Plum Trees

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My Aunt is dying. She showed me where the cancer is pushing through her skin: purple and ripe, hard like a plum. Her skin is itchy with morphine, and in places inexplicably swollen. She is still a beauty. When she married my uncle, her gallic looks stood out against the softer features of my family. Her slanted eyes, high cheekbones and long neck have all been passed down to the three children she and my uncle brought into this world, a daughter and two sons.
As a little girl growing up in the nettled countryside of Belgium, Tante Thesou was the leader of a group of ragamuffins. They amused themselves by waiting for the hens in the chicken coop to begin clucking and ruffling, the best indication that an egg was on the way out. The wild children jumped at the hen just it began to lay. “Boo!” Flapping and clucking, the reluctant hen deposited into the hay one of the hour-glass shaped eggs that, at the height of this pass-time, reached epidemic levels among the farms of Neupont.
Tante Thesou is a story teller. My sister and I loved her for her stories of post-war European childhood, and always asked for another. During our summer visits to her family’s house in the Belgian countryside, my uncle could light a bonfire that sent sparks into the starry sky. I threw a stick into the blaze and felt for the first time the intensity of a big fire’s massive heat. Retreating, my sister and I found Tante Thesou to ask for one last story.
Bedridden in New Jersey, Tante Thesou will not continue with the chemotherapy. She is ready to die. The people who love her, and there are many, visit in a constant lapping of waves, and she receives them in her chair upstairs, overlooking a path along the river. Some of the stories she’s telling now are sad, stories of people who did not keep up their side of the relationship bargain. We listen: my mother, my cousin, the nurse, the visitor, and me. The story now is that she hasn’t come to terms with everything about her life, but she has come to terms with her death.

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