It’s only natural that one should take stock of one’s life a few times. I don’t mean the facile review that accompanies each turning of the year, but the kind that digs deep and turns everything you thought you knew into a foreign milieu–which, nonetheless, reverberates with truth.
I was doing this as I drove from Missouri to northern Michigan, a trip made now and again to see my extended family over the last thirty years. I liked to drive, it relaxed me. In the countryside the newly assertive spring sun created a parchment-like whiteness. Roadsides once snow-hugged were murky, taupe and grey. And yet it was empty in the way a new canvas is before Darren, my husband, charts a bold line across unsuspecting space with his oil paints.
Joplin, MO. was the place I’d left behind; Marionville, MI. the village I was moving toward. I cracked the window and inhaled a lightly chilled breeze. As I cruised at 75 mph through fecund fields and rolling hills I determined it’d been a reasonably satisfying visit, if one can say being crammed into various spaces with nearly twenty-five others can be meaningful. But we do it to assure ourselves we are yet loved merely because we are part of family, and we don’t have to do anything else to garner general affection. Thus, we can take with us the belief that we are not truly as alone as imagined. It is also a gathering that reminds me there is no judgment that cannot be done or undone when blood comes into the picture.
The topic of this reunion–the 99th birthday for Great Aunt Mattie; she was not likely to make it all the way to 100–was no less than MaeLynn (she insisted it was to be spelled “Mailin” later) and Jacques (many called him Jake despite his dislike of it). It seems they finally got divorced after forty-some years together–I wasn’t counting. I hadn’t thought much of them for awhile. They had lived in France and Spain, and despite my closeness with cousin MaeLynn, they had drifted far. After a couple of years I had to let it be; she and I would always be family though things had changed. I knew there was more beneath the emotional distancing but I didn’t want to disturb the surface.
But it’s a shock to the others. Our family got all stirred up with disbelief and speculations, that such a perfect match should be dissolved. He was so successful and she, so talented. A foolish thing to undo after all this time. It made me laugh to think how most had distrusted the match at first. What I thought I understood was kept to myself.
MaeLynn was my cousin, though if you set us side by side you might have doubts. I had what my mother, an enthusiastic colorist, dubbed “a twilight look” with black-brown hair and deep blue eyes. While my cousin’s fairness–“a dawn look”, Mom said– gleamed soft and bright. Those were not the only differences. She seemed almost made up with her achievements, prettiness and an ingrained shyness and then she went away and came out a whole new person. That’s what family said, anyway, after she studied at the Sorbonne –she had a gift for French and other languages, as well as drawing and design. Not much later she found Jacques. She admitted to me she thought him a muse.
As for my personality: faster on my feet, less academic but a problem solver, someone with ambition and yet slower to find her true liberating element. “Quirky” was a word attached to me when younger. My mother thought me a sad-eyed one, akin to a gypsy child who might range far and wide before finally setting up camp. I was alright with that. And the melancholy part came and went, bothering me far less than the parents.
My cousin and her beau said they met via acquaintances at the horse races, which scandalized our Southern Baptist genes. But this Jacques was not to be corralled into anything serious quite yet. He decided to come with MaeLynn to check out her roots. His family tree was old, even illustrious. Our family tree has many kinds of roots. He could choose from mighty or humble, tenacious or weakened, creative, given to a few touches of madness–or humdrum but reliable.
I had graduated from University of Michigan two years prior, three years behind MaeLynn. The summer she brought him home I’d had a promotion at a fledgling lawyers’ office: executive legal assistant. Sounded grand. It was tedious at times but engaging as I came to know the cases and was soon keeping up with demands. I had wanted to be a lawyer, myself, but that had fizzled when money ran low, so I worked and saved like mad. I longed to get an apartment but my parents’ house accommodated me as I aimed for a future with law school. Still, I often felt the tug to run away. Where was all that life I was expecting to happen?
One night I came home to find pork roast simmering in the oven. The kitchen was dense and humid with cooking and my mother in motion.
“Get upstairs and clean up–put on that navy and green outfit, it suits you well, Jessamine–before MaeLynn comes around with her French gentleman.”
I nibbled on a large romaine leaf with a drizzle of oil and vinegar. “She’s here so soon? I thought that was day after tomorrow.”
“I don’t know where you’ve been–stuck at that desk too long, head full of murder or mayhem, no doubt. In less than an hour! Go on, now–then help with the table.”
On the way past the living room I glanced at father and he felt it, so lowered the paper and threw me that look: yes, we must get with it, it’s family reveal night–then turned the page and tried to hide himself a few more minutes. It’s not that he didn’t love his niece, he just didn’t relish being the first to determine the Frenchman’s suitability for the family, his brother’s possible son-in-law. I stifled a laugh. Dad wouldn’t likely commit either way, at least not admit much to his brother; he kept his own counsel more often than not. I saw the value of that.
After splashing cold water on my face, I dragged a brush through tangled hair. I didn’t see the point in trying to impress my own cousin and as far as her man was concerned, he’d come and go. Or if she really loved him as she insisted and he was good to her, that was that; we were all stuck with each other. I pulled on royal blue slacks and a white mandarin collared blouse which my mother found too tailored. Slipping on flats and thin silver bangles, I was done. But I hesitated at the mirror, fingers pinching cheeks, then smoothing back dark waves. I was twenty-four. MaeLynn was twenty-seven and felt aged she admitted, and if Jacques didn’t marry her soon she was coming back to the States and starting over. I studied my reflection thoughtfully. I had not once thought to get married. Had, in fact, turned down two proposals. I had wanted what my cousin got–travels abroad, exotic friends, experiences–and bided my time, reminding myself the best things came to those who worked hard and were open to opportunity. I had enough patience, even too much. Perhaps I needed more imagination or courage.
The table was fresh with yellow tulips, sparkling with lit white candles and crystal water goblets, and the food smelled perfectly seasoned when the door bell chimed twice. Dad got up to answer it and Mom came up beside him. I held back with Terra, our white American Eskimo dog.
“Sit and just smile,” I informed her and was obeyed though her tail indicated a desire to dance about. If Terra liked Jacques, I would, too.
Mom and Dad’s voices rang through the foyer and when I was on the verge of stepping forward MaeLynn’s light rise and fall of laughter stopped me. I hadn’t properly heard her voice (only on the phone) in three years and its lilt draped the rooms in silkiness. I had forgotten that elegance. Happiness swept over me. When could we leave all this, catch up on everything? Not soon, though, with Jacques DuFresne at her side, the man who had kept her from us, from me, too long.
As they rounded a corner I came forward, hands held out to her. And stopped the barest split second but still it felt like a stumble, a giveaway.
Jacques was remarkable. Handsome and lithe with conviviality, and as soon as his inquisitive dark eyes found mine I looked away. But it was too late. I felt his presence hit me like a small firework blasting in my chest. His smile radiated through space and back to me before I threw my arms around MaeLynn and held her tightly.
“Jess! Hello, hello, hello!” she said squeezing me back until we were breathless with excitement and anxiety. “Jacques–my favorite cousin, Jessamine; Jess, meet Jacques, my favorite Frenchman!”
He took my hand in both of his, kissed both my cheeks. Such contact put me off balance, and I was enveloped in an aura of brisk lime. I righted myself before fresh air became any more scarce, responded with politeness, smiled back. Terra pranced about our feet, barking with the thrill of old and new converging, and she managed a good whiff of Jacques’ pants legs before bounding over to Dad, who called her firmly. I felt vaguely alarmed by this man’s presence and was glad we sat some distance apart. On second glance I saw he was older, perhaps five years, than Mae Lynn. I immediately wondered why he hadn’t paired off for good before. Probably because he was too attractive to hold onto; no one was foolish enough to believe she’d be the one and only. Except perhaps my cousin.
“Let’s sit, eat and talk!” Mom directed, her face flushed, silvered hair glimmering in candle light.
“So here we are,” MaeLynn started as she passed potatoes au gratin, “and so much has happened. I just had to stop here before we fly on to St. Louis. I told him my cousin comes first–well, along with Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Ian–then best for last, of course, my parents. Well, so far Jacques is impressed by the scope of our country. He kept pointing out various landscapes from the plane window.”
“It’s true. I’ve been to Scandinavia, most of Europe, Asia on business but not here. Ridiculous!”
Clear English accented by his native tongue flowed gracefully. I looked at my father, who seemed a little skeptical but was at ease as he inquired of Jacques’ business.
“Textiles. A fourth generation family business, can’t get away from it, I’m afraid.”
And then they were off and running with talk of work and the market place and related safe topics. Mother kept the food coming and directed the conversation from time to time. Mae Lynn and I got in a few words about our work and family.
“What do you think?” MaeLynn mouthed at me across the table.
I nodded slowly, then asked her about her plans. They were meeting family but also taking in sights and then he would return to Paris and work; she would follow later.
“So, tell me, Jessamine, of yourself.”
I shivered at the sound of my name spoken by him, found myself fidgeting with my napkin. I plunged into work scenarios, when he asked about what I liked to do for enjoyment.
“Well, the outdoors is paramount.”
“She dances,” MaeLynn said. “She’s marvelous, unlike me.”
“Oh?” he said, head cocked to one side, eyes revealing pleasure.
“I studied ballet for years, but that was then, and then ballroom dancing. Waltzes, Latin dancing, and so on. I get out to dance now and then. You have this hobby in France?”
“Oh, yes. I too like to dance, it’s like creatures freed by joy, more when moonlight arrives, wonderful to do.”
“He’s a simple romantic, I suspect, despite being built of tough male genes,” Mae Lynn said. “It’s a French thing, perhaps. Everything is steeped in a subtext of poetics. Charming! But you’ve met your match in Jessamine, Jacques. Be careful, she will one day be a fierce lawyer even if her heart is made of gentler sentiments. Give me clear palpable edges of a design aesthetic, where art rises to meet every practical need.”
“Here, here,” my mother agreed as dad rolled his eyes just a little.
“A fine combining of opposites,” Jacques said looking my way and then lifted his goblet to mine, his gaze steady, magnetic. I blazed inwardly but reciprocated with a shrug, then inclined my own to each and every goblet.
“To the reign of poetry’s wisdom, to compassionate justice, and also design’s triumph,” I said.
Shifting candlelight flared then softened as we sipped and it was off into talk of travel and obligations and the necessary glue of family and back to more workaday matters. Time accordioned and before we knew it, the evening came to a close. Terra had made tentative friends with Jacques, doted on MaeLynn and she doted right back. As they left for the hotel, we waved farewells, my happiness tinged with longing. I felt we all had barely shared what mattered. They had one more day before flying to St. Louis. I would join them for sightseeing along the shores of Lake Michigan.
“He’s rather impressive, don’t you think?” Mom asked us.
Dad put his arm around her waist. “We’ll see. Smart man, could be a good catch for our MaeLynn.”
“And vice versa, dear,” she added. “And she said she is spelling it that new way: M-a-l-i-n–now, accent the first part.”
He grunted; this was irrelevant to him. To us, the family.
I slipped away, found the privacy to process our evening. I passed my mirror, stopped and scrutinized my reflection, startled by such vulnerability. It was a dangerous nakedness glimpsed, as if my sallow skin had become translucent. I was myself yet lit from deeper within and that strange glow permeated me, threatening to reveal even more.
Fear, though, gave way to curiosity, a frisson of excitement.
Waves lapped against curvaceous beaches bringing to us a song of the ancients. Skin reddened with wilderness gusts. Stoned fell into our palms, gifts from winter and the turbulence of cold meeting warmer currents. The trails were winding and long and we were strong and full of energy. Conversation was less important than the fanning out of complex life forms, a primordial mystique that came upon us, seemed to spring from our very limbs and breath. The top of Jacques’ head nearly glanced off limbs and his face radiated excitement. MaeLynn’s hand caught mine, then his, dragging us up to a peak. A valley’s loveliness swept us up, held us still. He stood between us, one arm about her, one about me so I could hardly bear it but did, then let happiness take rein. Then we were three again, set into motion again.
The laughter of that day, clean and rough and easy. Words traded as if we were the smartest and best the world had to offer. Hands grazing hands, legs pumping blood to heart to everywhere and such rich oxygen rushed to our brains we were drunk on promises of spring. We believed in all we envisioned, we were young, and it was good. We felt what we felt, thought of little beyond that moment.
I felt it coming apart beneath the seams of our childhood devotion, and perhaps so did she but we acted as if we were all meant to know and care for one another. But at the end of the trail when MaeLynn was yards ahead of us, Jacques stopped in his tracks, right before me.
“Jessamine. ” His forefinger raising my chin, his moving closer. “Always, I suspect, Jessamine.”
I lifted my hand to his, gripped it, then moved it from me just in time, before touching his strongly lined palm to my lips. The urgency of want crackled between trees, earth, us. I caught a glimpse of my cousin’s narrow back disappearing. Best friend for a lifetime.
“Jacques, be wise,” I whispered.
He looked into my eyes, intense with disquiet and brooding, and a sharp sliver of sadness cut through me. He was so close the musky heat of him seared me. I feared I might weaken or, worse, collapse from the combined weight of desire and loyalty. So I broke into a hard run. His voice trailed behind me, calling my and then her name, asking us to wait.
It has to be blood, I told myself, it has to be blood, not ever this beautiful sea of longing and bit down on my lip, the blood a taste of primal sorrow, of joy refused.
Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, my childhood left behind only to reveal more of my youth and adulthood as I drove into the giant mitten of Michigan. But somewhere along the way those times had settled in with me. Many miles I heard our names repeated–MaeLynn, Jacques, Jessamine, Darren–and I’d have to pull over, drink or eat something, listen to music turned up loud in my car. I’d commune with cows, seek new leaves and gaudy wildflowers that felt like balm of peace. I’d walk a little if there was a spot to enjoy, then get into the car again. I stopped d late at night to fall dead asleep in nameless hotels. I called Darren a few times, checked in with his personal care aide, who was steady and likely kinder than I could hope to be.
How does one explain love? I have asked myself this a thousand times since then. There were other men–men I stayed with, until I was enamored no longer. Then in my thirties there was my husband who cared for me in ways that made a difference and I, for him. Was it love that drew us to marriage and cinched us tighter with time? Is that what kept textiles and furniture pioneer Jacques, and the successful interior designer, Mailin, partnered all those years? Despite the rifts and crises, the gaps each year widening? Was it the strength of love or was it a deepening commitment and were the two so different in the end?
Darren had a stroke four years ago that left him in a wheelchair though his upper body and language were rescued mostly. We left–I left my career as a lawyer; he sold his plumbing business– a megapolis lifestyle for woods and lakes again, our first stomping grounds, and now our likely final domain. I push him outdoors each morning he can bear the air and light and effort to accept limitation. I spend my time writing poetry that sometimes I send out and sometimes tear up, take the dogs for walks that feel might never end if I kept walking. The beauty fills me as much and more than I had hoped. Solitude is unbroken unless we desire it and then we find a few friends among the woods hideaways, play cards or listen to stories or make music, remember past times and wonder over the rocky human course. Darren paints, not all that well, but he loves it. I admire his uncomplicated joy in form and color.
For me, poems are things that have to be given great breadth and depth of soul and there are days I cannot do it, at all. But I do not live without gratitude and an abiding affection for life.
This evening when the phone rang, I knew something, call it intuition or an old fear come to pass, call it a crossing of two moments beyond time that became one. I looked out the window, past the scrubby yard and dock where one weathered boat is tied up, past sway of lake water with dusk’s coral a sheen. Past the black-green evergreens’ spiky tops that always reminded me of steeples. Steeples of an infinite church that rose out of the earth, reaching skyward. I could see the North star and Venus and Mars and so much more.
Jacques. I heard his voice and it struck me to the marrow, nearly shook me apart then held me still in a thrall like a beautiful chord struck in the pure night air.
His voice vibrated along some invisible zigzag line that reached there to here.
“Are you looking at the sky? The same grand sky I can see? We can look up, know each other there. Or we might actually meet…We never danced.” Silence echoed. “Jessamine?”
My hand with phone in it slid to my chest and I prayed he could hear my heart beating. I closed my eyes. Swallowed a swell of tears. Lifted the phone back to my ear. I could hear him breathing; it was one of the tenderest sounds I would likely ever hear. And then I disconnected from silence and remnants of words, turned from that life-charging heat once and for all.
That sky beyond, the blood tie with MaeLynn–those would remain.
Readers, I have written a series of stories about Marionville, some of which have been posted here, such as: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/the-watchman-2/ and