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Athena Crawford fastened her gaze on her hands, which rested in her lap. Thinking about her loss hurt too much. While she grieved, Mother Nature showed no mercy with the cloudless, blue sky and unusually warm September sun streaming its bright beam over the group as if it was a normal day.
There was nothing normal about losing her grandmother.
Behind her dark glasses, Athena only wanted to remember her grandmother's warm, gentle nature. Childhood memories of wonderful summers at her house nestled softly in her heart.
Today, here at the cemetery for the burial, she constantly fought the choking swell of emotion. Her heart ached. She'd willingly plead for more time to spend with her grandma. She didn't care how selfish that was.
Grandma had impacted her teaching career with lasting positive changes. In a different time, she'd kicked open doors that were shut tight.
IwonderifIhave that same courage, Athena thought.
Sitting on the little metal folding chair, she had to focus on her hands, her fingers, anything, rather than the dark, cold space that swallowed her grandmother's casket in its cavernous mouth.
Even her sorority, Xi Theta Sigma, earned the benefits of Grandma's wisdom when she pledged at its first chapter in Kansas in 1963. From there, she helped start several local chapters throughout the state, also sharing the principles of the founders, who were all teachers. Always the person to think about giving back to the community, her grandma created a task force of volunteer teachers to go into low-income communities on the weekends to supplement children's regular education.
This week had been laden with various memorials honoring her grandmother's contributions. Now the final home-going service had come too soon.
Athena had also lost her favorite listener. No more would she smell the light floral scent of her grandmother's favorite cologne. Nor would she hear the raspy chortle that conveyed her grandmother's dry sense of humor. Always the lady, her grandmother never stepped outdoors without a stylish hat. Hats were just her thing.
Yet what stood as fact and not only opinion, and reiterated by those in attendance at the funeral service, was her grandmother's astute ability to zero in on a person's need and provide the appropriate wisdom. Gift and skill, Grandma respected that ability and readily dispensed her knowledge, especially to Athena and her twin sister, Asia.
A soft breeze blew in, stroking Athena's cheek like a warm breath. She smoothed a few wayward tendrils of hair behind her ear. Grandma used to fix her stubborn hair while imparting her latest round of advice. Their most pivotal career conversation occurred a couple years before, though it was as easy to recall as yesterday.
"Athena, sweetheart, you can't go through life without passion." Her grandmother drummed her polished nails on the glass dining table, while her gaze locked onto her granddaughter's face.
"I don't have a choice," Athena whined. "This finance job pays the bills." She cleared her throat to get rid of the tears that fought their way to the surface.
"What is this really about? You're not the weepy sort. Is it the job? Relationship with a boyfriend that's gone astray?"
"Grandma!" Athena's cheeks burned. She didn't have a boyfriend, but she didn't expect to talk about her love life with her grandmother. "The problem is that I feel like those pet hamsters that have nothing else to do but run in the wheel. I'm not going anywhere in this job. I don't feel as if I'm learning anything new." Athena took a deep breath. "How did you stay focused? By my age, you'd done so much more than I could ever think to do."
"I grew up in very different times, honey. I didn't want my children to suffer. In my heart I believed that education was the step stone to a better life. And so I wanted to teach."
Athena smiled. "I think that's what I want to do, too." Excitement welled. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table.
"I appreciate you wanting to follow in my footsteps. I'm flattered and my heart couldn't be happier. But you have to tap into your own special gift."
Athena nodded. "I have something to show you." Athena went to her pocketbook and pulled out the folded paper. She paused before handing it over.
Her grandmother read the contents. Her hand shook slightly. Then her other hand partially covered her mouth. "You got accepted to grad school in education. You're going to be a teacher." Her brown eyes sparkled, accentuated by the ready, wide smile.
"Why not? I had a good life teacher in you." Athena hugged her grandmother, feeling as if her frail arms transmitted the wisdom and strength of their mutual female ancestors.
Athena pressed her feet in the grass, imagining their prints pressing a new path toward destiny. The breeze continued to wrap her shoulders with its attention. The special memory shared between her grandmother and her would always stay with her.
She was lulled out of her daydream by Asia's voice. "Here're a few more tissues."
Athena took the tissues from Asia, her twin, only just realizing that her tears had increased their flow down her cheeks. A steady blur at her periphery marked the departure of the large number of well-wishers. She wiped her runny nose, and inhaled a shuddering breath.
"Athena, sweetheart, we're going to head back for the repast," her father said. He looked over to her mother, concern etched in his lined face. "I'm planning to take your mom to the Poconos after this. We need to rest." He sighed. "We'll see you and your sister soon."
Athena nodded. She wished that she could be strong enough for him to lean on and help with her mother.
"Mr. Crawford, we'll be there to help out," offered Sara, her sorority sister.
"Thanks, ladies. You know you're like family. We're glad you could come," her father responded.
Then Sara and her other sorority sisters flanked either side of her father and headed over to talk with her mother.
Athena had to admit that she felt comforted by their presence. Their pledge line nameLadies of Distinctionproved to be an accurate description, time and again.
After her parents drove away, her sorors returned, forming a huddle around Athena and Asia. Sara led the prayer, after which, they each shared a reassuring hug with them.
"I'm going to miss her." Athena dabbed at her nose. "I'm a teacher because of her." She sniffed loudly. "She encouraged me throughout grad school to make it happen."
Asia nodded her silent acknowledgment, wiping a tear from her cheek.
Athena continued, "Third generation in the family to be a teacher, you know."
Her sorority sisters also nodded, although they already knew her personal history.
"She was a good, special soul, soror." Sara put her arm around Athena's shoulders and provided a comforting hug. Her cheek cushioned Athena's head that rested in place.
Naomi's tall, athletic frame moved into view. "Can we continue this at Athena's place?" Naomi glanced out over the cemetery. She rubbed her arms to emphasize her discomfort with a noisy shudder. "Besides, the sun is setting." She squinted toward the horizon.
"What's your problem? Maybe Athena isn't ready," Asia stated. Her tone didn't hold back the warning to Naomi to back off from her sister.
"What's the hurry? It's off-season. And you don't have any basketball games, Miss Celebrity," Denise piped up with the tilt of her head toward Asia.
"I know you don't have a darn place to get to." Sara scowled at Naomi, waving her off.
"Enough with the attack! I'm just saying that we may want to think about leaving." Naomi threw up her hand, clearly frustrated. "Nightfall and a cemetery don't go together." Naomi paced back and forth in front of the group. "It's creepy too quiet." She paused to look out over the cemetery. "But some might not be resting, if you catch my drift." Again she rubbed her arms a little longer than necessary, considering the moderate temperature. "We shouldn't be among
them." She looked over her shoulder, causing Sara, Asia and Denise to crane their necks in the same direction.
Despite her teary sniffles, Athena couldn't help a small chuckle at Naomi's over-the-top fear. Even her soror's microbraids flitted around her head as if they were alive and also panicked.
"You're such a ditz," Denise finally declared. "How'd you manage to stay overnight in a cemetery when we pledged?"
"I'mready to 'fess up since you want to know. Thank goodness, I had a sensible Big Sister who didn't want me to stay in a cemetery, either. We went to the movies, went to her parents' house, slept until early in the morning. Then we sneaked back to the cemetery and waited for the rest of the sorority sisters to come." Naomi now had her pocketbook firmly in place over her shoulder. "Make fun of me if you want to, but I'll meet you back at the house." She walked away without acknowledging their calls to her. Her microbraids whipped like a pendulum from her head from her hasty exit.
Naomi's deep-rooted fear offset by her six-foot, athletic frame struck a humorous note in the midst of Athena's grief. She laughed until a loud hiccup cut it off. The laughter helped quell her growing urge to break down into a sobbing heap. But falling apart, and she was on the verge, wouldn't help. No matter what she thought or hoped for, her grandmother was gone.
"I'm ready to go." Athena took a deep breath and exhaled, having made up her mind to deal with the last social aspect of this day.
"Are you sure? Bet your parents won't mind if you didn't want to go back to the house."
Sara's concern touched her. "I'm fine," she reassured her.
Despite her declaration Athena couldn't convince her sorors to let her drive. Sara, always the one to take charge, took the wheel and headed to her parents' house.
They entered her childhood home, where family still lingered. Each room contained relatives in small huddles catching up on each other's lives. Their conversations broke off as Athena moved through each room, accepting their messages of condolences for the third or even fourth time. She almost climbed the stairs out of habit when she remembered that her old bedroom had been given to her visiting aunts.
She interacted for as long as she could stand before slipping away to the in-law suite in the basement where she and Asia stayed. Her sorors signaled that they would join her after they resumed chatting with her parents.
Asia, however, was missing.
Athena figured that a relative nabbed her for a drawn-out discussion on life or on her still-single status.
Thinking about her sister, Athena wondered how she was coping. Just as she had a special relationship with Grandma, Asia also enjoyed a loving, unique one. As twin sisters, they shared many facets of their life with each other. Too many times as twins, they were treated as one with the matching outfits, same after-school activities, and shared birthday celebrations. Grandma's counsel, however, was never offered to them as a set.
She celebrated their individuality like no other, pushing each to forge her own path.
To her surprise, she discovered Asia sitting on the bed, in the room, with a Bible opened in her hands. Athena recognized the gift from Grandmaone for each sisterwhen they turned twenty-one. Her grandmother felt that a young woman at that age stepping out on her own needed all the fortification she could get.
And God delivered all the help one needed, Grandma always touted.
"I know." Athena could barely get the energy to make her words audible.
Many of the things around the room served as reminders. As her grandmother had grown weaker, she'd come to live with the family. Athena gladly had shared her bedroom, since she soon was leaving for college. She was only too happy to return a smidgen of the kindness shown by her grandmother to her and her other childhood friends.
What she remembered most was that Grandma had been a whiz on the sewing machine and with a crochet needle. Throughout the room, the delicate laced curtains, dainty crocheted doilies on the vanity and quilted bed comforter demonstrated her expert skills.
Asia stepped next to her and slipped an arm around her waist. She rested her head on Athena's shoulder. Most people thought they were identical. But Athena had no problem pointing out the differences between her sister and her.
Unlike Asia, she had a beauty mark on the edge of the left eye. Her right eyebrow had a peak like an upside-down V. On the underside of her arm she had a long scar from climbing over a chain-link fence on her grandparents' farm. The injury required stitches and now a faint scar remained. As far as she was concerned, there were tons more differences, but most people never got that far, completely fascinated that she had a twin.
She stepped away from her sister, trying to keep her body language loose and relaxed.
"Asia." She waited for her sister to catch the change in her voice underlining the serious nature. "I'm leaving my job at the end of the month."
"What? Did you get into an argument with the principal? You're too headstrong, Athena. I've always told you that."
"Thanks for rallying in my corner." Athena smoothed her hair, although it was unruffled. "I'm taking a short break from everything." She reached out to her sister, but she backed away.
"What does that mean?" Asia paused. "What's a short break? You're acting strange and freaking me out."