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Authors: Holly Chamberlin

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BOOK: Seashell Season
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Chapter 20
“W
hat did you bring me?”
I held up the white paper bag. “Sustenance in the form of a ham and cheese on rye, yellow mustard, one pickle.”
David smiled. “She knows me so well.”
I took the chair on the other side of David's desk. He might be head of the department, but his office is no bigger than that of the other department staff, which is to say it's tiny. And the disorder that reigns supreme within its four walls gives the impression that the room is an even tinier space.
David, you see, is the classic messy, absentminded, downright sloppy professor, from his threadbare cardigans to his wild uncombed hair to the reading glasses he's always losing. Often enough, he eventually finds the glasses on the top of his head or hanging around his neck. To be fair, this is not at all a studied presentation. He's just not a neat guy. But he's intelligent and kind and funny and loving, so frankly, it doesn't matter that in addition to being sloppy, he's also very handsome and well built. My priorities are in the right place, but I am a mere mortal after all.
Have I mentioned that David's academic specialty is mid- to late-nineteenth-century British fiction? The novels of everyone from George Gissing to George Eliot, from George Meredith to Anthony Trollope, from Elizabeth Gaskell to William Make-peace Thackeray are crammed onto shelves that are close to buckling under the weight. Of course, there's also a copy of
The Riverside Shakespeare,
and one of every other volume any self-respecting professor of literature must have, from Norton Anthologies, to
The OED,
from tomes by Harold Bloom to works by Dennis Donohue.
A small sculpture, an abstract bird in cherrywood I made for David a few years back, sits on top of a filing cabinet alongside an ancient coffee maker and a badly done bust of Mark Twain. At least, I think it's supposed to be Mark Twain. Some guy with a mustache anyway. David inherited the piece from the previous tenant of the office. I don't know why he hasn't stowed it away somewhere dark.
David cleared a space on his desk for our sandwiches and water bottles, and I spread out our lunch.
“You look tired,” he said.
I took a bite of my sandwich—tuna salad—chewed, and swallowed before answering. “I am tired. David, there are so, so many questions I want to ask Gemma. Did her father take her to church? Did they have a Christmas tree each December? When was the last time she went to a dentist or a doctor? Alan didn't seem to keep records of such things, at least not as far as anyone can tell. What sort of books does she like to read, what sort of music does she like to listen to? So, so many questions.” I laughed, but there was nothing amusing about the moment. “I feel I should just give her a questionnaire, get it all over with at once. What's your favorite color? On a scale of one to ten, rate your feelings about peanut butter and jelly.”
David reached across his desk and took my hand in his. “Don't be impatient,” he said. “You'll learn about her over time.”
“But I want to know about her
now
,” I protested, aware I must sound petulant and childish. “So I can be a good mother to her.”
“You'll be a good mother by letting her take what time she needs to open up to you.”
“Easier said than done!” I could hear that my voice had taken on a slight note of panic. “What if I miss a vital clue to her health or her happiness, all because I'm ignorant of almost everything about her? Then I'll have failed her as seriously as her father failed her.”
“Verity.” David's tone was commanding. “Take a deep breath. I know this is hard. I can't imagine
how
hard.”
“Too hard,” I said quickly. “That's how it feels at some moments. But I know I can't make this about me. It has to be about what's best for Gemma, even though I've been the one living with this empty, needy space inside me for seventeen years.”
“Speaking of empty and needy, eat your lunch.”
I did, finishing the sandwich quickly—I find myself to be very hungry these days—and wishing I'd bought a cupcake to go with it.
“Soledad Valdes called me,” I said, sitting back in the very uncomfortable guest chair. “It wasn't a surprise. The woman who accompanied Gemma to Maine told me someone would be checking in with us.”
“And?”
I shrugged. “And she was very nice, as always. She asked how things were going. I told her we were fine. She asked if I needed any help, someone to talk to, or if I thought Gemma would benefit by seeing a therapist.”
“Reasonable questions.”
“Yes. I told her no, we were doing fine on our own, but that I wouldn't hesitate to reach out if necessary.”
“And would you? Just asking.”
I was angry for about half a second, and then I wasn't. David knew about my not very successful experiences with professional therapists and support groups in the past. Of course he'd wonder if I'd reject that avenue of help.
“Yes,” I said firmly, “I would reach out. Now that Gemma is in my care, everything has changed.”
“Good,” he said. “What else? Your face is all screwed up.”
“Is it?” I rubbed my fingers along my eyebrows, as if to smooth away the lines of tension. “It's just that sometimes I catch Gemma looking at me with what I'm sure is amused contempt.”
“Verity,” David said with mock sternness.
“No, David, I'm sure I'm not imagining it. And other times I wonder if she hates me, and then I think, she doesn't care enough to hate me. I'm beneath her notice.”
“She does care about you,” David said, “and about what you think of her. I know it. And she doesn't hate you.”
I felt momentarily annoyed. “How can you be so certain?” I demanded. “You haven't even met her yet!”
“Because,” David answered calmly, “I'm far more objective than you are. I'm more objective than you
can
be. You so want her to love you that you perceive any word or gesture—or look—short of abject adoration as hatred or, as you said, amused contempt.”
I sighed. “Maybe you're right,” I conceded.
“I know I'm right. You have to relax a bit, Verity. I know it's easy for me to say. I'm not the girl's long-lost mother. I'm not the one yearning for a relationship with her. But I worry about your happiness. You shouldn't make things harder on yourself than they need to be.”
“I appreciate your concern, David. I do.”
“Even if I sound like a fusspot?” he asked with mock solemnity.
I laughed. “A fusspot? Now that's a word I haven't heard in an age.”
“My grandmother used it all the time. If someone wasn't a fusspot, she—it was usually a female who was at the point end of her verbal daggers—then she was a hussy or a skinflint.”
“Yikes. One of those old-fashioned formidable grandmothers, was she?” I asked.
“She was old-fashioned even in her youth, from what I'm told. Right out of the Victorian age in terms of her code of behavior and morals. I don't know how she got that way. Neither does my mother. Mom was the last of six children and says she knows the least about Grandmother. Her siblings, my aunts and uncles, were never willing to talk about The Family—I'm using capitals there—to the younger generations. Too painful, maybe.”
“And your mother? Is she as formidable as Grandmother?”
Now it was David's turn to laugh. “Not in the least. Mom—she just turned eighty, by the way—is the sweetest, most laid-back woman you'd ever want to meet. Not weak or silly or lacking in courage. Just—nice.”
I thought about my own mother, about how she was much like David had described his, and how I still missed her. And suddenly I remembered a line from an episode of
Miss Marple,
one starring Geraldine McEwan as the elderly sleuth. A character is recalling the little girl she once cared for. “
Poor, motherless mite,
” she says and when I first heard those three words spoken with such feeling, I immediately associated them with my daughter, wherever she was. I associated those words with me.
I still haven't been able to watch that episode a second time.
“David?” I said then, not really expecting an answer but needing to ask the question. “Do you think I have a right to hate Alan? He made me a victim, but I chose him in the first place, so some of the responsibility has to be mine. But with Gemma, it's a different situation. She definitely has a right to hate him, I think. She's an entirely innocent victim. She didn't ask for Alan to be in her life.” Or, I thought, for me.
“I don't know about anyone having a right to hate. Hate is ugly. It always seems to rebound on the hater. Certainly, there can be a motive to hate, but I'm not so sure it should be acted on.”
I sighed and got up from the chair. “You're right,” I said. “Hate is never the answer. Well, I should let you get back to work.”
“And you want to get home and check on Gemma.”
“Guilty as charged.”
David came around the desk and gave me a kiss. I held on to him tightly. I do love this man.
While I drove home to Birch Lane, I thought more about what David had said about hate, and I also thought about forgiveness. For years I've been wondering if I'll ever be able to forgive Alan for an act that was so ignoble, that had no purpose other than to cause me pain and deprive me of my child. Alan's stealing away Gemma was an entirely selfish act, one with absolutely no thought for the well-being of me or, more important, of our daughter. I don't care if Alan is officially diagnosed as mentally ill. Mental illness shouldn't be an excuse in a case like this. I posed no threat to Alan. I did nothing to hurt him. But for all of our relationship, he saw me as an object, as a possession, not as an independent, self-determining person. And for most of our relationship, I let him do that. So maybe it's me I can't forgive.
I've spent years wondering about that, too.
Chapter 21
I
recognized the handwriting, of course. I'd known it all my life, that large, round, almost childishly deliberate hand. It was my father's. The Florida postmark further identified the card as being from Tom Peterson. He would have read the news of Gemma's return on my website. I'd always suspected he'd followed the progress of the case—or, the lack of progress—though he never mentioned as much in his annual birthday and Christmas cards to me.
For a split second I had the impulse to bury the card way down deep in the trash. But that would solve nothing.
I handed the card to my daughter. It was addressed to Gemma Peterson-Burns.
“Tom and Valerie Peterson,” she read.
“My father and stepmother.”
“What happened to your mother?”
“She died when I was a little younger than you are now. She had pancreatic cancer.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Gemma looked down at the unopened envelope.
“Thanks,” I said. “It was pretty awful, actually. We were very close.”
“What was her name?”
“Elizabeth. Everyone called her Betty.”
“Is that why my middle name is Elizabeth?”
“Yes.”
“Are you close to your father?”
“No.” The word came out a little too harshly. “We fell out over something very important to me.”
“But he keeps in touch,” Gemma said now, looking up at me. “I mean, he's got your address.”
“He sends the occasional card.”
Gemma asked no more questions. She tore open the envelope and then opened the card. There was a rather amateur picture of a daisy on the outside. I wondered for a moment if Hallmark made a card to celebrate the safe return of a victim of an abduction, and almost laughed at the absurdity.
“Twenty bucks,” Gemma said, extracting a bill.
“What does he say?”
“ ‘Dear Gemma. We are very glad you are home safe and sound. Love, Grandpa and Valerie.' ”
Without comment, Gemma stuffed the money into the pocket of her jeans, put the card on the kitchen counter, and left the room.
I guess I should tell you I'm an only child, whether by chance or design I don't know, and now that Mom's gone, I never will. I was very close to her, as I'd told Gemma. My mother was a warm and loving person, ready with her affection, but in her efforts to keep me safe and happy, she rather sheltered me. I was shy by nature as a kid, and my mother's fussing about me only served to compound my social awkwardness.
My parents' marriage was perfectly functional, but as far as I could tell, not a passionate one. But what does a kid know? Tom Peterson was a good husband and father in terms of not straying and of providing food and shelter for his family. Betty Peterson cooked, cleaned, and generally made life pleasant for her husband.
It was only when I hit adolescence that my passion for art really emerged, and the desire to paint and sculpt and to show my work to others began to war with my shy and retiring temperament. Increasingly, I felt I had to know if I was any good or if I was deluding myself. Interestingly, it was my overprotective mother who really encouraged the pursuit of my artistic interests. One day when I was about fifteen, not long before the cancer killed her, my mother sat me down and said—I'll never forget her exact words—“I never followed my dreams. To be honest, I can't even remember what they once were. I want you to follow your dreams, Verity. I don't want you to live a disappointed life.”
The unspoken part of that message being that she, Betty Peterson, had led a disappointed life.
My mother's death really shook me, but I remembered her words, and by the time I was in college, I was taking her advice about following my dreams by enrolling in classes in drawing and sculpting and metalworking, showing in student exhibitions, staying up until all hours to perfect a piece, and working odd jobs so I could buy materials without having to ask my father for money. He paid perfunctory attention to what he called my “hobby,” so what support I found was from my teachers and fellow students. It would have been nice to have my father's active and enthusiastic encouragement. But I never really expected it, so I never really missed it. Or, I thought I didn't.
When I met Alan and we started to date—my first serious relationship—it was pretty obvious that my father considered Alan a godsend. After my mother's death and Dad's rapid remarriage to a woman with whom I could never bond because she was the opposite of my mother in every way I could see, he had little interest in being a hands-on emotionally supportive presence in my life. When Alan came on the scene, with his meticulous care of and concern for me, with his professed love, my father breathed a sigh of relief. I suppose that I did too.
I never told my father about the bad aspects of my relationship with Alan. There would have been no point. So when four years or so later Alan made off with my baby, my father was at a total loss as to how to respond to my grief. I would have appreciated a show of outrage, anything really other than what he said to me a few weeks after the abduction. “Are you sure you didn't do something to make him angry enough to run off?”
Then I was the one feeling the outrage. “You're saying it's my fault Alan stole my child, is that it?” I remember asking, my voice shrill.
“No, no, of course not,” he protested. “It's just that—”
I didn't let him finish his sentence but demanded he leave the tiny apartment in which Alan and I had once lived together. And I haven't seen my father since.
Not that he didn't try to see me. For a while he would leave messages on my answering machine, and two or three times he slipped a card under my door, asking if we could meet for coffee, asking if I needed anything, even asking me once to come home. I never called him back, and I tore up the cards. Whenever I saw him in the grocery store or coming out of the post office, I would turn the other way. If he saw me those times, he didn't pursue me, and that also made me angry. I didn't want my father in my life, not after what he had said to me about it being my fault that Alan had stolen my daughter. But I
did
want my father in my life. Of course I did. I wanted the man who had taken me for ice cream the last day of every school year, the man who had mended my favorite doll when her plastic arm had fallen off, the man who had made me laugh until my sides hurt with his imitation of Daffy Duck.
But I just couldn't let him come back to me. I couldn't.
Then my father and his wife moved to Florida. Christmas and birthday cards continued to find their way to Maine, but any other attempts to get through to me trailed off over the years. Really, you couldn't blame the man for giving up; I had worn him down with a stubbornness I couldn't seem to control. Frankly, I wouldn't have been surprised if he had cut ties altogether.
And yet here he was, sending a welcome home card to my daughter. His granddaughter.
BOOK: Seashell Season
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