Frail hands, veins standing out and marked with age spots, caressed one of the photos on the first page of the album.
“That was 1911, the year I was born. That’s my mother.”
Sheila moved closer. Aunt Mary’s hearing wasn’t very good anymore.
“They didn’t smile much for photos, did they?”
Mary harrumphed, as she said, “Mother wasn’t a very happy person at the best of times. Ten children before me and all the farm work too—just about wore her to death.”
She turned the page. The photo of a handsome young lad in a military uniform stared up at them.
“Was that one of your brothers?” Sheila asked, hoping to encourage more memories. “Some of them were in the First World War, weren’t they?
Mary thought for a moment before she answered: “No…at least I don’t think so, though…well, it might have been Charlie…but…oh, I don’t remember…” Her voice trailed off. Mary’s hand stopped over the picture, resting on it as though waiting for an answer to magically flow from the thick cardboard into her mind. Sheila could see the struggle to remember on her aunt’s face.
“It’s okay, Aunt Mary, it’s not important.”
The older woman looked up, meeting Sheila’s gaze and pinioning it with the icy blue of her own. “It IS important,” she retorted, frustration and a touch of anger adding an edge to her usually calm tones. Immediately her eyes went back to the photo.
“It was Charlie, not my brother, but my mother’s younger brother. He went away and never came back,” she said. It was as though that moment of pique had chased the fog away. She turned the page and reached out to stab a more modern photo with a long, boney, arthritic finger.
“That’s Emma, my sister.”
“My mother,” said Sheila.
Mary looked up again as though seeing Sheila for the first time.
“You were away for a long time, weren’t you? Where was it…Africa?”
“Japan, Aunt Mary. I was there for twelve years.”
“Yes, of course,” her aunt replied.
There had been a time when her visits with her aunt had resulted in hours of questions about Sheila’s life and experiences. Mary kept every letter, writing her questions in cramped handwriting in the margins so that she wouldn’t forget what she wanted to ask the next time her niece came. Now the questions wouldn’t come and the answers didn’t matter.
“Have you heard anything from Edith McKay? I haven’t had a letter from her in a long time. Has she called you?”
Sheila smiled to herself. In her latter years Aunt Mary had begun to collapse time in her mind and think of her niece as one of her peer group, another one of the “girls” like Edith, Mary’s best friend from her younger days.
“Edith died several years ago, Aunt Mary,” Sheila said.
The older women looked puzzled for a moment. Then, as her brow cleared, she nodded slowly. “Yes, of course,” she replied.
Sheila decided it might be time to press her aunt a little. What kind of present do you get for a woman about to celebrate 100 years of life?
“What would you like for your birthday, Aunt Mary?”
This time Mary didn’t hesitate. “What I want I think I’m going to have to wait for,” she answered. Sheila knew that her aunt loved to go out for drives through the countryside and, thinking that perhaps the other nieces had some special outing planned, she asked: “And what might that be?”
“I want to go home.”
Her cousins had assured Sheila that their aunt had made the adjustment from her apartment to the seniors’ home with relative ease, so she was surprised that her aunt would be so adamant about leaving Riverdale.
“Don’t you like it here? Don’t they treat you well? It’s almost as good as the apartment and you don’t have to cook, or do your own laundry.”
The older women straightened with an effort. For the first time during the visit, there was a twinkle in her eye, certainty in her voice, and not a wisp of fog to be seen.
“The apartment isn’t the home I was thinking of.”