by Olivia Yayla

You can never truly escape from family. My mother, God bless her soul, always said that there is no ball and chain thicker than the umbilical cord. And while I agree with her on some level, my wife, Stella, has undoubtedly felt the opposite ever since the first time I invited her to meet the family.

And as we drive past the mossy tombstones on the way to the cemetery for her burial, I can’t help but feel like my wife’s despair is as thickly painted as my mother’s caked face in the hearse in front of us. They’ve never gotten along, and although I assumed Stella could put that aside now that she’s gone, I find myself regretting the open bar at last night’s traditional send-off. In my family, every death is celebrated the night before the burial with toasts of memories and promises of how we will cherish life now that they are gone. I was too busy greeting relatives and accepting condolences to notice Stella had gotten on a first-name basis with the bartender. I assumed it was hard for her, as her mother had died a week before our wedding, and now mine has joined hers. So when the microphone was passed into her clammy hands and up to her tequila-kissed lips, I thought it would be best for her to speak her mind, to get it all off her chest– to feel more like family than she ever has. Then she opened her mouth, and I knew I made a grave mistake.

“…Mama is, everyone’s mama, I guess,” she paused, hiccupping as she gulped. “And if you know me, you would understand that I have very bad luck with mothers. I remember,” hiccup.

“Oh, I remember our first family dinner. I remember how there wasn’t a table setting for me upon my arrival. I remember how the seat next to my husband was taken by his childhood ex-girlfriend who Mama always hoped would worm her way back into his life. Yea, Nadine I’m talking about you,” she cackled, making her way to the center of the room, twirling the microphone wire around her pointer finger.

“Oh, but let’s not forget my wedding day,” light laughter echoed in the crowd, bringing everyone back to that unforgettable day.

“…the day when everyone in this room found out about my severe allergy to almonds. But mama? She knew that. And as a parting gift, she sent three trays of cookies up to the bridal suite. All with sugar-coated almonds in the center, hidden beneath the dough.”

Whispers chased each other around the room from ear to ear, but Stella was in her own drunken world of memories. Though it may not have looked like it, her maniacal giggles were steeped in something other than remorse. Guilt. Anger?

“…Stuff your face, she said. My son doesn’t need a malnourished bride, she said,” Her hand reached up to her forehead, feeling the warmth of stress before wiping the single stray tear. Unaware of the awkward silence that dwindled around her.

“We exchanged our vows in a hospital bed. Unable to share our first kiss as husband and wife until the swelling wore off and the pain subsided. But hey, I guess we are alike in that way. My Achilles Heel being almonds, and hers being peanuts.”

I tried to reach her in time, recognizing her shrill voice, and how close she was to a breakdown. Then the words left her lips. And I froze amongst my relatives.

“I’m just glad I was able to return the favor. May God bless her and supply her with bottomless glasses of wine, Lord knows she needs it down there…”

I don’t think anyone understood what she meant, but I did. My mother’s allergy was a secret to all, except me. And I told Stella. For all this time, I had assumed it was an accident, even though my mother was always adamant about checking her candy for peanuts. The events of last night faded into the deafening silence of our car as it came to a screeching halt. The entire family was waiting on the eerily green grass, all draped in ribboning black shawls and stark black velvet suits, waiting for Stella and me to join them.

I took my wife’s hand and led her out onto the grass before the empty grave, kissing her hand before facing my family.

“I was 23 when I met Stella, and when I saw her on campus, I knew she would be my wife. My mother, on the other hand, insisted that I was mistaken. That no woman could ever be as good to me as she was,” I said bluntly, peering over at Stella’s slightly furrowed eyebrows and confused expression. “I always said she couldn’t see what I saw in Stella and that no matter what she thought, I would spend the rest of my life with this woman. But alas, I was wrong.”

Stella whipped her head to face me, noticing how the coffin had yet to be unloaded from the hearse, and how close I had positioned her in front of the freshly dug grave.

“Does anyone else wish to say a few words?” I asked, unable to face her.

“Tony, what’s going on? Who’s this grave for?” she whispered.


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