From The Sky - Part VIII

There is an old woman I see in the chapel at church from time to time. She lights a candle for her long-dead husband. I remember when I was a small child I would watch as she struck a long wooden match and touched it to the candle wick, the flame a pinpoint at first which grew quickly to fullness and burned for his soul. Aunt Sal told me the woman's husband died in a war. All those years lighting candles, and the woman never married again. She had her one true, perfect mate, the only love her heart could bear. These days the candles are electric. The woman puts a donation in a slot beneath the candle, her spindly fingers sliding a neatly folded dollar bill into God's hands before she presses a small black button at the candle's base. A cold flame flickers to life in a red glass faux candle. To the widow that flame is every bit as real as the one atop the first candle she lit decades ago, when her loss was a fresh wound; when her hair wasn't white and brittle; when her back was unbowed.

They sometimes see this woman, my aunts, when they light candles for my grandparents. The evidence is plainly presented before them: proof that there can be a perfect love, an unbreakable bond. Yet my aunts have never been in favor of marriage. When one seems imminent within our family, they take steps to try and derail it. Rae and Sal used the mystical to try and ward off the mystery woman at the center of Uncle and Grandfather's estrangement. (Zia says she simply prayed that the two brothers would fall out of love. "I left it up to God," she says. "But He was on a Sabbatical. And I don't think he ever came back.")

In the end there was no marriage, but the train wreck that followed was spectacular. And I know sometimes my aunts blame themselves for the devastation, but I believe they give themselves far too much credit for that disaster. They don't put enough stock in the stupidity of jealous men.

My aunts opposed my father's marriage to Darla, of course. Events proved them right. Yet I emerged from that marriage, and my aunts adore me. Yes, my father was badly damaged, but he healed and became a fine, strong man. Zia tells me: "…Remember, Renata, that only a journey into darkness can teach you how richly and brightly the sun will shine when you emerge. Yes, our lives are complex tapestries, but don't dare tug any loose threads or the whole damned thing unravels."

And my marriage with Joe?

Well, my aunts didn't approve of that, either. And it was there that my father drew a line and told them they crossed it at their peril. And it was there, for the very first time, that my aunts recognized within him a strength that had been hidden from their view, only breaking the surface when he had to stand up for me. Oh, yes …he was far stronger than they imagined or suspected. He would not waver, and in the end they respected his wishes. And there was no train wreck.

My aunts have never exactly admitted they were wrong about Joe, but they do tell me all the time to take care of him. To keep him happy. To thank God he's such a good man. To be thankful he loves me so much; that he adores his children; that they adore him. It's not an apology when they say these things, but I'll take it. They love him, and we all know it.

Joe and I were not love at first sight. In fact, the first time I met him I assaulted him. I was in a burger joint in Walnutwood. I'd followed a boy there. His name was Steve, and he played basketball, and I had a fierce crush on him. I'd known him since sixth grade, but the crush had only come in my senior year. The prom was approaching. No one had asked me to go, and time was running out. I'd heard he was available and I decided to ask him to come with me.

He was at the counter waiting for a Bonzo Burger, a fat monstrosity of beef, unidentifiable deep-fried-somethings, a pale, nearly fluorescent orange mystery sauce, limp lettuce and round-the-bend tomatoes all smooshed together in an over-toasted sesame bun. I tapped Steve on the shoulder and got right to business: "I'd like you to go to the prom with me."

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