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Home To Roost
By Linda Hoffman Kimball
|Edition: Trade Paperback|
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Annie Bauer normally would have enjoyed hosting this open house. She liked having parties. People remembered her gatherings for years. But now, a half hour before the event, Annie felt edgy and irritable.
Annie knew some of the reasons for her unsettled mood. One was obvious: Alphonso Meidenbach. In her living room Brother Meidenbach, a tenor with the Chicago Lyric Opera, was rehearsing the song he was going to sing for the party's guests of honor, a retired couple from the ward about to leave on a mission.
Having a professional musician give her a private concert should not have been an annoyance, but Brother Meidenbach was managing to make it one. He had arrived a full hour early, strewing his personal effects - sunglasses, beret, windbreaker - in a trail from the front door to the kitchen where he clumsily dumped a thousand pages of music out of his briefcase all over the floor. Surveying the refreshment platters with a look of revulsion, he tried to engage Annie in a conversation about the dangers of refined sugar while she frosted the last pan of brownies.
Sister Meidenbach, who was his wife and accompanist, made her way to the piano and began thundering up and down the keys, limbering up her fingers. Brother Meidenbach, having transferred his mess of papers from the kitchen floor to the table where Annie needed to put the refreshments, began his vocal warm-ups. When he felt sufficiently warm, he launched into the hymn for the Jensens, the soon-to-be missionaries.
"Love at Home" had never been one of Annie's favorite hymns, but it was the Jensens'; and, truth be told, the first time Brother Meidenbach sang it there in her living room it was beautiful. Annie had stopped, spatula in hand, inspired by his sonorous inflections, and contemplated for a moment the image of roses blooming beneath her feet. Ahhhhhh.
A perfectionist concerning his music, Brother Meidenbach insisted on going over it and over it and over it. By the tenth time through the song, Annie felt she would scream if she heard about that insipid cottage one more time. And the phrase "joy in every sound" filled her with such a froth of sarcasm that she knew she had better go outside and distance herself a while.
In the backyard, with Brother Meidenbach's singing somewhat muffled, she felt better. She called over her sons, Jake and Robbie, who had been playing driveway basketball in their Sunday clothes. She asked them to set up citronella candles on the card tables to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Jake, who was twelve, held the webbed candle cups at an angle while Robbie, nine, tried with eventual success to strike matches and light the wicks.
She was glad for the boys' help, but it brought to mind another source of aggravation. Her husband, Doug, was out of town on business for two weeks and she missed him. Specifically this evening she missed his mechanical know-how. She had wanted to spruce up the yard for the Jensens' farewell, but that hadn't happened. As Annie looked around the base of the tree trunks and along the wall of the garage, she saw long, ugly tufts of grass. She was irritated with herself for not knowing how to operate the power edger.
As modern a woman as I am, she thought, with vast resources of divine potential, I ought to be able to cope with a machine that could whip my fingers right off my hand. Not only did she feel discouraged by her own power-tool phobia, she felt she had let down her gender as a whole in a larger cosmic way. But Doug would be home tomorrow and he could show her one more time how to operate the edger. And she would learn.
Maybe everyone would just stay indoors and then it wouldn't matter. But if everyone stayed inside, would they all just stand around and stare at each other? Here was another reason for her edginess. Annie had never thrown a party before for people she didn't know well. She usually peppered her events with group games or hands-on projects. The Jensens, dear as they were, were not fun and games type folks. Annie compromised by including a little time for the presentation of a gift, and of course, by inviting Brother Meidenbach to sing their favorite hymn. At this point Annie had no expectation that this would be The Party of the Year; she just prayed it wouldn't be a total bore.
The last source of Annie's unsettled mood, one that gripped Annie deeper than the other temporary ones, was vague and persistent. Annie couldn't identify it exactly, but she knew it had something to do with her mother.
Last Friday had been the one year anniversary of Annie's mother's death. Mother, whose name was Maureen Clifton, had suffered for several months with stomach cancer. She had become so miserable that it was a relief when she died. Doug and the boys had been wonderfully supportive through the whole ordeal, and the ward had been very generous. Not only did Annie benefit from the traditional lineups of casseroles and child care, but unexpected kindnesses happened as if on divine cue during the last two weeks of her mother's struggle.
Annie's mother was not a member of the Church and had no other family but her two children - Annie and her brother Michael. During the months of her illness Mother had confided deeply in Annie on a level Annie recognized as spiritual, though Mother would not have accepted the label. Mother shared a longing to make peace with the family she had come from - a hugely dysfunctional family from whom she had severed connections when she married at eighteen. The only thing Annie remembered about her mother's family were vaguely dreadful stories of a strong-willed Aunt Minnie who tried to inveigle herself into Mother's life when Annie and her brother were little.
Now that a year had passed, Annie planned to submit her mother's name to the temple and do her work for her. Sharing the benefits of the gospel with her mother was something Annie had wanted to do for years. Having Mother sealed to her parents after all this time seemed like it should be the perfect way to accomplish that peacemaking Mother had longed for in her last days.
But something in the pit of Annie's stomach began churning now, just like it did whenever she thought about doing her mother's temple work.
"Refined sugar will give you ulcers, depression, and flatulence!" bellowed Brother Meidenbach through the back door.
Annie thought he was psychically diagnosing the funk she had concerning her mother. Then she saw that he was in mid-lecture to Jake who was dashing out the door looking for a place to hide. The twelve-year-old, having finished the citronella candle duty and gone in to sneak a brownie, had made the mistake of offering one to Brother Meidenbach.
Annie checked her watch, relieved to see that it was nearly seven. She had just enough time to check the refreshments. Soon guests would arrive to dilute the effects of Brother Meidenbach. Annie's mood brightened.
As she put the last tray on the table and the ladle in the punch bowl, the doorbell rang.
Brother Jensen stood at the door, his face close to the screen and his hand shielding his eyes for a better look inside.
"Come on in, Brother Jensen!" Annie said, opening the door for him.
"You first, dear," he said courteously, ushering in his diminutive wife.
"Hello, Annie," said Sister Jensen. "This is so sweet of you!" Sister Jensen pressed her cheek against Annie's and squeezed her hand. Annie thought she smelled wonderful, like a combination of lavender soap and baking bread.
Annie had been Sister Jensen's visiting teacher for two years. Now that their children were all grown and gone, the Jensens both seemed a little adrift. The mission call had added renewed pep to their lives. Having this open house seemed like just the right sendoff.
If it didn't bomb, thought Annie with another wave of anxiety.
Brother Jensen patted some beads of perspiration off his forehead with his handkerchief. "Can you believe the good Lord has seen fit to send us to Hawaii? I'm just so thrilled to be about the Lord's work I can hardly wait."
Slipping in the front door behind Brother and Sister Jensen came Michael, Annie's brother, and his wife Susan. Their two children dashed through to the backyard to look for their cousins.
"Brother Jensen! You're looking good!" said Michael, putting a firm hand on the elderly man's shoulder. "Bet you can't wait to see Sister Jensen in a grass skirt, eh?"
Brother Jensen, nonplussed by the remark, sputtered and chuckled awkwardly. He clutched Sister Jensen around the waist and quickly navigated her into the living room.
"Michael, your sense of humor is going to get you in trouble one of these days," laughed Annie, giving him a hug.
"One of these days?" said Susan. "It gets him in trouble on a regular basis!" She gave Annie a hug, too, and Annie noticed joyfully that Susan's pregnancy was becoming obvious.
With Michael and Susan here, Annie felt immediately more relaxed and cheerful. She felt she could even enjoy hearing Brother Meidenbach sing "Love at Home" one more time.
A steady stream of guests arrived. Annie put on a CD of classical guitar music. She moved through each room, hoping things were going smoothly. She was pleased with the turnout.
Annie smiled at how the group began separating naturally into age brackets. The young women stood at one end of the refreshment table, whispering and giggling with each other while they clutched their paper punch cups. The young men stood around the cookie trays at the other end of the table discussing a variety of topics from their classes now that school had begun to the merits and flaws of the Bears and the Bulls.
The younger children were blowing bubbles out of little wands in the backyard. Annie knew the kids couldn't care less if the grass around the tree trunks wasn't neat and so she popped that petty irritation out of her mind like one of the children's bubbles.
In the kitchen, newly married sisters huddled around the sink involved in deep analysis of their various gynecologists, maternity benefits, and mental health provisions. Annie thought she overheard some comments about Susan's now obvious condition, but she didn't want to barge into the conversation.
The rest of the guests stood or sat in the living room where Brother and Sister Jensen held court on wingback chairs. Brother and Sister Jensen accepted each well-wisher graciously. This was no small feat since the comments ranged from sentimental testimonies to lengthy narratives on intestinal parasites of the tropics.
Annie felt relieved. The party was going better than she had expected. The Jensens looked flattered and happy. The guests mingled contentedly. The children were all behaving. Even Brother Meidenbach seemed to have reined in his tirades against sugar enough that the guests could enjoy the refreshments.
Annie turned off the CD and called everyone into the living room. It was time to begin the short formal segment of the party - presenting the Jensens with a gift and listening to Brother Meidenbach's solo.
As the group assembled around the Jensens, the group dynamics blossomed into the perfect tone for the kindly new missionaries: cheerful, optimistic, even reverent.
Then the doorbell rang.
Annie went to the door and opened the screen to a large elderly woman she couldn't place. She had a suitcase in her hand.
The woman stepped inside, set down her suitcase and wrapped an astonished Annie in a tight hug.
"Had a hell of a time finding the place, Annie!" bellowed the woman. "I'm Minnie."
Annie heard involuntary gasps from the spiritually primed ward members assembled in her living room. When the woman released her grip, Annie searched the woman's face for anything familiar. She found nothing. Annie opened her mouth but couldn't speak.
Michael, who appeared equally confused about who the woman was, strode quickly across the room, saying a hearty hello in his way that warmed even strangers to him. He extended his large hand. Rather than shake it, the woman picked up the suitcase and handed it to him. She pulled on his tie to bring his face closer to hers.
"You must be Michael," she said, scrutinizing his face and taking his chin in her hand. She yanked on his chin and opened his mouth like a Christmas nutcracker. "Yes, you're the one with the good teeth."
Then it dawned on Annie who the woman must be. Aunt Minnie. Her mother's sister. The one remaining fragment of her mother's family. The one about whom unpleasant stories were told.
The one way to make the peace her mother sought for on her deathbed.
Annie felt her stomach knot up again.
"I've come to see Annie and Michael, Maureen's kids," shouted Minnie to the roomful of guests. She brushed off the lapel of her orange pant suit. She stood a little straighter and smiled broadly.
She looked around the room and then turned to Annie. "You have a husband anymore, Annie? Or is one of these hunks in here your property? Just look at you, doll! You were so little when I saw you last, just seven I think. Six or seven. And Michael, he was eight. Just got those big teeth in."
Susan had come over to Michael and had her arm linked through his.
"Michael, that's quite the looker you've got there! Oh, and look! She's in the family way! Does your wife know about her?"
Minnie nudged and winked at the man closest to the front door. He happened to be the bishop.
Some of the teenage girls crossed their knees, barely suppressing laughter. The teenage boys were blushing and elbowing each other. The little children were getting antsy and didn't understand what the delay was about. The young marrieds clutched each other tightly, exchanging confused glances.
"Well, looks like you've got a party! Party or a seance. Can't tell which. You all are so quiet. Anyway, good timing! I love a party. I'm so damn tired from that bus ride from Cleveland. Don't let me stop anything, now. Annie, go ahead. Strike up the band. Call up the dead. Whatever you were about to do. I'll just get myself something to eat from your spread over here and pull up a chair. You just carry on."
Michael went over with her to the refreshment table telling her quietly that the party was a sendoff for the couple about to be missionaries for their church. Minnie "oohed" appreciatively.
Everyone's eyes were on her.
Minnie poured herself a cup of punch and held it to her nose. She wrinkled up her face in disappointment and shrugged. She picked up a paper plate and loaded it high with brownies. Annie noticed Brother Meidenbach's face blanch and his eyes roll.
Annie stood in front of the group of ward members and cleared her throat to get everyone's attention again. Weak-kneed, she decided to carry on as she had been instructed, as though nothing had changed.
Annie looked at the faces in front of her. Some guests regained the same benign expressions they had before Minnie's intrusion as though someone had pushed their pause buttons. Others relaxed in their seats, grateful to have the tension broken. Others still looked tense, darting glances between Annie in front of them and Minnie hovering over the refreshments fingering things she didn't take.
Annie cleared her throat again.
"Brothers and sisters," she began. "We are delighted to send the Jensens off on their mission. We have a little something for them. Robbie, would you get the present for the Jensens?" Annie called to her son, who stood near the piano. He looked utterly confused and preoccupied. Annie wondered if he was worried about sharing their quarters with this bizarre invader. There's no way Annie would let that happen.
Annie's request jarred him into action. He opened the buffet and pulled out a festively wrapped gift. He carried it proudly to the Jensens, uncertain about which one of them he should hand it to.
Sister Jensen leaned forward to take it. "Here, sweetheart," said Sister Jensen, taking the gift. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. The other children laughed and hooted, and the adults chuckled nervously, casting glances at Minnie who had pulled a kitchen chair into the living room.
"A present!" exclaimed Minnie, brownie crumbs flying from her mouth. "Oh, what'd'ya get!"
Brother and Sister Jensen kept brave smiles on their faces as they unwrapped the present.
"Going to Hawaii, Michael tells me," Minnie said in a loud whisper to Sister Meidenbach, whose thigh she patted for emphasis. "Saving souls is good business. I'm saving mine for a rainy day! Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Sister Meidenbach gave Minnie a withering look, but Minnie took no notice of it.
The Jensens' gift was a photo album filled with photographs Annie and Susan had collected over the few months since the Jensens received their call. The first page was a picture of the Jensens taken at the Chicago Temple in May when the spring landscaping was at its peak. The eight following pages were pictures sent by the Jensens' children. Each family group had their own separate page. There were other pictures of the Jensens, the ward building, some of Chicago's famous landmarks like the historic Water Tower, the Sears Tower, and Comiskey Park for Brother Jensen who was a diehard White Sox fan.
With each turned page, Sister Jensen sighed and sniffled. Brother Jensen smiled and kept repeating, "Thank you so much. Thank you so much."
The guests began to make quiet conversation again, nodding approvingly as the photo album passed around the room. Annie was relieved to note a cheerful mood edging its way back into the gathering. Still, she felt queasy and desperately wanted Doug home.
She glanced at Minnie who was finishing her last brownie and beginning to look bored. Annie decided it was time to have Brother Meidenbach sing before Minnie had the chance to disrupt things again.
His performance of the song was splendid, even Annie had to admit. The Jensens' eyes were wet and a number of others had pulled out their kleenex. She noticed how one of the rowdier boys had even allowed his mother to put her arm around him without his pulling away in embarrassment. Minnie looked restless. Annie hoped she was just working a nut out from under her bridgework.
Not wanting to consider other reasons for Minnie's odd expression, Annie invited everyone to make one last cruise by the refreshment table before they left.
Just as people were beginning to get up and move around, Minnie rose. She elbowed her way over to the Jensens and grabbed Brother Meidenbach by the sleeve.
"Hooey. That's what I say," she trumpeted.
Everyone turned to stare.
"That song you sang, ‘Love at Home.' It's hooey," Minnie said, projecting now to the whole trapped audience.
"I don't mean any disrespect, because you seem like really sweet folks, but I could teach you all a thing or two about ‘love at home.' Even Annie doesn't know what I know about her ma's family. There wasn't much love in that home, I can tell you. Anybody here going to stand and tell me their life at home is . . . is . . . what did you call it? ‘Bliss complete?' Anybody? Anybody?"
Minnie glared at everyone in the room.
Michael, to Annie's great relief, sprang to Minnie's elbow and whispered something into her ear that made her laugh. He put his arm around Minnie's shoulder and moved her into the kitchen and poured her a drink of water.
Annie looked helplessly around at the stunned group in her living room. Some had blank expressions she simply couldn't read. Some radiated sympathy for Annie. Others bristled at Annie with resentment, as though they expected her to grab Minnie about her considerable midriff and toss her like a money changer out of the temple - throw her back outside, out of their pleasant gathering, out of their comfortable, understandable world.
Annie herself thought that if she could figure out a way, she would do just that.
Michael and Susan stayed to help clean up after the other invited guests left. The children settled themselves downstairs in the family room to watch a video. Minnie seemed to have taken up residence in the bathroom.
Annie closed the front door. She pressed her forehead against the door and thought, Chalk one up for another memorable party.
Copyright © 1995 by Linda Hoffman Kimball