If only, if only, if only…it was a well worn refrain, no, perhaps more a mantra for Maxine.
Eve worried they might be her mother’s last words one day, they hung between them so often, cluttered up space like meaningless items. It made her want to bolt, or at least grab the wine bottle and pour a tall one. Her parents didn’t drink, so that would come later.
“If we’re revisiting this topic even before coffee and pie, leave me out of the discussion.” Eve rose, took a serving dish and wooden salad bowl in her hands.
From the corner of her eye she noted her father had picked up the paper from the next chair over–Alden’s chair, topped with a booster seat– and proceeded to hide behind the Culture and Arts page. She wondered how long it would take him to check the stock market and predicted thirty seconds max.
“It is what it is, Maxine, let it be,” he mumbled. The pages were rustled, turned faster.
Eve disappeared through the kitchen’s Dutch doors; Maxine’s words sailed through like crows on the wing, undeterred.
“If he’d just finished his degree, this wouldn’t have to happen, you know that, Douglas, and he still could do that,” she intoned, dabbing her thin lips with a beige linen napkin, four of which I had ironed before they came. “If only he had given two thoughts to what it would mean…” She sighed and shook her head, a luxuriant bun freed slightly from its pins. Her hands–so like parchment they scared Eve lately– deftly re-secured it.
The leftover chicken and dumplings and salad disappeared down the garbage disposal and Eve turned it on. Let it run longer than needed.
What her mother was really saying was, If only you had gotten your Masters’ in chemistry or business management, this might be avoided–and: if only your husband did more to secure your family’s future. And saying it to her, not to the tension-saturated air. Eve being a teacher wasn’t enough for them, she knew that already. It had always been about the correct education and supposed power that brought. It was as if they were stuck in another decade when degrees meant financial and oddly, perhaps even spiritual victory. It brought respectability and status, after all. In their day. That was another story. One that Maxine seldom grew weary of sharing, putting a present day twist on things that was entirely made up.
Certainly she was not talking to Eve’s husband, Mick, as he was out, just as he tended to be for every Sunday mealtime. He was at his best friend’s huge garage where Garth was working on another of his special order paint jobs. Mick loved to see the shiny designs come to fruition; some of them were his ideas, in part, though he never shared the credit. “I’m the amateur, a spectator, he’s the pro; it’s all good,” he always said.
Mick was a landscaper, and he used his design sense in garden and lawn development and execution. But he had been laid off. As usual. It was heading toward winter and Mick was the most junior member of the team. He’d do snow removal until spring, and watch Alden, their three year old. They boy slept now, thankfully; he could dream about puppets and parks and wooden blocks, unaware of the stress his grandparents created with a few tiresome words.
Her father said something low to her mother– likely, Maxi, soft pedal it, play this snafu down, not up. He isn’t a bad sort.
Eve hung her now throbbing head, then straightened up and looked out a window, took in the expanse of open land. The mountains beyond. Breathed. Turned off the disposal.
“Look at Alden, there’s my boy, sleepy head! Come to join us at Sunday table, have you?”
Douglas’ voice boomed with happiness and relief. Eve could hear Maxine getting up and tottering over in her too-high heels to give her grandson a soft hug. She was not a hugger, but for her only grandchild she made the exception. Eve rinsed her hands, dried them, lifted her head and smiled, then greeted her son.
“Hey, my Aldy boy!” She wanted to squeeze him.
“Alden, up just in time for apple pie?” Douglas reached out a hand.
The child took it, then rubbed one puffy eye and ruffled his straw-colored hair. “Yes, pie and then match-the-cards game with Grandpa!”
Maxine sighed. “It’s always Grandpa. You boys! How can I get this child’s attention more? And where do you suppose he got all that blond hair? Maybe it will still darken.”
Stop talking so much nonsense, get on the floor and play, Eve wanted to say, but retrieved the fragrant, warm pie, the plates and forks. The thought of Maxine removing her heels and sitting sideways on the cat-furry rug in her herringbone skirt and silk ivory blouse made her smirk. And Alden’s messy, gorgeous hair? She wished Mick was there, his thick, bright waves making the overt point for her. Again. She checked her watch.
Maxine and Douglas should have stayed in Chicago suburbs another couple of years. But Douglas had retired and they wanted to ease into a simpler life, or so they said. They might have given Eve and Mick more time to get ahead, to build their lives with one another. Now her parents were a half hour down the road, through the hilly farmland, in a smaller manse in East Braxton.
Eve wished she could say it was always this way. But things once were normal, or what she knew to be normal, and she had been happier. Then all changed when her father got the Big Promotion. She was eleven then, halfway through school and already itching for more freedom. The family home, a sweet 1920s bungalow, was sold and then they moved into a five bedroom brick house, too much space but never mind, they had intercoms, and a yard that took half a Saturday for her brother, Tim, to mow. Their father was gone more than he was home; when he was home he was near-invisible or they wished he might leave again for all he understood about their lives. Their mother was gone, too, maybe more–to the beauty salon and spas and on shopping trips, at various club meetings and luncheons. She learned about roses and had many planted, front and back. About costly perfumes and handbags and had her closets renovated. About Chicago’s splashier charitable events where she’d get her photo put in the “People Out and About” section. She found being home more and more tedious as time went by. She liked to celebrate her sudden good fortune with her new friends, with new clothes.
Tim and Eve got many things done for themselves or they learned who to call. Eve became a budding cook but against her will. They got hungry when their parents were late, then later, so at last Maxine hired a cook three days a week. They learned how to fake their parents’ signatures if they wanted or needed days off school. If they got sick they checked in on each other more often than not. Tim ran quietly down the long hallway before he went to sleep around midnight–he was two years older–and stuck his head in, told her good night, good dreams. Even if she was asleep, though more often she lay there staring at the ceiling where starry stickers glowed. And Eve checked for light seeping under his door when she got up to use the bathroom or listen for her parents and if she saw it she knocked softly until he said to come in. Usually he was reading. If he had had a nightmare–which he had pretty often– she patted his arm, gave him a little hug.
In the morning, when their parents asked if they slept well, they smiled in unison, said, “Of course.” They knew better than to distract them from their fast-paced lives. Even then, their mother could turn up her lecture voice in a flash as their father hid behind work or the paper.
Things might have gone on like that–not comfortable in most ways, but pleasant in others– until they were sprung from the brick house by virtue of time: their eighteenth birthdays. But Eve and Tim grew restless long before they were ready to handle what beckoned. They drank on the sly, they smoked pot. They had some interesting, wilder friends in common. They helped each other with school work that otherwise may have sunk them; they waited until they got out of detention for tardiness or skipped classes. Share and share alike. “Two goofy heads together are better than one,” Tim liked to say.
Then Tim turned seventeen and decided he wanted to be some kind of race car driver. Street racing. Illegal, risky. He drove far too fast and took chances that scared her and she liked to avoid it. And that was it, wasn’t it, for the madcap duo? She was not there; he kept on. He didn’t last at it despite a sterling reputation. It went bad fast and as hard as possible. Spinal injury, head trauma, they whispered at school as Eve slumped down the halls– when she even attended. Before he got a decent chance at more life, he was stalled completely. And not surprisingly, Eve was blamed in large part. Why didn’t she stop him? What happened the night she ignored his antics? Why didn’t she tell their parents about it before it was too late? Never mind that she was with a girlfriend that night, watching old movies. She and Tim had been less attuned to each other that past year. Still. Why had she not done more to discourage him? Why, why, why?
Maxine and Douglas faltered under grief heaped on them a long while. They looked to Eve for much and got little back; she was worn out, she was drowning, too, as she tried to tread waters of her daily life. So Maxine blamed her, too. It was one long sentence that never seemed to end.
“If only you’d been there, you could have stopped him, he adored you, I know you could have…”
Douglas stopped talking. Not entirely, no, he had that big job and its demands to navigate daily, and it took his mind off much. But at home, he was a quiet man made nearly mute, like a creature that goes small and silent as a bad storm comes.
And Tim lay in a hospital bed, tended to by nurses, specialists, physical therapists. And he still did. At home, yes, that came finally. But what was the difference? He saw little he desired as he looked out at the world.
Eve was determined to finish high school and leave. It almost killed her to go to classes knowing Tim could not, would never come along with her as he once had. He barely stayed alive despite her daily talks with him, her ministrations to him, her prayers mumbled in tears. When he stabilized and could flick his eyes at her, she knew she had better leave then– or never. She could not bear the “if only” anymore.
She got a degree in earth sciences–botany her favorite–and then taught middle school students ravenous for knowledge about the beautiful and changing earth. And that was something, wasn’t it. It was about all she had. She counted on that need, to get up each day, be there for her students. It carried her until the week-ends when she drove two hours each way to visit Tim for at least a day. And their parents. So it was working then in a way, despite the continuing loneliness she hadn’t anticipated. The roaring silence of night as she tossed and turned in bed, a darkness beaded with hardness of guilt. The stunning lack of peace in early morning even as coffee brewed, a good plan for the day at her fingertips. The fact that she could not call her brother to tell him about the kids, her book club, the sporty car she was thinking of buying. He could not even put a mug of steaming brew to his lips or smile at her. Eve didn’t know for certain if Tim knew she loved him even more than before. But she thought so, felt so. How could he not when they had always known what the other thought? Well, almost, almost.
Nothing was sure and good enough to bring real happiness back. Until practical, cheerful Mick came into her life with dirt on his hands and room in his heart for her. Who knew kindness could be such an easy thing for some to give and for her, so hard to learn to accept? They got married, they moved to the semi-rural town of Marionville.
Douglas and Alden were on the floor flipping and matching little animal cards as Maxine read a book Eve had recommended and loaned her when the back door swung open.
“Hey beautiful, what’s cookin’?”
“Chicken and dumplings,” she said, smiling at him. “Just put it in the frig.”
He pushed the back door closed with a foot and placed two bags on the table. Eve could see a couple of garden tools and his requisite bags of snacks, her own list of nonfood items.
Maxine and Douglas were just putting on their coats at the front door. Mick gave Eve a kiss on her neck and then went to bid them goodbye.
“Hey, folks, how was dinner? Sorry I couldn’t make it, Garth and I were busy working on a car, a 1992 Chevy–“
“Well, we missed you, but your afternoon was likely more entertaining,” Douglas said, eyebrows rising, his narrow hand shaking Mick’s square one briefly.
Mick wasn’t sure if his father-in-law was joking or serious. He knew the older man was not much for family chat but he loved his daughter (and her cooking) and, of course, his grandson so came along dutifully. Perhaps Mick really ought to show up more. He could deal with being given a hard time but it was worse when he got barely a nod on Maxine’s worse days.
“Ah, hello Mick, nice to see you, how’s business going?” Maxine said as she pulled on her favorite burgundy calfskin and cashmere gloves. Mick thought how much Eve might enjoy those, too, but would never consider asking for such a luxury.
“As a matter of fact–I was waiting to tell Eve–” he turned toward the kitchen, then swept up his babbling, reaching son. “Honey, come on out.”
She wiped hands on jeans and leaned against a door jam, crossing her arms. She’d hoped her parents would slip out faster. They of course asked him about work and they already knew he’d been seasonally laid off, so why?
“I’m happy to say I just got hired on at the Jameson Farm. Their evergreen tree farm needs more help, along with other land maintenance jobs. I can work through Christmas, at least! And a part time job tending the art museum’s winter garden just came open, so that’s an option.”
Eve moved to hug her her son and husband tightly. “Wonderful, Mick!”
“Mick, good news is always welcome,” Douglas said and patted him heartily on the back.
“It’ll pay for bread and butter, I suppose…” Maxine buttoned her coat, smoothed stray wisps of hair at her temples. But she paused, almost unsteady; her husband reached out but she batted him away. Her wrinkled pale eyelids lowered as if to shield them of her real thoughts.
Eve looked at her mother with the one look she tried so hard to not show. The one that could set fire to stone. But her mother stared at her with a face gone softer, then took a step closer to Mick. When she spoke her voice was almost frail. Tentative. But gentle.
“You do know you’re a good man, Mick, don’t you? And that we’re -I am–so glad you married our daughter.”
Douglas drew himself up, nodded at Eve and Mick, then opened the front door and let themselves out.
“We’ll see you and Tim next Saturday then,” Eve called out.
She’d followed them past the open door, wanting to offer something more, words floating in twilit, chill air. The visit was their routine, but she wanted to make sure; an urgency had come over her. Tim needed to see his nephew every week, Alden needed to see his uncle. She had to be near him, tell him things. Had to believe he heard her, even now. And Mick, he just had love enough to share.
Maxine lifted a hand in the fast falling darkness, her back receding. Douglas touched his hat brim with a finger, opened the car door for her, helped her in.
The shivering family of three went indoors. Alden got his blocks out. Mick built and lit a fire in the sooty old fireplace.
“Well, Mick.” She had to be careful what she said–Alden was all ears and too much feeling wanted to spill over. “I suspect–I know–it’s time for me to let the past go. I just decided that I have to forgive what was not, and cannot be, any different. And just be there more for my parents. For Tim.”
He turned on his knees and patted the floor beside him as fledgling flames spat, sputtered and flared. Mick sat cross legged, put an arm about her, pulled her into him. When she settled with a sigh, Alden sat in her lap one hand held up to the fire’s warmth and one hand on his father’s knee. Their good and right fit.