The funeral was a small one. Aunt Violet--really, Great-great-aunt Violet--had long since outlived her husband, her only daughter, and most of her friends. Her more distant relatives lived too far away to do more than send flowers. She had spent the past few years confined to Pleasant Valley Nursing Home, waiting patiently for her body to catch up with her mind's wish to move on. Matt had said his goodbyes to Aunt Violet months earlier, when he'd visited her in the home, and he hadn't really intended to fly back to Nebraska for the service. But his mother had been tearful on the phone, and when Matt realized that she needed someone to stand at her side, he'd booked the next flight to Omaha. The airfare took a good chunk out of his savings, but it was worth it when he stood at the graveside, his mother's hand clutching his, her teary eyes looking at him gratefully.
After the funeral, he took her out to dinner at Olive Garden, which wouldn't have been his choice, but she adored the place. She liked to gobble the breadsticks and salad and then bring most of her entree home, where it would last her for at least another two meals. Matt, however, simply picked at his grilled chicken and wished he were already back in Oakland.
"You look tired, Matty."
"But it's only two hours earlier in California." Her blue eyes were as sharp as ever. "What's wrong? You're not upset about Aunt Violet, are you? She had a good life, and it was her time."
"I know, Mom." He took a sip of his iced tea and wished for something stronger.
"It's that Brandon, isn't it?" She always called him that Brandon, her lips pursed disapprovingly. She had never even met him but had long ago concluded that he wasn't good enough for her son.
"I told you. Brandon and I broke up four months ago." Four months, one week, and two days, but who's counting
"But you haven't moved on. Come on, Matty. You're twenty-seven years old, you're very handsome, and you have a good job. There are plenty of other fish in the sea, and most of them are lots better than that Brandon. But you can't expect them to just hop into your net. When was the last time you went out somewhere?"
He supposed there were worse fates in the world than to be stuck at a chain restaurant in Omaha, discussing his sex life with his mother, but he couldn't think of any just then. "I'm not a hermit, Mom. Vanessa and I went for drinks after work on Friday."
"Unless you're switching teams, that's not what I'm talking about and you know it."
Some of Matt's gay friends envied his family's acceptance of his sexual orientation and wouldn't believe him when he said there were downsides. Like when he came home the summer after his freshman year in college and outed himself to his mother, and then three days later she and his Aunt Violet tried to set him up with Aunt Violet's gardener. Carl was a nice guy, but huge, hairy, and prone to leather and tattoos. So not Matt's type.
"I just want you to be happy, Matty," his mother said, interrupting his brief and unpleasant reverie.
"I am happy, Mom. Really. Just tired, is all."
She made a face that said she didn't believe a word, but then the waiter arrived with the dessert menu and she changed the subject, instead involving him in a debate as to whether she should order the tiramisu or the mousse cake.
He drove them back to her one-bedroom condo in his rented Ford and walked her to the door, carrying her bag of leftovers.
"Are you sure you won't stay with me, dear? A hotel is so expensive," she said. "I can sleep on the couch and--"
"It's fine, Mom. Really." He wasn't going to be responsible for her waking up with a sore back, and the couch was too short for his long legs. "Besides, I have an early flight home and I don't want to wake you."
"You could stay another day or two," she suggested.
"Gotta get back to work." Not that the world would stop spinning if he missed a few more days--he was an animator, mostly hack work for commercials, but he hoped to someday get a job with one of the studios. He liked his job, and Omaha hadn't felt like home in a long time. Besides, Brandon was back in California, and maybe this time-- No, he reminded himself sternly. That was over.
Matt bent down and kissed his mother's cheek. "'Night, Mom. I'll call you when I land in Oakland."
She nodded and unlocked the door. He was halfway to the parking lot when she called after him. "Matt! Matty!"
"What?" he called back, pausing on the sidewalk.
"I forgot! I have something for you."
With a sigh and a fervent hope that she didn't intend to give him yet another web address for gay online dating, he trudged back to the door. Her condo was tiny, affordable on her teacher's salary while freeing up money for the Caribbean cruises she looked forward to every December and July. As always, she had books everywhere: overflowing shelves, piled precariously on tables, scattered across chairs, and in stacks on the floor. Matt smiled at the disorder and felt camaraderie in this particular trait he'd inherited from her. He'd lost two roommates over his literary addictions but decided he liked his books better than them anyway. His mother dug through a closet until she produced a white plastic grocery bag containing something that looked like a large book. "Aunt Violet gave me this several months ago, right after your last visit. She really took a turn for the worse after that."
She reached up to pat his cheek. "Don't be. You visited her, and she knew you thought about her." She set the bag on the kitchen counter; the plastic made little crackling sounds when she smoothed it with her palms. "Now, you know Aunt Violet never had much money, and she spent all her savings on her care during the last years."
"I wasn't expecting an inheritance."
"I know, dear. She had a few pieces of jewelry for me, and your Uncle Bob got all her furniture when she moved to the home."
Matt tried to picture Aunt Violet's furniture in his modern apartment: ancient wooden farmhouse pieces marooned in all that chrome and glass. He smiled. "Did Uncle Bob get those hideous dishes too?" Aunt Violet used to serve him cheese sandwiches on those dishes--always with the crusts cut off, as his younger self had preferred--and her special butter cookies with the jam in the middle.
"Uncle Bob said he likes the dishes," his mother said with a chuckle. "He always has had terrible taste. But Aunt Violet had something for you too." She patted the bag.
Matt carefully removed the book from its wrapping and then grunted slightly in surprise as he recognized it. "Her photo album!"
"She remembered how much you used to enjoy it when you were a boy."
When Matt was little, he and his mother would spend long afternoons at Aunt Violet's house. He was much too young to realize it at the time, but his mother was there to receive consolation over her deteriorating marriage. Matt would bring along his toys and coloring books, but eventually those interests would be exhausted, and as the women continued to talk over endless cups of tea, he often ended up leafing through the thick leather volume that held Aunt Violet's photos. Even when he grew older, a sullen teen wishing he was spending the day with friends instead of old people, he'd end up putting his science-fiction novels aside and perusing the black and white images.
Now his mother's face looked drawn and tired. "If you don't want it, let me keep it. It'd be a shame just to throw all those pictures away."
For a moment he considered setting the album aside. But his fingers were already stroking the soft black leather, and he shook his head. "No, that's okay, Mom. I want it. It was nice of her to think of me."
His mother pulled him down for a kiss on his cheek and a ruffle of his ash-blond hair. "You're a good boy, Matt."
There didn't seem to be any purpose in pointing out that he was, in fact, a man. So he simply slipped the book back into the bag, gave his mother a one-armed hug, and headed out to the car.