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The day before she went into the hospital,
Aunt Rita asked me to go with her on a bike ride, which I thought as terribly bad
timing. Why ask me? I thought. Ask
Rachel; she’s your daughter! And Rachel doesn’t have three kids …
I agreed, mainly because she was scheduled
for surgery the following day. I’m her
go-to neice that Aunt Rita calls for everything and I love her, despite her propensity to call
at the most inconvenient times. Since I didn’t
have to take her to the hospital (Uncle Bill got a rare day off) I told her I
would love to, which actually was only half-true.
I drove up to her condo at 7:30 a.m., my black
Surly thrown in the back of the Wagoneer.
Aunt Rita’s bike, I thought as I pulled into her carport, would have to
fit next to mine. This is going to be
tricky, I thought, as I opened the tailgate.
My Steamroller was fully equipped with a basket in front and took up too
much space already.
“Hi, Grace!” I heard Aunt Rita call and I spun
around. She was walking toward me,
pushing an ancient Schwinn 10-speed (complete with curled handlebars). The “click-click-click” resounded of
“Is that your bike?” I asked, sounding like
a teenage girl. I quickly corrected my
tone. “Is it fully operational?”
“I just had it serviced last week at the
bike shop,” Aunt Rita seemed proud, unfazed by my judgmental question. “It was my bike when I married your Uncle Bill!” She was smiling as she looked at it, the
expression of a young mother.
“Okay, then. Let’s go!”
“Here’s another good thing, honey,” she
giggled, looking over my Steamroller . “My
bike is very small and light and won’t be that hard to fit on top of yours.”
Aunt Rita had chosen the river trail for our bike ride; I knew it well from many rides.
Before Gerald and the kids came along, I entered many races and “rode competitively”. That’s what I liked to say when people asked
me what I did for exercise. “Me? I cycle; occasionally competitively.”
I never placed in any race; I never even
came close. I just liked saying I was
among the competitors. The feel of pedaling
into the wind, straining my quadriceps uphill, was sheer elation. Nothing was better than the joy of
riding. When I met Gerald, he bought a
bike and joined me, but we rode romantically, never too fast.
I had to go out without him to train; it felt
lonely after Gerald. When the kids came,
the bike was stored in our new garage, hanging on special hooks that reminded
me that I could get away at any time…
I wasn’t expecting a fast race with Aunt
Rita. She was sixty-five and didn’t even
bring a helmet. She had a Schwinn
10-speed, for crying out loud. I might
have to teach her how to change gears.
“Let’s ride without helmets today, Grace,”
Aunt Rita’s face was like my mischievous five-year-old daughter, Caytlyn’s .
“We have to wear helmets, Aunt Rita.
I brought an extra one for you, just in case.”
Don’t you want to feel the wind in your hair? Don’t you want to feel eleven years old
“We’re biking on the river trail. It’s the law.”
Aunt Rita sat back in her seat. “Not a law; only a suggestion.”
“I’ve been cycling for awhile now,
Auntie. Helmets are a good suggestion; I’ve
seen a lot of accidents.”
We drove in silence until I pulled into the
parking lot. A valley oak tree extended
its arms mercifully over a patch of gravel.
“Thank God,” I whispered as I pulled the Jeep under it. Even after a two-hour ride we would still be
in the shade. July was so hot; riding
early would even feel like mid-day.
We started to unload our bikes; Aunt Rita
was still upset about the helmets, I could tell. I didn’t care; if she wanted a bike ride
without helmets, she should have asked Rachel to take her.
Her bike unloaded easily; mine seemed heavy
and bulky as I pulled it out.
“You have a beautiful bike!” Aunt Rita
marveled. “And look at that basket! What a great idea!”
“Yeah, this bike was a gift from Gerald
after Michaela learned how to ride. He
thought I could ride around the neighborhood with her on this.”
“Not really. She’s got soccer and everything. We hardly have time.”
I reached in for the helmets and handed her
the nice one. It used to belong to
Gerald, dark green and shiny with the orange reflector on the back. Mine was beat up- a rouch black and white
that had seen better days. As I handed
it over, she looked at me with deep sincerity; I thought she was going to
“Does she know how much it means to you?”
“Does Michela know how much riding means to
"Oh, Auntie..." I hoisted the helmet in her direction and
she reluctantly took it from me. “I used
to cycle a lot; I don’t know if it still means that much to me.”
“I don’t know how to put this on,” she was
fumbling with the straps. In an instant,
I could see confusion, which gave way to frustration. The thought scared me; Aunt Rita had a brain
tumor and I had forgotten how serious the upcoming surgery was.
I started to show her by putting my own
helmet on, but my face grew hot and I felt like crying all of a sudden.
“Know what?” I said, taking the helmet back
from her. “You’re right. Let’s be eleven and feel the wind in our hair.”
She was overjoyed, gripping on to the handlebars of her Schwinn and
beaming in thanksgiving.
I didn’t need to explain how to switch
gears to Aunt Rita; she was actually a pretty good rider. I wondered if she had ridden before.
“Oh yes,” she was keeping up with my pace
and the pebbled path beneath us didn’t seem to bother her. “I rode my bike nearly every day. I rode to the store, to the library. In those days, we only had one car.
Rachel and I used to ride our bikes to school
“How is Rachel? I never hear from her.”
“She’s good, honey. Busy, you know.”
Is she still working at the bank?”
“You mean is she still an investment
banker?” Aunt Rita raised her eyebrows at me, her hair blowing in the wind. “Yes. You know, you can pick up the phone and give
her a call as well, Grace.”
I’m pretty busy with the kids, though.”
Everyone’s busy now.” Aunt Rita
and I pedaled in silence again. Rachel
and I were dramatically different in temper and personality. Because of this, we had stopped forcing
friendship years ago. Being cousins didn’t
mean we had to be friends.
Aunt Rita was slowing down and I looked
over at her to see why. She was glancing
off to the left, eyeing an open field away from the river, one that had a dirt
path that led to a tree. I knew she
wanted to go down there.
She slowed to a stop; I did too. We looked together at the sight. In the morning light, it looked like a
“Look how green that field is.”
“Yeah,” I reached for our water bottles, nestled
under a towel in my basket. I handed her
one and we both took a drink. She never
took her eyes off the field.
“Don’t you think it’s unusual for the field
to be so green in July?”
Aunt Rita always noticed beautiful things, it was one of the reasons I
“Yeah, I guess it is unusual.”
She looked back at me and gave me the water
bottle; I put it back in the basket under the towel.
“Honey, let’s go down there!”
“No, Aunt Rita. It’s a dirt road and you’re on an ancient
bike.” She pleaded with me, almost begged
me with her eyes. “ Your tires might pop!”
“Please, honey. Look how smooth the ground is.”
“First no helmets, now a dirt road. What’s next, Aunt Rita?” I was a little mad, but she squealed with
delight and we left the river trail for the dirt path that was probably
reserved for maintenance vehicles.
There were no shade trees and the sun was
hot on the back of my neck. Aunt Rita
was exuberant, shouting, “See, my tires are fine!”
I nodded at her. I wondered if Rachel had
ever ridden a bike in her life, she didn’t strike me as the type; no wonder
Aunt Rita couldn’t ask her. We rode down
the dirt path until it came to a small sign that looked almost English, a peg
with two wooden arrows, pointing in opposite directions.
“Look how beautiful this is!” Aunt Rita was pointing at the sign, which
read: “Private drive” pointing ahead; and “recycling station” to the left.
“Yeah, it’s beautiful. Let’s turn around and get back on the
trail. We’re not supposed to be over
Aunt Rita nodded and held out her hand to
me. I took it, moved that we shared a
“I meant give me my water bottle, honey.” She was laughing, which made me laugh,
too. “But we can hold hands, too! I love holding hands!”
We drank for a while and then put the
bottles back in the basket. Aunt Rita
decided to give me a lesson on local history. “This all used to be farmland, honey.” She
waved her hand over the fields. “This
used to be cattle fields and corn fields and alfalfa… Way back when the city was small.” I wondered if she was stalling; she appeared
to be out of breath.
“How long ago was that?”
“Oh, I guess right before you and Rachel
“Shall we?” I motioned back to
the river trail.
Aunt Rita looked a little worried, but she spoke with careful volume. “If anything goes wrong tomorrow…” I looked up suddenly, paying close attention to her. “Will you
promise me that you will look after Rachel? Check up on her? She will literally work herself to death and
forget she has a family if she’s left alone.”
My eyes filled with tears.
“Nothing will go wrong, Auntie.”
She nodded, then stroked my forearm. It was like she was comforting me; preparing me.
“Will you promise?”
Then, as if she decided our tender moment was all over, Aunt Rita turned her Schwinn
around, pushed down on her pedal and made her way to the river trail. Before I followed, I took my phone out of the
basket and took a picture of that incredibly green field.
I had to have some reminder of the
At the funeral, Uncle Bill and Rachel were
inconsolable. We all were shocked and
stunned and were trying to get through the day.
Only a week before I had been on the bike trail with her; now we were
mourning Aunt Rita's life together.
There was a cake and coffee reception at
the adjoining church hall, where Aunt Rita’s friends from her church treated us
like royalty. One of them asked me if I
was the cyclist. I wondered how she
I approached Rachel and decided to ask her
out to lunch the following week. She was
off in a corner, texting something on her phone and I decided to interrupt her
before she left.
“Rachel?” I felt awkward at first, ignoring
the buzz of activity behind me to approach her.
She turned to me, her makeup perfect and
her hair still holding its curl. When
she saw my face, instead of stiffening and putting on her usual air, Rachel melted. Before I could say anything, we embraced and cried in each others' arms like long-lost
sisters. I never asked her to lunch that
day, but I vowed to call her in a few days. Instead, we greeted family members and Aunt Rita's friends together.
"Thanks for being here," Rachel whispered to me as we held hands. "I would have felt so alone without you."
That day I didn’t tell her about the promise I made to my Auntie. I don't know if I ever will; I don't know if I'll ever want to.