Mallory J Wycoff
It was just an ordinary day in Knoxville, Tennessee when Melinda asked the question. We were running around crazily, strapping the kids into their car seats, handing them their sippy cups and toys to keep them busy for the long drive. The baby was already fussing and I found myself thankful that I wouldn’t be joining them for the three-hour drive. Melinda closed the back passenger door and pulled me a few feet away from the SUV. And that’s when she said it.
“If John and I were to die, would you raise our children?” She said it quickly, glancing at the truck to check on the kids, then back at me.
I was stunned. I didn’t say anything —- I couldn’t -— so I just stared at her.
“Ellie, did you hear me? I need to know. I’m sorry it’s so last minute, but John made an appointment with the lawyer and forgot to tell me. Today was the only day he could get it and I couldn’t ask you sooner. John’s on his way now and we want to change our will so you’ll get the kids, if you’re willing. What do you think?”
I opened my mouth to respond but nothing came.
Four-year-old Grayson knocked on the car window. “Mommy!” he called, through the glass. “When are we leaving, Mommy?”
I studied his straight brown hair and inquiring eyes, waiting for Melinda to respond. But she didn’t. I looked at her and found her staring. At me. I turned back to the truck to see almost two-year-old Hope in her car seat, with Nolan -— the baby -— between her and Gray. I felt a surge of love for them, but it frightened me. It was true; I loved them almost as if they were my own, but could I raise them? Could I give up the dream of having a husband and my own family to raise another? I didn’t know. And Melinda wanted an answer now.
“Tell you what,” she said, moving toward the truck. “I’ll have John do it -— at least for this weekend -— and if you decide you don’t want to, we’ll change it when we get back. Okay?”
Even as I felt myself nod, inside I was screaming in horror. What if something happened on the drive to Nashville? What if they got into a car accident? The I-40 could be crazy. What if John and Melinda died and I got stuck with the McCalla kids?
I cringed at the thought. It was too harsh to say I’d be “stuck” with them. I loved them, I really did, and I had loved them for years. I’d met John and Melinda when Gray was only six months old, and I had been around for both Hope and Nolan’s births. I’d spent numerous hours playing with them, holding them when they were sick, comforting them when they were scared, and staying with them overnight when their parents went out of town. They even called me “Auntie.”
But was that enough?
Melinda climbed into the truck and closed the door. She rolled down both windows, hers and Grayson’s.
“Bye, Aunt Ellie!” Gray cried, his hand frantically flapping at me out the window. “I’ll miss you!” His other hand was clutching Buppie, the floppy stuffed animal I’d made him. It was flattened and worn from years of being loved.
Hope looked past him from her car seat on the other side of the truck. She smiled through her pacifier and her fist opened and closed at me in her version of a wave. Nolan was finally quieting down; I waved goodbye to the older two kids and watched Melinda’s three small children with new eyes.
“It’ll be fine, Elle,” Melinda said calmly, as if we had been talking about Nolan’s diaper rash or my outrageous car payment. She started backing up, but kept calling to me as the truck rolled down the gravel driveway. “Don’t worry about it. Just think it over. See you Sunday!” The truck reached the street and Mel rolled up the windows, giving me one last wave. Too late, I raised my arm to wave. They were gone.
I turned back to the house; it was small, but not too small. It fit the McCallas perfectly; it was a two-story frame house, set back from Red Bud Road far enough that it had a large front yard. The back yard was even bigger, peppered with trees and covered in luscious grass. As I glanced behind the house, a million images from the past four years ambushed me. I could see Gray flying through the air on the tree swing, beaming as the wind ruffled his soft hair. As always, Hope would be nearby in the sand box. Her little fingers would sift through the sand, then she’d hold up her hands, the grains sticking to her moist palms until she shook and brushed them all off. She’d laugh in delight and then do it all over again.
Even Nolan, at nine months, had spent his fair share playing in the backyard. Mel would spread out her grandma’s old quilt in the shade under my favorite oak tree and Nolan would roll and crawl until he got to the edge of the blanket. I would laugh as he reached out a pudgy baby hand and grasped a chunk of grass, but Mel would disperse his booty before it could enter his mouth. Then she would pick him up, plunk him in the middle of the quilt, and turn back to me so we could finish our conversation. We had spent so many hours in this manner.
These memories, while they had brought so much joy in the past, now made me wheeze in panic. How could Mel ask me to step in and care for her three small children? It didn’t matter that it might never happen; I was worried because it could.
Trying not to think about it, I entered the house and straightened it up a bit; Mel hadn’t asked me to, but I knew it would be nice for them to come home to a neat house. I put away Gray’s tractors and his orange UT baseball cap, then chucked Hope’s dollies and ponies in her toy box. Nolan’s baby toys and teething ring were quickly tossed into the basket near the fireplace and John’s coffee mug was rinsed and put in the dishwasher. Mel’s slippers and novel were deposited in her room and I paused there to study -— for the millionth time -— their wedding picture. She’d had ten bridesmaids -— ten -— all in flowing white gowns. I would probably never get over the contrast of the amount of bridesmaids with John’s two groomsmen and his best man.
“I couldn’t decide which friends should be in my wedding, so I let them all,” Melinda had told me so many times. “And John only knew the three guys. That’s just how things happen sometimes.”
The funny thing was that Mel never talked to any of the women who had stood up at her wedding. She was too busy with the kids now. I was her only friend, and that was because I adored her kids and helped out with them. That thought reminded me of Mel’s proposition and I studied the wedding photo more closely this time.
“I want that,” I said aloud to myself. “Not the ten bridesmaids, but I want the wedding. How can I marry someone if I’m the mother to three children I didn’t even give birth to?” My voice sounded too loud in the quiet house. I could hear the soft breeze from outside as it tickled the trees and blades of grass. I felt alone and awkward.
I turned away from the picture and walked through the house once again, making sure it was clean. Then I locked up and headed for home.
I had just finished my microwave dinner when the phone rang. It was my college friends; they were down from Kentucky and wanted to see me.
“We’re headed to Pigeon Forge,” Audra told me. “Come with. We’ll go miniature golfing, for old times’ sake. It’ll be fun.”
I looked around my apartment; it needed a good vacuuming and straightening. “I don’t know….” I hedged.
“What, is it that family you’re always with? You do stuff with them all the time, Ellie. Come hang out with Sarah Beth and me.”
I grabbed my coat and purse. “Okay, I’ll come. But I can’t stay out too late.”
I didn’t get home till almost three; it was reminiscent of our college days. I’d had so much fun; Sarah Beth and Audra and I had laughed so hard our stomachs hurt. I’d taken lots of pictures and couldn’t wait to look at them. As I climbed in bed, though, it wasn’t thoughts of my evening engulfing me. It was the thought that I wouldn’t be able to go out with my friends if I was raising three children.
“In the event I shall die as the guardian of my minor children, I then appoint Elle Wingfield as Guardian of said minor children.” I felt numb at the attorney’s words; this couldn’t be happening. It was just him and me in this long, dark room with the table that just kept growing. In fact, the attorney had started out mere feet from me; now he was at least a football field away. And the room was suddenly filled with a thousand Graysons, Hopes, and Nolans, all crying for their parents and refusing my attempts to comfort them. I covered my ears and began screaming, and suddenly I was awake and in my own room.
It was only a dream or, more accurately, a nightmare. I was sweaty and my heart was racing so fast that I pressed both hands over it, as if to keep it from flying out of my chest. I felt afraid and guilty all at the same time; I didn’t like either feeling, so I ignored them both and climbed out of bed. After mopping my face with a damp cloth and pulling my hair into a messy bun, I flopped onto the couch and turned the news on.
“…that an SUV overturned on the I-40 near Kingston, killing the driver and one passenger.”
I froze at the newscaster’s words, my heart racing once again, harder this time. I felt as if time slowed and I couldn’t hear anything because my ears were pounding. I shook my head; I knew I needed to hear the rest.
“…Baptist Hospital. The other two passengers remain in critical condition. In other news….” I flipped the TV off, relieved that the accident wasn’t the McCalla family. Still, I was terrified.
It took mere seconds to dial Mel’s number.
“Hey, Elle, what’s up?” She sounded cheerful and relaxed.
“Um, nothing really.” I felt stupid. “Just wanted to make sure y’all got there safely.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry; I should’ve called you last night. Everything’s fine! We’re having a blast; the kids love staying with John’s parents. Are you okay? You sound weird.”
“I’m fine,” I lied. “I’d better let you go.”
“Okay, bye, Ellie,” Mel said sweetly. She hung up and I did the same.
“I need to think,” I muttered, heading for the shower.
The Smoky Mountains are most glorious in the fall; no one can argue with that. As I drove toward Cades Cove, I couldn’t take my eyes from their sweeping beauty. The trees were alive with autumn colors, from the burnt oranges to banana yellows and barn reds. The reds are my favorite; they are so beautiful and vibrant. My eye would pick them out from the other colors as I drove toward the Smokies.
I spent all day wandering around Cades Cove, enjoying the sight of the old cabins and chapels and Mingus Mill. The historic valley is my favorite place to go when I need to think; its quiet peacefulness allows me to meditate and pray. I thought about the McCalla family all afternoon, wondering if I could sacrifice everything in order to let my friends have the peace of knowing their kids would be in good hands if they died. I knew Melinda wouldn’t really trust anyone else with her kids, but I didn’t know if I was up to the task.
As the sun began to set over the Smokies, filling the sky with a misty pink-orange glow, I felt my hopes fall with it. I could never do it; I just couldn’t. The McCallas were asking too much.
Tomorrow, after church, the family would arrive home and I would have to give them my answer.
“And his mother is even worse,” Mel continued to rant. “She spoils the kids rotten and she is so laid back. She could never discipline them. I have no idea how she raised John so well.”
She’d been going on about her in-laws for forty-five minutes now, and I didn’t know how to tell her I couldn’t raise the kids if she and John died.
“Mel!” John called from the other room. “Nolan needs a diaper change and I’m feeding Hope.”
Mel sighed. “I’ll be right there, Honey,” she hollered back. “Sorry for venting, Elle. I’ll be back in a minute.” She went to find Hope just as Gray wandered into the living room. He saw me and grinned, then ran to jump in my lap.
“Did you have fun with grandma and grandpa?” I asked him.
“Yes.” He sat facing me and his little hands grabbed the tips of my hair, twisting the strands and brushing them against my chin. “We played lots of games and Grandpa took me on a tractor and Grandma let me eat candy all the time!”
I smiled at his excited expression and childish delight.
“Did Hopie and Nolan have fun too?”
Gray dropped my hair and pulled on my lips. It was a game we’d played since he was a baby; I’d try to kiss his hands and he’d laugh until he let go.
“Yes, they had lots of fun! But Hopie cried.” He was distracted with my face, so I grabbed his hands and held them in his lap.
“Why did Hope cry?” I asked curiously. I wondered why he felt this information was important to share.
“She got burned,” Gray said simply, as if I should understand.
“Burned?” I asked in alarm.
“Yep. She got burned on her hand when Grandma left the oven open. It was really hot and Hopie touched it and got burned.”
He snuggled against me and I let my chin rest on his head as I thought about what he’d said.
It was just an accident. After all, John’s mom was getting older; she probably just forgot about being careful around toddlers. But I knew it was more than that. It was simple, really. Mel’s in-laws were unsuitable for raising their grandchildren. And that left only one person to raise them, should something happen to Mel or John.
But that wasn’t really it. It was more than that. I couldn’t stand the thought of someone else raising them. I loved them too much.
Mel came into the room with Nolan on her hip. He was drooling everywhere but he grinned as soon as he saw me. I grinned back helplessly. Gray sighed happily; his whole body moved with it and I cuddled him more closely. Melinda had asked me a question, a truly important question, and there was really only one answer I could give her.
“Yes,” I said to her.
Melinda sat next to me on the couch and set Nolan on the floor. She rattled a toy to distract him and then turned to me. “Yes? Yes what?”
“You asked me a question on Friday and I’ve thought about it all weekend,” I said slowly, carefully choosing my words because of Grayson’s presence. “I realize what a sacrifice it could be, but I know that it’s important, so I’m giving you my answer. The answer is yes.”
Mel didn’t say anything. She just looked at me, her eyes glistening and damp, but her expression said it all.
And I knew I had made the right choice.