By Tom Holmes
Pastor Walter Mitty felt his spirit lighten as he turned off the Eisenhower and merged with traffic heading north on I 294. Although the air was still unseasonably cool, he saw patches of blue sky and sunshine warmed the inside of his Corolla. He looked forward to seeing spring flowers alongside the interstate. And although the morning had gone relatively well at church, it always felt freeing to get away for awhile from the responsibilities and expectations laid on him by his parishioners.
He also felt encouraged that he was finally confronting a recent fear. Since moving back to Poplar Park from Manitowoc after Herman's death, he had avoided going back to be with his sister-in-law and the kids. Getting his house back in order and reestablishing at church had kept him busy enough—at least most of the time--to avoid dealing with the emptiness inside him which his brother's passing had created. But now that he had made the decision to return to his home town, he felt more grown up and that felt good.
Besides, when he had called Sue to confirm that he'd be driving up to Manitowoc after church on Mother's Day, his brother's widow sounded genuinely glad that he was coming. "Brian and Matt are really excited to see you," she had said on the phone.
As he pulled into his sister-in-law's driveway, he smelled charcoal smoke drifting his way from the backyard. "Uncle Walt!" Brian shouted as he looked up from inspecting the fire he had just started in the grill and saw Mitty coming around the corner of the house. "Mom, Matt. Uncle Walt is here."
After hugging the man who had helped him and his family survive the four year decline and death of their father and husband and satisfied that the coals were beginning to glow red, Brian added, "Since Dad died, I get stuck with jobs like this and snow blowing the driveway in the winter."
Mitty wasn't fooled by his older nephew's feigned irritation. He had watched Brian gradually take on much of the "man of the house" role as the cancer had gradually weakened his father. Mitty worried about that. "A freshman in college shouldn't take on so much responsibility," he thought as he watched the nineteen-going-on-forty year old begin cleaning off the picnic table.
"Uncle Walt!" shouted the younger of the two brothers as he bounded out the back door, ran up to Mitty and give him a high five. "Pretty much the same genes as his brother," Matt's uncle marveled, "but way different personalities."
"Matt, I asked you to carry the pan of brats out to your brother," shouted his mother out the kitchen window. Mother's Day was supposed to be a day off for Susan, but Matt as usual hadn't gotten the memo.
"I brought along some Garrett caramel corn," Mitty said to the high school sophomore who was playfully punching him the ribs. "If you're a good boy, I'll let you have some after we eat your brother's gourmet brats."
"I'm hurt," Uncle Walt. "I'm always a good boy, and Brian's brats are nowhere near as good as Dad's were."
Pastor Mitty later noted that Matt ate three of Brian's brats and that all of the caramel corn was devoured mainly by the two boys.
It had been a chilly day, and as the sun started going down it got downright cold. "Come on inside and help me make up your bed in the Uncle Walt Cave," said Susan. The "Uncle Walt Cave" is what Brian and Matt called the basement apartment that Herman had set up—while he was still able—for his brother to call home during what turned out to be a four year long hospice ministry. Seeing his room again exposed the emotional hole enough so that he had to remain silent for a minute to regain his composure.
Mitty chided himself for focusing on how he was feeling, so as they were tucking in the sheets, he asked, "How are you doing, Susan. I thought Mother's Day might be hard for you. And I was amazed at how Brian and Matt talked about Herman without getting choked up."
Susan smoothed out the wrinkles and replied, "Honestly, Walt, I never know how I'm going to feel when I wake up in the morning. For some reason, today I'm not feeling weepy." She paused and added, "Or angry. Maybe it's because it's not wife's day today but Mother's Day, and as you know I'm still very much a mother. As far as the boys, they too have their good days and bad days, and you know that they love having you here."
Mitty smiled. Having lived with this family 24/7 for four years, he held no romantic illusions about what life is like inside this house, but at the same time he knew without a doubt that in this home he was deeply loved.
"Anyway," his sister-in-law continued, "I never liked Mother's Day to begin with. You know, making mothers out to be saints and the men doing the cooking while a lot of women have to do it the other 364 days a year. Herman wasn't like that and neither are you, but you know what I mean. As far as I'm concerned, people should take all the money they spend on cards and flowers and give it those mothers in Bangladesh who are being exploited in the garment industry."
She looked at her watch, sighed and added, "I've got to hit the sack, Walt. Got to get up early for work tomorrow. Sleep tight."
Before changing into his pajamas and brushing his teeth, Mitty just sat in the chair next to the bed for half an hour, digesting not only the brats and MGD, but all of the emotion he felt whenever he was in this home and with this family.