Authors: Ann Patchett
“We got a postcard from Maeve,” Sandy said, and pointed to a card caught to the refrigerator with a magnet, the Barnard library covered in snow. The fact that the card was displayed was proof that Andrea never went in the kitchen. “She says we should keep feeding you.”
Jocelyn nodded. “We hadn’t planned to feed you once she left, but if Maeve says we have to then we have to.”
Maeve wrote me long letters, telling me about New York and her classes and her roommate, a girl named Leslie who worked the dinner shift in the cafeteria every night as part of her financial aid package and then fell asleep in her clothes while she tried to study in bed. Maeve gave no indication that school was difficult or that she was homesick, though she always said she missed me. Now that she wasn’t around to help me with my homework, I wondered for the first time who had ever helped her when she was young. Fluffy? I doubted it. I sat down at the kitchen table and opened my book.
Sandy looked over my shoulder. “Let me see that. I used to be good in math.”
“I’ve got it,” I said.
“You only think you want to get rid of your sister,” Jocelyn said, clapping her hand on my shoulder in a firm manner so as not to embarrass me. “Then when she’s gone it turns out you miss her.”
Sandy laughed and swatted Jocelyn with a dish towel.
She was only right about half of it. I had never wanted to get rid of Maeve. “Do you have a sister?” I asked Jocelyn.
Sandy and Jocelyn had both been laughing and then at the same time they stopped. “Are you kidding me?” Jocelyn asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, wondering what had been funny and then not funny, but in the second before they could correct me, I saw it: the similarity in these two women I had known before knowing.
Sandy cocked her head. “Danny, seriously? You didn’t know we were sisters?”
In that moment I could have told them all the ways they favored each other and all the ways they looked nothing alike, but it wouldn’t have mattered. I had never wondered who they were related to or who they went home to. All I knew was that they cared for us. I remembered Sandy being gone for two weeks when her husband was sick and then again for a few days when he died. “I didn’t know.”
“That’s because I’m so much prettier,” Jocelyn said. She was trying to be funny, to let me off the hook, but I couldn’t see that one was prettier than the other. They were younger than my father and older than Andrea but I couldn’t narrow it down any further than that. I knew not to ask. Jocelyn was taller and thinner, her hair an unnatural shade of blond, whereas Sandy, whose thick brown hair was always held back with two barrettes, maybe had the nicer face. Her cheeks were pink and she had very pretty eyebrows, if such a thing were even possible. I didn’t know. Jocelyn was married, Sandy a widow. Both of them had children, I knew that because Maeve gave them whatever clothes we’d outgrown. I knew because when one of their children was really sick they didn’t come to work. Did I ask them when they came back, who was sick? Is she better now? I did not. I liked them both so much, Sandy and Jocelyn. I felt terrible for failing them.
Sandy shook her head. “Boys,” she said, and with that single word excused me from all responsibility.
There was a phone at the front desk of the dorm where Maeve lived. I had the number memorized. If I called her, some girl would be dispatched to the third floor to knock on her door and see if she was in, which she usually wasn’t because Maeve liked to study in the library. That whole transaction to find out she wasn’t there and then leave a message took at least seven minutes—approximately four minutes longer than my father thought a long-distance call should last. So while I was desperate to talk to my sister and ask her if she knew—and if she did know then ask her how she’d neglected to tell me—I didn’t call. I went into the drawing room where I stood in front of her portrait, cursing quietly to myself under her benevolent ten-year-old gaze. I resolved to wait until Saturday and ask my father instead. With every passing day the similarities between Sandy and Jocelyn became glaringly obvious: I saw it every morning as they stood side by side in the kitchen when I left to catch the school bus, I saw it in the way they waved like a couple of synchronized swimmers, and of course they had exactly the same voice. I realized I had never known which one of them was calling for me when I was upstairs. What could have been wrong with me that I’d missed all that?
“What difference does it make?” my father said when finally it was Saturday and we were off to collect the rent.
“Of course I knew. I hired them, or your mother hired them. Your mother was always hiring people. First there was Sandy and then a couple of weeks later Sandy said that her sister needed a job, so we wound up with the pair. You’ve always been perfectly nice to them. I don’t see the problem.”
The problem, I wanted to say, was that I was asleep to the world. Even in my own house I had no idea what was going on. My mother hired them because she knew they were sisters, meaning she was a good person. I didn’t even know they were sisters, meaning I was a toad. But that’s me layering the present onto the past. At the time, I couldn’t have begun to say why I was so upset. For weeks I tried to avoid Sandy and Jocelyn whenever I could, but that was impossible. Finally, I resolved to believe that I had always known who they were to each other, and that I had forgotten.
Sandy and Jocelyn had always run the house with complete autonomy. Maybe on occasion we would tell them how nice it would be to have beef stew with dumplings again, or that wonderful apple cake, but even that was rare. They knew what we liked and they gave it to us without our needing to ask. We never ran out of apples or crackers, there were always stamps in the left-hand drawer of the library desk, clean towels in the bathroom. Sandy ironed not only our clothes but our sheets and pillowcases. There was always a bright row of silver-topped insulin bottles that shivered on the refrigerator door whenever Maeve was home. They sterilized syringes, back in the day before they were disposable. We would never tell them the laundry needed doing or a floor needed cleaning because everything was done before we’d had the chance to notice.
All of that changed after Andrea arrived. She made weekly menus for Jocelyn to follow and gave her opinion on every course: there wasn’t enough salt in the soup; she had given the girls too many mashed potatoes. How could they be expected to eat so many mashed potatoes? Why was Jocelyn serving cod when Andrea had specifically told her sole? Could she not have troubled herself to check another market? Did Andrea have to do everything? Every day she worked to find something extra for Sandy to do, dusting the shelves in the pantry or washing the curtain sheers. I no longer heard Sandy and Jocelyn talking to each other in the halls. I no longer heard Jocelyn’s spectacular whistling when she arrived at the house in the morning. They were no longer allowed to call up the stairs to ask a question, they were to walk up and find us like civilized people. That’s what Andrea said. Sandy and Jocelyn made it a point to be less visible, more civilized, to work wherever we were not. Or maybe that was me. I was in my bedroom more after Maeve left.
There were six bedrooms on the second floor of the house: my father’s room, mine, Maeve’s, a sunny room with twin beds where Bright and Norma slept, a room for the guests we never had, and the last room, which had been made into a household office. There was also a sort of sitting area at the top of the stairs where no one had ever sat until Norma and Bright showed up. They seemed to love to sit at the top of the stairs.
Andrea announced her plans for the reconfiguration one night at dinner. “I’m going to move Norma into the room with the window seat,” she said.
My father and I could only look at her while Sandy, who was refilling the water glasses, took a step back from the table.
Andrea noticed nothing. “Norma’s the oldest girl now. That’s the room for the biggest girl.”
Norma’s mouth opened a bit. I could see that all of this was news to her. If she had wanted to be in Maeve’s room it was because she wanted to be with Maeve.
“Maeve’s coming home again,” my father said. “She’s only gone to New York.”
“And when she comes back to visit she’ll have a beautiful room on the third floor. Sandy will see to that, won’t you, Sandy?”
But Sandy didn’t answer. She held the water pitcher to her chest as if to keep herself from throwing it.
“I don’t think we need to do this now,” my father said. “There’s no shortage of places to sleep around here. Norma can have the guest room if she wants it.”
“The guest room is for our guests. Norma will sleep in the room with the window seat. It’s the nicest bedroom in the house, the nicest view. It’s silly to hold it as a shrine for someone who doesn’t live here. Honestly, I thought that maybe we should take the room ourselves but the closet isn’t very big. Norma has such little dresses. The closet will be fine for you, won’t it?”
Norma nodded slowly, both horrified by her mother and mesmerized by the thought of that window seat, those wonderful drapes that could close a person off from everything.
“I want to sleep in Maeve’s room,” Bright said. Bright hadn’t adjusted to living in so much space and she clung to her sister in the way I had clung to mine.
“You’ll each have your own room, and Norma will let you visit,” her mother said. “Everyone will adjust just fine. It’s like your father said, this house is big enough for everyone to have her own room.”
And with that the matter was closed. I never said a thing. I looked at my father, who was apparently now the father of Norma and Bright as well, hoping he would give it another shot, but he let it go. Andrea was a very pretty woman. He could give her her way now or he could wait and give her her way later, but either way, she was going to get what she wanted.
All of this happened around the time I’d fallen in love with one of the VanHoebeek daughters, or rather with her portrait, which I called Julia. Julia had narrow shoulders and yellow hair held back by a green ribbon. Her portrait hung in a bedroom on the third floor of the Dutch House above a bed no one ever slept in. With the exception of Sandy, who ran the vacuum and wiped things down with a dust rag on Thursdays, no one but me set foot up there. I believed that Julia and I were true lovers thwarted by the misalignment of our births. I worked myself into such a state over the injustice of it all that I once made the error of calling my sister at Barnard to ask if she had ever wondered about the girl whose painting hung in the third-floor bedroom, the girl with the gray-green eyes who was one of the VanHoebeek daughters.
“A daughter?” Maeve said. I was lucky to have caught her on the phone. “They didn’t have any daughters. I think that’s Mrs. VanHoebeek when she was a girl. Take the painting downstairs and look at them together. I think they’re both her.”
My sister was fully capable of teasing me until I could have bled from my ears, but just as often she spoke as if we were equals, giving me an honest answer to any question. I could tell by her voice she wasn’t joking, or even particularly paying attention to what I had asked. I ran up the turning staircase to the third floor and stood on the unused bed to lift the carved gilt frame of my beloved off the wall (the frame was grander than what she would have wanted and not as grand as what she deserved). My Julia was
Mrs. VanHoebeek. But when I carried the painting downstairs to lean it on the mantelpiece, it was clear that Maeve was right. They were paintings of the same woman seated at either end of her life, old Mrs. VanHoebeek with the black silk buttons marching up to her neck and young Julia caught in a breeze. And really, even if it wasn’t the same woman, such a likeness made it clear how one day the daughter would become the mother. Then Jocelyn came around the corner and caught me standing there looking at the two paintings together. She shook her head. “Time flies,” she said.
Sandy and Jocelyn moved Maeve’s things up to the third floor. At least the room faced the back garden like her old room did. At least the view would be more or less the same and arguably even better: fewer branches, more leaves. But the windows were dormers, of course, and there was no window seat. The new room was also a fraction of the size, and under the eaves so the ceiling sloped. As tall as Maeve was she’d be hitting her head every other minute.
The whole depressing enterprise of turning Maeve’s room into Norma’s room took longer than anyone could have imagined, since once Maeve’s things were out Andrea wanted the place painted, and after it was painted she changed her mind and started bringing home books of wallpaper. She shopped for a new bedspread, a new rug. For a couple of weeks the redecoration was all anyone heard about, but it wasn’t until Maeve came home for Thanksgiving that I realized none of us had been brave enough to inform my sister of her exile. Surely that was my father’s job, and surely the rest of us would have known that he would never do it. Maeve was in the foyer, swinging me around, kissing Sandy and Jocelyn, kissing the little girls, and suddenly we all understood that she was about to go upstairs and find a raft of dolls spread across what had been her bed. In that moment it was Andrea, always the general, who showed presence of mind.
“Maeve, we’ve changed some things around since you’ve been gone. You’re on the third floor now. It’s very nice.”
“The attic?” Maeve asked.