by Susan Spadafora
My mother’s sister and family came to visit. Since my cousin Marie was only a year older than me, she was invited to stay a bit longer so we could play together. There was a family get-together planned for the next Sunday, with relatives from my father’s side of the family. It was also my sister Laine’s birthday. Aunty and uncle were scheduled to pick Marie up in a week, on the Monday after Laine’s birthday.
I was quite excited about these two, simultaneous events. I was a few months short of turning five, and I incessantly inquired about the day of the family party until I could count and enumerate which day it was — also being cognizant that Marie would be picked up by her parents to go home on the next day.
It was quite hot that July. My parents bought me my first little pool — barely a foot deep, but sufficient for me to cool off and play in. Marie knew how to put her head under water and hold her breath — but she didn’t seem to want to show off her new skill.
She was quiet about everything this visit. One day — just a few days before the planned party on Sunday, we were standing in the yard and I asked her why she was so sad, and I reminded her about the party on Sunday.
“I’m leaving on Sunday.”
“No Marie, Sunday is the party and Laine’s birthday. You’re not going home until Monday when aunty and uncle come to pick you up.”
She looked inconsolably sad as she walked away from me. She stopped and stood in the middle of the yard, shaking her head, and said again,
“No, I’m leaving Sunday.”
I knew this was not the plan, but I was not about to argue with her. I changed the subject and said,
“I’m going to weed my strawberry bed.”
That was my assigned chore after Daddy planted the trailing strawberries. Marie stayed standing alone in the middle of the lawn. I began weeding my strawberry bed. I turned once to see her still standing in the same spot staring down at her feet. But the second time I turned to look she had gone back into the house.
I remember being at the family gathering. It was a local reservation with barbecues, picnic tables, and a pond to swim in — all amidst a beautiful wooded area. All my aunts and uncles from my father’s side of the family were there. I remember being in the pond with Marie, my sisters, and other cousins. We were all playing, splashing, and jumping around in the water. I remember yelling for my mommy to look at me. She was talking with someone. Then she looked over and began to ask,
“Where is Marie?”
I remember turning to look around me at the water. We all looked around, but no one could find Marie. Then they told us all to get out of the water.
My mother was frantic, and my father asked Aunt Mary to watch me. My Aunt Mary was a wonderful, warm and caring lady, who quite frankly, had the patience of a saint to put up with and accommodate all my incessant and precocious demands.
Time passed as people searched the water, the woods, everywhere. I was standing with Aunty Mary when I saw a crowd of people on the beach. I tugged on Aunty Mary and said,
“There they are!”
Aunty Mary hesitated, but finally gave in as I kept tugging her towards the small crowd of people on the water’s edge. I was tiny and couldn’t see, so I kept demanding of Aunty Mary that I wanted to see. Finally, she picked me up and placed me on her shoulders, with my legs straddled around her neck, so I could view from just over her head.
The local fire department was called in. They used divers and found Marie’s little body floating just under the surface. One theory was she put her head under water and sucked in water due to a cold she had, that caused her to sniffle. Another theory was there might have been a sinkhole, as this pond became known for that phenomenon. We’ll never know.
In my mind’s eye I can still see my cousin Marie’s lifeless body lying on a pink blanket. There were a couple of men besides my Daddy. They all tried to breathe life back into her. They kept trying — then they all stopped. Daddy tried one more time. One man stood. The other got up and walked away. Daddy finally turned away. On his hands and knees, he crawled to the side of the blanket and started to pound the sand with his big fists,
“Damn! Damn! God damn!”
I couldn’t bear seeing Daddy upset, and he never swore. I called out to him,
He turned and looked up, but he didn’t smile at me as he always would; he yelled at poor Aunty Mary and gestured with his big hand,
“Get her out of here!”
Poor Aunty Mary got me down from her shoulders and took me away. As we were leaving, I saw a fireman helping my mother up the embankment, and I calling out,
She was sobbing uncontrollably and too far away to hear me. I learned later — when I was older, they had to give her a sedative.
I didn’t see my sisters, but was told they were with another relative’s family.
I went with Aunty Mary, Uncle Bill, my cousins Daryl and Billy and stayed with them that night. I wanted to see Aunty Gloria and Uncle Eddy the next day, but when I got home, they had already left. I was too young to understand that they didn’t want to see me.
* * *
A few years later, my father passed away suddenly. I had always been his shadow, and as soon as Mommy let me, I began to take on little chores Daddy would have done — one of which was cleaning the underground sprinkler heads in the spring.
* * *
Several years later, my sister Laine got engaged. As she and my mother made plans for her wedding, her selected function hall’s only available opening was on her birthday, which was also the eleventh anniversary of Marie’s passing. One of my cousins — Marie’s brother, complained to Aunty Gloria that he thought it was disrespectful because of the date. My aunt thoughtfully replied that it was not fair, for all those years, that my sister’s birthday was also a day of mourning. She counseled him it was only fair Laine have a fond memory for her day.
At fifteen I was at the awkward, ‘I really don’t want to be around the grownups anymore’ stage. I was at an independent point that summer and elected to spend time on my own, away from my friends. I also decided my contribution to my sister’s wedding was that the lawn was going to look as it would if my father were alive.
Mom bought an electric mower, as she didn’t want me using the gas powered one. I worked from early spring, raking dead leaves, weeding the flower beds, and I cleaned the underground sprinkler heads. Because of the size of the lawn, they needed to be turned on in sections. I systematically monitored each time I watered each section. However, I realized the brown patch in the center of the lawn wasn’t getting any water — probably due to a leak in one of the underground hoses. There was a corresponding soggy area, denoting where the leak was, but Mom was too preoccupied with the wedding to focus on having the leak fixed. So, for the burnt section I resorted to a portable sprinkler.
The dead patch was roughly three by four feet and I tried everything. I raked it. I fertilized it. I even re-seeded it. I gradually got the circumference down to an irregular five by six inches. My hard work paid off, and on the big day our lawn was a plush emerald carpet, just as it would have been if Daddy were alive. From a distance, you couldn’t see any imperfections. Only when you walked right up to it and spread the lush, green grass blades apart, could you see — that spot in the lawn.
Decades later, when reflecting on these separate events I realized the brown spot — that patch of dead lawn in the middle of our yard — was exactly where my cousin Marie was standing as she shook her head and said she would be leaving on Sunday.
Somehow, she knew.
Category: Featured, Memoir, Nonfiction