Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Family Life, #Literary
Also by Jennifer Vanderbes
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
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Copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Vanderbes
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Library of Congress Control Number: 2009049756
ISBN 978-1-4391-6699-4 (ebook)
In memory of Jim Higgins
Strangers at the Feast
They had been happy people, thought Eleanor.
When others spoke of what happened to her family, they shook their heads.
But the Olsons were so happy!
Happy, and peaceful.
Eleanor believed she had been a good mother, teaching her children not only to say please and thank you, not only to keep in their elbows while cutting food, but also, when the roast was burned, to compliment Mrs. Murchison on a magnificently cooked meal. When they received gifts, her children wrote detailed notes.
Dearest grandma, we had our furst snowfall last thursday, and I wore that eggskwisit blue skarf you gave me.…
Photos were sent—Douglas and Ginny squinting in strategic feverishness at the Monopoly set from her husband’s boss, Jeremiah Reynolds; pink-faced and tangled in their room playing Twister, a gift from the mournfully barren wife of their longtime accountant. Because politeness indicated good breeding. And Eleanor believed that small gestures of consideration—a door held open, a dinner plate cleared—cultivated a mind-set of good citizenship.
So, when the time came, her children helped blind men at crosswalks. They hauled Ms. Henderson’s groceries from Safeway to her clapboard house. Many times, at the end of dinner parties, Douglas, a mere thirteen, came downstairs to help Pamela Strouse into her thick mink coat, smiling through her Glenlivet kisses, offering his elbow to steady her.
How courteous your children are!
people had always said.
How well you have raised them!
When the Westport library burned down, the
children sold lemonade to raise money for the reconstruction. Once, on her way home from college, Ginny pulled off I-95 to help a woman with a blown-out tire and nearly got struck by an eighteen-wheeler. At this Eleanor put her foot down. For the sake of your mother’s heart, she had said, do me the courtesy of staying alive.
Being a parent wasn’t easy.
First came the breastfeeding and burping, then frantically intercepting every coin, paper clip, and rusted battery in a ten-block radius. Horrid images kept you up: fingers and fan blades, foreheads and marble floors, necks and venetian-blind cords. When your children made it safely to grade school, every finger and toe accounted for, you had to steer them away from the kids who spoke out of turn, who set tacks on the teacher’s chair and whiled away afternoons in detention.
The reward for all this, of course, was the adolescent protest perfected over the centuries: the silent treatment.
When you suggested to Douglas that his college girlfriend wasn’t an appropriate guest for a family holiday, he might scowl as you lay the silver on the Christmas table. Such sights were needles in a mother’s heart. Had you misjudged? Had you gone too far? But you endured the difficult moments because, in the long run, your children would be thankful.
Eleanor’s own mother knew this.
“Let him go,” she had said when Eleanor fell in love with Howard Brinkmeyer her senior year of high school. Her mother said his parents would want him to find a nice Jewish girl. He was not going to marry a blond girl named Eleanor Haggarty; she might as well wait for John Glenn to invite her to picnic on the moon. She was an experiment for him, a shiksa hors d’oeuvre to cut his hunger before the main course. Having married at seventeen, her mother worried that Eleanor was wasting time. Did Eleanor want to turn out like Alice Freeman? Or worse, like old Miss Barksdale? Being alone—they had lost Eleanor’s father to cirrhosis—was no easy life for a woman. Still
Eleanor sulked for months. By flashlight she read
Romeo and Juliet
and soaked her pillow with tears; she cut her hair in a bob and declared she would join a convent. But when, a couple of years later, Howard proposed to a girl from his synagogue, and Eleanor met Gavin on Cape Cod, she knew—though she certainly didn’t admit it—that her mother had been right.
It was 1968 and Gavin had just graduated from Yale. From her raft in the ocean Eleanor had seen him running on the beach, kicking up sand. He seemed led by his chin, his blond hair blown back in the breeze. A while later, when she came splashing out of the water, he lay sideways on the sand, reading. He set down his book and smiled.
“Someone pinch me.”
“I’m not falling for that,” she said.
“Ah, the mermaid speaks. But does she go to restaurants?”
That night, over lobster rolls and fried clams, they squeezed lemon wedges and licked their sour fingertips and spoke about what they wanted to do with their lives. Or Gavin spoke, and Eleanor listened. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, but she loved the way he talked—about his heroes, people like John Kenneth Galbraith, John F. Kennedy, and his own father, who had been a two-term mayor of their Massachusetts town. He confessed to funny habits, like keeping track of the votes of Supreme Court Justices. He said he had his best ideas when he was running long distances, that the world became crystal clear in the sixth mile, that he could see his future. He said he either wanted to be a public defender or a professor. He hated hypocrisy and laziness.
Eleanor said she didn’t really hate anything.
Afterward they drove to the beach and Gavin pulled apart pieces of saltwater taffy, which they each chewed in a giggling race to name the flavor: cinnamon, bubble gum, peach. The smell of barnacles and wooden docks and sea foam brushed warmly over Eleanor’s face. From the trunk Gavin pulled out a violin and played Bach’s
and people in nearby cars turned off their engines and climbed onto their
hoods to listen. He seemed the most passionate and dazzling man she had ever met.
This, of course, was before the war.
“Stick it out,” her mother said after they had married and Gavin returned from Vietnam, sullen and withdrawn. A lot of war wives were whispering about divorce. A classmate from Wellesley had paid a week’s typing-pool wages to talk to a lawyer, then slipped Eleanor his business card, insisting she wasn’t going to spend the rest of her life married to some nut job who threw kitchen knives at the sofa: “The foam is popping out everywhere!”
Would that be Eleanor’s life? No, her mother said. Make the coffee and iron his shirts. Serve him steak au poivre with baked potatoes and kiss him before bed. Say yes if he wants to touch you, even if you are sleeping. Don’t ask what’s wrong. Pretend everything is fine and soon enough, it will be. There were few marital problems, she added, that couldn’t be cured with a baby.
Eleanor said she didn’t think Gavin wanted a baby.
Her mother said, “That’s why God made safety pins.”
Her mother was dying, and Eleanor feared the dual blows of being orphaned
She got pregnant. They had Douglas, then Ginny. They moved to Westport, Connecticut.
Their life progressed with a deliberate contentment. She tended their new house, raised the children—but Gavin remained remote. There were no violin serenades, few compliments. He spent his mornings jogging miles in the dark, before the sun was up, and in the evenings he pressed his eye to his large black telescope and gaped at the moon.
“There better not be a naked lady up there,” she’d joke.
He brought home a solid paycheck from Reynolds Insurance, along with an annual sales bonus that allowed them a modest one-week vacation in Newport, and on her birthday each year, a bouquet of pink roses. He never threw knives at the furniture, never stumbled
home sour-mouthed from scotch, never leapt to the ground at the bang of a backfiring car, and for this Eleanor counted herself lucky.