Late one night, while she was preparing a meal for herself after work, Sugar felt her aunt Poplar’s spirit.
I remember what it was like, Sugar thought. Only Poplar wasn’t my mom. Just the family aunt.
Earlier that evening, Tam cam home from a day at the art studio with mischief in her eye. This wasn’t unusual–her chief of mischief aspiration often lit a spark under her naturally playful nature. Sugar headed off for her gig as entertainer while Tam joined Redbud for some practice at the chess board.
“I can’t believe you just made that move,” Tam said. “Did you really mean to leave your queen undefended?”
The mother and daughter played together for a while, often laughing and joking. Tam described the painting she was working on for a commission–a large symbolic piece with swirling blues and greens, interrupted here and there with slashes of red. “It’s like a family,” she said, “all these contiguous colors with wild sparks of rare events!”
Red talked about her first day at school. “We had fun, pretty much,” she said. “I mostly talked with this teenager, Tani. She’s nice. And Alder talked to her, too. Can we go to the park afterschool tomorrow?”
“Sure,” said Tam. “You both need to make kid friends for Social Butterfly, right? And then, you never know! One of the boys you meet at the park just might grow up to become your husband! Don’t laugh! Happened to your grandma, and it happened to me. It could happen to you, too!”
“I’m not sure I want to get married, Mom. I’m going to be a writer, like Aunt Shug.”
“Well, Grandma Salix is a writer, too, don’t forget,” Tam said.
Then, Red moved her bishop.
“Do you even see the chess board?” Tam yelled. “How can you leave your king exposed?”
Just as soon as her frustration rose, it faded, and Tam began laughing and joking again, telling Redbud about when she, Doug, and Aunt onezero met Nathanael at the park, back when they were kids.
But for Redbud, it was harder to shake the effects of her mother’s explosion.
As soon as her mother’s stories were over, she excused herself and went inside to eat alone. A cookie helped.
onezero joined her.
“You ok, little Bud?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just learning what moves are ok in chess and what ones aren’t. There’s a lot to learn!”
“It’s not so important,” onezero said, “to remember all the rules and all the principles. It’s ok to make mistakes. You know, your mom is my best friend. She has been since we were about as big as you. And do you know what? Your mom makes a lot of mistakes.”
“Oh, yes!” replied onezero. “Especially when it comes to knowing how to talk with those she loves best.”
Sugar heard all about it when she got home from work. It troubled her that there would be harsh words in their home, like there were back when Poplar was around. It troubled her even more that those harsh words would be directed to her grandniece. And it troubled her most that those harsh words came from a mother, from Tam, to her daughter.
She remembered how she felt as a little girl when she heard Poplar yell. Then she remembered the day that she realized that this was all Poplar’s stuff. It was never anyone else’s fault when Poplar yelled. It was never prompted by anything. It was just Poplar’s mess bursting out over whoever happened to be around–and often, those she loved the most.
Once she realized that, the sting went out of Poplar’s words. She was able to feel compassion, even, for this family member whose own challenges limited the feelings of affection that her sisters felt for her.
I guess it wasn’t all bad, Sugar thought. I learned compassion.
She remembered the day she told Poplar no more.There were be no more yelling in that house. And I learned how to establish healthy boundaries.
Sugar took her meal into the kitchen, where Salix and Redbud joined her at that table where so many generations have sat so many times.
“Sal,” laughed Sugar, “Remember when we were growing up? Remember how Aunt Poplar used to yell all the time?”
“Do I ever!” said Salix. “Our aunt would really let loose anytime she felt like it! It made her happy!”
“Really?” Redbud asked. “Why would someone feel happy after yelling at somebody?”
“I’ve never been able to understand that,” Sugar said.
“But it did!” said Salix. “Your great, great aunt was not only mean, she was hot-headed, too!”
“Didn’t she love anybody?” Redbud asked.
“Oh,” replied Sugar, “I think she loved pretty much everybody!”
“She just liked to say what was on her mind,” said Salix, “and she never remembered to check in to see how her words made the other person feel.”
“No,” said Sugar, “she was well aware of the power of her words. She just enjoyed being mean. She wasn’t mean because she didn’t like somebody–usually she was the meanest to the ones she liked the best. She just liked yelling!”
“Do you know who was my best friend when I was growing up?” Salix asked her granddaughter.
“Aunt Sugar was your best friend, right?”
“Your aunt Sugar is my best friend now. But when I was growing up,” Salix continued, “my best friend was my aunt Poplar.”
“Didn’t she ever yell at you?” Redbud asked. “You know, when you were bad?”
“First of all,” Salix replied. “None of us are bad. There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ Sim. We’ve got different traits, for sure. And some might feel happy when others are miserable. Some might feel happy when they’ve said something mean. But none of us are bad. And you, little Redbud, there is nothing bad about you!”
“Even my chess play?”
“Especially your chess play!”
“So how did you stay friends with Great Aunt Poplar when she would yell at you?” Redbud asked.
“Well,” continued Salix, “I realized she didn’t mean it toward me, for one thing. And she always apologized. And I just saw it as part of who she was. I guess I just never took it personally.”
“But it still wasn’t right, was it?” Red asked.
“No,” replied Sugar. “It was never right.”