It was a season of change. For a time, my world had rotated around the sun of my neighborhood relationships; my best-friend status with Bodie and Andersol Talles, my pseudo-daughter position with Mary LeMay, my pseudo-mother figure with my nieces and nephews when they visited me. Both my sister Jesse and Mary's son John had plummeted into our midst like comets, like meteoroids, blowing our habits and ties into scattered bits that would have to re-form in new and different ways.
With Bodie and Andersol, the "best friend" had to suddenly take a back seat to the new romance, as Jesse and Bodie melted into one another like crayons in the hot sun. I understood that their engagement was more important than my occasional weekends and early morning gossip, I really did. The hard part was maintaining the "best friend" demeanor at first, getting over the odd feeling that Jesse had pulled an end run on me, taking over my friends and the (my) kids, and that the "best friends" had allowed that to happen with no consultation with me whatsoever. The screaming laughter of wine-tasting Saturdays with the Talles disappeared as they began traveling to the estate to visit on weekends, and if I was to see them, it was on Jesse's turf, where screaming laughter didn't seem quite as apropos.
John LeMay and I had been dumped into each other's presence by his mother, as both entertainment and possible love match. I resented both, but put up with it because of my love for Mary. But then, inexplicably, John hit it off with Andersol and Bodie, wrote to them frequently, talked with them on the phone, and rearranged his vacation dates and locales so as to visit not only in the Christmas season, but also in the middle of summer, so that he could go camping with us and the kids, all of whom decided they ought to learn how to speak with a genuine New York accent. We had a great time. Yet again, I felt that I had been superceded in entertainment value, and that I was on the far outside of new alliances that were being formed. John became fixed as one of their chums, and Andersol was perpetually reading me bits of his letters to them, or recounting his news from their phone calls, none of which I was particularly interested in hearing.
The second Christmas after Charles died, Jesse bought computers for the Talles and a new internet-capable one for me as gifts, so that we could all keep in touch easier by e-mail and later, when we'd become used to the computer age, by instant messaging. Apparently not only she, but also John had computers with which they communicated daily with friends far and near. Jesse and John had schemed together on the choice of Christmas gift. I was unconvinced of the computer's usefulness, until Charles' father died in January. Grudgingly I had to agree that e-mails were easier to answer than trying to keep up with the telephone's answering machine. And God knew that the post office took three days to get a letter from me to Jesse or Jesse to me, in spite of the fact that Port Laughton was less than two hours away. I awakened on a January morning at about five, checked my e-mail, found a message from Jesse that her father-in-law had passed away in the night, and so had my bags packed and my affairs in order by eight. By lunchtime I was at the estate to keep Charles' mother, Claire, company and help her through the various immediate steps that needed to be taken.
Jesse offered to do all the phone calling and running around, leaving the weeping children with me; I took her up on her offer -- I was grieving, too, for I'd liked the old man, and there was a relieved, triumphant look about Jesse that was out of place with the family's grief. Charles' father's death took down another hurdle to her next marriage to Bodie, and she was unable to hide her excitement. I suggested to her what all needed to be done, and she did all with efficiency. Claire and the kids and I holed up in "Aunt Sully's study" and listened to the fire crackle and to the radio set to a classical music station.
"Your grandfather," said Claire to the Five, "was a good man. We had 54 years together, and never in that whole time did he ever say anything to me that was unkind or hurt my feelings. You remember that, and try to be like him."
Marca and Owen looked at each other.
"He loved you all," she continued. "Kelsa, he loved how you laugh. He used to say to me that if everyone could laugh from the heart as you do, that no one would want to fight in wars ever again."
As Claire fell silent, Owen asked, "What about the rest of us?"
"Oh, Grandpapa said each one of you had such special gifts. Michel has the dignity of a king, he told me, he's never grumpy, he never slouches or shuffles or whines. He thought you would grow up to be the kind of person that others would see and say, 'I wish I could be like him.'" She gave him a squeeze with her arm, and he smiled a little and then burst into renewed tears. Claire hugged Oesha, too, who sat on her other side. "Oesha is the heart of the family, that's what Grandpapa told me. She's the one who loves and loves and loves and never fights with anyone. Without her, we'd be like spokes without a hub and all fly off in different directions. Oesha keeps us in touch with each other."
Damn, you're good, I was thinking to myself. You're setting each of the kids up not only to remember their grandfather when they do something good, but also to be rewarded by the old man's approval when they don't fight, don't sulk, don't pout. What would she say of Owen and Marca?
"And what do you think he said of you, Owen?"
"Grandpapa always told me that any time I didn't spend reading or practicing spelling was wasted," said Owen, his brow wrinkled.
Claire nodded. "He thought that the little books you write and illustrate were so entertaining. 'We've a writer in the family,' he told me. 'Be careful what you say or Owen will have you in a best-selling novel!'"
Marca's face was getting that lumpy look that preceded a flare of temper. That girl is going to have a history of high blood pressure, I thought. One wrong word from Claire and we're going to have slammed doors and broken ceramics tonight.
"What did he say about me?" she asked bluntly.
"He said he was proud of you for trying to take care of the rest. He would watch you tell your brothers and sisters how to behave or what to do, and ask me, 'Did you ever see a child so determined to be a caretaker?' He could see how strong you are, Marca. Once he said to me, 'There's the girl who could take the reins of the most willful horse.' You know your Grandpapa did grow up in a time when the automobile was just becoming popular, and his family still kept horses for carriages."
Marca seemed mollified. Claire gently continued, "Yes, he thought you do quite a job of taking care of your brothers and sisters. But he did tell me that he thought you ought to take a vacation now and then, just for your own health."
My heart wrenched as Marca unexpectedly smiled, and I saw my father's grin echoed on her face.
In the evening, after a subdued dinner at the formal table downstairs, we tucked the children in bed and Claire took her leave to retreat to her rooms. I stopped her in the hall. "What did your husband have to say about me? Anything?" I asked, much as the children had.
"He said that you should have been your sister," Claire said, and then turned her back and walked away.
Her words troubled me on two levels. On the first, they indicated rather pointedly that Charles' father had not had a high opinion of his daughter-in-law; as a matter of fact, that Claire was willing to tell me of his opinion made it clear that she shared it. Did Jesse know? Somehow I didn't think she would even care, but I felt a weight of sadness in my chest, the kind of feeling you have when things have gone badly, and you have no way to repair them. On a deeper level, the comment stung me: how could anyone who knew me at all wish that I was the one to marry into the Reich family? I would never have considered tying myself to the ponderous wealth of the estate. Certainly I had come to care deeply about Charles and his parents, but I was free to come and go at will, and I liked it that way. At no time had I envied anything of Jesse's married life, except the faithfulness of her husband. But to be in Jesse's shoes, having to watch every step, to wear the right kind of clothes and frequent the right kind of businesses? Hadn't I maintained my own household as a place for the children to escape those heavy burdens of propriety and manner? Hadn't I seen part of my mission in life to be providing a reality of dog-hair and garden-dirt for the kids to revel in? Hadn't I made it clear that I found this lifestyle artificial and lacking in spirituality?
Hadn't I? ricocheted off every wall the morning of Charles' father's funeral as I bathed in the deep, luxurious tub, and dried myself with thick towels that I had never seen show any signs of wear. Small clinking sounds let me know that my breakfast had been placed on the table in the hall outside my huge bedroom, and hadn't I? followed me, whispering as I put the rattan bed-tray with its breakfast on the oak table by the windows. For almost thirteen years, this had been my bedroom when I visited. I'd been consulted about colors and textures when the bed linens were replaced, or new rugs put on the floor. The room was kept clean and ready for me to visit at any time. When I put on my dark wool skirt, no dog hair floated up from the floor to cling to the fabric. The long cheval mirror revealed the hypocrite in her $300 tailored suit. She looked pale, puffy, and sullen.
God, when did I become so cranky and resentful? I asked myself, even though I knew the answer: when Bodie and Jesse became an item. Bodie and Andersol were supposed to be on my side when it came to riches. They were supposed to prefer the simple life and work hard until they retired. They were supposed to despise living at the estate and prefer their house in Riverton. But they didn't -- they loved Jesse. Suddenly I realized with a flush of shame that they loved Jesse so much they'd give up anything to be with her, and that I had been jealous because they loved her more than me.
Insulted by their willingness to embrace Jesse's life, I'd withdrawn, stubbornly refusing to accept their choice. The woman in the cheval mirror was calcifying, building layers of accusation against the rest of the world. She was pushing herself away, and if she was on the outside of things, it was because she was like a wayward cat and refused to answer the invitation to come in through the open door.
And my simple, spiritual, frugal standard of living in Riverton? That was still how I wanted to live, but I knew that I needed to drop the baggage of reverse snobbery, and quit pretending that Bodie and Andersol were choosing a fate worse than death. Would I really have preferred preparing for the funeral in the bleak quarters of the paint-peeling Motel 8 on the outskirts of Port Laughton? No, of course not.
When I laid a white chrysanthemum on the coffin of Charles' father, I whispered, "You really wouldn't have wanted me as a daughter-in-law. I'd have been raising guinea hens and sweet corn in the front lawns. Now you know all that. God rest you, and be free from that wretched responsibility. Amen."
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