Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

BOOK: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

No One Is Here Except All of Us

A Guide to Being Born


An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Ramona Ausubel

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eBook ISBN: 9780698410855

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Ausubel, Ramona, author.

Title: Sons and daughters of ease and plenty / Ramona Ausubel.

Description: New York : Riverhead Books, 2016.

Identifiers: LCCN 2016002763 | ISBN 9781594634888 (hardcover)

Subjects: LCSH: Upper-class families—New England—Fiction. | Children of the rich—Fiction. | Social status—Fiction. | Domestic fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Family Life. | FICTION / Historical. | FICTION / Literary.

Classification: LCC PS3601.U868 S66 2016 | DDC 813/.6—dc23

LC record available at

p. cm.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


For Ned and Hank
I wish I had known you


. The family buttered without reserve; pie seemed to be everywhere. They awoke and slept and awoke in the summerhouse on the island, ate all their meals on the porch while the sun moved across their sky. They looked out at the saltwater cove and watched the sailboats skim and tack across the blue towards the windward beach, littered with the outgrown shells of horseshoe crabs.

Picture the five of them, looking like a family. Fern was happy because they were together all the time. She baked. Not well, but muffins were muffins and they never went uneaten. Edgar wore the clothes he kept at the Vineyard house, which were stiff with salt and faded from sun. At dawn and dusk and six times between he rolled his pants up and stood at the surfline, his feet sinking a little deeper with each wave. Fern wore a kerchief and dug in the garden, trying to make the cucumbers come up. Cricket was always in a sundress with a rainbow on it, the twins in shorts and sailor shirts embroidered with the name of their grandparents’ boat. Fern was a mother and a wife and herself all at once. Edgar rumpled his children’s hair, kissed his wife on the temple, mended
the sails and painted the hulls, sailed out in the Sound and bobbed there, pretending the shoreline away.

Edgar loved the eelgrass and the cold water and the thunderstorms so much it was unsayable. He thought that if a poor person told you he loved the eelgrass you would believe him immediately, and how unfair that was if you happened to be rich. As if his feelings were purchased and therefore not true, not a strum he could hear in his ears when he dove from the wet deck of his boat into the Sound, which was the precise cold it had been every summer, and the moon jellies brushed against his legs when he kicked and he held his breath and stayed under as long as he could, submerged in that perfect brine, memorizing for the thousandth time this feeling. That he had a hand-built wooden sailboat made him only able to talk about his swim, his ferocious love for this water, with other people who also had wooden sailboats. Back home, taking his car in for an oil change, he would not be able to answer the question honestly: how was your summer? He would have to abridge, “Beautiful. Water and wind.” He knew that the summerhouse, the sea view, belonged to him because he paid for them, yet it felt like his bloodstream pumped with this place, like the rocks and waves and saltmuck were in him, that he was of them. But money, old money, got all the press.

The children were brown with white, white behinds and they wore anklets of poison ivy blisters. For them the whole point of life was to be wet and dry eight times a day and never clean. As the children understood it, there were places where it was summer all year and they could not believe that their parents had chosen this
northerly, four-season land. The parents did not have a good explanation. Only that their kind of people did not live in warm places. They could visit—Edgar’s parents owned an island in the Caribbean—but then they had to go back to New England or Chicago or St. Louis or Kansas City, as if the particular ratio of city to country, winter to summer, brick to grass, was necessary for their species to survive.

In the evenings they rowed to a nearby beach for a supper picnic. Fern with a loaf of not very good homemade bread in a checkered cloth on her lap, the kids leaning over the lip of the rowboat hunting for jellyfish, and all of them in the music of Father’s oars dipping, rising, dripping.

There was always sand in the bed and none of them wanted it to end.

August arrived despite their prayers that it would not. Each swim and sail meant more. At the county fair Will entered a small schooner he had carved and won first place, but Cricket’s blueberry pie and James’s bouquet of flowers went ribbon-less. They rode the Ferris wheel and admired the blue-ribbon piglets and watched the ox-pull. They begged the days to pass more slowly.

On the morning of Edgar’s birthday, the phone rang. It was Fern’s family’s lawyer. She could picture him with his polished mustache and fat-collared jacket, his feet on the desk. She had talked to him once when her parents had died the winter before and he had told her that he was sorry for her loss and would call in some months when the affairs were in order. Now his voice was flatter. “Fern,” he said. “I don’t know how to tell you this.”

“I’m already an orphan,” she said, trying to make a joke. What other news was there?

“There’s no more money.”

There had been so much for so long, the kind of sums that seemed immune to depletion. “How can there be no more money?”

“It was spent. And your father seems to have made some very generous gifts in his last year.”

“Do you mean

“The eventual sale of the house will pay the taxes.”

Fern found Edgar on the beach scraping barnacles off an old mooring.

“There’s no more money,” she said to him through the wind. “The money is gone.” It was like announcing a death. The long-ago earning of that money—slaves, cotton, rum—and the spending of it, were done. The money had lived its own life, like a relative.

“What do you mean?” Edgar asked.

“Apparently some of my mother’s sculptures are worth something.”

Edgar put the scraper down in the sand, got up and walked towards the water, dove in. He stayed under long enough that Fern thought he might not come back up. She called his name. She dove in too, wearing her dress, which dragged her down. She called him and called him. She spun in circles trying to find the ripples or bubbles that signaled his body. A moment later, Edgar’s head appeared halfway across the cove. He ran his hands over his hair and eyes. He had swum the distance in one breath. Edgar turned and floated on his back, and Fern could hardly see him—his body was just a shadow between air and water.

Edgar remembered going in a limousine with his parents to a fancy holiday party at his father’s downtown Chicago office when he was six. To get there they had to drive through the poorest
neighborhoods and he had looked out at those falling-down apartment buildings and the dim lights inside and the trash on the street and at the children and there was Edgar, little Edgar with his tiny tuxedo and his shiny shoes and the small pocketwatch his father had clipped to his belt loop. He was on the inside of the car and the other people were on the outside. Edgar had reached over and rolled the window down a crack and the air that rushed at him was cold and smoky. His father had smacked his hand and reinstated the barrier. He had checked to be sure that the doors were locked. Edgar had felt the wet wool of guilt fall over him. He had looked to his mother to explain fortune, but she had bowed her head and was staring hard at her feet.

Even now that he was grown he could smell the limousine and he could smell the city outside. His had been a wished-for life, something viewed by everyone else from a great distance, and to voice even one experience of difficulty, of loneliness, was not welcome. Being rich had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool. So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from. No grit or sand, no sturdy earth, just his own constant movement to keep above the surface. It was easy to hate riches when they surrounded him, but Edgar did not know how to be any other kind of person. He did not know that in every life the work of want and survival was just as floorless, just as unstopping.

When he had come out of the water and dried off, Edgar kissed his wife who was sitting on the sand in her wet dress. He said, “We’ll figure something out.” Though he had no idea how to earn money, this almost felt like good news. His first novel would be out in a year and maybe he could make something of it. They
would be just like everybody else. She tried to talk but he said, “Let’s not ruin my birthday. I’m going to get a Danish.”

He drove to the little seaside market for coffee. A beautiful woman in line behind him said, “You look like someone who would appreciate a party.” She was wearing cut-off jean shorts and white go-go boots. Her hair was uncombed and sandy and long and her wet bikini marked her shirt. She was his age or older, he thought, but she seemed sixteen.

“Not me. I’m not that kind of birthday boy,” he said.

“Is it your birthday?”

“Thirty-two,” he said.

“I know how it hurts you boys to grow up. It’s not so bad, you’ll see.” She borrowed a pen from the cashier and wrote down an address. “A friend of mine is hosting. Nine o’clock tonight,” she said. “It’ll be fun, no assholes.”

All afternoon Fern thought about the magic key they still held: Edgar could leave their Cambridge life, go back and take over the family steel company in Chicago, his birthright as the only child, and fortune would follow him. It was the very last thing he wanted to do. He would not be able to publish the novel he had spent ten years writing because it was about the son of a steel baron who walks away from his father’s money. But here were these three children and herself with all their various needs and desires, and she had not made this family alone. She looked out the kitchen window at the blue, green and blue again. This was an expensive ocean to love. While the children played cards, Fern went into the bedroom and, shaking, put her finger in the rotary phone’s different circles, calling Edgar’s mother.

That afternoon Fern and the children baked a chocolate cake
that looked more homemade than they would have liked. The frosting melted and pooled on the plate. They boiled lobsters and clams and laid a whole bowl of drawn butter at each place setting. The table was clothed and decorated and everyone took showers. Edgar had been out on the water and when he came back his cheeks and eyes were red. Fern wanted to take him into the dark and say something that would make their good life continue.

Mid-meal, the phone rang again. “Fern, sweetheart,” her father-in-law said. “I hear there is something to celebrate. Are you having a party?”

She tried for cheer. “Lobster and steamers and chocolate cake.”

“Good girl. Mary’s on too. Say hi, Mary.”

“Hi, darling,” Fern’s mother-in-law said.

“Can you put Edgar on the extension? So we can all be here together?” Hugh asked.

When their voices were all joined by wires, Edgar’s parents sang to him.

His father said, “Edgar, I want you to know how welcome you are here at Keating Steel. In every way.”

His mother let out a little chuff, the sound of someone who always knew she would win. “You’ll see,” she said. “You’ll see how rich we will make you.”

“Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad,” Fern said, almost too softly to be heard.

Edgar could not see his wife but he could hear her unsteady breath. He understood: she was trying to sell him. He had known her for eleven years and had never hated her, but here was a flare. He squeezed his fists until his nails nearly cut. Fern was ready to transform him into the kind of man who stayed up late in the night working to make the margins between cost and profit wider. So that she could continue to live in a house much bigger
than anyone needed, he would have to spend his weekends playing the more dignified seasonal sports with men who ran other companies and they would talk about bottom lines and taxes and subsidies and overseas manufacturing and their tennis games. Fern would turn as vapid as the other wives, all manicure and hairdo and crisp pleats. They would host and attend, host and attend in a spiral of meaningless parties. Their children would go on to do the same thing, and their children after, the whole ancestry one long string of spent and earned, appearance maintained, standards adhered to and passed on and one never asking what any of it meant, whether any good had ever once been done.

Fern wanted to see Edgar’s eyes. She wanted to yell and apologize and hide.

It snuck up on Fern, how hard and fast she began to cry.

“My,” said Mary. “Fern, what bad hay fever you have.”

The children insisted on singing “Happy Birthday” as soon as their parents were off the phone. “Make a wish,” Cricket said, and Edgar blew out thirty-two tiny flames, plus one to grow on.

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