Aunt Cecilia wasn't young, but like all things that cycled when she hit her ninety-second year, she decided she'd had enough of the mortal coil and died without any fanfare or lengthy hospital stays. Her doctor was pretty fucking perplexed because as far as he was concerned, there was nothing wrong with her. She wasn't exhibiting any signs of dementia or Alzheimer's. Her blood pressure wasn't off the charts, much less even chemically controlled. No heart issues, nothing like diabetes or cancer -- she had simply died. The coroner was very methodical and did all the tests and examinations he could think of to find out what killed her. Finally he just put down heart failure. Since she was dead, I thought that was pretty self-evident. But as she'd died at home alone, it seemed that there had to be massive amounts of forms and stupid exams done just to declare her truly dead. The doctor had reluctantly decided to do so, because everything had been checked out thoroughly; he pretty much had to pronounce her dead from natural causes. Which was, as far as I could see, just to keep the insurance companies appeased along with making for some happy greedy 'concerned' relatives. How long the medical community had wanted her to live was beyond me, but the medical examiner eventually put a date on the forms and signed off on her actual death.
Her wishes had been clearly stated that she wanted to be baked to a delicate crunch, and then to have her ashes stuffed in a big ass container she'd bought a half dozen years before it had been needed. I'm not lying, she wrote it down just like that for the family in case we got stupid. Given some of the in-laws and truly outlaws that numbered in our ranks, I didn't blame her.
After the memorial service a few of us survivors wandered into the local lodge for a few stiff shots. It was then that things got sticky.
Rusty -- no longer a red head, but a bald asshole -- insisted that his beloved Aunt Cecilia had told him he was to live the rest of his days out in her little cottage. Rusty's real name -- Shawn Brown, don't over-think the last name -- had long been forgotten in our family, pretty much since he was a kid, just as cute as a bed bug. Yeah, bed bug. Ya know -- the kind of creepy crawly insect shown on special news reports during sweeps months for everyone to see, along with the ugly motels and their reasonably normal guests freaking out? Come to think of it, he hadn't been even that adorable when the family stuck the nickname Rusty on his ass -- he'd been one of those screaming kids that always had snot running down his face. But we already another Shawn, a Dawn, a Ron and a John -- so hollering out anything close would be bothersome, so his red hair got him that nickname versus 'Hey Stupid' which would have still been about right.
"Shut your damn pie hole, Rusty. Aunt Cecilia ain't even related to you," Uncle John cut through the shocked gasps and muttering from across the room. I thought Rusty was basically calling 'shotgun,' like for the front seat of his dad's car -- but with the cottage, not the Buick. It wasn't going to work in this crowd. Aunt Cecilia had been sitting in a rocking chair on the porch to the afterlife for a good twenty years. At least by the family vultures count.
She was a great aunt to Uncle John, and a great-great aunt to me and Rusty. And Rusty was actually a blood relative by his pa's side, so everyone chuckling and agreeing with Uncle John's snarky comment must have believed the rumors that his ma had been running around on his pa -- which was probably true since his ma, my Aunt Sheila, was a tad easy. She'd been seen coming out from the local motel wearing her previous evening's clothing more than once. She didn't hang her head during the early morning walks of shame, but instead would wave and stop to gossip on her way home. Aunt Sheila wasn't dismayed to be seen after a tumble beneath the sheets, but oddly proud. Rusty's pa had drunk himself into the local cemetery a good twenty years ago.
It felt unnatural not going to the cemetery to properly bury Aunt Cecilia, but she really hated that crap, she'd told anyone who'd listen time and time again. She wasn't shy about telling folks, even perfect strangers, her thoughts on the matter. I was probably somewhere around six or seven when I first heard my great-great aunt's views on the matter. I knew I was barely in school and we'd been taught to be polite to our elders and mindful of our manners at all time. Aunt Cecilia never had those lessons, or they didn't much stick. She wasn't rude, but just contrary and did what she wanted from what I'd seen.
Something was going on with my parents -- a doctor's appointment -- maybe even a lawyer visit -- they didn't want to let me know about, since they got 'D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D' around that time. Yeah, they spelled it out in front of me like I didn't already know how to spell and read. But then some folks are like that, you know? At least mine were. Those were the days when they both put on fake smiles whenever I walked into a room after hearing them hissing hate at each other while sipping their drinks.
Doctor or lawyer, either way I ended up walking over to Aunt Cecilia's after school had let out. My mom must have doubled checked that I knew the way to Aunt Cecilia's cottage a good ten or twenty times that morning before she dropped me off. She had that stressed, tight, nervous voice going on, so I knew not to fool around, but just nod and simply say 'yes,' nothing more. Mom was really brittle during that time. It was a brittleness that defined her from then on. My mom wasn't one of those fresh-baked-cookies-in-my-lunch sort but a stiff drink and a cigarette while talking on the phone with one of her friends. Being an only child, I learned to fend for myself quite early.
So once freed from school I shuffled my way down the road to Aunt Cecilia's home. As I neared her place, I saw that she was sitting on the front porch in her rocking chair, sipping from a tall brown colored glass. Back then I was told that it was her 'special iced tea,' and naturally later I figured out that the 'special' part was good old Kentucky bourbon. Not a drop of tea ever graced the glass, from what I'd been told. That probably goes to explain quite a bit about Aunt Cecilia's candid conversation with me about death. She didn't rise up from her rocking chair or do anything to indicate that she'd seen me walking slowly towards her home. Instead she picked up a pack of cigarettes and tapped out a fresh one. She slowly lit it and inhaled deeply with her eyes closed as I neared the steps. Exhaling with a blue-gray cloud of smoke edging off her lips and floating up, her eyes had been closed then suddenly snapped open and she said, "I see you found the house okay. Your mom just called asking if you'd made it yet. Tightly strung, I'd say."
She wasn't inviting me to agree or disagree but simply making a statement. She nodded as I smiled and replied politely, "Good afternoon, Aunt Cecilia. You look well."
Slowly, not letting her drink spill over, she leaned towards me offering her lightly powdered cheek. I automatically puckered up and softly kissed her face, smelling the lavender and smoke scent that would forever link in my mind with my Aunt Cecilia. She nodded again and seemed to make her mind up about something unspoken but weighing heavily on her heart.
"Drop your bag inside and wash your hands in the company powder room, then come back after you get the plate from the fridge, okay, Sammy?"
"Yes, ma'am." I went inside and did as I was told. Manners were a big thing in my soon-to-be-broken family. After washing up, I went to the fridge and found that she'd made me a sandwich with baloney, mustard, a sliver of iceberg lettuce, a slice of Velveeta cheese and a very light layer of Miracle Whip -- sliced into four neat pieces and a pickle spear on the side. I smiled and took my sandwich out with me, carefully walking not to spill the unexpected treat.
I put the plate down carefully on the small table next to her 'iced tea.' She nodded and then said, "Go back now and pour a glass of milk to go with the sandwich. You'll find I set a cup on the counter top for you."
Nodding I said, "Thank you, Aunt Cecilia." I walked slowly back to do her bidding. She was letting me pour my own milk, a treat for me at that age since it was well known that most kids spilled. I was very careful to only fill the cup half way, not wanting to tempt fates and my ability to walk carrying liquid.
Soon I was on the porch nibbling at the sandwich from the porch swing next to the rocking chair. Her house had a huge porch. It wasn't my memory distorting the space, since she died in the same house and the porch was still as large as I remembered. That afternoon she sat sipping her 'tea' while I devoured a real meal. Her face was drawn tightly and she was distracted.
"Sammy, my child, you know folks die, right?" It seemed very important that I knew this for Aunt Cecilia. She looked at me closely while I finished chewing the bite in my mouth before saying, "Yes, so do animals. My friend's dog died last month. They buried it down by the crick." I wasn't sure why I told her that. I hadn't even told my folks. But then it was tense around the house back then, and I didn't much talk unless asked a direct question.
"Yeah, well, I will die one day. You know that, right?"
I nodded, not admitting to having heard a few of the relatives speculate on just how soon she'd die and what they'd get. I didn't understand the concept of getting something just because a person died but the cousins and folks were worked up about all that sort of thing. I felt sad without quite knowing why.
"Well, Sammy let me tell you this. No way am I getting buried! I don't think a person should be shoved into a box and left to rot. It's not natural." I couldn't say that I'd ever much thought about what happened to a person once they died. I knew my friend missed her dog, but didn't even know if the dog was in a box or what. I made a mental note to ask her next time I got a chance.
"Okay, Aunt Cecilia." I didn't quite know what else a person said. I doubted I'd have any say in what happened with her once she died. My tummy hurt at the idea, but I kept my mouth shut.
"Just not natural. Now you remember to tell folks not to bury my bones. I want to be cremated. You ever heard of that word? I didn't think so. Means they pop me in a giant oven and cook me until I am crispy and dust. That's right." My eyes must have been huge. I pictured the large Thanksgiving turkey my grammy had cooked last year, and thought of Aunt Cecilia balled up in the baking pan. My horror must have been firmly etched on my features because she laughed until tears rolled down her face.
"Sammy, it's not like a baking oven." My features must have been transparent because I knew I hadn't said a word aloud, "Sammy, it's like a huge furnace that they have at some fancy funeral homes. It's in my will and I've told all my family. But truth be told, I am not dying for a long time, and you may well be one to make that choice for me."
I nodded and found I'd lost my taste for baloney. Come to think of it, that was the last baloney sandwich I ever ate.
I stopped thinking back on that day, and instead looked around the family gathered at Aunt Cecilia's wake. I looked down at the bar top and saw that someone had placed a tumbler of bourbon in front of me. A few of my cousins and uncles and aunts were all nearby sipping from their own glasses. I wasn't one for bourbon and I left the drink untouched and turned to the room.
Uncle John was clapping his hands together to get everyone's attention. It worked. Even Rusty stopped talking -- a rarity.
"Aunt Cecilia gave me this letter last Thanksgiving." He pulled out an envelope from inside his jacket. It looked to be unopened and slightly worn from resting inside the pocket. Uncle John pulled out his cheaters with a grin, saying, "Knock it off," as a few of the relatives had chuckled at the half-eyeglasses resting on his nose. I thought it made him look older and possibly smarter than he was. He painstakingly opened the letter showing us that he hadn't sneaked a peak. I could see the words 'Open upon my death' written in Aunt Cecilia's fluid handwriting. The woman had learned to craft her cursive back when it was an art form and even when well into her nineties, she still had a beautiful script.
Clearing his throat, he started to read. "Well, I figure John-John is busy trying to figure out how to read this without his glasses. I bet he had to put them on." A roar of laughter greeted the words while Uncle John shook his head and a few hoisted their glasses. The liquor-filled ones.
After everyone calmed down, he continued with a grief-tightened voice. Aunt Cecilia's voice was coming through him, in a way. "If you all listened to me I am now in a nice urn I picked out a while ago, and you are drinking yourselves stupider. Yes, I said stupider. When are you all going to live? You all were so busy waiting for me to die and leave you money that you forgot to enjoy the days gifted you. Not everyone, but quite a few of you."
Uncle John's voice was louder than the room needed, but from the shocked slack-jawed looks on my family's faces, even from the other side Aunt Cecilia was hitting a home run.
He continued, "I do have a bit of money saved up. Most of you aren't going to see a penny. Instead I am going to remind you of why life is passing you by." Uncle John uncomfortably cleared his throat and began to read out names. One by one he started at the oldest and down to the youngest. Each little tawdry secret or embarrassing moment was spelled out. All the bits of our lives revealed openly to us all with wry wit and some twists along the way. Turned out cousin Rusty hadn't left well enough alone, and he'd actually had a DNA test done to find out his parents. They'd pegged it right: Aunt Sheila was his momma -- but then mostly motherhood was a fact -- but to Uncle John's horror he found out that Rusty's dad was another younger cousin that our aunt had nailed. So Rusty was definitely blood related. My little secret was a lover a few counties over that nobody knew about, but it seemed Aunt Cecilia found it rip-roaring funny from her words.
A few of our loved ones filtered out of the room once gambling debts, stealing and other assorted minor crimes were revealed for all to hear. I stayed, because I wasn't married and it wasn't like my lover was someone infamous much less famous. I admittedly was bright red and didn't go around staring at anyone. Finally the last page was turned and he cleared his throat a final time.
"All that revealed, my family, the split goes like this." Uncle John rattled off the bits and pieces of stuff she'd have going to various folks when he dropped the bomb that rocked the room.
"My house goes to Sammy. Never forget the things that make you smile and laugh. Thank you for spending time with me over the years. Most these yahoos never knew how often you dropped by to bring me a slice of pie, a new plant for the yard and you kept me in your heart. I thank you."
Stunned I found Rusty glaring at me and he hissed, "I won't forget this!"
Smiling, I shook my head at all the forgotten things my Aunt had stored for her wake. I let the list of names roll over me as Uncle John finished up doling out the money and various possessions that she'd kept over time. To the end, she reminded me that we need to live our lives. I let the memory of her love keep me safe.