It’s so hot that even the flies are staying in the shade and not attacking the platter of barbeque ribs my sister put out in the middle of the picnic table. Their sauce glistens in the sun as slick and shiny as my forehead.
I fan myself with a folded newspaper and wonder what I’m doing here. Since my mother died, I hardly visit. Two months ago it seemed like a good idea to come down to southern Illinois for a short vacation, to reconnect with twice-removed cousins and vague “aunties” whose blood ties to me are very diluted.
My sister, Cheryl, is big on reunions and I came back mainly not to disappoint her. She organized everything but, sadly, couldn’t control the weather and we all sit on lawn chairs, motionless except for the steady flick of our wrists as we try to fan a breeze. The day has peaked with a heat index of 106.
I’ve forgotten the oppressively hot, humid summers in southern Illinois. It’s a heat that slows the blood, quickens tempers and frays relationships. I tell myself I’m not going to succumb to it.
My sister chose Cahokia Mounds State Park for the reunion. It’s become a fancy historical site with an interpretive museum. Our tables are spread in the shade at the foot of Monks Mound, the largest mound in the park. It’s shorn of trees and high grasses with a well-constructed staircase leading to the bald top but we’re all too hot and too old to be climbing ten stories just to overlook corn fields and get a glimpse of the Mississippi.
When we were kids our church picnics were held here and I wonder if that’s why my sister chose this place. The mound wasn’t manicured then and my friends and I would scramble up its steep sides, pushing through the tall grasses, avoiding the young saplings, the thorny shrubs and the snakes sunning themselves on rocks. I’m seven years older than my sister and what I remember most clearly about those picnics is how often I ditched her, not wanting to be slowed down by a five year old and how hard she tried to keep up with me.
I watch her now as she flips veggie burgers on the grill and chats with Vida Mea, who may be our fourth cousin, twice removed and whose son is a vegetarian.
“I just can’t imagine not eating meat,” Cheryl says. “Why, my sister makes the best bacon buns --- buns to die for.”
It’s at the tip of my tongue to ask her, “Do we have a sister I know nothing about?” But she stares straight at me and continues. “I was going to ask you to make some for the reunion but I know they wouldn’t keep for the trip and all. But they really are the best thing I ever ate.”
I almost blurt out, “I’ve never made a bacon bun in my life” when I realize what’s happened.
As my mother got older, she came to stay with me for the winters and fell in love with bacon buns made by a local bakery. When she returned to southern Illinois, I would freeze packages of the buns and send them to her with other baked goods. I realize she told my sister that I made them, not bought them, but made them.
That’s just the way Mom was. She unwrapped the poppy seed coffee cakes I sent and took them to church as her own creation. For years, she served a delicious pound cake with fresh fruit and whipped cream. When we asked for her recipe she was vague and we backed off thinking we had time to get it.
It was only after she died and I was cleaning out her house that I found five packages of store bought pound cake buried under the steaks and chickens at the bottom of the freezer.
In a small way they represented the deceptions that peppered my mother’s life. My sister could not tolerate them and they cast a shadow of contention between them. She always saw them as lies.
"Oh, they’re social white lies” I’d excuse Mom.
“No,” she’d answer. “They’re lies.”
After every holiday they spent together, I’d receive a flurry of calls and petty complaints from each of them.
From my mother: “You won’t believe Cheryl’s tone of voice when she speaks to me. I know she hates to have me visit. The house is a mess – cat hair all over the place. I get up early and sit there until they crawl out of bed at eleven. Why she takes her shower at noon!”
I tried to mollify the complaints, “Cheryl’s got a clipped tone – it’s just the way she talks. You’re there to spend time with them - don’t worry about the house. They both work and like to sleep in on week-ends; you can make coffee and read the paper until they get up.” All my attempts would be greeted with a long sigh.
Then from my sister: “She just gets here and she rarin’ to go home. It’s like I’m holdin’ her prisoner. I made a really nice beef tenderloin with that there horseradish sauce – you know how much she likes beef – and she’s picking at the sauce saying it’s curdled. I just can’t never do anything to please her.”
I’d answer: “Well, mom’s old. She’s most comfortable sleeping in her own bed. And you know she takes pride in her cooking; she can’t admit to any competition. Maybe you should just not try so hard to please her.” And there’d be a grunt at the other end of the phone.
I watch my sister now and she’s in her glory. She’s wearing a powder-blue sleeveless top and pedal pushers with the front crease ironed to military precision. Her long hair shines with that Merlo wine color that you can only get by using a good hairdresser. The paper plates, napkins and cups all match and she’s even made blue glass bead bracelets as favors for the women to take home. She’s cooked all the food and sets out ice packs for the potato and the macaroni salads. The coconut cake is on the table but the mile-high lemon meringue pies are still in the cooler.
Vida Mae slides up to me and asks, “So, how do you make your bacon buns? Can I get the recipe?” I shrug and vaguely mumble, “Oh, you just fry the bacon not too crisp, drain it and then wrap it in a buttery dough.”
My face wrinkles in a frown. What am I doing? I ask myself.
“Is that so?” Vida Mae says as she steps back and reaches for an icy Dr. Pepper. I can tell she’s convinced I’m hoarding the recipe and I realize that our family dynamics roll on. DSS
Grazina Smith, 72, of Chicago, IL., is a law office manager whose work has been published in several magazines and books, including Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul. She was born in Lithuania, and didn't learn English until she was eight years old.
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