By Karen Brode
My Aunt Jewel’s lap was the best lap to sit in when all my mother’s sisters visited at once. She tended to sit furthest away from Aunt Opal, which meant I was less likely to come under her scrutiny. Plus, she had a way of cooing over Mother and me that made me feel comfortable and safe.
She held me a little tighter when my other two aunts started laughing at something Aunt Opal had said about Mother. I had just come in from playing outside and had only overheard a part of it. I looked up at my mom. She was standing at the stovetop stirring the soup. A bead of sweat just barely covered her forehead. She had been cooking up a storm since that morning. There was cornbread in the oven and she had a cake ready to go as soon as that came out.
Opal bellowed something about chicken eggs. She sat in the chair my father would have sat in had he still been living. Aunt Cleo sat next to her cackling away. My mother shot a look their way that told me she didn’t give a plug nickel for either of them. All I knew was whatever story Aunt Opal had been telling was not one of my mother’s favorites.
“Both of you stop that right now,” said Aunt Jewel, leaning forward and clutching me to her protectively. “You’re upsetting Hazel.”
Hazel was my mother. I had the feeling Aunt Jewel would have hugged Mother to her in the same way that she did me if she could have.
Before everyone arrived, I had asked Mother why she was going to so much trouble fixing up such a nice supper. I knew Opal expected the royal treatment, but I also didn’t think she deserved it. She could be such a bully sometimes.
Mother had stopped peeling the potatoes and looked almost past me.
“I don’t really know, Karen,” she said. “It’s not like they really appreciate it.”
“Aunt Jewel does,” I said.
Mother nodded and smiled. “That’s true. Then I’m doing it for her.”
By the time she put the soup on the table, she had made up her mind about something. I couldn’t tell what it was until she sat down and took up saying the blessing over the meal herself. Aunt Opal always had that duty, but this time when the sisters held hands, it was Mother who started praying. Normally, I closed my eyes for prayer, but when I heard Mother’s voice, I looked up.
Opal blatantly stared at Mother while she prayed. Opal was the eldest and we all knew she thought herself to be a better Christian than anyone else in the family. I was only nine but even then I had heard a million times how she had never missed a church service, how she had baked hams for people who were sick or bereaved, how she sang solos at funerals or paid for a child to go to church camp last summer.
“Dear Father in Heaven,” my mother said. “Look down on us with mercy and not justice. Help us all to realize how human we are; how we have all disappointed you at times.”
She paused for a moment. My aunt took a breath, as if she might be about to take up the prayer, but my mother continued before she could.
“You know our hearts, Dear Lord. You know how judgmental and condemning we all can be at times. Help us to see the good in those around us. Help us to appreciate the kindnesses offered to us from other people. In the name of Your Son and our Redeemer, amen.”
The entire table sat like statues for several breaths. No one touched the food. Aunt Opal seemed to be replaying the prayer in her mind, mentally scanning it for hidden slights aimed at her.
Aunt Jewel was the first to break the silence. She helped herself to some soup and started chirping away about how nice all that food looked and how much trouble my mother went to for everyone. But even with her voice, you could almost hear a pin drop.
She just carried on, though. She sipped her soup and announced, “This is some of the best soup I have ever had!”
I watched Aunt Opal. She had dished some into her bowl in silence, but she didn’t even taste it before she stood up and asked, “Where do you keep your salt, pepper, and garlic, Hazel. That soup tastes like warmed up water!”
I wanted to crawl under the table rather than witness the anger the flashed across my mother’s face. She didn’t get upset often, but Opal had just pushed the one button that could cause World War III. It seemed to take everything in my mother to keep her mouth shut. She just pointed to the cabinet where she kept the spices.
Opal poked around looking but she didn’t find anything. Deep creases etched into my mother’s forehead between her eyes. She was quiet, but I could tell that in her mind she was counting to ten — maybe even twenty.
Opal moved all of the spices and flavorings around. “I can’t find it,” she said.
And then, “Hazel, I don’t know why you have your canned goods up here. You are going to get knocked out one of these days when a can falls on your head. Remind me before I leave to reorganize your cabinets for you.”
Mother could not have steamed more if she had been on fire. The effort it took for her to just sit there and not say a word was saint like, but I wasn’t sure how long she could keep it up.
Cleo must have sensed the tension because she jumped up and said, “Get out of the way, Opal. Go sit down. I’ll get your salt and pepper.”
There was something different about Cleo’s tone of voice that made me jump a little. It must have made Opal a little wary too because she sat back down and looked at her bowl of soup.
Before Cleo could locate the salt, though, Opal collapsed in tears. Mother and Jewel looked at each other.
“Opal, I’m sorry if I’ve upset you,” my mother said. She sounded tired. “All I wanted was for us to sit down together and enjoy each other’s company. We are all we have left! Our husbands are dead, our children have their own lives, and Momma and Poppa have both been gone so long.”
Mother’s voice broke off at the mention of Poppa’s name. He had been such a good father.
Jewel grabbed my mother’s hand and spoke to her.
“Hazel, you have outdone yourself for us with this meal. You even made us a cake on a weekday! I rarely make cakes, even on the weekend.”
She patted her stomach. “If I ate like this all the time, I would be as big as…” She rolled her eyes toward Opal. “I would be as big as a house!”
Opal didn’t say a word. She refolded the napkin in her lap and she stared out the window as if she might find something out there to change the subject.
Opal could never understand why they were all so mean to her! She had never brought shame on the family like Cleo did by marrying that stupid Neal in the Baptist church! She wouldn’t have done anything like that. She married the nicest man in town because she deserved a nice husband.
She looked over at Jewel. She had tried to talk her sister out of marrying that awful Homer who did nothing but drink and cheat. Sure enough, he left her bereft of all dignity and niceties of life because he had to chase after other women. Jewel did make the best of it, but she’d had a hard life. Opal had been there for all of them. She often gave Jewel five dollars just because. She knew it wasn’t easy raising a child alone.
She glanced over at Hazel, her youngest sister. She had even tried to help her with John, that rebel of a child, but Hazel would never follow through in disciplining him. Now he was wild as a March hare. Opal would’ve never allowed any of that to happen. Her sons went to church and they had jobs. They knew better than to show up on her front porch expecting a handout.
Hazel didn’t talk to Opal much about John anymore. Opal figured she was embarrassed that her son was the way he was. She had never known what to do with him.
Opal never said a word.
Opal never said a word, but Hazel knew how her sister felt. Sometimes in the night when Hazel would lie awake hoping John would come home soon, she would think of Opal and wonder how some people just seemed to know how to do things and other people didn’t.
Being harsh with John would’ve gone against everything in Hazel’s soul. She wasn’t a mean person, but she probably should have been a little meaner to John. She should have held him to a higher standard. She had let things slide with him for so long that there wasn’t much that could be done now.
In Hazel’s middle of the night worries, she would think of her youngest, Karen.
“Karen would never worry me like this,” she would whisper. “Karen is the good child.”
Hazel often wondered what it would have been like if John had been the good child, made the straight A report cards, and read books. If she could have flipped things around she would have. Karen would be much more understandable if she could have been popular. Hazel would’ve understood a daughter who slammed her math book closed and said, “I just can’t do this!
Hazel’s friends would have been impressed if her daughter had been a cheerleader. She hated to admit even to herself that Karen wasn’t exactly how she had hoped her daughter would be. Hazel had imagined a little girl with curly–but not too curly–hair. She had made all of Karen’s clothes and dressed her in nice clothes for special occasions. She had hoped Karen would be like other little girls—not just good, but maybe more social.
On her fourth birthday, Karen had said she wanted a desk. Hazel couldn’t imagine a four-year-old who would want or need a desk. So she took her to Myles Variety Store on Main St. and steered her to the doll section. There were baby dolls, dolls almost as big as Karen, and even a doll that could walk.
But Hazel saw Karen glancing over at the desk. She walked over to it and rubbed her fingertips across the top.
“This is what I really really want Momma,” she had said.
Mother didn’t know what to do with Karen.
Karen got the desk, but Hazel realized then that, even at four, her daughter had never really been a child. She was born old with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Karen was bookish and she didn’t do much besides sit at that desk and color or draw pictures. The chalkboard desk had the alphabet written across the top of it, and before long, Karen was writing.
Karen’s father, Albert, had been so proud but his reasons were selfish. He said that, unlike John, he finally he had a child like himself!
Hazel begged him not to say that in front of John, but he continued to praise Karen with every breath. What could Hazel do? She adored that little girl, but someone had to love John!
Mother looked at Aunt Opal and sighed.
“You never told me why you did it, ” she said.
Opal smiled. My mother’s words were like a peace offering, apparently, because my aunt seemed to relax then.
“I was six,” Aunt Opal said. “These two were even younger than that.” She nodded with her head toward my other two aunts.
Her eyes glistened with youthful memories. “You were just a baby sitting in your carriage under that old oak tree in the front yard.”
“I remember it was a gorgeous spring day,” said Aunt Cleo. Her giggles threatened to erupt again, but she managed to calm them down again before Aunt Opal continued the story.
“I was six,” she said again, as if it was an apology. “And I did it because it was funny.”
She smiled and a little laughter rippled from Aunt Cleo’s side of the table.
Jewel grabbed my mother’s hand. “I’m so sorry we did that to you, Hazel. I would never have have participated if I had known how upsetting it was going to be to you.”
Cleo was laughing so hard by then that she had to wipe away tears. “I can see it so clearly,” she said doubling over. “Like it happened yesterday.”
“That chicken coop,” Aunt Opal continued, barely covering her own laughter. “Why on earth Momma made us go out there to gather eggs—that place scared me to death! I still wake up in the night flailing my arms trying to keep those chickens from flying at me.”
This made everyone laugh. Even Mother giggled a little.
Opal took a breath and said, “You were just sitting there, Hazel. And we had just come back from gathering the eggs. I had a whole basket of them. I was already thinking of how funny it would be, but it was Cleo who threw the first egg at you. You looked so shocked. It spurred all of us on to throw more eggs. It just got funnier and funnier.”
With great effort, Cleo said, “Poor Hazel was sitting in her baby carriage completely covered by egg shells and eggs running down her face. And then Momma came out on the front porch!”
Opal nodded, “We all ran in different directions!”
All of the sisters, even Mother, collapsed in a fit of laughter.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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.