The South Side of the Hill
Uncle Andrew turned out to be much younger than Aunt Margaret; by probably about twenty years. Seonag decided at once that Aunt Margaret was her favorite relative.
Uncle Andrew drove a sleek black Mercedes and looked like he belonged on a golf course; he wore khaki slacks, brown leather loafers, a beige-y sweater-vest over a white long-sleeved shirt and a tweed Andy Capp. Seonag wondered if the obvious Scottish stereotype was coincidental or meant give her a sense of authenticity; she half-expected to be attacked by a border collie as she climbed into the car. Aunt Margaret turned in her seat to peer over the back at Seonag.
“Seonag dear,” she said with an almost apologetic tone, “we need to make a stop before we go see your mother. We need to pick up one of the little village boys and give him a ride home.”
Seonag nodded and vaguely imagined a little boy no older than ten with scraggly blond hair, big blue eyes, an armload of books and round rosy cheeks still fat with youth.
She could not have been more mistaken.
Robert, as he was apparently called, was a “little boy” of twenty with a buzzed head, frighteningly thin physique, construction boots and a laptop pinned under his arm. Images passed through Seonag’s mind of a Scottish movie she’d seen once about heroine addicts as he swaggered toward the car, gesturing a spirited good-bye to someone behind him. Seonag slid over, allowing him room and Aunt Margaret smiled indulgently as he climbed in. Seonag wondered if Aunt Margaret would ask if he’d gotten his homework finished. But instead, Aunt Margaret asked how the stocks were doing and whether or not he was rich yet. He said they were doing well but no, he wasn’t rich, and he grinned over at Seonag in an “isn’t-she-a-cute-old-biddy” sort of way and introduced himself. Seonag nodded politely. She could detect the strong smell of coffee on his breath, which surprised her; she had expected marijuana or alcohol, at least. His car, it turned out, was in the shop for a tune-up, which was why he needed the help of Aunt Margaret and Uncle Andrew.
The next town was the sort of quaint village an outsider would expect in Scotland and Robert’s house was a quaint little white house with green trim, a white picket fence and a lovely butterfly garden in the front. He thanked Aunt Margaret and Uncle Andrew (using the names “Aunt Margaret” and “Uncle Andrew”) and made his way up the red brick walk to the front door.
“Say hello to Amanda for me dear,” Aunt Margaret called after him. He nodded and the door was answered by a petite woman about his age with checkerboard hair and a nose ring. He said something to her and she waved over his shoulder at the car and Uncle Andrew drove off.
“I wish he’d just marry her,” Aunt Margaret muttered, shaking her head. “But you mustn’t judge, Seonag dear. He really is a nice boy. And she’s cute.” Again, Seonag had to wonder if Aunt Margaret was the black sheep of the family.
Finally, they drove into another quaint little town not far from Robert’s and pulled into the parking lot of a simple building, labled “Hospital”. Seonag followed Aunt Margaret and Uncle Andrew into the building and to a little room along the hall. In the bed, hooked up to an oxygen tank and IV, Caomhe Forbes, Seonag’s mother. She arched her back to look at who had come through the door and her face, contorted with effort and months of stress, brightened immediately. She relaxed in her bed and held out her arms.
“Seonag,” she said, embracing her daughter. “Oh, I’ve missed you. How’s Iseabail’s leg?” Caomhe looked exactly like her two daughters except that the age and illness and wreaked havoc on her face, drawing it down into a perpetual grimace. She gazed up at Seonag as if any word could save her life. Seonag wasn’t used to her usually strong mother looking so weak and helpless, but all she could do was assure her that her Iseabail’s leg was healing quickly and that they would be coming for Christmas.
“Oh good. I should be out by then.” She looked much better. “Christmas with my girls again. Won’t that be lovely.” And, looking at her mother’s glowing face, Seonag felt, for the first time since leaving her office, that this trip was going to be worth it.
They could only stay for a few hours, during which time Aunt Margaret and Uncle Andrew had left them to discuss all the happenings since the last time they’d seen each other. Caomhe was very much aware that she was the only person in Scotland that Seonag knew by face, so they spent sometime going through a photo album, putting names to faces so that Seonag wouldn’t b overwhelmed when the inevitable family reunion took place. But that wasn’t for at least a month, or until Caomhe got out of the hospital. Then all the family would come to help her and welcome Seonag back among her kin. Seonag wasn’t sure how she felt about that; she wasn’t much good with large crowds unless she was directing them.
When their time was up, Aunt Margaret and Uncle Andrew came back to collect Seonag and take her to her mother’s home where they would begin the process of cleaning it up and making it look like someone lived there for when Caomhe was out of her “cell”, as Aunt Margaret called it.
Aunt Margaret and Uncle Andrew had apparently done some shopping while Seonag had been with her mother because the trunk was full to bursting when they reached Caomhe’s house. The house itself was a very rustic house; made of stone bricks, it had square windows with floral drapes, white carpets, dusty rose and ivory furniture, a simple wooden table and chairs in the dining room, fine silver settings, a massive sparkling white kitchen and four guest bedrooms, each a different color scheme. Seonag chose the green one and Aunt Margaret and Uncle Andrew took the purple one. Once she had unpacked, she helped Aunt Margaret unload the groceries and clean out the refrigerator of all that had gone rancid. And by the time they finished, it was dark and everyone packed off to bed.
The next day was crazy. Word had spread throughout Scotland that Seonag had come and people came from everywhere to help her tidy up her mother’s house. She met her aunts Clara and Rose, two spinster sisters who lived together; her aunt Kirstin and uncle James and their two children, Kenneth and Michael; her uncle Alasdair, a confirmed bachelor; her uncle Cairbre; her cousin Finola; and an odd member of the family who didn’t seem connected to anyone, named Rab. All of them asked about her sister and how life was getting on in the corporate world of Los Angeles. They all seemed politely interested but not so much as to carry conversations beyond a few obligatory sentences. Miost of the first day was spent pouring coffee and chatting, everyone getting to know Seonag and Seonag getting to know everyone else. Now, of course, came the problem; there was room for ten people, but thirteen showed up and there were more on the way. Kirstin and James volunteered to go back to their home in Edinburgh and get some mattresses and cots and, for the time being, everyone was content with that.
On the second day the work started in earnest. The men moved furniture and the women cleaned and the boys stayed out of the way. Some of the older women like Clara, Rose, and Aunt Margaret couldn’t do any heavy work so they planned menus for the current crew and those to come (not to mention what would have to be done about the reunion feast). Seonag, being the daughter and well suited for this type of work, directed what should be done and how. Being in charge made her feel a little bit better about the awkwardness of her new family members. Of course, by the end of the second day, they had only scratched the surface; there was still much more to be done. Caomhe had been in the hospital for two months.
On the third day more people came, but they were informed well enough to bring campers or sleeping bags. They included her cousins Reed and Lily and their children Rhona and Lindsay; cousins Allan and Beitris and their children Colin and Deòridh; her uncle Bruce and aunt Carry who have no children and a friend-of-the-family, Doris. Also, to the amazement of all involved, Robert and Amanda showed up as well. They got a few odd looks from the stiffly conservative family but they eventually warmed up and everyone had a good time. The older ladies had made an excellent chicken stew and the day culminated in a mini party of everyone cramming into the reception room to tell stories. Seonag didn’t really have a close-knit family experience in her childhood and the warmth of all these people she’d never met but loved her anyway made her really regret the time she wasted being antisocial and dedicated to work.
After about a week, they got the house looking roughly the way they wanted it to a celebrated a little with a mini party; mostly hors d’oeuvres and champagne that had been in the fridge unopened. It was a nice close to a heavy week.