The delivery truck was out of sight by the time I reached the front door, but I could hear its beeping back-up signal at the loading bay off the kitchen. When I entered the study, the only people left in there were Grandmother Claire and Aunt Sully, my aunt sitting on the ottoman before Grandmother's chair and speaking in a low voice. I knocked on the upright of the doorway to announce my presence.
"Here's our Owen," said Grandmother.
I walked into the room in time to see Aunt Sully shrug, and hear her say, "She didn't have the kind of upbringing we did. At least she didn't abort." She turned to me. "Did you see Eleanor Roosevelt off properly?"
"No," I admitted. "I think I made her mad again. When we said good-bye, I kissed her hand."
"She will think you an impertinent whelp, which you are," pronounced Grandmother. "But she will still savor it for days."
Aunt Sully merely rubbed her forehead. "Claire, don't encourage him. That poor girl has no idea how to take these kids' affectations. The rest of the family is out checking the shipment of exploratory gear," she told me.
"I saw the truck coming up the drive," I said. "Do you mind if I join them?"
"Go, but don't think about going back up to the third floor until the inspectors are done next week."
"I won't, I promise. See you a bit later."
When I joined my siblings and parents, Uncle John was already dusting off his hands, preparing to return to Aunt Sully's side. He was envious of the project, but could not take enough time off work to stay and participate in the exploration of the attic.
"You have to be patient," my mother was telling everyone gathered. "First, the inspectors have to make certain the place is safe. After that's done, then we can coordinate the grad students I have lined up, to see when they can be here and start archiving. It's going to take a few weeks before we actually see results."
"Thanksgiving," grumped Michel.
"Yes," Mother said. "If not Valentine's Day."
"What's the procedure going to be like?" I asked her.
"Once the floor of the attic is pronounced safe, my team will go in with cameras and lamps and photograph every square inch. Then we'll make composites of the photos so that we know where every single thing is. The every things will be named, noted, and numbered, and then labeled over the photos. Then we'll start examining what we find, cleaning and bagging each piece, as much as we can, and sending them to the museum for evaluation."
I tried on one of the filter-masks, the goggles immediately clouding up on me. Most of the exploration would be done while I was in school, I suspected. That was annoying, but nothing I could do anything about. Though I wished I could be in on the 'dig', I nonetheless wished it to be over with soon so that I could -- I hoped -- take possession of the third floor western suite as my own.
The checked-in goods were taken by elevator to my mother's area of the house, in what had been the baby nursery when we were born. It would be in use again when Mother gave birth, but for now, it was right beside her bedroom where she and Uncle Bodie could keep a close eye on the contents -- as though we kids might break into it and make use of it prematurely in attic exploration, or for some project of our own. (We had truly learned our lesson when the gardener's new shovels, landscape blocks, and lightweight wheelbarrows arrived two summers ago, and we'd appropriated them to dig a south-facing curve in the steep bank by the creek. We were punished severely, the point of which I can now understand; but we did lay the retaining wall interlocking bricks correctly, and the place is still a welcome haven on warm days. Decisions, right or wrong, are not to be made by kids. That was the lesson; we learned it, but the adults didn't believe fully that we had.)
I put my riding boots in the hall outside my bedroom prior to taking a shower. My riding breeches and my vest I hung in the small cedar clothes-press off the bath. The idea was that the cedar would offset the smell of horse, and that the separation from everyday clothes would prevent everything else from smelling of horse. I wanted to ride the next morning, too, so there was no point in sending the pants and vest to the laundry. Everything else went into the laundry chute. I felt a little guilty, while I showered, about putting my boots in the hallway. That had always been the procedure for shoes that needed attention, but I knew that Aunt Sully would not have done that. She'd sit in front of the fire with her shoe kit, using an oily cloth to remove the horse sweat and any dust or mud or dirt, and then re-polishing her boots herself and buffing them to a high shine.
"I don't need someone to shine my shoes." This past spring I had suggested once again that she just set the boots out in the hall for cleaning; they were looking a bit on the rugged side any more, having been used for years, and I couldn't see why she was so adamant about polishing them herself. "Owen, when I come here to the estate, I don't have a lot of tasks. It's like I'm on vacation every weekend. If I was busy, it might be different, but expecting someone else to clean up my toys after I'm done playing just doesn't seem right."
"I don't know," I'd commented. "I've watched you polish your boots, and the expression on your face is nearly the same as the one you get when you're brushing Gabe. I think you love your boots too much to let anyone else get near them."
She'd laughed out loud. "Oh, God, is it that obvious? Listen, buying those boots was one of those experiences where you can't believe how perfectly a coincidence occurred -- where you think -- no, when you know that God is looking out for you personally, even in small things. I found these boots in a consignment bin in a tack room in Modesto, all dirty and dull. I couldn't afford new ones, so I was looking at used boots. I tried them on, and they were exactly my size. I paid fifty dollars for them."
"That is pretty inexpensive. I think my latest pair cost $150."
"But here's the strange part -- these boots aren't cut in the fashionable style, with the high outer cuff. And they're wide enough for my feet, which is unusual in itself. They're fully lined," she said, undoubtedly thinking I would understand what she was getting at. When I'd stared at her blankly, she sighed. "I took them over to the Dover Saddlery Tack Store in Napa -- the big one -- and had them looked at to see what another pair might cost new. They didn't even recognize the maker of the boots, but after looking them over, they said it would cost a minimum of $600 to get boots like that again."
"Holy crap," I'd blurted.
"It's like there's something magical in how I got them. When I clean them and polish them, I remember that magic. That's what's important in life -- remembering and rejoicing in the grace that's all around us in the world, if we'll just stop and admit to it."
Exiting the shower, I let myself drip over the bathroom drain as I toweled.
Stop and admit to grace. I could have stopped right then and there, and listened for the "grace" Aunt Sully talked about, but I could also guarantee that if I did, Michel would be pounding on the door of the bathroom, shouting at me to hurry up before he shit his pants.
By the time I put clothes on, someone would be wondering where I was. By the time they discovered that I was in my bedroom, they'd be wondering what I was doing in there that I didn't come out. "Grace" to me was a half hour to myself before bedtime, or the chance to sit on the floor in front of the fireplace and eat pizza, watching the flames, while Aunt Sully read a book. Maybe "grace" was that amazing moment when Rachel had climbed onto the bus and sat beside me for the first time ... but that's not the stuff of "grace," that's just blue eyes and shiny dark waves of hair and kind words. Maybe that moment was even "temptation" rather than grace, I thought grumpily. Maybe "grace" only happens after you're forty or so.
Noting not only that I heard laughing voices in the hall saying "sandwiches" and "apple pie", but also that the jeans I pulled from my closet were above my ankle in a disagreeable way, I shoved my feet into low boot-like slippers to hide the hems. Any moment, someone would be pounding on the door to alert me to the trays of food downstairs. I opened the door to see Uncle Bodie with his hand raised, ready to knock.
"Was just going to let you know there are sandwiches and cider and apple pie downstairs," he said. "Come on down when you're ready."
"I'm ready," I said, and walked with him down the hall and stairs. He was happy, his high cheekbones ruddy and the corners of his mouth curled in a little smile. He was living in his moment of grace, I suspected. There was no doubt at all that he was ecstatic about becoming a father of twins and an uncle of twins, probably all in the same week. I had a sudden start, not remembering what had been told to me and what I'd heard on the recording. Had I been told when she was due?
To those who are wisely silent when they visit, trouble rarely comes, I thought, remembering an adage from a book I'd read long ago. Just grunt and wolf food, I told myself. That's all they expect of my age, anyway.
Grandmother Claire was the only one not in evidence, having apparently opted for an afternoon nap rather than a late lunch. I worried a little about her, and asked Redell, who was refilling drinks like a waiter, if she was all right. He was fussing over the enclave like a hen happy to have all her chicks in sight, or maybe like a border collie who has all the sheep where he wants them. "She's fine," he told me. "She ate so much of the bacon and toast and cheese that she wasn't interested in lunch. We'll take her a tray a little later to tempt her."
Aunt Andersol was sitting between Mother and Uncle John, who had her long braid in his right hand, and held it up so that the loose end peeked above Aunt Andersol's left shoulder. When she spoke, he jiggled the braid as though it were a puppet, matching it to her sentences. "Knock it off, John," she gritted out the side of her mouth. The braid nodded to the same cadence. She turned her head slowly to look at the braid end beside her face. John turned the loose end to face her, making it quiver.
She elbowed him hard in the ribs, making him say "Owf" and drop the braid, which she grabbed and shifted so that it draped down the front of her other shoulder, out of his reach.
To see Aunt Andersol once again in play with the family made me smile, and looking around the room, I could see that the rest were similarly disposed. We didn't, as a family, have a lot to chatter about on the second day of a holiday weekend, but we were happy, and pleased to be together.
This is a moment of "grace," I decided. All is well, and I'm just going to be quiet and enjoy it while it lasts.
"Could I have one of the rye sandwiches?" I asked.
The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.