I am reprinting this piece in honour of Thelma Tees, my friend, mentor and second mother who passed away 15 years ago today. “Family Spilling Over” was originally published in 2009 in the Anthology “Cup of Comfort for the Grieving Soul.”
I finally got the gravy boat.
For a year, I had avoided all thoughts of it because, once I got it, I’d have to accept the fact that Thelma was dead.
As long as it remained hanging on its nail in her cabin, there seemed a chance that I might go there one day to find her shuffling to the door in her slippers, a smile on her face, with a fresh story about how Katie put the run on a fox or dragged a dead muskrat up on the deck. There would be muffins in the oven, a kettle on the stove, and Thelma would bring out her best tea cups, the ones with the dainty gold filigree. She’d pour the first cup for herself and then say, as she always did, that she liked her tea weak. Katie would lie under the kitchen table twitching in doggie dreams and, when I sat in my usual chair, would put her head on my lap. I’d sip tea, relax into the rhythm of our chat, and the tension would flow out of my shoulders like mercury.
A year after Thelma’s death, my husband Bill and I were invited to a family get-together at her cabin to mark the anniversary of her passing. It was to be just like the old Sunday afternoons of summer, with Thelma’s grandchildren running, falling down, screaming, getting hugs and kisses, then running off again. There would be burgers and hot dogs on the fire, and we would balance on rickety chairs as we swatted mosquitoes and waved the smoke away from our faces.
But this time Thelma would not be there.
Thelma’s cabin was in the bush outside Yellowknife, Canada, a little over a mile from the place that Bill and I bought the year we married—the same year Thelma’s husband died, my mother died, Bill’s mother got sick, and Thelma became our new family.
I had been avoiding her cabin, hadn’t been there since the bright spring day a few weeks before she died when we’d gone over on our bikes and found her son gingerly helping his mother out of the truck. She was skeletal, drowning in her parka, but smiled as she lifted up her pant leg and made fun of the support hose she had to wear to help her circulation. We sat on the deck together for a few minutes, and an eagle swooped down from the sky, but Thelma was too weak to stay for long. Even then, the cabin had an unoccupied look, with weeds crawling up to the driveway and willows obscuring the view of the pond where we used to watch the ducks.
Now, I didn’t want to face the emptiness of her absence. Most of all, I didn’t want to face getting the gravy boat.
I’d first seen the gravy boat at one of Thelma’s family dinners, in the days when she was strong and lived in the cabin alone. It was the dinner where she forgot to take the stuffing out of the turkey and nobody noticed. How we laughed about it afterward. The gravy boat had two spouts: one at the top for fat and one at the bottom for lean. I was watching my weight then, and as soon as I saw the lean juice pouring out the bottom, I knew I wanted that gravy boat.
“Hmph!” Thelma said. “You won’t get it as long as I’m still alive!”
“Well, how long is that going to be?” I asked.
“You never mind!”
It became a standing joke between us. I kept trying to steal the gravy boat, but Thelma always caught me. She said she was going to live forever just so I would never get it. I would threaten to force her into an old-age home before her time so I could take it.
Thelma would look at me piously and say, “Let your conscience be your guide.” Then she’d add, “You know where you’re going when your time comes, eh?”
One day she said with a twinkle in her eye, “Show some respect for your elders. There will be a day when you come over here and find me lying dead on the floor. Then you’ll be sorry.”
“Well, that’ll be my chance,” I said. “If that happens, I’ll just step over your body, take that gravy boat off the wall, and march right out of here.”
We laughed. It was how we were with each other.
Then, it became serious. When Thelma got cancer the first time, when she was gaunt and crazy from her chemotherapy, she began to organize her affairs. She wrote my name in felt pen on the bottom of the gravy boat.
“When I go, come and take it,” she said. “I don’t know whether my kids will remember, but I want you to have it.”
I didn’t want the damn gravy boat anymore. I just wanted Thelma to go on living. I refused to look at it, refused to talk about it, and thought my refusal could somehow keep her alive.
She died anyway.
The barbecue to honour the anniversary of Thelma’s passing was family spilling over, as much like a barbecue in the old days as it could be without Thelma there. Thelma’s sister, Auntie Bertha, filled the role of matriarch. Thelma’s daughters, sons, and grandchildren, including two new great-grandchildren, were there, and the chatter was familiar. Auntie Bertha brought baked beans, and the kids squealed as everybody recited over and over, “Beans, beans, the musical fruit. / The more you eat, the more you toot.”
We laughed and laughed. Somewhere amidst the laughter, the screams, and the rhythms of affection, something in me let go and I began to accept Thelma’s death and enjoy being at the cabin again.
Toward evening, when Bill and I were just about to leave, Thelma’s daughter BJ called me into the house. I went inside, and she took the gravy boat from its nail on the wall and held it out to me. My name was still written on the bottom.
“Mom left it for you,” she said.
I reached out my hand. Now it was okay to have it.