|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets a Life.||Rowena's Life, Part 7|
Rowena spent two days getting up the nerve to go see her Aunt Glad. There were two problems involved in visiting Aunt Glad, who was really Rowena's father's aunt; first, she now lived in a nursing home, and second, the nature of Rowena's relationship with her made the first problem harder to deal with.
But she was going, and she was bringing her aunt some pink roses and—it was a family joke; everyone had always done it—three stalks of gladiolus. She would have brought her aunt's favorite saltwater taffy, but Aunt Glad could no longer eat it, and was no longer interested in sweets anyway.
This alone was enough to make Rowena sad.
On the way over she thought about Aunt Glad; about the Aunt Glad of years past. About the year she had taught the young Rowena and even younger Marilyn to make Christmas tree ornaments out of a sort of salty cookie dough. They made trees, packages, stars, teddy bears, candy canes, wise men, holly leaves; even a donkey. Aunt Glad had had every kind of cookie cutter in the world, it seemed.
She remembered the birthday cake her aunt had made her with peppermint icing.
She remembered Aunt Glad giving her rides on the back of her funny old three-wheeler. Aunt Glad giving her a piano lesson. Aunt Glad taking her to the A&W and letting her eat her Baby Burger in the car. Aunt Glad baking pies. Aunt Glad blowing up balloons (and letting Rowena help). Aunt Glad . . .
Aunt Glad who had always seemed such a vital old lady until Uncle Clem died.
Rowena pulled up at a traffic light. Uncle Clem . . . His funeral had been difficult. Aunt Glad's face, even through her veil, had been red and frightening. But she would accept no help and little sympathy. And she had less and less to do with the rest of the family, and stopped coming even to their Christmas dinners. Most of the family no longer even phoned her.
Somebody honked behind Rowena, and she hastily started forward. For a while she managed to keep her mind on the traffic, but eventually found herself thinking, twelve years. Just twelve years . . .
Rowena sat a long time in the parking lot. Finally she took a deep breath, got out of her car, and started bravely up the walk.
She had a little speech all ready for the woman behind the desk. When she got there, of course, she wasn't quite sure how her speech was supposed to go, but she did her best to approximate it. “Um, hello, I—I'd like to see Mrs. Ness, please. Mrs. Gladys Ness.”
“Fine; just sign here, please.” Rowena signed. “Room 26,” the woman said, frowning for a moment at Rowena's signature. “Down that corridor.” And she smiled suddenly, suddenly and without warmth, as if in compliance with some rule or other.
“Thank you,” said Rowena, and went.
The door to Room 26 was, like nearly all the others, ajar. Rowena hesitated, then tapped lightly and, after hesitating again, opened the door a bit further and peered inside.
The face before her was yellow and ancient. White hair stood up in thin wisps all over the head; the mouth hung open, vague and toothless; and the eyes . . .
Rowena tore her gaze away and, on the other side of the room, saw her Aunt Glad.
She was sitting up in bed, her face turned towards Rowena. She did not look as bad as her roommate, but she stared at Rowena with little interest and no sign of recognition. Rowena walked over, slowly. She hoped she did not look upset, and then remembered her aunt's poor vision and hoped she did not act upset.
“Hello, Aunt Glad,” she said. Her voice sounded very small. Her aunt made no move. “Remember me? Rowena. Your nephew Wilder's daughter Rowena.”
“No,” said the old lady. There was a chair by her bed; Rowena sat in it. She could see now that there was a screen between Aunt Glad's bed and that of her roommate; Rowena wished it were drawn, though the roommate, still staring at the door with the same expression, seemed to take no notice of her.
“Your sister Edith's son Wilder,” persisted Rowena. “Your nephew. He's my father. My name is Rowena.”
“Edith,” murmured the old woman, a bit more alertly. “Such a terrible flirt. Terrible. And just a baby.”
“Well, she grew up and had a son named Wilder.”
“He was a holy terror. Broke everything he could get his hands on. And such language.”
“Yes,” said Rowena.
“Nearly killed my cat with that damn football of his.”
“That sounds like him.” She tried to sound amused, told herself this would be just a little funny afterwards, when she thought it over or told it (if she could tell it) to Terese or somebody. “And he's still a football fanatic. And he has two daughters now; Rowena, that's me, and Maralynne.”
Aunt Glad sat for a while. Rowena was wondering how to continue when she said, “Cute little freckles. But so ashamed of them.”
“That was Maralynne. My little sister.”
“Made me a birthday card; I'll never forget it. Got ahold of a picture of me as a little girl and copied it onto the card with yellow and brown pencils, and drew pictures all around it of the family, my bird . . .”
Rowena put her hands over her mouth. “That was me,” she whispered, blinking very fast. “That was me.”
“Happy Birthday, Aunt Glad,” the old lady recited. “Happy . . . Happy . . . Happy . . .”
Rowena tried and tried to talk about her aunt's bird—a parrot that kept saying, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut upya stupid bird!”—about her aunt's garden, about her peach cobbler everyone loved and her rhubarb pie no one would eat; about everything she could think of to try to amuse her aunt or at least jog her memory, but Aunt Glad's period of lucidity seemed to be over. When Rowena took her leave, her aunt did not seem sorry to see her go.
In the hallway Rowena passed a nurse who asked who she'd been visiting. Rowena told her.
“Oh, yes,” the nurse said. “So good of you to come by, especially since she doesn't have any children or grandchildren to come see her.”
“I know,” Rowena said. She wondered with some irritation how the nurse had time to stand around chatting like this.
“She has good times and bad times,” the nurse remarked cheerily, “like everybody else.”
“I suppose,” Rowena said, as the nurse bustled away.
Instead of going straight out to her car, Rowena took a little walk in the garden. The sun was almost gone, and Rowena shared the garden only with one old man in a wheelchair. Rowena found a small fountain and sat by it for a long time, listening to the water and watching it catch what light remained.
When she finally returned to her car, she had a bit of a shock; there on the seat were the flowers she had brought. Somehow they still looked fresh. Rowena stood staring at them. She rested her forehead on the frame of the open door. “Oh, no,” she said. “Oh, no.”
“It's nearly time for dinner,” said the nurse disapprovingly.
“I won't take long,” said Rowena. “I just forgot her flowers. See? I just want to put them in her room, and I'll go.” It seemed insane, but it also seemed the only thing to do. The nurse stared at her a bit longer, then relented.
“But only for a few minutes,” she warned.
Rowena crept into Room 26; her aunt was asleep. Rowena looked at her a moment, wondering what she would look like, be like, at 83. Then she crept to her aunt's dresser. On top of it were several dusty vases to choose from, most with dusty silk flowers already in them. There were also photographs, knickknacks, among them a Kewpie doll and a black china Scotty dog, and some greeting cards—including, and Rowena had to catch her breath, including the one for which Rowena herself had drawn all those pictures, all those years ago.
Rowena shakily picked up an empty vase, dusted it off on her blouse, and carried it and the flowers to her aunt's bedstand, where she had noticed a pitcher of water. She set the flowers gently on the bed, set the vase down and lifted the pitcher. There was plenty of water in it; more than enough. As she began to pour, she was startled by her aunt's voice.
Rowena nearly dropped the pitcher. She recovered herself, looked to see her aunt smiling at her.
“What would you all do,” she asked, “if I told you I've hated gladiolus all these years?”
She seemed alert, and there was a wicked-looking twinkle in her eyes. “I don't know,” said Rowena weakly. “Bring you sweet peas, I guess.”
Her aunt laughed. “Good to see you, Rowena. Come closer.” Rowena did. Her aunt studied her, patted her cheek. “Prettier every time I see you. Your old Aunt Glad was a late bloomer that way; never got pretty, really, but handsome, I daresay I was handsome, at around 35 or 40.”
“I can't stay long,” Rowena apologized, “they made me promise I'd leave before dinner.” Aunt Glad snorted. “I told them I had to give you these flowers, so they let me in.”
“Do your duty, then.” Rowena put the flowers in the vase, started to take them back to the dresser. “No, leave them here,” said her aunt. Rowena set them on the stand, and her aunt leaned carefully over and sniffed at them. “Beautiful,” she said.
At this point her roommate started a terrible fit of coughing. When it subsided she went back to staring at the door exactly as she had been when Rowena first came in. Aunt Glad shook her head.
“Mrs. Glover,” she said. “My dear roomie. One step up from a vegetable. Don't worry,” she added, as Rowena shifted uncomfortably, “she's stone deaf.”
“It's the least of her troubles, if you ask me.” Aunt Glad began picking at her bedspread. “You just don't know what it's like, having to—to look at that, live with that, day in and day out.”
“It's not just—Mrs. Glover.” Aunt Glad looked up at her, then down at her hands, which continued to worry the bedspread. “Rowena,” she said, “I'm not—I'm not always—I get a bit vague sometimes.”
“Don't you be like me. You take care of yourself. Understand, Rowena?”
“To come to this,” said her aunt. “To come to that, in time.” She waved her hand brusquely at Mrs. Glover. “I don't want to be like that.”
“Aunt Glad—” Rowena began unhappily.
“Time passes faster than you know,” her aunt said, fortunately in a way, for Rowena still wasn't sure what she was trying to say. “Faster than you know.”
“Aunt Glad—I know it's terrible, but—I don't know—she doesn't look very unhappy. I mean—”
“Beyond all that,” suggested her aunt. “Perhaps she is. But—”
There was a knock on a neighboring door. “Dinnertime,” said a cheerful voice.
“Pray for me,” said Aunt Glad. “Pray for me, Rowena.”
“I will,” promised Rowena. Her aunt held her arms out and Rowena gave her a hug; the old lady clutched at her. Her nightgown smelled of old lavender; Aunt Glad herself seemed to be made of paper and old silk.
Rowena heard another knock, a knock on Aunt Glad's door. “Dinnertime!” called a nurse brightly. “Time to say goodbye.”
But Aunt Glad held her as if determined never to let go.
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