By James Bates
Auntie Gertie spent more time that summer teaching me how to make pancakes than was probably necessary but I was just a ten year old kid who’d rather have been playing baseball or video games than fooling around in the kitchen learning to cook; that didn’t matter to Auntie. She had a way about her.
“Let’s try to accomplish something useful this summer, shall we? I don’t think increasing your score at Space Invaders really counts.” She gave me a pointed look. It turned out she was right.
Earlier that year, Dad had moved out so Mom began working an extra shift at the local grocery store. After school let out in early June Auntie put her foot down and said to Mom, “Kate, you bring those kids over here and let me take care of them.” She lived five miles west of us, the next town over from our little town of Long Lake. “They can’t be by left by themselves.”
Which was true. I was the oldest and certainly not the brightest bulb in the pack. I barely passed fifth grade. After me came seven year old Paul and five year old Shelly. It was definitely a good move on my mom’s part to listen to Auntie.
The first thing she did was teach me how to make pancakes. I learned other stuff too, like how to cut the grass, weed the garden and be a nicer big brother to my siblings. But making pancakes was the first thing I learned and it was a good feeling, making something we could actually eat and enjoy. It was fun to make them, too. I liked to watch the bubbles form on the top. Like I said, Auntie had a way about her. She even taught me how to wash the dishes when I was done.
Looking back, it was the best summer of my life. I felt like I grew up a little. In fact, I’m pretty sure how that morning went wouldn’t have happened quite like it did if it hadn’t been for Auntie and her influence on me.
It was just after sunrise the last week of August, a week before we had to go back to school. I came into the kitchen to find Mom at the table, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray, a cup of coffee pushed to the side.
“Jeffery,” she said, looking up and wiping a tear from her eye. “What are you doing up?”
It was six-thirty in the morning, the time I normally got up. I knew right then something wrong and ignored her question. “Mom, are you okay?” I asked, pulling up a chair and sitting next to her. Mom never cried. Something big was going on. I wondered if it had something to do with Dad.
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m fine,” she said, standing up, suddenly a whirlwind activity. “Let me get you some breakfast.” She looked at the clock on the wall. “Go get your brother and sister. We’ve got time before I take you to your aunt’s.”
She went to the cupboard, opened it and stood staring. And staring. And starting some more.
I went to her side, “Mom?”
She turned, her eyes brimming with tears. They were the sadist eyes I’d ever seen, then or since. She put her hand on my shoulder. “Maybe you could fix breakfast today, Jeffrey. I’m not feeling too well.”
Nowadays I’d say she was almost catatonic, but back then I didn’t know the word, let alone the meaning. She made her way to the table and sat down while I busied myself getting stuff ready.
When my brother and sister came in to the kitchen I told them, trying to sound way more cheerful than I felt, “Big treat today, gang. I’m fixing us all pancakes.” They barely cracked a smile. One look at Mom and even they knew something was up. But I fixed them pancakes instead of cold cheerios and Paul and Shelly, to their credit, didn’t make a stink. They ate them dutifully.
I even made some for Mom and she ate them, too. In fact, when she was finished she said, “Jeffrey, those were the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten.”
“Auntie taught me,” I told her.
“Well, she did good.”
In spite of the sadness of the morning, I think the smile that appeared on my face was the biggest one I’d ever had.
Mom called work and told them she wouldn’t be in. Later that morning, Auntie came over and she and Mom sat and talked in the kitchen, drinking coffee and smoking their cigarettes. Mom told her that Dad had asked for a divorce. Not only had he left home, but he’d left home for good. That was the last summer we ever heard from him.
In later years, Mom always talked about how much she appreciated me making breakfast that day, saying, “You were such a great help, Jeffrey. It really made things easier for me.”
She always has said they were the best pancakes she’d ever eaten even though it turned out I had forgotten to put the egg in. Auntie pointed that mistake out later that day when Mom had gone upstairs to rest. I’d made her some, too, when she’d come over.
“Jeffrey, I can’t believe you fed your mother and your brother and sister this junk. I thought I taught you better than that.” Then she smiled and hugged me. “But, you live and learn. Right? There’s always next time.”
Right. There was always a next time, and I always got it right. But Mom never said a bad word about the pancakes I fixed for her that day even though my brother and sister sure did. I guess that’s what it means to really love your kid. You’ll forgive them just about anything.