I spent my eleventh summer tagging along with Aunt B. Uncle Bobby was on another of his long absences. He was in the automotive business. When I asked why he was away so much, I was told Uncle Bobby went on extended trips to deliver consignments of cars to the owner’s out of state dealerships.
Aunt B. managed the household. She did everything. She did the cooking and cleaning, ran all the errands, managed the kids’ schedules like a symphony maestro, and did the family bookkeeping late at night, with an efficiency and precision that were awe-inspiring. The house would go from wreck to orderly in what seemed like seconds. B. always seemed in a rush to finish some chore so we could go “run the streets,” as she would put it.
Our daily routine consisted of dropping off He Cousin at his football practice, and She Cousin at gymnastics for what seemed a good portion of the day. Then, Aunt B. and I either ran errands or we drove around to look at plant nursery after plant nursery. On a really good day, Aunt B. would take me to lunch at Farrell’s. Most days, however, she was so intent on her errands that she’d forget all about nourishment.
On what I came to think of as “nursery days” we’d hit a at least a half dozen – more, it seemed – if the owners were men. For some reason, B. didn’t like it when the nursery owner was a man. She’d run right out and we’d go on to the next one on her list.
Aunt B. seemed obsessed not only with the kinds of plants and flowers at these nurseries, but even more so with the nursery owners. She’d take a few minutes to survey the flowers and bushes on display, pick up an item, and mosey on over to the owner while I sat nearby, ensconced in my book.
My mom and I had just relocated from France, after a few years’ absence from the States. While I tried to relearn English prior to our return, I wasn’t fluent enough to converse much with B. and so, much of what went on during our daily forays was mysterious to me.
One night, when I asked my mom why Aunt B. kept taking me to nurseries that specialized in orchids, she gave me a look of surprise. Then, I was quizzed about our nursery visits. As soon as I provided the information, there was a swift change of subjects, away from Aunt B. and her predilection for nurseries, to something more mundane.
The last time Aunt B. and I ran the streets, we visited only one nursery. B.’s driving was more erratic and faster than her normal that day. Unlike the other times, Aunt B. had me sit in the car while she went inside. I was so engrossed in my book that I had no sense of the passage of time. In fact, B. startled me when she returned to the car. It wasn’t just the abruptness of being interrupted away from a good book that surprised me, it was B’s demeanor. She looked haggard and disheveled. It was as if she had gone through a war zone. Her usually always neatly arranged clothes were muddy and torn. Her face was even more frozen than usual; her big, deep blue eyes open wider than the big shiny blue marbles I so coveted, and they appeared more startled than I was accustomed to seeing them. Her eye makeup had streaked. Her lips were pursed so tight, she had deep wrinkles all around her mouth. Her jaw was still clenched tight as she quickly told me to buckle myself in. We took off with a screech and sped home without stopping to pick up He Cousin or She Cousin from their activities.
We arrived to a large welcoming committee. My cousins had mysteriously gotten home, as had my uncle. My mom and grandmother ushered us kids indoors, while the adults gathered around Aunt B’s car. Right as the front door was closing, I caught a glimpse of paramedics helping my aunt get onto a gurney and an ambulance with its doors wide open right beside it.
The days following the incident were shrouded in secrecy. Everyone was hushed, though trying to act as if everything was normal. My cousins tried hard to go about their day as if their mom was there. The adults whispered a lot. Aunt B. was nowhere in sight, and none of my questions as to her whereabouts were answered. Later that year, I learned that she’d suffered a breakdown. Years later, when I remembered that summer day with Aunt B and asked my mother about it, I finally learned the truth: Uncle Bobby’s mysterious trips to North Carolina weren’t business trips at all. He was just in the next county, at his girlfriend’s, the nursery owner Aunt B. was looking for, and in whose nursery Bobby was the principal investor…