At the beginning of March, I was ousted from my childhood room with great ceremony and moved to my chosen home, my beautifully renovated suite on the third floor, from which I could watch the sun set over the coastal mountains, over the tops of the trees that shaded the private lawns and gardens in back of the mansion.
With a stack of cardboard boxes heaped in my spacious parlor, Aunt Sully and John, Marca, Redell, Philomena, and I had a celebratory dinner in my private dining room. The six of us shared salad with pomegranate preserve vinaigrette, two small roast chickens, fragrant basmati rice, and champagne. Marca declined the champagne, sticking to a disgusting diet soda and water, but I was not about to do so; this was a pinnacle of my life thus far.
I kept the magnificent dining table that had lain covered in the suite for decades; it had an undercarriage of extra legs, and metal tracks and cogs and braces, and sturdy insert leaves in the closet that could expand the thing, clicking with a strangely greasy sound, from seating for eight to approximately twenty-four. I had no idea why I might be entertaining twenty-four guests in my private rooms, but the thought filled me with a sense of importance that some day I might.
One Sunday afternoon, I had the family join me in my suite [I have to come up with a cool name for it, don't I?] for a light and happy meal. All my siblings were there, with their spouses, as well as my mother and uncles and aunts, and my mother-in-law with her current boyfriend.[That's only seventeen ... twenty-four is a lot -- I need seven more.] Oesha brought her four children, whom she had named Morris, Darby, Ellen, and Paul.
I began to giggle uncontrollably, but continued the entry.
It was horribly cruel, but Ellen's sweet little round face had earned her the nickname 'Ellen the Melon' by her older cousin Mark. They were still very young, but she already hated him with a passion, and whaled him with her doll if he drew near her when adults were not actively observing. [There, that's twenty-two.] The occasion was the first birthday of my son, who had his mother's dark curling hair and bright blue eyes. The only flaw as we sat around my great table was that Michel had also brought his college roommate, who was a tentacled greasy creature from one of the systems in the Orion Nebula, and who looked completely the idiot in a dress shirt and blazer, as he had to split the garments down the side to accommodate his numerous arms.
I put my head on my arm on my desk and gave myself over to laughter. It was a silly entry in my journal, and I probably should not have written anything in ink after drinking champagne, but I was drunk with the power of having my own home more than the alcohol. None of my siblings would be allowed to ransack this castle; my journal was finally my own, as well, openly instead of hidden.
That night I fell asleep in the extraordinary quiet of my rooms, hearing a spring storm send rain against the many windows in a whispered pattering, still giggling to myself about giving my sister four children in my story.
The numerous journals of my ancestors had been brought out from that strange little hidden room, professionally cleaned, and now, in special sleeves, were stored in a bookcase with doors in a sunless closet off my new office. I had been admonished to use surgical gloves to turn the pages, or a stainless steel letter opener, so that the oils from my fingers would not damage the paper. I could understand that, but refused to do so when reading my father's notes. If any finger marks of mine touched the pages of his writing, I wanted to see the proof of that. He was my father, and though I would not drip catsup on his words, I would not be deprived of touching the same paper he had touched so many years before.
His first journal was from his college years. In his teens, he had been sent away to a boarding school near San Francisco while he was learning higher maths than his governess could provide; his mother -- my grandmother Claire -- had stayed in an apartment in the city for a good portion of the year so that she could have him with her on the weekends. The earliest entries of his journals were about how happy he was to be living at the estate again.
Home! The winters are so cold and damp, but the fires in the hearths are so warm and welcoming -- I can't put words to paper how glad I am to be away from the smelly central heating of school. The filthy language, the suspicious monitors, the constant sneaky ambitions of my classmates to break rules -- it is all gone, now, thank God. And I can thank God, openly, without being labeled a mama's boy or a fundamentalist reactionary. There is a quote that says that 'Home is where the heart is' but I will go farther and say, 'Home is where the heart of freedom rests.' Most of my classmates hated their homes as much as they hated Alvarado Prep, but I did not. Coming home to the Reich Estate is like finally finding oxygen for my lungs again.
Truly, having my own wing now that I am no longer a child is a heady thought. I've established my 'office' near the hall so that Mother and Father can see me there while I study ... and so that I can keep an ear out for the comings and goings of staff. I want to know their rhythms of movement, the pace of their work, the mood of their steps. While I was a child, I didn't know how important my home was. After the vile antagonism that was boarding school, I now know that this place is my life.
Thank God my mother didn't send us off to boarding school. I could agree with my father in his distaste. While public school was not the most sumptuous experience in my life, I greatly preferred it to the horrid snobbery of the private school we Five had attended. At least in public school, I was able to be acquainted with kids who would later be adults in my community.
And Dad did it all alone. Well, not alone, because he had Grandfather and Grandmother, but he didn't have four brothers and sisters to plot with like I did. I tried to imagine him in that huge house, with no one else near his age, and thought it very sad, very dark, so empty. They were just three, my grandparents and father, and the staff. No wonder the third floor went ignored and unused. No wonder Father had repeatedly offered to let Aunt Sully live here.
Meanwhile, the shock troops were landing on the second floor, preparing for the invasion force. Initially the babies would reside in the Baby Nursery just by my father's (and my) old office; a little later they would be moved to our former bedrooms. All of those rooms were being stripped and scraped and sanded and repainted, along with our play nursery, where Kelsa and Michel's paint accidents were eradicated, making a blank slate for the next wave of ... of ...
"Aunt Sully?" She was still hanging out in her study on the second floor in the evenings. Maybe it was just habit, maybe she was making sure that there was some supervision on that floor. Maybe she just liked it. I'd come downstairs to find her. When she gestured me in with a smile, I sat in the green-striped loveseat across from where she lounged on the sofa with a book. After we exchanged a few pleasantries about the evening's dinner, and her book, and my writing, I asked, "Will the new kids be Reich-Ambrises or just Ambrises?"
She rubbed her forehead with one hand. "I don't know, Owen. I suspect they'll be Ambrises. Your mother had all her documents amended to the name Ambris some time ago, so there's no legal reason for the babies to bear the Reich name. If they did, it would be easier for them to be associated with the estate, but -- maybe that wouldn't be in their best interests, maybe it will make it easier on them as they grow up."
"Not after Mom got that professor fired. Before that, Ambris wasn't that well known, but now? Did you see that article in the Chronicle? Instead of lauding my mother protecting the rights of my aunt, the chick ragged on about how if my aunt would have just had an abortion, there wouldn't have been any problem!"
"Get used to it, my dear. Not only is your family fabulously wealthy, which attracts the notice, but also unapologetically Catholic, which infuriates the liberal pundits and media. It's just the way the way things are. You know that. Your paparazzi will follow your every move and public appearance, hoping to catch you in some sort of sin. Bad choices for others are just bad choices; bad choices for a Catholic are seen as rebellion against the Church or as examples of why the moral teachings of the Church are outdated. That will sell magazines and newspapers, Owen -- when you screw up, every fallen-away Catholic will want to know so that their own distance from the Church is validated. Why do you think I was so adamant about making sure all you monsters went to Mass with me for all those years?"
"We assumed you were crazy, and that our father humored you for Mother's sake."
She narrowed her eyes at me. "Just remember I live on the same floor as you."
A sigh escaped me. "It's just that ... there are only five Reich-Ambrises now, and if the girls marry, we'll be down to two -- that's if Michel still wants to keep the name after he's eighteen."
"Are you going to keep it?"
My face suddenly felt hot. "Of course. My father is important to me. I don't want to lose his name."
"You'd never have a better role model," she nodded, "but I meant the Ambris half of your name."
I stood and bowed. "If my other great role model felt so strongly about the name that she did not take the name 'LeMay' when she married, why on earth would I abandon it?"
Her smile was a bit -- wry? -- would that be how to describe the hint of sadness that swept briefly across her face. "For a while I did abandon my maiden name, during my first marriage. When that was over, I went back to it to try to find out who it was I had lost over the years. It wasn't really that I didn't want to give up my father's name so much as wanting to start over again as myself. I guess I got used to having my own name, on my own terms.
"I think that's why your mom just uses 'Ambris,' actually. She's always been a woman who faces life on her own terms." She chuckled. "The funny thing is, 'Ambris' was our father's last name, but our determination and drive all comes from our mother -- who just about drove us both nuts."
"She was tiny, that's all I remember, I don't think she ever spoke to me directly."
My aunt shrugged. "We have boxes of photos somewhere in the stuff we moved upstairs. She and Dad loved the camera ... I've got to get all those pictures into some kind of albums. She was really beautiful when she was young."
"Speaking of abandoning, are you going to stop using this study?"
"While I have little nieces and nephews on this floor? Are you kidding?"
We did leave the study shortly afterwards to return to our rooms and computers to talk with my siblings and my mother -- the start of their day in Italy was the close of our day here. I was eager to hear from the family abroad (and Rachel would be online, too) and only a little bit put out that Aunt Sully was anchoring herself already to the yet-to-be born babies. Didn't she still belong to me?