It was the summer after my senior year of high school, and I was living with my maternal grandmother and her husband down in Cincinnati, so that I could work in a nearby motel. There was little in the way of summer jobs in my small hometown an hour to the north. Early Saturday morning, wearing my white maid’s uniform and sneakers, waist-length hair pulled back into a ponytail, sitting at the formica table in the kitchen, I eat my cereal. I am basking in the pleasure of having the house to myself for the week-end, while D&K spend time at his cabin in Kentucky.
When I answer the phone my father is on the other end. My stepmother, on vacation at Chautauqua with her daughter and grandson – the husbands to go up the next week-end – has somehow died in the night. Late forties, healthy, excited for weeks about the anticipated time with loved ones in a favorite place. Dead.
My uncle arrives a few minutes later to give me a ride to work. I have changed into jeans, and tell him that he needs to drive me home instead. We are silent, silent the entire way. I see a tear run down his cheek, and I am surprised, but then I realize that he is remembering a similar drive ten years previous, when my mother, who was his sister, had been killed in a car accident, along with my baby brother.
. . .
At home, sitting in the kitchen. A few people, family and neighbors, are milling about, making phone calls, making coffee, making lists. The air is leaden, with a sense of doom being replayed. I am not quite eighteen, and I watch them in wonder. Each seems to have a role to play, and each seems to know his or her part. It occurs to me that they have all done this before, ten years ago, and they know how to do it. My role is to watch and learn, so that I, too, will know what to do someday.
. . .
We are crammed onto the back porch, which is really little more than a square brick entryway, crouched and sitting and standing, we six kids, who have seldom all been in the same place at the same time since our parents married. July afternoon, warm, sunny. Death has finally brought us together. My youngest stepbrother, almost thirteen, had found his mother. He describes the scene, again. My stepsister, 22 and a fairly new mother, says, “It’s so weird. It’s so weird. One minute, someone is alive, and the next, she isn’t. “ Later, she and I will return to the Chautauqua cottage and circle it like stealth reconnaissance agents, trying to reconstruct the events of that July night.
She looks at my brother and I as we sit on the porch, legs dangling over the grass. “You already knew about this,” she says. I always remember her tone as one of accusation, although I am sure she did not intend it that way. But it was true. We did know. We had known for most of our lives. One minute, someone is alive, and the next, not.
Holy Saturdays. Bitter Saturdays. They happen to us all. As more than one friend has noted this year, the anguish is not erased in three days. And once you know that things are one way one minute and another the next, you cannot unknow it.