Claire Thibodaux’s thighs burned as she trudged up the creaking wooden stairs to the attic, and she wondered how many times she’d climbed the flight in the last few days. This trip though, would be one of her last. As she looked around the attic landing, a stream of dust motes clouded the bright morning sun. The final cardboard boxes she’d packed over the previous week stood bunched in the middle of the floor beside an aging trunk. She couldn’t help thinking about Aunt Laura, and how all evidence of her 94 years of living had ended up squeezed into seven cardboard boxes and one dented blue steamer.
Over the course of the last several weeks, Aunt Laura’s possessions had disappeared. It started when her other grand-niece Patti and her slump-shouldered husband Fred, made the five-hour car ride from New York to attend the quiet funeral in the stone Episcopal Church Laura Robbins had attended for almost seven decades.
By 9:00 the next morning, Patti had arrived to pick through the antiques and china brick-a-brac in Aunt Laura’s parlor, lifting statues and vases to squint at labels, even squatting under the polished drop-leaf table in the breakfast nook to identify the furniture maker. She climbed the stairs and stared into the black and white tiled bathroom, and Claire sucked in her breath when, after pausing outside the door to Claire’s bedroom, her cousin stepped in to finger the white islet comforter covering the wool blankets on the twin four-poster inside. At first, Claire had been glad she had dusted her room that morning, but entertaining an imagine of sleeping on the hardwood floor wrapped in one of Aunt Laura's old quilts after Patty jerked the bed out from under her, she wondered if it would have been smarter to leave her night clothes lying around.
Squaring her shoulders, Claire retreated downstairs to the formica-countertopped kitchen, where she clicked on a gas burner and filled the copper kettle for tea. For the six years that Claire had lived with the older woman, Patty had never visited their aunt. Plunging a tea bag into a steaming cup of water, Claire muttered "I know Aunt Laura would want her things to go to family. It’s just that she was only buried yesterday. I wasn't expecting to strip the house today."
By 4:00, Patty had opened every cupboard in the kitchen, paced each of the three bedrooms, had climbed down the squeaking cellar stairs with Fred in tow, and proclaimed that the only thing that would match "suitably" with her decor would be the mahogany chest-on-chest highboy from the front parlor and Aunt Laura’s monogrammed flatware.
Claire closed her eyes briefly when Patty announced her plan to take the silver, but then shrugged. What would a 22-year-old soon-to-be homeless girl do with a load of sterling anyway?
When Patty left the dining room though, Claire lifted the lid of the cherry case housing the utensils. Gazing at the simple Boston Antique design and the monogram LRB, for Laura and Benjamin Robbins, she pictured sitting to dinner with her great aunt.
“Sitting to dinner” was Aunt Laura’s quaint phrase. For the six years that Claire had lived in the Morrison Avenue house, she and her aunt had used the sterling flatware. “What good is it buried in the drawer?” Aunt Laura would ask. Winking at Claire, she’d grin and announce: “I’m not going to be here much longer. We might as well make things special while I am.”
Each night, Claire had dutifully set two places at the cherry dining table with a salad fork on the outside left, next to the dinner fork bordering a gold rimmed bone china plate, and placed the knife and spoon on the right. With only the two of them eating, it took minutes for Claire to hand-wash the delicate china and polish the utensils after a meal; she took care to buff the silver once more with a grey flannel before placing it back in the cloth-lined chest.
On the day that Patty performed her inventory, after she announced her selections, Claire looked over her shoulder to the dining room door swinging closed behind her second cousin, and reached into the silverware box. Fingering a small purple felt bag, she reached inside for one of the petite demitasse spoons nestled with seven matching pieces. Aunt Laura had used them in diminutive cups during their tea parties, back when she used to babysit Claire, long ago when Mother was alive.
Removing one of the tarnished spoons, Claire shoved it into the front pocket of her blue jeans, and smoothing the tails of her cotton blouse over the front of her pants, returned the bag to its original position.