Slow Burn

"Slow Burn"

Personal memoir published in “Artemis” and “Port City Review”.


The first time I saw her with a cigarette, she was so far gone she could barely hold on to it. It kept slipping lazily backwards until someone finally took it out of her hand to keep her from burning herself. Her skin was so papery by that point, I imagined her whole body would instantly be engulfed in flame if the sagging embers reached the back of her hand.

She lived maybe a month after that; a month where the world was put on pause and everyone who knew Edie Mae Fath simply waited. No one in my family was there when she died, but I imagine she was slumped in the highbacked armchair in the foyer and she just slid away, like she had slid to sleep so many times in the past month. Once upon a time she sat there righteously, her back straight and her legs crossed, ruling Val-Hi Farm and all of Ripley, Ohio with the quirk of her thin lips and a wave of her wrist.

Edie was the first person my parents met after they moved the 60 miles from Cincinnati to Ripley, and by no accident. She worked for 30 years in a cubicle across from my grandfather. Their lives were completely different, but they were both industrious and sarcastic, so it seemed natural for them to be friends.

When Papa told Edie that his third daughter and her new husband had purchased 100 acres in Brown County she said, “I live in Brown County.”

“Well, they’re headed out to Ripley!”

“I live in Ripley.” And that was how my family came to live across the street from her, with exactly ten minutes of time between piling into our Chevy and knocking on her front door every night.

There was a massive Forsythia bush at the bottom of the Fath driveway, and every year when it bloomed buttery yellow, my mom and I would both shout “Spring!” but then when it became unruly enough to scratch at her car, my mother would put on her work overalls and cut it back, practically to a stub. Her determination was never enough to kill it.

Edie was a short, thin woman, but never let it stop her from getting the things she wanted. She had dusty brown skin and short, tightly curled, dusty brown hair that she got dyed and permed on the same day every other week. She had been a travelling line dancer in the ‘50s before marrying her husband, a weak-willed tobacco farmer who began drinking himself to death early on and wrapped it up just before the first anniversary of her death.

By the time I was old enough to really get to know her, Edie had retired from P&G and the farm had significantly downsized. Never idle, Edie turned her efforts to the town instead. On Sundays and Wednesdays, I helped her cook for the Ripley Lions Club’s bingo night. She would stir soup on the stove and I would bake while she listed out the ingredients of each cake from memory. Each time she would laugh and say, “Your mom uses box cakes and makes her own icing and I make cakes from scratch and use icing from a can, so you’re going to be the best baker of all of us.”

My mom was Edie’s opposite in every other way, too. She was tall and square, with a long, pointed nose she called her beak. She was just as much of a control freak, but where Edie controlled with her cool demeanor and quick tongue, my mother controlled with a raised voice and wild gestures that made her look even more like a bird. Every emotion showed on her face, and if you asked her why she was so expressive, I’m sure she would look disgusted and say, “I’m just an honest person. I don’t have time for bullshit.”

In the fourteen years I knew Edie, the most dogs she had at any one point was also fourteen. I could probably name them all if I tried; Teddy was the Spitz who bit my dad, Cissy was the Dachshund that used to run in wiener dog races, Waldo the beagle was possibly the fattest dog of all time, etc. They all had bizarre rescue stories and an encyclopedia’s worth of medical issues. When Edie and Ed were out of town, it was my family’s duty to feed and care for her menagerie. No matter how many times we did it, she would always leave a diagram of where each dog belonged during feeding time, to keep them from acting on personal grudges and stealing each other’s food.

Casper was one of her later acquisitions. He had a deep bellowing grow and rightfully terrified everyone who tried to approach him. Not Edie. She took him in and called him Casper, after the friendly ghost, of course. My mom was the second person to befriend him because once, when Edie was out of town, he growled at her and she responded by bending in half to put her face near to his and bellowing, “You shut up!”

I thought at the time that meant my mother was fearless, but really I think she was more afraid of Edie’s disapproval than any dog’s teeth. Because, despite their differences, Mom was the one Edie chose to refer to as her adopted daughter when she described her relationship with my family.

My dad would playfully shake her by the shoulders and whine, “Why do I have to be the in-law?”

Edie would laugh, “Oh, Ron,” and wave him away, but that didn’t stop her from buying him teasing birthday cards addressed to “Son-in-Law.” She loved him too.

Edie had a real, officially adopted daughter. Their relationship didn’t end well. Her skin was brown and wrinkled like Edie’s, but that turned out to be less of a coincidence and more the result of a lifetime of smoking and living in Brown County, Ohio.

After a year of fighting, Edie beat lung cancer, but it took the following kidney failure for her to even consider giving up smoking. She did quit briefly, then after a debilitating stroke she was back on her crutch. She smoked openly then, because she already knew what it took the rest of us months to believe. She wasn’t recovering this time.

The Forsythia bush is gone now. It was replaced with a stretch of gravel and a sign advertising hay bales for sale. It turned out that it wasn’t that hard to kill. I suppose my mother was never really trying.