A figure skating show had come to Penn's Vale, and I was planning to go see it. I'd seen one when I was around twelve (Jesse was by then old enough to sit still for a show), and I never forgot how beautiful it was, the skaters as graceful as ballerinas, with colored lights playing on their glittering costumes and the smooth ice. Eager, I stood in the back yard of my mother's house on Arch Street. I was wearing a blue dress that I'd had since Adam and I were first married. (He didn't care for it; he said it made my eyes look blue instead of green.) The winter sun had already set, but I was going to walk to the sports arena where the show would be held. I believed I knew the way, and it would take me past the grade school I attended for seven years, a square brick building with two asphalt playgrounds, one on either side. Made into apartments a few years after I went on to junior high and high school, it still looked much the same and held a lot of vivid memories.
But then my mother pulled up in her big, ugly station wagon (she was so little and skinny that she looked ridiculous driving it, and had to use a pillow to see over the dash) and called out to me. "The ice show is on the other side of town. You can't walk that far. Get in and I'll take you there." She could never understand that I found walking preferable to riding in a car, just as she could never comprehend why I would rather sit in the quiet in the back yard rather than in the kitchen where the radio was constantly gibbering. But rather than end up in a screeching argument about my anti-social nature and lack of connection to the real world, I accepted her ride, and I was dropped off at the sports arena complex, glad that she hated shows and plays and concerts.
The ice show was to be held on a huge lake at the winter sports arena, and the light had grown so that it was like afternoon. About an hour before the show was to begin, and spectators were invited to put on their skates and skate. Many people had done so, and I thought I would try, too. I hadn't skated on ice since I was in college, and my skating was rather tentative at first. Then my confidence grew, and I was able to glide along with long sweeping strides, all around the perimeter of the lake. I turned and skated backwards for a little while, revelling in the movement, feeling so free and cool and smooth.
Then we all headed back to the stands for the show. The stands were built like a wooden house with no window panes, no paint, and no furnishings. The wood was weathered gray cedar, floor, walls, everything. The boxy rooms overlooking the lake were chilly, but out of the wind.
Part of the show was to be a snake-catching contest, and the contestants were men who were dressed in tuxedoes. The snakes were fast in fleeing, and agressive when cornered, including one as fat as a bushel basket, and the audience and I laughed appreciatively at their antics. A scuba diver and a small whale scooted past the stands as a snake-catching team, and that was just too silly to sustain, and I woke up cackling to myself in the dark, thinking about how the children would laugh, glad that they were still young enough to give themselves up to whimsy.
I missed out on Marca's first steps, which were taken when she was about seven months old, but then we all missed them, Charles having taken his attention from his daughters crawling on his office floor just long enough to answer the phone and turn and find one of his twins missing, and shout in panic, which caused the ambulatory Marca to stagger out of the office closet with a feather duster crammed in fist and mouth. However, I was there when Oesha decided to try a couple steps, and for Owen's first solo stroll across the study to Auntie's eager arms. Kelsa and Michel hardly walked at all until they were two, the older children being delighted by dragging them from place to place. I have this mental image of Michel slapping his blanket, shouting "Go! Go!" to get Oesha to pull him across the floor.
I didn't take the children gifts, per se, when I went to visit them at the estate, but I did try to bring them some little wonder from my garden or from my walks: an oriole feather, a giant pine cone, some leaves pressed in a book since last fall. One time I brought a bag of black marbles with me, to each of which I had glued three pieces of black yarn and a small oblong piece of black construction paper. I had a big Aggie marble and taught them to play marbles, except that the black threaded marbles skittered most satisfactorily and we called the game "Roaches." We all did cheesy Mexican accents during the game, howling at four-year-old Kelsa and Michel's attempts at accents; Charles slipped into "Aunt Sully's Study" (the little upstairs one) and listened to our commotion quietly, eyes shut as he held his mouth with his hand. "Hey, you got ROA-chezz!" Owen says to Kelsa, prompting gales of hee-yuck-yuck-yucks, Kelsa's version of laughter. "Sen-yore, gee mee some ROA-chezz," chants Oesha, just as Charles walked in the door. I looked innocent and mild from my spot on the floor with the kids. "Aunt Sully, it's your turn, hurry!" Marca prompts, and I shoot the aggie and get no roaches outside the circle. "Cucarachas malegradecidas," I say, drawing the admiration of the children. Michel is next, grating, "Coo-crotches!" And laughs so hard at his own attempt that he has to run to the bathroom.
I never have, never could, never will understand how Jesse could absent herself from those children. The scent of them, the warmth of them, pressed against me at Mass, or in the evenings before bedtime when I read to them, or mornings, telling dream stories -- was it that she had such an unenlightened heart, or because she was more content having a family who loved her from a safe distance? All that I know is that I loved those children to bits. And I am infinitely grateful that I was there so often to gently bite their dear little hands when they tried to grab my teeth, and hear their laughter, and delight in their discovering that they were alive.
"I am grateful that my sister-in-law was kind enough to teach my children about roaches." Charles told me after the children were snugged into their beds.
"No one should go through life without seeing some humor in roaches, Charles. If you think about it for a while, you'll see that it must be so."
"That is a bad paraphrase of Kipling, and does not suit at all."
"I'm sorry, you really wanted a turn at Roaches yourself, why didn't you say something?"
"Next time, Papa will play Roaches, and he will win them all. How did you affix the legs to the marbles? And what in the name of God made you think of making marbles into insects?"
"The dog's tennis ball rolled through some twigs in the garden, and collected a couple as it went. Looked inspiring to me. 'Roaches' sounded more satisfying than 'Spiders' or 'Millipedes'. Maybe because, when I was a kid, any mention of 'roaches' would set Mom off on a tirade of how the house had roaches when she and Dad moved in, how she waged war on them and defeated them, and how to keep them from returning. 'You didn't wash your cereal dish before you went to school? Do you want to attract roaches? If you drop crumbs in the furniture, you are going to end up with roaches! Even if we're poor, we don't have to have roaches!' Charles, even the kids I played with knew better than to say the word 'roaches' around her. So we said 'roaches' to each other a lot and thought we were really funny."
"Jesse has confided to me that she did, in fact, catch roaches -- or insects she believed to be roaches -- and loose them in your parents' house in order to tease your mother, prompted by bitterness rather than humor."
I nodded. "Bug release was one of her secret gestures of defiance. I'd say that was terrible, except that Jesse never had the chance to run and hide that I did, because she didn't have a baby sister to distract Mom. She coped by taking revenge."
"I cannot imagine the home life that you two had that you would place such value on escape, and see vengeance as a coping mechanism for a child."
"That's because you weren't there to experience it. We had no choice, and I believe I can speak for both of us. There was no argument, no reasoning, no bargaining. We were supported in our desire to do well at our tasks, and we were persecuted if our product wasn't excellent. We were expected to be a cut above, and punished if we behaved below expectations. Now, I can't say that we turned out bad, or that we would have been better people if Mom had been more easy-going. She did intend for us to survive whatever was thrown at us." I shook my head. "Even if what we had to survive was herself."
"I will not have my children feel that way about their home," Charles said. "I don't believe that it is necessary to punish in order to teach."
I hugged my knees for a few moments. "I don't think she ever saw it as punishment, to tell the truth. Just operant conditioning, behavioral modification, saving us from ourselves, whatever. I knew early on that it wasn't fair, but all I could do was duck and run," I told him. "I couldn't take on Mom head to head, because I wasn't strong enough. Not even now for that matter."
Charles was quiet for a while, sipping his brandy. "I am disturbed by your judgement of your mother, noticing but not commenting on a lack of complicity attributed to your father. How old were you when you had this apprehension of injustice and of quiet resistance?"
"About six, I'd guess. You know, we start teaching children right from wrong from about the time they should be sleeping through the night; why should we be surprised when they start developing opinions of what they see as right or wrong at an early age?"
"Do I need to worry about my children and how they will view their mother?" he asked, and again I wondered at Jesse's absenteeism. Maybe someday I'd understand.
"I haven't seen signs of problems with the kids, and I will tell you if I do. You've an unusual setup here, but Jesse writes and calls frequently, and the children speak positively about her." Wincing a little at how he might take my words, I said carefully, "Jesse, Nanny, me; we sort of come and go, here and not, but always loving, I know that's important, and we're consistent with rules. Neither Nanny nor I ever try to take Jesse's place with the kids, and I think maybe that makes an impression, too. There's no confusion of identity. They know who their mother is. You're their rock, their constant, though; it's you they'll look to to see how to ultimately feel about their mother. If you support her, they will support her. Etcetera," I finished, not feeling comfortable lecturing him.
"I love her as I never believed I could love." He was looking at the shadows in the far end of the study; a wave of sadness washed across his features, and I pitied him.
"Then I believe that they will love her, too. My father loves my mother with a faithfulness that astounds us, but his love for her keeps us able to love her, in spite of all her failings and faults. Personally, I think your children will have an easier time with loving their Mama."
In that year I spent a lot of extra time with my nieces and nephews and my brother-in-law. I was in Port Laughton at least two days a week, and almost every weekend. I was an extra pair of eyes on the five children, an occasional guest of Charles when he had social commitments. In fact I was there so much that Charles once again offered me the choice of living at the estate. Though I appreciated the thought, I declined; I couldn't give up my neighborhood companionship of Mary LeMay and Bodie and Andersol. Out of the tragedy of my broken marriage had come a blossoming life of love, and it was upon that love that I relied when my father died two years later, bringing a cascade of heartbreak and loss.