“You better now?”
“Depends on your definition of better,” I answered.
Jude tilted my head up so my nose wasn’t planted in his chest. “Better as in you aren’t going to have a fit if I go talk to Dad.”
I stiffened up, couldn’t help it. “You do what you have to but Jude, I mean it … don’t go dragging me into anything even close to appeasement. I do not want you to have to choose and won’t let you if you try. But right now I just can’t go crawling down there and acting the way he expects me to act. Maybe … maybe for … for your sake and the kids I can do it later … but it isn’t in me right now and I’m sorry.”
“I’m not asking you to be sorry Dovie.”
“And don’t go telling the truth either. I know that sounds awful but it would cause even worse problems. Just let my lie stand and I’ll deal with the consequences.”
He sighed regretfully. “I want to tell him … but …” This time his sigh was one of frustration. “There’s … there’s more going on … than …”
“Don’t,” I said placing my hand gently across his mouth. “It’s ok. I don’t know exactly what is going on but like I told Clewis, it must be something big. You’ve kept it to yourself for a reason … probably to protect people. I won’t ask you to lie to me to make me feel better. Just don’t tell me and we’ll work things out as they come along. Don’t forget that Dad couldn’t talk about a lot of his work so I understand sometimes you have to … uh … compromise on things of that nature. So don’t tear yourself up because I got it covered.”
He kissed my hand then pulled it away from his face so he could say, “You are way too easy to get along with.”
I nearly laughed in his face. He had to be the first and only human being on the planet to ever say that and mean it even after getting to know me. “Go if you are going. I’ll have supper ready when you get back.”
“Depending on Dad’s mood I might be back sooner … or a lot later.”
I nodded. “Ok.”
Hesitantly he asked, “You … you sure you don’t think I’m being disloyal by going down there?”
I rolled my eyes and told him, “Of course not. Besides who are you being disloyal to? They’re your family.”
Quietly he said, “You are too.”
I sighed, knowing he felt caught between a rock and a hard place and that I’d help to put him there. “I trust you Jude. You aren’t going to do or say anything to hurt me on purpose and you’ll make sure the best you can not to do it on accident either. So go already. I’m not going to shatter into a thousand pieces because you’ve got more responsibilities than just catering to me.”
I heard him leave and then looked regretfully around the attic. I had gotten next to nothing done. I had found two more boxes of winter clothes that might be useful and I had found another box of Mom’s yarns that had somehow made it to the attic rather than the basement, but that was the most constructive. I called Paulie and Bobby to take the clothes to Tiffany who was good at sorting sizes even when the tags were missing (or nonexistent because the clothes were handmade) and I took the yarns down to sort after I got everyone supper.
I made the choke and groundnut casserole as planned and got some of the apples that were starting to get old and fried them up and then cut the last of the best ham off of the one that I’d been using. I planned on using the meat that was left as well as the bone it was on to flavor a big pot of bean soup that I would cook over the fireplace tomorrow. The color of the sky was that nasty shade of grey that spoke of a weather change … and one not for the better. The fireplace would be burning all day so I decided to take advantage of it.
I had almost decided Jude wasn’t going to be back for supper when I heard footsteps on the porch, more than one set. I looked up and put my hand on my apron pocket and then took my hand away quickly when I recognized it was him … and Uncle Roe. I went on about my business of getting the kids their plates while Jude just looked in at me and then shook his head.
“Dovie, come out here please?”
The kids stopped eating and looked at me. “Finish up,” I told them quietly. “I’ll be right back. And if you finish before I get back in don’t start popping popcorn. I’ve got a surprise for you all tonight.”
I stepped out onto the porch. “Anyone need something to drink. It’s turning chilly and I can heat up some cider.”
Uncle Roe sniffed and said, “Might take you up on that some other time. Got business right now.” I just stood there and waited. Jude went inside but not into the kitchen. I continued to wait Uncle Roe out. When he started talking it was a strange question. “You remember Poppa Killy’s sister Meg?”
“Yes sir,” I answered carefully. “I’ve still got the bed pillow that she crocheted for me that time she visited us in Florida. She’d broken her leg water skiing.”
Uncle Roe shook his head. “Woman was in her 70s and bound and determined to try to water ski. My aunt was lucky she didn’t break her neck. You remind me of her a little bit. She could be a right wound up woman. My father would have had a fit had he still been living to see his sister acting so outlandish at her age.”
“I only remember Poppa Killy a little bit. He gave all of us kids peppermint sticks at Christmas … the real kind that is soft. And when I was sick he would make me horehound cough drops even if he had to send them through the mail. They always came with a long letter telling Mom all the ways the doctors were likely making me sick instead of making me better.”
Uncle Roe nodded. Poppa Killy’s dislike of doctors had been well known. “You remember your Mawmaw?”
“Not a whole lot. She liked gardening as much as Mom but for some reason they didn’t always get along.”
Uncle Roe nodded. “She could be controlling. Both our parents could. Guess I got a double dose of it. Mother was sick a lot and got frail before Malissa was even going to school. Daddy had the farm to worry about. Aunt Meg came and helped when she could but she had her own house and husband in town to take care of. That left me to do what I could with Malissa and I was ten years older than her. All I wanted to be was a rattle trap like the rest of my friends were and here I was having to drag a little sister around ‘cause Mother needed quiet. But I did it and learned to care more for her than my so-called friends. Then I fell in love with the boys’ mother and … and guess I got a little wild. Didn’t realize my sister was grown until I come in one night and Daddy lit into me for letting her get involved with some young yahoo from across the county line and that they were already talking about getting married and your Momma barely a senior in high school. One thing led to another and about the time I was shocked to find out I was gonna be a father and dealing with that your momma ran off with your father. And yes, I’m admitting that Butch was born a little bit sooner than he should have been though I’m sure that by now you’ve got a fair understanding of how such things work. It was a wild time in my life. Didn’t give me much of a chance to learn to let go properly. Alroy and I eventually worked things out – Lord knows I had my own mess to deal with – and it went on from there. But nothing will ever change that Malissa was my little sister and God how I miss her; she always had the words to calm me. With her gone it’s like one of the lights in the sky went out. I don’t want to lose you too.”
Well you can guess that talking about Mom had pretty well wiped out my composure but I had spent over half my life dealing with kids that could wring tears from Ol’ Copper Abe and no way was I going to act weak this time. I’d had my share of being suckered. I was pretty sure that that wasn’t what Uncle Roe was trying to do but on the other hand my trust level had definitely tanked. “You aren’t going to lose me Uncle Roe. No matter what happens in this life or the next I will always be your niece just like I will always be my parents’ daughter, my brothers’ sister, and so on and so forth.”
Dismissively he said, “Too many folks have gotten hurt, have gotten dead, over the last little while.”
I finally looked at him and let him see inside me. “Uncle Roe, forgive me for saying so but you don’t know the half of it. I’ve seen more than I ever want to see again.” Looking away I continued, “I came home hoping to escape it but let’s be honest, there’s no escaping it, not for any of us. Not because there aren’t people here that are good and decent but because the jerks in this world outnumber you all.” He harrumphed uncomfortably in the back of his throat but I didn’t let it stop me. “I’m not helpless Uncle Roe. When Dad died, then the boys, and Mom couldn’t handle it all who do you think stepped in? It didn’t stop when we got here. It didn’t stop when we went to stay a while at Uncle James’. It didn’t stop in Phoenix. The genie is out of the bottle. I can’t go back to being a helpless girl if I was ever born to be one in the first place. It isn’t your fault. It isn’t Dad’s fault. It isn’t Mom’s fault. It is just the life that God put in my lap. If He didn’t think I could handle it – with His help - He wouldn’t have let it happen. I know there must be a reason to it all but for the life of me I haven’t found it yet so I just accept it and move on.” I shook my head trying to outrun some of the memories. “One of the ways that God has decided to give me a hand is people like you … and Jude. And it just eats me up seeing it all from the outside like I do, learning who this new Jude is and seeing how hard he works all the time to keep on being a better and better Jude.”
I could tell Uncle Roe didn’t want to discuss it by the growl in his voice. “He’s got a lot to answer for.”
I almost gave up right there but I didn’t. Not for my sake but for Jude’s. “Uncle Roe, you were no angel and didn’t always make the best decisions. You just admitted it and even if you hadn’t I’ve heard Mom talk. You were a rascal and that is putting it politely. Maybe you weren’t a drunk but you never turned down a bottle … or a woman. You were born with the Irish stamina so maybe it didn’t get you like it got Jude. One of those there but for the grace of God things. I’m not excusing him or his past actions, just saying that they are in the past. Just like you keep trying to ignore the fact that I’m grown because you want to protect me, you keep doing stuff to tie Jude to his past to protect yourself. You risked a lot to put your hand out when he’d dug his hole so deep. I’m sure I don’t know the half of it though Jude has told me a lot. Uncle Roe, I love you but you gotta step back a little and let both Jude and I grow. I’m not the kid I used to be and neither is Jude. You have any idea how much it had to hurt him to have you automatically take someone else’s word that he must be drinking again? Just from a smell? And after being sober for so long?”
“You don’t understand Little Sister.”
A little out of patience I told him, “I’ll certainly agree with that. He’s done everything you’ve asked of him and a lot you haven’t. He talks about you all the time. Dad this and Dad that. He’s all but killing himself to help out and get the taxes paid off and not because he wants praise but because he just plain wants to … to be a good son. And if he isn’t doing that he’s help to fill the larders at both houses.”
“We’re all working hard.”
“Exactly Uncle Roe. Why should the work that Jude is doing be valued any less than anyone else’s? Why should you of all people, going to church and knowing about forgiveness, having already experienced making a mess as a young man and finding forgiveness so you could move on, be the hardest on Jude and the first to assume the worst?”
He gave me a long look. e lH“So this whole thing isn’t just about you getting your tail feathers singed ‘cause I snapped at you.”
I sighed. “It didn’t help Uncle Roe. Put yourself in my place … not as a girl but as you being you. How would you have felt to be on the receiving end of that? But mostly I’m just tired of it. Tired of always feeling like people are surprised that I’m not as helpless as they keep thinking of me being. And I’m getting tired of watching people do the same thing to Jude. He doesn’t deserve it, not anymore, and neither do I.”
“I’m not telling you what to do Uncle Roe. Honest, I’m not. I don’t boss you and I wouldn’t even if I could. You’re my uncle not my friend or one of the kids. I don’t expect to be bossing anyone to be honest. I don’t need to boss anyone for that matter. I’m just tired of people bossing me because they don’t think I have the sense or ability to boss myself.” There was a loud crash and I turned and ran in the house.
Bobby was on the floor looking surprised and his chair was there too. Jude had been in his room doing something but came out. I sighed. “Bobby, what have I said about keeping all four legs of the chair on the floor?”
“But I like to rock.”
“We rock in rocking chairs not in four-legged chairs. Assuming you don’t wind up breaking your neck you are going to break this chair, and if you do you are going to be sitting and eating on the floor like a dog. If you don’t think I’m serious you just try me. I’m going to start making you do push ups like my dad made my brothers do if you don’t cool it. The dining room table is no place for them kind of fidgets. Now move so I can get this mess cleaned up.”
Jude said, “Go on back outside with Dad.” I started to say something but he cut me off. “Naw … Bobby made the mess, Bobby can clean it up.” He turned to the miscreant who looked rather surprised that his hero was going to make him do such work. “And he’ll keep cleaning until it is done right. Understand me?” Bobby gulped and then nodded. Turning back to me Jude said, “Go on, I’ve got this.”
I sighed and shook my head. “The rug is going to have to be rolled up and taken outside and shaken out.”
“He didn’t drop any food, just knocked over his cup. Damp cloth will get it. I’ll make sure nothing went through.”
Deciding to leave it in Jude’s hands I turned to find Uncle Roe standing there scratching his chin. “What’s that I smell?” he asked.
I looked at the table and then knowing what he meant I scowled at Bobby and said, “Dessert assuming Bobby didn’t make it fall.” I grabbed the oven mitts and opened the oven door and pulled out my baking pan; just in time too as the dish was just starting to pull away at the edges.
All the kids breathed a sigh of relief. Jude stood up and grinned. “Is that what I think it is?”
“If you are thinking that it is my mother’s Marmalade Pudding then you think right.”
Both he and Uncle Roe almost had to tie a bib around their necks the way their mouths started salivating. I just shook my head. “Tiff, feel like helping?”
She jumped up and ran over and then Mimi made a face and said, “I’m a girl. I wanna help too!”
“Stop whining and you’ll get your chance; keep whining and you can go to bed right now.” That put a plug in her and as Tiff got the dessert plates I counted out the spoons and handed them to Mimi in a glass. “You hold the glass and let everyone grab their own spoon.”
I dipped out a spoonful for Uncle Roe first but then stopped and said, “Have you had supper yet?”
He snorted. “What’s that the kids used to say? Life’s short, have dessert first? Sounds like good advice to me.” He looked at Jude and asked, “What about you Boy?”
“I never turn down Dovie’s cooking. It doesn’t matter what order it comes in.”
“Well if y’all are going to be silly you might as well sit down so you can at least enjoy it. I even used some of Mom’s homemade marmalade that I found in the back of a cabinet down in the basement. The color is a little dark but it still tasted good. Wish I had some ice cream to go with it but I used the last of the milk to make the custard with.”
And just like that the whole kerfuffle seemed to be over. Not over permanently but over enough so that we could all go on about our business and living without it hanging over our heads. Mom used to say that good food could work magic on people and I guess she was right. It certainly seemed to work on Uncle Roe at least for the moment. And it was gratifying for me to see them eat something that I had fixed with my own two hands and be so appreciative of it. But I was under no illusion that I wouldn’t be facing this issue in some form again. I suppose that is what family is; it isn’t always heaven but it sure beats the alternative.
6 slices stale bread
¼ cup fat
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon corn syrup
⅛ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 cup marmalade or preserves
Mix eggs, corn syrup, salt and milk. Dip bread and brown in frying pan. Spread with marmalade or preserves. Pile in baking dish. Cover with any of the custard mixture which is left. Cover with meringue. Bake 15 minutes.