My Seat at the Cancer Party

I didn’t write a writing prompt this week because I am gearing up for my second cataract surgery and Wednesday was the day when I could bend and clean. That’s not what I did, but it reminded me of a second person essay that I wrote for one of my FUMFA (Fairfield University MFA in Writing) on why you, or I, don’t write more.

We all should write more.

Today is the fourteenth anniversary of my auntie Rita’s repose. I still miss her.

And so this excerpt is in her memory. Make yourself some good pasta and a nice salad, and eat with people you love.

Auntie Rita, Before Cancer. Borrowed from one of my aunts.

   (Background: At the time, we lived in Connecticut and my daughter was in college in Massachusetts, not far from the part of Boston, Roslindale, where I grew up.)


         When your Auntie Rita gets cancer, the other aunties step in, and teach you how to have a cancer party at hospice. You tell Auntie Chee Chee the story of Auntie Betty and the Spaghetti Sauce. It’s a wonderful story. You kick yourself for not having written it down.

            Here’s the story.

            Auntie Rita said, “Betty’s kids came to my house, and when they came home, they raved about my spaghetti sauce. And so Betty called me, and she sighed, and said, ‘My kids can’t stop talking about your sauce. So I guess I’d better ask you for the recipe.’ And I say, ‘I hope you have a pen and paper handy to write it down, because it’s complicated.’ So she gets a pen and paper.

            “And I say, ‘Are you ready?’ And she says ‘Yah.’ So I say, ‘Here’s what you do. You take a stick of butter.’”

            And because she’s Auntie Rita and her Boston accent is so thick, of course she doesn’t say “butter”. She says “buttah”, and she says it like it’s the best thing God ever made.

            “’You take your stick of butter, and you melt it in the pan. You got that?’ And she said yes. And I said, ‘And then you pour in a jar of Ragu and you heat it up. And that’s my secret recipe.’ Betty was so mad.”

            And she laughed.

            But when you tell the story to Auntie Chee Chee, she says, “Ann Marie. If you’re coming to see your daughter, you could stop by hospice and see us.” And you think it strange that she says “us” but of course you agree.

            You stop by your stepmother’s house on the way, the one that used to be yours, the one that your grandfather bought for your grandmother before both of them died, before your mother died, before your father died. It is not your house any more. It is your stepmother’s, and she is working late and cannot see you this visit.

You bring her dinner, because she is alone now, and nobody ever cooks for her. Without you there to remind people that it’s her birthday, her name day, the would-be anniversary of her marrying your dad, then sometimes your siblings drop the ball. So while it’s not an occasion, you are there, and she has to work late, which is hard. You go shopping at the new yuppie market where two angry Irish brothers used to have a terrible grocery store with warm milk and stale bread. The new store, like so much of Roslindale, is dazzling, expensive, and completely foreign. But their food is good — wholesome and fresh, displayed with care. The vegetables are clean and attractive. Shopping here is a pleasure.

The rotisserie chicken at the store looks like something from a painting. The chickens are brown and glistening. They sit in a puddle of their own juice, and each looks so good that you get one for your stepmother and one for your aunt. The other aunties say Rita is not eating much, and you want to fix that.

            Women want to fix things.

            Sometimes even more than they want to write.

            You take a look around the changed house that you didn’t always especially enjoy living in, and you head on to to the North Shore, to the gorgeous new hospice that they thoughtfully built halfway between Auntie Rita’s house and Auntie Chee Chee’s.

            Because your husband is a clergyman, you have been to several different hospices before, in three States, plus the former run-down hotel in Houston that became run-down housing for Aids victims and their caretakers. So you are a connoisseur. This is a very nice hospice. Because you are near Boston, because you are from Boston, you even pronounce it to be “pissa” before realizing that this is like laughing in church. You straighten your face and walk down the hallway to find your aunt.

            But you don’t find your aunt. You find all your aunties.

            They used to have different colored hair, but now everyone has settled on shades very close to your own. Mary, whose hair was black and who always was skinny, is there, and Chee Chee, with reddish gold hair, and Katie, with goldish red hair, Peggy who has eight kids and still looks to be twenty, and Betty, all the way from Maine, and Dorothy, a darker red than the others perhaps because she’s an actress, and Rita, who has always looked like you, all looking up, all so glad to see you. You hug and kiss them all and admire their sweaters – turquoise, lavender, blue – and say, “I always could figure out what colors would look good on me by looking at my aunties.” And everyone smiles.

            They are seated around a table with teacups, crumbs from pastries, and pictures of all their children and grandchildren. It doesn’t have to be this new century. It could be your grandmother’s dining room in 1972, uncles and aunts smoking and talking over Salada tea with milk, only, nobody smokes anymore, and they are done with half the husbands.

            And your weary heart rejoices as they call out your name, and marvel that your daughter could be so grown up, and ask about the play she is in. She is not in the play. She is in the pit orchestra. But for your aunties, that makes her the star, because she is their grandniece.

            And oh, Rita is so happy with the chicken. “That looks so good,” she says. “That looks so good that I want to eat some right now.”

            And all the other aunties beam at you. And they make you sit down and have a muffin and some tea.

            And Auntie Chee Chee asks you to have a little supper with them, only, of course, it’s “suppah,” and who can resist suppah with the aunties?

            Not you.

            So they serve out some salad, and each aunt talks about the parts that she can and cannot eat, and Rita makes everyone have a little bit of chicken, and Auntie Chee Chee brings out spaghetti, and it’s so good, so good. And you smile at her.

            Because you taste the butter.

            And you know the recipe.

            And you feel like you’re sitting at the grown-up table, a very special treat.

It is a kind of coming of age, to have a seat at the cancer party. It is as if you were given the mantle that nobody wants, but that you need. You wear it, and you wear it well, because it comes in turquoise, lavender, blue and green, your colors, and it was draped on your newly squared shoulders with love, for when you need it, in time, yourself, to stay warm.

5 thoughts on “My Seat at the Cancer Party”

  1. My dear, sweet, amazing niece, THANK YOU for this. I will always cherish it. NEVER give up your writing–it’s magic. Luvya,
    Aunt Betty

  2. DearAnn,
    Thank you for this beautiful memory. Your perspective is overwhelmingly loving and glowing! Never stop writing, it is your calling. Lots of love to you 😇🙏💞❤️ Auntie Peggy

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