Authors: Rona Jaffe
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Also By Rona Jaffe
An American Love Story
After the Reunion
Mazes and Monsters
The Last Chance
The Other Woman
The Fame Game
Mr. Right Is Dead
The Cherry in the Martini
The Last of the Wizards
Away From Home
Best of Everything
The Road Taken
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
THE ROAD TAKEN
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with The Rona Jaffe Foundation
Dutton hardcover edition / July 2000
InterMix eBook edition / February 2014
Copyright © 2000 by Rona Jaffe.
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Research for a novel is an arduous task. Many people gave generously and graciously of their time and expertise so that I could learn the things I needed. Some were experts, others were people who directed me to these experts, others lent me otherwise elusive research materials, a few “just” gave me moral support. All of them were important to my journey, and so I am listing them as chronologically as I remember.
Robert L. Sherman, Mark Bregman, Marc Neal Simon, Dr. Martha Friedman, Leonard Finger, Lynne White, Deborah Lowen-Klein, Ellen Wolf, Michael D. Shadix, Roger Bilheimer, Dorothy Bilheimer, Rozanne Gold, Dr. David Weinberg, Steven Gaines, Joseph Olshan, Helen Horowitz, Joan Dim, Dr. Jean-Claude Bystryn, Dr. Rache Simmons, Dr. Alan Copperman, Anne Sibbald.
It was 1910, a time of medical mysteries, of family tragedies, of faith in a God who swiftly took away loved ones for reasons unknown, and who almost as quickly brought replacements. But for Rose Smith, who was ten years old and sitting in the church at her mother’s funeral, it was impossible to imagine a replacement, ever,
In the pew, holding her breath so she wouldn’t cry, she let her older sister, Maude, stroke her hand abstractedly and her little brother, Hugh, clutch at her other hand, and she knew that they were all alone. Grief and fear washed over her in waves that sent her skin tingling and made her feel sick. What would she do without her mother? Who would teach her how to grow up? Their father, William, was there of course, a solid presence on the other side of Hugh, a good and kind and strong father; but he was not a mother, he would never answer a little girl’s questions, he would never be her best friend. William didn’t even know why his wife had died.
Rose had asked him, after the men came and took the body away to the funeral home, when the shrieking and bustle and craziness had stopped and there was, finally, a motionless moment. She had stolen up to him quietly and tugged at his coat.
“Papa, how did Mama die?” What was that strange glance he gave her?
“Peacefully,” her father said.
“No, I mean, from what?”
“God took her. It was her time.”
“Did she have diabetes?”
He looked at her in that way male adults often did when female children tried to have a conversation of any importance with them, and Rose knew he would have liked her to go away. “Why would you think that?” her father said.
“My friend at school . . .”
“No, your mother did not have diabetes.”
“Then what, Papa?” Children were not supposed to nag their parents, but she had to know, if only to make this horrible thing more real.
Her father shook his head, gazing off into space. “Heart . . . lung,” he said finally, vaguely.
What about heart lung? Heart lung
And then Rose realized, irrevocably, that either he didn’t want to tell her any more, or, more likely, he didn’t really know either. No one would ever tell her. “Don’t annoy your father, child,” her Aunt Martha said, and led her away.
Rose had wanted to ask him if her mother’s death was her fault, but now she couldn’t ask him anything.
Today, in the church, she looked at the coffin with the pink roses on it, her mother’s favorite, and felt guilty for all the times she had been angry because her mother was sick. Her mother had been sick so often. Why were those memories coming back now to hurt her? It seemed her earliest mind picture was of standing in her parents’ bedroom next to the bed, knowing her mother was lying in it but unable to see her. The wooden frame of the bed was as high as Rose’s head; it seemed enormous. The armoire in the dimmed room was enormous too. All the furniture seemed to loom at her, as if it could tilt and fall if it wanted to. She had been told her mother was not well, and that she could visit the room to reassure herself, but she must be quiet and could only stay for a moment. Her mother was there, under the hump of sheet.
“Mama?” Rose said, quietly.
“Yes, dear,” her mother said, and coughed. Her voice sounded strangled, different. Rose knew this person was her mother because her father had told her it was, and because her mother had disappeared from the rest of the house, and from her daily life, so she had to be here.
Rose wanted to say, but she was still so young that she didn’t have so many words yet. She had tugged at the blankets, and was filled with infant rage. She remembered it, that rage, filling her mouth and eyes, pressing on her chest. After a while Maude or someone else came and got her.
At the funeral the minister was saying what a good person their mother, Adelaide Smith, had been. Oh yes, Rose thought, and the tears overwhelmed her, even though she had been trying to act grown-up. She didn’t care what her father said, it wasn’t right that God would take away a good person whose children needed her. “We have the gift of happy memories,” the minister was saying. “They will comfort us.” Easy for him to say.
Rose thought back to the happy times in between her mother’s illnesses when her mother could take her for a walk, just the two of them, while Maude was at school or playing with her friends. Her mother was a pale princess, almost borrowed, Rose had always felt. Bristol, Rhode Island, the small, beautiful New England town where they lived, was surrounded by water. It glittered in the sunshine, the air smelled of its presence. You were never more than a block away from water of some kind. Rose had never complained when she got tired on these walks, because being alone with her mother felt like a privilege. The two of them would stroll down Hope Street under the huge, arching elm trees, avoiding the Rubber Company plant with its smokestacks pouring black smoke, and make their way to the harbor to breathe in the fresh breezes and look at the activity. The harbor was very busy with imported goods being unloaded from the boats: molasses, and coal, and other things that made life go on. Her mother’s long skirts swirled around the tops of her dainty buttoned shoes. All summer long her mother dressed in white, and when they went out she always had a little parasol.
Sometimes they went to William’s butcher shop, to pick up something for dinner. Standing there inhaling the moist, sweetish smell of raw flesh always made Rose a little queasy. Her mother would get a thick, rich steak, marbled with fat and oozing juices, or a roast, or sometimes, for variety, Linguica, a spicy sausage the Portuguese people in town liked to eat, which her mother fried in their way with onions or peppers and then added a thin tomato sauce. When Adelaide was well she was a good cook. She made salted cod cakes with cream sauce, or mealy Johnny cakes with salt and pepper, which she served with a piece of fish. In summer she baked apple or berry pies, their buttery crust crumbling under the sweetened fruit.
Everyone was standing; it was time now to go to the cemetery.
I didn’t kill her,
Rose told herself.
God killed her.
In order to “take” her he had to kill her. I’m not so stupid as not to know that. Of course she could never tell anyone how she felt; you were supposed to love God, even when he killed your mother.
At the cemetery the family stood beside the grave in their family’s plot. Rose looked around, anywhere but at that open grave, and tried to think of other things.
Mama won’t mind if I don’t watch,
she told herself.
Mama loves me and she doesn’t want me to suffer any more than I do already.
There were the two tiny headstones of her older brothers, who had died before Rose was born. One had died of diphtheria, the other of pneumonia, a year apart, when they were not even three. Those were things people knew about, that were not mysteries. How badly her father had wanted another son, Rose knew. He had probably been disappointed to have had her. When Hugh was born, when she was five and Maude was ten, he had been thrilled.
She remembered that day. While her mother was in the bedroom with the midwife preparing to have Hugh, the door tightly shut, Rose and Maude were sent to help their father boil water. People always boiled water when a baby was being born, although Rose could not imagine why.
“What’s the water for?” Rose asked Maude.
“To keep Papa’s mind off what’s happening in there,” Maude said authoritatively.
“They boil water for no reason?”
“That’s the reason. So he won’t be nervous.”
“Why can’t they just cook?” Rose said, thinking how stupid customs were.
After this birth their father opened a bottle of champagne, to toast his new son.
And why shouldn’t he celebrate? Hugh was an attractive, charming child, beloved from the beginning and totally unspoiled by the attention and hugs and kisses he received from his sisters and mother, and the proud looks and smiles he got from his father. Most families weren’t demonstrative with children, except to beat them when they misbehaved, but no one ever needed to spank Hugh. Even as a toddler he was considerate, in his babyish way. He not only shared toys, he offered them. Before he had started school, he could already read. Rose looked over at wispy little Hugh, hiding behind his sturdy father. I still have my family, Rose told herself. We’ll stick together.
Maude had not let go of her hand, not in the church, and not now. Rose had always adored Maude. Maude was big and pretty and blond, with healthy, luminous skin the color of lamplight, and, because she was five years older, she could do everything better than Rose ever could. Maude brushed her long, thick hair a hundred strokes every night, and in the daytime she put it up in a pompadour in front, the rest tumbling down her back; half girl, half woman. She and her girlfriends looked at boys and whispered about them. Will Maude be my new mother, Rose wondered, and she tried not to cry again, because Maude was only fifteen.
Suddenly she wondered if anyone would ever love her as much as her mother had. She wasn’t the oldest, nearly a woman, like Maude, and she wasn’t the baby, like Hugh, whom everybody loved. She wasn’t the only boy and she wasn’t even the only girl. She was too skinny to be pretty—she’d heard that often enough—her hair was not golden like Maude’s nor raven dark and shiny like Huey’s, but simply an ordinary brown, and although her mother sometimes told her she had beautiful eyes, the color of cornflowers, she also knew that everyone in their family had eyes the same color. At least her mother had tried to make her feel special.
After the burial everyone went back to the Smith family’s house to eat covered casseroles the neighbors had brought over, and the adults drank whiskey. Their house was crowded with friends and relatives; even people they didn’t know very well seemed to be there. Although it was a sad occasion, eventually some of the little boys began to play tag among the heavy, dark furniture and were sent outside. Rose lost Maude, but several of her own friends from school were there. The adults were patting her and clucking over her, trying to cheer her up, and some were asking her to bring them glasses of lemonade as if giving her a chore would make her feel better, or maybe, Rose thought, they really just wanted her to wait on them.
“Here’s Rose, our town’s New Year’s Baby!” some of the grown-ups greeted her. She had been the first baby born in Bristol with the new century, on January first, 1900, and had gained a kind of celebrity from it as if it had something to do with her own accomplishments. Rose didn’t like it when people talked about when she had been a baby, but she smiled at them as if she did.
There by the food table was Tom Sainsbury, the older brother of her school friend Elsie, the one who had died of diabetes. Rose had recently developed a little crush on him, but being three years older and already a teenager he never seemed to see her, and she didn’t know what to say to him anyway. He was handsome and self-assured, with a winning grin that made people feel happy. Beautiful teeth, she thought, beautiful hair. You just had to notice him.
Now he came over to her. “I’m sorry about your mother,” he said. “It feels so terrible now, but it will be easier for you later. I know.”
How kind he was. Boys were hardly ever kind. “Thank you,” Rose said.
It was sad, she thought, that it took a tragedy like this for them to speak. She felt wicked even thinking about a boy at a time like this, and besides, she told herself sternly, she was much too young to think about a boy at all.
She wandered into the kitchen. There, in the cupboard, forgotten, was Hugh’s birthday cake from three days ago, from the day their mother had died. The sight of that box brought back more painful memories. Rose opened the box and touched her finger to the icing and tasted it, wondering if the cake was stale. It did taste old, a little, but not too badly.
On Hugh’s birthday their mother had been feeling ill again, upstairs in her darkened room, and could not bake the cake, so Rose and Maude had gone to Kisler’s bakery to buy one. The yeasty, sugary smell of bread and cookies baking made Rose’s mouth water. Mrs. Kisler was a widow whose husband had been the baker. He was a much older man and he had died suddenly a few years ago, leaving her the shop to run and a young son to raise. She had hired a baker to do the work her husband had done, and she ran the front of the shop and kept the books. She had no choice. People said she was lucky to have the bakery and still to be relatively young so she could work hard and not have to clean other people’s houses or depend on relatives to take her in.
Mrs. Kisler was a pleasant, fair-haired woman with bright pink spots of color on her narrow cheeks, and after the girls bought Hugh’s cake—chocolate with white creamy icing—she gave them free lemon cookies to eat while the baker put Hugh’s name on the cake with a pastry bag. “5,” he wrote, after Hugh’s name, and wreathed it with soft chocolate leaves.
“Do you think we should have made the cake ourselves?” Maude asked on the way home. “It would have seemed more thoughtful.”
“Oh, he won’t care,” Rose said. “This one is gorgeous. We could never have made anything that looked this nice.”
They entered their house and put the cake in the kitchen, hiding it in the cupboard so it would be a surprise. Then they heard men’s voices. One was their father’s—what was he doing home in the middle of the day?—and the other, they realized when they saw him come down the stairs, was the doctor’s.
They were used to seeing the doctor, but they had never seen this grim look on his face before. He gave a little shrug and left.
“What?” Maude screamed. Rose was frozen.
“Your mother is dead,” their father said.
Rose burst into tears. She had never felt so lonely and afraid. “I want to see her,” she gasped and ran up the stairs into her parents’ bedroom. Her mother was lying in bed the way she always had, but this time she didn’t look like their mother. Without life, she was a completely different person.
“Mama,” Rose cried, “come back.”
“Come away,” her father said, taking her by the shoulders.
The rest of the day was frantic; relatives coming, Hugh crying, Maude trying to comfort him. The cake was forgotten. They didn’t have the heart to even mention Hugh’s birthday, the words
too ironic now. The blown-up balloons floated above the banisters like a reproach, and the wrapped gifts looked trivial.