PEOPLE ALWAYS TRY to feel sorry for me when they find out my mom died, but I like to look on the bright side. Like, she never stops me from eating extra cookies, or forces me to study when I don’t want to. She’s never scolded me for staying up past my bedtime, either—although she usually tells Aunt Nic to scold me later.
“Where is she right now?” I used to ask Aunt Nic. I asked that practically once an hour when I was a little kid. “She hasn’t been drawn Far Away, has she?” I was terrified of the idea of my mother going Far Away for good, like my grandparents had before I was born. Once a spirit takes up permanent residence Far Away, it’s nearly impossible to communicate with them anymore, and I like to talk to my mom as much as I can.
But Aunt Nic would assure me every time.
“Don’t worry, CJ,” she’d say. “She’s still here on Earth, keeping an eye on you—and she’s Far Away, too, with Grandma and Grandpa Ames and all the other spirits. She’s in both places at the same time.”
But I would never feel really
satisfied until my mother told me herself. She usually did that at night, after dinner, while I was sitting in a folding chair scooched up against our motor home’s kitchen sink and Aunt Nic was massaging shampoo into my curls under the just-right warm water.“I’m right here, CJ, darling,”
she would say. It was always Aunt Nic’s voice, of course, but the words were my mom’s. You can tell when Aunt Nic’s talking to Spirit, because her words get softer, slower, like she’s listening at the same time she’s talking. I may have been dealt a bad hand, being born to a mom who was going to die four hours later, but at least I got lucky enough to have an aunt who could communicate with her. A “medium,” that’s what most folks call her—because Aunt Nic can deliver messages from both sides.
are you?” I asked my mom once. “I mean, exactly
.” It was my fifth birthday—I remember, because Aunt Nic was taking ages washing my hair, and I was wondering if we were ever going to get to birthday cake. “Are you sitting on the couch?” Our motor home, back then, had an ugly brown corduroy couch that was our seat for the table, and my bed, too. “Are you swimming in the sink?”“Sweet seedling,”
my mom replied. I always love when she calls me “seedling.” It makes me feel warm, like being wrapped up in a blanket. “I’m everywhere and nowhere all at once.”
And I guess that answer must’ve done it for me, because I pulled my head out of the sink to ask an even more important question.
“Can you tell Aunt Nic I’m ready for my birthday cake?”
My mom just laughed, right through Aunt Nic. “I helped your aunt find something even better this year,”
she told me as Aunt Nic squeezed the water out of my curls. The shower in our motor home was nearly as busted as the engine, so Aunt Nic washed my hair in the sink every night and helped me work cream through it after so the curls stayed bouncy.
“Nothing’s better than birthday cake,” I told my mom and my aunt together.
I guess they didn’t agree, because Aunt Nic only wrapped a towel snug around my hair and walked over to the motor home fridge. I watched as she poked around the leftover rice and macaroni salad, and the ketchup bottle that had tipped over so many times the rim was red with goo. Finally she pulled out two tiny Styrofoam containers and set them on the table in front of the couch. I came over to see.
When Aunt Nic peeled the lid off the first container, I wrinkled my nose right up on my face. Light brown glop with curved dark sprinkles—that’s what my mom and Aunt Nic had gotten me instead of birthday cake. I was about to say it didn’t look like anything I wanted to eat when my mom started in with one of her stories.“I was young when you were born,”
she said, and I could tell right away that this was a story I was going to want to listen to. “Just nearly twenty.”
Aunt Nic jumped in then, only she didn’t say anything to me. She started talking directly to my mom. That happened sometimes.
“Yes, Jennie June,” Aunt Nic said. “‘Young and gorgeous.’ I was gonna add that part.”
I tucked my feet under my butt to get comfortable.“I was excited to meet you,”
my mom went on, “but I’m not gonna pretend I had my act together. For one thing , I’d lost track of your dad before he was lucky enough to know he was having a daughter.”
My mom and Aunt Nic always say that I’m the product of a “whirlwind romance”—but I never figure I miss out much, not having a dad. Two grown-ups who care about you is as much as most kids get.“And then the morning of December sixth came,”
my mom said, “and I hadn’t even picked out a name for you yet, but it was clear you were coming , and quick.”
Aunt Nic raised her eyebrows at me then. “CJ,” she said, “your mom wants me to tell you she was cool as a cucumber the whole time at the hospital, but—Jennie June, I’m not gonna lie to the girl. I was there!” When Aunt Nic’s eyes went wide, I could tell my mom had words for her. “Well!” Aunt Nic chirped. “I’m not gonna repeat that
“What happened after I was born?” I asked, to remind them to keep going with the story. I had a feeling the next part was important.“What happened, my seedling , was that you were gorgeous.”
My mom gave me a look then, through Aunt Nic, like the image had stayed with her, even though her body hadn’t. “Tiniest thing I’d ever seen, with dark, thick curls. And that birthmark!”
Through Aunt Nic, she reached out and pressed one thumb soft against my cheek, to the dark heart-shaped spot. “That’s called a ‘cherish,’ you know, that sort of mark.”
When I put my own hand to the spot, I could feel the memory of my mom’s touch there, warm and gentle. I kept my hand like that for a long time.“As soon as we were alone in the room,”
my mom continued, “just us three Ames ladies—well, your aunt pulls a cooler out of her purse.”
“A cooler?” I asked.“She’d brought it with her to the hospital! Had it on her the whole time, only I hadn’t noticed.”
Aunt Nic tilted her head to respond. “You were busy, Jennie June,” she said.“True,”
my mom replied.
“What was in the cooler?” I asked. Because sometimes they’d get so busy talking to each other they’d forget anyone else was listening.
It was Aunt Nic who answered that one. “Back where Grandma Ames’s family came from, in Lebanon,” she said, peeling back the lid of the second Styrofoam cup, “whenever a new baby comes into the world, they serve caraway pudding. For good luck.”
Peering down into that little white cup, I felt like I might be starting to understand. Those dark skinny curls on top of the pudding, I realized, were caraway seeds. Suddenly it didn’t look so disgusting after all. My mom picked up the story as I dipped the tip of my spoon into the container.“It only took a single bite of that pudding,”
she said, “for me to know. I looked at you, tiny thing curled in my arms like a seed, and I told your aunt, ‘Her name is Caraway.’”
Maybe I’d heard the story before. But that day, on my fifth birthday, was the first time I remembered. It was definitely the day I realized that caraway pudding tasted a whole lot better than it looked. It became a tradition after that. Every year on my birthday, no matter what city we happen to be in, no matter how busy Aunt Nic is, my mom helps her track down some caraway pudding, and the three of us celebrate together. Even after Aunt Nic got to be “big potatoes” on the psychic medium circuit, and she hired Oscar and Cyrus to travel with us for extra help, and we swapped our busted motor home for the new tour bus with the fancy shower so I didn’t need help washing my hair in the sink anymore—even after all that, Aunt Nic and my mom find time and pudding for my birthday. Every year.
I still remember the way that first bite tasted on my tongue, sweet and silky, as they told me the rest of the story. They left in every detail, even the ones so sad they made my throat tight with tears.
Like how, just minutes after she gave me my name, the hospital machines started beeping out of control and the nurses rushed in all panicked.
And how they tried and tried and tried to save her.
And—throat-clenchingest of all—how she died, right there in the bed beside me, from a sickness no one had known to look for.
But they told me the happy details, too.
Like how she visited Aunt Nic just days after she died, because she knew her sister had the Gift and could hear her when she spoke.
How she told Aunt Nic to be my guardian here on Earth while she cared for me in Spirit.
And how, since she’d left the world before giving me a middle name, my mom asked Aunt Nic to pick it.
picked June?” I asked Aunt Nic. “After my mom?”
Aunt Nic nodded. “Caraway June. ’Cause you’re my sunshine in December.”
The story was so filling—sweet like pudding, but with some bite to it, too—that it wasn’t till I was scraping the last of my birthday dessert out of its cup that I thought to ask.
“Mom?” I said, touching the heart shape on the softest part of my cheek. “Why’s it called a ‘cherish’?”
My mom was quiet at first, and for a second I worried that she really had been drawn Far Away. But then Aunt Nic reached out across the ugly corduroy couch and gently unwrapped the towel from my hair. Eased my curls down to my shoulders. Picked up the hair cream and began working it through my hair, just like she did every night.
“Because you are so loved, CJ Ames,” she told me as she coaxed my curls into perfect spirals, “so cherished, that it shows up on your very skin.”
The funny thing was, I asked my mom the question, but it was my aunt who answered. But I guess I liked what she said too much to ask why.
Copyright © 2019 by Lisa Graff. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.