The house was full, it was Sunday, and the families had gathered. The aroma of dinner wafted onto the property. Kids played on the wrap around porch and out in the spacious backyard. The adults either lounged or cooked in the kitchen, looked at pictures, others talked and laughed, and there was a group of men watching football. The family of six had multiplied into spouses, children, grandchildren and even great children. With all of these people surrounding her, Claire still felt alone.
She stood on the porch, and picked at the green house paint, creating chips where there hadn’t been any. Claire was not old enough to play with the grandkids but too old to play with the rest of the great grands. They were mostly babies and young toddlers. Her own grandparents had divorced and her grandfather had little use for the child of his child from his first spouse. Claire always ended up at these dinners out of a sense of duty and one of courtesy. Her family was nice enough to her but she still felt left out. Especially when, someone thoughtlessly asked about her mother, or told her that they had seen her father. She often wished she could disappear, or at the very least stop coming to these dinners.
“Claire, Yaunny says stop worrying that house paint and come here.” Claire looked up at her teenage great cousin and rolled her eyes. She was excited to see her great grand she even felt special that she was being summoned out of all her cousins, but she rolled her eyes all the same. She pulled herself away from the house and entered the corridor, walking back to Yaunny and Pop’s “holdin court” room. She willed herself invisible as to not deal with any of the other relatives on the way back.
Children were not usually invited back to the “holdin court room”. The furniture was antique and cream colored. There were pictures of the ancestors, ancestors in frames just as old. There were many breakable knick knacks and books older than even the kids. Yaunny said it was just no place for the heathens in her family. Claire slid into the room, daring not to sit, but dared to be bold enough to pick at the yellowing wallpaper.
“Yaunny, how come we allowed to call you by your first name? Don’t nobody else be allowed to call they momma, grams, or greats by they first names?” Claire asked the question and absentmindedly picked at the wall paper. Yaunny swatted her hand away.
“Oh child, come in here talking all rough, and asking questions. This after you stood on my porch and peeled my paint, then had the nerve to come in Yaunny’s great room and dare bother the wall paper? Humph! At least give Yaunny some kisses and get your candy from Pop.” Claire kissed Yaunny’s cheeks and scooted over to Pop and held her hand out. Instead of pouring the sour cherries into her hand like he did with the other kids, he handed her the whole bag and smiled. Claire grinned and mouthed thanks. “Look Yaunny he gave them all to me!!”
“I see. Don’t speak so loudly and roughly. I know your Grams Claire stays on you about it so I won’t, but remember to speak like a lady, Little Claire. Sit next to Yaunny, and let me have some of those cherries.”
Claire climbed up into the armchair next to her and laid her head on Yaunny’s ample bosom. The comfort that overtook her at that very moment made her abandon the cherries all together. She handed them over and sighed. Yaunny hugged her tighter.
“Yaunny are you gonna tell me?”
“Tell you what child?”
“Why we allowed to call you Yaunny.”
“Oh. That’s simple. I married your Pop when I was too young and had your first great uncle right after that. Well the babies kept coming and I never wanted to lose who I am. I never wanted to just be Pop’s wife, those kids’ mama, or even just a Gram. I’m Yaunny and I want to always remember that, so everyone even those kids of mine call me by my name.”
“My Gram Claire says it’s silly and I’m not allowed to call you by just your first name.”
“I’m sure you weren’t supposed to share that Little Claire and my house my rules. Here I’m Yaunny. You call me whatever she feels is proper at her house. I almost forgot why I called you in here. I heard that you read like a genius. How would you like to spend some afternoons reading to me and Pops after school? You get to come while all the other kids are at home. Just you, Pops and me. Yaunny will even make you some of your favorite treats.”
Clair was so happy that she could only nod in agreement. Pops smiled and handed her a book of Bible stories. They were her favorite and she had heard that Pops had taught himself to read and write using that book when the schools had given up on him.
“I can read now Pops?” He nodded and Clair began. Pop and Yaunny beamed in pride as their great grand, the middle often forgotten one read out loud with no mistakes.
Claire was always the topic of discussion with her odd quiet ways. She could often be found standing outside of any group, picking at the structure but absorbing everything around her. Claire had been born to Yaunny’s youngest son’s first daughter. The daughter had abandoned the child; right after her own father divorced their family, and abandoned them for a newer model. Gram Clair took her in out of duty. Granddad tolerated her. Claire was cared for but not loved as a little girl should be. Claire’s father was in the wind more often than not but still cared for the child financially. Pop and Yaunny saw the sadness in the little girl and discussed in the way they discussed such matters, the matter of making sure Claire got some extra attention.
Dinner was called. Claire usually regaled to the children’s table, where she ate by herself and picked at the molding on the table, sat next to Pop guarding her sour cherries and defiantly refusing to move. Her granddad tried to shoo her a few times, and was told off by Yaunny for “trying to run things in her kitchen” The adults talked over chicken and dumplings with homemade biscuits, and wine. Claire marveled at the activity but never spoke a word. When the matter of her mother came up, Claire’s granddad again tried to shoo her, but Yaunny made it clear that they were not having that conversation at all. The coffee and dessert came and only then was Claire dismissed.
In the weeks that followed, Claire showed up several times to read to her great grandparents. The smells of soul food made from scratch greeted her every time. Whatever Claire wanted to eat is what Yaunny made. She could request homemade mac and cheese no cheddar a thousand times a week, and a thousand times she would get it. Pops always gave her sour cherries or a dollar to buy her own. When it was time for Sunday dinner, Claire was excited she even played with the older kids, often sitting at the kids table without being shooed or prompted. Pop was able to paint over the chipping paint and leave it be for a while. Claire was finally fitting in.
Claire stood in her too tight Mary Jane’s, and itchy black knee socks. With one hand she tugged at the collar on her black dress with the other she picked at the paint in the corridor. No one bothered to stop her, comfort her or rescue her. Soon there was a whole strip of paint missing, chips piled on the floor. Claire wept silently. There was nothing to wipe her nose on so she used her sleeve. An older boy cousin walked by and mugged her in the head.
“You nasty, Pop want you.” She kicked him in the shin and ran to the back bedroom. Pops wouldn’t hold court he wouldn’t even leave their bed. Not even today, the day it was most important for him to. Claire entered the bedroom and squinted against the dimness. Pop smiled a little and patted the bed next to him. He handed her a note once she was settled “Read to me Little Claire.” She sat in front of him on the bed so that he could see her lips and begin to read. Pop held up his hand a few times to stop an exasperated intruder at the door. He did not want to be bothered. Finally it was Claire’s granddad that was granted admission. He carried a tray containing two bowls of navy bean soup with sides of cornbread, and sweet tea. Pop even allowed him to open some blinds and turn on the light. He patted Claire on the head and left the room. Claire handed Pop his bowl and encouraged him to eat, she would not began to read again until the bowls were clean and corn bread gone. She read until Pop fell asleep and then she quietly covered him and walked away.
The adults in the kitchen thanked her and gave her special treats. Pop was sad and wasting away. Claire was the hero for the moment, but no one thought to ask Claire how she felt. For days Claire’s granddad picked her up so that she could Pop. He would make dinner and bring it in as Claire was reading. Sometimes he listened to Claire but often he would just pat her on the head and sit in another room. Pop still was sad and frail and wouldn’t leave his room but at least he was eating one meal, washing himself, and allowing his daughters to change his linen. It still wasn’t enough.
Claire waited impatiently, she paced and sighed. Her Gram Claire had given her another book to read to Pop. She was ready to go. Where was granddad!? Claire looked over her shoulder and slipped off of the porch. Pop was not far away as a matter of fact she had walked there before. She headed down the block and just as she was rounding the corner she heard Gram Claire call her name. She was going to get spanked for leaving the porch anyway so she may as well make it worth her while. Claire took off running, never looking back. Four blocks later she was there.
Something was wrong.
Granddad’s car was there, so were a few great aunts and uncles. Claire stopped cold at the sight of the ambulance and the coroner’s van.
She sat in the lawn and cried. As usual, no one noticed her. Gram Claire who was furious when she arrived on the scene, quickly changed her demeanor and gathered Claire into her lap and rocked her, humming a lullaby until Claire could no longer cry.
Pop died of a broken heart. Yaunny had been his one and only love, there was no living after her passing.
Life went on for Claire. She was quickly forgotten and just existed for years. Granddad passed on first, and eventually Gram Claire. Claire by then was well on her way to being an adult. She moved in to her father’s home and was ignored for the most part. Her father had a wife and babies to tend to.
On the day of high school graduation, Claire’s cheering section consisted of a few random people, but most of her family was either dead or uninterested. She walked the stage and the fan fair was over. On the drive home her father presented her with a rather large envelope. It was still sealed and all that he could tell her was that he was supposed to give it to her on her high school graduation.
Claire tore it open. There was a stack of notes. Her eyes welled with tears she had almost forgotten what their handwriting looked like. The notes contained affirmations for her. The couple’s wedding rings were nestled in a small jewelry sack. There was a small old fashioned bank book with the last entry being twenty thousand dollars. The newer modern bank statement made her gasp in shock. The money had been earning interest and had been invested for her since Pop died. The book Claire had read to them from was there, preserved with the rest of the keep sakes. Inside of the book, Claire found a letter and the deed to the green house with the wrap around porch. If it is ever possible for someone to feel the same amount of happiness and sadness at the same time, Claire felt it that very moment. They had done more than care for her they had loved the middle odd child like no one else in her life had.
Claire leaned her head on the car window and let the tears flow. For once she didn’t pick at anything.