And Sumner? Sumner! Listen to me. If I die, marry Miss McCourt.
My family’s at the oak pedestal table the night before another of Mum’s operations. The nine of us have dug into meatloaf, mashed potatoes, heaping sides of green beans, and iceberg salad. Well, make that eight of us. Our mother sits on a wobbly three-legged stool with her clipboard and felt-tip marker. She works her way through a long list of to-dos:
DON’T LET THE BABY NEAR THE CELLAR STAIRS.
KEEP THE CELLAR DOOR CLOSED AT ALL TIMES.
EAT ALL THE COLORS AT EACH MEAL.
EMPTY THE TRASH.
USE TOILET PAPER.
CHANGE YOUR UNDERWEAR EVERY DAY.
RINSE THE DIAPERS BEFORE WASHING THEM.
FEED THE GOLDFISH.
FEED THE DOG.
KEEP YOUR FATHER’S SUPPER WARM.
I mean it! Marry Agnes. She’d be good for you. Sumner! Listen!
The table quiets. Spoons pause midway between meatloaf and mouth. Butter melts on the mash. Green beans glisten, unforked.
While Dad and Mum lock eyes, we picture Miss McCourt. AGNES McCourt.
Our first grade teacher. A tiny lady with quilted edges and easy dimples. She smells like soap when she hugs us. Even when she scolds her voice is low like a merry breeze and matches the twinkle in her eyes. Even our pencils have sparkles and stars. She keeps extra leggings and snow boots in the coat closet in case you forgot yours, so you won’t miss outdoor recess. We just plain love her. She just plain loves us.
And for a split second we seven kids picture Miss McCourt as our mother. And think how wondrous THAT would be.
But just for a second. Then…
Are you hearing me, Sumner?
Dad springs to life. He pushes his chair back, bounds to Mum on her stool, gives her a smooch and a hug and waltzes her around the room, humming “Bicycle Built for Two.”
And meatloaf gets to mouth, butter stirs into the mashed potatoes, the beans get forked, if not eaten.
Mum DIDN’T die on the operating table; Dad never got to MARRY Miss McCourt.
But of a Sunday, with Mum home as per usual after dressing us all for church, when Miss McCourt is about to walk by our pew, Dad gives a little tug at her coat sleeve and raises his eyebrows at the empty space beside him. She smiles and sits.
Dad was listening.