Fifty-one: Works in Progress
Over the next couple weeks, Aunt Sully wasn't with us much; she was preparing her house for sale and training her replacement at her work. Her emails to Mother and to me spoke of having her whole house repainted and then recarpeted, multiple inspections demanded by law of her chimney, her back yard, her fence ... she was irritable about all the things she had to decide whether or not to sell, or give away, or store until her suite on the third floor was ready.
Mother was a whirlwind of fury about the lawsuit against the University; she was adamant about the removal of the professor who had insulted Aunt Andersol. Uncle Bodie collected both my mother and my aunt close to him, doing his best to keep them calm.
The Five stayed out of their way as much as possible; parental or adult presence was like a minefield. We could not joke or poke at one another without earning a verbal reprimand to behave. We withdrew to our nursery sanctuary to discuss our future and our present situation, without much information to help us plan.
Grandmother was spending more time downstairs as the construction noise increased, the workmen carefully chipping bricks out of the walls to reach plumbing pipes; she declared the main study downstairs off-limits to the grad students who swarmed, cataloguing and photographing and moving the artifacts in the attic.
It occurred to me that my mother loved the furious swirl of activity; that far from being put out by inconvenience and organizational need, she reveled in the ordering about of personnel and lawyers. She was vibrantly beautiful at that time, eyes glowing, energetic and nobly bulging with our siblings-to-be.
Aunt Andersol was less outgoing; she wore baggy clothing and heavy coats, trying to conceal her pregnancy. She hated the idea of going abroad, and almost tearfully sat with Grandmother and Oesha and the younger twins, trying to learn phrases in Italian.
Entertainment Dinners had dried up completely, Mother canceling everything until the following summer or later. Political-wrangling dinners were minimized, a relief to almost all of us. She met with the invited guests with only Uncle Bodie at her side at the table, and dealt with the fund-seekers and charity-endowers as though she were made of barbed wire and acid.
Michel and I spied on all dinners, sitting in the hall in the dark under the high-legged decorative tables, recounting what we heard as well as we understood when we kids met in the nursery at midnight. I wasn't really sure the spying was worthwhile at this point; the politicians got a brush-off and were told to come back in July, and the money people (almost all associated with the University) were told flat out that the cash cow was dried up unless Aunt Andersol's rude professor disappeared from the University. Nevertheless, we kept up our surveillance, since the only information we were told was, "Don't worry about packing more than a few bits of clothes, you'll be buying decent things once we have settled in." That was Grandmother, who was perpetually outraged that we wore so many inexpensive outfits. Other than that, it was "stay out of the way of the grad students" (Mother) and "don't pester the plumbers/electricians/architects" (Redell).
"I quit choir today," Oesha informed us when we'd gathered in the nursery after supper to do homework. "I was nearly surly about it, and kept wrapping my vest around my middle while I told the choir director. She kept looking at me with concern, and maybe a little pity. If it could have been on camera, I'd be an Oscar nominee next spring."
"I'm sorry," I told her. She had enjoyed the choir; I hoped that this wouldn't mean she wouldn't sing at home any more.
She shrugged. "When we'd get started singing, it was fun, but before and after, I felt like people were just staring at me. I'm glad to get out of here, to be honest."
We're all going to be out of there soon. In less than a month, we won't be meeting in the nursery. Oesha, Michel, and Kelsa will be gone, and Marca and I have little to say to each other on the best of days. Before they're back, all of us will have been moved off this floor to the third floor so that the adults can make arrangements for the babies.
The Four. The new "kids."
Nothing is ever going to be the same.
Well, that's melodramatic, but it is true. I don't remember a time when we didn't all congregate in the nursery to plot and gossip and connive to achieve our common goals. Those days are coming to an end.
I didn't even know at that point what arrangements had been made for our lodgings on the third floor. I had my suite, of course, and Aunt Sully had dibs on the one down the hall a couple doors, the one on the west side that was nearest the new elevator being put in. How my siblings would fit in on that floor had not been told to me, and oddly enough, those siblings didn't seem to care how they would be disposed. The only request made was that a guest residence on the north side (a bedroom, a parlor, a bath, and a sitting room) be made into two large rooms and a washing area (and toilet) so that the younger twins could continue their artwork. That was granted, and the workmen were bashing down walls and converting the dainty sink in the bath to a wide porcelain basin amenable to washing hands and brushes.
Every day I walked through the third storey after school to look at the changes and the progress, wearing a hardhat and wearing a mask and goggles. From being appalled at the butchery of the ceilings and the walls by the electricians, I began to take hope as the plumbers gave me a thumbs-up when they had updated the pipes, and the plasterers came in and began to smooth the scars on the walls.
Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I was making my tour and saw a man standing in the door of what would be Aunt Sully's suite. He had his arms crossed, leaning against the open door. He wore a hardhat, but instead of work shirt and jeans, the rest of his clothing was sloppy-looking athletic clothes. I felt an instant annoyance at such unprofessionalism, and went to see why he was standing there, collecting a wage while his co-workers did the hard work.
He heard me approach, turned, and cried, "Owen!" around a huge grin and held out his arms to hug me.
"Uncle John!" I shook my head as I began to laugh. "I mean, John! When did you get here? How long are you staying?"
"Got here while you were in school, not leaving until you throw me out. Your mom is pretty persuasive, you know that? She convinced me there was no point in me flying a desk in New York when my family was all here."
Cautiously, I asked, "You and Aunt Sully ... ?"
"Yeah, finally. We're getting married as soon as we can. Only she doesn't know that I already gave notice and I'm done with the force. She thinks I'm waiting to look for work out here."
A strange sense of relief flooded over me; just months ago, I considered myself my Aunt's Greatest Love, and would have been horribly jealous at this news. But now, all I could think of was that I would have an unbeatable team at hand while I learned how to run this place ... and a confidante and advisor in matters of romance. (Aunts and Mother are not what a guy wants in that role, not really.) "Cool, John. How's the suite coming?"
"Great, I guess. I can't believe how big it is. Almost as big as Sully's whole house! My apartment could have fit in that corner over there..."
"Yeah! Can you believe this whole floor just sat empty for decades?"
He had a strange look on his face. "No, but yeah. Sully could have lived here all these years, but she wouldn't. You think all you kids are going to live here, bring your families here? Everyone in this country thinks that when you turn eighteen, you move out, have to have a big place on your own. This place was designed before people started thinking like that. You needed family around you to survive."
"We've come full circle here, then, because I sure need the family around me. I can't wait for four new minions to order around, although I suppose it will be a few years before they can carry out my wishes."
"Your mom wants me to start a security office here," John told me as we ambled back down the hall towards the stairs. "But she said I should probably learn to ride a horse for patrolling. That scares me a little."
This was an area I knew. "Don't worry. You'll get good lessons in riding, and Gary and Maida will find a horse to suit your skill. Riding a horse is like riding a bicycle, but with about a hundred times the thrill."
"I'm getting old, Owen. I don't know if I need a hundred times the thrill."
I thought about telling him that seeing Aunt Sully in the saddle was a hundred times the thrill in itself, but dismissed that as being an inter-generationally objectionable comment. Nevertheless, I suspected that once he started riding with her, he'd turn into a quick study and an avid equestrian.
A quick pang of inspiration hit me: could Rachel have riding lessons along with John? I knew she'd love it ... and there I was again, trying to find ways of tying Rachel to me so that she wouldn't find someone more interesting. My face burned with embarrassment even at the thought.
I was being stupid about her, and couldn't seem to help it. I could think seriously about the estate and its future, I could handle my schoolwork with no problem, I could interact with my family and understand and appreciate them with all their quirks. But when it came to Rachel, I was mindlessly drawn to her, thinking about her charmingly curly dark hair and blue eyes, and her laughter. And yet I knew that it was just a matter of time before she met someone a bit older, and left my beardless face on the sidelines as a "nice friend."