May 17, 2023

Apron (excerpt)

Chapter 1


When her grandma died, SarahAnn wasn’t sad. Not weepy sad, the kind of sad where people clutched the hands of the bereaved and said, “It’s okay. Let it all out.”

SarahAnn wasn’t a big fan of catharsis. It was messy and self-indulgent and people acted like it changed everything. As if sobbing about Grandma Sally would bring her back to life, make her young again, and keep her from losing her memories before she died.

But then SarahAnn never got the point of sappy women’s movies, the ones where BFFs and mothers and daughters bonded over tragedy and tea and tears. When she watched those movies with Aunt Donna, she always tired of the characters about thirty minutes in. Why did they have to tell each other everything? Why couldn’t they stop bugging each other, their significant others, and find something interesting to do?

Yeah, SarahAnn was not a Twihard. Because there was an implausible series, even by suspension of belief standards. She preferred watching old Buffy episodes with David and Sammy. If a person was going to get stuck in a dead-end job, she could at least be sarcastic about it.

She watched sappy movies because she wanted to spend time with Aunt Donna. Aunt Donna believed in “a good cry.” Hence Steel Magnolias. Yet Aunt Donna was also sensible. She told SarahAnn that it was perfectly okay for her to deal with Grandma Sally’s death in whatever way worked best for her. If she didn’t want to cry, she didn’t have to. End of story.

Grandma Sally was Grandma Sally Williams, but everyone in her extended family called her Grandma Sally. When SarahAnn was younger, she used “Grannie” when she visited Grandma Sally at the retirement community. The rest of the time, she called her “Grandma Sally” like everyone else. Sammy called it code-switching, and said it was normal to use different language in different circumstances even when talking about the same stuff. Then David asked innocently if that explained why he called Sammy “idiot” and “genius” in the same conversation. Sammy rolled his eyes.

The day Grandma Sally died, Aunt Donna met SarahAnn after school and told her that Grandma Sally had passed peacefully during an afternoon nap. Aunt Donna drove SarahAnn home, sat with her at the family-room computer, and helped her select pictures to put on Facebook. SarahAnn could have simply uploaded all the pictures but making the best selection had been her way of grieving, which Aunt Donna understood.

The first best picture was of SarahAnn and Grandma Sally when SarahAnn was still a baby and her mother was alive, a three-generations portrait. The second was of her and Grandma Sally when SarahAnn was three; she was racing bare-naked through the sprinklers at their house near Lunts Corner while Grandma Sally applauded.

SarahAnn’s favorite picture was the two of them in Grandma Sally’s apartment at the Canco Road Retirement Home. Grandma Sally and SarahAnn were decorating an artificial tree while someone—probably David since Sammy took off people’s heads in pictures—snapped a photo. It was Grandma Sally’s fourth Christmas at Canco Road. She looked alert, ready to crack one of her “yule” puns. SarahAnn was eleven, not yet a gawky teenager. And the tree looked rad, as Uncle Chester would say.

SarahAnn had posted more pictures since the day Grandma Sally died, and she would post one later that day: My Family After the Funeral.

SarahAnn believed in letting people know her story. The family photo included her dad Sammy and her dad David with Aunt Donna and Uncle Paul, Uncle Chester and his family, and Uncle Todd, Aunt Lily (his wife), and their oldest, Brian, who had flown in from California for the funeral.

The photo showed everyone sitting around a long table in the dining room at the retirement home. The people at the furthest end leaned forward to eyeball the camera like the models in the famous Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting.

“What a wonderful, big family!” exclaimed the older man who took the photo using SarahAnn’s phone.

Aunt Lily then wanted to explain how everyone was related “since people should know that traditional families aren’t the only kind of family.”

Aunt Lily was like that. SarahAnn wanted people to know her story because she didn’t believe in hiding anything. That didn’t mean she wanted to turn her story into a Broadway musical (“a freakin’ Broadway musical,” as Sammy would say).

“Who said anything about traditional families?” David said, and Uncle Chester said, “Is it okay if some of us are traditional families?”

“What is traditional?” Aunt Lily said.

“You’re the one who used the term,” Uncle Paul said.

Aunt Donna said, “Lily, aren’t you planning to homeschool Jessica next year?” referring to Aunt Lily’s youngest, who would be a high school sophomore that coming fall.

Aunt Donna was good at distracting people when they were about to start pointless debates.

Aunt Lily sighed. “I’m considering it. I don’t like the girls she hangs around with.”

“Drugs?” Sammy said, looking bewildered, since Cousin Jessica had been entirely drug-free the last time they all saw her.

“Make-up. Flirting. Boys. Boys. Boys. It’s so self-demeaning.”

The family members at SarahAnn’s end of the table all sighed. Personally, SarahAnn thought obsessing over make-up and flirting and boys was a waste of time. Life was complicated enough. But Jessica would go on demeaning herself with make-up and flirting and boys whether or not she was homeschooled.

Uncle Paul said to Uncle Todd, Jessica’s dad and his brother, “So you suck on the teat of public education but give your kids the winepress of special privileges? I thought you were opposed to inequality.”

“What kind of tortured metaphor is that?” Sammy said.

Then Uncle Todd explained for the billionth time that not everyone could afford ritzy summer camps (he was referring to SarahAnn attending archaeology camp last year) even though he was going to sell a script to a Hollywood studio any day now. In the meantime, as a public high school teacher, he knew how bad public schools could get, what with the paperwork and the constant oversight and so many kids with personal, mental, and physical “issues.” (“Every student needs encouragement,” Aunt Lily said with a sideways glance at SarahAnn.)

Lily, Uncle Todd proclaimed, would do a great job with Jessica.

“It won’t happen,” Cousin Brian muttered to SarahAnn. “Mom only brought it up now because I graduated last year and Mark graduated this year. He already moved into the dorms at Sierra College. Jessica didn’t want to come to Maine because of some big end-of-the-year freshman party. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No,” SarahAnn said, who wouldn’t have wanted a bratty fifteen-year-old at Grandma Sally’s funeral.

“Yeah. My mom and her together every school day? It wouldn’t last a month. Besides, Jessica will throw a fit first.”

Cousin Jessica was the definition of self-entitled Millennial. SarahAnn hated being grouped with whiners like her. As Sammy told her, “When people make assumptions about you, quote Marie de Gournay to them: ‘Ignorance is the mother of consistency.’ ”

At the other end of the table, Uncle Paul had derailed the homeschooling discussion with commentary on Maine’s hands-free cell phone law. Aunt Lily turned her attention to SarahAnn.

“What are your summer plans?” she said brightly. “Archaeology camp again?”

“We’re going to clear out Grandma Sally’s house.”

“Oh, how sad,” Aunt Lily said.

“That house will pay for her entire college education,” Uncle Todd said. “Right, SarahAnn?”

“The house plus the rent on the house,” Uncle Paul said, and Uncle Todd sighed at another example of how much better off everyone in the family was except Uncle Todd.

“Brian’s doing great at Berkeley!” Aunt Lily said. “He’s majoring in Environmental Science, Policy and Management.”

Brian looked less than enthused. His uncles, David and Paul, grinned at him across the table. They were both lawyers.

“At least California residents get a break on tuition,” Uncle Todd said. “What about you, SarahAnn? NYU or Boston?”

SarahAnn admitted that she was still making up her mind. She didn’t add, I’m not a spoiled rich kid, Uncle Todd.

There was no point saying it out loud. Uncle Todd liked to grouch. When lunch ended, he was still grumbling about other people’s luck. SarahAnn stepped back to take more photos with her phone. David came up and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, which got in the way of the camera but SarahAnn didn’t mind.

“You know Todd’s gripes are more about me and Sammy than about you,” he said. “He thinks that everyone in our family got a break in life but him.”

SarahAnn knew that. And she thought—though she didn’t say it—that Uncle Todd had a tiny bit of a point. David was a lawyer at Gregerson & Gregerson, the family law firm, where he worked alongside his older brother, Paul. Uncle Paul took on civil lawsuits regarding hospital screw-ups and car accidents while David tackled intellectual property and technology law. David was the reason she, Sammy, and David lived in a small but pricy house overlooking Back Cove.

Sammy was a consulting archivist with a strong reputation in his field. He made good money. He also did a lot of pro bono work, which was his and David’s way of “giving back.” And he got asked to speak at seminars by VIP types who ran places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Uncle Todd—David and Paul’s brother—was a drama teacher at a top public high school in California. His students had won awards as had Uncle Todd. A few years ago, Sammy and David and SarahAnn traveled out to California for a ceremony where people, including a state congressman, said all kinds of nice things about Uncle Todd.

He still thought of himself as a screenwriter, his “true calling,” rather than a teacher. He’d written five screenplays, one of which had been optioned. (SarahAnn had sat through enough family conversations to know that “optioned” didn’t mean “will turn into a movie soon.”) Being a screenwriter was his “true calling.” Which was why he and Aunt Lily moved to California in the first place.

So Uncle Todd had a point about not being as well off as the rest of the family—but only a tiny bit of a point about life being unfair. Because it hadn’t been—not for him.

And not for SarahAnn.

SarahAnn’s mom died in a car accident when she was three. After that, SarahAnn lived with Grandma Sally. Grandma Sally’s memory had been failing for a while. When SarahAnn started elementary school, the lapses became obvious. She forgot appointments and whether it was a school day or the weekend. Sometimes, she forgot to make dinner.

Grandma Sally always laughed at herself when SarahAnn said, “Grannie! It’s Saturday!” They simply ordered pizza or went next door to Aunt Donna’s for meals. But the Howards (Aunt Donna’s family) and the Gregersons (Uncle Paul’s family) got together and decided Grandma Sally belonged at the Canco Road Assisted Living Retirement Center. SarahAnn would live with Sammy (Donna’s brother) and David (Paul’s brother), who had recently gotten married in Massachusetts. They were the ones with the house and the money and the great insurance.

The Howards and Gregersons weren’t related to Grandma Sally or SarahAnn by blood. Without their help, SarahAnn might have ended up in foster care or with distant relatives she’d never seen or heard of. She knew she was lucky that so many people wanted her safe and okay.

I am. I am lucky.

She said to David, “Uncle Todd’s grousing is preferable to Aunt Lily’s advocacy.”

Aunt Lily liked to remind people about SarahAnn’s “tough life.” How her mother died when she was three. How Grandma Sally had to enter a facility. How her dads were, well, dads, which not everyone accepted. SarahAnn found Aunt Lily’s concerns irksome. SarahAnn didn’t think of herself as Person with a Tough Life. She certainly didn’t define herself that way.

David choked on a laugh, wiggled his toes under her heels, and Frankenstein-marched her over to Sammy.

“Doing okay, Jiji?” Sammy said to SarahAnn, using the name of the cat from Kiki’s Delivery Service, their family’s favorite Miyazaki film.

David said, “We were discussing the perils of large family reunions.”

Sammy rolled his eyes. “Honestly, David—your brother acts like he grew up in a refugee camp. I had less money and support when I started college than Todd has had his entire life.”

“Ahh, I married Oliver Twist.”

“You bet your sweet, ah, bank account you did.”

SarahAnn rolled her eyes at parental self-censoring. Then Uncle Paul strode up holding hands with Aunt Donna—they were dating again—and said, “Hey, Donna’s got a new case. She’s agreed to track down a dead historical person for me.”

Grandma Sally was gone. But everything else was totally back to normal.

Chapter 2


Brian had a crush on his cousin, SarahAnn.

She wasn’t really his cousin—not biologically—though Brian knew his parents and her parents and, well, honestly everyone in their family thought of her that way. Daughter, cousin, niece. When Uncle David and his partner Sammy adopted SarahAnn, Brian’s parents held a family meeting where they explained to Brian and his brother Mark and his sister Jessica how SarahAnn being adopted did not make her any less a “real” daughter. Her adoptive parents being two men didn’t make them any less “real” parents. They expected Brian and Mark and Jessica to never say anything that could possibly make SarahAnn feel unaccepted or unwanted.

Their parents were like that.

“So where did you come from?” Mark said when they first met SarahAnn.

Five-year-old Jessica said, “Shhhhh.” Nine-year-old Brian and eight-year-old Mark ignored her.

So did seven-year-old SarahAnn, who said, “My grandma had to go into a home, so Sammy and David became my guardians.”

David was Brian’s dad’s youngest brother. There were three Gregerson sons: David, the youngest; Todd, the middle child; and Paul, the oldest. They weren’t related to SarahAnn by blood, even though Uncle Paul managed her finances and Grandma Sally’s before Grandma Sally died.

Sammy was Uncle David’s husband. He was the youngest in his family, too, which Brian’s mom said explained why he and David were so carefree and plucky together. Brian didn’t think they were carefree and plucky so much as disciplined-to-save-money-and-enjoy-the-fruits-of-their-labors.

Sammy’s siblings were Donna and Chester. Since Brian’s mom knew Donna from years back, she insisted that they all call Donna, Aunt Donna, and Chester, Uncle Chester, just as they called Sammy, Uncle Sammy.

Sammy’s family, the Howards, grew up in the same Portland, Maine neighborhood as SarahAnn’s grandma. They weren’t related to SarahAnn anymore than the Gregersons were but they called her grandma Grandma Sally anyway since Aunt Donna looked after SarahAnn and Grandma Sally’s affairs when Grandma Sally’s memory started to fade. Aunt Donna was the one who involved Uncle Paul in managing Grandma Sally’s finances.

The point was—SarahAnn wasn’t even sort of related to Brian.

It wasn’t as if she and Brian grew up around each other either. He saw her during summer vacations when his parents sent him and his siblings to Maine “to strengthen the extended family—it takes a village!” Often, their mom came too. Lily missed Maine but she’d agreed to move away so Brian’s dad could “find himself” out West. She said they should all be grateful for the “journey” since it meant their family had “adventures.”

What it meant to Brian was that he hadn’t grown up with SarahAnn so he didn’t have brotherly or cousinly feelings towards her at all.

Brian hugged her when he entered Aunt Donna’s house. His family had attended Grandma Sally’s funeral in June, six months earlier. SarahAnn and Aunt Donna spent the summer cleaning out Grandma Sally’s house. At the time, Brian’s mother seemed content to let the “Maine contingent” handle matters.

Then Brian dropped out of his second year of college. Theoretically, his mother was in favor of people taking time to figure out their passions. In reality, his mother wanted him to graduate. His lack of ambition was driving her crazy. She declared, “Someone from our little nuclear family needs to visit Maine to support SarahAnn in her time of sorrow.”

Brian wanted to see SarahAnn anyway, but he thought it fair to point out, “SarahAnn isn’t alone. She’s staying with Aunt Donna.”

“While Sammy and David are in Europe for some museum conference of Sammy’s. I don’t know why they didn’t take SarahAnn along—”

Brian did. SarahAnn had been to Europe twice with her dads, once to England when she was eleven, and later to France and Italy for her sixteenth birthday. She could have gone again but wanted to be a “homebody” and “hang out with my totally amazing aunt.”

Thank God for Facebook.

“Most teens don’t get multiple trips to Europe,” Brian’s dad said acidly.

Brian’s mom thought it was wonderful that David and Sammy worked so hard to help SarahAnn overcome her early years. Brian’s mom never referred to SarahAnn as “adopted,” but she never forgot it either.

At least she was happy for SarahAnn. Brian’s dad muttered that SarahAnn was being “corrupted by bourgeois values.” Brian didn’t think anything could corrupt SarahAnn. He stood in Aunt Donna’s house and watched SarahAnn set the table in her matter-of-fact way.

“You get the silverware,” SarahAnn told Brian without sounding bossy, and he did, glancing at her now and again.

She was of medium height, shorter than Brian—he’d shot up this past summer—but taller than Aunt Donna, who looked a lot like Helena Bonham Carter in the Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and was about the same age.

SarahAnn was slim and leggy, with fine brown hair around a lightly freckled face. Actually, she looked rather like Lily James (Cinderella in Cinderella) with straight brows, a straight nose, and a small determined chin. She had the kind of features that could survive what Brian’s buddy Phil called “the dunk test.”

Phil got “the dunk test” out of some dating book of his dad’s written by a man for women. The author claimed that when a man saw a woman, any woman, no matter how crazily made up, he imagined her as if she’d just fallen into a swimming pool—hair wet, makeup wiped away. Brian couldn’t speak for other guys, but he knew that he liked that SarahAnn could easily survive the dunk test.

He also liked that if someone threw SarahAnn into a swimming pool, she’d climb out, shake her head, and laugh.

“How are your parents?” Aunt Donna asked, coming in with a leafy green salad.

Brian shrugged. His mom was annoyed with him. His dad was irked by the world’s inequalities. In other words, they were the same as usual.

Aunt Donna didn’t press. She was a calm woman who said the sorts of things that Brian’s dad called “pointless middle-class small talk.” Aunt Donna said those things to show she was aware of people, that she was interested, that she cared.

Even Brian’s dad liked Aunt Donna.

SarahAnn stopped setting the table and looked pointedly at Brian. SarahAnn thought if Aunt Donna was nice enough to ask, people should answer. Brian grinned.

“My mom is fostering for the local Animal Refuge League. My dad is running a Writing Conference for Middle Schoolers.”

It was the type of thing his dad did well, despite his grumbles. Brian’s mom sung his praises, of course, but his students did too. He was a popular teacher.

“Your uncle Paul is coming for dinner,” Donna said almost primly and went back into the kitchen.

SarahAnn grinned at Brian over the table. Uncle Paul had been dating Aunt Donna since forever. They moved in together, split up, then moved in together again. SarahAnn called them the “suburban Taylor and Burton,” referring to the tempestuous relationship between classic Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Uncle Paul and Aunt Donna weren’t tempestuous. Aunt Donna was too even-tempered and Uncle Paul was too sardonic. Aunt Donna’s brother Chester (married with children) said Paul and Donna had been single too long to live together successfully, and Uncle David said he totally understood the impulse to have sole control of the remote. Uncle Sammy threw a carrot at him.

Uncle Paul showed up with champagne, which was the kind of thing Uncle Paul did. Brian’s father was guaranteed to roll his eyes at “trendy kowtowing to middle-class rituals that feed our outdated patriarchal systems.” Brian agreed only because he couldn’t see his dad pulling it off. Brian couldn’t either. Uncle Paul was the kind of guy who could.

Uncle Paul was slightly taller than Brian, with darker hair and blunter features. Brian looked more like his mother, and his father didn’t look much like Uncle Paul anyway, but there were points of resemblance. Brian and Uncle Paul had the same heavy, tilted brows and almost black eyes. And he had Uncle Paul’s shoulders though not his bulk.

Not that Uncle Paul was heavy. Or rather he was in the old-fashioned sense of the word a heavy. He reminded Brian of a cross between James Cagney and Josh Brolin.

Brian knew he looked more like Justin Long, only younger, of course. Matthew Gray Gubler, maybe, or Andy Samberg. Which made Brian “ever so handsome,” according to his mom. But he wasn’t exactly Chris Hemsworth.

“So you’ve decided to become a drain on society,” Uncle Paul said to Brian, which was exactly the kind of thing Brian’s mother secretly thought but would never say.

“I got tired of social engineering,” Brian said.

He’d been on the path to a degree in something-something-environmentalism, which both his parents approved of. He woke up one morning and realized he was so bored, he almost didn’t care about the huge bill he was foisting on his parents. He could mosey about for the next three years, barely go to classes, barely not flunk, and he still wouldn’t care.

Why not get a degree in whatever-it-was? It wasn’t as if Brian had any particular interests or skill-sets. He had some social (or financial) conscience left though, so he dropped out.

Uncle Paul grinned at the “social engineering” remark. He said, “Come work for me. You can be my fetch and carry boy.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Uncle Paul then started teasing Aunt Donna. He only sometimes teased SarahAnn. It wasn’t that she couldn’t give as good as she got. It was what would happen if she complained to her dads.

As Uncle Paul said to SarahAnn, “You have two helicopter parents, you know that, right? And I’m talking Apache helicopters.”

Uncle David and Uncle Sammy could be as obnoxious and sarcastic as the guys on Big Bang Theory. But nobody had permission to be like that with their “Jiji.”

Uncle Paul lounged into the kitchen, kissed Aunt Donna with embarrassing thoroughness, and asked her mock-serious questions about their meal.

“I deserve extra helpings tonight,” he announced, carrying a plate of pork chops into the dining room. “I bring champagne plus a case for Donna from Scotia, New York.”

They stared at him. He grinned.

“The Glen Sanders Mansion. It’s an old house turned wedding venue. Hey, Donna, how about you and I get married?”

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