“Drink the pickle juice!” I blinked. The memory of my childhood nanny holding out a squat jar of chartreuse liquid settled into my brain.
“Um, no Drea. That’s okay.” I told her. At that point I was probably ten. Technically too old for a nanny but not old enough to be left alone by my parents. They were always absent. Andrea was always there.
“Drink it!” Her Romanian accent added force to the command. I scrunched up my face and took two gulps. She smiled, nodded, and went back to making sandwiches.
She was beautiful, all dark hair and angles. Her love of cucumber brine grew out of her love of homeopathy. The only thing she loved more than natural cures was God. Our vitamins were set out every morning. We drank unsweetened green tea after school. Our sugar intake was limited and she hated Halloween, so we never went trick or treating. She did love Easter; she spoiled us with baskets full of Pentecostal tracts, dyed eggs, and one large European chocolate bar. Drea had come into our family when I was a six-month-old baby and she was a twenty-two-year-old woman. For all intents and purposes, she was my mother.
“More hot water?” The waitress interrupted my daydream. I was back in the tiny roadside diner with a club sandwich and a cup of weak tea in front of me. The electric green pickle had reminded me of Drea and the pickle juice. It felt like everything reminded me of her. She was the reason I was in that tiny town in the middle of nowhere Arkansas. I was trying to find her grave.
My phone buzzed. I politely declined the waitress’s question before I answered. I didn’t want to take the call but ignoring it would only cause more problems. My sister was on the other end of the line.
“Where are you?”
“I’m just outside of the town she lived in.” That was a lie. I wasn’t really outside of the commune. I was about two hours away.
“So you’re really going through with it?”
“Of course I am. I wouldn’t fly out here if I was going to flake out.” I took a sip of the tea. It wasn’t green, but it would do. “You could have come with me.”
“I told you,” my sister argued, “I didn’t think it would be good for my mental health.”
“It’s saying goodbye to someone we loved,” I countered. “How is that bad for your mental health?”
Mental health had become my sister’s excuse for everything. It was the reason she hadn’t had steady employment in five years. It was the reason she lived with our grandparents and didn’t pay rent. It was the reason she didn’t want to say goodbye to Andrea. If it wasn’t such a broad and vague excuse then I wouldn’t mind. But it was broad and it was vague and I did mind. Taking care of herself was one thing; accepting adult responsibilities was another. Mental health had become her plainly visible lifeline against doing hard things. And I, for one, was tired of it.
“You loved her,” she argued. “To me, Andrea was just someone who was always there
and who took care of us.”
“You mean like mom should have?” The excuse had become vapid. In a moment she would start talking in circles and going back to herself and her desires, which were what she primarily cared about. What Christina wanted, what Christina sought. Christina didn’t want Andrea anymore, so she wasn’t going to look for her.
“Look, it would have just added unnecessary stress to my life.” Also a lie. “How long are you staying?”
“Til I’m done.” I answered. At that point I was tired and my sandwich was getting cold
“What does that mean?”
“It means til I’m done. Goodbye, Christina.” I hung up. Talking to Christina wore out my mental health. Loving people isn’t easy, but loving self-seeking people is almost impossible. I have no idea how Andrea did it for so long.
There was another reason Christina didn’t want to say goodbye to our surrogate mother. She was both afraid and angry at what Drea had become. When I was sixteen, Drea met a man at her church. He had long curly hair and a nylon string guitar. He spoke of this place called Mirabelle where a group of people worshipped together, ate together, lived off the land, and made their own clothes. The idea left stars in Andrea’s eyes.
They moved to Mirabelle the summer before my junior year. She missed my graduation, but I wasn’t hurt. Christina never saw the loneliness Drea carried with her. I saw it all the time. There’s a photo of the two of us sitting on the porch the summer I turned two. My head is curled against her chest and her chin is resting in my downy baby hair. My dad took the photo, but I keep it next to my bedside. It’s a portrait of the wonder of her love for me—a love that grew side by side with the ache of her loneliness.
I left money for my lunch next to my plate and left for the commune. I parked next to the entrance right at five. Paul, the man who had contacted me when she died, greeted me. He was eighteen and stubbly. His sandy hair was long on the back of his neck. He shook my hand and started telling me how Drea came to the commune when he was four. His mother had died a week prior, and almost immediately upon entering Drea began to care for him. For all intents and purposes, she was his mother too. She taught him the same Romanian lullabies and stuffed his Easter basket with dyed eggs and European chocolate bars. Just like me.
Paul took me to her grave site. Her headstone was like all the others—a small white cross with her name etched across it. I hung a small wreath of flowers on it. Together we sang a Romanian hymn and shared the thermos of green tea Paul brought. He laughed, I cried, and for a moment we held each other. Strangers raised by the same woman.
“You can stay in the guest house tonight.” He pointed to a small white cabin with a green roof near the entrance to the camp. “You can stay as long as you like.”
I nodded but I wasn’t really listening. I was too busy watching the horizon. I saw numerous families laughing and holding hands. I saw people trailing away from the church after Bible study. Everything was warm and golden in the setting sun.
“No one expected her to die so young.” Paul told me. “No one expected a heart attack, especially for someone so healthy.”
“Was she happy here?”
Paul nodded. “She was. Her eyes were always so full of happiness.”
I fiddled with a blade of grass. “But was she lonely here?”
Paul’s eyes wrinkled for a moment as he dug through his pants for his wallet. He pulled out a small Kodak photograph of Drea and a sandy haired boy eating ice cream together. His head was resting on her shoulder. Her chin was in his silky hair.
“She never looked lonely.” He smiled at me. A big, brotherly smile I never knew I needed.
“No,” I decided. I realized that I wasn’t going to be done after saying this goodbye. “No, she didn’t look lonely.”
Cover image by Meggyn Pomerleau.
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