One: The Surprising News
Almost everything my siblings and I learned about our family was a result of our eavesdropping. Who Mother had appointments with, what the elder family members thought of each other's decisions, summit meetings, prurient gossip, conjecture. ( I love the word "prurient." It says so much so concisely.) My mother tried to maintain a facade of openness, but she was a very secretive person, and though I didn't want to hurt her feelings by saying so, she didn't tell us much of anything that was going on or of what was on her mind. So all five of us honed our skills at listening behind furniture or just outside of doors. We learned the rooms of the house like the palms of our hands, and padded around the unlit hallways like cats.
At least I assume "like cats." We've never owned a cat, nor has my Aunt Sully. Somehow I can't imagine that her dog Gabe would have tolerated a cat in her house. Or another dog, which I think is one of the reasons (one of many) that we didn't own a dog, either. Aunt Sully came to visit just about every weekend (and sometimes in the middle of the week, too) with her dog. Maybe that was like joint custody of children after a divorce; when Gabe entered the house, he was our dog, too, once we got old enough to handle him and he got old enough to slow down a little. There's a picture in Aunt Sully's study of the five of us standing beside Gabe. Kelsa and Michel were only two and a half, I would have been four, and Marca and Oesha five. Gabe has an expression on his face that could only be a grin, and both Kelsa and Michel have to look up at his furry face to see it. I can even remember when that picture was taken. Marca had hold of Gabe's collar as though she was in charge of him. When Aunt Sully snapped the picture, Gabe leaped forward at the flash and barked at her, dragging Marca off her feet and bowling over Oesha, me, and Michel. Kelsa laughed and shouted, "Gen! Gen!" In point of fact, I think the taking of that photo is one of my earliest memories.
Spying on our parents was instilled in us from our earliest days. When our father was alive, he was kind and loving, but completely circumspect in language and demeanor in front of us. And our Nanny would not have said "Shit" if she stepped in it, nor given us any clue about our mother's whereabouts. We listened in the hallways to Papa's phone conversations to Mama, poking each other when he would tell her how much he loved her, hoping to glean any information as to when she would come home again. She was always out in the field somewhere, digging for clues to mankind's cultural development.
After our father died, listening outside of doors was the only way we found out anything. Spying became a survival tool, warding off the battering impact of surprise. It was through reconnaissance that we learned that our mother was going to remarry -- to "Uncle" Bodie, before the actual announcement was made.
We coached each other in how best to eavesdrop. Kelsa, who was the smallest, was employed to huddle behind the big sofa in the main study after bedtime. Even though she frequently fell asleep while the adults were still talking, she found out a great deal of information, such as the startling breaking news of Uncle John's near death in the line of duty. Oesha was the most silent of us all, (and also was the least suspect) and was the first to hear that Aunt Sully had the grounds to obtain an annulment to her first marriage to the mysterious Anti-Uncle Adam, whom we had never met and who had broken her heart by ditching her. That news we celebrated in the storage room at the end of the south wing with ginger ale and stolen white zinfandel for spritzers, because the annulment meant that Aunt Sully and Uncle John could marry. Michel had a knack for listening right outside doors, and then hiding if someone moved to exit a room. Marca had no part in the eavesdropping scams, as she had (has) the patience of a rhinoceros with poison ivy and the subtlety of a jackass in an elevator. I learned things by being suave and mild and quiet, which allowed me to remain in a room where adults were talking, and be forgotten. Evenings when our mother was agitated, I was pressured into slumping into a chair with a book in earshot of her conversations with Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol. In point of fact, there wasn't that much pressure, but I was always glad if I could blame one of the others (especially Marca) for putting me up to it. The sad thing is that no one seemed to notice that they were being spied upon.
So the evening we learned of our mother's pregnancy was a complete surprise to us, as we had heard nothing to prepare us for the news. On the last weekend in September, when we had a special dinner with just the family present (no senators or university fund-beggars), my mother set down her dessert fork with a strange glow to her pale gray-green eyes, and said, "Listen up, my dears. I've got news." Everyone stopped eating and looked at her. Smiling a tight, smug smile, she said, "We're pregnant. I'm going to have another baby."
I didn't think of it as that big a thing, and raised my glass of water to her like a toast. Then I looked across the table and saw Aunt Sully's face. Her lips had gone from pink to bluish white, and her face was so pale that I could see freckles on it. Uncle Bodie was smiling, nothing odd in his manner except that he was obviously happy about having a baby with Mom; no surprise there. Then I looked at Aunt Andersol, and she was having the same facial reaction as Aunt Sully. My older sisters raised their eyebrows in the same way as each other, and said, "Mom?" in unison. Michel and Kelsa looked back and forth at everyone and tried to figure out what they should be doing.
"Congratulations," said Aunt Sully, draining her wine glass. The color rolled back into her face, though she seemed to withdraw somehow and distance herself from the dinner. "When are you due?"
"May Day," my mother answered, grinning her flashing white smile. She looked across the table at Uncle Bodie, and everyone else at the table was completely shut out of the conversation. They spoke to each other without words and none of the rest of us existed.
I wished, still wish I could remember that Mom had done that with my father, too.
Back in early September, after we had been in school a mere three weeks, Kelsa contracted a stomach flu, and everyone in the house had been infected with it in a surreal sequence of running to the bathroom and kneeling before the porcelain repository. Aunt Sully sent a vituperous email about her experience with the disease, wishing that Kelsa was old enough to allow retaliation for the indignities of the virus. (I knew that because I regularly checked my mother's In Box, having watched her type in her password repeatedly.)
It wasn't a long-lasting bug; most of us were over it in a day, and some were discommoded for three days. Aunt Andersol got it the worst, and spent about a week isolated and sick. Since then, she had lost weight, and had developed a really touchy digestion. Any dish with peppers of any kind, hot or sweet, caused her to spend days in her room, not eating anything more than toasted bread or crackers and chicken broth. The smell of spices kept her away from the communal table; she could not even abide the scent of oregano. Two weeks passed before she began to occasionally join us for supper.
Something set her off again the night my mother revealed her pregnancy. She excused herself from the table without finishing her dessert, claiming that she had a class she had to study for (she was seeking a degree in Anthropology so that she could assist Mother on a dig as a professional) but even after the rest of us left the hall, Marca informed us kids that Aunt Andersol was still retching in the downstairs bathroom. Clearly something had disagreed with her.
Both Aunts had had a similar facial reaction. Michel was posted to keep an eye on Aunt Andersol's wanderings, if she ever left the downstairs bathroom. Oesha was sent to sit and chat with Grandmother Claire, to glean any tidbits from her. She hadn't joined us for dinner, so we didn't even know if she had been told of our mother's impending addition to the household. Kelsa was to hang around and listen to Mom and Uncle Bodie. Marca was sent to her room to read trashy teen magazines. (All right, she wasn't sent, she just said that was what she was going to do, although she didn't tell us what she was going to do, we all just knew.) And I got the commensurate pleasure of eavesdropping on Aunt Sully, who, if she discovered my nosiness, would only lecture me about the evils of listening behind doors and then ask me what all else the five of us had learned. I could hear her on the phone in her room.
"John, thank God you're home! Yes, I'm all right, but I just found out that Jesse's pregnant!" There was a pause. "No, I'm not kidding, she's pregnant again, at forty three! It's insane!"
My mother was beautiful and strong, quick of wit and healthy as a horse. Why is it "insane?" I pressed my ear against the door of Aunt Sully's bedroom.
"I don't know what the hell she was thinking," Aunt Sully said. "She'll be sixty five by the time this kid is old enough to have a glass of champagne." She had to be listening to Uncle John then, because she was quiet. "No, I don't know what all tests she's had done yet. I just can't believe they've done this. There isn't even a nanny in residence anymore, or a governess. The kids have just kind of run wild since she married Bodie, or at least as wild as they can."
Our last nanny (or "governess" if you listened to Marca's ostentation) had left in a huff when she learned our mother was remarrying. But we were all old enough to know what to do when it should be done, what to say when it should be said. At least more or less. Redell, the house boss, occasionally was inclined to instruct us in etiquette or language. Marca ventured to play coy with him once. He looked down his nose at her and said, "Little Miss, I am required to report your indiscretion to your mother. If you continue to disregard proper manners toward the house staff, I shall petition to have you banned from the staff working areas." After that, Marca always had a grudge against Redell, and constantly sought for an opportunity to humble him. Redell was circumspect, and though he was wary, he never had a reason to fear for his reputation or his job.
While it was true that we no longer had a keeper, I wasn't sure about the "wild" part. We had to do well in school, or else we would have been sent back to the hateful private school in Port Laughton. And if we behaved badly in public, we were sternly told, a private boarding school far, far away was the only option, as the Reich Estate was to be guarded not only by its expensive security system, but by our demeanor and our activities. The only time we "cut loose" was when we stayed with Aunt Sully, and she watched us like a hawk all the time.
"I know, I know," Aunt Sully was saying. Apparently Uncle John was calming her down, though I still didn't understand why she was upset. Maybe she was jealous, since she had no children of her own. Her voice lowered enough that I could no longer make out what she was saying, which probably meant that she was talking and listening to mush.