This entry is part of my personal series on grief, called Wish You Were There, that’s unrelated to travel.
My mom and her sister and brother used to argue over who was going to pay the bill when we would eat out together. We’d be at Uncle Buggs’ favorite restaurant in Richmond, “Peking,” and my mom would insist on paying the whole tab. Aunt Carolyn would give it her best, and then Uncle Buggs and his wife, Aunt Esther, would put their collective foot down and say, “No.”
I remember money being shoved in other people’s purses and waiters being grabbed furtively for secret deals. It was a fierce competition that they took seriously. Invariably, Aunt Esther would break out this surprisingly authoritative voice (for being so slight and soft-spoken) that made her “No” final. She spoke as if she’d already won, so the others should simply give up. Game over.
That’s the way they were about small bills, but when it came to big ones, and to helping each other with messy life, they just did it, no hustling involved. They loaned each other money for house down-payments and they helped each other when spouses died.
Every time I think about this side of the family, my mind wanders to Katherine. She was my sister Kim’s child, and, good grief, there a fierce love between Buggs and Esther and Katherine. It wasn’t just that Katherine was the first baby in the family. She was a precious, perfect, sparkly gem to be adored and quoted and her path ahead sprinkled with rose petals.
The feeling was mutual; Katherine lovingly called Buggs and Esther, “Hugs and Nester.” Buggs hated his childhood nickname, but “Hugs” was okay because it came from the sweetest, kewpie-mouth we’d ever known.
Kim and Mom often drove Katherine all the way down to Sanibel Island, Florida, to ride in Buggs’ boat, The Virginia Gentleman. He captained small fishing and dolphin-watching charters, and Esther ran a nearby hotel.
By the time she was four, Katherine started showing symptoms of being seriously sick, but we didn’t know why or with what. Buggs used to tell the story, in a low, guilty voice like a confession, that once, Katherine wanted to know what lime juice tasted like, and he let her drink a small glass of it. It was right after that when her kidneys started failing, and he just knew he’d caused it.
Can you imagine? You love someone so much that you grasp at anything when things go wrong, even blaming yourself for what’s happened. Maybe that makes the mystery and trauma of childhood illness easier to grasp. Maybe Buggs thought, “I’ll pay the bill. Just make it make sense.”
In the early days, man did we have good times on Sanibel as a family. I remember one of the first times on the boat with Kim. Buggs had just gotten it to the right speed and angle—or whatever it takes to get a dolphin motivated to ride in the wake—and there was a dolphin right at the stern, leaping above the water along with us. As soon as we saw it, Kim spontaneously lost her mind and jumped overboard to be with the dolphin; she just leapt out of the boat in full motion. I remember her bright scarf floating out behind her in the air.
Well, maybe that happened. Maybe it’s just so Kim—impulsive, beautiful, self-destructive—that I think it happened. It doesn’t much matter now.
After two hurricanes, Buggs and Esther moved back to Virginia, and they looked after my mom. Her dementia was creeping in, mostly slowly but sometimes suddenly, and they helped with a million little things and all the big things.
Buggs amazingly sold Mom’s house after her second husband died (a house on the coast that was so much lower than sea level that you couldn’t flush your toilet paper down). He found her a house near him (that was eerily like the one he found for her after her first husband died). Esther counted Mom’s meds, called her every night, took her to Costco to get her out of the house. They did all this for my mother, until things were so dire that I had to move her closer to me and take over—as I should have from the start.
For all those years, they insisted on paying the proverbial bill, and I never seriously argued about it.
After Mom died, Buggs developed dementia just like hers, and Esther took care of him throughout that mess, too. And here is what prompted me to write this. Just yesterday, Buggs died. He was the last one of that group. Before him went Carolyn, Katherine, Kim, and Mom, in that order, I think. Not that that matters now, either.
Esther and I were texting today, me trying to ascertain if I should fly to see her, to help with paperwork, bills, the various levels of mess left after someone dies. Of course, she batted away my offers. When I gave up and typed, “You can’t blame a girl for trying,” Esther responded: “I win.”
I suppose so. That attitude is a good legacy to carry through the family, just a heavy one. When I’m in Richmond next, I’m going to take Esther to Peking and call ahead for the bill so she can’t use that voice of hers on me. It seems like a paltry gesture, but it’s part of the family tradition.