I remember we were sitting around the kitchen table … Mom, my older brother, I think my sister Missy was there, too. I may have still been in high school. Seventeen, maybe?
Mom was reading the local newspaper, and had flipped to the classifieds in the back where they parked the memorials. Where folks would send in pictures and tributes, often poems, always heartfelt, honoring the memory of loved ones in the wake, or on the anniversary, of their passing.
Mom found the idea of publishing these in the newspaper the funniest thing in the world.
“It’s not like the dead read the Herald-Standard,” she would say. “I doubt they keep up with their subscription.”
I forget which one of us came up with the idea, but somebody said, “You know, we’re totally going to put one in for you when you kick the bucket.”
Mom: Don’t you dare.
Then you can let us know if you get the message.
Mom: I will haunt you.
It wasn’t long before we were suddenly brainstorming what we’d put in her tribute.
We began by thinking of the most syrupy things we could think of, as she tried in vain to change the subject.
We may or may not have started rhyming next.
The more pissed she got, the more fun we had at her expense.
It was my brother, though, who hit the bullseye. He recalled how Grandma Johnson (Mom’s mom) always used to remind anyone who cared to listen, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
With that good kindling, he offered ….
“You always said we’d miss you when you were gone…”
“… but you were wrong.”
At this the entire table erupted in laughter … Mom most of all. My brother’s retort tick(l)ed all the boxes on Mom’s funny bone. Ornery. Skewering. A bit morbid … with just the right subversive seasoning. She always went out of her way to keep sacred subjects and people from being taken too seriously, most of all herself. She passed that wonderful trait down to all of us. To this day we can’t help ourselves sometimes.
How I can still hear the mingling of our howls, which went on for a long, good moment. My brother’s giggle going falsetto, his trademark when he gets going. Missy’s laugh going silent and breathless. Mom throwing her head back and staying in her lower range … a laugh every bit as ornery as she was.
Music, all of it.
For years after that kitchen table moment … we’d all find excuses to reference Mom’s tribute. Whenever she’d push our buttons, get under our skin, or absent-mindedly comment on how much we’d miss her when … you know.
After a while we didn’t even have to deliver the punchline. Just the opener: “You said we’d miss you when you were gone …” We’d finish it in our heads. It never failed to coax the echoes of our kitchen table laughter.
On the evening of our 26th anniversary a couple Wednesday’s ago, Karry and I didn’t bring much to our table as far as celebrations go.
Just before I left the office at six for my hour commute home, Karry called, in tears. Her multi-week, single-handed Herculean effort to deliver a kitty she’d rescued from our backyard woods to a foster service had collapsed cat-astrophically. The carrier fell apart seconds before she loaded “George” into the backseat of her Jeep. Instinctively, the cat made a beeline back to the woods.
My assurances that George would come back to the warmth of her kindness and food in due time did little to quell her tears. Twenty-six years into a marriage, our worn words for each other don’t always take root the way they used to.
After pulling in the driveway, I trudged up the steps towards our anniversary with expectations set low.
Opening the door to the hallway, however, I caught a whiff from the kitchen. Walked around the corner to see Emma at the stove, as usual in full command of the situation.
“Is that what I think it is?”
You know it, said our youngest, now 17.
A smile broke across my face. I knew without needing visual confirmation. Fish sticks from the bag. Kraft Mac ’n’ Cheese from the box. Peas from the can. It’s our house’s humble equivalent of lighting a campfire. Never fails to warm, and when necessary, repair our souls.
Emma is by far the best cook in the house. Prides herself in trying (and slaying) new and complex recipes. That she knew that keeping her guns in her dinner holster was just what this weary Wednesday called for was the best kind of gift. The kind we wouldn’t have even known to ask for.
Turns out, she was saving the big guns for later.
“Make sure you leave room for dessert … I made you a peanut butter and chocolate layer cake.
“I impress even myself sometimes.”
I looked towards our tiny dining room. Plates and silverware were set. A single card sat in the center, propped against the napkin holder. Addressed to us from our chef.
Our anniversary hearts caught empty, she filled them to overflowing. I never want to forget that.
Karry entered from the hallway.
And? I asked sheepishly.
George is back in the garage. Neighbors probably thought I was crazy. At one point I was layin’ on my stomach in their yard trying to fish her out from under their gazebo.
The heart my daughter has for the kitchen, my wife has for animals.
Peter joined us at the table, and we fixed our plates. Peppered the mac. Ketchupped the fish sticks. Gave thanks.
We didn’t talk about our anniversary, or our wedding. We caught up on each other’s days. Emma and Karry shaking their heads about customers they encountered. Peter cracking us up with tales of his recent adventures with his buddies.
The music of laughter around the table.
After we cleared the plates Emma brought out the cake.
There were no candles. No singing.
It occurred to me that you don’t get a wish on an anniversary.
So, in the place where the wish might have gone, I thought back exactly 26 years … and one day.
To the night before we got married.
After the rehearsal at the church we gathered at Firmani’s on Rt. 51 for dinner. As we were finishing the meal (I remember stuffed shells — Firmani’s never disappointed), I signaled to our server, and she brought out the birthday cake we’d gotten for Mom. I got everyone’s attention and explained that since we’d be kinda’ busy the next day, we’d be commemorating tonight.
The only thing my Mom hated more than surprises was any sort of fuss, especially at large gatherings. She wanted no parts of being the center of anyone’s attention. I remember her hating it for a moment as the room erupted in song, but then giving in to the happiness of it all … the wedding … being in the company of her kids as well as her sisters who had made the trip in from all over. She was far from alone. We were all so happy. We lit the candle and sang. I remember her taking her time with her wish. While I can only guess as to the specifics, I’m pretty sure she made it count.
Before Emma cut us each a slice from her heavenly creation and placed it on our plates, we took a picture for posterity.
Last year at this time Karry and I took probably a hundred photos commemorating our 25th. On this weary, workday Wednesday, we took just this one. Though I do regret I wasn’t around to snap an action shot of Karry on her belly trying to coax the cat from under the neighbor’s gazebo.
It’s OK though. I’ll do my best to remember. All of it.
Such is 26.
And even though I wasn’t authorized, I made a wish anyway. Took my time, too.
On what would have been her 91st, I wished Anna Margaret a happy birthday.
I’m confident she’ll let me know if she got the message.