Chapter 48 — Lunch At Mom’s


Axel fell asleep.


“Axel?  Axel!”

At first her voice sounded different—filtered and frantic and not like herself.  But then she called again and this time he heard it clearly and recognized his mother at once.  In normal speech his mother’s voice was soft and had a warm tone, like that of a cello.  But when she raised her voice, as she did to call him, it always cracked a little and had an operatic quality.

“Axel, lunch is on the table!  Come in and wash!  I won’t call you again!”

“I’m out front, Ma!  I’m coming!  Be right there!” shouted Axel from the treetop.

He heard the back door screen smack shut.  She might not have heard him he thought.  He sat, perched high in the sycamore in the front yard above the roof’s ridge.  The tree foliage, dense and green, had probably trapped his voice from traveling very far.  So he climbed down as quickly as he could without slipping and noticed, on the way, Mrs. Galbraith in her front yard, two houses down, watering the roses in her yard.

Jumping from the tree’s lowest branch, he landed like a cat in the yard then sprang up and ran around the house to the back door.  He was always supposed to come in through the back when outside playing so not to track dirt onto the front room carpet.

In the kitchen, Axel found his mother standing at the counter, rolling out pie crusts.  A pot of apple pie filling simmered on the stove.  She wore her red apron, with the pattern of blue morning glories decorating the margins, and it had flour smeared across the front.   Such a sight in Hildy Browne’s kitchen was common: she loved making pies.

“Lunch is on the table.  Wash first and say the blessing.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Axel

Hildy Browne used language economically but what she said took no guesswork to understand.  Axel washed his hands, inspected his face for smudges of dirt—those would get him sent directly back to the bathroom—and combed his hair.  Hildy expected presentability at her table even when it was only lunch in the kitchen and Axel was eating alone.

“Ma, where’s Dad and Audrey?” Axel asked as he sat down.

“They went to the store.”

Axel folded his hands, bowed his head, and whispered quickly a verse of thanks for his lunch then grabbed up one half of the large sandwich that sat before him.  Tuna salad!  His favorite!

“Thanks, Ma, for the sandwich,” he said.

“Don’t speak with your mouth full.  You’re welcome.  Eat your soup while it’s hot,” said Hildy

“Yes, ma’am,” Axel answered.

Beside the sandwich, sat a steaming bowl of split pea and ham soup.

“I think it’s still too hot,” said Axel.

Hildy’s attention was given to the assembly of her pie.  For a few minutes the only sounds heard in the kitchen were the slow, steady turning of the ceiling fan and Hildy’s knife, trimming the edges of the top crust and poking vents in the pie.

“There!” said Hildy with satisfaction as she finished her creation.  She moved it to the free counter and covered it with a dishtowel and turned on the oven to preheat.  “After you’ve finished your lunch, you may have a piece of pumpkin pie for dessert.”  Axel had eaten the sandwich by then and had started his soup.

“Don’t eat too fast,” his mother warned, “you’ll get a belly ache.”

“Yes ma’am,” said Axel

The soup was good—creamy and swimming in butter.  It was hard not to eat it fast.

“Here’s your pie and finish your milk,” said his mother bringing him the piece of cold pie from the refrigerator.  “We can’t afford to waste milk,” she added.


“Yes, dear?”

“Is milk expensive?”

“No, but we still can’t afford to waste it.”

Axel smiled.  It was his private joke to ask his mother if something was expensive every time she said they couldn’t afford to waste it, whether it was milk or bread or oatmeal or green beans.


“Yes, Ma?”

“How about we go for a walk after lunch, just the two of us?  It’s such a pretty day; it would be a shame to waste it.  Besides, I need the exercise.  May we do that?”

“Sure Ma,” said Axel as he wiggled the edge of his fork through the bottom crust, chunking off a large bite of pie.

“I’ll put on my other shoes,” said Hildy, “and be ready in a minute.  Put your dishes in the sink when you’re finished.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Axel.

Hildy Browne put on her sun hat, found her cloth bag, then she and Axel set out through the back porch, through the backyard, and out through the back gate where there lay a path that led into the woods where Axel and his friends liked to play.

The wooded area skirted along a hillside where, at the top, ran Hilliard Avenue.  On Hilliard, large old mansions sat up on a bench and overlooked the lower part of town.  At Christmas time Hilliard could be mistaken for a Currier & Ives scene with its manicured yards all decked out in lights and the windows of its mansions festooned with Christmas trees and evergreen garlands.  Axel and his friends liked walking Hilliard and looking at the mansions during the Christmas season.  But Axel, for some reason, never thought of the mansions as having people living in them.  Instead, they were like large dollhouses to him, filled with furniture that no one ever used.

Perhaps a half-mile down the path, into the woods, one came to a low wire fence, a gate in the fence, and a narrow trellis that straddled the gate and was overgrown with trumpet vine.  Customarily, the fence and gate marked the end of the path for Axel because he was not permitted to go beyond it.  So Axel was shocked when, as they reached the gate, his mother opened it and called him to come through.  Uncertain, Axel stopped in the path, short of the gate.

“I thought we aren’t ever allowed to go past the gate,” said Axel.

“You aren’t, not by yourself,” said his mother, “but today it’s okay because I’m with you.”

“Do you know the people who own this property?”

“I’ve met them.  Well, anyway, they know me so it’s all right,” said Hildy.

Axel entered and she closed the gate behind him, then turned and began legging the path briskly into the forbidden territory.

“Come on.  Keep up,” Hildy called to him.  So he ran and caught her.

It was beyond the gate that the strangeness began.  Two things in particular Axel noticed.  The first was that his mother seemed to age gradually the farther down the path they went.  He noticed physical changes in her as he followed her on the way.  But the changes did not happen all at once.  Slowly her body appeared to grow perceptively fuller in the hips and calves and then the arms.  At the same time her posture progressively became more stooped and her gate more labored, as if her joints caused her pain.  The changes progressed to the point that his mother’s graceful walk turned into a wobble and she found it difficult to continue walking and catch her breath.  She seemed to age right before his eyes.

For a while Axel was so focused on the changes taking place in his mother’s body that he failed to notice those happening in his own.  But he, too, had grown older.  Now he was not the child who had eaten lunch at his mother’s kitchen table; now he was a teen and taller and more muscular.  But the progression didn’t stop there.  With each few steps he took it seemed he grew a year older, walking right through young adulthood into middle age and beyond middle age into his advanced years.  He saw these changes in his arms and hands but also felt them in his knees, shoulders, and back.  Something’s wrong here he thought.  It occurred to him that perhaps he was dreaming, except everything was ultra-real—much too real, it seemed, to be a dream.

The second change Axel noticed was that, as they traveled the path, everything somehow looked more familiar to him.  He recognized the path as somewhere he had been before though as a child he had never ventured beyond the gate.  What the hell is going on here? Axel wondered.

Then, just as he was about to tap his mother on the shoulder and ask her that very question she stopped and turned to him, out of breath.

“I can’t go on, Son,” she gasped.  “Help me sit down; I need to rest.”  She wheezed badly.  Axel helped his mother sit on the ground and she took off her hat, all flushed and breathing heavily.  Axel sat on his knees in front of her.

“Ma, look at us: you’re old and I’m old too.  What’s happening to us?” said Axel.  He was perplexed.

“I know.  Let me catch my breath first,” said Hildy.  “They said this would happen.”

This comment made no sense to Axel:  Who said this would happen? he wanted to ask.  But he could not ask his mother this question because she still had not caught her breath.

“Ma, you okay?”

“Yes, Son—I’ll be fine.  I’m fine.  Don’t worry, dear.  I’ll be okay in a minute.”  Her face looked like a washed apple, shiny and pink.

Axel wondered how they had come so far on the path without emerging in a neighborhood, somewhere.  It was as if they were hiking out in the middle of a dense forest.

“Axel, dear, hand me my bag; would you, please?” said Hildy.

The bag was heavier than Axel expected.  Hildy placed the cloth bag in her lap and reached inside.  From it she pulled a dishtowel which was wrapped around a second dishtowel and inside the second towel was a pint mason jar filled with lemonade.

“I think we both could use a sip,” she said and unscrewed the lid and took a long draft from the jar then handed it to Axel.  “Here, you need some too.”

The lemonade was cool and sweet and went down like spring water.  Immediately Axel felt refreshed.

“Thanks.  That was good, Ma.”

He handed her back the jar and she screwed on the lid then carefully rewrapped it and placed it back in the bag.  But she wasn’t finished.  Again she searched the satchel, this time pulling a second object out, also wrapped in dishtowels.  It looked like the first one except the towels protecting it were different.  With this bundle Hildy was more careful unwrapping it.  But once unwrapped, it also produced a pint mason jar.

This jar was filled with fat pickle chips.  From their color, Axel knew they were his mother’s famous bread-and-butter pickles—the highly treasured and guarded possession of anyone who got them for Christmas or her birthday or some other occasion from Hildy Browne as a gift.  Many a woman had tried her best to cajole the secret recipe for these delicious morsels out of Hildy but had never succeeded.  It was the one thing she did that no one else could do and for that reason she kept the secret of their recipe to herself.

Axel’s mouth watered in anticipation, thinking his mother had brought the pickles for them to eat.  She handed him the jar and Axel began unscrewing the lid.

“Don’t open them,” she said, “they’re not for us.  They’re a gift for your host.  Never accept an invitation without bringing a gift for the host; it’s considered impolite if you don’t.”

“Ma, I don’t understand what’s going on,” said Axel.

“I know you don’t, Son.  So let me try to explain,” said Hildy.  “Come here.  Come close.”

Axel moved to the spot where she had patted the ground beside her.

“Come here,” she said and pulled his face to hers and kissed him.  “You’re a very good man and I’m proud to have been your mother.”  She gazed deeply into his eyes for a moment as if searching for something, some quality he possessed.  “Son, you do know that things eventually end, don’t you?”

“Yes, Ma, of course I know.”  He thought she was talking about her own life and, at that moment, Axel was suddenly aware she had died many years ago.

“They asked me to come today.  To meet you.”

“Who asked?” said Axel.

“Your friends asked.  They said it would be difficult this time and I could help.”

“Ma, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Axel earnestly.

But that was not entirely true.  There was a dawning in his consciousness that something important had happened and she was trying to tell him what it was.

Hildy looked up the path in the direction they had been walking before they sat down to rest.  Then she looked at Axel again and smiled anxiously.

“Well,” she said, “the house can’t be too much farther but this is as far as I can go.  I’m not young enough to go any farther.  I’m afraid you’ll have to go the rest of the way by yourself.”

“Ma?  Go where?”

“To the house, or the lodge, I think they called it.  Yes, a fishing lodge, I believe.  Anyway it can’t be much farther and I have a pie at home to bake.  Your father and Audrey will be hungry when they get back.”

“Ma, you’re going back?”

“Yes, Son, I am.  Could you help me up, please?”

Axel helped his mother to her feet.  She threw her arms around his neck and squeezed him tightly.

“There will always be another opportunity,” she whispered in his ear.  “Remember that, Axel.  And as the Good Book says: everything works together for good.  I love you, my sweet boy—we all do.”

As he held his mother in his arms, a sinking feeling started seeping into his chest.  Everything was different but it was also familiar.  And how it was familiar was just beginning to dawn on him.  When she had said fishing lodge that’s what rang a bell.

Mrs. Browne released her son’s neck and asked him to hand her the bag.

“Give the friends my regards and the pickles, too.  Thank them for me.  I am so glad I’ve gotten to see you again.”

She began walking the path, back the way they had come.

“Don’t be a stranger, Axel,” she called over her shoulder.

Axel stood, holding the jar of pickles in his hand and watched her go.

“No,” he said to himself, “this can’t be.”

And yet, he knew it was.  He had died.