“Happiness doesn’t grow on trees, Georgina, so you might as well get ready to suck up discontent like the rest of us working folks around here.” Great Aunt Ellen’s voice rattled its three-packs-a-day rasp around in my memory.
That was one of her all-time favorites. Never mind the fact that Great Aunt Ellen hadn’t had a job since she took early retirement from teaching second grade just before my birth. Her words evidently bore repeating at every opportunity. I had heard them wheeze out of her at each family gathering since I’d turned thirteen and, as the low man on the totem pole, been stuck in the chair next to her at dinner. So much for the allure of The Big Table and my faith in our education system.
By sixteen when the need for gas money forced me into a life of fast food servitude, I cringed any time she passed me the potatoes during Sunday dinner. The hollow-eyed look of the fledgling minimum wage worker I wore made the old bat’s eyes shine with overbearing, self-satisfied glee. She knew she was right. I was the newest living husk of proof for her example list.
The years passed in a haze of muted ambition. I dated the wrong guys throughout high school in my time off from homework and grease trap clean-out. College came and I dutifully packed my generic, dust-colored luggage for the move to the expected school. My classes consisted of mind-numbing facts that even the most zealotish professors couldn’t deliver in an interesting way. The guy I wrestled out hormones with from time to time reminded me more of day-old cafeteria urn coffee than steaming hot espresso.
Christmas break and another family turkey with all the trimmings – including Great Aunt Ellen’s usual “words of wisdom” rolled around during my junior year. There I was five credits away from a degree that would ensure a windowless existence bogged down in pointless paperwork without even a dental plan to cheer about, and dutifully passing the green bean casserole.
“That new piece of fluff by your cousin Cliff is his fourth wife, right Georgina? You ask me, he could have saved a lot of time and money and been just as miserable by staying with whats-her-face. You know, his first wife… the one that reminded me of an otter… Marie, I think, or was that wife number two? Why even bother marrying them? It’d be cheaper having a lease drawn up!” Her froggy voice droned on.
By this time, I’d learned to listen to her poisonous commentary with half an ear so I could insert guttural tones and noncommittal head movements when it sounded like an answer was required. The last time I had actually tried words she had turned her claws on my life and I’d spent three hours doing my parents’ laundry in the basement and fending off an anxiety attack with Mom’s secret booze stash.
Everyone in the family handled conversations with her in the same way and for the same reasons. That might be why no one really noticed when the hag stopped talking. I only looked over at her – as eye contact with the woman was just short of lethal – when I tried passing a basket of rolls my grandfather had asked for and she didn’t take them. When I dared a glance I was met by her fixed and empty gaze. The look of bewilderment on her bloodless face backed up the little voice in my head’s opinion of the situation: Great Aunt Ellen had suddenly, and without so much as a heads-up nudge, headed off into The Great Hereafter. I wondered if she had remembered to grab some ice cubes on her way. I figured she’d be able to barter them for a better spot where she was going to land.
“Um…” I said and cleared my throat to get the squeak out. “I think we have a problem.”
The room went very still for a minute when the family saw the problem I was referring to. Then chaos erupted. Fourteen cell phones attacked the 911 station simultaneously in an effort to claim credit for quickest response time. Three cousins debated the wisdom and proper procedure for administering CPR. Great Aunt Selma, Ellen’s sister, quietly sipped her tea and tried unsuccessfully to make her smirk look senile. I busted my sister’s kid in the corner texting away on his phone like a mad fiend and figured he was updating his social pages and racing to be the first of his friends to upload pictures of a newly-made corpse. The kid leaned heavily to the creepy side. Drama upon drama heaped with more drama and there I was just realizing I was still trying to hand the dead woman rolls.
I don’t think the theatrics died down for a week. Phone calls flew through all the familial extensions relating the coroner’s ruling of sudden massive heart attack; debating the best funeral home to use; checking soccer schedules for the most convenient day to lay her body to rest; bribing each other for coveted outfits to wear to the viewing. Even after the big day came and went, there were pockets of residual mayhem. Great Aunt Ellen would have smugly puffed a cigarette and approved of the fuss made over her.
Then The Last Will and Testament of Ellen Stone was read according to her wishes. Even from the grave, the woman dug her nastiness into everyone by insisting that the family gather on her four-acre plot of land seventeen miles outside of town next to what we were all sure was the sweat-filled armpit of the county. This gathering, of course, took place at five-thirty on a Saturday morning… in sleet.
The lawyers read down the list, leaving worn out shoes, cracked china and twenty-seven year old National Geographic magazines that smelled like mothballs and stale menthol cigarettes to the lucky winners of Great Aunt Ellen’s final attentions. Then I heard my name. I tried not to cringe, but the sudden mental picture of the mangy wind-up clapping monkey doll I had been terrified of from the age of three leaped into my mind.
Somehow a miracle happened and instead, I found myself the new owner of the four acres of crabgrass, scrub pine and jabbing brambles we had all been dragged out of our beds to stand on that morning. I heard my brother’s too loud whisper to Cousin Frank indicating how lucky I was to have inherited the burial ground for all of the witch’s former victims. Cousin Frank’s uneasy laugh just proved that my own fears about the truthfulness of Dan’s joke might not be overly unfounded. As a matter of fact, the entire mass of my family seemed strangely relieved that I was the one who got strapped with the only item of actual value Great Aunt Ellen had possessed. To say that this made me nervous would be a huge understatement.
I paid the six years of back taxes on my newly acquired land with what was left in my savings account and shoved the whole thing to the back of my mind in order to return to school two days later. All the twitchy worries about what Great Aunt Ellen...Continue Reading