It was a relief. Not only because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a bath, but also because I’d spent most of the year in India. Tubs are in short supply there, commonly replaced with bucket showers. But there I was in Ohio, enjoying one. The night Aunt Linda died.
She was my biggest advocate. Aunt Linda’s the only one who spoiled me, the one who called me “Sweet Chess” and “My Beauty.” My godmother. The one of the four Mitchell daughters who addressed my mom only as “Sister.” And the one Mom called “Sister” back. The mama of my dearest cousin Mitchell – my version of a sister.
I remember summer lunches at Waffle House as she drove my brother and I to Virginia for our annual visit. I remember the excitement of driving through the “tree tunnel” as we neared her house. That excitement gripped me even as I arrived alone at 3 am the morning of her memorial.
I remember stops at the Little Sue for candy and cigarettes as we left her private development each morning. I remember car ride sing-a-longs and “That’s what became of the monk, the monk, the monk, the monk.” I remember forgiveness for spitting my gum out the car window – not far enough to clear the outside of the car.
I remember receiving roller blades and Dad getting upset that she thought our visit was excuse enough for an expensive gift. And getting upset at Dad because that’s what we loved about her.
I remember mornings with the three of us – Will, Mitchell and me – squeezed between her and Uncle Armin in her king-sized bed. With Regis and Kathy Lee. I remember French toast breakfasts at the bar, but not until she got out of bed mid-morning in her white nightgown that matched Mom’s.
I remember summer craft projects and curling our hair into Shirley Temple locks. I remember days on the river and jelly fish stings. I remember feeding the ducks before swimming lessons. I remember boogie boards at the beach and aloe on my back.
I remember bath time – a daily, exciting event then. She lathered shampoo into our hair and sometimes let us use a dab of her expensive conditioner. We pushed our sudsy hair, Mitchell’s white and mine red, into straight-up points to look like “pumpkin heads.”
I remember late night compromises as she mediated another kid fight. I remember goodnight kisses and “Don’t let the bed bugs bite!” and “Say your prayers,” and, “Just holler if you need me,” as she walked down to her room.
I remember flowers and butterflies and clay sun faces in her garden. I remember fishing off the dock. I remember standing by embarrassed as she made friends with every cashier. Secretly, I wished I could be as confident and social as her.
I remember her house filled with the most diverse, bright trinkets I knew. From places I now identify as South Africa, Puerto Rico, Europe, Australia. And TJ Maxx.
She drew everyone out of their shells. She told you that she wanted you to have the time of your life. So of course you came out to be in her excitement, to enjoy yourself, no matter what. If only to avoid being scolded at the party, shamed for not having fun.
These are the things I remember now.
But that night. In the tub. I only remembered to calm myself.
Every night in India, I rubbed aloe moisturizer on my legs and back. I hate lotion. But it reminded me of my mom and her love of self-pampering. It comforted me.
And the night Aunt Linda died, I took a bath. It lasted only a few minutes. But I had stopped. Stopped to sit and think and be warm. My mom never goes a night without a bath and a Diet Coke and Aunt Linda loved pampering, too, right? So this connected me to her, right?
Soon, I started to sweat. It was time to leave before it got clammy. So I took a deep breath, dried off, and lied in bed.
Her death didn’t hit me until I got to Virginia a few days later, driving through the black-black tree tunnel. My cousin was without her mama. My mom, the baby, without her nurturer. The intricate house and garden without their caretaker. But that hot bath. It soothed me for the moment. It tied me to the Mitchell girls.