Authors: Ann Patchett
“I was sure she would have burned it.”
“She loved the house. She loved everything in the house.”
“Well, she got rid of us. Then it was perfect.”
“Everything was perfect!” she said. “Could you believe it? I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t think it was going to look better after we left. I always imagined the house would die without us. I don’t know, I thought it would crumple up. Do houses ever die of grief?”
“Only the decent ones.”
Maeve laughed. “Then it was an indecent house. Did I ever tell you the story about the painter?”
I knew some of it, not all of it. I wanted to know all of it. “Tell me.”
“His name was Simon,” she said. “He lived in Chicago but he was from Scotland. He was very famous, or I thought he was famous. I was ten.”
“It’s a very good painting.”
Maeve looked in the back seat. “It is. It’s beautiful. Don’t you think it looks like May?”
“It looks like you, and May looks like you.”
She took a drag on her cigarette and tipped back her head and closed her eyes. I could tell the way we felt was exactly the same, like we had nearly drowned and then been fished from the water at the last possible minute. We had lived without expecting to live. “Dad was a big one for surprises in those days. He hired Simon to come from Chicago to paint Mommy’s portrait. Simon was going to stay for two weeks. The painting was supposed to be huge, the size of Mrs. VanHoebeek. He was going to come back and paint Dad later. That was the plan. Then when it was all done there would be two Conroys hanging over the fireplace.”
“Where were the VanHoebeeks going?”
Maeve opened one eye and smiled at me. “I love you,” she said. “That’s exactly what I asked. The VanHoebeeks were going up to the ballroom to go dancing.”
“Who told you all this?”
“Simon. Needless to say, Simon and I had a lot of time to talk.”
“You’re telling me our mother didn’t want to spend two weeks standing in a ball gown to have her portrait painted?” Our mother, the little sister of the poor, the assemblage of bones and tennis shoes.
“Would not. Could not. And once she refused, Dad said he wouldn’t have his portrait painted either.”
“Because then he’d have to be over the fireplace with Mrs. VanHoebeek.”
“Exactly. Of course the problem was the painter was already there, and half of the money had been paid up front. You were too little and squirmy to sit for a portrait, so I was hauled in at the last minute. Simon had to build a new stretcher in the garage and cut the canvas down.”
“How long did you sit?”
“Not long enough. I was in love with him. I don’t think you can have another person look right at you for two weeks and not fall in love with them. Dad was so furious about the money and the fact that he had once again failed to please, and Mommy was furious or mortified or whatever she was in those days. They weren’t talking to each other and neither of them would talk to Simon. If he walked in a room they just walked out. But Simon didn’t mind. It didn’t matter to him who he was painting as long as he was painting. All he cared about was light. I’d never thought about light until that summer. Just sitting in the light all day was a revelation. We wouldn’t eat dinner until it was dark, and even then it would just be the two of us. Jocelyn left our food in the kitchen. One day Simon said to me, ‘Do you have anything that’s red?’ and I told him my winter coat was red. He said, ‘Go get your coat,’ or ‘Go geet yur coot.’ I went to the cedar closet and pulled it out and put it on and he looked at me and said, ‘Daughter, you should wear only red.’ He called me daughter. I would have gone back to Chicago with him in a heartbeat if he’d taken me.”
“I would have missed you too much.”
She turned around and looked at the painting again. “That look on my face? That’s me looking at Simon.” She took a last pull on her cigarette and then tossed it out the window. “After he left everything really went to hell, or probably it went to hell those two weeks I was sitting in the observatory but I was too happy to notice it then. Mommy couldn’t have stayed. I really do believe that. She would have gone crazy if she had to live in a mansion and have her portrait painted.”
“She seems comfortable enough in there now.” I looked over at the house but there was no one looking back at us through the windows. I threw out my cigarette and coughed, then we each lit another.
“Now there are people in the house she can feel sorry for. When she lived there the only person she could feel sorry for was herself.” She pulled the smoke in and then emptied her lungs of smoke. “That was untenable.”
Maeve was right, of course, although the insight provided no comfort. When at last our mother came out of the house and got into the back seat with the painting, she was changed. Even before she spoke, there was an air of purpose I hadn’t seen in her before. I knew things would be different now. Our mother was going back to work.
“Sweet people,” she said. “Inez has been a saint. She’s the first person Norma’s been able to keep for more than a month. Norma’s been out in Palo Alto since medical school. She’d been managing things from California but then she said it all fell apart. She had to move home to take care of her mother.”
“We figured that much out.” We each took the last draw off our final cigarettes and pitched them into the grass like darts, then Maeve headed down the driveway to VanHoebeek Street. We did not look back.
“Norma wanted to put her into care at first but Andrea won’t leave the house.”
“I could have gotten her out of the house,” Maeve said.
“She’s not comfortable out of the house, and she doesn’t like people in the house either. The cleaners and repairmen, everything upsets her. It’s been very hard for Norma.”
“She’s a doctor?” I asked. Someone in the family should have been.
“She’s a pediatric oncologist. She told me it was all because of you. Apparently her mother felt very competitive when you went to medical school.”
Poor Norma. It had never occurred to me that someone else had been forced into the race. “What about her sister? What about Bright?”
“She’s a yoga instructor. She lives in Banff.”
“The pediatric oncologist leaves Stanford to take care of her mother and the yoga instructor stays in Canada?” Maeve asked.
“I think that’s right,” our mother said. “All I know is that the younger girl doesn’t come home.”
“Go, Bright,” Maeve said.
“Norma needs help, Norma and Inez. Norma’s just started practicing at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital.”
I said that I felt certain there was still a great deal of money. The house hadn’t changed. Andrea didn’t go anywhere.
“Andrea knows more about money than J. D. Rockefeller,” Maeve said. “Believe me, she’s still got it.”
“I don’t think money’s the problem. They just need to find someone they can trust, someone Andrea feels comfortable with.”
Maeve hit the brakes so abruptly I was sure she was saving our lives, that there was a collision coming up in my blind spot. She and I had our seatbelts on but our mother and the painting were thrown forward into the seats in front of them with blunt force.
“Listen to me,” Maeve said, whipping around, the cords of her neck straining to hold her head in place. “You’re not going back there. You were curious. We went with you. It’s done.”
Our mother gave herself a shake to see if she was hurt. She touched her nose. There was blood on her fingers. “They need me,” she said.
need you!” Maeve said, her voice raised. “I’ve always needed you. You are not going back to that house.”
My mother took a tissue from her pocket and held it under her nose, then settled the painting back in its place. She put on her seatbelt using one hand. The Toyota behind us laid on the horn. “Let’s talk about this at home.” She had made her decision but had yet to find a way to make it palatable to her children.
She was stricken at the thought. “She’d just move in over there. You know they’d love that. She keeps saying that Andrea’s comfortable with her and that’s why she needs to help, as if I give a fuck about Andrea’s comfort.”
“Let me talk to her,” I said. “I’ll tell her it’s not good for your health.”
“I’ve already told her that. And by the way, it’s
good for my health. The thought that she would go back there for her and not—” She stopped herself before she said it.
Somehow with everything that had happened we’d forgotten the painting in the back of the car. “Take it to May,” Maeve said when she pulled up in front of my house.
“No,” I said. “It’s yours. Give it to May when she’s grown and has her own house. You need to keep it awhile. Put it over your mantel and think of Simon.”
Maeve shook her head. “I don’t want anything that was in that house. I’m telling you, it will only make me crazier than I already am.”
I looked at the girl in the portrait. They should have let her always be that girl. “Then you have to promise me you’ll take it back later.”
“I will,” she said.
“Let’s find a parking place and you can come in and give it to May.” We were double-parked.
Maeve shook her head. “There’s no such thing as a parking space. Please.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t be ridiculous. You’re right here.”
She shook her head. She almost looked like she was going to cry. “I’m tired.” And then she said
So I let her go. I went around to the back and pulled out the painting and my duffel bag. It had started to rain and so I didn’t stand on the street and watch her drive off. I didn’t wave. I found my keys and hustled to get the painting inside.
We talked plenty after that, about our mother’s daily reports of Andrea and Norma and the house, and how it was turning Maeve into a complete wreck. She talked about Otterson’s. I told her about a building I wanted to buy that would require me to sell another building I didn’t want to sell. I told her May was ecstatic about the painting. “We put it in the living room, over the fireplace.”
“Me in your living room every day?”
“Celeste doesn’t mind?”
“It looks too much like May for Celeste to mind. Everybody thinks it’s May except May. When anybody asks her she says, ‘It’s a portrait of me and my aunt.’”
Celeste sat up in bed, looked at me. “What is it?”
“She’s here,” my mother said. “I’m with her.”
“Have you called an ambulance?”
“I will. I wanted to call you first.”
“Don’t waste time calling me! Call an ambulance.” My voice was splintering.
“Oh, Danny,” my mother said, and then she started to cry.
She shook her head. “It’s not my taste. It’s heavy and old. It’s too dark. You don’t have to think about that because you aren’t home all day.”
I’d wanted to surprise her. I took her through every room, letting her think it was something I was planning to buy as a rental. I told her I could cut it into two units. I could even make it four, though that, of course, would be real work. Celeste, infinitely game, went up and down the stairs with May strapped to her chest, looking at the bathrooms, checking the water pressure. I didn’t ask her if she liked it then. I could have but I didn’t. I handed her the deed instead. In my mind it had been one of the few truly romantic gestures I’d ever made. “It’s our house,” I said.
Everything in me wanted to excuse myself from the proceedings and go out to the hall and call my sister. That never stopped happening.
The irony, of course, was that I had been a better husband after Maeve died. In my grief I had turned to my family. For the first time I was fully with them, a citizen of New York, my wife and my children the anchors that held me to the world. But the joke I’d always half-believed turned out to be true: everything Celeste hated about me she blamed on my sister, and when my sister wasn’t there to take the blame, she was forced to consider who she was married to.
Our mother stayed on in the Dutch House to take care of Andrea, and for years I didn’t forgive her. Despite whatever residual bits of science still clung to me, I had come to believe the story our father told when we were children: Maeve got sick because our mother left, and if our mother ever came back, Maeve would die. Even the stupidest ideas have resonance once they’ve happened. I blamed myself for what I saw as my lack of vigilance. I thought of my sister every hour. I let our mother go.
But then one day, after we had been divorced long enough to be friendly again, Celeste asked me to drive a carload of things to her parents’ house, and I said yes. Even the Norcrosses had slowed down, the last of the unruly Labradors replaced by a small, friendly spaniel named Inky. After I unloaded the car and we had our visit, I drove over to the Dutch House for old times’ sake, thinking I would park across the street for just a minute. But whatever barrier had kept us from turning in the driveway all those years was gone now, and I went to the house and rang the bell.
We stood there in the foyer in the afternoon light. Again, I had expected deterioration to have come at last, and again I found the house to be exactly as I remembered. It irritated me to have to see the tenderness with which it had been maintained.
“I didn’t come for a long time,” Sandy said guiltily, holding onto my hand, her thick white hair still pinned in place with barrettes. “But I missed your mother. I kept thinking of Maeve, what she would have wanted me to do. No one’s getting any younger.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” I said.
“I just come by for lunch sometimes. Sometimes there’s something I can do to help out. The truth is it’s nice for me. I fill up Norma’s bird feeders in the back. Norma loves the birds. She got that from your dad.”
I looked up at the high ceiling, into the chandelier. “Lots of ghosts.”
Sandy smiled. “The ghosts are what I come for. I think about Jocelyn when I’m here, the way we were then. We were all so young, you know. We were still our best selves.”
Jocelyn had died two years before. She had the flu, and by the time anyone realized how serious things were, it was over. Celeste came with me to the funeral. The Norcrosses came. For the record, Jocelyn never had forgiven my mother, though she was nicer about it than I was. “She left us there to raise you but you couldn’t be ours,” she said to me once. “How am I supposed to forgive a thing like that?”
Sandy and I went to the kitchen and I sat at the little table while she made coffee. I asked about Andrea.
“A toothless beast,” she said. “She doesn’t know a thing. Norma really could move her out of here now and sell the place, but there’s always this feeling that Andrea’s going to die any minute, and what would be the point of seeing her through all these years just to shuttle her out at the end?”
“Unless it isn’t the end.”
Sandy sighed and took a small carton of milk from the refrigerator. The refrigerator was new. “Who knows? I think of my husband. Jamie was thirty-six when he got an infection in his heart. No one knew why. And then Maeve, who was stronger than all the rest of us put together. Even with the diabetes, Maeve should have lived to be a hundred.”
I had never known what Sandy’s husband died of, nor did I know his name. I didn’t know what had killed Maeve for that matter, though there were a wealth of options. I thought of Celeste’s brother Teddy at Thanksgiving all those years ago, asking me if I had to perform autopsies. I had performed plenty of them, and I would never let anyone subject my sister to that. “She should have outlived Andrea at the very least.”
“But that’s the way it goes,” Sandy said.
I found it a comfort to be in that kitchen with her. The stove and the window and Sandy and the clock. There on the table between us was the pressed-glass butter dish that had belonged to my mother’s mother in Brooklyn, a half-stick of butter inside. “Look at that,” I said, and ran my finger along the edge.
“You shouldn’t be so hard on your mother,” Sandy said.
Wasn’t that what I was always saying to May? “I don’t think I am.” We had overlapped very little in our lives, my mother and I. I couldn’t imagine it was much of a loss for either of us.
“She’s a saint,” Sandy said.
I smiled at her. No one was kinder than Sandy. “She’s not a saint. Taking care of someone who doesn’t know you doesn’t make you a saint.”
Sandy nodded, took a sip of coffee. “I think it’s hard for people like us to understand. To tell you the truth, it’s unbearable sometimes, at least it is for me. I just want her to be one of us. But when you think about saints, I don’t imagine any of them made their families happy.”
“Probably not.” I couldn’t remember the saints themselves, much less their families.
Sandy put her small hand on top of my hand, squeezed. “Go upstairs and say hello.”
And so I went up to my parents’ room, wondering why a man with a bad knee would have bought a house with so many stairs. There on the landing was the little couch and the two chairs where Norma and Bright liked to sit with their dolls so they could see who was coming and going. I looked at the doors to my room, to Maeve’s room. It wasn’t hard. I had the idea that all of the hard things had already happened.
Andrea was in a hospital bed by the window, my mother sitting beside her, spooning in bites of pudding. My mother still wore her hair short. It was white now. I wondered what Andrea would have thought had she known that this was her husband’s first wife feeding her, and that the first wife had often had lice.
“There he is!” my mother said, smiling at me as if I’d come through the door right on time. She leaned over to Andrea. “What did I tell you?”
Andrea opened her mouth and waited for the spoon.
“I was in the neighborhood,” I said. Wasn’t that more or less how she’d returned all those years later? I could see now how much she looked like Maeve, or how Maeve would have looked like her had she lasted. That was the face she would have grown into.
My mother held out her hand to me. “Come over here where she can see you.”
I went to the bed and stood beside her. My mother put her arm around my waist. “Say something.”
“Hi, Andrea,” I said. No anger could survive this, at least no anger I’d ever had. Andrea was as small as a child. Thin strands of white hair spread out on the pink pillowcase, her face was bare, her mouth a dark, open hole. She looked up at me, blinked a few times, then smiled. She raised the little claw of her hand and I took it. For the first time I noticed that she and my mother wore the same wedding ring, a gold band no wider than a wire.
“She sees you!” my mother said. “Look at that.”
Andrea was smiling, if such a thing could be called a smile. She was glad to see my father again. I leaned over and kissed them both on the forehead, one and then the other. It cost me nothing.
After Andrea was full of pudding, she curled in her arms and legs and went to sleep. My mother and I sat in the chairs in front of the empty fireplace.
“Where do you sleep?” I asked, and she pointed to the bed behind me, the one she had slept in with my father, the one where Mrs. VanHoebeek had lain with her broken hip, waiting to die.
“She gets confused in the night sometimes. She tries to get up. It helps to be in here with her.” She shook her head. “I have to tell you, Danny, I wake up in here, and I can feel it—the room and the house—even before I open my eyes. Every morning I’m twenty-eight, just for a second, and Maeve is in her room across the hall, and you’re a baby in the bassinet beside me, and when I turn over I expect to see your father there. It’s a beautiful thing.”
“You don’t mind the house?”
She shrugged. “I gave up caring where I lived a long time ago, and anyway, I think it’s good for me. It teaches me humility.
teaches me humility.” She tipped her head backwards the way Maeve would do. “You have to serve those who need to be served, not just the ones who make you feel good about yourself. Andrea’s my penance for all the mistakes.”
“She doesn’t look like she’s going to last out the week.”
“I know. We’ve been saying that for years. She keeps surprising us.”
My mother smiled. “Norma’s golden. She works so hard, all those sick children, then she comes home to take care of her mother. She never complains. I don’t think her mother made things easy for her when she was growing up.”
“She certainly isn’t making things easy for her now.”
“Well,” my mother said, looking at me with great kindness. “You know the way mothers are.”
I realized how little time I’d spent in this room. I rarely came in when it was just my father’s, and never came in, even once, during the years he’d shared it with Andrea. It was larger than Maeve’s bedroom, and the fireplace with its huge delft mantel was a masterpiece, but still, Andrea was right—the room with the window seat was nicer. The way it faced the back gardens, the kinder light. “Here’s a question,” I said, because when had I ever asked her anything? When had we been alone together other than those few awkward encounters in hospital waiting rooms all those years ago?
“Anything,” she said.
“Why didn’t you take us with you?”
“To India, sure, or anywhere. If you thought this house was such a terrible place for you, did you wonder if it might have been a terrible place for us?”
She sat with it for awhile. Maybe she was trying to remember how she’d felt. It had all happened such a long time ago. “I thought it was a wonderful place for you,” she said finally. “There are so many children in the world who have nothing at all, and you and your sister had everything—your father and Fluffy and Sandy and Jocelyn. You had this house. I loved you so much, but I knew you were going to be fine.”
Maybe Sandy was right, and she was a saint, and saints were universally despised by their families. I couldn’t have said which life would have been better, the one we had with Andrea or the one in which we trailed after our mother through the streets of Bombay. Chances were it would have been six of one, half-dozen of the other.
“And anyway,” she said as an afterthought, “your father never would have let you go.”
Things changed again after that, change being the one constant. I found myself going back to Elkins Park. There was no one to tell me not to. The rage I had carried for my mother exhaled and died. There was no place for it anymore. What I was left with was never love but it was something—familiarity, maybe. We took a certain amount of comfort in each other. Sometimes May would come with me on those visits, even though she was so busy then. May was at NYU. She had her whole life mapped out. Kevin was at Dartmouth and so we saw less of him. He was a year behind her and twenty years behind her, as we all were. By going to Elkins Park, May could see all of her grandparents, and she was obsessed with the house. She went over the entire place like a forensic detective. She might as well have used a metal detector and a stethoscope. She started in the basement and worked up. I could never believe the things she found: Christmas ornaments and report cards and a shoebox full of lipstick. She found the tiny door in the back of the third-floor closet that led into the eave space. I had forgotten about that. The boxes of Maeve’s books were still there, half of them in French, her notebooks full of math equations, dolls I had never seen, the letters I had written to her when she was in college. May did an impromptu reading of one of them over dinner.
“Dear Maeve, Last night Andrea announced she didn’t like the apple cake. The apple cake is everybody’s favorite but now Jocelyn isn’t supposed to make it anymore. Jocelyn said it doesn’t matter, and that she’d make me one at her house and smuggle it in in pieces.” Somehow May knew exactly what I had sounded like at eleven. “Last Saturday we made thirty-seven stops for rent and collected $28.50 in quarters from the washing machines in the basements.”
“Are you making this up?” I asked.
She waved the letter. “Swear to God, you really were that boring. It goes on for another page.”