By Christy <email@example.com>
Submitted November 2000
Summary: In the third and (maybe) final part of the series, Martha returns home to attend to family problems and tries to maintain a long-distance relationship with Jonathan.
"… metanoia is the opposite of paranoia, which is turning in on oneself." — Madeleine L'Engle, Certain Women
When we last saw Martha, she was on her way home from Kansas after receiving an emergency phone call from her grandmother, telling her that her mother had overdosed on her medication. Martha had been in Kansas, visiting Jonathan and his parents on their farm, after college graduation and a lengthy cross-country road trip. (As a reminder, this story is being told by Martha to her insomniac granddaughter, hence the first person, and the ending ;) ***
In the white vacuum of her hospital bed, my mother looked startlingly like my grandmother. Mother was fifty-one but she still had her figure; she was thin, skinny even. Without make- up, the skin around her eyes appeared sunken and wrinkled, and her eyebrows plucked too thin. Her head was propped up by a flat white pillow, exposing ripples of skin beneath her jaw. Except for the stray frizzes spraying from her temples, her hair was pulled back from her face, giving her the anomalous appearance of an infant.
The wide neck of her hospital gown dipped beneath her prominent collarbone, uncovering a small brown age spot between her breasts. Her chapped lips were pale and drawn into a thin, stern line. In her I saw the source of myself, as well as an artifact of my grandmother, her mouth set in a stern, stubborn line.
I shivered as a cold draft passed through the room, then pulled the sheet and blanket to my mother's chin. I glanced around the room: the shades were drawn, but through the darkness I could see a large vase brimming with flowers — roses, of course — and my mother's handbag resting on the stand beside her bed. Seized by an inappropriate curiosity — inappropriate since my mother was still alive, of course — I snatched the bag off the table and flipped open the clasp.
Inside the black leather purse lay a hairbrush, a compact, a lipstick, a wallet, a glasses case — glasses intact, — a gold pen, and a small leather-bound calendar. Nothing noteworthy. Not that I knew what I was looking for; did I expect to find the guilty vial of pills? A note?
Like many women of her generation, the life of Elizabeth Clark could be summed up in a series of dates: born, 1910; married, 1934; birthed a daughter, 1937; widowed, 1953; and now, suicide attempt, 1960. The last was the only thing that separated her from the other debutants-in-repose who played bridge on Thursday nights and met for country club tennis on Friday mornings.
I stood at the foot of my mother's bed, then replaced her handbag on her bed stand. Outside in the hospital hallway I looked for a doctor but could only find nurses. I was directed to my mother's nurse, who told me that her doctor was due for his rounds in an hour, whereupon he could speak with me about my mother's "condition."
The nurse suggested I go downstairs and look for my grandmother, who, until half an hour earlier, had herself been holding vigil in my mother's room. The nurse suggested I look in the cafeteria or gift shop — both were on the main floor — but I knew better. It would take more than a suicide attempt for Marion Williams to eat hospital food. And I equally doubted she would be in the gift shop; from the looks of things, she — or Grandfather — had already supplied my mother with flowers, and Grandmother wasn't the type to search out a tacky teddy bear or porcelain figurine.
But I went downstairs anyway and surveyed the green linoleum corridors of the hospital. And I was right: Grandmother wasn't in the cafeteria or the gift shop, nor was she in the lobby. I was about to give up and go back upstairs when I caught sight of a silhouette in the tiny hospital chapel, its head dipped in supplication and hair covered with a scarf.
"Grandmother?" I called out in a small voice.
The silhouette's head snapped up in surprise before she righted herself; my grandmother had been kneeling in the first pew of the chapel, her hands clasped flat in prayer like an age-ed Virgin Mary. I knew her prayer, the same simple one I had repeated again and again on the plane: Please.
She nodded quickly when I reached the end of her row, and I sat down next to her on the hard wooden pew. "Martha," she whispered. I think it was a greeting, but I wasn't sure it wasn't a prayer.
"I just got in; Joseph brought me over." Joseph was our family's driver. A kind, elderly gentleman, he had sped me to the hospital immediately after gathering my bags from the airport luggage return.
"Have you seen your mother?"
I nodded, not wanting, not able, to vocalize thoughts of my mother's newly-revealed age or her resemblance to her mother. Grandmother said nothing, but I thought I saw her hand twitch off her lap. For a second, I wondered if she was going to hold my hand. But she only cleared her throat and we sat there in silence for several minutes before I gathered the courage to put my hand on hers.
"I talked to Mother's nurse and she said the doctor should be upstairs for rounds soon," I said.
"Yes, I would like to meet him," Grandmother said. "I spoke to the emergency room doctor a few hours ago, before she had her own room."
So we went upstairs, where a short, nervous doctor had a stethoscope pressed against the age spot on my mother's chest. He jumped at the sound of Grandmother's heels on the linoleum floor.
"Hello, ma'am. I'm Dr. Gordon Graves. You must be Mrs. Clark's family," he said, running a hand through his short dark hair.
Grandmother's mouth relaxed into a satisfied smile at the doctor's manners. "Yes. I am Marion Williams, Elizabeth's mother." Grandmother stopped and pushed me forward. "And this is her daughter, Martha."
"Nice to meet you," I said, and shook Dr. Graves's hand. I tried to step back next to my grandmother, but her hands stayed strong on my back, forcing me forward.
"Martha graduated last year from Bryn Mawr. Art history major." Grandmother always said Bryn Mawr, never Bryn Mawr *College*; any young man worth his weight in Waterford would know Bryn Mawr. "She's spent her last few months traveling."
Grandmother grinned gracefully as Dr. Graves nodded and gave me a once-over. I fought the urge to roll my eyes; a few years ago, I would've blushed and felt the need to study my Mary Janes. But now, Dr. Graves's perusal wasn't embarrassing, just disappointing.
"How's my mother?" I asked pointedly.
It was Dr. Graves who blushed as he consulted the chart hanging on the end of Mother's bed. "Yes, well, we've given her something to relax her, let her get some sleep. We'll start bringing her out of it tomorrow and she should be back to normal" — whatever that was, I thought — "by the afternoon."
"What happened?" I asked. I knew my mother had tried to kill herself, but I wanted to know why.
Dr. Graves and my grandmother glanced at each other. "Miss Clark," Dr. Graves began, and I didn't have to look at Grandmother to know she was beaming in appreciation of Dr. Graves's manners. "Miss Clark, your mother must have miscalculated her medications. She took a little too much and was brought in here so we could get things straightened out again."
I nodded. Sure, she just *miscalculated* a dose of medication. The sideways glance between Grandmother and Dr. Graves told me they were lying, never mind the pitying stares from the nurse I had talked to in the hall. But I didn't press the issue; I knew Dr. Graves wouldn't tell me anything as long as Grandmother was around, and maybe not at all.
"So she'll be okay tomorrow?" I asked, and Dr. Graves nodded.
"So will *you* be her doctor?" Grandmother probed. "She won't need to see anyone else?"
"Well," Dr. Graves stuttered, "she will have to see a psychologist."
"Is that really necessary? This was all an accident and, anyway, she has her own *private* doctor. I know he will definitely be stopping in for a visit." Yeah, Grandmother, I thought, that same *private doctor* who had been treating her when she overdosed in the first place; I'm sure he'll be a big help.
"I'm afraid it's hospital policy in cases like these, ma'am. It's all in the best interest of the patients. I'm sure you understand, Mrs. Williams," Dr. Graves pleaded with a sad, almost penitent smile. Perhaps he had heard of Marion Williams and didn't want to get on her bad side. Or maybe he just felt sorry for a powerless old woman and her head-case daughter. Either way, after promising he would see us the next day, Dr. Graves continued his rounds and Grandmother and I left the hospital. ***
The drive home from the hospital was quick and quiet. The streets were empty and our black car sped unobtrusively through the dark city. With Joseph driving, Grandmother and I sat in the back seat together. Several times I started to say something, to ask Grandmother what had really happened, who had found Mother and where. And mostly, why.
But I sat silently, knowing from past experience that if Grandmother was going to tell me anything, she would have done so already. She wasn't one to mince words or let someone else control the conversation. If Grandmother wanted to share a secret, she shared it; she wasn't about to wait for someone to ask after it.
Grandmother didn't say anything either as Joseph pulled up to our house and let us off in front before driving the car into the garage. We entered the house together and I took it in with new eyes, pretending I had never seen it before. It was probably impossible, but I tried to survey the house with new eyes, the parquet floor of the front hall, the winding staircase rising from the doorway, the thick curtains drawn over glassy black windows. I tried to remember being a child in this house, leaving my toys littering the hall or my homework on the kitchen table, but it felt as if I had always been an adult.
Grandfather was propped up in the mahogany-colored leather chair next to the staircase, waiting for us. But he wasn't awake. His head rested against the arm of the chair, his open mouth emitting a soft, staccato snore. Grandmother didn't wake him, though; she just shook her head, disappointed but unsurprised, as if she was too used to the sight to be affected by it.
But I squatted next to Grandfather's chair and nudged his shoulder. He awoke with a start, his eyes wide and ready, but he relaxed when he saw it was me.
"Martha, you're home!" He stood and we embraced and a wave of sorrow hit me, not for my mother or myself, but for my grandfather. His shoulders were a little more slumped, his hair a little thinner, than the last time I saw him.
"Grandfather, how're you doing?"
He shrugged with marked effort. "Oh, don't worry about me," he said with a crinkly smile. "I've had myself a pleasant little nap and now I'm ready to hear all about your trip home and what's going on at the hospital."
I took a seat on the staircase and began with the hospital, telling my grandfather what Mother looked like, what the doctor had said, and my plans for returning to the hospital tomorrow. I wanted him to come with me, and he acquiesced without struggle. I smiled in relief; my mother was his daughter, too, not just Grandmother's. It couldn't hurt my mother to see a second supportive face when she awoke tomorrow.
Grandfather excused himself after unsuccessfully suppressing several yawns, and I wandered into the kitchen. It was empty; after parking the car, Joseph must have gone straight to the downstairs suite he shared with his wife, Nancy. So I fixed myself a sandwich and ate it while doodling on a pad of scratch paper.
I knew I needed to call Jonathan, to let him know that my leaving had nothing to do with his proposals. I was sure Anna would have told him as much, but I wanted him to hear it from the horse's mouth; I hadn't lied when I had said that I loved Jonathan. I didn't want to hurt him.
I placed my empty plate in the sink and stood against the wall with the phone in my hand. I twirled the cord around my thumb as I slowly, deliberately, dialed Jonathan's phone number. After six rings and just as I was deciding to hang up, someone picked up the phone.
"'Lo?" It wasn't until then that I realized what time it was — and what time it had to be in Kansas, — and I wished I had waited until morning to call.
"Yes, it's me. I'm sorry about the time," I said quickly, wanting to say what I had to say and let Jonathan go back to bed.
"Yeah, well, I had to call and let you know where I was."
"My mom told me," he said softly.
"I thought she would, but I wanted to talk to you, too. I didn't have time to say good-bye or leave you a note, and I didn't want to leave… I didn't want us to be…"
"I know, Martha. It's okay."
"Okay," I said, and unwound the telephone cord from my thumb. I waited out a long silence and watched the color return to my thumb.
"So your mom's okay?" Jonathan finally asked.
"The doctor says she will be." I wanted to tell Jonathan that Grandmother was pretending it was all an accident — and that the doctor seemed too willing to play along — when I realized that it could wait another day. "I'll let you get back to bed," I told him. "I'll talk to you again in a few days, all right?"
"Okay," Jonathan muttered. "Bye."
"Love you," I whispered before replacing the phone on the receiver and heading upstairs to bed. ***
Grandmother had already left the house when I went downstairs for breakfast the next morning. I sat at the kitchen table and watched Nancy pour pancake batter into perfect, round circles.
Then Nancy poured the batter into the shape of a large M. I smiled, remembering when she would make initial pancakes for her daughter Sophie and me when we were younger. We would stand beside her, our chins resting on the counter, watching the pale yellow batter cook from the underside up, watching Nancy flip the pancakes perfectly, preserving our Ms and Ss.
"There you go, dear," Nancy said as she added the golden M to the pile of pancakes on my plate.
"Thanks, Nancy," I said, and dowsed my plate in maple syrup.
"Good morning, Martha," Joseph said, closing the door behind him. He sat across from me at the table and chose two large pancakes, pouring a small drop of syrup on each and spreading it with the convex side of his fork before cutting the pancakes into small, even squares. When he set his knife down diagonally across the plate, he had sliced the golden circles into child- size bites, tiny, double-layered, and equally moistened with syrup. He ate from the plate in a clockwise manner, working in a slow spiral towards the center of the plate.
"Joseph, you drove Grandmother this morning, right?" I asked.
"Where did you take her?"
"Oh, just some errands," he said. "Why?"
"Just wondering." I watched Joseph finish off his breakfast and began my own. My M pancake had turned cold and wet from the syrup, and I pushed it around my plate.
"You know what you should do, Martha," Joseph said as he took his plate to the sink. "You should go visit Sophie. She's not too far away, just in Big Creek, about a thirty minute drive. I know she'd love to see you."
"Maybe I will," I said, "after Mother wakes up, that is. I'm sure she'll be released from the hospital soon." I looked over at Nancy and Joseph, both standing at the sink. Joseph set his plate on the counter and he and Nancy exchanged a look that shouted, 'Martha clearly doesn't know what she's talking about… I wonder what that old bag Mrs. Williams has told her about her mother…'
The look both bolstered me and tore at me. It meant that I wasn't crazy, that there was more to my mother's "accident" than my grandmother was willing to admit. But, in confirming my fears, the look also meant that this thing with my mother was serious. I was sorry to be right. ***
Rather than have Joseph drive me to the hospital that morning — he was busy chauffeuring my grandmother, who had said she would meet us there — I took my mother's car. She drove an elderly yet pristine Cadillac. Rather, she *owned* the giant powder blue monster; she rarely drove the beast since she rarely went anywhere.
In the passenger's seat sat my grandfather, a derby hat fitting tight on his head and a handful of black-eyed Susans in his clenched fist. He looked like a child who had dressed himself, an odd combination of proper Boston gentleman and eager little boy. I imagined him as a child, on his way to see his mother — rather than his daughter — in the hospital. Maybe she had just had a baby, or maybe a routine surgery, and he was at home with his father, who was too busy trying to figure out how to cook and clean and watch a little boy, to make sure his son was properly attired. I knew my grandfather had picked the flowers from the tiny garden Nancy and Joseph kept in the backyard. And I knew he had asked their permission first.
The only change in my mother's room since the previous night was the light streaming through the window, illuminating finger- and handprints left over from previous visitors. My mother looked the same as the night before: old, white, and a heartbeat away from the front room of the Faulzhauber Family Funeral Home.
Dr. Graves was nowhere to be seen when we arrived at my mother's hospital room. Neither was Grandmother, so Grandfather added the black-eyed Susans to my mother's vase of roses and went off to look for her. I almost told him to check the tiny first floor chapel, where I had found her last night, but saying it felt like an invasion of her privacy, so I kept quiet and let him wander off by himself.
So I sat on the chair next to the head of the bed and watched the slow rise of her chest. I tried to imagine what might have prompted my mother to "accidentally" overdose. I knew she was sad; anyone who spent more than thirty seconds in her presence knew that Elizabeth Clark was due for a bit of joy in her life. But the same thing could be said about dozens of others: Grandfather, for one, who had seemingly spent a lifetime under the force of my grandmother's autocratic thumb. Yet he was still alive and kicking. How he had taken it all these years, I didn't know.
I was still watching my mother as her hands, which were lying palms up at her sides, began to fidget. Her left thumb rubbed against the back of her ring finger, twisting her wedding and engagement rings slowly around her finger. I recognized the gesture as one of her nervous ticks, something she did often to straighten her engagement ring or comfort herself; she'd almost twisted the rings right off her finger at my father's funeral.
"Mother?" I called out, restraining myself from calling her "Mama," as I had when I was a very young child. She wasn't the only one in need of comfort.
"Mother, are you awake?"
"Mmmm," she responded without opening her eyes.
"Mother, oh, Mother. Thank God you're okay! You're in the hospital, but don't worry, everything's fine. You're going to be okay." Of course I felt bad about lying, but what else could I have said: Mother, what were you thinking, trying to kill yourself? Mother, I need you; don't leave me? No, I didn't want to make her feel any worse than she already felt.
She stopped twisting the rings on her left hand, but her thumb remained pressed up against the twin gold bands, and she appeared to have gone back to sleep by the time a nurse came in to check on her. I watched as the nurse listened to her heart, took her blood pressure and temperature, and checked the IV hanging next to the bed.
"I think she's waking up," I said. "She's been moving her hands, and she was trying to speak a few minutes ago."
The nurse nodded. "That's good. We've decreased her sedatives so it won't take her long to come out of it now. Give me a buzz when she's awake, okay?"
I assured her I would, and the nurse left. I felt useless; all I could do was watch her breathe — in and out, in and out — and count how often she twisted her rings. It had been eleven times in the last twenty minutes, I noted with a glance at the clock next to the door. The next time she began turning her rings, I put my hand on hers. She stopped immediately, and slowly laced her fingers through mine. Her hand was cold and the skin pulled tight around her fingers. Her knuckles were thicker than the loose skin between them and, when I touched her rings, they slipped effortlessly around her finger.
Ten minutes later she awoke. I reached for the buzzer but it was on the other side of the bed and I couldn't reach it. Rather than let go of my mother's hand, I sat there and watched her come to consciousness. Her eyelids squeezed and relaxed several times before she actually opened her eyes.
"Mmmmm," she said again, this time in a struggle to speak despite the plastic tube threaded down her windpipe.
"Mother, it's Martha," I said, trying to smile as I watched the confusion play out in her eyes. "Mother, don't worry, everything's fine. You're in the hospital, but you're going to be just fine."
After several anemic coughs, though, she got a strained, gurgling sound out around the tube. I think it was "Sorry." ***
It wasn't until later that afternoon, after the nurse had removed her breathing tube, that my mother seemed anything more than a ghost. I was glad she'd awakened earlier than expected; it gave me time to talk to her alone, before my grandmother arrived. I watched as she sipped carefully from a bowl of cloudy brown soup, the first food she'd had in two days.
"How does it taste?" I asked.
She shrugged. "It's okay."
"Well, I'll bring you some of Nancy's chicken noodle once the doctor okays solid foods," I told her. "How do you feel?"
"I'm fine," she admitted.
"What happened?" I asked.
She kept sipping at her soup, unfazed, and I wondered if she'd heard me. But I didn't get the chance to ask her again because my grandmother bounded into the room, a determined look on her face.
"Elizabeth!" Grandmother said as she gave my mother a quick hug. Then she stepped back from the bed and morphed back into the grandmother I knew. She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows at my mother.
"You gave us quite a scare there, Elizabeth, quite a scare. How could you be so careless? You know you should read the labels on medications before you take them. Really, you should know better."
I sighed and shifted in my seat. While it was disappointing, I should have anticipated Grandmother's reaction. Of course she didn't express her worry or her fear. She had been that same way all my life. When I was nine, Sophie and I tried sliding down the banister one snowy winter afternoon when school had been cancelled. Sophie made it down okay, but I fell and landed funny on my shoulder. Of course I cried, and Grandmother came running.
But did she hug me and try to reassure me? Did she even check to make sure I didn't need to go to the hospital? No, she scooped me up and placed me on my feet, then yelled at me. I shouldn't have been playing on the stairs. How many times did she have to tell me to play in my bedroom? You don't stop until someone gets hurt, do you? Sophie and I cowered together, backs to the wall, feeling like criminals instead of nine year olds.
What Grandmother said that day in the hospital told me more than that she hadn't changed. I knew she had talked to the doctor without me, probably before I got to Boston. Apparently, Mother had mixed some pills she shouldn't have. Maybe she'd taken a handful of whatever had been in the medicine cabinet; I imagined her arranging the pills on the counter of the bathroom sink, a variety of colors and sizes, like the appetizer sampler at Chez Nous.
"I'm sorry, Mother," my mother said in a small voice, as if she were a recalcitrant child, begging for forgiveness.
"I should hope so! I was calling you from downstairs and you weren't answering me. You're lucky I came upstairs to find you. You could've died, young lady," Grandmother bristled, as if my mother's "accident" had been an intentional affront to her.
"I know." ***
The next day I took Joseph's advice, borrowed the Cadillac once again, and drove half an hour outside the city to Big Creek. A fledgling town, it was flat and barren, its trees plucked in favor of identical tract houses. The streets all had names like Tulip Court and Sunflower Street, assuring potential buyers that the town, despite its infertile appearance, had potential for growth.
Daffodil Drive was one of the newest streets, and I pulled into the driveway of number 912, a white two-story with black shutters and a burgundy door. The right side of the street was trimmed with houses; equally spaced and identical except for color, they were squat, with their sloped roofs dominating their fronts. On the other side of the street were half-constructed frames of embryonic houses and hard-hatted men drawing out the last minutes of their lunch hour.
Number 912 sat on the right side of the street and, among the nearly completed houses, it was the most finished. In fact, the other houses appeared to be vacant; tubed carpets, rolls of linoleum, and buckets of paint gathered at their open front doors. 912 Daffodil Drive sprung up from its concrete driveway like the first Monopoly house on the board, possessive, lonely.
Considering its surroundings, number 912 was well-tended; it had the beginnings of a yellow lawn sprouting from its dirt and clumps of flowers planted alongside the front walk. I stood on the front stoop, peering though the silver screen door while waiting for Sophie to answer my knock.
"Martha! Come in," Sophie exclaimed when she appeared from around a corner.
Despite her warm welcome, it felt necessary to justify my visit. "I was in town and your father gave me your address…"
"Of course! I'm so glad he did. It's nice to see you," Sophie said, holding the door open for me. She was taller than me and when she hugged me I felt like a long-lost child being held by a worried mother.
It was then that I noticed how different Sophie looked from the last time I'd seen her. Her dark hair, always long and uncontrollably curly, had been cut into short, half-moon curls framing her face, which was expertly made up to look years older than her real age of 22, a year younger than I was. In a flower print dress and high heels, she looked like a little girl who had gotten good at playing dress-up, and I felt childish in my blue jeans and embroidered blouse.
"Oh, Martha, I'm so glad you're here," Sophie babbled as I followed her through a sparsely decorated living room and into the kitchen. She dried her hands on her apron and hung it on a hook mounted on the wall next to the kitchen door.
"Well, this is the new house. What do you think? I know it's not finished, but it's so much farther along than the rest of the houses in this area since ours was the prototype house, you know."
"Well, Big Creek is being built by an architecture firm, all at once. The firm bought a bunch of land, created a few designs for houses, and started building. So far, we've got a few finished sections, plus some that are partially done — like ours — and a little plaza with a grocery store, a school, those kinds of things.
"And it's being marketed exclusively to young couples just starting out, which will be great; we'll have built-in friends, and so will our children. In every section they built one house first, to show potential buyers. When Walter heard that this prototype was available, well, we just jumped at the chance."
"Walter?" I asked Sophie tentatively. I guessed that Walter was Sophie's husband, but I had never met the man; circumstances — my schooling and travel, and her marriage — had conspired to keep me away from Sophie for years. She and Walter had married while I was still in college, during finals week of my junior year, making it impossible for me get home for the ceremony. And afterwards they had promptly moved to California, where Walter had a new job lined up.
"Oh, I forgot that you haven't met Walter! Gosh, it has been a long time, hasn't it? Well, yes, Walter's my husband. Walter Rosenberg. I know; isn't it a hoot! Who'd have guessed a Catholic-school girl like me would marry a Jewish man? I mean, my mother practically had a conniption when we started seeing each other, but of course she sweetened up on him after they met. Everyone loves Walter!"
I smiled and Sophie flew past me, out of the kitchen. "Let me just find a picture of him," she exclaimed on her way upstairs. I took the opportunity to sit on one of the four brand-new chairs clustered around a circular table near the window. Like the living room, Sophie's kitchen was pristine and new. The stove and refrigerator were shiny and white, and the cupboard doors still lay in an opened box on the Formica countertop. Exposed boxes of cereal and stacks of plates and dishes lined the shelves.
"Found it!" Sophie said as she bounded back into the kitchen and flung herself on the chair beside me. "I haven't had a chance to get our photographs organized and into frames yet. Everything's just so crazy around here! But this is Walter."
The picture Sophie handed me showed she and a man sitting on what I recognized as the sole sofa in Sophie's living room. Sophie, her hand on the man's knee and her head on his shoulder, was smiling, more at him than at the photographer.
The man — Walter — was considerably older than Sophie. His dark hair was lightened by streaks of gray and a folded pair of glasses hung from his shirt pocket. But he held himself like a teenager, gangly legs jutting out at odd angles, an arm set on Sophie's shoulder as if he was a boy on his first date, breathing hard in a dark movie theater, nervous the girl would realize he was trying to make a move on her. Walter's head was ducked down a bit, a boy afraid that because he had grown taller than his father, it meant that he was now a man, too.
"I know what you're thinking," Sophie said with an easy smile. "Walter's older than me; you're right. He's forty; isn't that crazy? My dad was worried sick when I told him how old Walter was, but, just like Mother, he fell in love when they met, and now they're the best of friends. Walter even took Daddy fishing on his father's boat last year, before we told him and Mother that I was expecting," she said with a giggle.
"Oh, we were already married," Sophie added with a suddenly sophisticated laugh. "But we had to break it to them gently. I mean, they had barely gotten over their shock at our marriage, and then they had to accept that they were about to be grandparents! They had a hard time imagining their baby girl with her *own* baby.
"And they're nothing like Walter's parents," she said with a sideways grin. "They weren't a bit surprised. In fact, they'd been pressuring us for a grandbaby since the wedding! Then again, they're older than my parents and they've been waiting longer. Walter has a sister and brother and they both have children, but Walter's their youngest and, oh, you know how it is with parents; they just want everything for all their kids.
"In fact," she said in a lowered voice, as if Walter's parents were about to jump out of the door-less broom closet, "they've been hinting after *another* baby! I know, I know, can you believe it? I mean, I just can't keep up!" she said, laying a hand on her abdomen as if the second round of labor pains were already beginning.
"Your father said you had a boy…" I blurted out, taking advantage of the break in Sophie's monologue.
"Oh, yes, of course. You want to see the baby." She leapt from her chair, a proud grin spreading over her face. "Come on up with me. He's napping right now, but we can take a peek into his room, long as we're quiet."
I nodded, but couldn't imagine Sophie quiet for even a minute. She had been boisterous as long as I'd known her, but now she was positively hyperactive, I thought as I followed her back through the living room and upstairs. At the top of the stairs sat a bathroom, door open to reveal unpainted whitewall and uncovered cupboards. On our left was what I presumed to be Sophie and Walter's bedroom. The walls were painted a dull yellow but the windows were curtainless and a stack of boxes sat in the far corner.
We turned right and walked down a short hall before coming to a closed door with a blue and yellow hand-painted sign that announced it to be the "Nursery." After pressing an index finger to her lips to remind me of the need to be quiet, Sophie opened the door.
The nursery looked to belong to a different house. The walls were decorated in blue and white checked wallpaper, and matching curtains covered the windows. The room was filled with baby accoutrements — a changing table, a small wardrobe, a rocking chair, a toy chest, and a crib — all fashioned from a pale grain of wood.
Sophie led me to the crib, where a tiny baby was almost obscured by layers of white and blue blankets. His face was turned away from us and all I could see was the swirl pattern of his hair, thin but dark brown, on the back of his head.
"Isn't he just darling?" Sophie said, more of a proclamation than a question.
Just as I'd feared, the baby awoke at the sound of his mother's voice. He began to make a soft, whiny noise, causing Sophie to sigh before placing a comforting hand on his back. But her touch only caused her son to awaken completely, and he began to wriggle beneath his layers of blankets. His whimpering grew in persistence and volume, until Sophie reached into the crib to extract him.
"Meet Paul Walter Rosenberg," she stated as she adjusted the baby in her arms to reveal see his face. Baby Paul didn't look like either Sophie or the picture of Walter, but, then again, in my amateur opinion babies didn't begin to look like much of anything for several months. I remembered visiting my second cousin's new baby daughter when I was a child. The little girl was quite possibly the ugliest creature I'd ever seen; her face was reddened and wrinkled and her eyes could barely stay open.
It was on the ride home from my second cousin's house that day that I wondered how any sane person could look at a newborn and pronounce it beautiful. But they had; both my mother and grandmother had proclaimed the baby "…gorgeous, one of the most beautiful infants I've ever seen," and they appeared to mean every word of it, not even retracting their statements once we were in the car, safe from the sensitive ears of the proud new mother.
So I decided that women who give birth in the past must go through some biological change, after which their perception of beauty was severely altered. No longer could they see that another woman's newborn was as red and wrinkly as a baby rat; now they proclaimed him to be beautiful, and meant every word of it. I didn't know if I should look forward to this change as a part of growing into maternity, or if I should dread it as a sublimation of my true self to another, more dominant life form.
"He's beautiful," I said, trying to sound sincere.
"I think he's the spitting image of Walter, but Walter thinks he looks like me. What do you think?"
There had to be a clever way to answer Sophie's question but, put on the spot the way I was, I couldn't think of it. "It's hard to tell," I stammered. "He looks a little like you, but I've only seen that picture of Walter."
"That's right," Sophie said, apparently placated. I sighed with relief. "It's almost his feeding time, so I'd better get his bottle ready. We could talk while he eats," she offered, and I said, "Sure."
So I followed Sophie downstairs and back into the kitchen, where she very deftly prepared the baby's bottle with the use of only her one free hand. I asked her if she needed any help — hoping she would take me to mean with the bottle, not with the baby — but she said no. "I do it like this every day," she claimed. "Haven't dropped him yet," she said with a grin.
But I felt silly sitting down while she bustled through the cupboards, so I stood and watched her, watched the baby. Paul didn't yet have full control of his neck, it seemed, and his head bobbed around, resting intermittently on his mother's shoulder. He tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to focus his eyes on me, and I smiled tentatively at him.
On the drive to Big Creek I'd wondered how it would be, seeing Sophie for the first time in so long. Would we no longer have anything in common? Would we fall into the same trap as so many childhood friends, finding ourselves held together by just a skinny twine of habit, ready to unravel with any strain? Or would we fall back into our old friendship like children fall back into the pool, bending their knees just right so the water wouldn't smack them on the back, sting them? "Old lady on a park bench," we used to yell before leaning backwards, pretending there was something to catch us.
I watched Sophie's proficient maneuverings at the sink, at the counter, pouring the bottle. It wasn't like I'd imagined, our friendship, but I suppose nothing ever is. Instead, we were stuck in a limbo between the two; we still had ties, held together by more than a tenuous twine, but things didn't fall into place either. We were a jigsaw puzzle; we still fit together but effort and thought had to be expended to get it to go right.
Finally Sophie finished and led me into the living room, a bottle in one hand, the baby in the other. We both sat on the sofa and she rearranged Paul in her arms before plugging his o- shaped mouth with the bottle.
"So, how've you been?" Sophie asked. "Tell me all about *your* life; I've talked your ear off so far."
"Well, I graduated about a year and a half ago. Since then I've just been traveling, just around the eastern U.S., nothing exciting."
"How's your mother?" Sophie asked, her voice slipping into a more gentle tone.
"She's fine, considering," I told Sophie, assuming she knew about Mother's hospitalization. "She'll be home soon, so that's good."
"And where were you traveling before you came back here?"
"Oh, I'd been in Kansas for a little while. I was visiting a friend there."
"No, Jonathan Kent. Remember him?" I asked Sophie. I'd told her all about Jonathan after coming home from my first visit to Kansas.
"Oh, *Jon*-athan," Sophie said with a knowing grin. "I remember him. So, you two've kept in touch all these years?"
"Yeah, Jonathan's a good letter-writer, and I'm okay. I wasn't good at keeping in touch when I was on the road and-"
"Yeah, I noticed."
"Sorry about that," I said. "It wasn't just you, though. I wrote a lot of post cards, but I kept losing them or forgetting to mail them."
"It's okay," Sophie said. "I've been pretty busy, too," she said with a nod down to Paul. "So… you and Jonathan are a couple."
"Uh," I stammered. "Well, yes. He might be a little more serious than I am, though."
"Well, he sort of proposed…"
"He *sort of* proposed!?"
"Okay, he *did* propose."
"And what did you say?"
"I told him no. I do love him, but that's just a really big commitment. I wanted to make sure I was ready. We've known each other for years, but we haven't been together geographically for very long, and for most of that time we were twelve!"
"Yes, but if you love him…"
"But do I love him *enough*?"
"Enough?" Sophie asked, taking the now-empty bottle from Paul's lips and shifting him over to her shoulder. "What does that mean?"
"Well, enough to be married to him for the rest of my life. That's a really big commitment, you know. Plus, Jonathan's a farmer; he'd never want to leave Kansas. So not only do I have to choose Jonathan for the rest of my life, but we'll be living on a farm, in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Kansas!"
Sophie shrugged. "I followed Walter to California."
"Yea, but there's more to do in California than Kansas. Besides, you came back; this is forever!"
"Is there somewhere else you'd like to live?" Sophie asked.
I shrugged. "Well, not really. I mean, I don't feel any urgent need to stay in Boston, and I didn't find anywhere else I particularly liked while I was traveling."
Paul burped and Sophie patted his back gently. "I don't know what to tell you, Martha. Either you love him or you don't. You can think of any old excuse not to be with him. But if you love him, the excuses aren't the important thing. And I do understand how you're feeling, a little, at least. In the beginning it was hard realizing I was in love with Walter. I mean, he's eighteen years older than me; he could practically be my father! He didn't seem to mind the age difference, but it bothered me. It probably means he'll die long before me. I might be a widow for a very long time, maybe even with young children to support."
I nodded; I couldn't imagine accepting a man's proposal in that situation, but, then again, if I loved him…
"So eventually I told Walter why I was so skittish. I thought he'd be hurt, but it turned out he was thinking almost the same thing; he was worried he'd have to leave me, too, so that just means we have to plan better for the future, make sure that, if something does happen to him, Paul and I can at least get along. And we're having our family earlier than we would otherwise. We want to have as much time together with our children as possible. I was worried about all this, but I loved him and we worked it out. Sure, I wish Walter was ten years younger, but I can't change that."
"Yeah," I said.
"And, even if he was, he wouldn't be Walter, you know? He'd be a different person, and maybe I wouldn't even love him the same. I guess I'm just happy I found him, and happy he's himself."
I nodded obediently, but the truth was, I needed some time to think over what Sophie had said. She wasn't in the same situation as I was, not really, but maybe everyone had worries about completely sharing their lives with someone else. Maybe Jonathan had worries, too…
I started to thank Sophie, but the phone rang, cutting me off.
"Would you mind taking the baby for a minute so I can get the phone?" she asked, standing and holding Paul out to me. "It's hard to hold him and the phone and write down any messages."
"Er, I'm not used to…"
"That's okay. He should be quiet, since he's just eaten," she said, already handing him off to me. "There, you'll be fine."
The empty bottle in her hand, Sophie ran off to the kitchen. I looked down at Paul, who stared back at me expectantly. My inexperience with babies was almost an under-exaggeration; in fact, my only baby-holding experience had been at Amita's commune in New York. Two friends of hers had an eight month old "love child" who was constantly being passed from arm to arm, eventually making her way into mine. But Dillen — her name a feminized version of that of their favorite singer, Bob Dylan, who sang and played the guitar in Greenwich coffeehouses and bars — was bigger and not as fragile as Paul.
Dillen could sit and crawl and even babble incoherently. But all Paul could do was lie there and trust me not to drop him. I studied his face, and his dark eyes attempted to focus on me. He squirmed in my arms, and I shifted him around until he found a comfortable position with his head resting lazily on my shoulder.
I patted his back carefully, and was struck with a thought. Sophie was a year younger than me; I could have my own child right now, if my life had been different. Maybe if I'd been born to different parents, maybe if I hadn't gone to college, I would've had my own baby already.
I was twenty-three years old. Even with my life the way it was, children weren't all *that* far in my future. Sure, not everyone married or had children, but I couldn't deny that most did. Being a mother could be an interesting and important job — maybe one that I'd be good at — but I was more than a little scared at the prospect too.
I looked down at Paul, whose eyes had fluttered closed when he drifted off to sleep, his body resting heavily, unquestioningly, on my chest. I felt Paul's abdomen move in and out, in and out, small sounds escaping from his pink, half-open mouth as he breathed. I was struck with a grave sense of responsibility, both in just holding Paul and in my own potential as a mother. I was closer to being a mother than a child, closer to birthing than being birthed. ***
It had been a full day since I last saw my mother. My visit to Big Creek had taken longer than anticipated, and I didn't make it back to the city until hospital visiting hours were over. So I arrived early the next morning, in the company of my grandparents and armed with a thermos of soup and a tin of homemade blueberry muffins; the previous day Mother's doctors had okayed her for solid foods.
"Hi, Mother," I called out as the three of us came into sight of her room. "How are you feeling today?"
Surprisingly, my mother was sitting up in bed, reading the Arts section of the Boston Globe. Her hair was freshly washed and styled, and she was wearing one of her own nightgowns, instead of a paper contraption distributed by the hospital. She even appeared to be wearing… was that make-up?
"Hi, darling," she said, kissing me on the forehead. "I do feel better."
"I knew it!" Grandmother said, patting Mother's head like a dog. She plopped Nancy's foodstuff on my mother's breakfast cart, next to an unfinished heap of watery scrambled eggs and a pile of burnt toast rinds. "Dr. Mills came out to visit you yesterday, didn't he? I knew seeing him again would perk you right up."
My mother nodded half-heartedly at the mention of her personal therapist, but I thought I saw her roll her eyes skyward, something she used to do when she was exasperated, something she had done a long, *long* time ago. I smiled at her, but she was already prying open the package of muffins.
"Did that other doctor come by yet, the one Dr. Graves recommended?" Grandfather asked as he descended slowly into the plastic-coated chair next to Mother's bed.
"Yes, he came by last night, too," Mother replied before biting into one of the oversize muffins, still warm from the oven.
Grandmother let a stubborn harrumph escape from her nose, then shook her head. "What was he like? Some youngster, fresh out of medical school and eager to make mistakes, no doubt."
"He was all right, nothing special but certainly competent enough. He was in his forties at least, so I'm sure he got all his rookie mistakes done with decades ago."
Grandmother nodded, as if Mother had just agreed with her instead of contradicting her. "I knew that sweet Dr. Graves wouldn't recommend anyone inexperienced. He has quite the bedside manner, don't you think, Martha?" Grandmother asked with a non-obvious nod in my direction.
"And well-bred, too; his people are from the South, Nashville or thereabouts, which explains his gentlemanly demeanor. He was educated at Harvard Medical School, as were his father, grandfather, and older brother."
I nodded, wondering when Grandmother had had the chance to sucker Dr. Graves into filling out a personal history. But I let the thought flit unfettered from my head; I had more important concerns, the primary one being my mother, so I abandoned my grandmother's conversation and turned instead to my mother, who had returned to her newspaper. She was now working on the crossword puzzle, twirling her pencil between her fingers between words.
Now that I was standing closer, I could see that she was wearing jewelry, too, a watch and an engraved gold locket dangling from a long chain. I knew the heart-shaped locket held a photograph of my father, taken on their wedding day, and one of me as a baby.
When I was a child I would snuggle next to her on the sofa while she talked on the phone. I would finger the locket as she spoke, intermittently opening it to see my father's and my photographs inside, reminders of her love for us. When she would talk to her sister, my aunt Opal, I would lean my head against the phone receiver, straining to hear them. And occasionally she would let me listen in, tilting the receiver so I could hear more than a one-sided version of their conversation.
I watched my mother finish off a muffin and neatly tap her mouth with a paper napkin from her breakfast tray. This was my mother, the way she'd acted years ago — decades ago — before my father died, even before my summer in Smallville. She wasn't following her own mind or disobeying her mother, but she was making life interesting with a roll of the eyes here and a wink there.
Just then Dr. Graves popped his head into the room. "Good morning, Mrs. Williams, Mr. Williams, Miss Clark.
"And how are you feeling this morning, Mrs. Clark?" he asked, fiddling nervously with the stethoscope slung around his neck.
"Just fine, Doctor. I'm eager to go home."
"That new psychiatrist worked wonders, hmm," he mused, checking over the chart he'd removed from the foot of her bed. I wondered what my mother's chart said, but knew that I had no right — and more unfortunately, no opportunity — to take a peek. And she seemed to be doing so much better this morning… Maybe it was the new psychiatrist she had seen.
But all Mother said in response to Dr. Graves was "Mmm."
"Do you think we'll be able to take her home soon?" Grandfather asked.
"I would like her to get another session or two with that new doctor before leaving, so I'd venture to say perhaps tomorrow afternoon. How does that sound, ma'am?" he asked my mother, but it was Grandmother who answered.
"It sounds just wonderful, Doctor. But we'll certainly miss you. You've been such a help to Elizabeth, and to all of us. How can we ever thank you?" she fawned.
"Oh," Dr. Graves stuttered, the tips of his ears turning pink, "no thanks is necessary, really. I'm just doing my job, ma'am."
Grandmother smiled again, doing a fair imitation of the cat who'd not only swallowed the canary, but also convinced the bird to fly willingly into its mouth. "That's right; you're a doctor," she said, as if she had to remind us. "What a noble, *gratifying* profession. How did you decide on medicine, Dr. Graves?"
"Well," he stammered, dropping my mother's chart on his way to hooking it back onto the end of her bed. It clattered to the floor and under the bed with a metallic crash. Dr. Graves bent down to retrieve it, then straightened up and smiled sheepishly. "My father is a doctor, too, ma'am, and so is my brother and grandfather, so it wasn't such a difficult decision; it seems to be the family calling," he said with a nervous titter.
"That's just *won*derful," Grandmother replied. "Medicine is such a secure profession: well-paid, well-respected. I'm sure you and your brother have made your parents quite proud," she said with a hint of a glance towards me.
"Yes, ma'am," Dr. Graves said with a nod. "Well, good-bye, all. I should really get back to my rounds." He shot a nervous look over to my grandmother, who nodded and smiled as if guiding him.
"Uh, er, Martha, do you have a minute?" he asked almost inaudibly.
I glanced over at Grandmother, and then my mother, who was still working out her crossword. She appeared not to have given a second thought to the conversation between her doctor and her mother, and didn't even seem to notice that the former had invited me out into the hallway, possibly to discuss her case. I nodded. "Of course."
Dr. Graves waved to my family, and I followed him out into the hallway. He waited a nervous minute, fidgeting again with his stethoscope and straightening his white coat, until he heard a conversation resume in Mother's room.
"What is it, Dr. Graves?" I asked hopefully.
"Please, call me Gordon," he insisted.
"Gordon, then," I repeated.
"Umm, Martha," he began, presuming his own familiarity. "Would you like to go out sometime? We could have dinner and then see a movie, or go to the ballet, or a play, whatever you want. A friend of mine has season tickets to the symphony, too; your grandmother said you enjoyed music."
I closed my eyes, wishing I were at the symphony that very moment, wishing I were in Kansas, were somewhere, anywhere else. I pasted an apologetic smile onto my face. "I'm sorry, but I have… I see someone."
I could hear my grandmother give a cluck of disappointment inside my mother's room, and I began to wonder just how foolish a decision I had made the day before, going to Big Creek to visit Sophie and leaving Grandmother alone with Dr. Graves. Her apparently mild-mannered exterior was a great ruse; beneath her expertly-coiffed hairdo was a reservoir of cunning and manipulation.
"Oh," he said flatly, clearly disappointed. "Your grandmother said… Well, it doesn't matter. I understand. Here," he said, passing me a folded square of white paper, "in case you change your mind." Our hands touched as he handed me the paper; his was clammy and cool.
He turned and quickly walked away, taking quick, almost running steps, escaping from the scene of the crime. I watched as he turned into the wrong patient's room, then found the right one. Once he was out of sight I unfolded the paper; on his prescription pad he had neatly printed his name and phone number. ***
I stayed in Boston longer than I had originally intended. I had never set a concrete length of time for my stay, but in the back of my mind I had flirted with a week or two. But after a month I decided it didn't make sense to put a timetable on my visit. After all, I was there for my mother; when she seemed better — when she didn't seem to need me anymore — then and only then would I return to Kansas. She was discharged from the hospital after a four day stay, but home was more stressful than it had been at the hospital, and I didn't feel like she was ready for me to leave yet.
I tried to put Jonathan out of my mind, but he was like an itch I couldn't reach to scratch. Thoughts of him, his family, and their farm, came to me at the oddest times: at first when I was driving to the hospital to see my mother; then later when I chose clothes to wear out to dinner with my grandparents or when I visited a beloved teacher at my old high school.
And, after the first two weeks, Jonathan never called me. In the beginning he left messages while I was at the hospital: he was sorry; he didn't know what to do; he missed me. But his calls soon slowed, then stopped altogether. I decided he must be busy with the farm, closing down for the winter or whatever else people do on farms when it gets cold. And they had had strange weather in Kansas for months, beginning with the snowy October day Jonathan had first proposed. Maybe it was the anomalous weather that was making me feel so helter-skelter and confused.
Talking with Jonathan on the phone — always after *I* called *him* — was the highlight of my week. And I didn't let myself call any more frequently than weekly; I knew it would be too easy to pack it all up and go back to Kansas, to leave my grandmother in the dust. But I also knew I couldn't do that to my mother; look what had happened when I was away the last time. It wasn't like I wanted to move to Boston permanently, but, as her only child, it was my duty to be there for my mother.
Every day I found myself thinking, "Jonathan would like to see this," or "I wonder what Jonathan's doing right now." I tried to pretend I was seeing the city through his eyes, seeing my family through his eyes, and I noticed little things that I had never seen before, like the nest of sparrows on the ledge outside my bedroom window, or the crinkled brown leaves floating down the river like tugboats, stems sticking out, awaiting a cargo.
I also saw my family in a new light. Pretending I was Jonathan, I saw the years piled up on my grandmother in the form of wrinkles, drooping her eyelids, compelling her to retire to her bedroom for afternoon naps, or siestas, as she called them. My grandfather's aging had been evident for years, but I was just beginning to notice the time catching up to Grandmother.
For the first time I tried to see just *her,* instead of seeing her through the lens of "grandmother." Her need for control appeared different when I wasn't a part of the power struggle. In the cold light of reality, she was just a feeble old woman, clinging desperately to the shirttails of power; having succeeded in running — and ruining? — her daughter's life, she had started in on her granddaughter's. Why she was this way I didn't understand, and I doubted I ever could; I doubted *anyone* could.
No, it was my mother I wanted to understand better. I had been a spectator for her marriage to my father, and now I wanted a glimpse at the playbook.
Sophie had told me how her understanding of her own parents' marriage had improved after she married Walter. But my father died when I was sixteen, and I had been robbed of the opportunity to see my parent's marriage with the semi-unattached perspective of an adult. I knew that I couldn't — and didn't want to — understand everything; my parents were entitled to their privacy, after all. I just wanted a glimpse, a small piece of understanding.
But before I made a commitment to any marriage of my own, I needed to evaluate my parents' marriage, the bar to which I could compare my own relationship. Had my parents been happy together? What was their life like before my father's illness?
Most of the answers to these questions remained secret, hidden somewhere in the mind of my mother, who didn't like to talk about such things, or so I had been told by my grandmother whenever she overheard me asking. Yes, they were upsetting, but wasn't I entitled to at least a bit of that knowledge? How else was I supposed to know whether my feelings for Jonathan had any hope for surviving a lifetime? ***
"Jonathan, I don't know what to do about my mother."
"What do you mean?" he asked. It was one of our weekly telephone chats and, as usual, I was asking Jonathan for advice. So far he had proved to be a devoted listener. Not that that surprised me, but after his unsuccessful proposal, I could imagine that he might not be as eager as he had been previously.
"Well, she seems better, sort of," I told him. She comes downstairs for dinner and goes out with us sometimes. Last week she went to her friend's birthday party and when she came back it seemed like she enjoyed it. But she's still acting strange. She disappears for hours at a time, and I can't figure out where she's been."
"Did you try asking her?" Jonathan asked.
Of course he would offer me the most practical solution, the obvious one. "It's hard. I want to know, but most of the time I'm not positive she's left the house; I just can't find her. And I can't be too obvious because I don't want to get Grandmother involved; she'll get all worried and want to double Mother's visits to her psychiatrist."
"Maybe that's where your mother's gone: to see the psychiatrist."
"I don't know. She doesn't seem to like him very much, so I doubt she'd make any extra visits." In fact, she usually seemed to be in a *worse* mood after the bi-weekly appointments with her therapist.
"I think you should try talking to her. It can't hurt. Maybe she's been in the attic or somewhere, looking through old photographs, something innocuous like that," Jonathan suggested.
"Maybe I will talk to her. It'll have to be when Grandmother's not around, though. That'll be tough — she says it's her business to know about everything that's going on in the house — but she does have her committee meetings and charity luncheons."
"That's probably your best chance, to start."
"Speaking of charity luncheons, Grandmother's dragging *me* to one next week. It's supposed to be some mother-daughter fete sponsored by her Women's Club, but she doesn't think Mother's up to it, so she's forcing me to go. She said she would be 'absolutely humiliated' if she had to go alone."
And it would be the fourth time that Grandmother had forced me to come along with her somewhere. Once she had even tried to set me up with the grandson of one of her Women's Club friends. I had tried to explain that I wasn't interested; that, in fact, I already had a beau, as Grandfather affectionately called him, in Kansas. But Grandmother was having none of that. She ignored my mentions of Jonathan like she ignored the funks Mother fell into after a visit with her therapist. Sometimes just talking to Grandmother seemed futile; she was going to follow her own mind, and that was that. ***
I watched from the front window as my mother walked down our driveway and to the end of the street. It was a Saturday afternoon, the air cool and crisp, winter on its breath. The wind plucked handfuls of brown, crinkled leaves from their branches, whirling them over the brick-covered streets and cracked concrete sidewalks.
Curious, frustrated, and, yes, a little bored, I slipped on a jacket and snuck out the back door after her. I knew she had to be going somewhere; she was walking too quickly, too purposefully, to simply be enjoying a stroll.
On my way out I smiled at Nancy, who stood at the sink washing green beans for dinner, and held my index finger to my lips, imploring her to secrecy. She grinned and nodded, then handed me a freshly baked gingersnap for my stake-out.
I hadn't seen my mother leave from the front door, so she too must have left from the kitchen. Didn't want Grandmother to know where she was going, eh?
I was careful to stay a block or so behind her so she wouldn't get suspicious. I didn't think she would yell or even express much displeasure, but I wanted to see where she was headed; I didn't want her to see me behind her, and turn back around and head home. But she never saw me.
I had always thought my mother didn't go anywhere during the day, just stayed in the house, stayed in her own bedroom most of the time. That was what I remembered from my time at home, and what Grandmother had conveyed none too subtly when we spoke on the phone: Mother had imprisoned herself in her own home.
Now I wondered if this was really what had happened, or if it was just the way I remembered it. Memories were selective; like strainers, cupping, keeping your beans, your peas, still warm from the sun, while the dirt ran through with the wash water. Now I couldn't be sure I hadn't just remembered what I had wanted to remember, or maybe what someone else had wanted me to remember.
I knew better than to think that the entirety of my childhood memories was false; no, there were things I remembered with one hundred percent sureness, like my summer in Smallville and my father's death. Then there were the memories that existed like the fleeting fog of a steamy summer morning; I knew I had had a first day of school, and I vaguely remembered my parents leaving me off at the overly cheery classroom. I could probably even recall my teacher's name if I tried, but I couldn't remember exactly how I had felt stepping into that classroom for the first time, whether I had been excited or anxious at the sight of dozens of strange children and the one adult who would become a foster parent to us for the next nine months.
Then again, maybe I only remembered that day because there were photographs in the family album. There was one of a young, pigtailed Martha standing in front of the house, holding a satchel that I remembered had been red, even though in the black and white photograph it was a dull shade of gray. And there I was again, standing in front of my new school, the faces of strange children dotting the landscape behind me; the veterans scouting the landscape for fresh blood; the kindergartners, tears running down their reddened faces, clutching at mothers' skirts, fathers' ties, too scared to make sure they were grasping the right parent.
By then I had followed my mother down a half dozen blocks. We had long ago turned off our street; we were now surrounded by smaller houses, some with crooked shutters or peeling paint, many with bundled-up children playing in the front. Across the street sat a small steepled church. Erected with large rectangular stone blocks, the side facing the street presented heavy wooden double doors and several small windows with old, wavy glass.
It was St. Mary's Catholic Church. Sophie's family's church, I remembered suddenly; Nancy and Joseph still went there every Sunday morning. I watched as my mother opened one of the large double doors and without hesitation, went inside. Without thinking I followed her, slipping in before the thick door swung shut.
Once my eyes became accustomed to the low light, I could see that the inside of the church was every bit as beautiful as the outside. The center aisle was covered in maroon carpet, and the high walls were carved wood. I looked up to see the ceiling, which was painted with a pale blue sky and puffy white clouds, each lined in a precise stripe of gold. Gold-robed angels peered out from behind the clouds, forgiving smiles on their lips.
Rows of long pews lined the single center aisle, and the altar was straight ahead of me and cupped by a wall in the shape of a semi-circle, capped off by a ceiling dome on which was painted a classical rendition of God, arms outstretched, a long white beard disappearing into puffs of clouds. The wall behind the altar was adorned with precise script, brick red in color: "In Him who is the source of my strength I have strength for everything. Phil. 4:13."
Scared that my mother would see or hear me, I stepped outside the church proper, into a small nook of an entryway, next to piles of songbooks and church bulletins. From where I was standing I could see the back wall of the church, which contained a single stained glass window showing what I could only assume to be a fairly gruesome rendition of Jesus. Triangles of red dripped from his wrists and ankles, and his tunic, white and glowing, was ripped to reveal shards of flesh. He stood with his arms wide, his sandaled feet arranged as if in a run, away from the outside world, up the aisle and to his father.
There were only a handful of other people in the church, all too preoccupied with their own intentions to notice me or my mother. Two old women knelt together in a middle pew, hands folded in prayer and dark lacy veils covering their faces; a middle-aged man stood in the first pew, apparently picking up or arranging something, I couldn't see what. I was glad for the company; if I accidentally made a noise, I didn't want my mother to turn around and see me.
Mother walked slowly down the aisle, and I was surprised to see her genuflect when she reached the altar, making what I can only assume was the Sign of the Cross. I had seen Sophie and her parents do it several times, alternately touching their foreheads, chests, and shoulders so automatically that it filled me with envy. We didn't have anything like that at the Presbyterian church my family attended, no secret handshakes or special passwords.
My mother slipped into the front pew and, after pulling a small cushion from beneath her seat, knelt down. I decided it was safe to step out into the church, and I sat in the last pew, sliding in next to the wall.
After several minutes, my mother sat back down in the pew, and the man in the front of the church exited his pew and headed towards her. I could see now that he was the priest, dressed all in black, the telltale white square on his collar shining even from the back of the church.
My mother turned towards him, and I saw them both smile warmly as he sat down beside her. He appeared to take her hands in his, and they began to speak. I couldn't make out the words; only the soft buzz of their voices reached me in the back of the stone- quiet church. I saw the priest nod slowly as my mother spoke. After fifteen minutes of conversation — I checked my watch — the priest leaned over and, as my mother appeared to close her eyes, he kissed her on the forehead, then gave her more than a quick embrace.
I glanced around in panic. It looked like they were finishing their talk; my mother was already rising from her seat. If I stood now, she would surely recognize me from behind; I would have to exit the church in front of her. What I had seen was so secret, so intimate, that now more than before I didn't want my mother to know I'd followed her. I held my breath as she said one last good-bye to the priest, pretending, as I had as a child, that if I didn't breathe and closed my eyes — if I scrunched myself into as small a ball as possible — I would become invisible.
I had just decided that I could probably fit under the pew in front of me, if I laid down on my stomach. But, by some small stroke of luck or the grace of God — I was betting on the latter, considering the setting — my mother went out a side door I hadn't even noticed.
I fell against the back of the pew with a sigh of relief. Staring straight ahead, my eyes locked on the eyes of the God painted behind the altar, I said a quick thank-you. It wasn't that I thought my mother was having an affair with the priest. No, their kiss and hug had been so chaste, so brotherly, that I knew that wasn't the case. But what I saw was no doubt very private, and I didn't want to risk embarrassing my mother by revealing that I'd seen it. I also didn't want to risk worrying her, since I was sure she didn't want my grandmother to know where she had been. For all her church-going and apparent acceptance of Nancy and Joseph's religion, I knew Marion Williams would not want her proper Presbyterian daughter to convert to Catholicism.
But I stayed in the church, lost in thought, trying to figure out what my mother was doing and why she felt the need to come to St. Mary's when our own church was just several blocks away from our house, in the other direction.
I couldn't reconcile my mother's seemingly contradictory character, the unadulterated selfishness she had exhibited while my father was sick and the rigid devotion she had clung to since. Was she trying to make amends for her old self- centeredness by surrendering herself now? Did she think killing herself was some kind of fair exchange for her inattention to Daddy?
I wanted to know; I *needed* to know, but where would I look? Even if I could get my mother to open up to me, it would be nearly impossible to get her alone. Grandmother always seemed to be hovering around, not letting Mother out of her sight long enough to swallow a pill or find a razor. Grandmother even watched Mother take her pills every morning, making sure she swallowed each, recounting the number in the vial every day. For someone who thought my mother's overdose had been an accident, Grandmother was being awfully careful.
More than wanting to know what was going on with my mother, though, I dreaded knowing; I was afraid of knowing. The thing that most scared me was that the thoughts that raced around her head, urging her to swallow pills and fall asleep forever, were the same thoughts in my own mind, the thoughts that kept me from making decisions about my life and sticking to them.
The worst thing about my mother — the thing that most revulsed me about her — was my likeness to her. I hated the years she had spent in limbo, not living and not yet dead, existing somewhere in between, where no one else could find her. The thing that scared me most about her lack of direction in life, about her indecision, was my own indecision.
More than being afraid of losing her, I was afraid of becoming her, of sinking into that same well of obedience and despair. I didn't want to be stuck in a life of regret, of should'ves, a life spent hating my husband, my children, my very self so much that I wanted out. She scared me because I thought I could almost understand her. ***
The previous day Sophie had come by our house to see Joseph and Nancy, and the two of us had gotten into a long discussion about destiny. She had just read an article in a magazine about a man and woman who seemed fated for each other; they met as grade school classmates, then parted after high school graduation. Then they met again a few years later when the man and his wife moved next door to the woman and her family. But the woman's husband was transferred, so they parted yet again, only to meet up again, decades later, on vacation abroad. This time, though, they weren't separated, and, both having been recently widowed, they began dating and were soon wed.
Sophie and I marveled at the story, and at the prospect that there might be someone out there for each of us, someone to whom we were destined to meet and marry. What were the chances of those two people meeting over and over again, separating when their lives took them in opposite directions, only to meet and become a couple? It had to have been fate giving them a second and then a third chance to get it right.
I couldn't wait to try the idea out on Jonathan the next time we spoke on the phone. We always had the most interesting discussions on what were some of the most unusual topics, and I missed him and our talks, which swelled to the level of argument when we got carried away. We'd talked about everything from politics to religion, and we didn't always agree. In fact, we *usually* didn't agree, but it made the debate more interesting, each of us trying to convert the other, to gain a turn in the conversation.
"Jonathan, do you think that could be possible, that there's someone out there, just for each of us?" I asked him on the phone that afternoon. "Do you think there's just one person in the world who's meant for you to love?"
The strength and immediacy of his answer stung me, almost caused me to drop the phone. "Oh," I said. "Why not?"
"It's just so unlikely. Even if there was one person who was somehow a perfect match for everyone, what's the probability we'd find them in our lifetime? Even if the person beat the odds and happened to be born on the same continent as us, chances are we *still* wouldn't meet them. How many people are there in Boston that you haven't met?"
"Well, there are a lot, but I think it's possible; anything's possible."
"It's just too unlikely," Jonathan retorted.
I sighed. "Anyway, maybe each of us have one *absolutely* perfect match, but maybe there are lots of people we could love — could be happy with — but maybe there's one single person who would just be a exact fit," I mused, thinking of Sophie's couple, their apparently successful marriages to other people, and their subsequent marriage to each other.
"It doesn't matter, though," Jonathan conceded reluctantly. "We won't ever find out either way, so it's not really worth arguing over."
"I guess not," I said, dejected. The truth was, I didn't want to *argue* about it; I just wanted to talk, the way we used to.
"You don't have to get *mad* at me. I just don't think it's likely, that's all."
"Fine," I said flatly.
"Fine," he said. "Martha, I've got to go. One of our cows is sick and the vet's just arrived."
"Talk to you later," he said before the phone clicked off into an insensitive dial tone. I listened to the drone for a minute before hanging up my end of the line. ***
I was awakened by a sound from downstairs, a sound like breaking glass… like breaking a window. I pulled on my robe and hurried downstairs, my bare feet slapping against the wooden floor, adrenaline surging through my veins and leaving behind waves of nausea.
The nausea didn't disappear when I saw that it was my mother in the kitchen, wearing her robe and pajamas, surrounded by a scatter of glass slivers and a spreading puddle of wetness. The kitchen was dark, save a single shaft of light illumining the floor where she knelt, barefoot.
My breath caught in my throat and wordlessly I slid onto my knees and gathered up as many pieces of glass as I could, shoveling them carefully into the palm of my hand. We crawled across the cold terra cotta tiles, picking out glass and mopping the water. I held my hand out and my mother deposited the slivers she'd collected. I sighed, relieved, scared of what Mother could have done with those pieces if I hadn't come downstairs.
"Are you okay?" I demanded, gathering the splinters of glass into a kitchen towel.
"I'm fine, not hurt at all."
Something caught my eye and I glanced up at the counter. Was it my imagination or was there a bottle of pills sitting there? That wasn't a note next to the bottle, was it? I scrambled to my feet and seized the bottle, then sighed again, relaxing back against the counter. I put my hand to my head, trying to ease the frenetic pounding.
The bottle contained my grandfather's vitamins; the note was a recipe card of Nancy's and, on second look, they were pushed back to the wall; they hadn't been just placed there in a panic when my mother dropped her glass. I tried to make myself relax into my body but I couldn't. I had to stay alert. I had to think; what if she tried something else? The adrenaline was still crawling through my fingertips, coursing through the coils of my brain, when my mother placed her hand on my back. I spun around to face her, en garde.
Her voice was soft but not weak. "Martha, you're wrong. I know what you're thinking and you're wrong."
I tried to laugh it off, but the sound caught in my throat like I was being strangled.
"Martha, come here. Sit with me," Mother said, and I sat down next to her at the kitchen table. We sat for a minute in silence, and I studied her face. No longer did she look like the ghost who had barely existed in a hospital bed just weeks ago. Her pale red hair fell to her shoulders in soft waves. Her face looked younger, her cheeks now pinked. But the biggest change was her eyes. A pale, clear blue, they shone, almost glowed, from their deep sockets. When I looked into them I could feel a presence, almost — oddly enough — a *strength.* I couldn't remember the last time I had looked into her eyes and felt anything other than sadness, pity for her.
"Are you okay?" This time it was her asking me. I allowed myself a small smile.
"I'm fine, Mother, just a little jumpy, I guess. I'd just fallen asleep when I heard the glass break, and now I'm completely awake. I thought it might be a burglar or something."
My mother smiled. "And you were going to come down and take him on yourself?"
I laughed. "I guess I was going to try."
Mother shook her head, then went over and removed a glass from a cupboard, filled it with water. "Do you want anything?" she asked, and I nodded.
"Just water," I told her, and she filled another glass. We drank our water quietly; I didn't know about her, but I was gathering courage.
"Mama, what was it like? The pills and the hospital," I whispered, afraid to say the words — afraid to hear them — but needing to know. I hoped she understood me; I didn't want to know what it was like to stay in a hospital or get your stomach pumped; no, what I wanted to know was what it felt like to decide, at that final minute, to take a handful of chalky tablets, to give up your life with a single swallow. What was it like to abandon any hope for a future? And was that ability to give up inside me, too?
She understood and, in the near-darkness of the kitchen, her story blossomed and grew without bounds, without pause for breath. Sitting across from her at the table, I could just make out half her face, lit by the bulb still burning near the sink. The right half of her face spoke slowly, painfully, as if waiting for the left side — the dark side -to catch up.
"Martha, I don't know how to explain it. I just didn't know what to do. I couldn't stand it for one more day. It was like I was underwater, weighted down by ten feet of ice-cold water. I couldn't really see or hear anything at the surface, and I couldn't make myself care about any of it. But it was even worse than that; it was like *I* was the water, pushing myself down and sinking to the bottom.
"In that last month, I thought about suicide twenty-four hours a day; I dreamt about it when I slept. I had to force myself *not* to imagine dying. I woke up in the morning and prayed I would fall back to sleep, that I could lose just one more minute in that unknowing haze.
"One of your grandmother's aunts died like that; she just fell asleep and didn't wake up the next morning. The doctors never knew what happened to her, just that she'd had fallen into a coma, peaceful and serene; I had to fight so hard to stop myself from praying for that coma every night."
"I don't know why. Well, maybe I do know. I was a complete failure. What had I accomplished? The only thing I'd ever done worth anything was take care of your father, and I didn't even do that right!"
"It wasn't your fault he died," I said, but all I thought about was myself; wasn't *I* worth anything to her?
"I know, but I'd spent years taking care of him, and suddenly it was all over and I didn't know what to do. I had no job, not even any clubs or charity activities like your grandmother. You were grown up; my friends were all married. No one wanted the poor widow tagging along. I had nothing. I guess that's the danger in living for other people — your husband or your child — "
Or your parents, I thought.
"-eventually they leave you. And then you don't know what to do; you don't even know how to live."
But that wasn't how I remembered it. Not at all. I remembered Daddy lying in his bed while Mother had tea with friends. I remembered the summer Mother took painting lessons at a nearby college, while Daddy spent weeks alone in a cold hospital bed.
I wondered if my memory could be trusted. Could Mother really have been that selfish, or was I just a confused kid looking for someone to blame for my father's death? And how selfish was I, now, trying to puzzle out my mother's past sins? But how could I make any decisions for my future without understanding my past?
"But it seems like you're feeling better now," I wondered.
"Did the doctors give you new medication or something?"
"They did, but that's not it," she said. "You know I've been seeing a therapist for years; frankly, I've never gotten anything out of him. I just don't trust him. He seems to be listening but all he does is nod and murmur. He doesn't even offer any advice; he wants me to figure everything out for myself, but if I could do that, I wouldn't need him," she said with a strained laugh.
"Did you ever try a new therapist?"
"I wanted to, in the beginning. I asked your grandmother about it, but Dr. Mills is the son of a friend of hers, and she said switching would be *uncomfortable.* I should have done it anyway; I know that now. But I let her convince me to give it a few more months; maybe I'd get to like him better and he could help me. But I didn't, and he didn't, and by then it was too late. I didn't care enough about it to pick a fight with your grandmother, so I just let it go."
"Are you still seeing him?"
She smiled. "No," she said, almost boasting. "I saw another therapist in the hospital and he wasn't any better. But he did prescribe some new medication for me, and that helped a little. But what helped most is another visitor I had in the hospital… Martha, have you ever met Joseph's brother, Shannon?"
I shook my head. From Sophie, I knew Joseph came from a big family, several brothers and one sister, but I didn't know any of them personally.
"Shannon is actually *Father* Shannon, of St. Mary's Catholic Church," she said, and I could see the pieces fall into place: the church, her disappearances. It suddenly made sense.
"Joseph asked him to visit me when I was in the hospital. Shannon spends one day a week at the hospital, visiting parishioners and strangers. He was so… so… I don't know; he's just a wondrous person, peaceful and caring. He actually listens to me, and he isn't afraid to give advice, or even to tell me he doesn't know sometimes. But he always tells me he'll pray for me. I'm not sure why that helps, but it does; maybe it's just that someone is caring about me all on his own, without being paid, without any obligation. He did a favor for Joseph that first visit, but every other time it's all him."
"Do you still see him?" I asked, knowing from following her that she did, but not wanting to give myself away. I wanted to hold onto this conversation as long as I could; I couldn't remember the last time my mother and I had talked like this, honest without reservation, without worry of being overheard.
"Several times a week. And I've stopped seeing Dr. Mills. I told him I wanted to see the new doctor, the one the hospital assigned to me, and the new doctor thinks I'm still seeing Dr. Mills." We exchanged smiles. "I know it's childish and dishonest and it'll probably blow up in my face any day now, but I just can't stand seeing either one of them again. Shannon is wonderful, a more effective therapist than I've ever seen. He doesn't pretend to know everything about me then refuse to share it. And he doesn't judge; he just listens and tries to help. I can tell him everything.
"Did I tell you that for weeks I wasn't taking my pills; I just flushed them down the toilet, one a day. Then when I realized what I was doing — that the pills had the power to take me away from everything — I started storing them up until I had enough. I thought about them all the time; I couldn't stop myself from imagining the pills lined up on the bathroom sink counter, white footsteps… a way out. I told Shannon that and he wept; he actually cried with me. So different from those detached Freuds I saw. I don't think I've ever seen a grown man *weep* like that.
"He loves me without reason or prejudice; he doesn't care how much money I have, where I live; he doesn't even care that I'm not Catholic. He loves me just for being there, for being myself and being alive."
By now Mother was crying and it wasn't until she handed me a handkerchief that I realized I was too. She hugged me with a strength I haven't felt from her in years, with a strength I knew I didn't have, and I almost crumbled from shame in thinking about her 'selfishness' during my father's illness; in truth, she had been devoted — and almost consumed — by it. ***
"And my grandmother's been a complete pill lately," I said to Jonathan. "You won't believe what she's done this time. You know that she's been trying to set me up with my mother's doctor; well, now she's given him our phone number! So, even though I told him I was seeing someone, he keeps calling. And Grandmother makes sure to give me every message, reminding me how *stable* a career medicine is, how well Gordon could provide for me, how lucky it is that he lives in Boston, close to the family… I'm getting so sick of it!"
"Well, lucky for you I know this great, out-of-the-way farm. And if you play your cards right, I might be able to fix you up with this lonely farmer who's looking to get engaged…"
I sighed. Did he ever quit? "Jonathan, my mother…"
"But I thought your mother was feeling better," he said.
"She is, but not enough that I can leave! She still needs me here."
"You know, Martha, I understood it in the beginning; there was a crisis and you had to go home. And it seemed like you were straightening things out and moving on. But the longer you stay there, the more it sounds like you don't *want* to come back, like they've brainwashed you."
"They're not brainwashing me! Jonathan, what are you talking about?" How could I explain to him that, even though I loved him — frustrated though I may be at that moment — my mother needed me in Boston?
"Maybe I'm overstepping my bounds here, Martha, but I just don't understand you anymore. Your mother's not a child; she's been home for a while now, and I don't know if she needs you anymore. You being there isn't going to protect her from her problems."
"Jonathan, you don't understand!" I cried. "You can't ask me to choose between you and my mother. Just because she's out of the hospital doesn't mean she's well again, or even *functional.* I have to take care of her!"
"No, you've told me what you do all day, the charity luncheons with your grandmother and shopping trips and visiting your long- lost best friend. It all sounds like fun, Martha — it really does — but it sounds like you're running away. Maybe you're afraid to come back and face your feelings… Or maybe you just don't love me anymore."
"What? Of course I still love you!"
"I've told you how I feel, laid it all on the line, and you up and leave! Now, what am I supposed to think?"
I sighed. "Jonathan, just because I didn't say yes-"
"This has nothing to do with that. Sure, I was mad and I didn't understand — I *still* don't understand, but -"
"No, you don't, do you? My mother needs me here. Not everyone has the perfect family you have. Some of our lives are a little more complicated!"
"I'm going to forget what you just said, Martha, because I know that you're angry; you know that two dead brothers don't fit into the picture of a perfect family," he said, and I pressed against my forehead with the palm of my hand. Stupid, Martha, just stupid. That sure isn't going to help matters!
"You know," Jonathan said bitterly, "maybe we're just from too- different worlds. You grew up in a mansion in the big city, with lots of money, and I'm from *Small*ville, for pity's sake! I'm a farmer — the son of a farmer — and maybe to you that means I don't have any ambition. I didn't travel to Europe or spend Daddy's money in college; maybe I'm just too backward and unsophisticated for you, Martha."
Then the zinger, his voice seeping with malice: "Do I need to buy you a ring? Would I be good enough for you *then?*"
Tears came to my eyes at the animosity in his voice. "Jonathan, don't -"
"No, Martha, it's your turn to listen to me for a change. You say no to my proposal; you run back home to Boston, which might as well be another *planet* as far as I'm concerned; and you show no signs of even wanting to come back… You have to make a decision, Martha: Kansas or Boston. You can't have it both ways."
My chest pounded with panic, the pressure pinning me into the chair. This was like something out of a bad novel, where the heroine has to choose between a controlling suitor and her overprotective family. And, like the misunderstood heroine, my silence answered for me.
"I thought so," Jonathan said. "I get it. Now you're talking about another man… a doctor, no less! How stupid can I get? It's obvious you've moved on."
"Weren't you even listening?" I cried. "*I'm* not talking about another man; it's my grandmother. It's not me, it's her; it's all my grandmother."
"Sure." His tone was sharp, raw with acrimony, and I held the phone away from my ear for a moment, suppressing a scream. After taking two deep, calming breaths, I replaced the receiver to my ear, only to hear a dial tone.
Jonathan had hung up on me!
I slammed down my own phone and kicked my chair away from the desk so hard that I almost fell backwards. I sat there, staring at the offending phone. How could he hang up on me? Was he really that angry? How could he *not* understand that everything was a mess right now, that I needed time to sort through not just my relationship with him, but my relationship with my family? How could he ask me to choose between them? Did he think a months-old, spur-of-the-moment proposal gave him that right? How dare he?
I had just touched the phone with the tips of my fingers, barely stopping myself from calling him back and giving him an earful, when it rang. I jumped back in shock, then smiled knowingly. Jonathan was calling me back; he had realized how cruel he had been and was going to apologize and we would work everything out. I was sure of it; he couldn't stay mad. I picked up the receiver with a self-satisfied grin.
"I'm sorry," I offered generously, hoping to coax him into an apology as well.
There was a long pause and the realization of my wrongness plummeted to my stomach, continued down to my toes; it wasn't Jonathan.
"Excuse me?" said the voice on the other end of the line.
I was so embarrassed that I almost hung up. What if it was one of my grandmother's friends? She wouldn't let me hear the end of this. I must've been five or six when Grandmother taught me the "proper" way to answer the phone.
"I'm sorry, this is the Clark residence," I said quickly.
"Oh, good," the almost-familiar voice said, and I strained to place it.
"Can I help you?"
"Yes, this is Dr. Gordon Graves, calling for Martha Clark."
"It's Martha, Dr. Graves-"
"Please, call me Gordon."
"Gordon, then, hello. I'm sorry about that; I was expecting another call and… well, it doesn't much matter."
"Would you like me to call back another time, since you're expecting a call?" he offered politely.
"No, that's okay," I said. "He can call back."
"Well, then, Martha, I'll get right to the point. You know I'm interested in you and would like to get to know you better. I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner with me this weekend…"
I listened as Gordon prattled on, giving me a dozen restaurant options and offering tickets to the symphony, a play that had just opened, the van Gogh exhibit at the museum… But I didn't need to hear any more.
"Yes," I said.
"… or, if you'd rather, we can take a walk by the river. It's a little cold at this time of year but," he said, then paused. "What did you say?"
"Yes, I said yes. I'd love to have dinner with you."
"You would?" His voice had suddenly raised an octave. "Really?"
"Really," I assured him. "Is Friday night -"
"Friday! Yes, yes, fine," he cut in, betraying his eagerness.
"Yes, seven, seven's good," he cried out. "I'll pick you up Friday at seven."
"I'll see you then," I said.
"Yes, see you Friday. Thank you, Martha."
"Good-bye," I said before hanging up the phone.
I wasn't sure why I did it. I knew it would hurt Jonathan and I didn't exactly mind that. I also knew it would be nice to talk to someone who was actually interested in what I had to say. It's easy to feel spoiled by a little attention when you're feeling so bad about yourself. ***
"… And then I found out my mother was in the hospital, and I came back to Boston," I explained.
It was Friday night and we were at dinner at Chez Nous, a restaurant I had been to several times with my family since it was one of my grandmother's favorites. When we'd arrived I wondered whether she had directed Gordon to Chez Nous, whether she had enmeshed herself *that* deeply into my date with Gordon, but he didn't mention it, and I didn't pursue it. I was out with Gordon to try to forget my problems, not to try to analyze them.
Gordon nodded, then stabbed a stalk of broccoli with his fork and bit into it. I watched as he chewed slowly. He was wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and dark tie, nothing special but nothing ridiculous either. Pinned to his maroon tie was a small gold tie tack consisting of interlocking triangles, some type of Celtic crest, I knew from a seminar on Irish art I'd taken my senior year.
"And your mother's doing better now, I take it?" Gordon asked after taking a sip from his wine glass.
I nodded, swallowed. "Much better, though I'm not completely sure why," I admitted.
"Sometimes," Gordon began, "sometimes all a person is doing is reaching out and asking for help. A lot of attempted suicide cases I've seen — the lucky ones, that is — turn out this way. Some people just need to be reassured that someone cares about them," he said with a grin. Then, "oh, gosh, I didn't… I mean, were you thinking that your mother-? I mean, it wasn't mentioned to your family in the hospital-"
"Oh, I know. Actually, Mother *told* me."
"Whew, I'm glad. Not that your mother tried- I mean, otherwise I just violated patient confidentiality-"
"No, I've known ever since I talked to Grandmother on the phone from Kansas, but my family would barely even discuss it, and they surely didn't *agree* with me," I quickly assured him. "No, I knew. I'm just grateful you think the same thing. It was making me crazy that no one would discuss it, like they were all conspiring against me."
"I don't think your family is unique in responding that way, Martha. Many families can't handle the thought that their loved one tried to kill himself, so they pretend it was an accident, or even pretend it didn't happen at all."
I smiled at Gordon and we each took a bite of our dinners. I chewed contemplatively; Gordon's affirmation of my mother's suicide attempt was a welcome relief. I had known all along that it hadn't been an accident, but after hearing my mother's and grandmother's denials, I couldn't help but start to doubt my instincts. Then a realization dawned on me…
"I'm sorry," I said suddenly. "You don't mind talking about my mother's case, do you? Or is it like bringing your work home with you?"
"I don't mind," he assured me.
"Because we've been talking about me all night," I said. "What about you?" A list of getting-to-know-you questions sped through my mind, implanted during my freshman orientation week at Bryn Mawr. But, thanks to Grandmother's detective work, I already knew the answers to many of them. I asked anyway. "Where are you from? Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
Gordon impaled an anemic-looking carrot and another blossom of broccoli with his fork, then set it down on his plate.
"Let's see… My family lives in Nashville. Serina, my sister, is in her third year at Vassar, and my brother, Robert, is a doctor, too. He and his wife live in Baltimore, where he has his practice."
"Are the three of you close?" I asked.
He nodded. "I think that was one of my parents' goals, to make sure we got along well. My father is an only child, so he spent his life wishing he had a brother or sister. When we were born, he decided that we would enjoy having siblings."
"I can sympathize. I'm an only child, too; it wasn't so bad when I was younger. Nancy, our cook, and Joseph, Grandmother's driver, have a daughter the same age as I am, and we would play together. It was almost like having a sister, because their family lived in the same house, right downstairs. But after I went to college, Sophie, their daughter, got married and left Boston, so I don't see her often anymore. So now it's like I'm an only child again."
"I wish I could see my brother and sister more often, too, but I suppose we're lucky at least to be in the same area of the country."
I agreed with Gordon, but my mind slipped back to Jonathan, whose two older brothers, Richard and Jerome, had died during the Korean War. I thought Gordon was lucky that his sister and brother were alive, never mind in the same area of the country as he was. I couldn't believe I had been so careless on the phone with Jonathan as to suggest that his family had no problems. I knew better, but I was so focused on my own tragedies that my head might as well have been buried in the sand.
I felt an old ache inside, left over from the cruel gossip about me and my parents that I'd encountered during my first visit to Smallville. If it had hurt that much to hear cruelties from strangers, how had it felt to hear them from a girlfriend, from the woman to whom you'd proposed marriage?
I snapped back to the present and smiled guiltily at Gordon. "I'm sorry. What was it you were saying?"
He gave me an odd look, but continued. "I was just saying that when I was younger I used to wish that my grandparents lived close by. How did you like growing up with your grandparents in the same house?"
I resisted the thousand and one smart-aleck remarks that sprung to mind whenever I was asked about living with my grandparents. It was unlikely that Gordon would run into my grandmother again anytime soon, but just in case…
"That's a tough question to answer. I mean, how would you react if I asked what it was like to grow up living with your parents? That was just the way my life was — still is, in a way — so it didn't seem unusual."
Gordon nodded. "That makes sense," he said before draining his wine glass.
And I hadn't been lying to Gordon. Living with my grandparents *did* constitute normal to me; it always had, and it always would. That was something that I did have in common with Jonathan, whose grandparents lived nearby, and who knew that he would always live nearby his parents, the grandparents of his own children. That thought made me feel more than a little light-headed, and I set down my fork and knife. Jonathan's children: surely they would be my children, too. ***
It was almost eleven o'clock by the time I got home from my date with Gordon. But instead of going inside the house and straight to bed, I sat down in one of the wrought-iron chairs on our patio. Even through my dress the metal was cool and pointed, sending a chill up my back. But I wanted to relax for a few minutes by myself, without the possibility of my grandmother — or anyone else — interrupting me to ask how the date had gone, because I didn't have it all completely straightened out myself yet.
After Chez Nous, Gordon and I had dropped in at the opening of his neighbor's art exhibit in a small downtown gallery. Mostly abstract sculpture, it wasn't my favorite type of art — to be truthful, I didn't understand it — but it was nice to do something different.
I'd almost forgotten how alive the city was at night; Gordon and I hadn't even planned to go to the exhibit, but he mentioned it on the way back to the car after dinner and we decided it might be worth checking out. It was the kind of spontaneous thing you could always find to do in a city.
Strangely, it had made me think of Jonathan, thousands of miles away, on a small farm in Kansas. It wasn't that I wished I could be there with him — not exactly — but I did wish he was here with me. But I knew better than to wish for things I could never have.
I forced myself to think again about Gordon, who had been very kind and moderately interesting that night. But, strangely enough, not once during the evening had I felt anything romantic between us, no little sparks of chemistry or nervous butterflies. Nothing. It was almost like going on a date with my brother, if I had had a brother.
The situation was rather puzzling, since Gordon wasn't an unattractive man; he had dark hair and dark eyes, and unusually pale skin. During dinner we had commiserated for a while about our pale complexions forcing us to stay out of the sun in the summer, despite the fact that we enjoyed the beach.
But that was all that had happened: a pleasant dinner and art exhibit, friendly conversation, and a very chaste goodnight kiss (on the cheek). Even that much felt like a betrayal; I knew of whom, but didn't exactly know why. After all, Jonathan had been the one to hang up on me.
I figured that my date with Gordon had been some kind of partially subconscious test of my relationship with Jonathan. Furthermore, I guessed I had passed, because my feelings for Jonathan hadn't changed; I still loved him, and I was still angry with him.
I was still stewing in my own feelings, simmering in a mix of hurt and love and resentment, when the back door opened and my mother came outside. Bundled up in her winter coat and her pajamas underneath, Mother smiled at me. "Mind if I join you?"
I nodded and she sat down in the chair next to mine, so close I could smell the lavender toilet water she applied both to her body as a perfume and to her bed pillows as a soporific. When I was a child I used to sit on her bed, watching her get ready for a night out with Daddy. Before putting on her dress she would spritz herself with the scented water, then give me a tiny squirt.
"How was your date?" she asked cautiously.
A tide of anger, left over from thinking about my disagreement with Jonathan, crept over me, but I resisted it; I wasn't angry with Mother, just Jonathan. "How did you know?"
"Your grandmother told me," she admitted.
Of course: Grandmother. Unable to shake an upbringing that had drilled manners in me like they were multiplication tables, I had told her that I was going out that night. Just to be polite. And I hadn't told her with whom, but I had seen her face in an upstairs window as Gordon pulled his car out of our driveway. Never one to hide, she had the curtains pulled completely back and was standing, arms crossed, in the window, a sly grin on her face.
"What did she say, exactly?" I asked her.
"Not much. When I came downstairs after my nap I asked her where you were, and she told me you were out with Dr. Graves… You didn't let your grandmother set you up with my doctor, did you?" Mother asked with a wink.
"Not intentionally, but I think I may have fallen into her trap," I admitted.
Mother laughed. "So how was it?"
"He brought me flowers" (an obscenely large bouquet of pink roses, to be precise) "and we went to dinner and an art gallery. Not so bad."
"But not so good, either?" she asked.
I sighed, exasperated, and dropped my head back onto the top rung of the chair. "I don't know," I admitted.
"You don't know about Dr. Graves…? Or about someone else?"
"How did you know that?!"
"I may be crazy, but I'm not blind… or deaf. I know you talk to someone on the phone every few days. I remember what it was like to be in love, Martha," she said, and I wondered what exactly she remembered. From my view on the sidelines, her marriage to my father had seemed somehow deficient, never quite as loving or affectionate as my image of the perfect relationship. Both she and Daddy seemed to have held a bit of cool aloofness, going through the motions of a happy marriage to give a good impression, but never letting the happiness sink in all the way.
"What do you remember?" I asked her.
She smiled and took my hand, holding it on the armrest between us. "Before he got sick, your father and I traveled a lot. Once he came home from work and asked what I wanted to do for the weekend. It was December, freezing cold outside, and as a lark I told him I wanted to go to the beach. He laughed and left the room. He came back fifteen minutes later and told me to pack, that we were going to the beach!"
"He did? Where did you go?"
"Well, we got in the car and drove down the coast until we got to a beach where it was warm enough to swim. We stayed for a few days, and then drove back home. We didn't tell anyone where we were going, and we didn't have an itinerary, so we slept until noon, had brunch, and then swam and sun-bathed all afternoon. After dinner we went for walks on the beach… It was a very special weekend," she reminisced dreamily.
"Hmm, well, we used to dress for dinner every night, your father in a suit and tie, or even a tuxedo. I would wear an evening dress, and we ate by candlelight, pretending we were in a restaurant. We played records, piano concerti mostly: Chopin, Mozart; your father's favorite was Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. We happened to be in Baltimore one weekend and got to hear the debut of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Your father fell in love, and he took up the piano immediately upon our return to Boston. That's why you took lessons, too; he insisted his daughter would learn to love good music."
I felt as if Mother had given me a precious gift. Since my father died, she had kept most of her memories of him locked away where none of us could reach, maybe her included. I wanted to thank her, to beg for more, but didn't want to upset the precarious balance that had developed between us.
"This is nice, sharing these memories with you," she said as if she was reading my mind, "I wasted so much time," she said, her voice rising in frustration. "I was afraid to say his name, maybe to admit that he was really gone; I don't know. And I should have, I should have told you all these things before, so you can imagine more than just a man so sick he couldn't get out of bed."
"Mother, it's okay-"
"No, it's absolutely *not* okay," she insisted. "I'm so sorry, Martha. You had already lost your father, and I refused to share my memories of him, and then robbed you of your mother, too." She squeezed my hand. "What do you want to know?"
I could scarcely believe my good fortune. Not only was my mother opening up, but she was volunteering to tell me anything I wanted to know! This was the opportunity I had been waiting for.
"Tell me about yours and Daddy's marriage," I said in a whisper.
She turned to me, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
I took a deep breath. "Jonathan asked me to marry him," I said in one breath.
Mother sat up straight in her chair and clutched my hand. "And what did you say?" She seemed excited.
"I said no. It's such a big decision. I told him I needed more time to think about it, but I think I'm just scared, Mama. What if I can't do it? What if I don't love him enough? What if one day he stops loving *me*? I don't know if I'd make a good wife."
She smiled gently, then put her arm around me. "I think you would make a fine wife," she assured me. "Marriage doesn't turn you into a different person, Martha; you're just choosing to share your life with someone else. That's all."
"But that's *not* all," I insisted. "Jonathan lives on a farm with his parents, who are wonderful, but I would have to live there, too. I don't think I'd miss Boston — except for you — but running a farm is a lot of work, and it's not exactly something I have experience with. *Marriage* is a lot of work," I bemoaned and Mother rubbed my shoulder in comfort.
"You'd be surprised how much more you love someone after years of marriage than you did in the beginning. Marriage doesn't have to be like a rubber band that breaks when you stretch it too far. You talk and work things out, and life goes on. I can only speak from my own experience," she said, "but I loved being married to your father. I loved every minute of it, the fights, the sickness, all of it. I wouldn't trade our nineteen years of marriage for anything."
We sat in silence for another half hour, our breaths rising in front of us like puffs of smoke, disappearing into the crisp air. Mother discovered an old pair of gloves in the pockets of her coat and we shared them, her ungloved hand holding mine, the sleeves of our coats pulled down onto our hands.
What I felt went beyond reassurance, beyond comfort, like slipping into a warm bath or nursing a bowl of hot oatmeal on a cold morning. It wasn't an assurance that everything would be okay, because both Mother and I knew that she could not, that no one could, make such assurances. But it was as if a veil of confusion had been lifted, and I could finally see.
The sins of the father *weren't* necessarily revisited on the son… or the daughter; my marriage (if Jonathan would still have me) would be mine, not some echo of my parents' or grandparents'. I was half-amazed at what few words of my mother's it had taken to make me see. ***
I decided that night that I would wait until the next morning to call Jonathan; it was eleven o'clock in Kansas, already far past the bedtime of the Kent household.
So of course I was too excited to fall asleep that night. The prospect of settling things with Jonathan loomed large over my head. Instead, I squirmed and turned all night, checking the time on my alarm clock every forty-five minutes.
After trying unsuccessfully to sleep for nearly three hours, I scooted down to the foot of bed. I gazed out my window, warming my feet by resting them on the large radiator coiled like a snake in front of my window.
Outside it was cold and bare, the wind pounding around trees and telephone poles, howling as it passed through the tiny fractures and fissures of our house. Past the stone ledge outside my window I could see, dimly lit by a nearby street lamp, that it was snowing outside. Tiny glittery pinpricks of snow were illuminated in the stream of light from the lamp. They appeared to be not falling but stationary, one lustrous glowing ray.
And over the roof of our porch, through the trees that had lost all leaves, stood a couple, huddled together under the street lamp mounted on our neighbor's tree lawn. Through the darkness and distance I couldn't tell who or how old they were, but I could tell they were in love.
They stood, pressed together, one's hands in the other's coat pockets. The woman dropped her head back and laughed, and the large puffball adorning the bottom of her stocking cap bounced against her back. Their breath rose, puffed into the air above them, joined into one cloud, and faded away.
After absorbing another moment of warmth from the radiator, I laid back onto my bed. With the curtains open and my elbows propped on a pillow, I could still see the couple clutching each other in the glow of the lamp. I watched them together, holding, cuddling, guarding against the cold and snow. And there they stood for over an hour, unmoving and almost frozen together.
When they walked away, I searched for the moon and found it to be full and luminous, but partially obscured by clouds. I looked up, up into the atmosphere and beyond, but could not make out any constellations. I almost found the bow of Orion but a cloud passed by, blocked it.
Sighing, I lay back in my bed, faced away from my window. I crowded against my wall, gathering my sheets and quilt around me. I was filled with warmth and affection, and I fell asleep. ***
When I woke up the light was streaming through my unclosed curtains and onto my face. I slid to the bottom of my bed and sat up, again leaning my feet against the intense warmth of the radiator.
Of course the couple was no longer outside. But I was puzzled to see that it had stopped snowing, and there was no accumulation apparent. Or maybe it had never been snowing. Maybe I had dreamed that scene of the previous night, the flecks of white falling, the couple standing together under the street lamp.
I stepped into my slippers, which I had left on the floor next to my bed, and slipped on my robe. Checking the clock, I stole away into my grandfather's study, which was right next to my bedroom. I didn't need my address book; I knew the number by heart. As I dialed, I could feel and hear my heart beating, pounding along with the clicks as the rotor reset itself.
The phone rang once, twice, three times, and I set my hand on my chest to calm myself.
It was Anna. My voice caught in my throat at the sound, but then fell back. No need to worry; it wasn't Jonathan yet, just his mother.
"Hello, Anna, it's Martha."
Silence for a minute, then, "Martha, hello. How are you doing, dear?"
"Good. How are you?"
"Oh, we're all fine here," Anna said. "How is your mother doing?"
"She's much better, thanks. Maybe Jonathan's told you, but she's been home from the hospital for a while now, and it seems as though she's really getting well. It's like having a whole new mother!"
"That's wonderful, dear."
"Anna, I don't mean to be rude, but is Jonathan there? Can I talk to Jonathan?"
Another long minute of silence. "Well," Anna said slowly, "he isn't in right now. I can give him a message for you, though, if you like."
I sighed and my body relaxed, my back slumping into the plush velvet chair. The pressure was off — for now — but what message to give? "Sure, can you tell him I called?"
Trite phrases whizzed through my head: I love you, I miss you, I'm sorry.
"No, I'll try him again later. When do you expect him to be back?"
"Well… I'm not sure about that. He's, uh, he's gone camping with Wayne and Henry, Martha."
"In this cold?"
"Yes, well, snow camping, you know," she explained.
"Okay," I said, confused. Since when did Jonathan and his friends go snow camping? Usually when they went camping their favorite activity was fishing, which I imagined would be quite difficult if the pond were frozen over.
"Sorry about that, Martha," Anna said.
"It's okay. I'll try back another day."
"Okay, bye, Martha."
"Good-bye," I said and hung up the phone.
I was frustrated. I didn't know how long I could go on feeling this way, like I was so full of emotion that I could burst if I didn't talk to Jonathan soon. I needed to straighten things out between us, or I needed to at least tell someone my decision; I had to share this monstrous problem or it was going to consume me. ***
Again that night I got home late, this time from Sophie's house. I had needed to talk to someone, to calm myself down after getting worked up to talk to Jonathan on the phone and getting Anna instead. Sophie knew more than anyone else about the situation and was an unexpectedly good listener besides. Plus, I didn't want to burden my mother with my problems any more than necessary. Besides, talking to Sophie could give me a fresh perspective; maybe she would have different advice than my mother had.
So I had taken my time in getting ready in the morning, showering, eating breakfast, and reading the Globe with a necessary measure of calmness. I waited, dallying around the house until it was a late enough hour to phone Sophie and ask if I could come over to talk.
And she had been helpful, more in simply listening than in offering any advice. By then I was at the point where I didn't think I needed any more advice anyway. I knew what I wanted; I just had to wait to talk to Jonathan first.
I stayed at Sophie's longer than I had expected. Walter had a day off from work, so I met him and the three of us went out to dinner, leaving Paul at home with a babysitter. Surprisingly, there were several nice restaurants in the Big Creek area, despite its distance from the city. We chose one and stayed for hours, talking over a bottle of wine and a four course meal.
Despite Walter's age, we got along swimmingly; Sophie was right in her earlier assessment of the situation. Walter seemed to suit her like a custom-made shoe, in personality, taste, and, surprisingly, maturity. He was quieter than Sophie, but, then again, who wasn't? I actually saw a small bit of resemblance between Walter and Jonathan, despite the two men's varied backgrounds.
So I'm sure that similarity, and the fact that I missed and needed desperately to talk to Jonathan, delayed me in returning home that night. But when I finally did pull my mother's Cadillac into the garage at nine o'clock that night, several lights were still burning downstairs, along with the upstairs bedroom lights. Especially notable were the lights in our music room, which was in the front of the house. Odd, I thought, because the music room had mostly been my father's territory. It was where he kept his piano and phonograph, and bookcases of sheet music and records, as well as books on his favorite composers and pianists.
Not wanting to disturb whoever was in the music room, I entered in the back, through the kitchen. Attached to the small cork board we kept near the phone for messages were two small pieces of paper with my name on them.
Gordon called, 11:30. Call him back, said the first in my mother's handwriting. Gordon called, 4:00. Would you like to have dinner? read the second, in Nancy's writing. Well, too late to return his call now, I thought, tentatively remembering that he had the night shift at the hospital that night.
I peered around the corner of the kitchen, where I could see my grandfather sitting in an armchair in the adjacent dining room. Open in front of him was a book, but he was, once again, asleep, his head leaning heavily against the curved side of the chair.
I smiled as I approached him, caught in a mixture between sadness that everyone had gone upstairs for the night and left him down here alone, and guilt that he had (most likely) stayed up to wait for me, and a secure happiness that he cared enough to wait for me.
Reluctant to wake him out of what seemed to be a sound sleep, I instead removed a warm quilt from the hall closet and carefully laid it over him. But he awoke with a start as the blanket touched his legs.
"Martha," he said with a grin. "Are you home already?" he asked, checking the grandfather clock on the opposite wall.
I laughed. "I'm sorry I was so late," I said. "I was at Sophie's house and we went to dinner and talked all night…"
"Oh, I don't mind, dear. I just wanted to make sure you got home okay."
"Thanks, Grandfather," I said, kissing him on the cheek. "Are you coming up to bed?"
"Yes, bed," he said absently, placing a marker in his book as I returned the blanket to the closet.
"I saw a light in the music room as I pulled in the driveway. Is someone else down here, or should we shut off those lights, too?"
"Oh, dear, the music room! Yes! I almost forgot, Martha; you have a visitor."
"Yes, a young man. He told me his name, but I can't seem to recall…"
"That's all right, Grandfather." I was fairly sure it was Gordon, anyway. I hadn't called him after our date last night, and he seemed quite impatient that we get together again sometime soon. I guessed he was afraid I would return to Kansas without telling him. Though it was odd that he would wait around in our music room, when he could simply have waited for me to phone him back. Maybe he wasn't on duty at the hospital tonight after all…
The door to the music room was open, and the light streaming out of it illuminated the shiny parquet of the hall floor. As I tread softly through the carpeted dining and living rooms I could see a dark-haired head resting against the back of an armchair in the music room. My heels clicked against the floor when I reached the hall and the head turned around.
It was Jonathan. He stood, smiling, as he waited for me to come to him. I supposed he was nervous that I was still angry at his coldness over the phone the other day. I wasn't. I ran through the hall and into the music room and into Jonathan's arms.
He held me and we just stood there, unmoving, savoring the moment and each other. Jonathan pulled away first.
"Martha, I'm so sorry," he said all at once. "I wasn't thinking. How could I know how difficult it was to have to take care of your mother and deal with your family? I was insensitive, stupid-"
"No, it was me," I insisted. "It was all I talked about, how frustrating it was, how worried I was about my mother. I should've given you a chance to say something. I shouldn't have left everything like that, abandoning you after I said no to your proposal. I was just so confused-"
"No, it's not your fault," he argued, stepping away and calming his cadence and tone. "I shouldn't have expected an answer so fast. I understand now that you need time. Marriage is a big decision, and I don't want to rush you into anything. I'll just wait, however long it takes; I'll be waiting."
"Thank you," I said, falling back into his arms. This time he took my face in his hands and we kissed, long and longingly, not wanting to let go. ***
"But where are we going?" I asked Jonathan, laughing as he led me away from the farmhouse and through the woods. "Jonathan?"
"You'll see," was his cryptic answer.
If this were anyone else, I thought, I would've recovered my hand from his grip and marched myself right back into the house long ago, but I trusted Jonathan, and followed him through the trees.
It was warm for March; the snow had come early and often this year, and weather forecasters were predicting that the spring would be unseasonably warm. Jonathan and I had been back in Kansas for several weeks after a whirlwind tour of Boston. I had introduced him to the city as well as my family. As expected, he received a chilly reception from my grandmother, who I believe was still mourning the death of my non-relationship with Dr. Graves. But the rest of my family (including Sophie, Nancy, and Joseph) adored Jonathan and understood my decision to return to Kansas with him.
On the relationship front Jonathan and I had decided to give ourselves some time. We were still together, but we hadn't become engaged… not yet, at least. But we talked about it every day, discussing our wedding (I wanted it to be in Smallville rather than Boston), where we would live (we were leaning towards remaining on the Kent farm, but were considering building our own house on the property), and the vague, ontological question of what it would like to be married.
Finally we arrived at a small but beautiful pond guarded by large, dark trees, whose barren branches formed a spidery canopy over the water. This pond must be really beautiful in the heart of spring, I thought, imaging the canopy green with fresh foliage instead of brown with thin, twiggy branches. "Here we are," Jonathan announced when we reached the border of the pond. "Isn't this beautiful? It's called the Wishing Pond."
"Because the stones in it are round and flat," he began, and I noticed for the first time that the floor of the pond was lined with stones, small and round and clearly visible through the pristine water. I bent and plucked two from the bottom of a shallow part of the pond, their small, wet flatness cold on my hand.
"Like pennies," I marveled, closing my hand over the stones, which were the same size and even the same brownish-red color of real pennies.
We strolled the small perimeter of the pond while I repeatedly skipped my stones into the water and exchanged them for two new ones, which were still cool from the water. Every new stone I found was more round, smaller, more like a perfect copper penny.
"I've never been here before," I said, surprised since, after being in Smallville for several months on three different occasions, I thought I'd seen everything on the Kents' farm.
"I was hoping you hadn't," he answered with a grin. "Even though you've been back for a while now, things with the farm have been busy. I wanted to welcome you back to Smallville…" his voice trailed off.
"Back home," I supplied before leaning towards Jonathan and kissing him, sweetly but quickly, on his surprised lips. He craned his neck, bringing his head towards mine for another kiss, but I suddenly let go of his hand and took a few steps away.
Bending down, I exchanged the now-warm stones in my palm once again, this time finding two perfect, penny-shaped ones to replace them with. I handed one to Jonathan.
"Make a wish," I suggested before looking long and hard at the "penny" in my hand and flinging it into the Wishing Pond. Jonathan hesitated for a minute, jiggling the stone in his hand as he thought of a wish, then followed my lead and skipped his "penny" along the surface of the water, sending it to the bottom of the pond with mine.
"So what'd you wish for?" I asked Jonathan, gently taking his hand as we recommenced our stroll around the pond.
"I can't tell you that," he said, acting appalled but grinning.
"Because if I tell you then it'll never come true," he reminded me. "Like when you blow out the candles on your birthday cake."
"That's silly," I insisted. "I think you *should* share your wishes with people; maybe they could even help you make them come true." Jonathan nodded, but remained apparently unconvinced. "Wanna know what I wished for?"
"Only if you want to tell me," he said safely. I grinned; he knew just what to say, didn't he? "And only if you're sure telling me won't jinx it."
I shook my head and took a deep breath. "Telling you won't jinx it. Actually, it should help it along," I said cryptically, and Jonathan stared at me, uncomprehending, as I took both of his large hands in both of my small ones.
"My wish," I began, braving the mud to sink down onto one knee, "is for you to marry me and for us to be happy together, forever," I said, surprised that my voice wasn't shaking. I looked up at Jonathan expectantly, and smiled at his surprise.
"Martha, what are you…? Are you asking me to…?" he stuttered.
"I'm asking you to marry me, Jonathan Kent." I bit my lip as I watched his face change from wide-eyed and unaware to a cognizant grin. He slipped his hands up my arms to beneath my shoulders, picked me up from my knee, and swung me around him in the air. I grinned when he finally put me down and I noticed the blissful look on his face.
"Is that a 'yes'?" I asked uncertainly, but smiling.
"Oh," he said, realizing he hadn't given me a real answer. "Oh, yes, that's a 'yes,'" he clarified, "a definite 'yes.'" He pulled me closer to him but I initiated the kiss, secure in the knowledge that I was right where I belonged. Right at home. ***
The old woman opened her eyes and glanced over at her granddaughter, now sprawled across the couch, asleep. Knowing there was no chance she or her husband could carry the girl to bed, she instead removed the quilt from the back of the couch and covered her, then gently kissed her good-night.
Lost in the past as she told the story, Martha was unsure how much of it her granddaughter had heard, but she knew that the teenager was quite familiar with its plot; her falling asleep had been a reflection of the exhaustion brought on by chronic insomnia, not Martha's story-telling abilities.
Martha flipped the light switch on the wall, bathing the room in darkness, and slowly tiptoed up the stairs. When she reached the landing she glanced back at her sleeping granddaughter, still recovering from her jolt into the present. Then she heard the lonely echo of two solitary hands clapping and opened her eyes in surprise.
"Great story," the owner of the hands complimented her with a grin.
Martha smiled, and stepped into the hallway where the man was standing. "Glad you liked it," she replied as she fit snugly under his arm. Suddenly she realized something. "Hey, you never told me what you wished for!" she exclaimed, turning to face him.
Jonathan Kent grinned at his wife. "I told you then…"
"I know, I know," she sighed, "if you tell me it won't come true. Mine came true and I told you," she reminded him, but he simply smiled and headed downstairs. Martha grinned at his back, straightened the cross-stitch sampler, whose message "Home Is Where The Heart Is" was hanging crooked on the wall, and followed her husband downstairs.
Author's Note: I've always been interested in knowing more about Clark's parents, especially Martha, and this has been my way to give background to their characters.
I have always been bothered by a line in Ides of Metropolis where Martha tells Jonathan that he was the first man she'd kissed. I felt that conflicted with Martha's character, but I didn't think she'd lie about it just to stroke her husband's ego. I knew there had to be an explanation, and this is mine. Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it — all comments are appreciated.
Two documentaries were invaluable to me as I wrote this story. Deep Blue: Depression (obviously) profiles three people who have struggled with depression. I based Big Creek on Levittown, NY, the subject of the documentary Wonderland, which described the building, heyday, and current issues of the Long Island suburb.
Finally, I want to thank my beta readers and proofers. From the beginning I knew that this story would be a long one, but I had no idea just how until I finished it. First I want to thank Gay, Nancy, Margaret, Nicole, Liz, Irene, and everyone else who read drafts of this series, including the folcs on the MBs. And I'd like to say a big thank you to Debby. Without Debby's help, this story would be nowhere near what it is now, and I thank her for teaching me about writing.