I check to see that everything is in place. I pulled out items I’ve never used and positioned them so that they will be in the background and no feelings will be hurt. I mean, who can find use for a figurine of Mel Brooks? It doesn’t go perfectly with the ambiance, but I have just enough of an artful eye to figure it out.
Aunt Clarice's golden bowl is a bit more of a task so I drape it with cloths. There is an air of excitement as I check my makeup in the mirror. Like being in charge of TV production and was designing the set and moving the actors around.
Then it dawns on me: this is a production. This will be fake. At least for me as I try to hold things together and pretend nothing is wrong.
I see the glimmer in my eyes wither. I am only able to recapture it upon realizing my family is counting on me. I look in the mirror with determined eyes and then go to sit at the table in front of my laptop.
I then go to the video conferencing platform and put my finger on the mouse button to launch the meeting. Seeing people waiting in the lobby raises my blood pressure a tad.
To calm my nerves, I check myself one last time. Will they be able to tell? Will anyone notice? Has she told anyone else?
I hope the makeup hides any signs of any deception. I hope they don't ask the burning questions. Pretending again this is a TV production, I say, "Action". I click left and the meeting begins.
"Well, well, well," says uncle Mike, sporting a gigantic mustache, his background a jungle of trinkets and odds and ends that I guess count as his own little version of interior decorating. "Is this what they mean by fashionably late."
"I'm right on time Uncle Mike. Don't try that on me."
"We had a saying in the army: if you're on time you're late."
"Well thank goodness none of us was dumb enough to join that killing cult known as the marines," my hippy-dippy aunt Clarice jumps in with candles and self-help books in her periphery. She has her own Youtube channel on cleansing the spirit and going vegan, so she’s used to creating a calming setup.
Still, I have to keep the peace. "Already with the politics Aunt Clarice? You usually save that for the main course."
"I never thought sending a missile through the brains of innocent children was considered a political statement, but I guess times are changing."
“We fought for your freedom!” Uncle Mike says, waving a finger in the air.
“You didn’t fight anything,” Cousin Louie chimes in, smoking on a blunt, barely visible in his dimly lit apartment. “We all know you got a get out jail free card because of those bone spurs in your feet.”
“Regardless! I woulda fought and I woulda fought BOLDLY.”
“We know, Michael. We know,” mother’s calming voice comes in and I see her at the center of the matrix of squares -- right where I positioned her.
I’m somehow hypnotized by her calming glow despite all that’s gone on. I almost forget what I’m about to say as people get caught up in crosstalk about whose kids are on the honor roll and -- most inappropriately from Cousin Slim -- whose kids are screwing who.
I figure this is the appropriate time to jump in since everyone’s words are getting jumbled together they are so anxious to hear from one another.
"May I have your attention please!” I announce, muting all other attendees, “I figured we'd try something new. We are going to go around the screen top to bottom left to right and people are going to tell us what they've been up to."
"What the hell," says cousin Steve wearing sunglasses indoors along with a loud shirt that looks like it hasn't been in style in ANY decade. "I didn't know we were gonna have to do a report!"
"Relax Steve, you won't be graded," I say, "just tell people what you've been up to."
We start in the upper right-hand corner and Cousin Tootie tells us about her present business venture involving mittens and Caterpillar hats. We all feign interest nicely because even from hundreds of miles away we know she doesn’t take criticism well. The scratches in Aunt Betty’s dining room table can attest to that.
Aunt Clarice talks about her recent charity work followed by a public service announcement about getting our pets spayed or neutered. Uncle Mike makes a salacious mark about her screwing Bob Barker from the Price is Right and the ensuing back and forth causes me to have to put the both of them on mute.
By the time I get to cousin Tony, he wants to give the rest of his time to Clarice and Mike so they can have it out.
Finally, I get to my mother, admiring her glow.
"Mom, how have you been?"
"Oh, you know me, dear. I've been fine. So many trips."
I don't bother saying "where to." because I am the only one that knows.
"Well," I finally say, "looks like everyone has talked. Now let's eat."
"Not so fast," Chloe says. "You haven't spoken. How are YOU doing?"
And at that moment, the production comes to a standstill. I was easily able to force a smile throughout because I foolishly thought I could escape unscathed from my own creation. My impervious shield of confidence diminishes somewhat as I say, "I've been fine."
"Fine? Come on! You've got to give us more than that?"
I am thinking of something to say. Something both happy and true. I can only think of one piece of news -- one of the secrets -- but as it starts to leave my lips, a stinging reminder comes from Uncle Mike's own mouth, "Where's James at?"
And with that, I freeze and all it takes the strength of a million men to hold up my soft smile. To not look like Mike just took a dagger and stabbed it through my soul. That he did not spill a gallon of poison in my well of good news. News I once saw as good, now tainted by my ex-husband's absence, what was to be a rejoice comes out as mourning as I say, "I'm pregnant."
And now the task of acting has fallen to my guests as, after a long and obvious pause they come forth with labored calls of "Well that's great!" "Congratulations!" “What’s the name?”
Then, realizing that there is no James. No partner to walk through this with me, a solemn silence falls over the entire screen. Clarice breaks the ice with, "Whatever you need, hun, we'll all be here for you."
And that makes me smile.
Then we eat our respective meals, showing off who made what and who ruined what. Finally, everyone says their goodbyes one by one-- even Clarice and Mike albeit in their own little snarky ways "Don't hug any trees fo death." he says. "Don’t vote for racists" she says.
One-by-one their heads disappear from my screen until all that is left is Mother.
She cuts to the chase, "Is it a boy or a girl?”
For anyone else, it would come off a tad jarring, but she always had this special way of making any segue seem more natural with the simple use of her smile.
"It's a girl, mom,” I say, “and I already picked the name."
"That's a shame. What did you name her?"
"After my hero, of course."
“Wonder Woman Aronowicz? Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.”
Even though I know it’s a joke, I piece of a tear escapes my eye from thinking she would even entertain me naming my daughter anything else.
“I named her after you, mom.”
I get the smile I envisioned. Sixty years old and she’s smiling like a child who the teacher gave a gold star.
“Well, at least little Dolly Aronowicz isn’t gonna have a lot to live up to, huh?” she rambles on. “All this life and all I got to show for it is this crappy old house and a bit part in Schindler’s List.”
“Stop it, mom. You’ve got a lot to show for it.”
“That’s right. I’ve got you,” she smiles, “but I’ll have two of you soon, right?”
Going off into a seeming tangent, she asks, “Who’s the president right now?”
“It’s Biden, mom. Well, it’s going to be.”
“That’s right, Biden. He’s got a nice set of teeth. I trust him,” she goes on to explain as I just soak in the moment. “He’ll get this covid stuff under control and we’ll be back to normal and one year from now we’re all gonna meet up and I’m gonna hold my little namesake in my arms.”
Hearing that last statement, I smile while holding back so much. Knowing that those “trips” she referred to were to the hospital for chemo. Knowing she has advanced-stage cancer. Knowing all this, I maintain the smile.
“Me and little Dolly will see you next year, mom,” I whisper as if the silence made it less of a lie.
I follow up with “Goodnight.”
She says “Goodnight” back.
Once the screen goes black, I press my palm to the spot her face once occupied. I can still feel the warmth, still feel her presence pulsating through my skin. I do not release that hand as I hunch over in my chair so deeply, I think my back could break.
Camera off. Overwhelmed. Not a single thing left of me, I cry.