Six years ago after I graduated from high school my father took my brother Pete and me out to visit Mary, our mother, at Fairfield State Hospital. He drove us all the way back down to Connecticut, our first time we’d been there since the Christmas we left. Pete was already out of college then, a man grown, on his way to law school, but a small part of him held onto the hope he’d nursed since childhood. A few hours into the drive he asked quietly if she’d be better now. “Will we bring her back with us?” like they could just burn off the parts of her brain that made her a bad mother. I remembered though. I remembered all the other children and all their mothers waiting for them after school, cooking hot meals and hosting backyard birthday parties. I remembered why the other moms stopped inviting us, I remembered never bringing presents or cakes or party games. I still have the burns on my hands from learning how to cook when I was six years old.
But none of that is her fault. I kept telling myself that on the long drive to the state hospital while Dad talked on and on about his next fishing trip or some student he was trying to convince to go to college. I couldn’t hold it against her. She wasn’t a good mother. Not every woman can be. I would be though. She’ll sit in Fairfield for the rest of her life, but I would be a good mother. I held my secret down in my throat but it kept me buoyant beneath the weight of this chore. I was twenty-four, and a teacher, and tomorrow I’d be engaged to a man who’d gone to college. A man even my father would approve of, and we’d have children and I would be there for them every day. They’d have meals and new clothes and never have to learn to sew patches on their pants.
Mary just never liked any of those little signifiers of stability. I do, though. I like kitchens, I like cupboards. Drawers too – they provide a kind of security in how universally they’re used. Walk into any kitchen in any house and you’ll find silverware, dishes, pots and pans, pot-holders, even a can opener after opening not more than five cupboards and drawers. You become initiated to the most intimate workings of a family by walking in through their cupboard doors. You learn how they’ve come to organize their lives through their kitchens, and you learn how their kitchens are organized by sliding open three or four drawers.
My family wasn’t like that, but my family wasn’t really a normal family. Before we moved to Port Henry, Mary, my mother, never spent much time in the kitchen, and anyway, she didn’t care much for these universal signals of security. I guess she didn’t really care much for security, at all. You could see that just by walking into her kitchen. She kept the mail in the oven – she never even opened it, just flipped the oven door down and tossed the day’s mail right in. Our silverware drawer wasn’t divided the way I’m sure your’s is; it was just a drawer with a pile of forks and knives and spoons all mixed up inside. I remember having to be careful when I opened it. More than once a hidden steak knife sliced into my thumb when I was shuffling through after a fork. There were other examples, but I didn’t want to spend the drive remembering things Mary did wrong. She just wasn’t really interested in any of that household stuff. I didn’t blame her. I could practically take care of myself by the time my brother came along, and my Dad was always working, so she didn’t have much reason to hang out in the kitchen like other moms. Some people aren’t cut out to be parents, I guess, but it’s not like she had much choice. It was fifteen years ago, not like today. All a woman could be then was a mom. So she tried, just not very hard.
I like kitchens now though, in a way she never did. She avoided them, but I spend lots of time in them. I’ve been cleaning other people’s kitchens since we first moved to Port Henry. I hated pulling my father down, I hated seeing the stress of raising two kids all by himself, I hated asking him for things – why should he have had to buy me make up, or new clothes? So I cleaned all the kitchens in town, every summer. I could tell you where the fancy silver is hidden in every kitchen in every house for twenty miles.
The miles blew by and I remembered those first few weeks in Port Henry. I was devastated. All three of us were, though Dad tried not to show it. Port Henry is a brutal place in the winter, and being the new kid is hard in any school. I hated her for a long time for forcing us out of her life, for closing herself up so there was no room for us. I even hated Dad for taking us to a place so cold we couldn’t play in the snow without being afraid of losing fingertips.
We started at the grade school while my father became headmaster of the high school. I remember looking around from my desk and wondering where all the other students were – the classes were barely half the size of the ones we’d had in Connecticut. That first recess the teachers shuffled us out into the snow, all the other students used to the cold and wrapped in layers and layers of wool scarves and lined mittens and thick socks and heavy coats on top of sweaters on top of long johns. I walked out, clutching my coat over my one sweater with my bare fingers and saw them circled around something in the corner of the yard. I trudged over, doubled over against the wind, to investigate, and saw them throwing insults and snowballs at Petey.
“Where’s your coat?”
“Aww, he’s too poor for mittens?”
“Maybe he’d like a hat made of snow!”
I was suddenly hotter than I could bear. I shoved the boys aside with the strength of weeks, of months of held-back anger, of restrained fear, of sadness and bitterness and resentment I didn’t even know I’d been pushing down, down, down, below my gut, into my legs and my toes. All the emotion became strength and I threw boy after boy to the ground until I stood between my brother and his primary tormentor, a boy who’d been too busy hurling insults to hear me hurling away his friends. He opened his mouth to mock me too and suddenly my fist was covered in blood and two of his teeth were on the pavement. His face ran over with tears and snot and blood and I clenched and unclenched my fist and sneered at him.
“You cry like a girl.”
That memory made me smile at the car window. I looked into the front seat at my brother, at the man he was becoming. Twenty-one years old and on his way to law school in the fall. He’d wanted to serve, to leave school and go to Vietnam, but my father always told us that a man who makes his way with his hands will one day lose his hands, but a sharp mind will outlast arthritis every time.
So we went to school, the both of us. I finished and got my teacher’s certificate. I started at the grade school the same year my Dad retired from the high school. We had a joint party, and all our new friends from the town came out to our little house by the stream near the bottom of the mountain. They brought coolers in their pick-up trucks and we sat on the tailgates and cracked beers and listened to my father extoll the virtues of education to a skeptical audience of farmers. They liked him though, and their children respected him, so they listened to him good-humoredly. My father had spent his summers since the move building the picnic table that now stood full of all the food they’d brought. The younger kids climbed up into a treehouse over the stream that he’d built when he finished the picnic table. The men joked that he’d be building a whole village down here by the creek with all his new free time. That party stretched into the night the way all the parties up in these woods seemed to, and their mood gradually changed from festive to contemplative as my father, ever the professor, told them the ancient histories of the stars above them, while the glow of their cigarettes made new constellations closer to earth.
I watched the woods outside the car window blur into towns, and suddenly recognized the diner we had stopped at the day Dad took us away from our mother, the meagre Christmas dinner we’d had there, the waitress’s pity. He’d given me knitting needles. Girls were a foreign species to him; I was a little alien living in his house, and I think he thought I’d like them.
The sight of that diner, the memory of that day, jarred me out of my memories of the happiness we’d eventually found in Port Henry, once we’d become a part of our new home town. You may not know this, but when an eighth grade girl moves to a new town, then spends her first recess of her first day of school in that new town knocking the front teeth out of the biggest boy in that school, she finds it hard to make new friends, harder than it would have been even if she hadn’t punched anyone in the mouth, which is still considerably harder than many people think. Not only does she have trouble making female friends her own age, but the brother she’d spent every cent of social capital defending will do his best to distance himself from her, because apparently for a boy starting a new school in a new town, being mocked by the other boys is preferable to being defended by his sister. I was lonely for a long time. I watched Petey – no, it’s Pete now – make friends with the boys who’d stood next to the boy I’d punched, I even let them laugh at me at lunch time. The other girls thought me some kind of animal, the boys and girls alike derided me for being a ‘teachers’ pet’ because I’d already learned their course material at my old school in Connecticut, and even the teachers mistrusted me after I’d bloodied that boy’s face. I spent the rest of the year on my own, taking over the same household jobs I’d performed back home, even playing hostess when Pete brought his new friends over. He didn’t bring other kids over very often though; we lived far, so much farther away from any other house than I ever could have imagined back in Connecticut, where all the houses lined up neatly in little rows and the kids could pop from one to the other with barely a few minutes’ walk. Here, a visit meant a parent driving or a long bike ride.
By the time summer broke over the mountain town, hot and sudden, like an egg cracking open and dripping heat heavily down onto all of us, Pete was biking miles every day to see his various friends on the understanding he’d be home by dark. Dad, busying himself with various jobs around the property, noticed I never left with him, so he hired a woman to come in every couple days to clean the house and make us meals that we could store in the icebox for later in the week. He did it quietly, silently giving me permission to enjoy myself.
One evening as the sun disappeared behind the mountains of Keene and the blues in the sky darkened from marine to royal to navy, I looked up from Jane Eyre (I’d become a great lover of the Brönte sisters), expecting the familiar crunch of Pete’s bike tires on our gravel driveway, and realized I hadn’t heard it yet. I put my book on the grass, pages down, spine bent open – Dad was always yelling at me for leaving my books like that – and walked down to the road to see if I could spot him standing on his bike pedals, coasting downhill and home. He wasn’t there.
I turned and walked back up the driveway to tell Dad and was halfway to the house when I heard a car pulling up behind me. A rusty old pick-up stopped next to me and a tall boy, four or five years older than I was, got out of the driver’s seat and walked around to the bed of the truck while Pete, a friend of his I recognized from school, and a girl my age hopped out the other side. The tall boy lifted Pete’s bike out of the bed and set it down in front of us, while the girl started babbling.
“Hi, I’m so sorry we haven’t met yet, I’m Emily, I’m Bill’s big sister, Pete’s been coming to play with him at our house, it seems like they’re such great friends, I heard you’re new in town, you’ll be starting at the high school next year right? I just finished my first year there. I think you’ll really like it, everybody’s so much nicer, this is my other brother Howard, he’s gonna be a senior, is it true what Bill and Pete said about you punching out Buzz’s teeth? That must have been great, I wish I could have seen it, that boy was always so mean to Bill but they say he’s settled down now because he’s afraid of you.”
She paused for a breath so I decided to jump in.
“Yeah, I don’t know what came over me. I’m Ann, by the way. Thanks for bringing Pete home.” I glanced over her shoulder at her older brother. “Thank you, too.”
Bill and Pete were talking conspiratorially behind the pickup and Howard had leaned down to join them with a mischievous grin, but he looked up, still grinning, to raise his eyebrows at me
“Of course.” Emily and Howard replied together. She laughed. “Well, Pete can come over whenever he wants. You should come too, if you want. I can tell you everything about high school.” She grinned, and she and her brothers swung up into their truck. Pete and I stood side by side in the driveway and we all waved at each other as Howard threw his truck in reverse and roared back down the driveway.
The next morning I watched Pete leave on his bike from my blanket on the grass, where I laid reading and sunbathing. I’d already started cleaning the neighbors’ kitchens, and it only took my three weeks to save enough for one of the new two-piece bathing suits I’d seen at the store up in Plattsburgh. Dad was out back by the creek building a picnic table. About an hour after Pete left I heard the gravelly crunch of bike tires and jumped up, thinking something must have happened to Pete. Emily must have read the concern on my face as she skidded to a stop on the grass in front of my blanket.
“Oh don’t worry, it’s just me, Pete says you just lay out here and read when it’s sunny so I thought I’d come join you. It can get so loud over at home with the boys running all over the place and if my mom tries to teach my how to knit one more time I swear I’ll put a knitting needle through my eye! Look, I brought all the new magazines. I love your two-piece! Do you like mine?”
She peeled off her T-shirt and skirt and did a quick twirl, then pulled her bag off her bike handles and sat down, spreading out the new Vogue, Harpers, Elle, and a pair of gossip magazines about movie stars. I was stunned. I tucked away my tattered old novel and tried to compose my face to look not all surprised to find myself hanging out with a glamorous girl reading brand new magazines.
We pored over the pictures of every magazine at least a hundred times and talked about whether John Lennon was cuter than Mick Jagger until the sun beat down on us from directly above. I could’ve stayed out there forever. She was thirsty though, and not shy about anything.
“Oh it’s so hot, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you just love a pop? Do you have any Coke? Pete says you don’t have a mom, so who buys your groceries? Is it your Dad? Does he buy Coke?”
“Oh,” I replied as casually as I could, “we have a girl who brings groceries, and yes, silly, she buys Coke! Let’s go get some.”
Sitting in the car remembering that afternoon, I wished I would have just said no. No, we don’t have a mom. No, we don’t have Coke. We don’t even have groceries. We should just sit on this blanket for ever and never, ever, go inside.
But the memory played on in my head like a film I couldn’t control.
We strolled into the house in our two-pieces, carefree and sun-stoned, drunk on youth and each other and green grass and blue sky. The maid stopped us in the kitchen.
“What are you two doing, walking around like that? You look like brazen harlots!” Have I mentioned the maid was about 105 years old? Emily was unfazed, as ever.
“Hello, ma’am, I’m Emily, I’m a friend of Ann’s, and we were just sunbathing and we got a little warm out there so we were wondering if we might have some Coca-Cola’s please?”
The maid stared at my new friend like she was some new form of trial sent by God himself to torture her, then she looked over at me.
“I’ll give you two pops now, but you know that means you can’t have any for your lunch today or tomorrow. Your father isn’t Jay Rockefeller to be spending a fortune on Coca-Cola.” She turned to the icebox and pulled out two glass bottles. I felt all the life go out of me like juice from a grape, and I was convinced I would wither up like a raisin right there from the shame, but instead Emily took them both, handed one to me, and said, polite as ever, “Thank you ma’am.” I had never felt truly less than another person until that moment. I’d always known that my family had less than other families, a mother for example, but I always took a kind of pride in our ability to pull together, to hold onto each other and lift ourselves above our lack.
Even remembering that moment, years later in the car as we drove to Connecticut to visit my mother at Fairfield, my cheeks burned red with the shame. After that I always went over to Emily’s in the mornings when the maid was at our house. I couldn’t stand her knowing how conscious we had to be of everything we spent. It made me feel too small, too powerless.
I didn’t even tell her I cleaned kitchens, but she must have known. In a town as small as Port Henry everyone knows everything, and I was cleaning almost every kitchen in the town. I spent most of my afternoons washing dishes and scrubbing floors, slowly saving money, then going back over to Emily’s so I could ride my bike home with Pete. I learned about other families that summer, the kinds of families I’d only ever seen from the outside, the kind of families I’d always tried to emulate. I learned that there are many types of messes. Some messes build up gradually, eroding the cleanliness of a home like the sea hitting the shore; shoes track mud in every day and every day only some of that mud gets swept up, dishes get scrubbed after every meal but out of habit rather than a motivation to see them clean, so grime builds up there as well. Dust accumulates under cupboards, in the backs of cabinets. Fingerprints gather around doorknobs and nobody quite knows when they got there. These are the kitchens of busy families, families with too many things to do or talk about or care about to bother with these little details.
Other kinds of messes happen quickly; a kitchen can go from spotless to covered in the detritus of argument overnight. Sometimes these messes got cleaned up immediately and desperately, the most obvious signs covered up by a broom and a dustpan, but sometimes they were left out for me when I walked in to clean in the morning. I learned the secret scandals of the town that way, picking up shards of broken porcelain plates from under kitchen tables, scrubbing smears of food off of flowered wallpaper. I learned to keep these discoveries quiet, too. I already knew the desperation of covering up family secrets, and I was afraid for the families whose kitchens were in constant disarray. I was afraid that they would turn out like mine, so I swept and scrubbed all the evidence of those fights away. I scrubbed until the floor shone.
As I watched the sun setting from the backseat of the car, I remembered how that first summer in Port Henry melted into August, bringing me closer to my first year of high school. I spent more time over at Emily’s, watching Bill and Pete shoot each other with homemade slingshots and waiting around the driveway to watch Howard come home in his pick-up, sweaty and coated in dirt from a day at the farm. As soon as the dust settled around his truck’s tires the younger boys were at his door, wanting his stories, his attention, his respect, his love. You know how young boys are around older ones. Howard was always patient with them, even though he was just coming home from a long day planting, tending, harvesting, caring for and eventually slaughtering a herd of cattle, a pen of pigs. That afternoon he was covered in grease. The boys trailed after him like a pair of ducklings when he strode over to the blanket Emily and I shared on the grass in front of their house. He practically collapsed as he sat down and wiped the back of his hand across his brow – all those years, and sitting in that car on that long ride down to Connecticut I could still remember every moment of that afternoon – and left a broad smear of grease across the top of his face. Emily laughed at him as he pulled out a cigarette.
“You look a right mess, Howie! What’d they have you doing out there today?”
“Why don’t you run in the house and grab me a Coke? I had to fix that damn tractor again. I been telling ol’ Hank that engine needs replacin’ but the stingy bastard’d rather have me out there hammering it back together every time it falls out of line. Here, Bill, I brought you and Pete a present.” He swung the boys an old horseshoe and they chased it eagerly. I noticed suddenly how long Pete’s legs were growing, how tall he seemed, like he’d grown half a foot that summer.
Howard laid back on the grass, and Emily winked at me as she flounced up and sauntered into their house to grab him a pop.
I smiled out the window of the car at the memory of that wink. How could she have known? Emily always just knew. I remembered being so flustered, so terrified of this grimy man barely out of adolescence, in truth only four years older than I was, lying in the grass and sweating next to me, breathing deep in between long pulls on his cigarette. And that damn Emily, she must have stayed in the house half an hour ‘getting him a Coke.’ I swear, Emily always knew.
He took a deep breath when he sat up and looked down at the smears of black grease across his white t-shirt and spread down his worn Levi’s, then he looked over at me, still sitting petrified on the blanket in the two-piece I’d been wearing to sunbathe. Every thought I’d ever had exploded in my head in that moment but thank God none of them made it to my lips. He looked around our blanket at the fashion magazines and gossip rags and laughed his easy laugh.
“Looks like Emily’s making sure you’re well prepared for school. This is some real heavy reading.”
His laugh was like an airborne disease, I breathed it in and it blossomed in my lungs and bubbled past my lips.
“Yyeah… I don’t usually read this kinda’ stuff, but the pictures are beautiful, and Emily always has the newest ones…”
I stacked the magazines and spread them out again, looked at them like I hadn’t even noticed them before he did. He watched my hands then looked back up at my face.
“And what kinda’ stuff do you usually read, Miss Ann?”
“I… I just finished Jane Eyre. I read Wuthering Heights before that, but now I’m reading Sense and Sensibility. My Dad’s a professor, or, he was, now he’s the headmaster here, so he’s had me reading since I was really little.”
“I know your Dad. I just finished at his school, remember? So you like English novels then? Have you read the Russians at all? I read a Tolstoy last year that I bet you’d like if you like the Bröntes – ”
“And what could you two possibly have to talk about? Ann’s smart, Howard. She’s way out of your league.” Emily teased as she sat down on the blanket and handed us both cold glass bottles of Coke. Howard popped his open with his cigarette lighter and handed it to me, so I traded him mine.
“None of your, business, Em. Tell me, do you think Mick will ever get back together with Bianca?” He asked her and winked at me.
“Ohmygod I don’t know what he’s doing! She is soo beautiful and he’s just wasting his time running around with that- hey!”
She broke off when Howard started laughing, grabbed up a magazine and made to hit him about the face with it.
“Easy, easy! We were just joking, weren’t we, Miss Ann?” he laughed as he pushed his sister off him and stood up. “Well thanks for the pop, ladies, it’s been great, but I need a shower. Em, did mom cook anything yet?”
“You know mom. She’s been cooking for hours but we’ll get nothing ’til Dad gets home.” Emily and her brother both rolled their eyes, apparently a family skill they’d both inherited.
“Alright. Well, good evening Miss Ann. If you and Pete want a ride back down to your house later, just holler.”
Once he was safely inside and loudly begging a snack from their mother, Emily leaned in toward me breathlessly.
“Alright, Ann – tell me everything. Are we going to be sisters?”
I muffled a laugh behind my hand in the car so I wouldn’t interrupt Pete and Dad debating the finer points of real estate law. How had Emily known? She had known, though. And after this overnight visit to Mary, after the horror of the Connecticut State Hospital, Howard would come to our little house with a bottle of my Dad’s favorite vodka and ask to come inside. They would sit at the kitchen table and talk as men, and by the end of the night I would be engaged.
The patter of conversation in the front of the car slowed to meditative halt. I looked up and saw Pete staring out his window and my father’s hand tight around the steering wheel, both of them wearing matching scowls. Funny, how their eyebrows knit together in exactly the same way. Fathers and sons. Maybe my sons would have Howard’s easy laugh. I looked back out the window and gathered in our environment. We were coming up on Fairfield. That explained their sudden quiet. The grounds were beautiful, that much at least could be said for them. The hospital was a converted estate, donated by some Astor or Rockefeller or other bastion of American finance who probably had a daughter he wanted to lock away. All cut granite stones and leaded windows, peaked roofs and manicured gardens. We drove through the thousand-times-painted wrought iron gates and up the long driveway directly in front of the estate. I felt like I was driving up to one of Gatsby’s parties, right up to the number of crazy people and drunks inside. Dad pulled around back and parked, and we all seemed to find excuses to take our time getting out of the car. The walk to Mary’s room was a blur of nurses and orderlies in head-to-toe-white, security guards, long hallways with locked doors at both ends. A nurse led us through the labyrinth to Mary’s room and knocked twice on her door before opening it for us. We all stood in the hallway, suddenly unsure what the appendages at the ends of our arms were for, should we holding something? Should we have brought her something? Did she deserve anything?
“Alright, Mary is ready to see you. You can go in now. I’ll be right outside this door if you need anything.” The nurse swung the door open for us and stepped back and we filed in, Dad with his head bowed, Pete looking in every direction, trying to absorb every detail. The room was painted a slightly warm hue of white, and boasted two twin beds and a large window overlooking the gardens. Mary was sitting up on one of the beds; we sat in a row facing her on the other.
She picked at her fingers in her lap, and looked out the window. Pete leaned his elbows on his knees and stared at her expectantly. I tried to remember the last time I had seen her, twelve years old spying through a slatted wood door, and evaluated how she had changed, if she had changed at all. Dad looked at us, then at her, and opened his mouth to speak.
She turned from the window and beat him to it.
“Hello. Thank you for coming to see me.”
Dad’s mouth snapped shut. I don’t know what he had expected, but it apparently did not include gratitude. He composed himself to respond.
“Well, I thought I should bring the kids around now that you’re… cured.” He measured his words uncomfortably.
“We wanted to see you, Ma. It’s been so long, how have you been? Do you like it here? How are they treating you? You look like you’re doing pretty well. We got all kinds of news- ” Pete gushed, but caught himself when Dad put a gentle hand on his leg.
Mary took a deep breath. “Thank you Petey. I think about you kids every day. You too, Ann. Every day. And now here you are, all grown up. Look at you, you’re a woman now. And Petey, you got so tall, I,” she breathed again, heavily, leaned back against the wall and concluded on a sigh “I can’t wait to hear your news.”
Dad cleared his throat, “Well I just retired this spring from the high school up north, and- ”
“Does that mean you’ll be moving back here? Closer? Back to Connecticut, I mean?” Mary cut in.
“No,” Dad said, maybe a little too sharply I thought, like he was talking to one of his students, “no, Mary, it doesn’t. We have a home there. Pete will be moving though, to go to law school down in New York, and Ann- ”
“Oh Petey,” she interrupted him again, “oh Petey, that’s wonderful. You know, I do have some legal questions, maybe you could help me go over some papers later, just a few things-”
“And Ann,” Dad raised his voice just the slightest degree, and I could tell he was losing patience, “Ann has become a teacher. She teaches at the grade school there. So, no, we will not be leaving Port Henry.”
All three of them looked over at me, sitting on the edge of the twin bed with my hands in my lap. I remembered everything I’d wanted to tell this woman who had been my mother, all the things I’d wanted, needed to ask her about why she had hurt us, refused to love us, to raise us. I remembered every impulse I had ever had to hurt her back, to cut her the way she had cut me and leave her with scars that matched the ones that had grown inside me. I looked into her eyes and remembered every friend I couldn’t invite over because I didn’t want them to see her drunk or passed out in our kitchen in Connecticut, every time another parent looked at me with pity because they all knew the failure of this woman who had been my mother.
She lowered her eyes from mine slowly and said “Congratulations, Ann. You were always so good with Petey, I’m sure you’re a wonderful teacher.”
I stared at her, cowed on the edge of her little twin bed in this little white room with its’ window and its’ door that locked from the outside, and I didn’t feel anything at all. I grabbed up my purse, stood up, and looked over at my brother and my father, at my Family.
“I’ll meet you at the car,” I announced, and walked out of that little white room, through the maze of white hallways and locked doors, my shoes clicking on the white linoleum, and pushed through the last set of doors onto the lawns. I kept my head up and walked proudly, with quick, sure steps, over to my father’s car. I stood with my back to it, felt its’ reassuring solidity and the warmth it had absorbed from the sun, slid down the side of it until my knees hid my eyes, and cried. I pushed my knees into my eye sockets until it hurt, knowing that my eyeliner and mascara would stain my white tights but not caring, and I pushed out every sob from the bottom of my lungs. It was over quickly, and when I stood up I cleaned my face off in the side mirror of the car with the scarf I had tied around my purse, a graduation gift from Emily, and when I straightened up I felt nothing at all. I waited next to the car, holding my purse in front of me, until my family came walking out.
The drive back seemed to go by more quickly than the drive down, but maybe it was the darkness covering the landscape that made it pass more easily. My brother and I both offered to take turns driving, at one point Pete insisted so fiercely I thought he and Dad would really fight about it, but Dad had decided he would drive and even Pete knew that Dad could only be pushed so far once he’d made up his mind. We didn’t get home until after midnight. I heated up a meal the maid had left in the icebox and we ate silently. I wondered whether Pete had gone on talking to Mary, if he had told her about his outstanding grades at Syracuse and his plans for law school and his friend Bill in Vietnam. I wondered if Dad had told her that we had become a part of a community here, and they didn’t look down on us for her irresponsibility. I supposed Pete had been younger when we left, and I remembered that those first weeks in Port Henry he talked at night, when we laid in our beds, about when Mom would come up and live with us. Probably that hope never left him. Even Dad, he knew Mary before she failed us, had seen something in her to love, to marry. Maybe he loved her the way I loved Howard, and was as surprised by her decline as anyone. Or maybe he saw the seeds of it in her even when they were young, and blamed himself for putting me and Pete through it. I guess I could have asked them then, that night as we numbly sat eating re-heated food left for us by the stranger who cleaned our clothes and cooked our food. I could have asked them what they felt. But I didn’t ask, because I didn’t feel anything about Mary, and I didn’t want to. I wanted us to be quiet. I wanted my head and my heart to be quiet. I wanted to turn around to look at my family’s past and only see quiet peace.