The abandoned cemetery across the street is overgrown with vines and weeds now. Few people in this busy city neighborhood know it is there. Not that I could read the names on the moldy graves before the weeds and vines took over. A typhoid epidemic came through here sometime during the 1800s. Perhaps the boneyard appeared then. Out of desperation.
A huge, dead tree stands above the foliage. Its drooping branches point to a deep sadness locked below. Then again, maybe, I read into the bareness. I see the naked limbs as a symbol for my past, for a childhood with broken roots.
Aunt Dill said she doesn't know about the graveyard. Never been there. Of course, I suspect Aunt Dill was born with a to-do list attached to her umbilical cord. She attends to her catering business and not much of anything else. I work at her shop. No way am I getting student loans to pay back for the best of my life. Even if I am a thirty-year-old sophomore.
This girl doesn't take unnecessary risks. I was abandoned early in life.
Mama Lin legally adopted me. She said, "Your mom done crossed the street without watching both ways first, 'cause she'd been in a real, real hurry." Mama Lin had this peculiar look on her face when she said it. An I'm-not-looking-you-in-the-eye expression even a five-year-old can read.
Then Mama Lin died. An aneurism. I was eight. And Aunt Dill took over.
Now, I'm not sure I care. My past can disappear -- just like the old graves in the cemetery across the street. I have Jeff now. He is moving into the third floor of the house my Aunt Dill owns. She inherited it from her father. A narrow building, but more than adequate. She lets me use it rent-free. As long as I keep the place sale-worthy and help her in the catering business.
Of course I haven't told her Jeff is using the roll-out bed in the attic yet. He and I don't even hold hands when Aunt Dill is around.
"I told my landlord I'm leaving," Jeff says as he carries a box of books up the steps. His face shows the effort. His voice doesn't. "Can't wait to see you every day."
"So what did the old landlord say?"
"He told me to go where the temperature never goes below broil?"
"In those exact words?"
"Lu, if Barney Pall took vulgarity out of his vocabulary he would be mute." Jeff lines his baseball hats on top of a box of books. "Aesthetic? Maybe not. But, downsizing is okay. I'll be with you. And that is all I need. At least your water isn't brown. Pall had the gall to say if I wanted the plumbing fixed it was my problem. And that the water is probably brown because I drink out of the toilet."
I hug Jeff and kiss him so hard I'm surprised we finish the move without interruption. But he worked all day and needs to go to school shortly. He is working toward getting his master's degree. And I need to be at the shop in thirty minutes.
Aunt Dill has a surprise for me, one I don't expect or want.
"Babe, I'm glad to have you keeping up the place so well. But now I need something from you." She pulls five loaves of bread from the back pantry and hands them to me to prepare the sandwich part of an order for a wedding reception. "You are going to have a housemate. You've never met the girl, but you have more in common than you could ever imagine. That part is something of a surprise. I want Leah to have the third floor."
My mouth drops open. "Leah who? I should have told you earlier. Jeff moved into the attic. Just today!"
"Yes, you should have told me." Aunt Dill's voice reminds me of the tone she used when I was ten and skipped school to go swimming one hot May day with a kid in my class. "But before your shift tomorrow I'd hoped you would meet Leah anyway. She's ten years older than you are. I've always got your old bedroom in my house for her. The situation is temporary. However, after you meet Leah you will realize that you, miss secret-keeper, have a difficult decision to make."
"As in ..." I shake my head.
"Who stays in that third-floor room." Aunt Dill opens the cash register. And the sound spreads out throughout the store.
Jeff already has squatter's rights. I wouldn't dare say it out loud. No way would I tell the man I love to pack his books and sports equipment back into a place where the water is barely suitable for flushing.
The front door opens and the familiar bell sounds. Nevertheless, I jump.
"What can I do for you?" I ask our customer. My voice belongs to an employee of the shop, not me, Luanne Brakell, a young woman whose day promises to be longer than the hands on any clock could measure.
* * *
I find the address Aunt Dill gave me with no problem. A small white-frame, well-kept house on a side street in an ordinary neighborhood. A sold sign is in the front yard. I only need to knock once.
A woman answers. I don't think I have ever met her, but recall something vaguely familiar around her eyes.
"Luanne, come in." She walks around boxes and leads me to a sofa. "It's going to be so difficult getting all these things into storage. All these memories. And becoming a widow so soon."
"I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"Your Aunt Dill didn't tell you?"
"She didn't tell me squat."
I hesitate. I've never wanted for food, drink, the basics. Aunt Dill showed up for school activities, fought the fight. Always with the demeanor of a businesswoman. Never a storyteller. Never warm and fuzzy. "She hinted something, but didn't tell me what to expect."
"Even about how she discovered who I am? One day you were at school. When I came in to place an order for the luncheon after my husband's funeral. And she said her niece Luanne worked with her. My little sister's name. I hadn't seen her in years." Leah choked. "Didn't take long before we both realized my sister and her Luanne were the same person. I've been talking a lot. To almost anyone. It helps to get the grief out. Surprises even me sometimes. Aunt Dill almost dropped a tray of cookies when I told her about how mother had died.
"You see, when you were just a toddler you ran out into the street and Mom ran out after you. You just missed being hit. Mom didn't make it. I saw it all. At age twelve. And we were separated after that."
The real story. About Mom. She was hit by a car. Because she ran after me. And no told me details about the accident because her death had been my fault.
I wonder if my heart can beat double-time.
"You watched our mother." I pause, choking on five syllables. Then try again. "You watched her ..."
"Die." She nods.
I wrap myself into a ball and sob. "I didn't know. Didn't know."
Leah puts one hand on my shoulder. "You were a baby. You didn't know any better."
"Why didn't Aunt Dill just tell me you were my sister before I came over here?" I gasp. "My boyfriend moved into the attic room before Aunt Dill told me you were coming. I'm not stuck between a rock and a hard place. I'm wedged between two mountains. I want you both with me! Now what do I do?"
"Is a long-lost sister permitted space on your couch for a week? Two if the condo isn't ready."
"Sure," I answered. "Heck! You take the bed. I have three floors, for heaven's sake! I'll take the second-floor extra room. It's storage now. I call it the miscellaneous den. As long as it's neat junk, Aunt Dill doesn't care."
"We have a lot of family history to study," she says.
"Hey, shouldn't I be consoling you? Selling your house? A young widow?"
"I'm doing as well as can be expected." Leah sighs and looks around the room at memories I can't see. Not yet anyway.
"I can't wait for you to meet Jeff," I say.
"Yes, I was wondering about that," she says. "Your boyfriend? In the attic? That's not where my boyfriend would be staying. I may be your big sister, but I haven't had time to give you bad advice yet."
"Aunt Dill. Remember her? The house is hers. There is no way I could tell her Jeff was moving in anywhere closer."
"Could I stop by on Thursday?" Leah asks.
"No. I don't think I could wait that long."
She walks me to my car. The same breeze that chilled me on the way inside, embraces me on the way out. I think about the dead tree in the middle of the property across the street from Aunt Dill's house, the forgotten tombstones.
Suddenly, I want those lost places connected, too. Roots restored.
Family, finally, it has become real.