I looked up. Uncle Ed was standing in my doorway, leaning against the frame. He looked older and sadder than I'd ever seen him before. However, there was still a certain purposeful twinkle to his eyes.
"Yes, Uncle Ed?"
"I was wondering if you'd help me make lunch today. Livvie isn't feeling well, so I thought I'd help her out by offering to make lunch, since Charlotte isn't here either… But, see—"
"You know nothing about cooking," I finished, a smile crossing my face. "I remember when I used to live with you, and Auntie Liv was trying to teach you how to cook. You used to burn everything or undercook it, and the spices would be all wrong. I remember."
A ghost of a smile lit up his face. "Exactly. So, will you help?" he asked hopefully.
I smiled again, more warmly this time. "Of course. We can also get Nick and Justin helping out in the kitchen. What did you have in mind?"
"Erm, nothing as yet. I was hoping you'd have some ideas," Uncle Ed said as he turned to go. I laid my book on my bedside table and got up to follow.
"We'll figure something out."
Half an hour later, I had Nick making vegetable soup, Uncle Ed mashing potatoes, and Justin steaming rice while I did gravy. I'd decided to go with just a simple rice-and-gravy meal, and the soup was to comfort a few of the more lost souls in the house. None of us said anything as we worked, besides the occasional cooking pointer, so the kitchen was absurdly quiet. We were all reflecting.
With all that had been going on in the past two days, I hadn't really given much of a thought to my own safety—although that should have been my primary concern. My problem, I realized, was that I trusted everyone. It always turned out to be the most unexpected person, as well as the simplest choice, in all mystery movies and books—and real life as well. I couldn't exactly cut off all my relationships at this house, but I decided it would do well for me to be more cautious as I minced up the beef for the gravy.
My mom was a big advocate of caring for oneself—more so than most people, which was ironic considering she wasn't a strong or healthy person, like I already said. She would read Hindu books about self-realization and meditation, and try it out herself. She also read moral books about what different religions valued (such as love, honesty, religion) with regard to the soul, and how they treated their bodies. Growing flowers in the extensive space we had about our mansion was one of her most beloved pastimes. She would sit out there on the small, picturesque wooden benches that were scattered here and there for hours at a time, looking absolutely at peace with the world.
My father never allowed Ashley and me to interrupt her during those times, instead taking it upon himself to help us with our homework or plan the next day's meals. Mother always cooked, because we all adored her cooking, but she never made good meal choices or thought to plan ahead with groceries, so we always told her what to cook. Most of our meals were simple, like the rice-and-gravy I was making today, but they were beyond delicious. In my first few months of working in the city, I was surprised at how complex dishes were normally considered the best, but simple homemade ones like I'd always eaten still tasted better than the fancy hotel food I was sometimes treated to.
My father was so protective of my mother, even more so because she was so frail and delicate. There was never many hot tempers in our house—Ashley and I learned from an early age that it was best to follow what our parents said obediently, and all would be fine. Our parents weren't unduly strict with us either, so nothing ever went wrong in those days. We were really one of the most perfect families I have ever known—all happy and content with each other.
So of course it couldn't last. My father was a smart man, but the blood vessels around his brain were weak. One day, when he was in his late fifties, he collapsed because of internal bleeding in the brain area. The doctor told us it was amyloid angiopathy, brain hemorrhage, and that he was dead even before we'd reached the hospital.
My mother was sent to bed almost at once with a high fever and other heart-related problems. She died two days later. I remember Ashley in my room, screaming and sobbing hysterically when I'd just woken up from an afternoon nap after tending to my mother all the previous night and day. Which is strange, because I don't actually remember anything about my father's passing—just what they told me later.
My mother and father were always meant to be together, I knew that. So I didn't cry at the funeral. I just gripped Ashley's hand as she sobbed her way silently through the service and thought of Mother in her garden and her cooking.
Lunch was as close to a success as we could get it, given the circumstances. Uncle Ed took a tray up to Auntie Liv, who had stayed in bed the entire day. He looked considerably better when he came downstairs with the empty plates, and I had to remind myself that he was hiding his grief for Auntie Liv's sake. Although I felt a bit better too, knowing that she was eating well.
I took a tray up to Ebony's room, but I didn't feel like staying, and it seemed like the child wanted to be alone anyway. I was sure I wouldn't do her any good trying to force her to talk if she didn't want to, so I let it be, came downstairs and had my own lunch. Everyone else came down to eat, so I was left with the four males in the house.
I wondered what I looked like. Did I plainly carry the mark of grief on my face, like everyone else did? I felt oddly detached, somehow—grieving for my cousins, but at the same time just a bystander trying to help. The soup helped me, as it did everyone else. I drank an entire bowl, and then I was able to eat some food to put the color back in my face, which was pale anyhow.
Afterward, I was on kitchen duty again, recruiting Nick to help me tidy up. I wondered when this 'phase' of the reunion was going to end—whether it would ever end. How does one recover from two deaths at a reunion and just continue with life? It seemed impossible that Auntie Liv would ever come down again this reunion, much less host another one. The Woodstock family was being pulled apart.