Siobhan Finch’s absence was noted.
The two old women tisk to one another about the situation as they as they shell peas and rock back and forth in their rocking chairs under the big chestnut tree in front of Auntie Bess’s cottage.
I listen as their gossip runs its usual course. My dollies, lined up in the carpet of grass before me, exchange wardrobes and hold their own silent conversations.
Da has sent me over to the cottage with my backpack of Barbies and a sack of pea pods. It is payment for the favor of watching me for the afternoon. The Aunties, Bess and Colleen, assured him it is “no trouble at all, don’t you know.” But he always sends me with something from our little farm, and, they always take it.
The Aunties don’t have a TV, but their cottage has a fairy tale feeling to it. It has a thatched roof and the smell of baked goods lingers in the kitchen.
Auntie Colleen is famous throughout the county for the cookies and cakes she bakes in the wood burning stove. I was sworn by Virgin and all that is Holy NOT TO TOUCH that hot stove — if I did there would be no more cookies or cakes and worse would come in the after life. Of course, I made the promise. But, as I am almost always here in the afternoon, and the afternoon is the hottest part of the day, the baking is long finished and stove is cool by the time I arrive, so the warning, and the promise is hardly necessary.
Most days we sit under the big chestnut tree and talk. Or rather they talk and I listen. My Aunties have a very healthy distrust of silence and do all they can to fill it. Sometimes they retell stories that are so worked over and worn out that the original plot has a patchwork quilt of “hmmms” and “you knows” and private old lady giggles of things long remembered.
Today their chatter focuses on gossip. There had been a social at the church after services on Sunday. Auntie Bess had taken charge of the kitchen and, with the help of a half-dozen of St. Bridget’s finest, had put out a fine fish and ham dinner. Auntie Colleen headed up the dessert table and had been busy arranging and organizing the dozens of sweets as the baskets came in.
They discuss who brought which dish, who helped in the kitchen, who wore what, who sat near whom. They critique Pastor O’Grady’s grace and complain that Finella McDowell at twice as much dessert as anyone else.
They feed off each other, as usual, and what started as pleasant commentary became sharp-tongued and bitter bad-mouthing. And, as usual, they eventually turn to the subject of Siobhan Finch.
“I suppose she was too BUSY to make our little soiree.”
“Tch, too busy indeed. Too above it more like.”
“Couldn’t be bothered to help out the church.”
“Well, my dear I never thought she would make it.”
“Not that we missed her in the kitchen.”
“No, no, nor I, over at desserts.”
Then, as usual, they move back in time to some long ago slight that marked Siobhan Finch as a woman of scorn. She had once dated the boy Auntie Bess had marked as her beau. As far as I can tell it had only been one date and when Auntie Bess confronted her about it she broke it off with the young man. But still the nerve. She also had the gall to enter and WIN a baking contest in which Auntie Colleen was a contestant. Auntie Colleen was a God-fearing and humble woman, she had no claim on the Best Pie In County Slingo ribbon, but to lose to THAT woman. It was too much.
“Well, well, there was more sugar involved in all that than made it in the pie” Auntie Colleen nods toward me and Auntie Bess knows she is speaking in code. “Not that I could ever prove it.”
I begin to zone out. I’ve heard this story, these grudges a thousand times.
At supper when Da came to pick me up I kissed the Aunties good-bye and slip into the pick up truck seat next to him. When we clear the fence, and I know we we’re out of hearing range I ask him why the Aunties still hate Siobhan Finch so much.
“They’re Irish, darlin’. ”
I’ve heard that before. The Aunties themselves have told me never to cross an Irish man for he’ll remember the slight the rest of his life.
“But we’re Irish too, Da.”
I remind him. And I know he isn’t that way. I’ve seen him step away from a fight. I’ve known him to find a solution where others would just throw up their hands in disgust. I know my Da has the biggest heart in three counties.
As we pulled up the gravel drive to our farm-house he thinks some more on my question.
“Your Aunties like to hold on to things that hurt ‘em. They pet it, and squeeze it, and polish it, and love that pain to death. It’s as if that ole grudge is lump of coal and somehow, if they give it enough attention, they can it worry into a diamond. But in the end all they get is dirty hands.”
As he throws the truck into the park he looks over to me and asks if that makes sense.
In reply I spit into my hands and wipe them gingerly down the front of my dress.
He eyes me with that look — wondering what his crazy daughter is up to now.
“What’s that you’re doing darlin’?”
“Getting rid of the bad.” I tell him.
My Da lets out a mighty bark of laughter then spits in his own hands and wipes them on his overalls.
“Lets go get us some supper, then.”