Early one afternoon, the post-elementary school sleepy lull had all but overtaken me. I sat at the kitchen table with my head in my arm, bordering somewhere between dreaming and being awake.
Gran stood at the adjacent stove cooking soup, the special one I requested. Pop bought it at Sam’s Club every week no matter how hard he had to look for it.
Pop was kind and soft, but big and tall. He always had an almost mischievous smile on his face, a half raised left lip and eyebrow, and I could never tell if he was being serious or joking around. He called me his sugar-sugar, ranking me one sugar-caste above Granny, who was “just” his sugar. He made sure that I knew where I stood.
He built the grandchildren a swing set for the backyard. I knew how to pump my legs back and forth and move up and down through the air, but I didn’t let on. Pop still pushed me along, helplessly trying to teach me. I never gave up the act. I just liked having him out there in the yard with me. And he never quit on me.
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We ate circus peanuts. I still like that socially unacceptable candy today, though most write it off as a quirky abomination. It just means a bit more to me and reminds me of something. I never have time to explain that to friends in line for the movies or at CVS. I just take the heat and move on.
“Bett!” He used to call my Gran — an endearing abbreviation of her first name. The remarks were sometimes sharp, not in an altogether serious way. They would quarrel about nothing in particular. Not so much quarrels as familiar exchanges of words that occur at high velocities when two people have shared so much of a life together.
They danced together like nobody was watching, traipsing across the Kentucky-Indiana border in their adolescence. He would spin her around like a right Appalachian princess to the fast songs, and when the slow songs played, they melted into each other.
They danced to everything. Except Granny hated “that twangy shit” that Pop adored. She liked Patsy Cline. He liked the banjo. She was a skilled piano player and she always tried to teach me. I had a short attention span and thought at the time that I had better things to play with.
They fought about nothing. Except when he caught her smoking cigarettes at the kitchen sink. She stood with her back to the room. Pop embraced her from behind. She exhaled a big smoky cloud as he lovingly squeezed her. He invoked the silent treatment. Scorn. But it was because he loved her, and because she was a nurse, and because they both knew it was bad for her health.
They fought about nothing, but she scolded him for eating chocolate cake. He had Celiac. It was because she loved him, and because she was a nurse, and because they both knew it was bad for his health.
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She stood over the stove, humming quietly. I drifted further and further into my imagination. I unbent my arm, unconsciously extending it. My hand knocked the blue cup of milk to the ground. I began to cry.
Granny never got angry with me. She got firm. “Stop that crying Audie B,” she said. “There’s no use crying over spilled milk.”
In that moment, I thought I had finally done it, I had finally let her down. I had lost their great love. But I learned that I never could.
I never wanted to disappoint them. I never did things quite right, and still never do, but they loved it, and that made it good.
Things get hard, things aren’t done quite right, but I’ll never again let a tear drop from my eye over spilled milk. When you’re loved greatly, you’re loved flaws and all. Loved for your spilled milk and circus peanuts, your chocolate cake and your twang. I think it’s out there, that kind of great love. I know it is. I’ve seen it.
Audrey Vonderahe (she/her) is a sophomore studying journalism and criminal justice. Her favorite Beatle is George Harrison.