Martha was over an hour late. She hadn’t been able to leave work until she had finished the bank reconciliations. She had finally tracked down every last penny, to the grudging satisfaction of her persnickety boss, Joyce, but it had put her behind schedule. By the time she had gotten out of the office, traffic had been backed up on the parkway, so she had taken the surface streets, but that was even worse. Then she had to stop for groceries and the lines were long and she couldn’t find everything because it wasn’t her home store. Why couldn’t they all have the same layout?
By the time she unlocked the door of the old brownstone, she knew what she would be facing and braced herself.
“You’re late,” her aunt Edna said as soon as the door swung open.
“I know, I had to work late,” Martha hauled the bags of groceries down the narrow hallway. The passageway was lined with pictures of family members that had lived and died in this home over the last century or two. There, halfway down the hallway, was a picture of Edna, looking as stiff and disapproving as she did now.
“Uncle Henry has been fretting.”
“I’m sorry,” Martha found herself saying and knew it wouldn’t be the last time she’d be apologizing before the night was over.
In the kitchen, Aunt Carol was sitting in an antique rocking chair, fanning herself like a Civil War debutante. She waved languidly as Martha entered, but didn’t speak. Aunt Carol left that to Aunt Edna, who sat in a straight-back kitchen chair, arms folded. She watched while Martha put away the groceries, questioning her choices.
“Do you really think we needed more eggs, Martha? Why did you buy nonfat milk? In my day, we drank whole milk and never gained an ounce. You young girls today don’t work hard enough, that’s why you are always dieting.”
In the early days, when she had taken over the brownstone and the care of the aunties and uncle, she had fought back, defending her choices. But hard experience had taught her the futility of it. Now she just did her best to ignore the unsolicited advice and the incessant complaints. She ached to put in some ear buds and listen to the radio, but knew better. Aunt Edna did not appreciate being ignored. Even Aunt Carol could be difficult if she felt shut out of things.
Finally, she finished the chores. She scrambled a couple of eggs and took them, and some toast, with her into the living room. There sat Uncle Henry, nestled into the corner of a couch old enough to be an antique, but with little charm. As a child, visiting her grandparents, she had found it hideously uncomfortable, and refused to sit on it. When she had moved into the brownstone as an adult, she had begged Uncle Henry to let her get a new one, but he wouldn’t even listen. Like the old rocker in the kitchen and the line of portraits and photos in the hall, the couch was here to stay, and so, evidently was Henry. He had spent so many years in the same corner that Martha was sure the cushions there were as bright and unfaded as the day the couch had come into the home, protected by Uncle Henry’s wide behind.
“There you are,” Uncle Henry said with delight as soon as she entered the room. “I thought you were never going to get home, my dear. You know how much I look forward to watching the news with you.”
Martha perched on the edge of the couch and picked up the remote. She called up the news program and let it run while she ate her dinner. Sometimes the voice of Walter Cronkite was soothing, but tonight it irritated her. Just once, she would like to watch live TV and not these old news reels, but Uncle Henry was mired in the past and got restless and unhappy when she watched anything from her lifetime. She sat through the news program in silence until they heard the inevitable sign-off, “and that’s the way it is.”
“My dear, have you seen the dogs? It’s time for their treat, I believe,” Uncle Henry asked as soon as the program had finished. He didn’t always ask about his dogs, two pugs named Flopsy and Mopsy, but he often forgot that the two dogs had died many years before.
“I fed them in the kitchen,” Martha said now, as she always did. Some nights he would forget that he had asked and they would repeat this same cycle multiple times. She had tried reminding him that they had died, but each time he would mourn their loss all over again and that seemed cruel. What did it hurt to let him think his beloved dogs were resting in the next room? Martha liked Uncle Henry, he was quiet and gentle and, other than the repeated viewings of the same news program every night, made few demands. She didn’t want to hurt him when she didn’t have to.
After the news, Uncle Henry dozed while Martha pulled up Project Runway on the DVR. She envied those young people their passion and the freedom to pursue it. She had once thought she would move away from Baltimore and her responsibilities here, but then her parents had died in a car crash, and she had inherited the brownstone, and with it, the aunties and uncle. She wanted to sell it and run far away, but that had never been an option. So, she had taken a job nearby and studied accounting at night so she could be there for her family. Now the years rolled on, nothing changing,. She worked, she came home, she cared for her family, and she went to bed.
For a mad moment, she thought about running. She could sell the brownstone for a good price and live on the proceeds while she went back to college. The neighborhood was enjoying a resurgence and she had watched enough Househunters to know how much buyers would love the original hardwood floors and authentic details. She would leave Aunt Edna and Aunt Carol and Uncle Henry to fend for themselves. They didn’t really need her, did they? It wasn’t too late for her, she wasn’t as young as the kids on the screen, but she had many years left. She could study something more interesting than accounting. She might even meet someone, have a family. Anything would be better than mouldering in this old home, buried among the ghosts of her family’s past.
Then she thought about what Aunt Edna would do if she tried to sell the brownstone and shuddered. Martha might be the legal owner, but she knew there would be no way to oust either Edna or Carol. They had been in this house for so long that Martha couldn’t imagine what would make them leave. The brownstone and the family were her responsibility and she couldn’t escape them by selling. She shuddered to think what havoc they would put her through if she tried.
She switched off the TV and wished Uncle Henry a good night, her only answer a snore. In the kitchen, she washed and dried her dishes by hand, Aunt Edna would never tolerate a dishwasher in the brownstone. In the corner, the rocker continued rocking even as its occupant snored gently.
Aunt Edna followed Martha to the foot of the stairs.
“Did you lock up?”
“Yes, Aunt Edna.”
“Did you put out the cat?”
“Yes, Aunt Edna.” The cat, like the dogs, had been gone for years.
“Did you bank the fire?”
“Yes, Aunt Edna.” Martha had stopped trying to explain electric ovens and central heating long ago.
“Thank you, Aunt Edna.”
Martha shut and locked her bedroom door. It wouldn’t keep out the family if they really wanted to make a nighttime visit, but it made her feel better. She thought again about selling, about running away, but knew she wouldn’t. Martha had no siblings, no cousins. She was the only one left; there was no escape for her. She would live out the rest of her life in this home, just as the others had. Even death wouldn’t free her. The brownstone belonged to her family and the family belonged to the brownstone, and that’s the way it would always be.