This story is by B.L. Thom and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My mother always said the kitchen was the heart of the home. That stuck with me, more than the myriad other pieces of advice she pressed upon me for the first twenty years of my life.
I had always loved to cook, and my current kitchen, although small, was decorated with bright yellow sunflowers. They danced along the border I had painstakingly put up myself along the ceiling; they frolicked on my curtains, and I even had a huge bouquet of silk sunflowers in the middle of the tiny dining table that was tucked into the corner. It was a bright and cheerful place to cook.
Now, however, the brightness of my little kitchen had been dimmed by a thunderous gray cloud in the form of my older sister. Laura had five years on me in age and at least twice that in experience. She had been out sowing her wild oats when I was a quiet little kid sitting at home with my nose in a book. At present, she was sitting at the table turning a box over and over in her hands and not looking at me as I bustled around making tea.
I set the pot of tea in the middle of the table, along with milk, sugar, two cups, and spoons. We spent a few minutes after I sat down fixing our tea, and the silence stretched out like a living thing. I had just taken a sip of my tea when Laura spoke.
“Shel, Mom’s dead.”
I swallowed hard, and the still scalding tea burned its way down my throat to my stomach, scorching my tongue and the roof of my mouth on the way.
“What?” I said around my raw throat. “When? How?”
Laura didn’t look at me. She just kept turning the box over and over in her hands. “It was sudden. She had a heart attack yesterday morning.”
I stared at my sister. Looking closer, I could see that her eyes were red and her hair was disheveled. A small stain on her sweater might have been toothpaste. The box went round and round in her hands.
I had to move, to do something. I cleared the table off, no longer wanting the tea, and Laura hadn’t touched hers. I took the dishes to the sink where the morning sun was pouring in, hot and bright. I had searched for weeks to find an apartment with an east-facing window in the kitchen and was paying more than I wanted to. I loved the sun though, and in its light the water running in the sink looked like a stream of sparkling diamonds. I stood, transfixed, watching it as I rinsed out the teacups.
“You were always the favorite, you know,” said Laura. “Until I was five, Mom treated me like a princess, the late-in-years baby who was a miracle. Mom always had me by her side, took me everywhere. Then you came.” She snorted bitter laughter. “You were even more of a miracle than I, as she was five years older, and you were the baby. I was left behind, left out. As soon as I was old enough, I started staying away from home when I could. I got a reputation for being a wild child and a troublemaker, but in reality I was just hiding.” After saying her piece, Laura dropped the box onto the table and put her hands over her face. I thought she might have been crying, but I couldn’t be sure.
I looked around the kitchen. There was nothing else I could do to keep busy, everything was spotless, so I resumed my seat at the table across from Laura. The silence was unnerving me, as was my sister’s quiet misery.
“Laura,” I began, “how could you think I was the favorite? It was always you. You were always achieving something while I was sitting at home trying to escape into my books. Mom gave you freedom, but not me. She didn’t want me to stay out late, to spend the night with friends, to do a lot of extracurricular activities while I was in school. It was like she didn’t trust me to be out of her sight.”
I held out my hands toward my sister, and to my surprise she took them in hers, which were warm and slightly damp… she had been crying. I felt tears threatening too, but swallowed them; it didn’t seem like the right time for me to fall apart. The tears would come later, I was sure, when I could finally accept that my mother was gone.
With a final squeeze of my hands, Laura released them. She picked up the box and looked at it wistfully, then offered it to me. “Mom told me you were to have this,” she said, “but was waiting for the proper time. Before she passed, she asked me to give it to you.”
I took the box. It was slightly larger than a deck of cards and wrapped in paper with sunflowers printed on it. I felt the tears threaten again at this; I didn’t know that my mother had noticed my fascination with the bright blooms. I felt Laura’s eyes on me, waiting for me to open the box.
“Do you know what’s in it?” I asked her.
“No idea,” she replied. “It’s too small to be a book.” She tried to laugh at this feeble joke, but it came out as a weak cough.
I didn’t want to mar the pretty wrapping; it felt like a message from my mother. I carefully slipped my finger underneath the folds of paper and pried them up, moving around the package until it was open, then folded the paper out so the box sat in the middle of a flat square on the table. The box inside was unremarkable; it looked like a plain white jeweler’s box.
I opened it, and a folded piece of stationery fell onto the table. Underneath the paper, nestled in white puffy material that looked like stretched-out cotton balls, were two golden lockets shaped like hearts, each with its own delicate chain. I picked up one of the lockets, carefully unsnarling the chain from the puffy cotton. I opened it. Inside was a tiny picture of Laura and me, taken when I was just a baby and she was five years old. The picture showed just our faces. We were both laughing, and Laura had one hand on my cheek, holding me still so she could kiss me on the other.
I picked up the other locket and opened it. It contained the same picture of the two smiling children from so long ago. I closed it and handed it to Laura. “This one is yours, I think.”
Laura took the locket without saying a word. She took three tries to open it because her fingers were shaking, and then she sat there staring at the tiny picture, tears welling up in her eyes again.
I picked up the note and unfolded the paper, which was stiffening with age. Our mother had written the note many years ago, when I was ten and Laura was fifteen and things had been going sour between us. With a tremulous voice, I read the note aloud.
My Darling Daughters,
I can see that the two of you are struggling, as siblings often do. You were both miracles to me, and I hate to see this animosity creeping in. One day I will be gone, and then the two of you will need to have each other to lean on, so please, try to forgive any perceived transgressions and love one another. I have tried to teach you many things, but above all, that family is love and must come first. I hope the two of you wear these lockets as a reminder that both of you always were, and always will be, in my heart.
After I finished reading the note and put it back in the little box, I picked up the locket and fastened the fine chain around my neck. Laura was doing the same. Both of us were crying now and were unashamed to have each other see the tears. We stood in unison and hugged each other tightly. The hug lasted a long, long time.
After Laura left some time later, I sat down once again at the table. I folded up the paper with the pretty sunflowers on it and put it into the box along with the note. I had learned something about both my mother and my sister: what was in their hearts.