Twenty-two: The Family Gathering
On Thursday morning, there was no breakfast served, per se, because the main meal of the day was meant to be served at noon, or close after. Other days hold a different schedule, but ours did not that day. Uncle Bodie preferred an early dinner when turkey was on the menu, so that he could eat two or three turkey sandwiches in the evening, after the heavy meal at noon and snacking before and after.
By the time we all came downstairs, a number of great dishes had been spread out on the breakfasting room table, from olives to dill pickles, from sweet pickles to sliced fresh carrots, from artichoke hearts (which Aunt Sully and Mother loved, but I could not abide) to broccoli and cauliflower florets, and a myriad of chips and dips, and of course plates of grapefruit and orange slices. There were bite-sized chunks of cheddar cheese and mounds of celery, and heaps of seedless grapes, English muffins halved and quartered and daubed with jellies. We all picked at the snacks, but were milling around the study and the breakfast room, awaiting the feast.
A strange weather system had moved in, and the day grew dark as the morning drew on. We heard thunder, and the cloud cover was thick. Staff turned on lights in the halls.
Candles were lit on the table in quantities enough to light the room for dining. I think Aunt Sully asked for those, in case the power went out. The candlelight seemed odd so early in the day.
Aunt Andersol descended the stairs in the dim light like a dream revelation. She wore dark blue clothes, loosely gathered, layered, with gold earrings -- which proclaimed she was as formally dressed as she ever intended to be. Her pale blonde hair hung loose about her shoulders, a sight that we rarely saw. Normally, her hair was in a braid down her back. Unbound, her hair reached past her waist.
Aunt Sully rushed to her. "My friend, where have you been?"
"Here, and there," said Aunt Andersol, hugging her. "I've had to be There a lot lately."
"You're hugging me like I was a church lady, Andersol," Aunt Sully said. "What's up?"
I was standing near by, and heard their every word.
"Don't push me," Aunt Andersol said, in a quiet tone.
"I'm not pushing you, Andersol," said Aunt Sully, equally quietly. "I have never pushed you, not once, not ever, so don't give me that line of shit. You're the one who has been staying away, acting like we're all your adversaries. Either let us back into your life, or draw your battle-lines so that we're not getting hurt by your kicking us off into no man's land."
"Adversaries! Try critics!"
"Critics?" Aunt Sully blocked her from leaving the room. "You please tell me one time when any of us criticized you about any aspect of your lifestyle, beyond Jesse recommending that you go to a tailor if you weren't satisfied with how your dresses fit. One time. Tell me."
"Get off my case, Sully."
"Okay," said Aunt Sully, suddenly breaking off and turning back towards the nosh table. "Hide what you will. I'm done."
The word "done" had a hidden meaning for Aunt Sully and my mother. "Done" was a word that meant, "I will not speak to you again under these circumstances" or "No further cooperation should be expected" or "You will no longer exist to me" or "End of discussion." Aunt Andersol knew that -- she and Aunt Sully had been friends since before Kelsa and Michel were born. Aunt Andersol's mouth twisted a little, and her brow furrowed. I didn't know if that meant she was sad, or angry; what it definitely meant to me was to give her a wide berth. I looked around and saw that my brother and sisters had formed the same conclusion.
Uncle John came into the room, a bit bleary and jet lagged, hugging Aunt Sully first and kissing her good morning, then greeting Uncle Bodie and Mother with big hugs. It was our cue to mob him, and we did. With surprise, I noticed that I was taller than him. He noticed, too. "What's this?" he sputtered in his outrageous accent, "Who gave you permission to grow? Hey, who gave any of you permission to grow? Look at you all! Makin' me feel like an old man!"
Aunt Andersol was on the far side of the room, looking out the windows. It was only natural for Uncle John to go greet her, and he did, holding out his arms for a hug. She gave him a weak embrace, much as she had Aunt Sully, and I heard Uncle John ask, "You okay?"
What she said to him, I could not hear, but he backed away from her with his arms in the air almost as though she'd drawn a gun on him. His face registered shock and hurt, as he said, "Hey, I just asked, okay? I'm sorry. Won't happen again."
He looked at Aunt Sully and I could translate what her expression said to him. It said, "See? What did I tell you?"
His in return, was a worried shake of his head. "Problem," he might have said aloud to her. "Worry."
Grandmother Claire appeared, and headed straight for the ranch dip and celery. "Now this -- this the most civilized way of dining," she said, as she had said so many times in the past. "A hearty meal at a time of day when we elderly can enjoy a good digestion." She didn't go to anyone for greeting; her age mandated that we go to her, and we did, each of us (except Aunt Andersol) bearing a tidbit of nosh for her. She loved olives and dill pickles and artichoke hearts, (even though she was not a blood relative of Mother and Aunt Sully), and thin slices of cheddar cheese, about which she had once informed me, "God sent his wisest angels to instruct Mankind how to make this wonder."
"What is wrong with this sister?" she asked in French to Aunt Sully, undoubtedly referring to Aunt Andersol, who had not come to greet her.
"Je ne sais quoi," my aunt countered.
"Oh, please," said Grandmother Claire, "you are the one who knows all the secrets."
"Not this one," Aunt Sully said, offering Grandmother a small cracker with herbed cream cheese.
Aunt Andersol left the room in silence, and though we all noted it, not one of us had the courage -- or the foolhardiness -- to ask her what she was doing. Kelsa did slip to the door, then came back to report to Michel. I put some carrot sticks on a small plate with a daub of ranch dip and, like a dutiful older brother, took them to my younger brother and sister. Michel took one, turned his back on the room, and muttered, "She just went to the bathroom, that's all."
"Thanks," I told them, turning to rejoin the adults.
Behind me, Kelsa lamented to her twin how beautiful and straight Aunt Andersol's hair was. There was a wistfulness in her voice I hadn't noticed before; she, too was entering into that painful world of female dissatisfaction with her looks. Fortunately I had long ago been lectured at length by Uncle Bodie about the delicacy of the female ego concerning their self-images, and how brothers should not tease them about their sensitivity. This he knew because Aunt Andersol beat him up when they were thirteen for telling her that she had a big ass.
I turned to face my Aunt Sully as she sidled near to me. "Yes?" I said, raising my eyebrows as Redell had suggested, the baritone sounding so much clearer.
"Weather reports say tomorrow will be unseasonably mild," my aunt said. "Do you want to ride early, while John sleeps in?"
"Yes!" I replied with enthusiasm. "We would do well to inspect the environs of the estate."
She smiled. "I'll be horribly sore afterwards, but a good massage and a three-day spa with hot tubs and I'll be fine. Wonderful tax write off for your family.
"Just us, or do we invite everyone?" I asked in a low voice.
"I say we invite them all, knowing full well none of them will accept the invitation," she muttered. "Think it through. Oesha hates exercise, especially if it's morning exercise, Marca and Bodie and Andersol have no interest in riding -- John has none either, never having done it -- and Michel and Kelsa ... well, I'm guessing they'd rather be snugged in by a fire, or fussing in their studio. They might join us, but I think it's unlikely."
"And Mom can't," I added.
"Your mom hates riding. She wrote me a letter once about having to ride out to a dig on a camel that was so obscene -- the ride, not the camel -- that I can't even quote it to you. She also has ridden on donkeys and horses, and she hated them, too, though not quite so venomously. I'm sure she's glad she has an excuse not to ride, now."
"But she's ridden with us before," I said, puzzled by the tale.
"That's because she loves you all so much," Aunt Sully said.
"How early shall we go? Seven?"
"Nine is early for my generation," she said, laughing. "Or did you have plans?"
"The earlier, the less likely others will join us," I said frankly.
"Good point," my aunt agreed. "Seven it is, and if you're not up and dressed for riding, I'm going to be inconsolably aggravated."
"Which is to say that you will exact some kind of revenge upon me."
"Yes, dear, exactly."
"Would eight-thirty be all right?"
"Yes, Owen, it would."
A maid, holding and dinging a small ceramic bell, advised us that the meal was complete and ready to be served. We hurried to our seats, Marca across from me, Uncle John across from Aunt Sully. I was beside Aunt Sully, which was very agreeable. Aunt Andersol was to be seated across from Oesha, and Michel and Kelsa got to keep each other company across the table, which suited them completely. Aunt Andersol entered the hall and took her seat stiffly.
We all said the grace prayer together, and then the staff began bringing in food.
There was salad if one wanted it, and a cranberry jelly made from fresh cranberries, and of course turkey, and gravy, and stuffing -- without walnuts -- mashed potatoes, candied yams with flocculent marshmallow melted across them -- only Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol asked for them.
About the time that we stopped gobbling ravenously at the dishes, Mother tapped her wine glass with her spoon. We all put down our forks and gave her our attention.
"My dears," she began, making the hair on my neck prickle, remembering her last family table announcement, "we have news." She was obviously happy, her eyes light and sparkling. "The sonagram I had on Tuesday showed that I'm carrying twins once again!"
The tentative smiles and amazement were short-circuited by Aunt Andersol's gasp and sudden sobs. My mother jumped up from her chair and went to her, gripping her shoulders and making Aunt Andersol turn to her. "What's wrong, Andersol? For God's sake, I'm all right, what's wrong? As Aunt Andersol gave in to wracking bouts of crying, my mother did what even Aunt Sully would not dare -- she grabbed a handful of Aunt Andersol's long hair and pulled her face against her neck, hugging her forcibly, just holding her.
Most of us were on our feet by then, ready to run to Aunt Andersol and comfort her, if only she'd let us, if only she'd tell us what the problem was. Mother continued to hold her tightly while she cried, and Uncle Bodie circled around so that he could put a hand on his twin's back.
Her gasping breaths eased, and she sat back, clearing her face from Mother's shoulder. She wiped her face with her hands.
"Andersol, what's happening?" asked my mother, stroking her sister-in-law's face.
"You're having twins," Aunt Andersol said, shaking, with tears flowing again. "And so am I."