look stopped me from reminding Opal that she wasn’t hungry. Then she cut the one remaining steak in half and put half of it on my plate. Meanwhile, Opal took three huge spoonfuls of mashed potatoes before handing the bowl to me.
As we ate, my mother and aunt exchanged news about their father, Poppa Morrison. He visited us every Monday night to spend the night. It didn’t matter what I wanted to watch on television, Mother reminded me that Poppa was old and should get to watch whatever he wanted. And Poppa always wanted to watch Gunsmoke. That wasn’t a show I could sit through for very long. Most of the time he fell asleep on the couch and made puff puff sounds with his lips. One time I stood over him and watched him do it. Mother told me not to bother him because he was old. It seemed to me like old people got all the breaks.
While Opal devoured the food on her plate, she said, “Well, I’ve got some really good news!”
Mother perked up and said, “Tell us!”
I wanted to ask her if she was leaving, but I didn’t dare.
Opal’s granddaughter, Laurie, had moved to Dallas after she graduated high school in Ft. Smith, and Opal was going to go to Dallas the next day to see her.
Mother asked, “Does she know you are coming?”
Opal shook her head no. She thought it would be better to surprise her. Mother cut her eyes to look at me, but I did not say a word.
We already knew that Laurie, who only weighed 300 pounds, was engaged to a boy in her singing group at church. Opal wanted to check him out, see how they looked together, and so on. She was so happy that Laurie had finally found someone who could see past the extra poundage, someone who want to spend his life with her. It would make Opal so happy to see Laurie happily married.
Mother had told me a long time ago that she thought Laurie had only told Opal what she had wanted to hear. In her letters to her grandmother, Laurie always mentioned a boy in her singing group at church. Mother figured she had convinced herself that he was her boyfriend and had led Opal to believe they were engaged.
For a long minute, Mother stayed quiet as Opal continued on. She seemed to be trying to come up with some way to warn Laurie of the impending disaster.
As dinner ended, Opal said she would have to go to bed soon so she’d be rested enough to drive to Dallas the next day.
“Karee, would you get my wedge pillow for me?” she asked.
I groaned inside at the thought of that pillow. I hated that I was always the one who had to carry the wedge pillow into the house. But then it occurred to me, if she went on to bed, it would be worth it.
As I got up from the table, Opal said, “Karee, you would look so much better if you stood up straight.” I paused for a moment, counted to 10, and then slumped my way to her car.
Mother and Opal sat up late in the living room talking about different people in the family, and why one got a divorce, why another one never visited, and why on earth 75-year-old Poppa Morrison thought he could get married again.
“It makes me absolutely ill that he would cry over that woman,” Opal said. “If she seemed interested in him, it would have to be about money.”
“I just don’t know,” Mother sighed. “It’s all he talks about when we’re there. And, of course, I have to go the grocery store in Bells for him, and he always asks me to get him some snuff!”
Poppa Morrison used an empty coffee container as his spittoon. If I had to walk past him, I kept my eyes on something else and thought to myself, “Don’t look. Don’t think about it.” Once I had looked at it and gagged. I didn’t want to do that again.
It was very late when the two sisters decided to play a record. They played Ken Griffin’s “You Can’t Be True, Dear” and cried. Then they moved on to talking more about Laurie.
Opal confided to Mother that Laurie had had such a hard time in life because of her weight. Mother offered up the suggestion that maybe Laurie just had big bones.
“Well, you are right that she hardly eats a thing, and somehow she can’t lose weight,” said Opal.
I lied in my bed listening to them. When I heard this, I put my face in my pillow and laughed hysterically.
Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.