Authors: Ann Patchett
“Mommy did it for me,” she said, surprised that I’d even brought it up. “Listen, kiddo, I was the lucky one. I got years with her and you didn’t. I can’t even think about how much you must miss her.”
But how could I miss someone I’d never known? I was only three at the time, and if I knew what was happening I had no memory of it. Sandy was the one who told me the whole story, though parts of it I knew of course from my sister. Maeve had been ten when our mother first started to leave. One morning Maeve got out of bed and opened the drapes over the window seat to see if it had snowed during the night and it had. The Dutch House was always freezing. There was a fireplace in Maeve’s bedroom and Sandy kept dry wood on the grate above a bed of crumpled newspaper so that in the morning all Maeve had to do was strike a match, something she had been allowed to do since her eighth birthday. (“Mommy gave me a box of matches for my eighth birthday,” she told me once. “She said her mother had given her a box of matches when she turned eight, and they spent the morning learning how to strike them. She showed me how to light the fire, and then that night she let me light the candles on my cake.”) Maeve lit the fire and put on her robe and slippers and came next door to my room to check on me. I was three, still asleep. I had no part in this story.
Then she crossed the hall to our parents’ room and found it empty, the bed already made. Maeve went back to her room to get ready for school. She had brushed her teeth and washed her face and was halfway dressed when Fluffy came in to wake her up.
“Every morning you beat me,” Fluffy said.
“You should wake me up earlier,” Maeve said.
Fluffy told her she didn’t need to get up any earlier.
The fact that our father had already left the house wasn’t unusual. The fact that our mother wasn’t in the house was unusual but not without precedent. Sandy and Jocelyn and Fluffy all seemed to be themselves. If they weren’t worried there was no reason to worry. Our mother was the one who took Maeve to school but on this morning Fluffy drove her, letting her out with the lunch that Jocelyn had packed. At the end of the day Fluffy was there to pick her up again. When Maeve asked where our mother was, she shrugged. “With your father, maybe?”
Our mother wasn’t there for dinner that night, and when our father appeared, Maeve asked him where she’d gone. He wrapped her up in his arms and kissed her neck. Such things still happened in those days. He told Maeve her mother had gone to Philadelphia to visit old friends.
“Without saying goodbye?”
“She said goodbye to me,” our father said. “She got up very early.”
“I was up early.”
“Well, she was up even before you, and she told me to tell you she’d see you in a day or two. Everybody needs a vacation.”
“From what?” Maeve asked, when what she meant was,
From me? From us?
“From the house.” He took her hand and walked her in to dinner. “This place is a big responsibility.”
How big of a responsibility could it have been when Jocelyn and Sandy and Fluffy did so much of the work, when the gardeners came to take care of the lawn and rake the leaves and shovel the snow, when Maeve would have done anything in the world to be helpful?
Our mother wasn’t there when Maeve woke up the next morning, and again Fluffy drove her to school and picked her up. But when they came back to the house on that second day, our mother was sitting in the kitchen drinking tea with Sandy and Jocelyn. I was playing on the floor, taking the lids off all the pots.
“She looked so tired,” Maeve told me. “She looked like she hadn’t been to sleep the whole time she’d been gone.”
Our mother put down her cup and pulled Maeve into her lap. “There’s my darling,” she said, and kissed her forehead and kissed the part of her hair. “There’s my true love.”
Maeve put her arms around our mother’s neck and rested her head against our mother’s chest and breathed her in while our mother stroked her hair. “Who gets a girl like this?” she asked Sandy and Jocelyn. “Who gets such a beautiful girl who’s kind and smart? What did I ever do to deserve a girl like this?”
Some variation of this story happened three more times.
Over the course of the next two months, our mother was gone for two nights, then four nights, and then a week. Maeve started getting up in the middle of the night to check our parents’ room and make sure she was still there. Sometimes our mother was awake, and she would see Maeve at the door and lift up the covers and Maeve would float across the room to the bed without making a sound and slip into the warm curve of her body. She would fall asleep without thinking, her mother’s arms around her, her mother’s heartbeat and breath behind her. No other moment in life could match this.
“Why don’t you say goodbye to me before you leave?” Maeve would ask her, and our mother would just shake her head.
“I could never do that. Never in a million years could I say goodbye to you.”
Was our mother sick? Was she getting worse?
Maeve nodded. “She was turning into a ghost. One week she was thinner, then she was paler, everything deteriorated so fast. We were all folding up. Mommy would come home and cry for days. I would go and sit with her in her bed after school. Sometimes you’d be in the bed with her, playing. Whenever Dad was home he always looked like he was trying to catch her, like he might as well have been walking around with his hands out. Sandy and Jocelyn and Fluffy, they were all nervous as cats by then, but no one talked about it. When she was gone it was unbearable and when she was home it was unbearable in a different way because we knew that she was going to leave again.”
When finally she did leave again, Maeve asked our father when she was coming back. He looked at her for a very long time. He didn’t know what part of the truth he was supposed to tell a ten-year-old, and what he decided on was the whole thing. He told Maeve our mother wasn’t coming back. She had gone to India and she wasn’t coming back.
Maeve could never make up her mind what part of this story was the worst: that her mother was gone or that India was on the other side of the planet. “No one goes to India!”
“Maeve,” he said.
“Maybe she hasn’t left yet!” She didn’t believe him, not for a minute, but if the story had been started it needed to be stopped.
Our father shook his head but he didn’t reach for her. Somehow that might have been the strangest part of all.
This was the story of our mother leaving, and this was the point at which the story stopped. There should have been questions, explanations. If she was in India our father should have gone to find her and bring her back, but none of this happened because Maeve stopped getting up in the morning. She wouldn’t go to school. Sandy would bring her Cream of Wheat on a tray and sit on the edge of her bed, trying to talk her into taking a couple of bites, but she said Maeve was rarely persuaded. Everyone saw it as the understandable sickness of a girl longing for her mother. They were all suffering from some related version, and so they let the child sink down into it, never really thinking about the fact that she would still drink her orange juice, and drink her glass of water, and drink the entire pot of chamomile tea. She’d take her cup into the bathroom and fill it over and over again, until finally she stuck her head in the sink and drank from the running tap. Fluffy would bring me into Maeve’s room and put me in her bed and Maeve would read me a story before falling back to sleep. Then one afternoon, less than a week after our mother left for good, Maeve didn’t wake up. Fluffy shook her and shook her and then scooped Maeve up in her arms and ran down the stairs and out to the car.
Where was everyone then? Where had our father and Sandy and Jocelyn gone? Where was I? Sandy said she couldn’t remember. “Such a terrible time,” she said, shaking her head. What she knew was that Fluffy drove Maeve to the hospital and carried her into the lobby where some nurses took the sleeping child from her arms. She stayed in the hospital for two weeks. The doctors said the diabetes could have been brought on by trauma, or it could have been a virus. The body had all sorts of means to deal with what it couldn’t understand. In the hospital, Maeve swam in and out of consciousness while they worked to stabilize her blood sugar. Everything that happened to her was part of a dream. She told herself her mother wasn’t allowed to visit, a punishment meted out to both of them for something she had done and couldn’t quite remember. The Sisters of Mercy, all friends of our mother’s, came to see her. Two girls from Sacred Heart presented her with a card signed by the entire class, but they weren’t allowed to stay. Our father would come in the evenings, though he said very little. He would hold Maeve’s foot through the white cotton blanket and tell her that she needed to get better now, no one was up for this. Jocelyn and Sandy and Fluffy took turns staying with her in the room. “One of us for you, one for your brother, and one for your father,” Sandy would say. “Everyone’s covered.” Sandy said that when she needed to cry she would wait until Maeve was asleep, then she would go out to the hall.
After Maeve came home from the hospital things got worse. Logic said our mother’s absence had made her sick, and so logic concluded that further talk of our mother could kill her. The Dutch House grew quiet. Sandy and Jocelyn and Fluffy devoted themselves to my sister, the needles, the insulin. They were terrified of the way every injection changed her. Our father would have nothing to do with it. Fluffy, who in those weeks slept in the bed with Maeve, ended up taking her back to the hospital in the middle of the night. Again, they worked to stabilize her, again they sent her home. Maeve would cry and cry until my father would come into her room and tell her to stop. They had all become characters in the worst part of a fairy tale. He was now a hundred years old. “Stop,” he would say, as if he could barely make the words. “You have to stop.”
And finally, she did.
We were shocked, of course, but in our heart of hearts we were happy too, certain that the Smith girls would spell the end of Andrea for good. Our father wasn’t about to put up with two more children in the house, especially not two more girls. Who had been taking care of them on all those Saturday nights she’d come to dinner, never once mentioning she needed to get home? This would not be forgiven. When we stood at the door and said goodbye to the three of them after what had been a comparatively brief visit, we thought that we were saying goodbye for good.
, Mrs. Smith,” Maeve said that night in the bathroom as she put the toothpaste on my toothbrush and then hers. I was perfectly capable of handling a tube of toothpaste but this was our ritual. We brushed our teeth together then said our prayers.
, Bright and Norma,” I said. Maeve looked at me for a second, not believing I’d come up with that, then she started laughing so hard she barked like a seal.
Maeve and I were forever under the impression that we were moments away from cracking the code on our life, and that soon we would understand the impenetrable mystery that was our father, but we’d misread the appearance of Andrea’s daughters completely. It was not some half-baked introduction. The final disclosure that Andrea came as a package deal was proof that she had fully assimilated, and we, somehow, had missed it. Soon the girls were regulars, sitting with us at the dinner table or taking off their socks to splash their feet in the swimming pool—neither of them knew how to swim. It felt strange to have other children around. Maeve and I both had friends at school but we went to their houses for parties and studying and sleep-overs. No one ever came to the Dutch House. Maybe it was because we didn’t want to draw attention to our motherless state, or we feared the house would subject us to ridicule, but really, I think we understood that our father didn’t like children, which was why it made no sense that he’d let these two in.
One night the girls showed up with their mother who was wearing a very fancy blue silk dress. Bright kept running her hands across the full skirt to make it rustle like blowing leaves, while Norma made a game out of trying to step only on the small black squares of marble in the foyer. Andrea announced to the four of us that she and my father were going out for the evening. With no warning at all she planned to leave the girls for Maeve and me to mind.
“What are we supposed to do with them?” Maeve asked, because truly, we didn’t know. They weren’t our responsibility. We had never been alone with them before.
Andrea waved her question away. She was ebullient in those days, as if everything had been decided. Maybe it had. “You’ll do nothing,” she said to Maeve, and then gave a great smile to her girls. “You take care of yourselves, don’t you girls? Do you have books? Norma, ask Maeve to get you a book.”
Maeve had a stack of Henry James novels on her bedside table.
The Turn of the Screw
? Was that what they wanted? Our father came down the wide stairs in his best suit, eyes straight ahead. He was holding onto the banister, which meant his knee was hurting him, which meant he was in a bad mood. Would Andrea know that? “Time to get going,” he said to her, but he didn’t have a word for the rest of us, not a thank you or goodnight. He went straight for the door. I think he was ashamed of himself.
“You be perfect,” Andrea sang over her shoulder and followed our father out. He wasn’t waiting for her. The two little girls looked stricken until they could no longer see the top of their mother’s hat, and then they started to cry.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Maeve said, and went off in search of Kleenex. In fairness to the girls, it wasn’t as if they were wailing. In fact I think they were making their best effort not to cry, but it overtook them all the same. They sat down together in a single French chair. Bright dropped her head onto her sister’s chest and Norma buried her face in her hands like they’d just gotten news of the Apocalypse. I asked them if they really did want a book or if they wanted to watch television or if they wanted ice cream. They wouldn’t look at me. But then Maeve came back, handed each of them a tissue, and, speaking as if no one were crying at all, asked if they would like to see the house.
Even in their misery, it was clear that Norma and Bright heard her. They wanted to keep crying, as crying was the direction the evening was headed in, but they snuffled less in order to listen.
“The foyer is not the house,” Maeve said. “It’s just a little part of it. Please notice that you can see all the way through it. Front yard”—she pointed to the door where they’d come in, then turned in the opposite direction and pointed to the windows in the observatory—“back yard.”
Bright sat up to look in both directions, and when Norma had leaked out the last of her tears she gave a tentative glance as well.
“You’ve seen the dining room and the drawing room.” Maeve turned to me. “I think that’s it, right? I don’t think they’ve been in the kitchen.”
“Why would they have been in the kitchen?” I was trying not to be sullen—the girls were the ones who were sullen—but I could think of about a hundred things I would have rather been doing with my evening than entertaining Andrea’s children.
Maeve went off to find a flashlight and then opened the door to the basement. “Don’t use the handrail,” she said over her shoulder. “You’ll get splinters. Just pay attention and look at your feet.”
“I don’t want to go to the basement,” Bright said, peering into the darkness from the top step.
“Then don’t,” Maeve said. “We won’t be long.”
“Carry me,” Bright suggested. Maeve didn’t even answer that one.
Norma stopped two steps down. “Are there spiders?”
“Definitely.” Maeve kept going. She was looking for the string that hung from the single lightbulb in the middle of the ceiling. The girls considered their options: up or down, and soon enough they followed her while I brought up the rear of the expedition. The girls were both in dresses, white tights, and patent leather shoes. The basement of the house was from another century. It bore no relationship to the structure that sat on top of it. In certain corners the walls devolved into piles of dirt. I had once found an arrowhead there. I would have dug around for more but the truth was I didn’t like the basement myself.
“Why do you come down here?” Norma asked, half in horror, half in wonder.
“I’ll show you.” Maeve then turned her flashlight to the far corner of the room until the beam bounced off a small metal door in the wall. “That’s the fuse box. Say a light burns out in the upstairs hall powder room and you know it’s not the lightbulb. Then you have to come down here and check the fuse box. Sometimes if we’re out of fuses we’ll stick a penny behind it to make the old one work again. And if the heat goes out you have to come down here to check the furnace, and if there’s no hot water you have to check the boiler. It could just be that the pilot light’s blown out, in which case you’ve got to be careful lighting a match. There could be a gas leak. Boom,” she said flatly.
Honestly, I had no idea.
Maeve went bravely ahead while Norma and Bright and I tried to stay in the general vicinity of her flashlight’s beam. She opened a wooden door that creaked so loudly the girls pressed against me for a second, then Maeve pulled another string, illuminating yet another bare lightbulb. “This is the basement pantry where the extra food is kept, just in case you’re here and get hungry. Sandy and Jocelyn make pickles and jams and stewed tomatoes. Pretty much anything that goes in a jar.” We looked up at the shelves of immaculate jars, every one labeled with a date and organized by color, golden peach halves floating in syrup, raspberry jam. There were crates of sweet potatoes and russets and onions on the cold floor. I had never exactly thought of being rich until then, seeing all that food stored away in the presence of those little girls.
When finally we were ready to go up again, Bright stopped and pointed to the boxes stacked beneath the stairs. “What’s in there?”
Maeve turned her flashlight to the musty tower of cardboard. “Christmas ornaments, decorations, that sort of thing.”
Bright looked cheerful at the mention of Christmas and asked if she could open the boxes. It stood to reason that where there were ornaments, there would be presents, maybe even a present for her, but Maeve said no. “You can come back at Christmas and open them then.”
I didn’t say a word to Maeve that night when we brushed our teeth, and when we said our prayers I left her out.
“Come on,” she said. “Don’t be mad.”
But I was mad. I got into bed mad. The tour had occupied the entire evening. She had shown them everything there was to see: the butler’s pantry where dishes were kept and the tablecloths were rolled onto wide spools, the closet in the third floor bedroom with the tiny door in the back that led to an attic crawl space. She let them spin around in the ballroom, pretending to waltz. It had never once occurred to us to dance up there. “Who puts the ballroom on the third floor?” Norma had asked.
Maeve explained that when the house was built a third floor ballroom was considered the height of fashion. “A fad, really,” she said. “It didn’t last. But once you’ve put a ballroom on the third floor it’s pretty much impossible to move it.” Maeve showed them every last bedroom in the house. Norma and Bright both agreed that Maeve’s room was best, and they sat in her window seat while Maeve closed the draperies over them. The girls squealed with laughter and then called, “No, don’t!” when she opened the draperies up again. When the tour was over she brought a stepladder from the kitchen so they could take turns winding the grandfather clock, even though she knew I did that myself first thing Sunday morning.
Maeve sat beside me on my bed. “Think of how overwhelming the house must be to them, how overwhelming we must be, so if we showed them everything instead of just the nice things it would be, I don’t know, friendlier?”
“It was very friendly,” I said in a voice that was not friendly.
Maeve put her hand on my forehead, the way she did when I was sick. “They’re little, Danny. I feel sorry for anyone who’s that little.”
She had put them in her own bed, and when our father came back with Andrea they each carried one sleeping girl down the stairs and took them out to Andrea’s car. Maeve had to run down the stairs after them. They had forgotten the girls’ shoes. Maeve told me Andrea was a little bit drunk.
To the long list of things my sister never got credit for, add this: she was good to those girls. If my father or Andrea was in the room, Maeve would politely ignore the children, but leave her alone with Norma and Bright and she was always doing something nice—teaching them to crochet or letting them braid her hair or showing them how to make tapioca. In return they followed her through the house like a pair of worshipful cocker spaniels.