a kind of homecoming

Last night, we arrived at the home of my aunt, A. It’s been several months since I’ve seen her. We’ve spoken on the phone, briefly a few times, but a visit was overdue.

In past years, this holiday weekend has been a celebratory one – the fall so beautiful here. My birthday, usually celebrated with some extravagance, with all the family – A., my sister, her husband and children – together.

This year, planning for the trip was a bit rushed though. The visit will be brief – a 24-hour stay – and the mood, I think is a bit subdued. The summer has been difficult here for A. There has been much sad news for people close to her.

Her friend, N. is here when we arrive, and after dinner, we catch up on family friends and gossip. The pilot’s wife is unhappy. The pilot, who has taken his wife to live in a country where only he understands and speaks the language, travels the globe, leaves her and their small son behind. She has an engineering degree from a prestigious school, I remember. The school where the two of them met. And now, what does she do.

“She does nothing,” A. says. “That’s the problem. She’s just there around the house, doing nothing. Do you know,” she says, that her husband was flying back from China – he got home late at night – and she didn’t even have dinner ready for him? Can you imagine? The woman’s husband is coming home from a long trip like that and she doesn’t even make him some dinner?”

This, I know, is bait, and I take it, in the manner that is expected of me. I play out the script that has become comfortable and familiar for all of us.

“Can you imagine,” I say – and N. and I exchange glances – “that a 43-year-old man can’t manage to get his own dinner?”

We all laugh. But A. says, “Do you mean to say that if your husband was coming home from a long trip like that, late at night, you wouldn’t have something for him to eat?”

I am expected to say, “I doubt it,” and so I do.

Just as she says, “Well, you say that, but I think you would,” M. comes around the corner from where he’s put our son to bed.

“Would what?”

The evening is lovely. Conversation hovers around the expected topics. We talk about our jobs, about our health. About who is getting married and who is having babies. It is good to see them both, I realize. I feel as though I have been avoiding this visit for some time and at the moment, I can’t remember why.

For the last few years, my aunt and I spend one day alone together in the summer, for her birthday, at the end of June. Without the clamor of the kids and the chaos of preparing meals. We meet halfway between us, in Connecticut, wander around the outlet malls. We talk about my mother and about their parents as she watches me buy shoes and dresses that I don’t need. For lunch, we indulge in plump lobster rolls on buttery grilled buns and in the late afternoon, before we each drive off in opposite directions, we drink terrible coffee in the cold, sterile air of the donut shop at the highway rest stop.

This summer, I was traveling for work around the time that we would typically go, so we put it off. But then, the weeks sped by and we found ourselves in September. “We never got to have our lobster roll,” she says on the phone each time we’ve spoken since then. I vow not to miss it next year.

In the last years of her life, my mother was not well. She had grown angry, depressed, a bit unstable. Her outbursts were unpredictable, erratic. She would lash out at us all without warning.

“Do you think,” A. asks quietly, during one of these donut shop conversations, “that maybe she was a little off balance?”

“I do,” I say and we sit there at the molded plastic table, warming our fingers on our hot paper cups. There is more to say, of course, but we both let it go.

Her phone rings, but she does not answer it. We sip our coffee.

“She always loved you, you know, even at the end. Even when she wasn’t herself. Even when she said all those things…”

I know this. In my head I have always known this. Sometimes it is the heart, though, that takes longer to understand.

After M. and I settle in to the guest room for the night, I can hear A., still up, moving around in the kitchen. “We’ll take a picnic up to the orchard tomorrow,” she told me when we arrived, then followed after me as I put down my bags to explain the plans for the visit.

I’ll be up early tomorrow morning, and put some stuff together. We’ll pack it all up. I have crumb cake. You like crumb cake? I have everything already cooked, we’ll just pack it in the morning. I’m up very early, you know. We’ll go up to the orchard. It’s supposed to be beautiful, weather-wise. The kids can run around. I think they have pony rides. You remember the pony rides? Cider donuts, I know you like cider donuts. I cannot believe you are turning forty. Forty! You look good though. You look very good. So, we’ll stay up at the orchard there for a while and then we can stop by D.’s if you want. Then we’ll be back here in time for dinner. I made a big pot roast for dinner. Everything is made. It’s all ready. All we have to do is enjoy it.