Authors: Terry Gamble
“A Republic Steel family lived there,” I say. “One of the boys had a crush on Dana. And that was the Birchmeiers’. Beer.” I point out each house to Ian, tell him who lives there, how many generations have owned it, and which ones are still called by the name of the original family, the current owners notwithstanding. “Still,” I add, “there’s not a lot of turnover.”
Pharmaceuticals, glass, bags, toilets, banking, manhole covers, curtain rods, and buggy whips.
“The Dusays,” I say as we come around the west side of the island toward the channel, where a colossal white shingled house, newly built with a tower and a widow’s walk and fan-shaped windows and three porches, spreads out like the skirts of a Southern belle. “Shopping malls.”
“Ghastly,” says Ian—bless him. “And the buggy-whip people? What happened to them?”
“Half the family refused to diversify. The other half wisely invested with Henry Ford.”
Don’t touch the principal
, our father said to us repeatedly. I, however, have sold off chunks of my Addison stock with the furtive abandon of a dope fiend.
We start up the concrete stairs at the portage alongside the yacht club. I pause at the landing to point out the
among the vessels of various vintage and seaworthiness. The gleaming racing machines seem to quiver at their moorings like Thoroughbreds. The
looks docile as an old cat.
The voice appears to be coming from the yacht-club deck. I spot a frantically waving napkin and a soufflé of blond hair. “Oh God. Sunday brunch.”
Eleven years since I’ve seen her, and the last time is too embarrassing to dwell on, involving a teary (mine) conversation on our porch involving a maudlin confession (also mine) concerning her son.
“Hello, Aunt Bibi,” I say, waving back with a smile, regressing into the insincerity that was a mainstay of my youth.
“Jamie told me you were here, but I couldn’t believe it. Come here so I can see you.”
It’s useless to pretend I’m late for church or bridge (she’ll believe neither), so I surrender and climb the remaining stairs with Ian in tow to say hi to Jamie’s mother. Bibi looks exactly the same. I wonder if she’s specified
on her driver’s license, along with various organ donations, that her skin be used for a second life as an alligator purse. The hair, itself, is magnificent. A miracle of backcombing and lacquer, it has achieved a topiary wonderfulness reminiscent of humpbacked tortoise.
“Maddie Addison,” says Bibi Hester through Coral Sunset lips. “Maddie Addison,” she says again, as if repeating it will conjure some notion of me from the past. “How’s your mother?” Her eyes flicker onto Ian, the smile unwavering even as her gaze drifts back to me with an unspoken,
“Aunt Bibi, this is Ian Gruler, my business partner. Ian, Mrs. Hester.”
Is it gratification or relief on Bibi’s face? And is it my imagination, or is Ian suddenly becoming swishier as he says, “Delighted!” and kisses her hand. “Maddie has told me so much about you.” On her other hand, the prune-size diamond glitters. Ian, who has spent the day before reminding me he’s
my boyfriend, suddenly throws his arm around me and says, “Isn’t she beautiful?” He gives me a little squeeze and smacks me on the cheek. “And this is one talented lady, Mrs. Hester. But you already know that.”
Aunt Bibi strains to keep smiling. “Have you met Jamie and Fiona?”
, I want to say.
“I’m dying to,” says Ian.
I shoot him a look.
“Then again…” says Ian.
“Here they are!” says Aunt Bibi.
And indeed, they are—Jamie in pale yellow linen with an Hermès tie, Fiona in…well, Hermès everything. I swallow so as not to blurt out,
God, Jamie, what’s with the clothes?
Ian is smiling (inanely, in my opinion) and pumping Jamie’s hand and telling him that Hester bags are his favorite. “I love that little clip thing.”
“RidCo,” says Jamie.
“The company’s RidCo. Not Hester. My grandmother was a Ridder.” As he says this, I notice Jamie brushing his hand against his pant leg. Not exactly wiping it. Just a little sweep as if he is brushing off lint.
make the movies!” says Fiona. The lightbulb, I see, has gone on.
“Films,” says Jamie, correcting her.
Jessica would say,
, but Fiona drops her voice and obediently says, “Films.”
That could be me wearing that outfit and having my choice of words corrected. In a trice, my attitude toward Fiona softens. Not that I’m a thing of beauty in my old shorts and sandy feet and a T-shirt that shows the New York skyline above my breasts, but at least Ian (who’s not my boyfriend) isn’t saying, “
, darling. Not
“Ta,” says Ian, wiggling his fingers as I drag him away.
ould you possibly get any gayer?” I ask as we cross the porch of the yacht club to the bayside, where the lawn tumbles down to the windward side of the island. It is the lawn where I was married. The dance floor was over there, the ivy trellis to my right. And from that beach, my mother took a swim.
“She’s a type, Maddie. She’s perfect. The whole thing. It’s so…summer. It’s so…”
“But with a Midwestern flair.”
“Okay,” says Ian with a sly, sideways glance, “the daughter-in-law isn’t too bright. But the son!” Ian shakes his head. “You could have
I feign shock. “Actually, he’s quite a decent person.”
Ian wags his finger at me, evoking memories of Aunt Pat. “Those were
“He used to wear jeans.”
“Roots, Maddie, roots.” He pronounces
with a roll of the R, only half kidding as he goes on to make a point about continuity and shared history. “To have people who’ve seen you grow up. Who grew up with your parents. These people
“And since when have you gone all gooey over people who’ve known you forever?” I ask. “The cow-milking Larsons who’ve known the cow-milking Grulers for a century, yet who look at you like you’re some kind of anti-cow-milker?”
Ian crosses his arms and nods. “Point taken. But it’s different. That’s not what they see when they look at you.”
“They don’t see a cow-milker?”
Ignoring me, he says, “They see your family history. They see someone who was formed by this place and by generations of tradition.”
It occurs to me that Ian is going to be of little help.
“And yes, there
some cow-milker in me,” he goes on. “And those farmers do, in fact, understand that…aspect of myself.” He rattles this off quickly as if it pains him to acknowledge it. “Soooo, in some ways, the people at that yacht club know you better than I do.”
I concede his point, but only slightly.
We’ve reached the sidewalk, heading west again along the bay. The Hobsons’ gray cottage fronts here, almost as battered and in need of paint as the Aerie. Now, according to Dana, Larry Hobson’s wife wants it in a divorce settlement.
Next to the Hobsons’ sits the Baileys’, whose daughter, Deb, was killed with Tad Swanson in a car accident. Beyond the Baileys’, the Swansons’ pillared Victorian with its boxes of begonias and a lawn jockey. Ian and I pause to examine the statue, its arm extended as if for a handout, its painted face like Al Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy.”
Ian crosses his arms and wags his finger. “Now
we’re going to have to fix.”
e arrive back at the Aerie, brush the sand off our feet before heading up the three flights of stairs. We’re not even halfway to the front door when Jessica bursts out. “MaddieAunt! Something’s wrong with Grannie Ev!”
By the time we get to Mother’s room, Derek and Dana have joined Miriam, who has climbed onto the bed with Mother and draped her over her shoulder the way one would burp a child. She’s hitting Mother on the back, and every time she smacks her, Mother’s head whiplashes like she’s having a convulsion. Jessica starts crying, and I say, “What happened?” and Dana shushes me, which makes me mad.
“Don’t shush me,” I say.
Miriam signals Derek over, and Ian, too, rushes to the bed. Miriam says, “Hold her under her arms.” And they take her, and Miriam squeezes her from behind, and in a gush, Mother vomits. For a second, I have an image of Mother throwing up in the revolving door of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Ian cradles her head, and Derek strokes it.
Miriam takes out a stethoscope, listens to Mother’s chest. “Maddie, you need to call Dr. Mead and tell her your mother’s aspirated.”
” I say. As far as I know, she only drinks liquids. What could possibly stick in her throat? Words? Memories? Unuttered expletives at my father?
“Ice cream,” Miriam says.
“Chocolate chip,” says Jessica.
Dana runs to get clean sheets, but Derek and Ian are still by Mother’s side, Derek on her right, Ian on her left. This triptych of Mother and my idolized cousin and my homosexual-recovering-film-partner makes me woozy. Perhaps past lives and current incarnations
collide. Perhaps, as Ralph Feingold posits, there
no separation between universes. Or perhaps God/Betty, unable to resist the juxtaposition, has a tweaked sense of humor after all.
r. Mead has come and gone. Once more, I have marveled at her taste in clothing and her wonderful hair.
, she said.
Swallowing becomes impaired. Digestive functioning shuts down, and food is no longer ingestible. The process could take days, but this is usually the last leg.
So what should we do?
Dana and I asked.
Keep her comfortable. Say what needs to be said. Wait.
Now Dana and I are alone in Mother’s room. Out of deference to our mother-daughter-sister status, everyone else has left.
said everything that needs to be said?” asks Dana.
“I wouldn’t know where to start.”
After a pause, Dana says, “Me neither.”
The two of us are sitting on chintz-covered chairs in the tower room across from Mother’s bed. From here, we can see the horizon—a patriotic line of blue in the afternoon sun. What an idyllic place to die, I think. Little wonder there are lingering ghosts. If my father were alive, the
would be slicing up the bay. Now there are Jet Skis and some kind of “cigarette” boat cutting every which way, unfettered by sails. We Addisons are a wind-tethered bunch. Like the leash of my childhood, the wind gave us only so much leeway, determining our course, the rate of speed, the distance one could cross in an afternoon. Instead, these turbocharged demons make short shrift of the bay.
Downstairs, Beo plays dirges on the piano. Sedgie is in the kitchen making soup—leek, from the smell of it. I wonder if Mother feels hungry, and if this inability to eat will leave her famished. The only option at this point, according to Dr. Mead, is to intubate, and all of us agree that Mother would rather die. So, too, have we agreed not to treat with antibiotics if and when this aspiration becomes infected. Pneumonia will set in. She will find it hard to breathe.
“It’s hideous,” I say, “this playing of God.”
Dana, the converted Catholic, says, “We do it all the time.”
From the kitchen, cackles of laughter—evidently Ian and Sedgie.
“I like your friend,” says Dana. “It’s hard to imagine…”
“That he used to geeze up?” I shrug. “It’s hard to imagine a lot of things about people. Like Derek. Hard to imagine him as anything other than a hero, right?” Dana looks at me sideways, but doesn’t ask me to expand. I try another angle. I’m irritable, and I’m tired, and I’m looking for a fight. “Take
me, for instance. For about two minutes, I was a wife and a mother. Then I was a drunk.”
I can tell from the look on Dana’s face that my pedantry exhausts her. Truth is, it exhausts me, too, but I cling to it like a piece of fabric that was once my baby blanket—because I know the smell, know the texture, and the familiarity makes me feel secure.
“You were always hung up on Derek,” Dana says.
I gape at her, but she doesn’t elaborate. Finally she says, “We were a
of things. Some of us played God and lived to regret it afterward.”
“Dana, if you honestly believe Mother wants to be kept alive through a feeding tube…”
“I’m not talking about Mother. This isn’t
Mother. And it isn’t always about you either, Maddie. You’re not the only one who has regrets.”
have regrets. Oodles of them. They sit on my shoulders like drooling gargoyles. A neglected baby monitor, eerily quiet. That first drink after a year of abstinence. “I should never have married Angus. I should have had an abortion.”
A scrap of an étude slips up the stairs, meshes with the crash of waves. “I had one,” says Dana. “It doesn’t solve everything.”
For a moment, the light refracting off the lake makes me dizzy. I’m sure I heard her incorrectly. One wave breaks. Two. “You and…Philip?”
“Philip?” Dana shakes off the question as if I couldn’t be more off base. “It was that awful summer when Bruce Digby dumped me. Don’t you remember how hysterical Mother was?”
“By a jerk-aholic tennis player who hasn’t thought of me since.”
“Exactly. And then I couldn’t get pregnant again. That drug Mom and Aunt Pat took for morning sickness? Better living through chemistry, but it made your daughters more or less barren, Adele and me case in point. If I’d known, I’d never have had an abortion.”
I think back on that summer, my mother’s edgy nervousness, the way she’d looked at my father, the way she’d looked at me. The Aerie had been quivering with hormones, shooting like arrows, missing their targets, hitting the wrong ones altogether.