A letter from Bradley Morgan arrived a day before Betty’s 84th birthday, so I put it in the mail organizer in her kitchen and went about making deviled eggs, chicken and fruit salads. I expected her to grab the mail after All My Children ended and sit at the table with a magnifying glass to help her read the contents, deciding right then if she needed my assistance with anything. Instead, she called for me to bring her an afternoon snack, to place it on the tv tray in front of her while she knitted another sweater for Champ, her eight year old rescue dog with three legs and a marred ear who never let her out of his sight. I wrapped the gifts her friends and cousins had dropped off, though she had already seen them because she insisted on knowing in advance what was under the colorful paper.
“That’s no fun,” people complained.
“I don’t like surprises,” she snapped back, and that was the end of the conversation.
For the most part, she was a mild-mannered woman, spending her time taking care of Champ, watching soap operas, and venturing out to the Bingo hall a couple days a week. I had been her caretaker for a few years and knew exactly how she liked things, but I knew very little about who she was, if she had ever been married, if she had children, grandchildren. These were topics everyone avoided, even the three sisters she called cousins who never mentioned other family members, never reminisced, never gave the impression that they had roots in any other place and time. They were careful with their words, enjoyed listening to others talk and sitting in long silences. This somehow made them friend-magnets, invitations arriving weekly, many she turned down. I figured Bradley Morgan was another friend, maybe from Bingo, or a party she attended at some point, but she didn’t bother with the mail like usual. She kept knitting even after I had prepared everything for the party and said my goodbyes.
“I’ll pick up the cake on my way tomorrow,” I said.
“Thank you, Lauren,” she said. “Did you see what I left you?”
“I did, thank you,” I smiled, but she didn’t look up, insisting on leaving extra money for me in a tan coin purse throughout the week, on top of what she paid me.
I returned the next day to find her in a silky blue dress, the sleeves long, puckered at the seams, wrinkled around the waist.
“You look amazing,” I said.
“Did you get the cake?”
“I did. It’s in the car. I wanted to bring these things in first,” I pointed at the bag of party plates, cups, and hats.
“Oh my,” she said and headed back into her bedroom, Champ at her ankles.
She came out a few minutes later and helped me finish setting up. Guests began arriving, all dressed up in slacks and button-up shirts, dresses with pleats, and shoes that had been shined the night before. They entered carrying dishes and deserts Betty hadn’t asked for but had me take into the kitchen anyway. After sharing a laugh, they each made a plate, making themselves comfortable around the long dining table, in the living room on plush chairs and sofas. The cousins joined late without explanation, dropping off warm bottled water in the kitchen before finding Betty. They cornered her, each delivering a message she absorbed but didn’t respond to. She walked into the kitchen, grabbed the letter, and moved towards the front door, Champ and the cousins behind her. I watched from the window, stared through the sheer shade. Their mouths moved; hers didn’t. She opened the envelope and squinted as she read the handwritten letter, letting it rest in her lap when she was done. Still she said nothing. She didn’t seem sad or happy. Her face didn’t change; she put the letter back into the envelope and sent for me.
All three cousins came into the kitchen to tell me she needed me and then went into the living room.
“Yes?” I approached.
“Would you cut me a piece of cake? A small piece, dear,” she said.
When I returned, she had slipped off her shoes and stretched her legs across the iron table.
“Here ya go,” I handed her the cake, a fork, and a napkin.
“Look at that,” she laughed and pointed to a lone bird flying through the sky, then disappearing in the fog. “They say Beverly jumped off a bridge because she said she could fly,” she revealed. “Now I guess she can,” she licked frosting off her fork, Champ staring, hoping he might get a taste too. “No more voices, no more pain, just wings so she can soar,” she waited for the bird to reappear.