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Authors: Ann Patchett

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BOOK: The Dutch House
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“Then she isn’t secretly rich.”

I shook my head. “She is flamboyantly poor.”

“And now the two of you are supposed to take care of her?” Celeste set to work on the little red potatoes in the sink, attacking each one with a scrub brush while I searched the refrigerator for an open bottle of wine.

“I’m not taking care of her.”

“But you’re taking care of Maeve, and Maeve will have to take care of her.”

I thought about this. I located the wine. “Well, for the time being my mother’s taking care of Maeve.” The food, the pills, the laundry, the visitors.

“What’s your part?”

I had been watching, that was my part. I had been inserting my uncomfortable presence into every situation. “I just want to make sure Maeve’s okay.”

“Because you’re afraid she’s going to have another heart attack or because you’re afraid she’s going to wind up liking your mother more than you?”

I had been about to pour us each a glass of wine but in light of the direction our conversation was going, I opted to pour one just for myself. “It’s not a competition.”

“Okay, that’s great, if it’s not a competition then leave them alone. You don’t seem very interested in your mother and Maeve seems to have eyes for no one else.”

I will mention here that Celeste had been remarkably thoughtful when Maeve was sick. She’d sent cards signed with love from the children every couple of days, and when Maeve went home there was an enormous bucket of peonies waiting on her front porch. There could not have been a peony left in all of Eastern Pennsylvania.

“You told Celeste I love peonies?” Maeve had asked me, looking at the card.

But the truth was I had no idea my sister loved peonies.

“Why are we arguing about this?” I asked Celeste. “I’m just glad to be home.”

She dropped the last of the potatoes back in the colander and dried her hands. “For as long as I’ve known Maeve, she’s wanted her mother back. You two park in front of the old homestead because it reminds her of her mother, you go through life like your wrists are bound together with wire because you were abandoned by your mother. And then your mother returns, and your sister, God love her, is finally happy, and you’re bent on being miserable. It’s like you don’t want to be dislodged from your suffering. If you care so much about Maeve, and Maeve’s happy, then why not just let her be happy? She can have a life with your mother, you can have a life with us.”

“It’s not a trade-off.”

“But that’s what you’re afraid of, isn’t it? That your mother won’t be punished? That Maeve will be happier with her than she was with you?”

May shouted from upstairs. “Do you not realize I can hear every single word you’re saying? There are vents in this house, people. If you want to fight, go to a restaurant.”

“We’re not fighting,” I said, my voice loud. I was looking at my wife and for just a second I saw her, the round blue eyes and yellow hair. The woman I had known for more than half my life floated in front of me, and just as quickly she vanished.

“We’re fighting,” Celeste said, her eyes on me, her voice as loud as mine, “but we’ll stop.”

I could have spent the entire summer at home in New York, supervising the knocking-out of walls in various apartments, playing basketball with Kevin, helping May memorize soliloquies, and I don’t think anyone would have noticed but Celeste, and Celeste would have been happy. But week after week I went back to Jenkintown, as if the only way I could believe that Maeve was really safe was to see it for myself. I would sleep at the ever-welcoming Norcross foursquare where the Labrador retriever was now a dog named Ramona. I drove in from the city because I needed a car to get back and forth to Maeve’s, and because I needed to make endless trips to the hardware store. I was in constant search of another project, some way in which to justify my presence so that I didn’t just sit in the living room and watch them. My desire to fix a light switch and paint cabinets and replace rotten windowsills was a metaphor that begged no scrutiny.

Week after week one or both of my children would announce that they wanted to come along for the ride. They seemed to like everything about the setup, the time with Celeste’s parents, the time with Maeve, the summer days spent out of the city. They referred to my mother as the Person of Interest, as if she were a spy who had stumbled in from the cold. She was fascinating to them and they were fascinating to her. The desire Celeste and I shared to keep them away from my mother only made them race to the car, and that wasn’t such a bad thing. Even at the time I recognized those trips as the great byproduct of circumstance. Kevin and I hashed out the merits of Danny Tartabull, trying to decide if he deserved to be the highest paid Yankee on the team, while May sang show tunes as the soundtrack to our conversations. We had taken her to see the revival of
Gypsy
two years before and she still wasn’t over it. “
Have an eggroll, Mr. Goldstone. Have a napkin, have a chopstick, have a chair!
” she belted out in her enthusiastic alto. We made her sit in the back seat. She had dropped out of the School of American Ballet in order to have more time to focus on her singing.

“This is worse than ballet,” Kevin said.

My mother had been working on her powers of speech. Even if there had been no real discussions between us, she was increasingly more comfortable in my presence. She had the children to thank for that as they had nothing against her. She and Kevin discussed the Dodgers vs Yankees world she had grown up in, while May spoke French with Maeve and Maeve French-braided May’s hair. May had taken French since the sixth grade and thought that she should have been allowed to spend the summer in Paris. Instead of telling her that fourteen-year-old girls did not spend the summer alone in Paris, I said that, what with Maeve being sick, Paris would not be possible. And so she settled for the endless conjugation of verbs:
je chante, tu chantes, il chante, nous chantons, vous chantez, ils chantent
. I was working on replacing the flue in the chimney. I had spread newspapers over the carpet but it was a larger, dirtier job than I had predicted.

“I was in love with Frenchy Bordagaray,” my mother said, thinking that a story about a baseball player named Frenchy would speak to the interests of both my daughter and my son. “My father got tickets for the two of us at Ebbets Field just before I went to the convent. I don’t know where he found the money but the seats were right behind third base, right behind Frenchy. The whole time my father kept saying to me, ‘Take a good look around, Elna. You don’t see any nuns out here.’”

“You were a nun?” Kevin asked, unable to square what he knew about nuns with what he knew about grandmothers.

My mother shook her head. “I was more like a tourist. I didn’t even stay two months.”


Pourquoi es-tu parti?
” May asked.

“Why did you leave?” Maeve said.

My mother wore a permanent expression of surprise in those days, forever amazed by all we did not know. “Cyril came and got me. He’d gone to Tennessee to work for the TVA, he’d been gone for years, and when he was home again he saw my brother. He and James had always been friends. James told him where I was. James didn’t like the idea of me being a nun. Cyril walked all the way to the convent from Brooklyn. When he finally got there, he told the sister at the door that he was my brother and he had some very bad news for me, tragic news, he said. She went to get me even though we weren’t allowed to have any visitors then.”

“What did he say?” For a moment Kevin had lost all interest in baseball.

“Cyril said, ‘Elna, this is not for you.’”

We all looked at one another, my son and my sister and my daughter with her half-braided hair, until finally Maeve said, “That’s it?”

“I know it doesn’t sound like much now,” my mother said, “but it changed everything. It’s the reason the four of you are here, I’ll tell you that. He said he’d wait for me outside and I went and got my little bag, told everyone goodbye. Young people were different in those days. We weren’t as big on thinking things through. There was a war coming, everybody knew it. We walked from the convent, way up on the West Side, all the way through Manhattan. We stopped and had a cup of coffee and a sandwich just before going over the bridge, and by the time we were back in Brooklyn we’d worked the whole thing out. We were going to get married and have a family, and that’s what we did.”

“Did you love him?” May asked Maeve, and Maeve said, “
L’aimais-tu
.”


L’aimais-tu?
” May asked my mother, because some questions are best posed in French.

“Of course I did,” she said, “or I did by the time we got back to Brooklyn.”

Before we left that night, May brought out a bottle of iridescent pink polish from her purse and painted her grandmother’s fingernails, and then her aunt’s, and then her own, taking pains to concentrate on the application of each coat. When she was finished, my mother could not stop admiring the work. “They’re like little shells,” she said, and together they turned their hands back and forth in the light.

“You never painted your fingernails?” May asked.

My mother shook her head.

“Not even when you were rich?”

My mother took May’s hand and put it on top of Maeve’s and her own so as to see all those glistening shells together. “Not even then,” she said.

Celeste was there, too, over the course of the summer. She would come to see her parents. She would drop Kevin off or pick May up, and in doing so met my mother many times, but even when they were in the room together Celeste figured out a way to avoid her. “I have to get back to my parents’ house,” she would say as soon as she walked in the door. “I promised my mother I’d help her with dinner.”

“Of course!” my mother said, and Maeve went out to the yard to cut a bunch of purple hollyhocks for Celeste to take home, neither of them seeming to notice that Celeste was already backing towards the door. In the wake of the heart attack and our mother’s return, the bright torch of anger Maeve had carried for my wife had been extinguished, forgotten. She would have been perfectly happy to have Celeste at the table, as she was perfectly happy to let her go. I was sitting on the kitchen floor, screwing a series of shallow wooden trays I’d made onto runners in the bottom of each cupboard so the pots and pans would be easier to pull out. Kevin sat beside me and handed me the screws as I needed them, and Celeste, who was forever in motion that summer, stopped for a minute and watched me, her hands full of flowers.

“I’ve always wanted those,” she said, as if in wonder that I had even known such things existed.

I put down the power drill. “Really? Did I know that?”

She shook her head, looked at her watch, and told the children it was time to go.

So went the days. Maeve returned to Otterson’s on her same irregular schedule. I would have said she worried less about her job but I don’t think she’d ever worried about it. Kevin and May started back to school. The space between my trips to Jenkintown grew wider and then wider still. Our mother stayed. She threw away the dark-green sweater that had unraveled at the cuffs and Maeve bought her new clothes and a new bedspread and curtains for the guest room that they no longer referred to as the guest room. They drove into Philadelphia for the orchestra. They went to the Philadelphia Free Library for readings. My mother volunteered with a food pantry run by Catholic Charities, and within a couple of weeks she was meeting with the director. There was a larger need in the community, she said. She could come up with a plan to meet it.

Maeve and our mother were making chicken and dumplings together on a late autumn Friday. Our mother, as it turned out, was the one who knew how to cook. The kitchen was tight and warm and they moved around each other with efficiency. “You should stay,” my mother said when I lifted the lid of the Dutch oven, dipping my face into the billowing steam.

I shook my head. “Kevin has a game. I should have been in the car twenty minutes ago.”

Maeve wiped her floury hands on the dishtowel she had tied around her waist. “Come outside for a minute. I want to ask you about the gutter before you go.”

She put on her red wool mackinaw at the door, what she always referred to as her barn coat, even though I doubted she had ever been in a barn. We trudged out into the cold late afternoon light, the red and gold leaves that I would be called upon to rake on my next visit piling around our feet. We stood at the corner of the house to see the place where the gutter was starting to pull away from the roof.

“So when is it over?” Maeve asked, looking up.

I thought she was talking about the roof and so looked up myself. “When is what over?”

“The petulance, the punishment.” Maeve dug her hands into her coat pockets. “I know this has been hard for you but I’m kind of sick of thinking about it that way if you want to know the truth—that my heart attack was hard for you. That our mother coming back was hard for you.”

I was surprised, and then just as quickly defensive. I had turned my life over to Maeve these past six months, and through considerable effort I’d kept my feelings about our mother to myself. If anything, I’d gotten nicer. “I’m worried about you, that’s all. I want to make sure you’re okay.”

“Well, I’m fine.”

It seemed impossible that we hadn’t talked about this before, Maeve and I who talked about everything. But we were never alone anymore. Our chipper mother forever found the spot between us and settled in, reducing our conversation to soup recipes and nostalgic reminiscences of poverty. “You’re fine with all of it?”

BOOK: The Dutch House
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