After Aaron’s brief mid-May visit with Johnny Blanton and Press Fletcher, life at the Peck’s Elm Street home returned to its predictable springtime routine. As the weather warmed Leona spent enjoyable hours in the back yard, tending her flowers and vegetables, while Aaron kept the lawn mowed and tried his best to keep up with her ever-growing “honey do” list.
For as long as they could remember, summer had been a family time. Their daughters, Mindy and Carol, had been raised on backyard picnics, camping weekends, and day trips to the coast and mountains. Over the years, as the girls became took on the demands of their own growing families, those Peck family get-togethers had become harder to manage on a regular basis.
There were, however, two annual gatherings that remained a part of the clan’s annual calendar. Christmas dinner at Grandma Leona’s was the centerpiece of the family’s holiday. And mid-June, when school was out for the summer, was sure to include a long weekend at the beach.
For those seaside occasions Leona rented a large house in one of the coastal resort areas....something large enough to accommodate the girls and their families. There, from Friday noon to Sunday evening the Peck family came together for fun, fellowship, and feasting.
For that summer’s outing Leona had found a two story, shingled-sided home just a block from the beach. Its worn exterior was weathered to a shiny silver hue, and the comfortably casual interior was roomy enough to offer something for everyone.
Video games for the youngsters would be going nonstop in the basement, and each night was sure to include a loud and lively pinochle game. For three hectic days everyone was immersed in busy, family-centered fun.
All day long couples and kids traipsed back and forth to the beach, dodging the unpredictable rain squalls, returning with shoes full of sand. On Saturday morning two carloads of aunts, uncles, and cousins drove off to check out the local outlet mall.
At the heart of all that coming and going was Saturday lunch, the one time when everyone came together in one place. From the mall, the beach, and well-fought video games......they gathered for Grandma Leona’s crab and potato-salad meal, the undisputed highlight of their beach holiday.
Tables were pushed together in the living room and covered with layers of newspaper. Everyone was seated and eager to begin when Carol and Mindy brought two heaping bowls of potato salad from the refrigerator. All was ready....except for Grandma Leona and her bucket of crab.
Mindy called for Grandma to join them, but her summons went unanswered. Carol slipped away from the table and walked to the kitchen. There was no sign of her mother. She started down the hallway to the bathroom, calling as she went. Still there was no response.
By then Mindy had joined her sister. “Why would she leave now?” she asked when they returned to the kitchen. “She knew it was time for lunch.”
“I don’t know. She’s just gone. And the crab’s not here either. I don’t understand.”
Carol started through the utility room, toward the back steps. Then suddenly, she stopped short. “Mindy. Come here.”
Mindy peered around the door jamb to where Carol was pointing. There, just beyond the clothes dryer, she saw their mother sitting on the floor.... back against the wall, her head buried in her hands. At first glance it was hard to tell if she was crying, hiding, or even conscious.
Carol’s surge of relief quickly gave way to undisguised concern. “Mom?” she said, bending low to raise her mother’s head. Leona pushed her hand away. “What is it, Mom? Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
When Leona finally looked up there were no tears in her eyes....only a sad, impassive gaze. Her face was one that showed its age. The lines, wrinkles, and crow’s feet were there to be seen. She had never tried to hide them. At that moment, however, her always vibrant blue eyes had been captured by a vacant, haunting stare.
Reaching down Mindy offered to help her mother to her feet, half afraid that she might again resist. Instead, Leona glanced up at Mindy, then Carol, and allowed herself to be pulled upright. A moment later she was ready to speak.
“I forgot.” It was a quiet whimper, barely audible. “I forgot all about it.”
“What did you forget, Mom? Why were you sitting back here?”
Suddenly Leona’s eyes blinked back to life. She straightened up and stepped back from Mindy. “I forgot the crab, silly,” she said, anxiously wringing her hands in the folds of her apron. “I forgot all about it. You know how your father likes his crab. And I forgot. What am I going to do?”
The girls had gathered their mother in a tight three-way embrace by the time Aaron came from the front room. “What’s wrong?" he asked. "Is Mom okay?” With a finger he raised his wife’s chin. “What is it, honey?”
Leona looked up into his face then turned away, fighting back the tears that wanted to escape.
It was Mindy who answered her father’s question. “She forgot to buy the crab. That’s all. It’s no big deal. We’ll just have to go get the crab.” She pulled her mother’s head to her shoulder. “It’s not a problem, Mom. Give us a few minutes and we’ll be right back in business.”
It took no more than half an hour for Don and Hal, the girls’ husbands, to return with the missing crab....steamed, cleaned, and ready to eat. By then Leona was seated in her customary place at the head of the the long table.
From all appearances she had moved beyond her frustrating memory lapse, although a joking aside from one of the grandchildren was enough to produce a moment of sullen dejection. That lasted only as long as it took Carol’s easy smile to transport her mother back to the warmth of the family table.
Later that afternoon, after a round of sing-a-longs and board games, Leona was in the kitchen preparing popcorn with her granddaughters. Outside, on the front porch, Aaron stood looking west through the fog dampened daylight to where the broad street that ran in front of the house blended into the gray, ocean-bound horizon.
As always he had enjoyed their family holiday and the opportunity to reconnect with their extended family. Mindy and Carol lived in the Portland suburbs, no more than fifty miles from Tanner, but far enough to make an unhurried visit something of a rarity. A long and leisurely weekend together was something special.
By any measure their time together had been a success. Everyone they had invited was on hand. The weather had held off long enough for a couple of long beach walks. The kids had played their games and had their fun. In fact, as Aaron revisited the day’s activities, he was aware of only one unaccountable breach in an otherwise perfect day.
“I wonder what that was all about?” Aaron had not heard Mindy’s approach until her question pulled him back to the present. “I’ve never seen mom act like that,” she added. He was a bit surprised to hear how closely his daughter’s wondering mirrored his own.
Standing beside him at the porch railing, Mindy was shaking her head as she continued. “I’ve seen Mom forget things before. We all have. I guess that’s a part of what getting older is for her. But I’ve never seen her be so disappointed in herself, or go into hiding like that. She looked so hurt and confused.”
“That’s the part that makes no sense to me,” Aaron agreed. “As far as I know she remembered everything else. She didn’t forget the dinner. She didn’t forget that she was supposed to get the crab.
"The only thing she forgot was to actually go out and buy it.” His laugh was more puzzled than humorous. “And then she remembered that she’d forgot. What the hell does that mean?”
“Well, she seems to be over it now. I just hope she can relax and enjoy herself.”
Aaron’s gaze tracked off toward the darkening Pacific horizon and his thoughts turned, not for the first time, to subtle hints of a future he preferred not to imagine.
It was true. Leona had become more forgetful. But then he too wrestled with misplaced car keys and unremembered names. After all, they were seventy-two years old. That was to be expected.
Still, he felt no need to burden his daughters with the troublesome understanding that their mother’s most recent episode was not the first time he had watched her swept away in moments of confused frustration.
He remembered other instances during the last few months when the behavior he expected from Leona seemed just beyond her reach. It had been a hurtful thing to watch, her instinctive understanding that things were not right. For months that growing vulnerability had been his secret. Now, for the first time the whole family had witnessed its impact.
At home again after their beach holiday the Pecks’ returned to a long-familiar round of activities. Leona spent her days cleaning their already clean home, gardening in the back yard, and reading in the comfortable shade of the patio.
To Aaron’s way of thinking it was the garden where his wife best displayed her creative gifts. Each winter she spent long hours poring over seed and flower catalogs, searching for new varieties, colors, and combinations of plantings. Invariably the result was something special....bringing vibrant life to an otherwise drab expanse of grass and garden.
To be sure, summer was a good time in the Pecks’ satisfying retirement schedule. They were as busy and involved as they wanted to be, spending their time the way they chose.
Still, though he could not name them, Aaron was increasingly aware of the gathering forces that threatened their good times. Those vague intuitions of what lay ahead made each summer evening spent on the patio with Leona, visiting quietly and admiring her floral handiwork, all the more more gratifying.