I made some brownies yesterday afternoon - a gift for a neighbor who's been terrific to me. They were cooling on the counter as we sat down to dinner last night. My daughter immediately asked if she could have one, but of course, they were for Miss NiceNeighbor, so I told her no. Besides, I reminded her, she got to lick the spoon and the batter bowl.
"And I had a drink of the brown stuff, too, Mom." She said.
"The brown stuff?"
"In the little bottle." She pointed at the vanilla extract that I still hadn't put away. "It smelled good, but it was gross."
"Honey, that's not for drinking." I say with a frown.
I sat down and started to dig into my dinner, and suddenly, time reversed itself.
I was eleven years old, and my family was visiting my Mom's family in another state. We didn't get to see them more than once every other year or so, due to distance, and the best part of all was my Aunt Connie's house. She adored me. And the candy...she had dishes of it everywhere!
Aunt Connie never got tired of me, never told me I talked too much, never told me that all that candy would ruin my dinner. And I got to spend the whole afternoon with her while my Mom and another Aunt accompanied my Grandma to a hair appointment.
I was watching TV and realized I was thirsty. I heard Aunt Connie in the kitchen, and figured I'd ask her for a soda - something else she always had in huge supply. Instead I found her with a large bottle of vanilla extract clutched in her shaking hand, emptying it into her mouth. I startled the hell out of her, of course. She proceeded to tell me that she got bad "aches" in her body sometimes, and the vanilla helped her. I thought it was weird, but being eleven, I couldn't care less. She got me a soda and joined me on the couch, stroking my hair over and over and telling me how pretty I was till my Mom showed up to get me.
Later that evening, my Dad, Mom, brother and I were all in the car, headed out to somebody's house for dinner and I mentioned that Aunt Connie hadn't been feeling good.
"What do you mean....'not feeling good'"? My Mom asked warily.
"I dunno," I said with a shrug. "But she drank that vanilla stuff and said she felt a little better. Y'know...the stuff you use for baking."
My Dad's head whipped around and he pinned my mother with a stare.
"You left her alone with Connie?" He bit out. His jaw was flexing furiously.
"It was only a couple of hours...she seemed fine." My mom was obviously upset.
"It's OK, Dad. I didn't bother her. We just sat on the couch and watched TV." I didn't know why he was so mad. How was I supposed to know she wasn't feeling well?
"We'll talk about this later." He said to my Mother. She just stared out the window and nobody talked again till we got to where we were going.
I was fifteen before I found out that Aunt Connie was an alchoholic. She passed out in a drunken stupor one night with a lit cigarette in her hand and caught her house on fire. She made it through with serious smoke inhalation damage to her lungs. We went to see her in the hospital, but her body was already broken down, cirrhosis had hardened most of her liver because of the drinking - she wasn't doing well. She died two days later.
I still remember how she looked with all the tubes coming out of her, struggling so hard to say something to me, with tears running down her face. I kissed her and told her I loved her and she squeezed my hand like she was going to break it. Maybe I was one of the few people in her life who were content just to be with her, as she was. Oblivious, and letting her be oblivious.
It's funny how a simple thing like brownies can bring it all back.