Fly the Coop
Words and Photos by M. Lokelani Howe
On the day my aunt remarried, she held me on her lap in her sister's farmhouse. Tears spilled out from carefully guarded reservoirs hidden deep within my soul. She hugged me tightly for a brief moment. Then we climbed into the bed of a borrowed pickup. I tried hard to smile as we drove down to a big red barn trimmed with twinkle lights. The groom lifted her from the truck bed, and I followed them inside and down the aisle, blindsided by emotions. I wasn't ready to let her go.
Aunt Betty first held me some thirty years before, and I cried then too. Three days old and hungry. She cradled me while struggling with her own anxious thoughts. Why haven't I been given a child? From that moment on, she spoiled me with sleepovers, hand-stitched dresses, and homemade cookies.
We also held tight through some rough stuff that usually ends badly, and it did. Aunt Betty and Uncle Peter divorced after thirty-nine years of marriage. I stayed with her, bearing witness, as she picked up the pieces of her life.
After Aunt Betty and Uncle Mike left for their honeymoon, I stopped by the house to drop off a few things, somehow stunned to realize I wasn't alone. I'd forgotten that Aunt Betty had houseguests. Her new family. Two upstanding sons with beautiful wives and a sum total of three adorable grandchildren.
"Guard your heart," said my cousin. She preached about divorce and remarriage. Honoring husbands. And leaving the past behind. "Everything will change, sis.”
A few years down the road from that big red barn, everything did change when Aunt Betty called to say, "Baby girl, the house sold." My eyes filled with tears as my throat tightened up with a single thought. I'm not enough.
I grumbled to myself all the while we loaded up the U-Haul.
What about sipping warm mugs of tea on the couch? Who will gather us for Easter dinner? Where will my children catch frogs and chase lightning bugs? Will she replace us?
Aunt Betty and Uncle Mike arrived at their new home in South Carolina a few days later. And I cried for a few days more. Facebook piled on, flooding my feed with celebratory images and sentiments that I did not share. In one post, my aunt's daughter-in-law exclaimed, "We no longer have to say good-bye!”
So, what can you do when your folks fly the coop? Sure, I cried. But then I drove like hell to catch up with them! And two days later, we pulled into their driveway for a summer stay.
My aunt finally had her very own farmhouse with a chicken coop and clover pastures. My kids kicked off their shoes to chase lightning bugs, catch frogs, and run from the rooster. Bedtime talks with the kids soon shifted from loss to gain to a mantra of more. Next summer, more.
But my own inner child still felt three days old and hungry.
"Let's have peach ice cream tonight," said Aunt Betty. I'd brought a huge box of peaches from Ham Orchards in Texas, and they were ripening fast. She left the kitchen to find and unpack the ice cream maker. The kitchen felt a bit empty without her, so I fiddled with my coffee cup, as did Uncle Mike. The space between us held unspoken words until he broke the silence.
"This place reminds me of my grandparents’ farm," he said. "I loved them, and I loved the farm. I stayed for the whole summer, learning how to take care of the animals and playing with my brothers. Being here feels like my childhood." His eyes misted over.
My grandparents didn't have a farm, but my godparents did. That's where I got my first taste of homemade peach ice cream. My brother and I picked juicy blackberries still warm from the sun. Patted the velvet nose of a horse. Daydreamed on hay bales.
Aunt Betty returned to the kitchen with the ice cream maker. I chopped the peaches, my uncle collected the eggs, and my aunt added the sugar. The kids stirred up a sticky mess for the grownups to clean. Later that evening, Uncle Mike's side of the family joined us for dinner. We grilled out by the pool, followed by ice cream under the stars. It was such an ordinary and satisfying day worth any pilgrim's journey.
We packed a picnic the next day and drove out to Table Rock State Park in Pickens County, South Carolina. "The kids will love it there," said Uncle Mike. He was right, again. The kids couldn't get enough of the sandy beach tucked inside a tree-lined cove. There they built sandcastles while gentle rain showers passed overhead. When thunder rumbled, we took shelter under the forest canopy that offered up tender gifts. Mossy boulders adorned in glistening dewdrops. Orange-hued fungi. Salamanders scuttled down low as tiny blue butterflies danced above the waterfalls that sloped down the mountain.
On our last morning in town, I found Aunt Betty and Uncle Mike on the porch swing. They each scooted over to make space for me to sit between them. We held one another in that sacred space, and we still do.