The old house hadn’t changed a bit since the last time the entire Sweeney family had inhabited it. Still the same four above-ground stories, with too many windows and doors to count, a wraparound porch decorated with rocking chairs and umbrellas, and gray paint with white accents. The Victorian mansion looked grand as ever perched atop Kellemery Hill, miles of wide open fields and deep tree-filled valleys surrounding it like a green and brown patchwork quilt.
“Well,” My mom said slowly from the front seat. “I guess we get out now?”
Neither me or my dad made a move to exit the car. “It’s just so weird, coming back,” I spoke up. “Like, we haven't been here in five years but it feels like yesterday."
My dad nodded. “Yeah. But I think we should head in, everyone’s probably waiting for us.”
I scoffed. “Believe me, no one would notice if we didn’t come. There’s enough chaos and people in there already.” But as I said it, I was ripping the ear buds out of my ears, grabbing my suitcase, and starting up the long winding gravel path to the house.
The door was unlocked. The second I pushed it open, everything came flooding back to me in waves of nostalgia- the gleaming marble floors of the foyer, the curving staircase that led to the sleeping quarters, and the way the air was permeated with the scent of old wood and something citrus.
The noise level was amplified by the arched ceilings and wide rooms, so I found my way easily to the source of it all. And there they were- the Sweeney family, in all their glory and multitudes, sitting on the plush couches and thick carpets and around the coffee table of the grand living room. It was mostly the kids shouting and yelling while the adults shifted around uncomfortably and tried to make small talk. This was expected and understandable. None of us had actually interacted with each other like civil human beings in five years.
I felt my parents come up behind me and then Grandma Regina, sitting in a velvet armchair, turned to us and announced in a raspy voice, “Georgina! Adam! Nessa! Dears, come in and sit with us!”
It was now that everyone turned their attention to the three of us standing in the tall doorway, huddled together like a bunch of wilted flowers. I felt their eyes, twenty-three pairs of them, roam over us in silent judgement. It felt like tiny bugs were scampering over my skin.
Adam was my dad, Georgina my mom. I was Nessa. We three stepped slowly into the room, and I drank in the faces of my near-unrecognizable and some all-too-familiar aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmother. I couldn’t help but think This is the first time, and it’s also the last.
Two weeks ago, Grandma Regina had called each of her children to break to them the tragic news that she’d been diagnosed with stage three lung cancer, and the doctor said she had at most two months to live. She wanted all her children and their children to come for one last time to the old Kellemery Mansion, where they had spent their summer and winter breaks together for years- until Grandpa Ed died unexpectedly, and his will was nowhere to be found. Because Grandma Regina had been an incredibly influential attorney, she managed to hold off the court from seizing control of Grandpa Ed’s estate and distributing it according to the rules of intestacy.
In this sad cliché of a family breakup, the nonexistent will served as a catalyst to tear everyone apart over who got what and how much went to whom. It got so bad at one point that Uncle David, my mom’s brother, camped out in front of Grandpa Ed’s garage full of valuable antiques and threatened to attack anyone from the family who came to take what they thought was rightfully theirs. Aunt Sabrina, my mom’s twin sister, came at three am to try and fetch an old silver figurine she swore her father had designated for her. It ended in an ugly brawl where the police were called and David was let off on the claim that he had thought Aunt Sabrina was a thief.
The picture was obvious. The family was in a state of serious distress and corruption.
Grandma Regina clapped her hands together, but it was a feeble clap, and one that just barely sounded even in the weighted silence. “It’s time for dinner, everyone,” she said weakly, managing a smile and gesturing to the doorway that lead to the tremendous dining room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows.
It was painful to see Grandma Regina like this. Usually she was a real force of nature, the loudest one in the room, always skittering about, making sure everyone and everything was going smoothly. Now she got up from her chair and was helped by Aunt Leah and Della, Uncle David’s wife (who barely looked at each other) to the next room.
In a tense silence, the adults bustled in and out of the kitchen, bringing steaming dishes and aluminum pans and plastic-wrapped trays to the table. It seemed that at least in the food department, no one had failed one another. Say what you wanted about the Sweeney family, but one thing they did well was eat.
When everyone was finally sitting at the endless oak table set to host a banquet with the queen, the water pitchers were passed around and the various dishes were dug into.
“Who made the garlic bread?” Uncle Benny asked suddenly, making nearly everyone startle. Uncle Benny was the oldest Sweeney brother and always seemed to think he was in charge. Felix, Aunt Sabrina’s husband, slowly raised his hand. Benny dropped his slice in disgust.
“How do I know it isn’t laced with arsenic?” he asked.
“For god’s sake, Benjamin,” Grandma Regina scolded. “You’re a forty-seven year old man. I expect you to deal with things a little more maturely.”
“Maturely?” Benny spluttered, furious. “So we’re just going to ignore the way every single other person in this family acted, then? What about her? Huh?” He pointed a thick finger squarely at Aunt Hannah. She raised her eyebrows coolly. “What about me?” she asked.
“Hmm, maybe the way you snuck into my house last week to see if I was hiding any of Dad’s things?”
Hannah laughed. “You’re exaggerating, Benny. All I did was swing by the house to see if any of your kids were available to help me with my boxes.”
“Liar! I saw right through that plot, you scheming witch!”
“Excuse me? What did you just call me?”
Before Benny could answer, the entire table erupted in a shouting match. Every Sweeney sibling yelled and argued and claimed their innocence and pronounced every other person was a thieving, greedy idiot.
The grandchildren either ate in oblivion or watched with horror-struck expressions while the teenagers, including me, rolled their eyes and continued digging in.
It only stopped when Grandma Regina’s coughs echoed loudly through the room. She was doubled over, wheezing, and within seconds Aunt Leah was by her side, offering her a glass of water. Grandma Regina sipped slowly and surveyed them all with a somber expression.
“I didn’t call this reunion for a fight, my dear family. I called this reunion so I could see you all one last time in peace before I go. I realize now that maybe it was a mistake.”
With that, she rose slowly from her chair, and headed towards the master bedroom on the main floor where Grandma and Grandpa had slept together before everything went up in flames.
A piercing silence was left in her wake. No one moved; and it seemed to me that no one was even breathing. I chewed my mushroom quiche slowly, not daring to utter a peep. The adults avoided each others’ gazes, instead resumed to studiously pick at their food.
“Who made the tuna casserole?” Aunt Hannah asked a bit tentatively, if only to break the terrible quiet.
“For God’s sake, Hannah,” Aunt Sabrina snapped. “Not you, too. I can assure you there is nothing toxic in there.”
“No, I was asking seriously,” Hannah frowned. “It’s actually pretty good.”
“Pretty good?” Sabrina huffed, but she looked a bit mollified. “I made it.”
Uncle Benny picked up his slice of garlic bread again. “This isn’t terrible, Felix.”
With that said, the ice (if not to be melted completely) was dripping steadily. The adults ate heartily, the drinks flowed and the dishes emptied. Conversation that began stilted and broken segued into the familiar exchange of a family; one that was full of catching up and making up.
No one spoke of their deceased relative who had left them a small fortune to split between themselves. Aunt Leah nearly slipped up while mentioning her job as a flower shop owner, “which doesn’t exactly cover all the bills, if you know what I mean, so that’s why I should get at least a bit more-”, but she was quickly shushed.
Once everyone’s plates were empty and the platters mostly cleared of their contents, my father and Uncle David retrieved guitars from the music room and began a sweet but slightly off-key rendition of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads ’. Della brought out mugs of steaming tea and dessert was passed out, slices of chilled raspberry pie.
The children went off to explore the house together and us teens swapped high school horror stories like baseball cards as the adults gossiped and laughed.
This sudden camaraderie felt a bit forced; I knew it was being played out from guilt and as an act of atonement for Grandma Regina, but it was better than the bitter silence of before.
The sun was sinking behind the hills and bathing the dining hall in a golden light when Grandma Regina reentered the room, which immediately fell silent.
“It’s good to see you all acting as a family again,” she said. “I hope you enjoyed your dinner, but now I have something to say.”
Grandma Regina grabbed Uncle Benny’s hand and he helped her up onto a chair. She surveyed the members of the Sweeney family with wise, chocolate-brown eyes, and a slow smile spread across her wrinkled face.
“Firstly,” she announced, “I’m not sick.”
A collective gasp of confusion ensued. “Why’d you tell us you have lung cancer, mom?” Aunt Hannah asked in confusion.
“Because I knew you would never agree to get together today unless I said I had a few months to live. You may be upset that I lied to you, but I know it was for the best. It was killing me to know that my own children couldn’t get along over silly, material things.”
No one spoke; no one even glanced at each other. The sun continued slipping further down the horizon, taking the light with it.
“And another thing, children,” Grandma Regina told us, pulling a thin sheaf of papers out from the waistband of her skirt. “I’ve found Grandpa Ed’s last will and testament.”
Another round of shocked exclamations followed, but this time they were tinged with nerves. Everyone still expected to get what they thought they deserved, but this may change everything.
“It says right here that I am the sole inheritor of Mr. Edward Benjamin Sweeney’s estate and property, which means I have the right to distribute everything in his possessions as I see fit.”
I almost laughed at the irony of it all; but knew by the horrified expressions on the adult's faces that if I did, it was likely that my head would be knocked clean off.
I glanced back at the table that had held, just for a fleeting moment, the sparks of hope that the Sweeney family would be at peace again.
Among the silver cutlery stuck with flecks of food and emptied glass pitchers and sullied paper napkins I saw the chance that we still had, if only we realized it, to be whole once more- regardless of everything that stood between us.