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Porch Lights(2)
Dorothea Benton Frank

“Dear Heavenly Father, there’s so much wrong with the world.”

“You’re telling me?”

“You must have seen terrible things.”

“Yes. Yes, I have.”

“Well, God bless you. And look, Charlie has us, such as we are. At least he doesn’t have to worry about being sent to an orphanage.”

“I thank God for that.”

“Amen,” she said. “Amen.”

Aunt Maureen, unmarried and in her sixties, was Charlie’s secondary caretaker while I was overseas. There’s no question that she was cut from the McMullen cloth in terms of understanding and fulfilling obligations, but unfortunately she didn’t exude the warmth that seemed to flow endlessly from the rest of Jimmy’s clan. Not even a little bit. She wore sensible shoes, no makeup, and was . . . well, in a word, dowdy. And prim. Yes, Aunt Maureen was prim, a throwback from another time when domestic life was governed by a hard-and-fast set of rules. Rules that had consequences when they were not followed to the letter. She’d always been that way, seemingly uninterested in the opposite sex, the same sex, or sex. Or in having her own family. Maybe the idea of a house filled with a gaggle of noisy children frightened her, which even as a parent of only one child was not a concept beyond my grasp. Every woman I knew with a husband and little ones would have said that raising children is as scary as the day is long. But putting aside her appearance, demeanor, and domestic aspirations, she was a good woman. A fine woman, in fact. Each time I was deployed she appeared like clockwork, standing in the hallway of our apartment with her heavy suitcase and a shopping bag of treats for Charlie, comic books and other things, ready to do her duty. And she always brought me a bag of things she knew I’d miss: dried fruit, power bars, Snickers, and two pounds of my favorite kind of coffee, ground for drip.

She gave Charlie her all; it’s just that some pretty shallow waters flowed in the river of her emotions. It didn’t matter because Charlie understood her nature and he was fine with it. They had an arrangement. When Aunt Maureen was in residence, she slept in Charlie’s room and Charlie slept on the pullout sofa in our living room. Jimmy cooked dinner, and Charlie washed and dried the dishes with her. Jimmy made lasagna, meat loaf, and chili like no other, but show me an FDNY fireman who couldn’t cook, right? That’s what they did down at the firehouse when they weren’t fighting fires—they cooked. They cooked and they ate, they watched television and ate snacks, they lifted weights, and then they ate some more. I used to tell him that his ladder company should have had its own show on the Food Network. Or at least a guest spot on Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. Can’t you see all these good-looking, ripped guys showing Flay where the bear goes in the buckwheat when it came to meat loaf?

We had a good life, Jimmy, Charlie, and I. We owned a co-op in a stone building in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. It was built in the 1930s, nice but not grand and near where Jimmy’s parents used to live. I mean, the kitchen was reasonably new but there was no room for a dishwasher because we chose to use that space for a washer/dryer stack. I had a germ thing about using washers and dryers that were used by everyone else in the building. Who knew what nasty horrors they put into them? There’s no need to paint a picture. Funny, the laundry service on base in Kandahar was fine, except for my disappearing underwear, but a public washer and dryer stateside made me gag. My mother has this weird idea that living in Brooklyn is like that movie Fort Apache, the Bronx. But then she has a lot of weird ideas.

Anyway, our kitchen had a nice big window, and that seemed like fair compensation to us. I could watch the birds in the morning while I scrambled eggs or flipped pancakes, and that always made my heart a little bit lighter. The living room also served as our dining room, and our air-conditioning consisted of window units. We had two bedrooms and two bathrooms and the use of a small backyard, which was a luxury.

The day that the terrible news came, Aunt Maureen was there in a flash. She picked Charlie up from school and stayed with him until my mother arrived. Then they kept vigil until I could get home on bereavement leave. Aunt Maureen had called my mother and asked her to come at once. To her credit, Mom was literally in my living room six hours later—not an easy feat considering she lived nearly a thousand miles away.

Before I get too far ahead of myself I should tell you a little about my mother, Annie. Basically, she’s the antithesis of Aunt Maureen. She’s rock steady like Maureen, but she’s got this other side that, well, let’s just say that a little bit of Momma goes a long way for some people. She’s just too much. You know what I mean? She’s too effusive, too dramatic, too fussy about the superficial and not fussy enough about other issues—for example, she still wears red lipstick, she drives a Sebring convertible, and she thinks she can interpret dreams. Okay, maybe that’s a lame indictment, but what I’m trying to say is that she says and does these things all the time that make me cringe. And how did she let my father just walk out of the door after twenty-something years of marriage? There was no history of screaming fights, no tears were shed, and no marriage counselors were brought in to help. They just split. Yes, that happened the day after I got married. It was all over the fact that Dad’s fishing tackle was left on the back porch and she had company coming. At my mother’s house, the back porch is the main entryway. God forbid someone tripped over a smelly cast net. It is the single dumbest story in my family’s history. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit that for a long time I thought it was a dramatic move on her part to steal some thunder from my wedding weekend. Now I can see that Dad had simply had it with her, her rules, her house, her everything. I understand. I escaped too.

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