Tomorrow is a federal holiday, Memorial Day, a day when citizens of the U.S. A. take time to reflect on those in Armed Forces whose lives have been lost in battle, and to also show respect for living veterans of so many wars.
I feel thoughtful and quiet as this day arrives. I have never forgotten a visit some years ago at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia. It is 624 acres, across from Washington, D.C. The first slain was interred in 1864, a casualty of the American Civil War. Today there are about four hundred thousand soldiers laid to rest in that ground.
That day as I walked among the graves of seemingly endless numbers, looking at the rows and rows of white headstones the grief was overwhelming, visceral, devastating as tears flowed from my eyes without sound. Such sorrow is so painful the body and mind fail to find relief. Immense numbers have served our country; so many lives have been sacrificed. Such an immeasurable loss for countless numbers of family members who were and are left to mourn. I have had family who served. I think of them on this day.
But Memorial Day is also a time when families and friends come together to reminisce, to enjoy good food, to share laughter and affection. We, too, will have family coming to our home in the afternoon, will be firing up the barbecue and sharing a casual feasting with the hum and rumble of convivial conversations. Counting blessings.
Praying for that most fervent and elusive of hopes to come true–for peace in this world–in my deepest heart.
Thus, I am not posting a short story as is expected on Mondays. Instead, I only want to share some photos from good walks I have had recently. I will be back with my usual fare on Wednesday.
All nature unveils dazzling secrets in the springtime, ones that poets commemorate and about which songwriters rhapsodize. The season symbolizes so many real and alleged delights one might feel puzzled if not also reveling in the thick of it. It is, after all, about instinct for most life forms. This is grand regenerative drama with visual spectacles of foliage and flower. It speaks to inherent power, a bringing forth of new life with enactments of birth, a transformation of the unseen into the seen. Spring heralds a sweeping panorama of beginnings that ask us to go along for the journey. Animal and vegetable kingdoms participate amply at nature’s demand.
For homo sapiens, it’s more complicated than straight forward instinct. But this time of year we become acutely attuned to renewal on every level. It makes sense this includes a sensitivity to and a longing for romantic love. Or its reinvigoration. Its fulfillment, we learn early, is a fundamental basis of continued human endeavors. Without the dynamics of love and a passionate sexuality that attends it, life can seem bland, indeed, not to mention there would be fewer long-term commitments, extravagant weddings and babies born. Eros–that impassioned love that sparks deep attraction between two people–is important, no doubt about it.
“Love makes the world go round” or so the song intones. The gaining of it, keeping it and losing it: we are all familiar with these sooner or later. It feels intrinsic to cycles of life as we imagine a true-love-with-commitment scenario. We spend a lifetime looking for it. Spend untold amounts of money and energy to attract those we hope to identify as “ours”. There’s a complex portion of the economy dedicated to ensuring people will nurture and pursue this urge, this incarnation of happiness. From physical enhancements to emotional strategies to conversational skills, there are endless resources to aid in gaining love and a partner. We are told seduction is necessary–sexual, mental, emotional–and if one is good enough at it, the end result ought to be triumphant. It all starts to sound like a competition. As within other natural kingdoms, people seem up against the fit and fitter and fittest, just with more variations and options. So the race is on for emotional and physical security. Continuation of the species. A lasting refuge in which to raise and tend family or just enjoy the loyal, fulfilling company of another. When it comes to that, Eros may have been sufficiently satisfied and partners may move on to another phase of love. But it is still likely the glue that bonded them initially.
All this can be enough to overwhelm. The expectations, entrenched longing, requirements that seem endless. For so many, images of couples strolling hand in hand by a riverbank as butterflies flutter about don’t match reality. Such romantic interludes can feel more like a rude swat at one’s self-esteem. What if there is not another person to stroll with? Or that person is not even close to what one imagined or things have lately been on the wane or on the rocks? In that case, springtime is not much different from any other season. Or it may be that spring with its beauty and bounty is a cut to the heart.
I’ve often thought there is far much emphasis placed on an overly romantic version of love. It can get in the way of possibilities. Distort what may be going on beneath a beguiling exterior of an enamored courtship. For all its flash and shout, Eros can be less than what was wanted in just a short while. Unless one isn’t even seeking the steady presence of a long burning flame. In which case, it may be enough. And then one moves on–and this may be on repeat.
I recall my burgeoning awareness of the male of our species. As all youth surely believe, there was one perfect soul mate out there for me. I felt all I had to do was send out signals and the beloved would appear. I was sure as anyone that I’d find someone or just be found, in a packed crowd on a sidewalk, in the rustling audience of a concert, at the lake on summer vacation. I’d fine-tune wishes and requirements, become very discerning. This would enhance the potential for life mate discovery. But in the final analysis it seemed a mighty, mysterious thing. Perhaps a beam would even be emitted from my soul, heart and eyes so the right one would recognize my plaintive call. And that would be that.
Well, maybe for penguins, eagles or armadillos. Not as much for humans. Though never say never. That love hope stuff isn’t easily eradicated. Nor should it be. The wisdom may reside in broadening one’s perspective of what it can be as well as how you tend to it to keep things healthy.
It has been noted (derived from the ancient Greeks) that there are at least four types of love. My loose interpretation is as follows: affectionate regard (dispassionate, empathetic, between friends), charity (unconditional good will toward others, a love of God), erotic (romantic/sexual love), and family/community love (acceptance, loyalty). As a teen and young adult, I liked the author (and Christian philosopher) C.S Lewis as well as his ideas about this very thing, so I read and pondered.
I was eager to learn more. I already knew what love of a friend was; I had very close friendships growing up and into adolescence, some of the most intense and trustworthy I’d ever sustain. I knew about love for and from God, as I had experienced spiritual security ever since I could recall. And my family? Well, they were my tribe, they were who I shared daily life with, the ones who connected me to the past and even my future. But romantic love was a surprise, as it is for everyone growing up. Perplexing. Intimidating in ways but alluring and chock full of possibilities.
I do admit that even as a youth, I wanted it all. Who does not? I longed for a best friend who could also be a sensitive lover, someone who shared with me a deep love for God. Plus, a suitable partner with whom to raise a family, eventually. And someone with significant, incisive intelligence and a need for outdoor activity and also it’d be best if he was well-versed in the arts. And engaged in creative pursuits. Was that too much to ask? If that was what I needed to share in order to be a fulfilled human being, then it just had to happen. I dispassionately evaluated each date in this fashion even as I was enjoying the movie or concert or bike ride with conversation. I sure wasn’t necessarily thinking of marriage, just a decent, longer (more than six weeks to three months) involvement with potential for a relationship.
Wishful thinking, as we know it, does not guarantee one thing. But I was indefatigable. To my surprise as time went by, there seemed to be more possibilities than not. There wasn’t just one guy who might be The Absolute One, there was one who was this and one who was that. And some a combination of diverse characteristics I didn’t even imagine. This was confounding to my youthful sensibility. It made it harder, by far. But love? Is that what I felt? I might have said likely not, or not fully or deeply enough. What I did note, on occasion, was an appearance of two or three of the four “love types.” I thought that might be enough. It was not.
In the midst of all this, something happened despite calculations and magical thinking. I found myself in love at around fifteen. The sort that convinces you that the other is meant to be at your side forever. The type that brings intoxication when in another’s presence, yet even basic conversation is equally magnetic. And silence can feel a purposeful, even profound communique.
He was two years older. He was a somewhat shy, soft-spoken person who was transformed by being on the stage in many school plays. A very good student. A master of easy if sometimes sparse conversation. The opposite of myself in appearance–those clear dark brown eyes and near-black hair, much taller, skin a tinge deeper–he held a masculine, unique grace that spoke volumes. He shared a love of God, felt steady in his faith. We enjoyed many of the same interests.
We could pass hours of quiet days and nights in our pretty town. Sit on a hillside or street curb, imagine creatures in clouds, cite mythic constellations. Talk about little or much. The sound of his voice stilled and stirred me. He was more restrained, cautious. I was bolder, more open. We seemed complimentary to one another and it felt good. I thought: this covers it, it’s all four loves, he must be the one–already, so soon. What next?
We were together through that year, off and on for another. Then he graduated. We’d had many discussions about faith and philosophy, life’s challenges, what we aimed to accomplish, how we might stay together. I wasn’t that clear about a life trajectory, nor was I sure I wanted to be yet. It began to feel more complicated. The love I felt was there; a deep attachment had occurred. But I had more to explore. He was on a proscribed path to a mapped out future. And then he graduated from high school. Headed to university far away.
You know how this goes. The literal distance was great. Our differences became more diverse and persistent. I was not ready for what I considered a most ordinary lifestyle, was not going to follow him into the desert. We each had experiences that left what was “us” farther behind. I embarked on more dates, then more mature relationships. I graduated, started college. Then every few years we would hear from one another or run into each other when visiting the home town. And still, the sound of his voice; the unspoken words in his gaze…they held something true and good for both. But it was not to be; we were living other lives. We could no longer be those two youths discovering love for the first time, but could keep it private and protected, a beautiful memory.
Most of us have that first revelatory relationship against which we measure all others a long time. But eventually I moved on and so did he: we grew up. I found my way to another intense and collaborative relationship with the man who became my first husband. And I even liked marriage, that common agreement among two who commit to the old “through thick and thin.” Nonetheless, it ended. But I tried marriage again. Loving and being loved is that meaningful and hopeful.
I can be alone and well at peace with solitariness, for I made friends with my own self long ago. Yet I am not someone–despite a few wilder leanings, some brazen forays into the greater world–who prefers to experience life without a partner, if possible. Not now, in any case, as my life season moves closer to my amber days and nights. I still value love, its vast life terrains, its mysteries of heart and soul, its physical landscapes. Who among us does not want love in our lives? But there is more than one sort if you recall. I want to again revisit these with their ancient Greek descriptors: agape (spiritual, the love for humanity), phileo (friendships or platonic love), storge (family, one’s community), eros (romantic love with sexual passion). Doubtless they overlap at times. Our experiences are defined by intentions and actions, our desires and chosen paths.
I am married, have been a long while to M. But I also have intense affection and love for my friends, allegiances that will remain as long as they are wanted, needed. Some friendships don’t last forever but that is alright, too. Without these casual or close friends I would be at a loss for countless small, even rare joys. I value comfort shared between two or more who respect and cherish one another as we each are. Friendship enlarges us. It instructs us in the ways of empathy, appreciation and acceptance. And my love for family is primal, so deep is the attachment, so instinctive my responses. My wider, more dilute appreciation of those who share similar interests as mine is significant to me. We are a community even if we do not have frequent contact (hikers, writers groups, music appreciators)–or any except virtual (like a blogging community).
But my love for God is my greatest love. No matter my troubles, no matter what changes; despite failed relationships or loss of health or career impasses; regardless of whether I am happy, foolish or intimate with darker moments–I know there is always love for me. I long ago acknowledged life as lived within reach of the Divine Creator and it has remained so, first and last. I was born into such love; I believe we originate from God. Thus, return to a homeland, an everlasting existence within God’s eternity. Never have I lost my love for God although life has kicked me hard at times and I have fought back and have been alone. Because not once has God forgotten me, only waited for me to reconnect. I am as sure of God’s Presence this moment as I was as a small child when I found myself in the presence of angels. God bears our sorrows and knows our yearnings and shows us the way to fulfillment even here on earth. I am reminded daily of ineffable connections to an infinite universe. The God I know energizes and protects our very essence. Such Love is the source of all others.
I do not need anyone to tell me I am valued, worthy of love. It wasn’t always so simple; the lesson has been well learned year by year, with regard and the loss of it to teach me. But it has become a truth that aids me in living well despite trials and tribulations. I have been fortunate to care for and be cared about by many. And I do know that we can each be one heartbeat away from devastation even as we seek love. It is part of the damaging workings of this world, the errors and blindness. Yet we need to reach to others; it is in our earthly nature. Mending from our brokenness we still have the urge to offer and accept love; it is our spiritual destiny.
So if during this springtime you see quintessential young lovers and feel the acuteness of your present aloneness, try to not bemoan it much. Reach out to someone, anyway, a smile, a helping hand. Offer a word of cheer to the harried neighbor. Nod warmly at the old lady crossing the street with her cart. Hold someone who needs it–a friend, a family member– gently, tenderly, for a moment. Whatever you are able to do will make a difference that links you to another–we are built this way on purpose. So find authentic ways to give of yourself. To care without demands.
Rediscover the comfort and awe of your spiritual belief or go in brave search of it. There are marvels to behold. What you kindly share will be returned if you allow yourself to open, then again and again. It is meant for you to know and nurture all this variety of love.
“I sure don’t know how I ended up like this…oh, never mind, I’m just in a mood today. It will pass.”
Evangeline pushed the stroller along without a hitch despite her girth and tired feet. They moved arm-in-arm at a good pace through the green lit spaceship of the park. Rita always felt they were walking into a fantasy world after leaving her grey office made uglier with its fluorescent lights, odd odors snaking in the doorway, phones jangling her brain. Here it was shimmery with color, shaped by sunlight, shadows and reflections. Sweetness.
Rita checked her companion, someone she trusted with her infant son, Riley. She wasn’t sure if the older woman meant how she ended up as a caretaker of Riley twice a week or something else. It was usually something other than what she imagined. Rita didn’t always get her, felt there was much more than she’d ever know about her white-haired friend.
“And maybe I’ll tell you how, but for now we’ll enjoy the walk with the little one. You catch me up on work. How was fussy Mr. Reynolds today?”
Rita tucked the light blanket about Riley’s baby fists, two pale flower buds that one day would open and grab and never let go of her. Evangeline pushed an arm through the crook of hers and Rita felt her weight shift, wondered if her feet hurt. She’d never say so.
“Mr. Reynolds is on vacation for a week. All of us women in billing are celebrating with wine at lunch. We sit on our desks, share our food and what we really think and drink until we get goofy.”
Evangeline kept pushing the stroller as she studied her from under thick silver eyebrows. “No, you don’t.”
“Yeah, but we should. We do share lunches from our desks sometimes. Then some of us go to the courtyard and share leftovers with birds. You should come sometime; we could have a little picnic on my lunch hour, you, me and Riley.”
“No thanks. Hospitals are like giant vacuums; they pull you in and you might not ever get back out. Let me waste away at home.”
“Evangeline, you have a dark viewpoint, a real deficit of faith in modern medicine among other things. Healing happens, too.”
“So you say. Best to stay well and alive.”
Riley opened his round eyes and let out a squawk that seemed like surprise inside distress, clenched hands flailing.
“See, Riley knows.” She slowed. “There’s a bench. Let’s get out of the sun.”
They sat above the pond where there was good view of turtles on a log, ducks floating in tandem with their partners, and a handful of people on the other side. Rita took out Riley and let him sniff the piney, flowery breeze, eye the treetops and water. He looked startled, his sweet mouth dripping drool, soft brown eyes wide.
“So has Neal been by this week?”
Rita shrugged as if to say it was no big deal. Evangeline knew better. Neal was a chef on his way to somewhere–this city seemed a stopping off spot. He had paused at Rita’s way too long, she thought–and now seemed to have a lackadaisical interest in son and beleaguered mother. He was one of those handsome talented rats but she didn’t dare say it. Rita thought of her as a good-natured, grandmotherly type when in fact she had a heart like a pinball more and more lately. It hit all the right points some days but others it jammed up and stalled out. Literally and figuratively. Well, it was getting close to the anniversary date she wanted to ignore.
“He called twice, is coming by Thursday morning. Maybe Wednesday night and then, well, I don’t know. He helps out financially. Neal adores Riley, he finds him perfectly lovable. He’s just busy a lot.” She saw the scowl of disapproval on Evangeline’s face.”You just aren’t around him much.”
Evangeline placed her knobby hands upon ample thighs, leaned forward. Held her tongue. The water was shot through with streaks of turquoise. She liked the turtles and blue heron best, they sat still and that rested her mind.
She had become fond of Riley and liked being there with Rita. The hours felt longer when she didn’t have baby duty. Rita had her sister across town take care of him, mostly. Certainly not Neal. Their apartment building, Mistral Manor Apartments, emptied out early in the day except for the new tenant in his wheelchair on the first floor. Evangeline hadn’t met him yet. He was not likely her type of person, she could tell by the way he often dressed in a shiny burgundy sport coat from nineteen fifty–the man had to be around sixty–and how he sang to himself often, as if everyone in the world wanted to be entertained by that nasally voice. He never removed his tweedy grey hat. He would leave at night and no one would see him til two in the afternoon. Rita said he was a musician, which confirmed Evangeline’s worst suspicions. She didn’t ask what he played; she didn’t want to know. She said he couldn’t possibly sing on stage, too, could he? And Rita laughed as if she was kidding, it was very likely he did.
“I’m thinking of having some people in the building over for dinner. Want to come?” She turned and smiled, as if to ensure her sincerity.
Evangeline patted Riley’s back although he was snuggled in Rita’s arms. He got hiccups a lot, she noticed, too much air gulped down when he ate, maybe, and she resolved to pay better attention when she gave him his bottles.
“If that so-called musician isn’t coming.”
“Well, he might. And maybe four or five others. Neal, too–he’ll cook, actually.”
“I might help you get ready, but don’t know if I’ll stay. Though it’d be interesting to sample your son’s father’s cuisine. Maybe.”
Rita almost told her to not bother then, but suspected the old lady–was she 69? 75?–she’d never asked and it was hard to tell– would come, even arrive early to set the table and bounce Riley on her lap. There was a good person inside that dour countenance. Maybe she’d actually enjoy herself if she got to know the neighbors better. Riley burrowed his face into her shoulder and burped.
“Must you?” she called down from her balcony overhanging the courtyard.
He was down there, that man in the wheelchair, with the rusty vocal chords, and he was singing as if the birds were his privileged audience. “Spring is Here” was the name of the old tune; she recognized it. She preferred the robins with their repetitious eruptions. He’d fallen down a ravine when hiking, she’d heard. She ought to be kinder; she’d try harder but it would take more than practice.
He lifted his hat to her. It made her think of her ex-husband’s–well, he was dead, also–though his was always straw, elegant. Panama hat. Evangeline could see the neighbor was bald, head round and speckled like a giant egg.
“Yeah, I must, I admit it! I wake up singing even if it is midday, don’t you know? I have tunes running where thoughts line up in other people’s heads.” He rapidly turned the wheelchair wheels and came to a halt beneath her third floor balcony. “You don’t ever sing, my dear?”
Evangeline put down the cup of tea she had been nursing. It was cold now. Did he say dear? “No, the thought doesn’t occur to me, thankfully.”
“See, that’s the problem–people need to think less, sing more.”
“Imbecile,” she muttered to herself but grinned down at him.”Well, have a pleasant day, off with you and your songs. Please.”
He had to shout above the sudden rattle and roar of a truck on their street. “Now this is problematic! But I know we can come to an amicable resolution. I make music a lot. I come outside here to exercise a bit and get fresh air.” The truck moved on but his volume remained. “It’s one reason why I rented this place! Okay, I’ll bring it down a notch.” He paused to readjust his volume. “But I think the outdoor space galore is great not to mention vintage interiors. And I have a patio, too.”
“Vintage? Is that what you call it? Cheap, that’s how I call it, but it suits me. Well, then, Mr.–”
“Van. Van Garner. I’m ‘that blasted musician’–a trumpeter by the way– I’ve heard you try to avoid.”
“–Mr. Garner, I will certainly try to respect your needs if you will try to respect mine. A softer sound might do the trick.”
“Alright, I’ll try for your sake…” He spun away from her, then spun back. “Coming to Rita’s and Neal’s dinner Saturday? I hear he’s quite the master of his trade.’
She sniffed, put finger to nose, then sneezed hard, twice. The creeping roses had burst into bloom last night. Or it was Van’s presence. People could make her feel allergic. “I may.”
“Guess I’ll see you there. Rita says you’re great with Riley. A mighty fine boy!” And he wheeled through the courtyard, out the gate, was gone in search of a decent newspaper and magazine stand.
Evangeline closed the book she had been reading. Stared into the trees until the fine new leaves blurred. Wasn’t it enough that she had been reduced to staying at this place? Three years it was, now. But she had to be friendly with people she often preferred to avoid. She might have to reconsider the senior housing as her daughter in New York had urged. She hadn’t wanted that, not yet. She was only 71. Had good health or rather her ticker got a bit tricky but otherwise she was strong–she still took a walk an hour each day–she was apparently lucid, she had decent sleep and appetite. She could lose a few inches and pounds but ach, it was too late, too much work.
Her old house, too, had far more than required for her own good. Dusty things and memories and unused rooms. She had retired, finally, from the county library system. She’d made the reasonable decision and found smaller was better, cheaper was best, and as long as she could climb stairs–there was an antiquated elevator she rarely took, it was creaky and cranky and threatened to drop them all–this place was it.
She returned to the conversation with that wheel-chaired musician with a blasted musician’s kind of name to boot: “Van Garner.” That Van had said Rita thought she did a good job with Riley. No, ‘great,” he’d said. A rare happiness spread through her body and moved among a number of synapses in her brain. She recalled raising Natalie-in-New-York–now so successful, very out of reach. It had been fun for a long time, mothering. Now there was Riley and he was even better; she could return him but she could anticipate seeing him regularly. She knew he didn’t have a thought for or against her, she was a squashy, toasty hug, she was an expert with a milk bottle, a way to while the day away and inhabit safe haven for until his mother rejoined him once more. Riley was so curious and cheerful and untainted that his beauty could remediate the world. Slay dragons with a guileless gurgle. Babies were powerful, she was sure of it. Evangeline must tell him the next time he blew a bubble with his spit.
And Rita said it out loud, that she did a great job? Well. She took out her tissue and pressed it to her nose so as not to sneeze again, not to sniffle. That was a little something, wasn’t it? It was some comfort to count, a feeling of being worthwhile that she’d recall in a stretch of unremarkable days and gently emptied nights.
She wondered what she might find in her closet to wear to dinner. Did folks still dress up for dinner parties? She wondered if Van would keep his hat on at the dinner table like her once-husband used to until she pinched his thigh under the table. Would he sing and if he did, could she just leave? And maybe chef Neal would prove he deserved Rita’s loyalty and caring with a demonstration of cooking prowess, then give them all one fool-proof sign of his love.
“He really shouldn’t do that,” Mike stated as the expert he was, a therapist whose practice was small but growing and included families. His wife, Ellie, another expert, shook her head. They had no children of their own yet.
They were observing Riley gnawing and sucking on a chicken drumstick bone Neal had offered him. The meaty well-seasoned main course was being arranged with the rest for serving. Rita was fine with it. Evangeline was, too. She had given her own Natalie interesting things to mush or nibble, even play with. They were having an Indian dish called Tandoori Chicken and Evangeline had missed the preparation since she was helping out with Rile. It smelled delectable, she had to admit. She didn’t often explore cuisine nowadays, but Indian was a favorite. She watched Riley in his automated swing and babbled back at him without restraint when Van arrived.
He had taken the elevator. Perhaps never again.
“It sputtered and took a time out for something twice. I thought it was stuck and I’d have to shake the iron grating to get it moving or holler for help. I whistled a little. Then it roused itself from its sloth and got us back on track. An adventure to the fifth floor of Mistral Manor! With a name like that what do I expect? It felt like some old ‘Twilight Zone’ outtake and was worth the trouble. Ah, smells heavenly.” He tipped his hat at everyone. “And a hello to you, Evangeline. You got all gussied up, I see.”
She blushed in spite of her irritation. She had put on a long navy linen skirt, a warm weather favorite plus a white voile blouse with a ruffle along the V-neck. She had put on pearl earrings, discreet ones. Her long hair had been carefully washed, air-dried half the day, then reassembled into its heavy chignon. After all that her arms nearly ached. A hint of perfume, something Natalie had sent her for Christmas. It had an amber note to it, exotic, she thought. She seldom used more than an herbal blend talcum.
“And you smell good,” whispered Rita. “You look pretty.”
“Oh,” she replied, a bit overcome by such nonsense.
“Shall we gather at table?” Neal called out.
There were seven of them altogether, eight if you counted Riley, and they filled the long modern glass and steel table. The place settings were white and blue ceramic. Fran, the seventh guest and Rita’s youngest sister, had set it and it sparkled with a bouquet of pink and red peonies. The sisters each in their 30s, and the older woman in her 70s, had chatted at their leisure. Evangeline marveled at the young women’s poise and eloquence. Confidence. She wondered for a split second if Natalie was thought of that way, and hoped so, and felt a sharp pang for her.
Dinner was enchanting and lingered over. The offerings were delicious with seasonings both correct and just enough, not so strong as to drag you into an uncomfortable night. And there was Pino Gris, a wine she had drunk rarely. In fact, she didn’t really drink but this was an exception. Everyone talked about politics, abut upcoming city festivals and concerts, the building repairs needed and the cost of real estate, a real crime these days. Their needs and wants and aspirations. Evangeline chimed in on some topics but it was books that hooked her–and them. Her knowledge was diverse and well honed since she was a librarian her entire working life.
“Poets?” She responded to Van’s question about naming favorites. “Well, no one can disagree that Rilke is one of the finest of all time! And Blake, Merton, Whitman. Neruda. And I rather love Denise Levertov and there is Theodore Roethke… There’s a whole slew of interesting poets. Have you read Joy Harjo, a Native American poet? Mislosz. Mary Oliver. Well, I could bore you all night, and I have yet to catch up on the newest, not since my library days…”
They were enrapt but confessed ignorance of most, how was it that she could read so much? She felt a little foolish after the gush of enthusiasm so she started on her third glass of wine. Then invited them to peruse her personal bookshelves any time.
Evangeline gave it one last shot, leaning into the animated group. “Give poetry a good try. It seems to me it’s necessary to the development of incisive thought, health of the soul. Even young Riley should hear poetry, at least as soon as he can speak a little. Try Shel Silverstein, for one.”
Mike and Ellie agreed with this statement. They had heard from friends that he was a beloved children’s author, so placed a couple of books in their waiting room along nature and sports magazines. They played classical music, too, for their patients–was that going a bit too far, did anyone think?
Neal looked exasperated. “Do whatever you want, they’re captive–yours for an hour!”
“I still have my favorites from when I was a kid,” Rita said, rocking her tired and cranky son to sleep in the kitchen.
Neal gave the boy a kiss on the forehead. “I don’t read poetry, didn’t as a kid, but give me a book of recipes, and I’m in heaven. ‘Ode to Mangoes’ or ‘Salad Days of the Young and Hungry’ might get and keep my attention. I may well have to write a volume of food poems for our son– for a proper introduction to literature and food, a primer of good taste pairings.”
They all laughed and raised their glasses to him. Evangeline was heartened that this man had turned out to be smarter and kinder than she had imagined.
Van had listened without much commentary on the poetry topic, studying Evangeline as she spoke. He removed his hat now that he was anticipating a small cup of tea and a French macaroon. He ran his hands over his bare, freckled pate. Then he set the hat on a side table behind him, gave it a pat.
“And then there’s music,” he said.”Everyone loves music, there’s something for all, and it’s as essential as any other creative form. More so, it runs way deep into our most primitive being. What about your musical tastes, Evangeline? Shall I sing to encourage your response”
“Heavens, no! And I suspect story runs deeper still–it is entwined with song,” she demurred, “but alright, I suppose there may be some truth in it. There are certain sorts of music I like. But I don’t listen much. I like silence more often than not–unless I’m with superior company.”
Again they laughed, agreed, raised their glasses, and then more wine was poured. She had the vague sensation that she had come close to her limit, that three glasses was quite enough for a quite occasional drinker. She had become loquacious and far too open already. It was fortunate she had only to descend two floors to collapse into bed after farewells. Yet her own hand-blown, sapphire-colored glass was held aloft, too. She liked that they used such glasses, not the fancy cut-crystal goblets she had noted in a rustic china cabinet. They had a unique way of doing things, dear Rita and that Neal, and somehow their gracious dinner had become a portal into a more fortuitous future. A happier passage that had space and time for her aging as well as their eager youth.
“And that would be what music choices?” Van pressed. He sipped from his sea green glass with a careful pleasure, as if it was the elixir of the wise. His eyes telegraphed his new lady friend–was she going to be that? was he really getting that old, too? or was he just drunk?–a firm encouragement for her to continue.
Evangeline raised her shoulders, then squared them above her considerable chest. But everyone took notice of her beautiful hair in the candlelight. She pursed her lips. Once full-mouthed, a feature men’s eyes used to linger over, her lips were now visible only due to a ghostly outline of a raspberry lipstick she had slicked on hours ago. It had been fun yet she didn’t want to speak of music. But it seemed to want to be spoken of since she had intuited in Van a person who might understand some things, without too much fuss. She could be wrong, though.
“Well, I used to like, no adore might be the better word, my husband’s music. He was.. a musician, you see, played bossa nova in a band from South America. We took risks, were crazy in love as they say. His band was called –you likely haven’t heard of it–Laguna Azul, translation being Blue Lagoon. He was a–”
“Laguna Azul? Are you kidding me? You mean with band leader Eladio Barella? Then there was Fredric Gavion on sweet guitar, and Carter Templeton, the great vibraphonist! He was in that Brazilian band?”
Her heart dropped as if it had been on their faulty elevator. It hadn’t occurred to her that Van might know of them, it was twenty years now. A lifetime. But there it was, her past brought up in Technicolor, as if it all took place last week.
“Yes, Carter. That was my husband. For thirty years. We loved to dance, you see, tango, samba and the bossa nova, all that. I met him in a club on a random side street while on vacation. It was Rio and I was only 21. I traveled courtesy of my wealthy, tres chic aunt who chaperoned me, in her way. Carter was older. I heard him play and then there was a second band and for some reason I got up and marched right to him and said brazenly, ‘That was the most perfect music I have ever heard’ and he asked me to dance. That was it. We got married six months later on a ship headed to Greece. The honeymoon lasted for years…”
“Evangeline, that’s awesome!” Rita said, sitting on Neal’s lap, her arms wrapped about him. Even Mike and Ellie were sitting hand in hand while Fran looked on from the kitchen after putting Riley to bed. She sighed loudly, filled her glass, threw back the wine.
“Carter Templeton, that is amazing,” Van breathed. “I can’t wait to hear the stories you have about him.”
And then it all hit her, the spices and herbs and wine, the strange and voluminous openness she was offering to all. The truth of what had happened to her all that time ago. The anniversary of his death was tonight. Her eyelids lowered until she could just see a soft luminescence from the candles’ light; her voice lowered.
“He’s dead. You know that, surely, Van. It happened this very date. He went down, down, down into the sea in a chartered plane, an accident while on tour…the whole band and pilots drowned in the Caribbean. Terrible–and their band’s name, and then that…” She slid a glance toward him. His sudden unease was as sad as her own. “We had divorced two months earlier. And then he had to die, can you imagine?”
The room emptied of movement, of talk and a silence came that was so deep, a sensation so dizzying, Evangeline thought she had perhaps fallen asleep, was leaving that convivial room, leaving the earth or she had been dreaming, and it was a dream she wanted to wake up from and then forget once and for all. Carter’s being there, and their taking leave of one another after too much time apart and distance and then came misplaced longings with terrible errors made. His dying as if to further spite her, to avoid what he might have had to face, their love tossed aside, as did she. But it was Evangeline who had carried the wonder and burden of his musical legacy, along with memories of their happiness finally ruined by a failure to start anew.
She fell forward, then sideways, that soft, lined face meeting up with metal. A thud with cries that shook the room.
Evangeline sat on the hill at the park, Riley slumbering beside her. He had just turned ten months old. It was late afternoon, and soon she would take him back to his mother–and his father. They were already packing, would be heading to Seattle to further Neal’s career as a rising chef. It would be hard to say farewell. Always there were farewells to be made, more than ever this decade, she imagined. But they had told Evangeline that she could visit any time. She’d have a spot even if it meant sharing it with Riley at first. That thought was a pleasant one.
The heron was perched on top of a tree that was dead. He often was there. From that vantage point he could see things coming. She thought that was not so desirable when all was said and done.
The whistling came to her on the breeze. She recognized the song–“Stairway to the Stars”–and when Van plopped down beside her she didn’t turn to look at him but continued to watch the heron.
“I brought lunch. Did you bring the wine? ” He handed her a container of noodles and chopsticks.
“Ha! You know better than that. I brought carrot cake slices. Baked it yesterday.”
“It’ll still be tasty.” He looked her over. “You look good in red. And your nose looks fine again. It took awhile, huh?”
“Well, that night was a shock to all my systems. A broken nose was the least of it, I had hidden our lives–his fame and tragedy– so long after he passed. Now stay tuned for part three.”
“All of us felt it. Thank goodness you hit my wheelchair and my knees before you broke anything more.”
Evangeline’s laugh made her jiggle and she dropped noodles on her lap. “Yes, you sort of saved me. And I never thought I’d even talk to another musician.”
“Never thought I’d be hanging out with an older woman. Sharing some tunes and stories.”
He touched her arm lightly and she turned her head and smiled at him. They ate noodles and watched the heron until he slipped off the branch, swooped down, around and then floated on an updraft into brighter sky.
I still can get the usual disbelieving look with questions when it comes to light that I’ve raised five children, and the askers seem even more surprised than forty years ago. We look at family matters and population numbers from a different perspective today, though even then it drew attention. Still, it’s only five children, not ten, not fifteen. The question was always felt as a small jolt.
“Five–so close in age! You’re too skinny to have had so many. How do you deal with so many?”
As if weight had anything to do with birthing infants but back then I was 105 pounds sans the unborn, fully dressed. Being pregnant made me look and feel like a full-sized adult and truly robust.
It was the sort of question that was asked by anyone: a younger stranger slumping against her shopping cart as two little boys batted her legs with hands full of chewing gum and cupcakes; an older couple observing us from a table beside ours in a restaurant; a casual friend at a preschool babysitting cooperative with an infant whose upper register screeching was enough to make her cover both ears. And then there were those whose inquiring looks said enough: I could be–oughtto be–working at a real job, not popping out babies, being a housewife. It was, after all, the 1980s. Sometimes I may have felt inclined to agree, but still.
It always caught me off guard. Was there fear in their voices, that I had something contagious they might catch? Or was there a smidgen of admiration based upon the scenario of the moment–all five children kindly behaving like civilized beings? Or was this some seepage of disdain since anyone knew by then that people might actually prevent such things as big families? Or, wait, was I Catholic? (“No” would be my answer to that.)
What was the appropriate response?
“Yes, we have these four daughters and a son. Ages? Well…four are about six months apart and the little one is six years younger than the next-to-last.”
That silenced most. Often I’d heard all four daughters looked a lot like me. And the one son, too, in fact. But how was this possible? They would scrutinize my husband and me. Said spouse had a certain look–was he Hispanic or Italian or part something else–with very curly hair some kids shared–and I had another altogether, WASP-y. Smile, nod and they moved on. A pleasant smile covers certain faux pas or a revelation of curious thoughts and feelings. We would smile back, shepherd the kids along.
I knew what they were thinking: those cannot all be their real kids. Adopted? No, I wanted to call after them, not that either, nice try. Just not all biologically my/his own, that’s all I’d say if someone pressed the point. I was certain this could not be so odd a reality. Divorce, remarriage and subsequent stepfamilies were–cue an exaggerated cultural “gulp”–happening more and more by the seventies and eighties. Like it or not.
So I explained to those who truly cared: “I have two daughters who are my non-biological kids. My husband was raising them primarily for a bit–I know, not usual. So that means he has two kids who also aren’t biologically his own as I had two when we got together. Then we had one of our own.”
That didn’t tell the whole story. Not that they should be privy to it–who even asks personal things about one’s family on the street, in a store, across the neighborly fence?
I had been informed before marrying the first time that it would be almost impossible for me to have children. I didn’t think too much about it, really. I had not been a great babysitter. I had passionate dreams, percolating ideas and wanted to be a writer, at the least. I had started college with plenty to do. But then it happened, even though it turned out I also had the medical condition of placenta previa. Pregnancies would be high risk. Every child was born prematurely (my first daughter, N., arrived two and a half months early when little was known about preemies), but they flourished nonetheless as I recovered. I found motherhood surprisingly enthralling, meaningful, life affirming. But I wasn’t looking for more children.
Then, at age 30, I ended up with a suspect title created in part by arbiters of social mores and conventional language. It had long been reviled in fairy tales: stepmother. It sounded utterly foreign. It seemed a glib moniker, not a real thing. A nom de plume. All the while I–primarily, respectfully, deeply–felt like a regular mother with just a couple more kids.
I had in fact known the girls, C. and A., even before their arrivals, because I knew their birth mother. We met in college, knew one another via classes, husbands and shared interests in fine arts and politics. She and I both wrote and participated in poetry readings. We attended events and groups for women only, were creative, hippie-feminists at heart. I was married to Ned, a talented sculptor intent on obtaining his Masters’ degree, and she to Marc, a fine singer-songwriter/music student who was just about to go to work full-time. She and I each had one daughter close to the same time. And then each had a second child on the way. We also lived four houses from one other. Our men were friendly enough but busy. So were we, though I took fewer classes when my son, J., came into the world. His father wrapped up his degree program. My friend continued her education while her spouse started what became an upward bound career in manufacturing.
Our children saw each other fairly often, played together. I babysat her daughters; she, my daughter and son. We bonded over nursing woes and success. Sought each other when fraught with frustration or worries. We lugged them all to the park, to our women’s meetings, made up stories for them, sang lullabies and folk songs to them when we gathered with friends. There were moments that shone like magic, young mothers and fathers, moonlight and bonfires, skinny dipping in the lake, sleepless times battling illness with our babies. Tears mixed with laughter and hugs. And we kept writing, encouraging each other. We adored creativity, women’s fight for more rights; valued adventures and milestones within our families. But I could see she got distracted, was perhaps not so suited for the business of housekeeping, the strain of child rearing. Some women, I knew, adapted better than others. Marc took over more responsibility as time went by. To some, that seemed odd, though by then more fathers were readily available, even very engaged with parenting. We certainly believed we were at the progressive edge.
In a couple of years we moved apart, onward with our lives. We lost touch though there were occasional meet-ups as our paths crossed again. And then, nine years later, we became two couples with children who were getting divorced. It happens. For me it was a cataclysmic heartbreak, a failure of a love that I had thought would last forever.
By the time I ran into Marc back in the old college town I was there to try to finish my B.A. It turned out he had rented a house one street across from my new apartment in an old carriage house. He was supervisor at the same plant he had begun working at and felt he’d advance more. I hadn’t worked away from home; I had followed my ex-husband from place to place as he worked construction and made art. I was trying to write, was raising two children, dealing with a few issues I hadn’t anticipated. It could be hard, but I was not bored. My daughter and son were illuminations in my daily life.
“It’s great to see you, we should catch up more,” he said. “But do you think you might be able to babysit occasionally? I don’t like the one we have.”
“What about their mother?” I asked.
He looked away. “She’s not around as much; C. and A. live with me most of the time.”
And that’s how it all started again. I began to care for C. and A. almost daily, between studies and caring for N. and J., my own. Before all divorces were finalized, the mother of the girls came to see me. She had suggested Marc have actual custody though it might be joint custody on paper. I knew by then there was sense to this though it was sad to me. She then shared that if there was anyone she’d want to take care of her children, it would be me. She knew I loved them already. I never forgot that difficult talk. It heralded a sea change in everyone’s lives.
So Marc and I ended up together, to our surprise. I gave birth to my third child, our last daughter. She was added to four others as another cherished inhabitant within an expanding realm. As far as I was concerned, we were just a family. “Blended”, “mixed (a multiracial family)” or “step”: it all fit us. But I was just a mother according to what I experienced and Marc a father, and we had our hands full. Our children were 6 and 6 and 1/2; 7 and 7 and 1/2 when we married. And then came the new baby.
What has it really been like to live as a “non-blood” or “stepmother” of two and “blood mother” of three? Even those quotation marks look ridiculous. I ask you: what is it like to care for any children? There are only a few variances from any other American family. Most I have forgotten as they are adults now, even nearing middle age. I get good birthday cards and Mother’s Day greetings and we text or talk several times a week, even daily. We get together whenever we can. We have weathered it all, it seems, and the good stuff stays with us.
There have certainly been arduous but surmountable issues. A good-sized household of children close in age creates obstacles and rewards peculiar to this–like how does everyone use the one bathroom we had in a couple of houses to get ready for school and work in time? Very careful scheduling with humane flexibility–plus any of the four girls can share a bathroom as needed. And if the one boy absoultely must, he just must come in. Parents may wait longer but they have certain rights, too.
How does all that laundry get done? The heaps and mounds of it, espcially as they hit adolescence? I spent a lot of nights up past one a.m. There was even ironing back then. But they eventually were old enough to help. If they refused, dirty clothes were scooped up, put in a garbage bag in the laundry area until they did a couple of their own loads. And mealtime required everyone’s assistance with setting a table, clearing it, washing up dishes. Hopefully, I could find the kids that had each chore but if not, anyone would do. Chore lists were mandatory, though.
But I am called “Cynthia”, still, by C. and A. because I am not their birth mother. It did not and does not hurt my feelings to hear my first name rather than “Mom.” I never asked that they pretend I am their own mom. When they have seen her they’ve had their experience with her as her children. But they know I count them as mine, as well. I know they love me because I hear it often, can tell by their actions. Just as my three birth children. Each one is so different as a person and my child. I’m not convinced the “non-bio v. bio” constitutes that difference.
But neither did I ask of C. and A. what I would not ask of the others and vice versa. There were tasks to be distributed according to efficacy or schedules. Everyone got the same amount of juice in their glasses and there was enough chicken or pie–or none. Each got a chance to explore what they loved according to resources available. Not everyone had every extracurricular activity desired but they got to try new things. All the girls took dancing as they wanted to and were in recitals. Since I love to dance, we danced at home to all sorts of music in any room. A couple of daughters preferred to make art. Some kids enjoyed music and played instruments. They all put on entertainment shows in the living room. Others liked sports in school or outside of it and the family played baseball, basketball, kickball, badminton and more. We ice skated, roller skated and took hikes and bike rides. A daughter was in track. My son loved BMX biking; he skateboarded before it was popular. We held the expectation for each that they would study each day and do well academically; they were able to do so it was non-negotiable. I helped them with homework each night; if Marc was there (he even then traveled for work), he also did.
Regarding my husband’s work and travel: I used to think it was harder to be a parent who was often alone. I would get pretty tired and sometimes I sulked. But I was born with a long-lasting, high level of energy, a plus. I could be alone among a flurry of children and be alright. It got easier. I missed having that balancing input from a partner. I wished there were more hands and feet to get things done faster. At night when I flopped into bed and sudden creaks arose from the basement or back of the house, I missed his presence even as I got up with heavy duty flashlight in hand, eyes wide open. I missed him, let’s be honest, when there were five against one, the one being me. And when the two non-biological daughters didn’t like my viewpoint and dictates, they certainly cried out for his listening ear. Well, they all did at times. Though our parenting tended to be a matter of staying in accord about most things. When we were not, we had some arguments but things got settled. One compromises to preserve the state of the union and keep a steady rudder for the kids.
I can hear you thinking: this was about being a stepmother, right? Where’s all that material?
Well, you’re getting it, bit by bit. I am sharing the situation I knew and lived. If this essay were to be more dramatic tonight, it’d be a short story. I can’t share all the adventures. Maybe more another time. This was not an all roses and moonlight life. But it was not a horror show.
Each day when they arrived after school, I wanted to hear what had happened, how they were doing. I wasn’t working in a paid human services job in earlier years so was waiting. I anticipated that time of the day, for they would tell me stories, small and big accomplishments, their disappointments and hopes. The dining room table was a kind of scared space, meant for dining but also meant for everything else that mattered, prayers, discussions, even board games, which we enjoyed often. We held family meetings there. Those did help calm fussiness, resolve conflicts, encourage more effective communication. They broke up the times of spontaneous tussles, the yelling and demands announced and occasional blood-letting when nothing else helped for long.
I have to mention one thing that helped us know one another better: no one watched much television. and Marc and I controlled what they saw. No overt violence, nothing that could sour their young view of life or be haunted by out sized fears. That was unnecessary. The world proffered enough harshness and danger. If we could give them more than love, it would be chances to use and develop their bodies and minds to their advantage. That meant taking them to science and art museums, to as many concerts as we could afford, to parks and libraries, camping and travelling, visiting family and friends. Encouraging them to be open to experiences not so familiar, like summer day camp in the grandparents’ city.
When I returned to significant (for me) work at age 35 (32 hours/wk.) and they were in elementary and middle school, then high school–and it got more complicated. But it was everyone’s schedule that was the challenge, not so much the parenting. I was lucky and got a job across the street at the then-largest Detroit area senior services center, working with disabled and elderly clients. First I worked with severely impaired adults in Adult Day Care, then became Home Care Manager for 350 homebound clients. I oversaw around 150 employees and developed programs. I was home aorund the time they were home. How I loved that work. I often wished I had three times the energy and more time at home as well as at work.
You are perhaps still wondering: what does all this ordinary domestic stuff have to do with step parenting? That is, in fact, my point. There wasn’t much of a difference to me, no more than having two children versus five children. And having five might have felt normal since I’d grown up with four siblings, myself. It was what I knew. It was just my world and theirs from early on. I embraced it from the start because it was right and good to do so; I wanted to be with my husband and be there for all the kids. And I have always been one who is up for a challenge–the bigger, the better.
Although I knew C. and A. their starting out years–I was familiar to them and vice versa–there was a steep learning curve at the beginning that was a series of trial and error. I had to better learn their habits, preferences, needs and trigger points. The good thing was that they enjoyed so much what my blood children did. The bad thing was that I was a very engaged parent with strict rules of behavior, something they might still note that I named “appropriate” or “inappropriate”. The girls’ birth mom and dad had had more permeable, changeable limits. But they didn’t fight them very hard or often, maybe because the other three were in the same boat. They had group solidarity for solace and co-conspiring. The good thing was that I could be a bit more generous about other things–weekly allowances, playing dress up, making messes with art and playing or making music often and loud–so this counterbalanced things, made me a heroine occasionally.
And, after all, I was a girl with four daughters. That helped. Marc as well as my son J. were the ones who had it harder. J. fought off the redesigned family like mad at times and who could truly blame the only boy in a gang of girls, and both his fathers not even there on a daily basis? Marc had to work long hours and often away. J. took to any new neighborhood where we lived, but he always had. Gregarious and rambunctious, he liked being outside with pals far more than hanging out with sisters. But as he grew up, they shared more (and do now). He, too, loves the arts and being of service to others. Of course, I may have been accused by the girls of making him, the only boy, “too special”. But they felt my hugs, found me ready to listen, knew as a female we had that other deep bond–they knew better.
Our new baby girl was a definite interruption in their lives when they already had plenty to reconfigure. But she was pretty easy to enjoy with a bubbly temperament and an intense interest in their goings on. The littlest of the family physically, too, she became doted on and protected as they adjusted. And she was, after all, the blood link between them all, everyone’s half-sister. For that reason alone I think she held a certain good spot in the unit.
You can see that this is not so much different than when there are two parents in any sort of family arrangement. Oh, I can tell true stories that include storms of disagreement, words tossed out like firecrackers that blistered as they landed. We recovered. Was it because I was a stepmother and Marc a stepfather to two each of our children? Sometimes, yes; we were not the other missed, beloved parent. But I would wager generally not. Fortunately, my first husband saw our daughter and son like clockwork and more. And if my non-bio daughters saw their own mother less, she was still their mom, they would always so love her and do. Marc and I encouraged the other parents to be involved even though we were no longer cohorts as once we were. This was not the era of “conscious uncoupling”. Our situation was not desired by that many. We were all divorced from each other, our amiable college foursome divided. But we respected one another’s wishes as was possible, we were courteous and generally fair–but not co-parenting “buddies”. But we knew each other. That counted.
I will now not say that I was not maligned by my so-called step children. It happened a few times. But my biological children said and did things, too that have reached me where it hurt most. Did I err many more times than I’d hoped (my husband, too), let slip the words that should never have been formed much less stated? How can we as families avoid this? It’s hard being who we want to be all the time. And children of divorce have extra wounds to heal, as do the grown-ups. During this family’s process of realignment there were ruses and small wars, there has been misplaced anger. Sufferers of grief. We have had words, wept and reached and stepped back a bit. Held onto each other. Just like any family that cares enough to pull back into the fold one that is foolhardy or temporarily blind or otherwise slipping away. I always used to count heads in stores, at the swimming pool, along the sidewalk before moving too fast. A parent doesn’t take a hard look first to see exactly who is missing before an ardent search is on. Recount, pull tight the forces, go find the one not there. Strong hands of love sometimes grab, will hang on tightly. But then discern when to loosen and let go.
It’s an honorable phenomenon, family making, whatever sort. Mine has been one kind, made amenable and stronger with shifting patterns created day by day. Free-form as well as orchestrated interactions and commitments contributed even though we might not have realized it. It is worth noting that decades ago, some people looked askance at adults who chose divorce, then had the nerve to bring together various stunned children with a new partner. To try again. I recall, though, some even said we were brave (If not also foolish): Five children, all so close together? And that made me wonder. What did they think was so risky? Why did this take such courage? If it had been just three, would that have made any difference? If they had all been two or more years apart, would they have had a better time of it or worse in the commenter’s perspective? I wasn’t being heroic. I was welcoming life that presented itself, one that I did chose to embrace. I was certain this had been going on for centuries for one reason or another.
So was it terribly convenient as it might have been, had everything been planned out? Did that even matter more than a pause or three? The bottom line was that living without them, every single one, would have been a terrible mistake. And I don’t think they waste time wondering what it would have been without me. Or perhaps not anymore, at least. It has been the life we’ve shared. And there has been those things that tied us together: the need to carry on, coupled with a tenacity of love.
So, my children were given each other. They grew up through all sorts of events together. They were so close–irritating and loving, sharing and fighting–that most outsiders did surmise we were just one complete family. Marc and I felt it when we first gathered them together. And the adult kids remain in touch, even though they don’t all live close to one another. We’ve had more emotional and spiritual trials and abundance than we would have had without the whole of us. And that’s the gist of it. Becoming a stepmother was an extension of what I already had come to know and care about. It has been about holding on and being there. Working as if our lives depended on it. Defending with all it took. Teaching and encouragement. Listening and learning amazing lessons of my own. Lying close with a cool cloth, a healing story or song when fevers ran high. Forgiveness and compassion in the midst of tough, confounding matters. Offering acceptance and hope when the rest of the world has closed its doors.
All this is nothing extraordinary for the willing parent, I am sure you will agree. It is what we do when we are given children to watch over–whoever they are–for as long as we can. If you have a non-biological child, remember that they–like all kids– just need more openhearted, committed parenting. They are looking for your helping hands.
Something is going to happen; I feel it. I can tell that even from the kitchen where I’m held hostage by Father and the crew. I want to know what it will be, the surprise, and keep taking a look. I stand on tiptoe to peer out a small foggy window in the swinging doors but can barely see. He nabs me now, says never mind, keep your nose out of other people’s business, we have many things to do in here. As if I can do much. I do know how to just stack up and put dishes in the dishwasher, he says, and carry things. That’s true. I’ve been doing it ever since I could walk, the carrying part, even if just a wooden spoon or egg beater. That’s the restaurant business, he says, cook, carry, wash, repeat. I don’t cook yet. I’m only eleven and you have to be over eighteen to be trusted with beef fillet and trout and new potatoes and french green beans. And certainly desserts. As if these are rare and fantastic things. The last, okay, yes.
I’d rather be out there. In the dining room where the band is playing, people eating and talking all at once. It’s not the usual crowd. It’s my sister’s graduation party. Father closed the restaurant to all outsiders for the night. He says, No one can get in except for showing their invitations, not tonight and he told Mother to stand guard at the reception area by the sign in and seating book we usually keep. This time it’s a special one for Heidi, my big sister. I don’t know why it’s all that important even is she is leaving high school. Don’t we want paying guests, too? We’re in this by ourselves, paying for flowers and special lights, not just food but music, too. You’d think she was being crowned Queen of Something Remarkable. Mother purses her lips at me when I bring any of this up and shakes her head as if I am asking too many questions again.
But it’s not like we’re super rich or she’s a debutante, exactly. You can’t be a debutante in Millside, PA. I know, I read the New York Times that Father gets first thing every morning. I wait until he’s done on the week-end to snatch the good parts he ignores. Like sometimes the society page because I am nosy, Father is correct, but also gardening and crossword pages.
“What do you know, anyway, this is as good as any New York ‘Deb Ball’,” Heidi said last week, laughing at me. “But you’re just my kid sister, you have no real rights yet and little understanding of the important things. Go play with dolls a couple more years, Lissa.”
Which gets me, as she knows. I don’t play with dolls anymore but she doesn’t care, she’s so busy with “important things.” I play chess when Father has time, and I play piano when I can’t get out of it. I take dance classes, of course; who doesn’t around here? It’s okay, so far, especially the tap dancing part. I swim a lot at the river in summer; that’s soon coming up. But mostly I read, take care of Duke our black standard poodle, go to school and study and help when I have to at our restaurant, Hearth and Vine.
Like tonight. I carry a huge chilled glass bowl of fruit compote to Fritz, the head waiter, then quite a few empty water pitchers to Ann, my second cousin who works here for special events, and then I slip out, supposedly to check on the state of the white linens on two small buffet tables.
I see them again. Heidi and Rodney. He’s squeezing her awful tight and she giggles, her head back but then he steals a kiss on her neck and she pulls her chin down and looks to the side. She doesn’t see me. They’ve been going together for about eight months now. That’s just about how long she hasn’t much talked to me unless I distract her with a pinch on her forearm or a really smart question she wants to answer. I could get to know more about Rodney but the main thing is that he is an ace swimmer and he knows a lot about cards. And card tricks. He can entertain us for quite a while when he comes over. Then Heidi starts to tap her foot against the coffee table and Father says a lot of Hmmm and I need a smoke and then I almost gotthat one and then Rodney turns his attention to Mother but she just faintly smiles and shrugs and goes on with embroidery work and from time to time glancing at a gardening book open on a side table.
What the parents want to know is what is he going to do with his life? Besides go to Penn State and study political science. Is hegoing to make a decent living, I hear Father say to Heidi, as if she could even know. She’s not thinking about anyone making a living, she’s thinking about what dresses she’s going to design and sew before summer is gone. Heidi has a heap of fabric and scraps. She ought to make me a quilt out of but likely never will get to it. Shes got the touch with the Singer.
The one thing she did tell me around the time Rodney popped into sight was she doesn’t really want to teach English to “snotty nosed kids who just pick on each other and swap silly notes” even if she is going to have to get a practical teaching degree at Penn State.
“I wish I could start my own house of fashion,” she said, staring out her bedroom window at three colorful rugs airing on the clothes line.
“Are you kidding? Who’d buy those odd, sometimes boring dresses except people in Millside–because they know you and want to be nice?”
She fell silent for quite a while and I realized I shouldn’t have made fun of her. She was my annoying big sister and I didn’t think her dresses were awful, just not what I might wear, and she can be stuck up and has it out for me most of the time but this doesn’t mean she has no feelings.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“If you had a dream, you’d get what I mean–but you’re too young to know very much. But the true fact is, I so want to be a designer!”
The force of her words got to me. “I do so have a dream. I want to be chess champion of the fifth and sixth graders this summer at camp.” I fiddled with a pencil I’d been using for homework and it tapped the paper a few times, hard.
“Stop, you’re such a nuisance! And you will be, I suspect.”
“Anyway, I think you should design your fashions if that’s what you really, honestly, truly want.”
She lay back on my bed beside me and looked over. “You think so? You think I’m good enough to do that?”
“Sure you are.” I rubbed out the math answer I’d put down without thinking and out a new one down. “Anyone can see that. I just like to bug you.”
“Rodney can’t see it.”
“Well, Rodney’s a dimwit sometimes. Why do you listen to him?”
She stretched her arms above her head of thick, fluffy blonde hair. “Because. He’s my boyfriend, I guess.”
“Uh, not a good reason.” I started on the next monotonous math problem. “These are boring.”
“That’s your favorite word.”
She laughed and ruffled my just cropped red hair. It felt comforting, good, but I didn’t say anything. She sat up straight, then pushed herself off.
“You might be right, Lissa. I’ll think on it.”
“A first! One point, my side.”
I eyed her as she left my room, her deep green skirt following her like swaying summer grass with feet. It surprised me that she had said that last part, and I wondered how much she did want to do something different, how Rodney felt about it. He seemed to think they were teammates in all things. I thought he was nice enough, a bit tiring except for the card stuff. But it wasn’t any of my business.
So now I slink around and watch the best dancers, peek at my sister and her boyfriend.
“Melissa Sue, back in the kitchen, I need you to help bring out more hard rolls and put them on the tables. Father is on a tear about the Bolognese sauce and the rest of us have to get ready to help serve.”
Mother is wide-eyed and flushed, typical at times like this. She yanks at my sweater sleeve. I pull it back but follow and steal another glance at the dancers. I’d like to join them. Heidi has her eyes closed. Rodney does, too, then opens them and glances at me and waves but I pretend I don’t notice, I don’t know why.
It is getting late. I know this without looking at a clock. I’m tired and so are my parents but they smiled in the kitchen last time I checked. Everyone has eaten the main courses, at last. The waiters–some extra family members, too–have cleared things away, the band is starting up with some quiet pieces. In a little while there will be coffee and our amazing burnt almond torte, nothing like it for toppers.
There are sixty almost-grown-up-kids out there, many moving away from tables to the springy outdoors for fresh air. I slip away from Mother’s reach, pause beside the French doors. The sky has cleared up; stars wink away. Earlier it rained enough that Heidi was up in arms about how no one would be able to enjoy the night on the best part of our scrumptious Hearth and Vine restaurant: the wide terrace that wraps around three sides. I see her and Rodney wedged between three other couples, a laughing circle of fancy dresses and dark suits, the guys patting their stomachs as if proud of something great they’ve done, the girls pulling out little mirrors from clutches to perfect their hair or lipstick. They are all talking a lot.
One girl pulls in her stomach as I walk by, presses her shoulders back so her chest rises up and whispers loudly at me. Poor Leanne, always loud despite her trying not to be.
“Do I look five pounds fatter after your father’s meal? Gads. But it was so good, right? You look considerably prettier in that navy and polka dot dress, by the way.”
“You look… really okay. Yes, the food is always great here.” I grin at her, then hurry past.
“Oh, there’s Lissa.” My sister steps out of the circle. “Can you go get my purse? It’s at our table, by the stage.”
She frowns. I hesitate, thinking she might say more but she turns back. Everyone seems gleeful, chattering, laughing, looking out over the half-acre of lawn that was freshly mowed this morning. I think the flowers on the terrace are especially good and pat a bunch of white and yellow daisies in a big blue pot as I pass. Every now and then I think about what I would like to do different here. I enjoy cooking but what I like more is this old stately building and lawn. I guess I can’t be a Hearth and Vine gardener, that would be strange and silly. Especially for The Future Chess Champion of All Time. But I feel happy I helped pick out new potted flowers and then watered them early this morning.
It was for my sister this time. For Heidi, who’s leaving in three months. And it all looks and feels entirely delicious.
I race in undetected by Mother, who is talking to a real waiter in his tidy white and black uniform. There’s the purse, a blue shiny number with a rhinestone clasp, Heidi told me, but it looks like diamonds. I snatch it and place it under my arm, step toward the terrace.
“What are you up to, dear?”
“Nothing, Mother, taking this to Heidi.”
“Is she still with Rodney?”
I look up at her face, see the faintest lines of worry deepen around her taut mouth.
“Yeah. Of course.”
She nods and sends me off with a little pat on the back. I’m relieved she didn’t say anything about bedtime yet. There are the tortes, mainly, but also some speeches, Father said.
I hand off the purse to Heidi and she tucks it under her armpit, presses her hands together as if she’s a Chinese lady. This time her circle is talking about colleges close and far and who is leaving the state. I notice Rodney has his arm around Heidi and she looks down at his hand on her shoulder as if, well, she might want to flick it off. But won’t, due to excellent manners.
From the long stone balustrade, I can see the piercing stars above and clumps of teenagers who already act like they’re closer to my parents’ age than mine, and also the innards of the restaurant. It makes a good number of pictures when I frame them with my hands, ones I’d like to keep awhile. The music ripples outward with swift notes and the crowd starts to dance even on the terrace, some cheek to cheek, lips whispering things special and secret. I wonder what it’s like to be held that close and the thought makes me squirm. I notice Rodney is trying to kiss my sister again.
Once Heidi taught me how to dance a waltz to a scratchy record Father has; we broke down giggling often but I caught on. Then we swooped about, the easy-to-follow rhythm and silky classical notes making us glide about as if we were ladies-in-training from another time and place. Then I started to tap dance like a maniac and that got her going, too, so we tapped our way onto the porch and then down the sidewalk to the drugstore on Tenth and Hale. Just for the heck of it. Because it was summer and we liked it and why not? Old man Jenkins clapped for us; he was smoking his pipe as he whiled away the afternoon on a bench under the store’s white and blue striped awning. Everything was shining. It’s one of the best memories I have so far.
Suddenly the music stops. There’s an announcement over the microphone for all to come inside. I can see waiters and even Mother serving the torte and getting ready to pour steaming coffee from silver carafes but I don’t want to go in. I notice Heidi smooth the waist of her slim grey-blue dress with its unusual cuffs and collar–it’s unlike other girls’ attire but several have complimented her. She pushes her wavy bangs away from her eyes. Turns to study the glowing emerald yard, eyes not even registering me. She opens her purse and takes something small and white out but I’m too far away to make out what it is. She stares hard at it. Rodney has gone on, his arm linked in a buddy’s. Just as I’m about to run up to her, she moves through a terrace doorway and into the darkened room alone as others gather stage front.
Father is saying something about how lovely it is that all could come together for this celebration of one door closing but the next leads to others even better, exciting to enter. He thinks he’s a regular MC, and maybe he does have flare because everyone is rapt as he gestures, smiles and gabs. He invites the graduating class to come on up and say a few words if they want to, nothing formal, just what they think of graduating or where they’re headed now. A half-dozen do and I close my heavy eyelids, lean back in a chair against a wall. I so want my serving of burnt almond torte but maybe it can wait until tomorrow.
“Hi kids, so glad you’re here. I’d like to say a few things, too.”
My eyes pop open. I stand up.
Heidi clears her throat. “First off, Father, this was a wonderful way to close my senior year, thank you! I wasn’t so sure at first, I mean, having my own party in my family’s restaurant seemed…a little tacky! I was thinking a gala affair would be far more ‘gala’ elsewhere.” She laughed and others joined in but some called out It’s perfect, the food is great and Father bowed slightly and walked off the stage. “I’ve been so lucky. I see that now. I have far better than standard parents, that’s for sure. And such loyal friends. And a little sister who is smart, good-hearted and a tad wild–“she points at me but I hang my head low so no one finds me–“just how I like her.”
I am getting scared. This does not sound like my sister Heidi; it’s like another person crept into her skin. She isn’t this straight forward about things and she never praises me, certainly not in public. I want to shrink into a dusty corner. I wonder if she stole some wine or if she’s feeling crazed by all the celebrating and leaving for Penn State before too long.
“Anyway, I thought this was as good a time as any to share something amazing.”
She looks over the crowd, locating Mother and Father who are standing mid-way in the clots of partiers, fully attentive. I look for Rodney and see him to the left of stage steps, one foot on the top step, one foot getting ready to join it.
“I have here–” she shakily opens something up in her hands and it is a creased piece of paper, like typing paper–“I have here a letter. It’s from a place that means a lot to me. It holds information that will change my life. It’s an admission letter. And more.”
Rodney steps forward, strides right up to her. She sees him but ignores him as he puts his arm around her shoulders as if he owns her so it’s his news, too. I feel her stiffen and wonder if others do, too, as they whisper among themselves. Penn State is old news, what’s the fuss here?
But I take a deep breath. Something is going to happen; there should be a drum roll.
“It’s from Pratt Institute. To study art and fashion design in Brooklyn, New York! I am not going to study teaching at Penn State. I have this letter right here that says I’m being awarded a major scholarship from Pratt Institute!”
She holds out the letter to the crowd, proof of a miracle.
Rodney gapes at her, then falls away as if a gust of wind tore him away. Heidi is smiling hugely, for her rose red lips have told a beautiful story. Our parents start forward, hands to mouths. The crowd murmurs. Some mouthy guy shouts, “You can’t do that, don’t be a traitor to Penn!”
So I head toward my sister. She’s standing there, her small face falling, and I am pushing and prying my way though dense globs of kids, trying to get to her before our Father does or Rodney says something bad or stupid or my sister faints from nerves.
“Excuse me, excuse me please!” I plunge on until I get to the stage steps and gallop up to be with Heidi.
She looks down at me with surprise. Then takes my hand. Squeezes it three times for I love you. I stand on my tiptoes to the microphone and shout into it so my voice rings and echoes.
“Hooray for Heidi! She’s going to be a fashion designer! Come on, give my sister a round of applause, ladies and gents!”
For a full five seconds I think no one will do this small, very necessary and kind thing. That my sister will stand there forever frozen, feeling small and let down, embarrassed and sad she ever had the courage to reveal so publicly–her friends and classmates, boyfriend and family–her surprising news. That she will fear she disappoints our parents, too. But I know better. Our parents will be proud of her very soon if they aren’t quite yet. How can they not know her?
Then at last applause amps up, the hoots and hollers and cheers. The re-energized band strikes up a peppy tune. That’s when my parents join us. They take hold of our free hands and lift them up. We stand there together in victory. Look out at our wonderful place with lights and food and friends. When they start to hug her, though, I try to make a getaway.
And then Heidi does it.
“I just want to say here and now that if it wasn’t for my little sister, Melissa, I wouldn’t have even applied. I had this crazy dream but she just told me to go for it. So thank you, Lissa. You’re truly the best.”
I look at her sky-blue eyes filling up and that’s my cue. I can see the tortes sitting like regal sugar-stuffed creations on their white and silver plates and grab the mike and say with a flourish: “Guess what? It’s finally dessert time, a crowning achievement of our fab restaurant!”
Heidi bends down to me and says, “You should do PR work, Lissa.”
I don’t even know what she means, but I can tell it’s another compliment
Another cheer goes up and they chant my name along with Heidi’s. I have to say it’s a stupendous ending to one more successful night at Hearth and Vine. Rodney might not agree. But then, he left before the grand finale. He’ll never know the half of it, poor dope.