“A Charitable Donation” is the fifth-place winning story in SNHU’s 2017 Fall Fiction Competition.
by Lonormi Manuel
My aunt meets me at the door and folds me into a hug. Her hands are still strong for a woman of her age; they rub my back, offering me unnecessary comfort. We stand that way for several minutes, each looking over the other’s shoulder, conforming to a ritual that must be performed even when it’s pointless.
“She’s better off,” my aunt mumbles into my shoulder. “If she could have seen … she wouldn’t have wanted to live that way.”
We separate and take seats on opposite sides of the room. She sits in the wing chair, covered in formal gold damask; it gives her the illusion of authority. I sit in the center of the antique sofa, covered in a jacquard print eighteenth-century garden; it feels like the seat of a supplicant. Between us lies the area rug, a vast ocean of wine, gold and green. It would be simple for her to cross that rug and sit beside me on the sofa, or for me to cross that rug and sit beside her in the wing chair’s mate. But that would make us equals, and we both know that’s not how it is.
My aunt tells me about my mother’s death, the “particulars” as she calls them. I hear again (having already heard it from her once, by telephone) of how the hired nurse went to fix the liquefied mush that sustained my mother’s body; of how she brought the pureed vegetables and the syringe, only to find that all her effort had been unnecessary. Beyond the wing chair, the bedroom where my mother died is visible through the open door. The bed is nude, its linen stripped and stuffed into a bag for the home medical agency to take when they come to pick up the bed. According to my aunt, they will come tomorrow.
“I don’t want to seem pushy,” she says after a conscious pause, “but we need to talk about the furniture.” She ticks off on her fingers the items in the house that belonged to my mother. They now belong to me; their disposition is my decision. The bedroom suite, purchased one piece at a time before my mother met and married my father. The sofa, unearthed in an antique mall before my father’s death. The wing chairs, discovered in a different antique mall after his passing. All three pieces were reupholstered by the same man, a former police officer who retired on disability. The sofa required extensive repair to make it usable. He did excellent work.
There are also mirrors with ornate frames of gilded plaster, and a bookcase made of cheap wood stained to look like mahogany. The books that it contains are of no importance to me; I already have my books and my father’s. I took them long before my mother’s family assumed responsibility for her care and moved her into this little house, down the hill from where they all grew up. My aunt looks at her hands, now lying limp in her lap, and brings up my mother’s china, crystal and silver; things dearly loved, yet always deemed too beautiful to use. These, I am told, have been parted out among my aunts for safekeeping. It’s unwise to leave valuables in the house with hired caregivers, she says; so many of them are dishonest, and will steal anything of worth that isn’t nailed down when no one is around to witness. I refrain from mentioning how other members of the family cleaned out my grandmother’s house after her death, taking everything that wasn’t nailed down.
My aunt’s voice winds down like a thirty-day clock as she comes to the end of her inventory. She is silent, waiting for me to respond; then she looks up from her lap with an expression that I don’t know how to read. “Do you know when you’ll be coming after the furniture?” she asks.
“I’m not taking it.” The steadiness of my voice pleases me. “Give it away. Any of the family who need what’s here, let them take it.”
“But the china, the silver …”
“Aunt Jane and Aunt Rose can keep it. They’ll use it, and they deserve it after all they’ve done.”
My aunt leans forward, bracing her hands on her knees as though she’s going to spring up or lunge forward. “You don’t want anything?” she asks.
“I didn’t say that. I want her cedar chest, and the mirror that hung in my room when I was a child. And her wedding dress, which I believe is in the cedar chest. And whatever is left of the jewelry Dad gave her.”
She bridles at the phrase whatever is left, interpreting it as an accusation. Part of me intended that she should interpret it that way. “Well now, it’s all left. Nobody touched it. Your Aunt Jane has it. She’s been keeping it safe for you, that’s all.”
“I appreciate that.”
She gestures around the room and asks again, as though she cannot believe it, “So you don’t want any of this?”
“None of it. It’s not my style. Give it to my cousins as something to remember my mother by.”
My aunt falls back into the refuge of the wing chair. She stammers out a thank-you, tells me that I am generous. Like my mother, she is a member of a subset in our family, one whose constituents grasp at and cling to material goods; to her credit, she is by no means the most grasping or the most clinging. There are others who drive Cadillacs and wear furs, who collect artwork and jewelry and decorative plates from the Franklin Mint (as an investment, of course, with the naïve belief that they will someday increase in value). Possessions are the yard lines of their lives, marking their determined advancement from the impoverished backfield of their youth toward the touchdown of middle-class success. Extra points are awarded if their children embrace their philosophy.
She has erred in assessing my motive: I am not being generous. Bestowing a chair or a silver service in the name of generosity interests me not at all. If I should speak the truth – that they are doing me a favor by taking this detritus of my childhood off my hands – she would not believe me. She would say, as she has said to me on so many other occasions, that I am lying. It is her favorite stone to fling at me. She also tells me that I am far too much like my father, whom none of them ever liked. The condemnations settle into my brain, taking up residence alongside my mother’s insistence that I need to lose weight and my father’s refusal to attend my wedding. (He was right about the groom. I always meant to tell him that, but he died before I had the chance.)
And although my aunt is right when she says I am a liar, she would spend her last breath to deny my truth: that it was my mother who taught me how to lie, first about little things and then about larger things. When I was ten, I brought to her a dark secret, one too large for my child-sized shoulders, expecting that she would take it from me and make it better. That’s what mothers are supposed to do. They are not supposed to shake their child and hand the dark thing back. They are not supposed to say don’t ever tell anyone or your father will kill somebody. They are not supposed to say why didn’t you just say No.
I could tell my aunt these things, just as I told my mother. Her face would go as white as her hair, and then as red as the wine roses in the rug that lies between us. She would tell me again that I am a liar and too much like my father. She would scream down the walls in a fine display of Irish temper. Like my mother, she would do nothing, but I cannot fault her for that; there is really nothing to be done after so many years.
She is weeping now, reminiscing about the childhood she shared with my mother. Weeping and reminiscing are luxuries that I deny myself, so I just listen and nod from time to time. Someday I will learn how to let go of the burden that was put upon me. I will release the secret that I was charged with keeping; I will expose the lie that I was taught to tell. But in this moment, giving away these things that my mother loved is almost enough. I leave them upon the altar of the family, where my mother left me all those years ago. Let them view it as generosity if as charity, if they wish. The dark thing and I, we know the truth.