Read Burnt Mountain Online

Authors: Anne Rivers Siddons

Tags: #Family Secrets, #Georgia, #Betrayal, #Contemporary, #North Carolina, #Fiction, #Romance, #Family Life, #Literary, #Marriage, #Camps, #General, #Domestic Fiction, #Love Stories

Burnt Mountain (9 page)

BOOK: Burnt Mountain
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And I was, of course, forbidden to go near the Hamilton school. The new president and his young wife were an attractive couple
and lived in the private apartment at the school, and my mother was still invited to the big formal evenings. She often went,
resplendent in her long dresses and her jewelry, still beautiful as ever, perhaps even more so now, with the richness and
patina of widowhood clinging about her like smoke. Indeed, until I went away to college she was still the Queen Mother of
the Hamilton school and no decision
was made without her input. For technically, she as well as my grandmother owned Hamilton now. The school was my mother’s
calling and her definition. I do not know what would have become of her without its vast presence at her back, like a sheltering

Lily wore the mantle of bereaved daughter with tremendous grace, and the stream of young men from Hamilton hardly abated.
But I had neither grace nor fortitude, and my behavior at home and at school crept beyond willfulness into intractability
and out-and-out anger. I was perpetually furious; I couldn’t have said at whom. The rage was at my father, of course, for
abandoning me, but no one ever seemed to consider this, least of all me, and my tantrums and sullenness soon strained every
part of life in the white house on the river.

I hid from everyone when I could, staying in my room with the door locked or in the underbrush fringing the river. I made
a small house for myself there, in a hollow between the roots of a great live oak, and thatched it over with broken branches
and laid an old oilcloth table covering on the ground and took a pillow and blanket into the house, and there I stayed, when
I was not in my room, until someone sent Lavonda to flush me out. She was the only person in the big house who knew about
my hideout; at least I think she was. No one else ever came there. When I was in my cave I felt, if still disemboweled with
grief, at least secure, not called upon to interact with people who did not seem to me to remember that my father had died.

I felt comforted only by my grandmother Caroline, but after that first terrible two or three days I did not see much of
her. She asked my mother once if I could come to Atlanta for a while and stay with her, but my mother said no, she needed
me close by. It was Lavonda who told me this. I knew that it was a lie and a terrible one. My mother did not need me close
by. She did not even want me close by. Hardly a day passed that someone at my school did not call my mother to report my transgressions.
It was, if anything, worse than at home. At school hardly anyone had known my father. I set out to punish them all for that.

It was a long time before I remembered that I had not gone to his funeral. I never did remember why that was.

After perhaps half a year of those phone calls and my behavior at home, my mother took me out of school at Lytton and enrolled
me in a small private boarding school a few miles south, in Newnan. It was called the Paley School, after its founder, who
was not only a devout Baptist but a missionary as well. It did not bill itself as a parochial school, but upon setting foot
in it you could smell the Baptist-ness rolling off it like the scent of tar from fresh pavement.

I stayed there almost three years.

It must have been a pretty dreadful place. I vaguely remember the fact that I hated it, but mired in the swamp of grief over
my father I could not differentiate between the two great, sucking whirlpools of that year. It occupied a grand old house
on many manicured acres, three stories of stucco and stone that had been the home of one of Newnan’s first family of millionaires.
There had been many in the little town and, I believe, still are. The first floor was a large reception room that once had
been the “consuhvatory,” as Miss
Paley, headmistress and granddaughter of the founders and so cloyingly gracious that she was loathed by all the captive girls,
though much admired by their parents, always called it. The second story was classrooms, small and beautiful, with high ceilings
and crown moldings and mahogany paneling. The third was a vast attic lined with narrow beds, each with a trunk at its foot,
two small bedside tables, a potty-chair, and drawable curtains around it. There was no carpeting, only one great white antiseptic
bathroom, and no bed had a light or a lamp beside it. We went to bed just after our dinner and an hour or so of curdled piano
music courtesy of Miss Paley, and most of us stared silently at the ceiling for what seemed hours before sleep took us. Talking
was forbidden. Getting out of bed except for the potty-chairs was punishable by expulsion.

I would have explored this option in my first weeks at Paley, but it would only have meant going home. My grandmother Caroline
stayed in Europe or at Sea Island or in the homes of friends all over the country most of that first year, and when I came
home on weekends it seemed to be a big house I had never known, where two women, a young and not so young, went about their
intimate and intricate female business that had no place for me in it. Lavonda left after I went away to school, and Nellie,
infirm and diminished by my father’s absence, retired. In her place we had Juanita, young, just finishing high school, pretty,
poised, and viperishly mean, at least to me. She did not like my sister, either, I realized at once, but she dimpled prettily
at Lily and wore her
outgrown clothes with a model’s grace. Juanita adored my mother.

By the end of my third year at Paley I was silent, sullen, mistrustful, thin to the point of boniness, and so self-isolated
that being around large groups of people was almost tantamount to drowning.

In the summer after my third year, when I was twelve, two things happened. My grandmother’s lameness worsened dramatically
and she moved in with us, bringing her big old Mercedes and her chauffeur, Detritus, with her. (“Don’t ask,” my grandmother

And I went, for the first time, to camp.


hy on earth here?” my mother fumed to her friend Polly Thornton, not long after Grandmother Caroline settled in on the third
floor. “She could have had all the help in the world in her own house. She could have gone into an assisted-living place.
There’s one in Buckhead that looks like Versailles. She could have bought herself a wonderful condo. What does she want in
my house?”

“Well, technically, it always was my house, you know, dear!” my grandmother called pleasantly from the screened porch, where
she was reading on the chaise lounge. “You remember that we gave it to Finch for his lifetime. After that, of course, it would
have come to you and the girls anyway. But I knew you had this whole floor, and I wanted to be nearer to my family. I don’t
have that much left of it, you know.”

“We could easily have come to Atlanta, Mama C.,” my mother called back sweetly, grimacing at Polly.

“I was tired of all that Buckhead business, Crystal, and you would not have been happy there. I know you think you would,
but believe me, it’s really very enervating.”

“I just mean it was a shame to sell that beautiful house,” my mother said, a badly contrived lilt in her voice.

“Well, look at it this way. The sale of that beautiful house will put Thayer through college and then some. I know she was
thinking about Vassar, or some place in the East. That’s not cheap.”

“I never heard her say a word about Vassar,” my mother snapped. “Georgia State is just fine for her. I can’t imagine how I’m
going to get Lily through Agnes Scott.”

“You’re hardly poverty stricken, darling,” my grandmother purred. “And she’s talked to me about the East. Perhaps you just
didn’t hear her.”

“I hear my daughter,” my mother said icily, and from the porch I heard my grandmother laugh softly. I was hiding behind the
thick velvet drapes that could be drawn to shelter the living room from the rest of the house. It was the best place in the
house for spying.

“The hell you do,” I whispered to myself, stung. I could not remember a time my mother had really heard what I was saying,
although to her credit, I did not say much to her. It seemed, in that submerged and lightless year, simply too much trouble
to talk to her, or almost anyone else.

I could talk to my grandmother, though. I don’t remember if I always could or if it began that year, but I could and did chatter
to her as easily as I had prattled to Lavonda when I was much smaller. I think it was my grandmother’s
eyes. Those golden-amber eyes, my father’s eyes and mine, too, though not as striking on me, seemed to swallow my tumbled
words like a honey pot might honey. They widened, or crinkled, and sometimes even filmed slightly with tears, but they received
my words and, somehow, all of me. I idolized her. It was the way I should have felt about my mother, I knew, and I often felt
a bit guilty about it. My mother knew it, too. It did not stop me from haunting my grandmother Caroline like a small, fierce

“You are going to drive her crazy,” my mother said at the beginning of summer. “She doesn’t want a twelve-year-old sticking
to her like a burr all the time.”

“Yes, she does,” I said, my temper veering up crazily as it had been doing all that strange year. “You’re just mad because
she never talks to you.”

It was the start of a real vendetta, and though I knew I could have ended it by apologizing, I refused to do so. I must have
seemed to my mother that year a malevolent changeling. Sometimes even I did not know where all the anger was coming from.
Lily was in her last summer session at Agnes Scott in Atlanta, and I was undeniably a bad substitute for her.

“You know what?” my grandmother said at the dinner table one evening, when the vendetta flared over the vichyssoise she had
taught Juanita to make. “I think you might enjoy going to camp. I always did, and so did your father. He went to Edgewood.”

“I won’t go to Edgewood!” I cried, remembering that it was from there that my father had soared away from me. “I will never
go there!”

“No, of course not. But you might like Sherwood Forest, in the North Carolina mountains. I loved it when I was your age. It’s
on a beautiful lake, and there are little log cabins all around it where the girls sleep, and swimming and archery and horseback
riding and singing and stories around the campfire at night, and the food is really good, for camp food. You’ll make friends
you’ll have all your life. I know I did. My treat, of course.”

The image of an endless blue lake and the flight of an arrow arching from its bow bloomed in my mind, followed by one of regimented
ranks of older and prettier girls in spotless shorts and blouses glaring at me down perfect noses.

“I’m not going to any camp,” I muttered.

My mother looked at me and then at my grandmother, nodding her head up and down. I know now exactly what was going through
my mother’s mind: All summer. No money out of my pocket. Atlanta girls. Atlanta girls have Atlanta families, and they’ll be
people just like Mother Caroline. They’ll visit us and we’ll visit them. They’ll have sons who will love Lily. They’ll take
her to Piedmont Driving Club, and me, too.

“Of course you’re going to camp,” she said. “It’s a lovely idea. Thank your grandmother, Thayer.”

I did not lift my head.

“Your father would have loved for you to go,” my mother said.

I looked up at her slowly, ready for battle once more. But she had played her trump card, and she knew it.

“Yes, he would have,” my grandmother said, smiling at
me. “I think it’s just what he would have wanted for you this summer.”

And so, in late June, suitcases crammed with regulation camp wear and my mind reeling with Camp Sherwood Forest rules, I got
into the Mercedes with my mother and grandmother, and Detritus nosed the car out of our driveway and toward the Great Smoky
Mountains and the rest of my life.

Sherwood Forest isn’t there anymore. It closed in the early 1990s, apparently for lack of nourishment. I only learned that
soon after I was married. Three of my friends and I were drinking coffee and talking about our childhoods. When the talk turned
to summer camps, I felt a fish flopping in my chest but for a moment could not think why. I had buried camp deep.

“I went to Sherwood Forest in North Carolina, just south of Murphy,” Eloise Costigan said. She was only a few years older
than me.

“I loved it. Most of my friends went. I think we must have driven our counselors nuts. Did anybody else go there?”

The other two chimed in with their own camps, neither of them Sherwood Forest.

“What about you, Thayer?” Eloise said.

“I didn’t go to camp,” I said, smiling sunnily, and then a huge, sucking nausea took me and I only made it to the bathroom
seconds before I threw up.

“Are you pregnant?” Eloise said.

“No,” I said, striving for normalcy in a voice that wanted to wobble into tears. “But the eggs tasted funny this morning.
I should have tossed them.”

“There’s no egg worse than a bad egg,” Eloise said. “Well, anyway, I really wanted my two girls to go there, but it closed
in the late eighties. By then everything was tennis camp or computer camp or Bible camp, or some ‘special’ thing. One of my
friends’ kids is going to Indian culture camp in Virginia. ‘Indian’ as in Hindus and saris. I’m glad I got to Sherwood Forest
before everything changed. One of the neatest things about it was that there was a boys’ camp right across the lake, Camp
Silverlake. The boys came over for campfire two or three times a week with counselors out the kazoo, of course. But it was
fun. I met my husband there. I always told him it should have been called Camp Silverback. Some of those kids were way ahead
of their time. Lord, Thayer! Are you going to throw up again? You need to go to the doctor.”

BOOK: Burnt Mountain
11.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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