She waved her hand into the car. "As I said, I'll be here on the seventh." She curled a finger around my ear the way she used to do when I was young and drew a loose strand of hair forward. She often chided me for being too severe. The gesture made me smile and I leaned into her touch.
"My daughter is about to make partner, the youngest partner I might add, at one of Chicago's top law firms. That's worth celebrating." She pulled me close and kissed my cheek. "It's important to celebrate, to mark occasions, dear. Don't forget that."
One more squeeze and she, too, dropped into the car. I was left standing alone, with a sea of black behind me all consoling one another over their loss, and an empty street in front of me. No one knew me. I knew no one. And I wasn't sure what I'd lost.
Rather than turn into the crowd, I let memories of Aunt Maddie wash over me as I stepped across the church's driveway and headed toward the train station. Past the small village square. Past the gas station that had served soft swirls so long ago. I tripped over a shift in the sidewalk and found myself at the edge of the small park I had sat in before the service. I swiped at the bench and dropped onto it again. There was time before the train.
'Madeline Cullen Carter.' Same name as me, minus the Carter. I'd been named after her and, until that summer, my dad had only spoken of her in glowing terms. He worshiped her. Only thirteen months older, his "crazy" brilliant sister was everything he wasn't. And 'crazy' was his highest compliment. I could hear it in his voice. 'My crazy sister went skydiving. Skydiving at forty-five...She and Pete are headed to Haiti next month to help with relief efforts from Hurricane Gordon...She's up to more craziness; she and Pete want to open a bookstore . . .'
'Crazy' meant bold, daring, fearless. It was a radiant word, endowed with virtue and supernatural strength. For years, I wanted to be called crazy too. But after my last trip, nineteen years ago, the same word, previously laden with excitement, adoration, and a hint of envy, emerged with snarled derision and disgust.
Their retirement savings caused the rift and divided us all. She and Uncle Pete had invested in Dad's Millennium Tech Fund and—like practically every other tech fund in the spring and summer of 2000— it vanished.
But shouldn't she have been more understanding? More forgiving? Shouldn't family have meant more than money? Everyone was hurt when the tech bubble burst. Everyone lost money. Yes, some more than others, but it wasn't the managers' fault. That was like blaming Hurricane Gordon on the meteorologists.
But anger can be as irrational as it is visceral. I felt it at school as my best friends avoided, then shunned me, sure my dad had caused all their parents' troubles. And after we returned from Aunt Maddie's house that summer, the apartment felt as silent and somber as school. Mom and Dad retreated to separate corners to heal. They never laughed, never went out to parties or dinners; they hardly spoke. In my most honest moments, I admit I chose Northwestern Law School in an attempt to push reconciliation. Maybe I was trying to rewrite history and prove people could be forgiving and kind. Maybe I wanted assurance that money, gained or lost, didn't rule the world. New York had taught me otherwise, but Chicago? Maybe . . .
It never happened.
Aunt Maddie occasionally called and invited me to Winsome for dinner, or volunteered to come visit me downtown, but she never mentioned my father, never said it was all okay, never let him off the hook, and never forgave him. And I never pushed it—I shouldn't have had to.
I leaned back against the bench. 'It was my fault. Every bit of it . . .' Dad said those very words. How was that true? Aunt Maddie had spent years blaming him for something out of his control.
"Are you okay?"
I bolted upright. Somehow I had missed a bright-red Patagonia fleece standing feet from my face. "I— How long have you been standing there?"
The face above the fleece flashed straight white teeth. The straight teeth led to a slightly bumped nose and remarkable green eyes. His whole face lit with a smile.
"The length of that question. I just came from there." He pointed across the street to the Catholic church's rectory. "The church maintains the park and I was working earlier, but needed to take a break." He used the same hand to sweep behind him. I noted a pile of burlap and a wheelbarrow. As he turned back, he pulled his other hand from his jeans pocket and offered a white handkerchief.
I then felt what he must have noticed—my eyes were sticky and most likely red. He jiggled the handkerchief in front of me until I reached for it.
"I haven't seen one of these since my grandfather died."
"My granddad left me all his. They feel old-fashioned, but I find comfort in that."