I step lightly off the stairs and into a wall of people. My God. Matt said a lot of people came, but this is crazy. The funeral was small and intentionally private, just me, Matt, Karen, and a handful of Grandma’s closest friends. Following Grandma’s long-time written orders, which were committed to paper and notarized long before either Matt or I were born, the celebration of life was designed as an open house, and boy is it ever. People fill every nook and cranny of the downstairs, spilling out the front door onto the porch, and through the back door onto the deck.
Each and every one of them is impeccably dressed, as if they are coming to pay their respects to a celebrity, and in a way, I guess they are. Elizabeth Sarah Otis Morgan was a name everyone in Dover recognized, either through her charitable work, her involvement in lineage and historical societies, her church, or just out and about in the community, where she made herself highly visible in the decades before dementia overtook her.
Some of our guests may be here to sample the free catered food, or to get a look inside the prominent, historic Morgan mansion, but the looks of genuine sadness and even some tears I see on the faces around me tell me Matt was right: Grandma did have a lot of friends, far more than either of us ever realized.
Is it weird that the vast majority of them never set foot in this house in the 13 years I’ve lived here? Grandma was plainly not a recluse, and I remember her going out to all kinds of social events when I was little. Every now and then, she brought me along, and I do think I recognize a few faces from those rare outings. Mostly, she went to her events alone, and never brought anyone back to the house with her.
My house. It’s my house now. Well, mine and Matt’s, jointly. Such a weird thought.
It’s a shame the weather isn’t warmer, or we could have had this whole event in the spacious back yard. Setting up some tents with tables and chairs, and giving people access to the deck, pool, and hot tub would have been lovely. Unfortunately, April is still pretty chilly in New Hampshire, leaving us with little choice but to host it inside. That leaves me with few options to get far enough away from Karen to avoid talking to her, and right now, pushed shoulder to shoulder with her by our sea of mourners, I feel like her hostage. She will be able to spot me anywhere I go downstairs, except the bathroom, thanks to the open floor plan, and if I go back upstairs, she’ll follow me, laying on her “You’re mentally unstable, Sarah,” act as thick as possible for Matt’s benefit.
I can’t let even the smallest hint of a doubt about me enter his mind. While outsiders might not listen to Karen, looking at her like the scheming girlfriend she is, they will listen to Matt. He’s known me my whole life, lived with me since I was 7, and was my legal guardian from the time I was 12 until I turned 18. If he says I’m unstable and need evaluating, people will listen. I can’t let that happen.
So, I’m stuck here for the time being. At least I’m dressed for it. I never changed out of the formal outfit I wore to the funeral, as Karen’s presence in the house made me too wound up inside to feel secure about taking it off and getting comfortable. It’s a good thing, because everyone here looks like they’re going to a gala at the White House. Oh yes, Dover’s glitterati have come out in force, along with regular folks dressed in their finest.
Wearing the ankle-length black cotton dress with long sleeves and a scooped neck that Carter got me for Christmas two years ago, accented with black hose, low-heeled black dress shoes with closed toes, Grandma’s diamond drop earrings, and a gold chain necklace with a single square cut diamond pendant, I fit right in with this crowd. The all-black look, especially, turned out to be a blessing. I mean, I know it’s traditional for the family to wear black at these events, but because most everyone else here besides Matt and Karen are wearing at least some color, my relatively muted, but elegant, look allows me to blend into the background better. It’s good, because I’m really not in the mood for a lot of idle chit chat with people I don’t know.
I’m happy I at least took off the black knit sweater when I got home, as the crush of people in my house is generating quite a bit of heat, in spite of the chill being let in by two partially open doors to the exterior. Any coolness they’re bringing in is absorbed by the crowd long before it reaches me. I may have to push up my sleeves pretty soon, unless I can maneuver my way toward one of those doors. Now that she has me in her clutches, though, I doubt Karen will allow me to get more than arm’s length from her side for the rest of the day, unless I get really lucky.
A few heads turn as soon as my feet land on the blue area rug at the bottom of the stairs, and several sets of eyes light up in recognition. Here they come. The well-wishers. I brace myself, so not in the mood. The start walking toward me, jostling through the crowd to get a chance to speak to Elizabeth Morgan’s only granddaughter. Soon, I find myself shaking hands, thanking strange faces for coming to pay their respects to my grandmother, listening politely as people I couldn’t pick out of a crowd tell me how they remember holding me or playing with me when I was a baby, and how proud Grandma was to show me off to her friends.
I actually do appreciate them being here, but it’s taxing. The emotional time, and the problem of Karen makes it more so. I kind of feel bad for leaving Matt down here without me for so long. It’s a lot to take in. Yes, he had Karen with him, but it’s not the same as a relative, especially the only relative who can understand the loss as well as you.
Damn it. Now, I feel bad. Regardless of Karen’s negative presence, I should have stayed down here and helped him. No way would I want to do this alone. It wasn’t fair of me to expect it of Matt. I’ve got to remember to apologize to him later, if I can snag a moment alone with him. I refuse to have any private “cousin” moments in front of his smug little fiancée.
Gradually, after what seems like hours, but is probably more like minutes in reality, I manage to sidle away from the stairs and lean against the closest wall, which is also right by one of the catering tables. A young man of about my age or a few years older, wearing a crisp, white uniform, dutifully serves up plates of hand-sliced pies and cakes in silence to anyone who approaches. If they ask for it, he puts a dollop of whipped cream on their treat, or a handful of fresh berries, or both. At least I managed to get near the dessert table. With the emotional stress I’m under, having a handy supply of sugar and chocolate nearby may be what gets me through this thing.
Sadly, Karen is sticking by my side like she’s been superglued there, and where Karen goes, so does Matt. Therefore, the three of us are now holding court at the dessert table. Standing side by side against the forest green plaster wall, we make a natural receiving line on the way to dessert, so that’s what we end up becoming. Every spare inch of furniture was long-since claimed before I came downstairs, and I silently thank God I’m wearing comfortable shoes, because it looks like I’ll be standing in them for a while.
Matt is no doubt happy at this arrangement, because to him, it looks like we’re finally becoming close like he wants. He’s been pushing for a sisterly relationship between Karen and me since he first introduced us. Unbeknownst to him, though, his beloved wife-to-be is making an uncomfortable situation positively unbearable on my end. I want a fly swatter to swat her away, or better, a crowbar to pry her from me. I briefly imagine breaking her legs with one, so she can’t follow me anymore, and a small smile flickers at the corners of my mouth. I’d never do something like that, of course, but the thought of it offers me a bit of blessed relief, and some much needed humor.
Whenever anyone walks up to us, or looks our way, Karen smiles and radiates love and compassion, skillfully playing the part of a helpful soon-to-be family member, attending to guests while comforting her fiancé’s and his cousin who just lost their grandmother. She ramps it up to about a million if Matt is looking at us. It’s pretty disgusting. She doesn’t pretend with me, though. Any brief moment where no pair of eyes is resting on us, she stares daggers at me, implied threats in every blink. Bitch.
I keep my eyes pointing forward, pretending I don’t see what she’s doing, but she knows I do. It’s her way of keeping me constantly aware that as soon as all these guests leave my house, she’s going to do everything in her power to make sure I follow them in short order.
The afternoon passes in a blur of shaking hands, hugging, and thanking strangers for coming. Guests continue to flit in and out of my house for most of the day and into the evening. Some stop by briefly, offer their condolences, and leave. Others spy people they know well and break off into groups scattered about the adjoining living and family rooms, separated only by an open walkway. These are the ones who stay all day, lost deep in conversation with their friends. I’m glad Matt and I sprang for the best caterer in town, Lady Godiva’s Fine Foods and Entertaining, as they came well-stocked. Refills of the tables are required numerous times. Over the course of the afternoon, the main course and side dish tables are re-loaded at least three times, the snack table, with its loose fruits, vegetables, cheese, crackers, and olives, is replenished twice, and the dessert table is magically piled high with cake, pie, eclairs, brownies, and cookies a full four times. I don’t even know how many gallons of tea, water, and sparkling cider are used up and re-filled once more. The dessert table is popular, and people come and go again and again, taking small china plates and cups back to their talkative groups for more sustenance.
Matt is standing closest to the table, with Karen between us, and if it weren’t for him, I might have collapsed from hunger at several points, because no way was Karen allowing me any food while we were entertaining….never mind that I paid for half of this food. Matt knows what I like, and whenever I need a bite, I merely lean forward, catch his eyes, and nod expectantly toward the table, and he hands me a plate of something sugary and delicious. With Karen looking straight ahead, he never notices her deep from of disapproval each time he does it. Each plate of dessert that lands in my hands, I count as a victory over tyranny.
By six in the evening, we’ve been at this for about five hours, and I’m exhausted. As a natural introvert, being around large groups of people for long periods of time drains my energy; I need my “alone” time to recharge. It’s not that I’m shy. I’m just incredibly sensitive to the energy of others, and it saps my own if it’s too big, which a crowd of this size definitely is. Karen’s close proximity, and the awful, negative vibes radiating off her, do not help make this easier for me. As the guests blessedly begin to dwindle from dozens to just a handful of lingerers, I gradually lean against the wall more and more just to keep myself upright. I can see Matt is getting tired, too, despite being more of an extrovert than me. If Matt is wearing out, then it really has been a trying day. He can usually keep going in social situations indefinitely without running out of energy.
Karen thinks Matt and I are cleaning the house after everyone leaves? Ha! Tomorrow, yes, certainly. Today? No way. It’s half my house, I’m a legal adult, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, she can do to make me. I don’t care what kind of scene she makes. There is nothing crazy or unreasonable about leaving a mess out for a day after a day like this one. She can’t trap me with that argument, not on this issue. Of that, I am completely confident. If she wants the house cleaned so badly, she can do it herself. As long as I say “no” in front of Matt, and do it gently, she’s got nothing.
As the last few guests finally clear out, I gear up for that conversation. It occurs to me I better set my phone to record it, just in case. In fact, I should probably record every conversation I have with Karen ever, public or private, from now on. Evidence is a wonderful thing.
As I’m imagining how the showdown with Karen about cleaning might go, an elderly man, probably in his mid-80’s, walks up to me and takes both my hands in his before he even says hello.
“Oh!” I gasp, surprised at the unexpected touch. I look down at his hands, one eye still on Karen, and note that they are remarkably unwrinkled, the fingers straight and strong, not gnarled with arthritis as with many men his age, and there are no age spots, either. He even has a tan, though we’re barely into spring. He is old, but his hands, at least, have aged astoundingly well.
“Sarah, my sweet child,” he says, his voice low and smooth, carrying power without having to be loud. “It is so good to see you again.”
He means it, and I notice with a start that he’s gazing at me lovingly, like a long-lost relative. That’s so strange. Again? I don’t recall ever meeting him at all. Yet, of all the people who have come through here today talking to me about meeting me as a baby or a small child, none acted like they know me intimately. They all related their experiences with me through their connection to Grandma. This man is different.
I examine him more closely, Karen still in my peripheral vision, trying to jog my memory. If he knows me as well as he’s acting like he does, surely there’s a memory of him in there somewhere, even a distant and hazy one. Let’s see. His hair is white but full, and almost lush, without even a hint of a receding hairline. The rest of his skin is as spotless as his hands, and he stands tall, not stooped over like so many of the elderly visitors I’ve spoken to today. He carries no cane, and doesn’t shake at all, so he’s not feeble. If it weren’t for a mild sprinkling of wrinkles on his face, he would look like a thirty year old whose hair had gone prematurely white. No, there is no hint of frailness about this man. Even his wide green eyes sparkle brightly with the light of youth. It’s actually a bit unnerving, as is the subtle hint of familiarity about him. Do I know him? It almost seems like I do, but I can’t for the life of me put my finger on where or how. There’s no hazy memory of him, just this tugging sensation in the back of my subconscious telling me to pay attention.
So, I do. Never ignore your subconscious. It always steers you in the right direction.
“Do I know you, sir?” I ask with respect, continuing to allow him to hold my hands. Matt and Karen are talking to Grandma’s minister and his wife just now, and not paying attention to this tall, elegant elderly gentleman in front of me.
“Oh, my darling,” he laughs, sounding for all the world like he just walked off a college campus without seven or eight decades separating him from graduation, “I wouldn’t expect you to remember me. It’s been too long. But, I know you and Matt quite well, indeed. In fact, I was there when each of you were born. I’m your great-uncle Jacob. Your Grandpa Morgan’s brother.”
“But, I thought Matt and I didn’t have any more relatives,” I stammer, mind thoroughly blown. Grandpa Morgan died before I was born, when Matt was only five. If he had a brother who was still alive, you’d think Grandma would have mentioned it at some point. So, why didn’t she? Why did he never come to visit when we were little? Was he at the funeral for my parents and Matt’s? Does Matt remember him? How long has it been since he’s seen either of us?
So many questions.
I must look thoroughly dumbfounded, because Great-Uncle Jacob smiles at me warmly, with genuine affection. “I know what you’re thinking, Sarah. I didn’t abandon you or your grandmother. It was she who requested I stay away, after she took in you and Matt after your parents died. That was so tragic, how they all died together on that trip to Colombia. I told them mudslides were common in the summer, and to be careful, but they wanted that jungle adventure so much. I never forgot you and Matt. I even sent cards and gifts for your birthdays and Christmases over the years. Lizzie never gave them to you, did she?”
Lizzie. My grandmother’s nickname. Short for Elizabeth. I haven’t heard anyone refer to her as that since my parents were alive. It’s what my mother called her.
“No, she didn’t,” I say, shaking my head, bewildered. “I’m sorry.”
I’ve got to get Matt’s eyes on this man, to know if he’s for real. Matt has to remember him, surely. He was 17 when we lost our parents.
“Oh, no need to apologize. I knew it was a long shot that she would give you anything I sent, or tell you about me, but I wanted to at least try. Lizzie had class enough to not return them to me, at least. I’ll give the old girl that. Probably donated them to charity, knowing her. They weren’t fancy gifts, just little trinkets to let you know your great-uncle remembered and loved you. I know you two already had everything you needed.”
“Maybe she was concerned he would try to lay claim to your inheritance.”
Of course. Karen. Naturally, she would take interest in a handsome, elderly stranger giving me so much attention. She hisses the words, sidling up so close to me our shoulders are touching. It chills me right through to the bone. That women is pure evil, I swear.
“Shut up,” I snap back at her, as quietly as I can manage, not wanting her to offend Jacob, who could actually be a long-lost relative. With so few left, I don’t want her rudeness to send him stomping away in a huff, never to return.
“It’s okay,” he says gently, patting me on the shoulder with one hand, while continuing to hold both of mine with the other. “It’s a natural assumption. Your grandmother was a wealthy woman, and I haven’t been around in fifteen years. Well, except for your parents’ funeral. It’s perfectly reasonable for her to wonder. This is Matt’s fiancée, Karen, I take it?”
“Yes, it is,” Karen says, coldly, crossing her arms over her chest. “If you’re not here for the money, then why come at all, after all this time?”
“I’m quite comfortable on my own, I assure you,” he says, addressing both Karen and me. “I’ve got plenty of money. I don’t need Lizzie’s. It was hers and hers alone. Not even my late brother could lay claim to it without her consent. She brought most of it to the marriage, then the two of them built it from there, under her management. And now, Sarah, it belongs to you and Matt, as it should.”
“Then why are you here?” Karen demands, acting for all the world like she’s a security guard and I’m the jewel she’s in charge of protecting. And, where is Matt? I want him here, identifying Jacob for me, and acting as a buffer between Karen and me.
Oh, great. He’s wandered off to the back door with the minister. Perfect. The one time all day he leaves our makeshift receiving line by the wall, and this is the moment he chooses.
“As I said, Lizzie wouldn’t let me come before,” Jacob says, a shadow of sadness crossing his face. “Now, I can. Believe me, I have no agenda. I just wanted to let you know I never forgot you, always thought about you, and always loved you. Still do. Also, I had to offer my condolences. I know how much you two must have loved your grandmother. She was a tough old bird, and we never saw eye to eye once the entire time we knew each other, but I always respected her. Lizzie was a force of nature.”
“She certainly was,” I agree, smiling, happy to get a word in before Karen can insult him again. “Thank you for coming. If you don’t mind my asking, sir, but do you have any other family? Matt and I were under the impression we had no more relatives left. We’re both only children, our mothers were only children, and our dads were brothers who died together. Everyone else was supposed to have passed on when we were little, or before we were born. Your appearance is a surprise, to say the least. If there is any more family out there, I’d love to know.”
“Why?” Karen growls, menace dripping from that one word. “It would only be more people to try to take a piece of your inheritance.”
“Like you?” I bite back, before I can stop myself.
Karen’s eyes fly wide, but Jacob answers before she can do anything about my daring taunt.
“My wife died a couple of years ago, your Great-Aunt Rebecca. Ah, she was the true love of my life, a real gem of a woman. I wish you could have met her. Matt did a few times, but I don’t know if he remembers. I have a son, Christopher, who lives in California, and he has a son and daughter of his own, both about your age. They live out there with him and their mother, but they come to visit me sometimes. I talk to them on the phone almost every day.”
“So, we have three cousins?” I ask, excitedly. The idea of other relatives is thrilling. It makes me feel less alone in the world. Matt and I aren’t the last of our kind after all. It’s wonderful. No one wants to be the last of their kind.
“You do,” he says playfully, eyes twinkling. “I hope you can meet them one day. They know all about you, but it’s not quite the same as meeting in person, is it?”
“No, it’s not,” I agree, and make a silent wish that we can all have a real family reunion soon, here or in California. It doesn’t matter where. I just want to meet my hidden relatives. “It’s great to know, though. Why Grandma didn’t want you to contact us? You seem perfectly lovely.”
I hope I’m not being rude, but it’s kind of an important question. Grandma was kind and loving, the most gentle, accepting, forgiving person I ever knew. What could have possibly happened to make her keep the only remaining branch of our family away from us?
“I’d be interested in that piece of knowledge myself,” Karen mumbles, glaring at him. “Although, I can guess.”
I roll my eyes, and Jacob sees it. Could Karen be any ruder? Jacob sees what she’s about, though, I can tell, which makes me feel a little better.
Jacob sighs heavily and holds my hands a little bit tighter. “That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?” he says softly, shaking his head. “I was never entirely sure. Lizzie was a private lady, I’m sure you know. Didn’t talk about herself much. To this day, I still have no idea how she and my brother met. I asked him a few times, and he always said Lizzie wanted to keep it between them. More special that way, he said. After your parents died, she acted like she wanted to pretend everything that ever happened to her before her marriage never happened, like she just popped up fully formed out of the earth at that moment, ready to raise you and Matt. My wife, son, and I were the only people left who knew anything about her from when she was single, and I’m the only one who actually met her before the wedding. I guess even knowing what little we did was knowing too much. She said it was safer for you and Matt if we stayed away. What could we do but respect her wishes? She had legal guardianship over both of you.”
Safer? That’s an odd choice of word. Was Grandma a gangster or something? Was Jacob?
“Didn’t you ever ask her why? What made her think you coming around would be dangerous for Matt and me?”
“I always wondered where she got her money,” Karen mutters under her breath. I ignore her. “I told you it had to be something illegal. He probably knows.”
“Oh, of course I asked her,” Jacob continues, pointedly ignoring Karen. “You and Matt are my brother’s grandchildren. I wanted to maintain a relationship with you. All she would ever say was that there were things you and Matt shouldn’t know, and she was concerned I might let something slip in front of you. Ha! As if I knew anything to tell. Lizzie assured me it was nothing against me and my family, but insisted we stay away and not contact you. The woman even threatened me with a restraining order if I went against her wishes. Can you imagine?”
Actually, no, I can’t imagine at all. What secrets was Grandma hiding? Kids don’t think to ask questions about a person’s childhood; they believe the world started when they were born. As a child, it never once occurred to me to ask her anything about herself other than what I already knew. As I grew up, I continued to not think about it. She was just Grandma.
I should have asked. People love talking about their childhoods when they get older. Most people. Would Grandma have actually told me anything if I’d asked her? I’m starting to wonder.
There’s something else about Jacob’s story I don’t understand.
“Wait,” I say, letting him continue to hold my hands. He hasn’t let them go since he walked up to me. He’s so eager to make contact, I can’t bear to pull away, even if he is a stranger to me. “Grandma began to get dementia when I was 12. She continued to live here for the next six years, but Matt took over guardianship for me. It was just after he graduated college, when he was 22. Why didn’t you contact us then, when she was no longer our guardian? Why wait until now?”
“Sarah, I hate to tell you this, but Lizzie did not have dementia.”
The world drops out from under me, and I sink to me knees, still holding Jacob’s strong, tanned hands.