Cynthia Robinson Young
Your aunts and uncles have come together, all gathering at your family’s house because it is the largest. They fill it with the sound you feel like you shouldn’t be hearing—laughter. It seems wrong somehow. You know that one of Elders has died, even though no one uses the word “died.” “He passed.” Instead, they say. “He’s moved on.” At the funeral, they will say “Smitty is in a better place”, though none of them believe this could be possible if there’s a god in heaven.—not for Uncle Smitty.
The person who died was not really your uncle. He was your favorite aunt’s husband. And because Aunt Aberdeen was your favorite aunt, you re-created Uncle Smitty into one of your favorite uncles, but now, on this day, looking back on your relationship with him since you were old enough to even remember him, you know he never was. He never spoke directly to you ever, except to tell you that Aunt Aberdeen was calling you to come help her do something that she actually needed his help for. But you never saw him answer Aunt Aberdeen when she called him. But she always answered when he called her. You always wondered why Aunt Aberdeen, who was such a strong willed and independent woman like all of your aunts, would look different around Uncle Smitty. The new information, once spoken in whispers, but now spoken loudly, had confirmed it.
You are in the kitchen with your aunts and great-aunts, your grandmother, and your mother. You are hiding in plain sight. They believe your youth, that you are only 12 years old makes you invisible, makes you deaf, so they always talk freely, as if you aren’t in the corner, only glancing at them from time to time. They will see you if you stare.
“You know he beat her all the time,” Aunt Clarice says. She opens cupboards, looking for glasses and jelly jars to hold their gin. Your mother helps her because she knows you put them away in different places, your goal only to finish your job of putting away the dry dishes quickly, to find a place where they can fit.
“Well, you know he called Aberdeen names, said she looked like a mule, and that a workhorse was all she was made to be!” said Auntie Clarice. A bottle of gin is being passed around, and you watch as they use all of the orange juice that you thought was for your breakfast, a treat you thought you would have because everyone was together.
“Why did she stay with him, then?” Your mother asks. It is like they do not want to release Uncle Smitty’s name into the room, as if saying it will bring him back somehow, would raise him from the dead.
Your aunts and great-aunts hold their glasses and jelly jars in midair, like they are ready to toast each other but they don’t click glasses. Instead they look at your mother, and at this moment you can see her through their eyes. They are looking at your mother like she is as young as you are. Sometimes they forget that your mother is their niece, not as old as they are. and even though she is a mother—your mother, she was not “old enough” to be one when she had you. It is times like these that they are reminded that she is not one of them. They remember that they had long left Mississippi for Pennsylvania, before she was even born, that she didn’t grow up in the South during the hardest times; that she didn’t even remember the trees adorned with black bodies, or even the Great Depression, when the white folks joined the Black folks in hard times-- even though she was born right into the middle of it. No, she couldn’t remember like they did, when even the idea of living hand to mouth would have been a luxury. Aunt Emma breaks the silence. “Where would Aberdeen have gone if she left him?”
All the women look down, around, and away. Only Aunt Emma looks your mother straight in the face, her double chin looked skinnier, long and pretty. “He always said he would kill Aberdeen if she tried to leave. He always looked like he meant it. May she rest in peace.”
All the women are silent. You are silent too as you remember Aunt Aberdeen:
It was almost a year ago to the day: January 13th. The same day the sisters buried Aunt Aberdeen. It was the same kind of grey day, raining off and on, even though it had been sunny the day before. Black hosiery, black dresses, black coats, hats, and gloves were piled up on your grandmother’s bed until the aunts descended upon the pile, like vultures picking dead prey, scattering it across the bed, flinging pieces up in the air like black birds. They gathered in your grandmother’s room because no one wanted to leave her alone. They keep shaking their heads and whispering “it’s not right for a child to die before their mama,” and they tried to help your grandmother remember that even though she has lost Aunt Aberdeen, she still had the rest of them.
Your aunts blamed themselves. They had listened to Aberdeen complain and make fun of him, but they thought it gave her the power she needed to endure him. Your uncles blame themselves because they believed it was their job to protect her, but they didn’t believe it was that bad. They thought men could be rough sometimes, but their brother-in-law seemed like a good provider, and even if he had his women in the day, Obie always slept in his own marital bed at night.
They don’t tell you until years later, when they can finally see you, when they think you are old enough to handle adult information because you are falling in love, to know how bad the world can be, that there are no magical creatures waiting in the wings with gifts you only need to write a list for to receive for free, or flying in the night with bags of quarters and x-ray vision that made fairies see lost teeth,--it was only then, years later, that they told you Uncle Smitty pushed her down the stairs, and only because you asked them in a way that signified you already knew. They said they couldn’t prove it because Aunt Aberdeen was just found at the bottom, and he did call for help. Bu how long was she lying there? Did she cry out? Could someone have saved her? Did he even try?
They knew Aberdeen tried to leave him. She’d had enough, and had told him so—every time he hit her when she said she smelled another woman on her husband. Every time she accused Uncle Smitty of being “A No Count Good-for-nothing”. It wasn’t her fault that she’d taken to drinking every evening when the sun went down, as if she were at the window staring at the horizon, watching and waiting. What else could Aberdeen do on those nights she sat in the middle of nowhere on his godforsaken joke of a farm, with not even Smitty to talk to. What could she have done except to drink?
But the White coroner said, “Due to the extremely high levels of alcohol in her bloodstream, Aberdeen Treadwell probably fell down the stairs”. All her siblings could do was shake their heads and add it to the list of all they’d gone through, all the injustices they heard about or saw for themselves—the whole reason the family had packed up not so long ago and migrated North. Here they thought they were escaping the violence of the South, the violence that might kill them, when they actually brought the violence with them, let it become part of their family.
Your aunts know it takes courage to do hard things, and they ask you: do you know that sometimes courage can be found in a bottle of good gin? They do not wait for your answer.
You stood beside your mother and watched as they lowered your favorite aunt Aberdeen into the ground. You wondered how anyone could dig a grave in this cold, hard earth, the snow is brown, like the dirt underneath it. You wished it was still white, still powdery soft, and you hoped it would snow again later, and lay on her grave like a soft chenille bedspread you slept under when you visited her, pretending you were the child she would never have. You remembered how the cream on the top of the bottled milk was the best, and how you would wait for the milkman to bring the bottle so that you would be the first to pour it on your Frosted Flakes. You remember she loved sugar so much, that she switched the flour canister and put sugar in it because it was bigger, but she never baked a thing. She said she just never wanted to be without a lot of sweetness in her house.
Your aunts are here now, in this house, in your kitchen to prepare to bury the uncle- who- is- not- one- of- your- favorites, not even a year after their sister has died, at his hand, they believe. But they were raised to do it because “family is family, whether you like them or not.” You don’t understand because you know they did not like him one bit. And now you know they’ll never make peace with the fact that they resent the day he was born. Still Auntie Clarice had protested when they decided to take care of burying him.
“But he ain’t got no family up here, Clarice! And we knew the Treadwells in Mississippi. His kin was good people, so that’s what we thought he was-- we thought he was a good man.”
But now you hear their anger as they talk into the gin and the orange juice that you thought was a breakfast treat for you. You now know that Uncle Smitty burned Aunt Aberdeen’s clothes, and all of her possessions, That he burned or gave away even the things that belonged to all the family—not just Aunt Aberdeen’s, but the family’s things that Aunt Aberdeen had stored for them because she had the most room in her house—furniture their father had made by hand, and quilts they had worked on with their mother, what looked like stuff to anybody else but was their family’s treasures. That all of it was sold or given away, like he disdained the sight of everything that was Aunt Aberdeen’s. That he didn’t give the family a chance to collect her life and hold on to her earthly goods as memories.
“That was just plain hateful!” Auntie Clarice says, and the other aunts have to agree. “It proves what we all knew—that he was less than no count! I shoulda hurt him when I had the chance!” says Uncle Bae, who has entered the kitchen as quietly as if he were you. He is the youngest, who all the aunts claim they raised, the uncle who always finds a way to enter the into the women’s domain. You watch their faces change. You feel the atmosphere lighten as they start to talk about dead Uncle Smitty, to make fun of him, to retell the jokes their sister, Aberdeen used to tell about her husband to shame him. And then they laugh. They laugh tears down their faces, tears falling so fast they have to use their aprons and handkerchiefs to wipe their faces, but the laughter keeps coming. Laughter so lusty, you think one of them might keel over right there in your mother’s kitchen.
You are now the age your aunts were when Aunt Aberdeen died, now so long ago. And now they are all gone, your aunts and uncles. They were old when you knew them, and they just got older and older until they could stay no more on this earth. But they didn’t die all at once. Your aunts and uncles kept coming together, making sure they were there to bury the next one lost. You remember being confused because it was the only time you saw them together, sad and happy at the same time, eating foods you usually ate only on holidays-- hams and turkeys, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and such, which, along with the Caramel and Hummingbird cakes, the sweet potato, and apple pies, would fill a whole buffet and dining room table. You feel guilty because you almost miss the Coming Together as much as you miss them, every ritual you remember, dying.
When your mother dies, you are an adult, you are old enough to take care of the funeral preparations, old enough to take care of things, but you don’t know what to do. There is no one left to tell you how to die, how the rituals go. You don’t remember what they found their laughter and joy in. The person who taught you how to be in this world is gone! You don’t understand grief that way.
You have come back to her house, but you are the only one there. There is no need to extra black clothes to spread around, no communal bedroom to dress in. you simply ask those who make their living in death to take her away. You will collect her later when you can think of what the next step is. But for now, you do this: go to the refrigerator and pull out the orange juice. It is all yours now. You have only one regret. You wish for only one thing: that when packed and sealed up all of your memories in boxes, you had thought to keep a jelly jar before you cleaned out all her cupboards in her kitchen.
Cynthia Robinson Young: "I am a native of Newark, New Jersey but now reside in the South where I is an adjunct professor at Covenant College and graduate student at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. My work has appeared in Sojourners, Poetry South, The Ekphrastic Review, and io literary journal, among others. For my chapbook, Migration, I was the Finalist for the Georgia Author of the Year Award, 2019."