A family struggles to reorient their lives after their mother dies
|Even with her ear buds in, Erin Riordan hears her dad and Brendan shouting as she walks round the corner. They are so loud, she thinks, and with the spring-time windows open, everyone can hear. Her instinct is to walk right past the house as if she were passing a house of strangers, but the grocery bag and the school backpack together are getting heavy. Erin walks down the driveway, past dad’s Jeep, and opens the side door. She flips on the kitchen light, places the grocery bag on the counter and drops the backpack on the chair. Brendan and dad snarl at each other in the living room as Erin takes the dinner ingredients out of the bag — ketchup, green peppers, onion, ground beef, hamburger rolls — and sets them on the counter. It’s a good thing I do the shopping after school, she thinks, otherwise we don’t eat. It’s the same argument she has in her head every day.
In the next room her father and Brendan square off, waves of anger coming off each other. What is it today, Erin wonders — cars, money, work, clothes, school, living, breathing, sleeping, anything, nothing? They seethe and growl, circling each other like dogs in a pit, teeth gnashing until they bleed. Their fights have increased in the past year. “Can’t find a job? What are you doing with your life? What do you contribute?” asks Dad. “You think you’re my role model? An Insurance salesman? Why should I listen to you?,” asks Brendan. Round and round they go. Though the words may vary, in her heart Erin knows it’s something more. They are hurting. Nearly a year after mom’s death, dad and Brendan still don’t know how to be around each other. They see mom’s dreams fracturing into pieces whenever they look at each other. They keep waiting for mom to come and separate them like a referee in a fight club.
Erin works quietly at the kitchen counter, trying to be invisible. She wants to fix dinner quickly so she can tackle her AP homework. She chops the onion and pepper and puts them in a hot pan with oil, as mom taught her. She takes the ground beef out of the package, adds salt and garlic powder, then mixes it all with her hands. When she drops the beef into the large pan, the sizzle starts. In a minute the aroma permeates the kitchen. Erin stirs the pan, adds ketchup, sauce, chili powder and a couple teaspoons of brown sugar, just as her mother did. She breathes in the aroma, yum, she thinks, and turns down the pan to simmer awhile.
Grabbing her backpack from the chair, she heads outside to the back, in search of someplace, anyplace where she can find peace and do her AP homework. She takes out her laptop, her notebooks and a few colored folders, lining them up in the sequence of her classes tomorrow — red for English, yellow for US history and blue for calculus. Erin is proud of herself. She made national honor society this year, one of only two juniors in the high school, and she plans to be the first person in her family — mom’s side and dad’s side — to go to college. With scholarships and financial aid, says her guidance counselor, Erin’s world will open up. Universities will come to her.
A whiff of jasmine floats over her and Erin inhales deeply, the perfect scent. Southwest Florida is its best in May, before the summer heat turns everything burnt and the ground dusty. She chooses the patio chair facing the garden, her mother’s pride, a riot of lilies, jasmine, irises, lilac and bougainvillea. Scents, colors and shapes run amok, and green trees brighten the yard. Erin spies her favorite statues, a young girl sitting on a bench reading a book and a young boy cartwheeling through the flowers. Little Erin and Brendan the adventurer, mom calls them.
Erin sees her mother there on bended knees, leaning into the garden and kneading the soil, her red hair — or what remains of it — under a turban scarf. “Erin, my love, come with me. Let’s work the garden together,” her mother says, with a hint of the Irish brogue she brought to the States when she was twelve. “Let’s be surrounded by life and smells and color.” Mom speaks as if she lives in a different period, more literary, more refined. Erin loves every second, loves digging in the dirt, loves her mother’s undivided attention. She remembers every detail. Weeks later mom weakens from cervical cancer. One day, while Erin and Brendan are at high school, dad brings mom to the hospital, and she never returns home, leaving dad, Brendan and Erin to remake their lives without their North Star.
The back door bangs open, and Brendan comes steaming out of the house. He’s breathing hard, and his face is red. He pulls out the chair next to Erin, slams into it and says nothing, his hands twitching until his breathing calms. Brendan is having a tough time. He graduated high school a month after mom died, and he lost his way. At times like this, Erin expects Brendan to leave, to take off, to pack a duffel and hitch a ride to Key West or Galveston to work on a sailboat or an oil rig, anyplace to escape the numbness and sadness he feels at home. Not today, Erin sees, but not much longer. Brendan turns his chair to mom’s garden, and Erin wonders whether he, too, sees mom kneeling in the garden.
Erin slips back inside to check on the Sloppy Joe’s. The house smells great she thinks, surprised that she is now the cook of the house. She uses the same pots and pans as her mom, she sifts through the same recipes, and she uses the same mirror by the cabinet. Erin takes a quick peek at herself, her fly-away red curls, the wash of freckles and the sea-green eyes.
Dad is in his shirt sleeves at the dining room table, the overhead light on and the bills, check registers, pads and laptop spread out in front of him. Money, Erin sighs. It’s always money that gets dad upset, and when Brendan is nearby, he gets it. Mom used to handle the bills, and she smoothed out everything. When she got ill, the money evaporated, and dad lost his way, too. Without asking, Erin brings her dad a cold bottle of water, gives him a hug and a kiss, and whispers “I love you, dad,” before she returns to her homework in the garden. “Love you, too, pussycat,” he says.
When Erin and Brendan are young, mom wraps them in her arms on her big bed and tells them who they can be. “You, my darling boy, are named after St Brendan, a courageous seafarer and traveler who sails from island to island in the seas around Ireland, riding the backs of whales and visiting islands inhabited by bird men. Dad and I chose your name, Brendan, so you can act with courage and adventure and see the world.” Mom kisses Brendan’s forehead, and Brendan beams. Mom turns her gaze to Erin. “In Ireland, my love, Erin is a great warrior, beautiful, radiant and joyful. And that’s what your dad and I hoped for when we chose your name, Erin. That you live in beauty, have a radiant spirit, bring joy to people around you and be valiant in times of trouble." Erin sees herself in that future. Mom kisses Erin’s freckles, and Erin glows.
Prompt: Find a photo of someone you do not know and create their story