Seventy Times Seven

by Mary Eileen Ball

Every year at Aunt Melva’s, it was one more thing. “Kids, get ready! We’re going to Aunt Melva’s!” We groaned but were inwardly a bit excited. Aunt Melva had remarried her 4th husband, Gus, and they always had funny fights. But you had to bring a lot of stuff to Thanksgiving. This year, she asked Mom to do the turkey, sweet potato casserole, dressing, and bring two pies. Then Dad was supposed to bring a ham. Aunt Melva would open a can of cranberry sauce, and Gus would make some boxed mashed potatoes.

“Can’t we just skip it one year?” Mom asked Dad every year. “Your sister is so selfish.” But Dad’s parents died when he was 22 in a car accident. Aunt Melva was 15. Dad had finished raising her, as best as he could. He was a drummer in a band, a helper at a butcher shop, a wannabe pro fisherman, and a ladies’ man.

“I wasn’t a good dad. I’m to blame for a lot of this, I guess. She needed more of me,” he told my mom.

“Your parents spoiled her. Now you are,” Mom countered.

But it always ended with a visit. This year, Aunt Melva opened the door in her Salvation Army clothes.

We had strict warnings never to talk about her divorces or her begging, but she brought it up, anyway.

She kissed each one of us, smelling like cigarettes and Jack Daniels. “Skin flints!” She threw up her arms in complaint, noticing us noticing her stained floral print sweater and baggy, faded sweat pants. “I didn’t even have the money for a decent Thanksgiving!” Most days, her son dropped her off near the Walmart in his leased Lincoln SUV. He barely stopped the car so she could almost roll out of it, hurrying to look around to make sure no one noticed her pull a sign from a jacket she would take off periodically. She’d had some drama classes in high school, so she was good a groans, tears, and fake shivering. She showed us her routine one year at Christmas and asked my mom if we could join her. “Little kids are a big bonus! Are they potty trained?” Mom said no.

We went in and sat in her sunken living room. Her carpet was deep, but dirty. James and I made a game of not being the one to sit under the squirrel’s butt Gus had mounted above a plastic-covered recliner. The squirrel’s head was in the same place on the wall in the next room. This year we both found other seats. “Can we build a fort?” James asked mom.

She said a quiet “no” and shushed us with a finger. The adults were talking.

“This government doesn’t care about nobody!” Gus said. “I voted for them, but I don’t know why. We got this place remortgaged and are making payments on 2 automobiles…”

“And the light bill is a whopper!” Melva interjected, spreading her hands apart to indicate the bill’s width while holding a Salem Light.

“Maybe you need to go to the Salvation Army and buy some clothes, Gus. Join Melva out there…” Mom began.

“Just you wait a minute!” Melva’s cigarette trembled. “I wouldn’t be in this shape if I’d had proper raising from your husband and if I hadn’t had that wreck…”

“You stole from us, Melva!” This was the first time I’d ever heard Mom raise her voice at Melva. She’d kept quiet year after year. Now her cheeks were apple red, and she breathed heavily through her nose.

“That was years and years ago….” Melva countered, spittle flying.

“5 years! 5!” Mom held up five fingers.

“Jesus said forgive 70 times 7,” Melva shot back.

“We’d done that by 1982!” Mom answered.

While Melva and Mom locked horns, Dad was saying in a tremulous voice, “I tried Melva. But I was young, too.” Gus stood up and pointed at mom, shouting. “I got into drugs,” Melva said. Then suddenly, she did what she had never done before. She cried, and it seemed real. “I lost both my parents. Their bodies were in such a wreck that we couldn’t have open coffins. People hurt me. They….” Snot was coming out of her nose. “They….” She couldn’t finish.

Mom sighed, then looked down. Gus plopped down in the recliner under the squirrel’s butt. Mom’s own mother had died three months before of cancer. She had young, spry, tennis-playing parents that would have seemed to be set to see 100, but it didn’t happen.

“I’m sorry, Melva. I do love you,” Mom said quietly.

Melva sighed, looked over at Gus, then back at Mom. “I love you, too.”

They started talking about their mothers. Times they were spanked, times they baked cookies with them, the time Dad’s mom chased him with her house slipper. And they began to laugh just a little bit.

“Well,” Gus clapped his hands from under the squirrel’s butt. “Let’s have a toast.”

And Aunt Melva broke out the apple cider. And they toasted. “To new beginnings….” she said, looking at Mom.

“Yes,” Mom said, smiling a tired but determined smile. “To new beginnings.” The fight did change things. We brought less food to gatherings from then on, and Mom talked Dad into not giving Melva so much money. But Mom quit asking Dad not to go to Aunt Melva’s. Out of the Cold War that erupted into a battle, they made some sort of peace. And maybe that’s all you can hope for.

Mary Eileen Ball lives with her husband and young son in the Deep South. You can find her facebook page at

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