Forty-four: Moving Forward
Freezing in socks with no shoes, Michel and I listened outside the door of the downstairs study one evening when Mother's and Aunt Andersol's lawyer was paying a business visit. Our plan was that if someone decided to check the hallway, Michel would duck into the dining room and hide under the table, and I would bolt to the kitchen, where I had become a regular visitor to beg favorite little treats for my pregnant aunt.
Much of what was said was so muttered that we couldn't hear it, but at one point, our mother clearly said, "No. No apology-appeasement. The man is a misogynistic tyrant, and we've got him dead to rights. We've no less than twelve students and grad students that he's made his rude observations to, and another twenty women who are willing to come forward and put on record ways he discriminated towards them while they were here at the University. If they want a deal, the deal is this: he is terminated. If they fire his crummy little ass, we'll drop the suit against the University, and I won't withdraw funding. If they don't, we will push ahead with the suit, and on top of that, they can count on not having Reich-Ambris money forever."
We heard a briefcase snap shut, and the lawyer said, "I'll let them know. We've got a foolproof case, with witnesses all over the place. He's one hated professor, I'm surprised no one has gone after him before."
"Students don't usually have the money to hire legal representation," we heard Aunt Andersol say. "I wouldn't have, except for being a part of this family."
"Well, thank God you are," said our mother's voice. "I don't know how I survived without you here."
The lawyer said good-byes, and though Michel and I might have learned more from Aunt Andersol's and Mother's discussion, we signaled to each other from either side of the door and whispered off down the hall to the ballroom and upstairs to the Cellblock.
We Five had a lot to take in those days. The attic floor was crawling with grad students in hazmat gear, and no one had time to spare for us kids, until the evening, when Mother would pour out words like a fountain over dinner, about lithographs and clothing and cases of letters, and furniture and books and boxes of jewelry. She ranted about shoddy storage and moth damage, and how there was practically an entire mansion's worth of furniture stuffed up there, ignored for decades.
She'd ignored it for almost two decades now, herself, but that didn't stop her from being angry at our father's forbearers.
Grandmother Claire said loftily, "I was not permitted to inquire about the contents of the upstairs floors. Do not blame me. My mother-in-law was the keeper of the castle, please do revile her to the Most High whenever you wish to criticize how this estate was run."
"But after she died, didn't you wonder what was up there?" asked Aunt Andersol.
"No. The mystery was tainted with her monumental viciousness, and so I didn't think about it at all. God rest my beloved husband, but he saw her as only protective, and not as a tyrant. He was a kind-hearted man, and simply kept on doing what she had mandated when she was alive. I live here, and this is my home with my grandchildren and so many memories, but my heart and my mind are in Tuscany, and Cannes, and Budapest, and Alesund, far, far away."
Our mother frowned, looking at her plate. "Believe it or not, Claire, I understand that completely. I couldn't get far enough away from my mother's house once I was out of it. I thought I could live in Nairobi for the rest of my life, but then I met your son."
"He was a good man," Grandmother Claire said, "and a good son. Had he not met you, what an empty house this would be." It was the highest compliment I'd ever heard Grandmother pay my mother; I was astounded.
Aunt Sully raised her glass in a silent tribute to Father, and all drank.
"I'm a bit conflicted," said Uncle Bodie, "but I wish I could have met him in person. He obviously had good taste, and his children have always been phenomenal."
Kelsa giggled. "Thanks, Uncle Bodie."
"But was it your mother-in-law that closed up the upstairs?" Mother asked Grandmother Claire.
"I doubt that she had that much imagination," Grandmother Claire. "She would have been enforcing what her parents had done, like a mindless golem. What my husband's father saw in her, I do not know. He could have lived in Paris and had any number of lovers. Perhaps he coveted the estate, perhaps he found the climate irresistible ... perhaps she seduced him with tales of mines of gold and ranges of cattle -- or trade from Alaska or from around the Cape."
"That's what I'm wondering about -- how on earth did such a disagreeable daughter end up as inheritor?" My mother was intense in her questioning, and yet I could see she was also stroking Grandmother's sensibilities, something she hadn't bothered with much before.
"She was the only surviving child."
"From the influenza?" Mother asked.
"Perhaps. I don't know. The woman might have easily poisoned all her brothers and sisters in a cold-blooded plan to inherit." Claire sipped from her wine glass, staring at a portrait of her late husband that hung in the room. "Ah, I should not say things like that. Several of her brothers and sisters died of pneumonia as children. One of her brothers died as a result of a fall from a horse in a race, and the last brother froze to death while hunting moose in the Yukon."
"And her father had no male relatives that would have been in line to receive the estate? Usually inheritances like this aren't left to women." Aunt Sully, the practical one.
"There was a younger brother and a number of cousins who were annoyed at the will. But those were different days, and this country was still almost without law. Gustav Reich had a large staff of able fighters in his pay, and when the cousins and brother demanded that he change the will, he ordered them away, telling them that if they returned his staff would shoot them for trespassing. The local judge, who was in his pocket, heard their suit against Gustav, found in Gustav's favor, and added a restraining order so that the brother and cousins could not return."
"Wow," I breathed. What a story that could make: Gustav Reich, entrepreneur, landholder, and warlord, and his sole surviving child, the iron-fisted Gretchen ... "Hey!" I squawked rudely. "Sorry! If Great-Grandmother Gretchen married a French man, how did Grandfather keep the name 'Reich?'"
"Even when she was young she was a dragon. She refused to relinquish the name, either for herself, or her offspring. I understand she made her husband-to-be sign a document agreeing to the retention of name, as well as the arrangement that her children would inherit, not him. He had an allowance that he would be paid, and was welcome to live on at the estate in the event of her death being before his.
"I find myself weary. Please excuse me for the evening." Grandmother Claire rose with dignity, not meeting anyone's eye.
Mother, with elbows on the table, her hands clasped in front of her face, watched Grandmother leave with glowing grey-green eyes. "That explains a lot."
"About the fabled Gretchen?"
"No, about her antipathy to me. I refused to change my name -- added 'Reich' to it for you kids and while your father was alive, and now I still go by my father's name. That must have reminded her of her mother-in-law every day. It still must. I had no idea, though even if I had known, it would have made no difference. "
Marca and Oesha looked expectantly at Uncle Bodie. He returned their gaze calmly. "Don't look at me. I don't need my wife to take my name. In fact, Andersol and I have talked about legally changing our last name to 'Ambris' -- we were disowned by the Talles'."
"That would be cool," Michel agreed. "We could be like a secret society of Ambrises. Hey! We should have just gone by 'Ambris' when we went to school. That would have solved a lot of problems."
"Will you please, all of you, stop saying 'Hey'? It's so rude. Especially at the dinner table. However, I'm all for the name change, myself. At least after we get this lawsuit thing taken care of. A change of name would mean we'd have to refile all the legal junk; I don't really want to spend more time on it."
"Me, either," said Aunt Andersol forcefully. "I want to keep on going; dropping that damned class would just drag out my getting a degree for months. I don't want to have to try to transfer to a different college. I keep telling myself I just need a 2.0 for the term, and finals are right around the corner, and I want to stick it out to the end, just another few weeks."
"He's not still jerking you around, is he?" Mother said in a low and threatening voice.
"No, he's been absolutely even-handed with me lately. If I can't get a B on the final, something's wrong with me."
Uncle Bodie shook a finger at his twin. "Diagram every damned sentence on that test before you try to answer it. Make sure you know what he's asking for in an answer. Remember darling Dr. Rommesbury."
"I never forget that miserable excuse for a lecturer. Every time I take a test I remember her." Seeing us kids' interest, Aunt Andersol went on, "She didn't test so much on her notes from class or the Chemistry text -- every single one of her multiple-choice questions were a grammatical maze. If you didn't understand the question, you chose the wrong answer. Bodie and I both flunked the first big test she gave, and couldn't figure out why until your mom looked at the tests and showed us what she'd done. She gave us your grandmother Ambris' high school English book that showed how to diagram sentences -- you don't even know what I'm talking about, do you? Well, we didn't either -- and then we were able to get B's on the next two tests and on the final. Dirty tactics, I don't know why a teacher would do that to students, but that one, at least, did. Some teachers are more interested in power trips than learning, I think."
"Unless Dr. Rommesbury secretly wanted to be an English teacher instead of a Chemistry teacher," Oesha said with a smile.
Mother's brow drew down in concentration. "I don't know much about the woman. I wonder if her doctorate was in chemistry or something else. Maybe she was a Doctorate of English and got stuck somehow with an introductory Chemistry course."
"Encourage her to retire before we get there, would you?" I asked.
"I won't do that, but Bodie and Andersol would be glad to loan you your grandmother's English book."
"You pinched that from Mom's shelves! I went looking for it during one visit and couldn't find it -- I thought she'd thrown it out or given it to the library for a book drive."
"Sully, that book was the most valuable thing Mom had in her possession when she married Dad. I snagged it and kept it when I went off to college. I knew I wanted it for our next generation."
"Thank you, dear Mother. Now, before we are shuffled off to our quaint little rooms, have you any word about the plumbing upstairs?"
"I have. What kind of cash do you have on hand for the information?" Her grey-green eyes sparkled with her unusual playfulness.
"A quarter!" Michel shouted, leaping up from his seat. He placed the coin carefully in front of our mother. "Look, Mother. A likeness of the Father of Our Country. Surely that must be worth a fortune!"
"I hope you don't talk to your teachers like that."
"Of course not. We dumb it down to 'whuuut' and 'ohhh-kay,'" supplied Kelsa.
"Sully and I weren't satisfied with the estimates of the local plumbing people. I talked to the California Historical Society and they recommended a contractor from Williamsburg, Virginia, who's accustomed to working with the architecture of existing structures. He's supposed to be here next week with a portfolio, and will do an estimate. Honestly, the current plumbing leaves something to be desired. I'm thinking that maybe a major overhaul is in order."
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