There are times to treasure, and people to treasure.
“Pair of jacks.”
The grownups traded loud stories between endless poker hands. I was five and exhausted, pretending I couldn’t hear. it seemed I’d barely drifted asleep when a shrieking teakettle startled me awake.
“Good morning, lazybones.” My auntie smiled.
I sat up, cold air on my shoulders, hard couch under me, soft comforter over, the scent of bacon. A firm hand offered a mug of hot orange juice.
It was delicious.
“Breakfast in fifteen minutes, get washed up,” said Auntie, heading back to the bacon.
I bolted to the bathroom and back in record time. Mom gave me clothes from the suitcase and prompted me to ask Auntie how I could help in the kitchen. Dad was still snoring on the guest bed, as my uncle watched the weather: heavy rain forecast.
Auntie didn’t need help, of course, but she put a giant’s apron on me, letting me lay out napkins and a fancy vase: fragrant roses and sweet peas she grew herself. She called me her sous chef, though I reminded her I was Shelley, not ‘Sue.’ She laughed. Bacon, eggs, and pancakes with Auntie’s homemade cherry jam on top. Heaven. I begged to stay longer, but Mom and Dad said we needed to head home quickly to beat the storm.
I saw her again when I was ten, after Uncle died. She seemed surprisingly pretty but lonely and smaller than I remembered — by then I’d grown a bit. Things are relative, right? There were no card games, only long discussions that bored me. Still, there were endless treats whipped up. Auntie was a fantastic cook: asparagus quiche and strawberry shortcake with fresh produce she’d brought and real homemade fudge! I hounded her to let me help again. She promised the recipes when I was older.
We wrote after that, cards at first, then emails when I began high school. She sent birthday gifts — once an apron, another time a cookbook — I reminded her that she’d promised me her own recipes. The recipes came, but they never turned out as good as when she’d made them.
Auntie visited again when my parents celebrated their wedding anniversary, just overnight — then again for my high school graduation, the whole weekend! I got the fudge recipe then. She’d gotten some of the details wrong when she’d written it down, or so she said. She also taught me poker. I had beginner’s luck the first few games, until she won it all back including every bit of cash I’d saved up for the movies. She cleaned out Mom and Dad, too.
I missed her so much when she left.
My first job brought me closer to where she lived, so I spent the odd weekend with her, always bringing fancy city ingredients to her small town for our kitchen creations, while she heated water every morning for orange juice and sent me back with jam and brownies.
Over time she became forgetful. She was thrilled when I brought flowers for her August birthday, but was sure I had the date wrong. A batch of jam didn’t gel. Bacon strips were burnt.
Two years later, she’d moved to a memory care facility, and my new job was farther away. She couldn’t recall my name, and at times forgot her own. I told her to call me ‘Sue,’ it was easier to remember.
For Valentine’s Day I brought chocolate truffles and a bouquet of roses — I knew she missed her garden.
She clapped in delight. “Sue, you remembered my birthday!”
I hugged her tightly.
A nurse took the flowers and brought them back arranged in Auntie’s favorite cut-glass vase. On our second chocolates, Auntie confided, “I’m not sharing them with anyone but you,” sliding the box under a magazine.
She asked about Mom and Dad four or five times, gossiped loudly about her deaf roommate, and we played two-handed poker — I think she cheated, or maybe she was genuinely lucky at cards. I gladly parted with my spare change, reminding myself she’d been dealt a bad hand in life.
That was several months ago. With each visit, there’s less of her. And with each passing season, less time. Yes, my beautiful Auntie is still there, and it's always hard to leave. But I know the nursing staff is right when they gently tell me what I don’t want to hear. Soon she’ll be gone, even if she seems to be there.
Marta Tanrikulu is an American writer and editor of stories in various genres. Tanrikulu’s work has appeared in Mystery Weekly and in magazines and anthologies published by Red Stylo Media, GrayHaven, Aazurn Press, Stache Publishing, and others. You can find more of her original work online at vizyonentertainment.com
Cherished is a 2016 Fiction War Fall Finalist entry. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author. Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @samuelzeller