Lori walked up the two steps fronting the door of the apartment she shared with her twins and her mother-in-law.
Happy to be home, she turned the knob and let herself inside.
Ava, the ever-present mother- in-law, looked up guiltily from the magazine she a been reading.
"You're home," Ava said."
"I don't have dinner ready, so don't start complaining"
Lori snorted, wondering had she ever complained about dinner ofthe lack thereof?
She was too happy to have someone prepare dinner to complain.
Rather than voice that though, Lori asked politely, "What did you do today?"
"Oh, me ans Mildred went to the Arts & Crafts sale and whatnot. We listened to a lot of gibberish and whatnot from the so called "artisans".
"But we didn't buy anything."
Lori cringed at Ava's bad grammar She had been trying the last fifteen years to educate her mother-in-law on the finer points of
correct conversation. She should give up now.
"I'm sorry you didn't find anything you liked."Lori commiserated.
"Oh,I found some outfits and things,"Ava whined. "I just didn't want to spend the money."
"Outfits?" Lori asked, knowing that Ava hadn't been talking about clothes. "outfit" was Ava's all purpose word to stand for things she was unfamiliar with or didn't know the name of .
"Jewelfy adn fancy creams." Ava explained.
lori sighed. "I wish i could have gone with you. "
She loved arts and crafts as much asher ancestors had., but she had to work to feed the four of them.
"You can gto tomorrow," Ava offered. "The show is running through Sunday, i hear."
"perhaps i will," Lori said, but she knew she wouldn't.
She felt guilty about spending any free time away from the kids.
She saw so little of them as it was.
She ahd Brad planned that she would be a stay-at-home mom as long as possible. He was teaching middle school math and thought his salary could carry them.
The plan was that Lori would get her shot at college when the twins started to school
They hadn't factored into their plans a drunk driver on a rainy Halloween night.
Lori glanced at the bright red clock on the wall.
About this time three years ago Brad and his fathr, Mitchell, had gone out in high spirits to win the league bowling trophy. They won the trophy, but a drunk driver plowed into their car, killing both men instantly.
A county EMT delivered the bowling trophy the next morning
involuntartily Lori's eyes shifted to the trophy on he mantle.
She cringed each time Jude touched the trophy and said, "Hi, Daddy!"
Jade no longer kissed the trophy each morning.
"Where are the kids?" Lori asked.
"Upstairs I suppose," Ava answered without any real interest in their whereabouts.
Ava had never shown much interest in her grandchildren, a fact that bothered both Brad and Lori.
Ava's first comment on seeing the babies was "Twins are supposed to be identical. "They aren't even the same sex."
She narrowed her eyes at Lori, then regally tipped her perfect white nose in the air, blaming Lori for the fraternal nature of the twins.
Her next comment was, "They're too dark."
Lori had been expecting that comment. She had hoped the babies would look like her own Navajo family.
Despite their mutual lack of love for each other, Ava offered to move in with Lori, " to help with the grandchildren.
Lori had accepted with ill grace. Brad had been an only child. Lori had long known that eventually Ava would be her problem.
Ava had few work skills, the move-in seemed an ideal compromise for both women.
The first two years had been a strain. Lori worked full-time at a grocery store, standing on her feet all day and missing her babies.
Ava complained all the time; Lori could do nothing right. The babies were too much trouble for a women of her age to handle.
When Lori pointed out that Ava could leave, the older woman talked over her, completely dismissing the idea.
Ava talked and talked, drowning the small family in a river of words.
Ava had been a non-stop talker as long as Lori had known her, so this wasn't a reaction to double grief.
Loris napped to attention, chasing the problem away. Ava's talking was an old problem that wasn't likely to go away anytime soon.
"How about pizza?" Lori asked.
"Pizza again?" Ava complained. "We have that stuff too often. It's not healthy, you know."
Lori shrugged. "I get a discount.
Now that the twins were in first grade andLori was attending the community college on a grant, she worked part-time at the local pizza whop.
She had learned a thing or two living with Ava. "Let's see what the kids say," she suggested.
Ava merely shrugged.
Lori stepped to the foot of the stairs and called up, Jade!Jude! how about pizza for supper?"
She was answered by two sets of feet pounding down the stairs.
"Pizza!" they yelled as if pizza were a rare treat rather than a weekly staple.
Jade carried a pink music box.
"Where did you get hat?" Lori asked
"I found it in the bottom of your closet," Jade said, brushing her dark fly-away hair from her eyes. "We're cleaning out your closet. you say you don't have time to do it, so we're cleaning it for you.
"Is that a good deed, Mom?" jude asked, in the ssame breath he asked, "Can we have pepperoni?"
Lpri cupped his chin in her hand and kissed his plump cheek. "It certainly is!' she agreed, " But how about we have half pepperoni and half supreme?"
Not everyone likes pepperoni."
Defeated,Jude's small shoulders sagged. "Grandma again," he muttered.
There was nothing wrong with Ava's hearing. She raised her hand to smack he boy. "What did you say, Jude Richards?"
"nothing, Grandma," he dutifully said.
Lori turned way to speed dial th pizza parlor.
Ava launched into a long, convoluted story, praising her own oarenting skills.
Lori had heard the story many times and automatically tuned it out.
"Why don't you set the table," Lori whispered to Jade as Ava's words gushed over them.
Jude gave a hop , then skipped into the small pantry to pull out paper plates nd napkins.
Jade hopped in to set the canned colas on th table.
Ava suddenly grabbed Jude's hand, looking or dirt. She signed dramatically, "They'll never be clean, those Indian hands.
Lori knew her next words would cause an argument, but she had to say them for her children's sake.
"Ava, you should think long and hard about wher you're going with this unfounded prejudice.'
"Well, i never!" Ava shouted.
"It's time you did." Lori stood her ground.
Ava glowered at her.
"Let's eat on the patio," Lori suggested.
When the family finished moving everything o he tiny patio, they found Ava on the phone, talking with one of her church friends.
Ava finished with, " She won't go, but I'll ask."
She turned to Lori with an almost pleasant expression on her face. "June wants to know if you'lljoin us for Ladies Bible Class Thursday night."
Lori shook her head, She raised her voice so June could hear too, on the old fashioned land line. "Thank you for inviting me, but I study at night."
Ava said into the open phone, "Told you, " She'sCatholic, you know."
lori held her tongue until Ava hung up.
"You know very well that I'm Baptist. The children and I will be returning to church this Sunday.'
Ava waved her hand lazily. " Catholic, Baptist, What's the difference?
If you're not Church of Christ, you're going straight to hell.".
"I might have better company there," Lori said.
"What did you say?" Ava snapped.
"You heard me." With that, Lori headed up the stairs to assess the damage done to her room during the twins's closet cleaning expedition.
On the way, she snagged the pink jewelry box Jade had found.
The kids had pulled everything out of the closet and piled the stuff on the bed. There would be a day's worth of sorting and re-arranging everything, but he closet was indeed empty.
Someone, most likely Jade, had swept and mopped the floor.
Lori shoved the pile of purses and shoes to the floor and sat in the empty spot.
She turned the jewelry box over in her hands, seeing it with fresh eyes.
"Are you mad at us, Mommy?" Jade asked from the doorway.
"No, honey, "Lori said, patting the bed.
Jade nestled beside her mother. Jude hopped from one foot to the other, then bounced on the bed.
"You and Jude did an excellent job cleaning out the closet. Now the real fun begins."
Jade's brown eyes sparkled. "What's that?"
"Deciding what to keep, what to throw away and what to donate to Goodwill."
Jade's small hand laid claim to the jewlery box. "Can I have this?"
"No dear, "Lori answered. "Snta Claus gave this to me whenI was eight years old, the same age you are now.
"I'd like to keep it if you on't mind.'
Jade said with a dramatic sigh. "You know where to find me when you're ready to give it up."
Lori laughted , then shooed the children out of the room.
She pulled out her nutrition book, waved it through the air, as if sweeping the children away.
"homework time for both of us!"
She did not, though, read the assigned chapter.
Instead she opened the jewelry box and examined it.
The box still held a int "new" smell.
Lori marveled at the ingenuity and work it took for her parents to be able to provide new toys for their children that year.
Their past Christmases had been filled with cast-offs gleaned from the churches in Ruidoso.
Her fingers found the metal wind-up key on the bottom of the box.
A tiny ballerina, still sporting a pink tutu, stood up straight when Lori opened the lid.
At the first tinkle of "love is a many splendored thing, the ballerina lifted her arms in a shaky arc above her head. Thetiny doll turned in a static pirouette.
Lori was transported back to her eight-year-old self. Like any child she had believe in magic.
She remembered putting s Crackerjack ring inside the jewelry box, hoping it would turn into a gold and ruby ring.
Of course, it hadn't.
But what if the box really was magic?
perhaps if she wished hard enough, wanted something so deeply she could taste it on her tongue. Would the box work then?
Before she could brush the thought away and return to sensible adulthood, Lori thought about what she wanted most.
Brad's return was impossible, but after that, she wanted to be a registered nurse.
She was working on that goal and the precious diploma would come into her hands if she stayed the course.
in the calming silence of the room she knew what she wanted most: peace.
Specifically she wanted peace peace from Ava's spitefulness and constant talking.
She would settle for peace from the flow of words drowning her.
Lori puled a blank sheet of notepaper from a binder.
She wrote three words on the sheet, each word on a separate line.
NA VA JOE She marked the A's of Navajo with the short vowel sign rather than the long sign, he way Ava mispronounced the word.
SHE SPELLED THElast syllable JOE", the way Ava said the word.
She cut out each word from the sheet, folded each one once.
"I wish it away," she whispered as she dropped each slip of paper into the box.
She turned the key once more, letting the ballerina dance one full revolution.
She closed the box and slid it under the bed.
Two days later Jade crept intoLori's room.
"mommy, she said, with a forreid frown stamped on er small face. "Something's wrong with Grandma."
Jade shrugged her thin shoulders. "All day long Grandma didn't say a single "outfit" or "whatnot"
"What?"Lori yelped. "She didn't?"
"nope, jade said. "That's weird, don't you think?"
"Spooky! jude announced from the floor.
Lori hadn't seenJude enter the room, but wasn't surprised to see him there. Jude was the follower while Jade was the leader of the dynamic duo.
Everyday Lori dropped a different word into the jewelry box and repeated the "I wish it away" routine.
While Lori was whispering "I wish it away." Ava was growing quieter until she hardly spoke at all.
Ava stopped going out with her friends. She passed each day staring with blank eyes at the television screen.
She no longer argued back at the newscasters. She simply sat on the sofa, like some long forgotten lump.
The children flourished in the silence, though hey did complain a time or two about Grandma's silence.
"Do you want her to talk again?" Lori asked
Jude vehemently shook his head, sending his curly hair dancing. "Nope, i like the quiet. i can read better when Grandma isn't yakking.
Ava was losing weight along with her words. Dark smudges bloomed under hr eyes.
June and Mildred called on the same day. Both had the same worry."I wonder if Ava has had a stroke, June said. "She's so quiet now. Never talks or shows much interest in waht's going on. you know your mother-in-law is a great one for talking.
Lori merely nodded. Then mindful that June couldn't her a nod over the phone, said, "I think Ava's all right, but i'll check when her
next doctor's appointment is.
Mildred's concern was slightly different. "I think Ava is clinically depressed. It's understandable, given what she's been through, bu tI
think you should get her to a doctor."
"i'll do that," Lori promised.
Ava's vital statistics checked out fine, though the doctor cautioned Lori that depression was a growing problem among he elderly.
The apartment was strangely quiet when they got home. The children had spent the afternoon at a friend's while Lori took Ava to the doctor.
Ava had gotten into the habit of clicking off the TV when she was through watching.
Lori was grateful for the silence. She hatted the irritating chatter of the television, but knew the noise helped Ava deal with her grief.
Lori began pulling out ingredients. "Why don't we have butternut squash soup for dinner?" she asked. "I have all the stuff."
"Whatever," Ava said, plopping her newly thin self into one of the kitchen chairs.
"Ava?" Lori asked, seeing her mother-in-law clearly for the first time in years. "What's wrong?"
"I don't feel like myself anymore.
She didn't look like herself, either, since she had stopped dying her hair red.
Tiny darts of guilt flew at Lori. in the process of stealing Ava's words, she had stolen her person hood.
The woman sitting before her was not Ava Richards; she was a stranger.
Lori placed a onion and a knife in Ava's hands. "You start on these. I'll be right back.
She patted Ava's shoulder as she went by.
At the stairs she took a long look at her hand. That simple pat she had given Ava had been the first time she had touched Ava since the funerals. The guilt that had been stabbing her took full form. She had not been taking care of Brad's mother with the compassion she deserved.
Lori pulled the jewelry box. from under the bed.
Returning downstairs, she upended the box, showing Ava with her lost words.
it didn't happen immediately, but Ava slowly returned to her talkative self. She no longer said "outfit" or "whatnot", but she could fill a room with words.
her talking now actually had a point, verging on real conversation.
Ava's return gaveLori a new appreciation and patience for her mother-in-law. They might never love each other, yet each was content with the unspoken pact to live in peace with each other.
For all her words, she never said anything of substance.
She never stopped talking,barely stopping to breathe.