Carolyn Boykin

May 16, 2020

Help Yourself


You receive the news that the annual family end of the summer soiree will be held at your house this year. Acknowledge the butterflies crashing around in the pit of your stomach, the swimming sensation in your head and the weakness in your knees.  Consider leaving town or coming in contact with an airborne virus that has horrendous symptoms (possibly projectile vomiting) and though it is not fatal will linger long enough to ward off visitors.  Discard both due to an enlarged sense of familial responsibility.

Receive a call from Aunt Viola, one of the last remaining elders who calls you every month so you don’t miss any new gossip.  Know that, after hearing the news, she will take it upon herself to contact everybody by phone taking careful consideration to call every persona non grata first. This will include Uncle Moses who used to try to put you on his lap long past your toddler years and pinch your thighs until the day Daddy grabbed him by the wrist and twisted until he heard it snap. Most of them probably won’t come, but the next funeral will be really uncomfortable if they’re not asked.   She’ll finish up by talking with anyone who still has a landline and can endure the mandatory twenty minutes that mark the minimum time requirement of her conversations.

Once Aunt Viola is done, use every possible method of communication for the remaining family, extended family and rumored family; email, text, Instagram, twitter, Facebook, U.S. mail and cellphone. Remember to double check your Facebook contacts to make sure that no one is left out.  Otherwise they will still be discussing any omission you make at your memorial service when you die.

Look at the dust bunnies in the corner, the dirt build up on the baseboards and the overall grime that has accumulated throughout the house as if you are seeing it for the first time.  See the dirt on the edges of the ceiling fans and know that all of your grandsons will see it since none of them is less than six feet tall.  Hope they bend when they go beneath it and wonder if you should remove the chandelier in the den; the one that’s too fancy to be there. Recall your mother standing beneath it, her eyes round, her hands clasped to her chest and telling you that she just can’t believe she finally had her own chandelier.

After calculating the amount of time and energy it will take to complete this task as months, call a cleaning service to go over the house from top to bottom, making sure every fingerprint and smear is removed.  Remember the gray fingerprints on the bathroom door frame; some left by the grandchildren who couldn’t seem to walk anywhere without touching the walls or doorframes.  Notice how the prints escalate in height, chronicling the path of their growth. Touch the ones in the bathroom where your mothers’ prints remain; where she gripped the edge to stand; too sick to be there alone; too proud to sacrifice the last of her independence; too afraid of being a burden.

Have them clean and paint until all evidence of life lived in abundance and life extinguished have been scrubbed out of existence.  No one should see the memories made from the everyday messiness of life.  Forget how uncomfortable you are in perfect surroundings; how you grew up hating those unblemished rooms that you could only look at; the furniture you were never allowed to sit on and how you vowed to never live that way.  Know that making your house look that way is different somehow. You can’t have family thinking you don’t have a nice house.

Once the house is spotless, doublecheck the bathrooms.  This is crucial.  People judge you by the condition of your bathroom, knowing it’s the room you often forget to scrutinize sufficiently.  Remember to make sure all the thick plush toilet paper has been replaced by the single ply, not because you’re being cheap but because you have learned valuable lessons in the past.

Aunt Edna always uses half a roll to wipe her behind due to its enormous width and the unusual length of the crease between those two mountainous clefts.  You don’t begrudge her this since it prevents those brown smears she leaves behind if she doesn’t get every crevice. And, you definitely don’t want a repeat of last year’s bathroom fiasco resulting in an overflow of what looked like a whole roll of toilet paper floating in the midst of a colon cleaning bowel movement  producing the longest turd ever seen by the naked eye.  You heard later that the video blew up on social media and could only be glad that the location wasn’t given.

No food will be prepared in the kitchen in order that it remain immaculate.  Catering is the way to go.  Now, worry about the food choices.  Be grateful that you didn’t include fried chicken with its greasy residue and the possibility of that old cliché about your people and fried chicken at every gathering.  Thus, you avoid those tight smiles and uncomfortable glances that you are not supposed to see from the bourgeoise side of the family.  Make sure there is lots of artfully cut and arranged fruits, vegetables and cheeses.  Remember the absolute ridicule you suffered for not knowing how to cook; when you couldn’t make anything that didn’t come out of a can.  Think about your mom; too tired from working six days a week, ten hours a day to teach you.  Remember how Betty Crocker tutored you by trial and error mixed with frantic phone calls home to your mother until you could make a decent and passable meal.

Accept that no one ever recognized the revision of you as an accomplished chef even when you took it upon yourself to cook elaborate dinners for your sisters that they never came to.  Know that your adult children still hold hurt in their hearts from those rebukes and seeing your pain.  Recall the day your sister did come to your house and you caught her sneaking a second piece of sweet potato pie, too embarrassed to ask for it after regaling the whole family with tales of your inadequacy in the kitchen until they whooped with laughter.   Remember your sweet-potato pie regrets on the weekend that she died.  At the burial you thought about  the sweet potatoes in your refrigerator for the pie she asked you to make and you thought you had time to bake.  Be happy that your relationship had been reconciled and those were your only regrets. Regardless, don’t you cook anything. Whether the food is good or bad it can be laid at the feet of the caterer and the families vision of your cooking disability will be affirmed.

Check the flatware for the table setting and bemoan the loss of the silverware your mother-in-law gave you back when you didn’t know the value of silver or the heritage behind the heavy tarnished metal inside the blue velvet that rested in the oak box.  Recall how you didn’t say anything when the grandchildren started sneaking knives and forks from the china cabinet drawer to replace the stainless-steel utensils they had carelessly thrown into the trash because they didn’t want to wash them. Be grateful that you never had to confess to the loss and have your mother-in-law see the shame in your eyes.  Cherish the few items you have of hers and those of your own mother. Wonder if anyone will value these items or the other memorabilia gathering dust in the glass cases in your house; the swans that sat on your mother’s coffee table; the African statues that graced the bookcase of your in laws home or your black angel collection. Think about giving everything away now. Dismiss the idea of real flatware and decide to get the silver plasticware from the party store.  It is designed to be used and forgotten.

Check you attire again and hope your husband has made a decent choice of what to wear.  Acknowledge the fact that he considers spending money on clothing to be an exorbitant waste.  Know that he instead depends on quality hand me downs from your son-in-law who, praise God is a fashion clothes horse, Good Will and the outlet clearance rack. At best, everything will match. At worse he will remain blind to wrinkles and the benefits of an iron.  Make a note to yourself to take several shirts and pairs of slacks to the cleaners to give him a better selection.

Make sure your outfit is comfortable after pondering why your clothes continue to shrink. Know that said clothing becomes disproportionately tighter as your anxiety escalates.  Don’t plan to wear makeup.  Anxiety also makes you sweat and all your makeup will run.  Of course no one would ever tell you just like they wouldn’t tell you when you had lipstick on your teeth.

The invitations said casual attire which will be interpreted as ‘dress to impress’. Try not to spend a lot of time mentally comparing your clothing choice to what you think every other female attending will wear; especially the ones with the lithe supple flesh, the gravity defying breasts, the tight abs and the butt you could bounce a quarter off of.  Remember when your body had turned men into stalkers and frightened you until you hid yourself behind layers of fat that made you feel safe.  Be grateful that your husband found you hidden there and loved you into self-acceptance.  Reconsider your worry about how he dresses.  That mismatched old man falls into bed with you every night and holds you like you are Venus incarnate.

Every single day and night and up until the first guests arrive, spend an inordinate amount of time thinking of ways to circumvent anything that could go wrong.  Remember that your niece recently married and will be bringing her partner and Uncle Vince will be coming for sure.  Note that he is the most politically incorrect man on the planet when he is sober it increases exponentially with each drink. This assures that he will go off on a diatribe about the gay marriage, triggered by the sight of your niece and her partner triggered when his whiskey starts talking.  Remain silent if your daughter checks him then reminds him that she accepts him regardless of his heterosexuality or his gender identification.

Try to remember who is feuding with who and keep them away from one another as much as possible. Aunt Edna is still convinced that aunt Shirley is plotting to get her man, though nobody in their right mind would want him.  Uncle Moses is still a pervert and several of the cousins have more than a nodding acquaintanceship with thievery. Make sure there are wooden stools sprinkled throughout the house so that Auntie Baby will have a place to sit.  She won’t sit on soft surfaces since she had that bed bug problem that everyone pretends not to know about but is the reason they haven’t visited her in two years.  Cousin Minnie won’t eat the potato salad if she thinks Renee made it because she says that girl is to nasty for words which she will disclaim loudly to any and everyone who is in earshot. Seriously think about not serving alcohol at all.  The later it gets the more they drink; the more old hurts rise up; the more old wounds are reopened; the greater the possibility of police intervention increases.  You wonder if it is possible for all of you to ever get together and not have the evening end in a fight.

Finally, as the time for the first guest to arrive approaches, you worry about every last detail you haven’t considered until your anxiety is cranked up so high that you are guaranteed to have a miserable evening and won’t be happy until the door closes on the back end of the last guest.  Look around, heave a heavy sigh, and smile.


Carolyn Boykin is currently an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago.  She is currently working on her thesis in Creative Writing, fiction.  She has been published on Words for Charity and Hair Trigger magazine issues 41 and 42.  She was the 2019 winner of the David Freidman Memorial Award for her story ‘Ugly”.

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