AN EERIE NOSTALGIA.
After Mary retired for the evening, Jesse, still feeling giddy and galvanized by the evening’s events, retreated downstairs to the kitchen. His heart was still racing in excitement, and a jovial grin lit up his face and brightened his eyes as he swaggered down the stairs. When he entered the radiantly-lit kitchen, he failed to notice the calls of his aunt, sitting behind the center of a granite counter-topped island holding a holographic reading tablet. Seconds later, a pink-robed Stacy, reached for the fruit basket to her immediate left. Clasping an orange, she wound up and floated it in the air, impacting Jesse’s temple as he walked by, instantly erasing his blissful trance. Stacy laughed obnoxiously, accentuating her scratchy voice.
“Really?!” Jesse asked with an accusatory grin.
“Been pulling that same trick on you for years and it still gets you every time!” Stacy mocked.
“Jeez, if you wanted my attention, you should throw a knife at me or something,” Jesse replied as he opened the refrigerator door and grabbed milk.
“Oh, believe me, dear, I’ve thought about it. I can tell you’re in a good mood! You kicked ass tonight!”
“Yeah, but that’s not why I’m happy. I got a date coming up soon!”
Stacy gleamed from ear-to-ear with pride, as if she had been waiting her whole life to hear those words.
“OHHHH MY GAWWWWDDDD!!!” Stacy screamed, then ran to her nephew and squeezed him tight. “MY LITTLE NEPHEW IS GROWING UP!” As Stacy’s embrace tightened, some milk spilled from Jesse’s glass onto his t-shirt. “WHAT’S HER NAME?! WHAT DOES SHE LOOK LIKE?!”
“Ummm…let me go and I’ll tell you.”
“Of course!” a shaking Stacy replied. “I’m sorry about the spill! I’ll get you some napkins and get us some oatmeal cookies to celebrate!”
Jesse, at first, felt mortified, but calmed down when he sat down on the black barstool adjacent to Stacy’s. “Normally, I’d act modest,” Jesse began, “but since I know you genuinely care about my well-being, I’ll entertain you. If this were Uncle Bob, well…”
“Oh, sweetie, please don’t start with that,” Stacy said as she returned to the island with the cookies and her own glass of milk. “Don’t worry, he’s locked away in his den watching Leonard or something, so he won’t bother us.”
“Of course. You work as hard as he does, but you don’t need to hide from the world like him.”
“I found that work-life balance, dear. And I’m glad I did, otherwise I’d have to kill myself. So…talk to me, young man! What’s her name?!”
“Ohhhh, lovely name! Brunette or blonde?”
“Blonde, slim figure, and a smile that could blind you with beauty.”
“She doesn’t ‘get around’, does she?”
Jesse laughed hysterically, doubling over. “Come on, Aunt…she…well…I don’t think so.”
“Dear,” Stacy replied while gently placing her wrinkled hand over her nephew’s. “It’s an honest question.”
“Well, I hope not, but she is pretty popular.”
“Consider yourself lucky, but don’t get in too deep. You just never know.”
Jesse sighed, then grinned at his aunt as if to appreciate her advice. “Can I ask you an honest question?” Jesse asked his aunt, then sipped his milk and took a bite out of his cookie.
“Has Uncle Bob always been this cold? Or was he different when you two first met?”
Stacy creased her lips upward, leaned back, then took a deep breath. “Well, dear…it’s really tough to say. He has always had a big heart, believe it or not. He genuinely cares about you and your cousins. But…like most men his age…he became jaded. By work, by the world, the Conflict…and, you know…some people…just can’t deal with stress the right way.”
“But you do? You figured it out?”
“Well, I’d be lying if I said I’d figured everything out.”
“If say, me and Sarah were to get into a long-term relationship, could we drift apart?”
“Anything’s possible, but you can’t worry about that. All you can worry about is the fun you two will have on your first date!”
Jesse smiled again. “You always know how to make me feel better. I’m already brainstorming our first date; location, time, weather, food, wardrobe! Was you and Bob’s relationship exciting when you started dating?”
“Yes, it was, and…your uncle was happy. He smiled, he was affectionate…he wanted to travel, meet new people, try new foods, but…as you get older, people change. I lament sometimes that he would rather be in his den then spend time with me, but…I learned to accept it.”
“Begrudgingly, or subconsciously?”
“Jesse, please don’t get too deep into this.”
“Well, that’s why we hold each other accountable, right? That mutual respect is why we get along. And I respect you too much to not tell the truth, and that truth is…I’m not sure he loves you or us anymore.”
“He may not show it, but he does. Trust me.”
Jesse raised his right eyebrow as if to call his aunt’s bluff. Stacy, realizing this, resignedly tilted her head down.
“Well…you may be right,” Stacy acknowledged. “But you must understand he has a difficult job, and he has to work sometimes outrageous hours in order to keep a roof over our head and food on the table.”
“I know you’re defending your husband, but…”
“I know, sweetie,” Stacy defiantly interrupted as she looked back up and grabbed Jesse’s hand. “Bob is whom you look up to as a father figure, because he’s the only one you ever knew. Right now, I’m your mother figure, and I accept that responsibility. To see him not meet your expectations must be insanely difficult for you.”
Jesse then bittersweetly arched his mouth, then contracted his face as if to prevent himself from crying. Any mention of his mother triggered bad memories, despite being more than five years removed from her death.
“I miss her so much,” Jesse cried. Empathizing with his anger, Stacy smiled, then almost inappropriately chuckled. “What’s so funny?”
“You know…I wish I could have used this tactic on you, Mary and Matt, but…do you remember when you stole five dollars from your mother’s wallet when you were six?”
Jesse froze in astonishment. “She told you that story?!”
“You make it seem like a big deal, dear. You’re not the first six-year-old to steal from a parent and you won’t be the last. For Joshua’s sake, I stole from my mother’s change purse all the time! My point is, do you remember how she punished you?”
An eerie nostalgic rush overtook Jesse. “Oh no, don’t even…”
“Yes, I remember Billy, our Doberman!”
“And what did you do with him?” Stacy asked while creasing her eyes downward and tilting her head towards his.
Stacy shook her head deliberately.
“Alright, alright, I picked up his droppings for two weeks!”
Stacy then winked, then held back a chuckle.
“With my bare hands.”
“Ah, but do you know what she did after that?”
Jesse sat back and attempted to channel the deepest depths of his memory. When the moment came to him, he looked up with a slight grin.
“She took me to a movie, then for pizza and ice cream, and then…she gave me ten dollars. And she told me she loved me…wow!”
Stacy nodded in approval. “It was genius parenting. Kind of nasty, but…effective. Only if you are a great teacher could you pull that off. She knew just simply grounding you was just an idle statement. Charging you with such an embarrassing task, then rewarding you for so arduously completing it taught you accountability. Your mother raised you to be as physically tough as your father, and as mentally tough as her.” Stacy then wrapped her hands around a stoic Jesse’s. “And,” Stacy continued as her voice began to crack, “when I looked at that Freedomian flag draped over her casket, sobbing and shaking, I vowed to myself to ensure you grew up to embody those values she taught you: honor, respect, and integrity. The last thing I want to see is you forgetting those values…to devolve into someone you’re not. I know you’re under a lot of pressure to succeed. But when you’re at your most vulnerable, I want you to remember the most important words your mother ever said to me.”
Jesse’s eyes widened, and he stared deep into the deepest details of his aunt’s retinas, intently anticipating and listening.
“Is it what she said to all her students - learn, live, and smile?”
Stacy nodded, validating Jesse’s guess. Suddenly, however, began to obnoxiously snicker, then she quipped, “no, stupid! Drink your damn milk and eat your damn cookie! Of course it’s learn, live, smile!” Stacy resumed laughing as Jesse rolled his eyes, chuckled, then clanked his milk glass against his aunt’s.
“Now I know where Matt gets his personality from,” Jesse bantered. “At least I know he’s not adopted.