In the months following Abe’s death, folks came out of the woodwork to offer their condolences and heartfelt aid to a widow in mourning.They brought casseroles and crockpots of food, cakes and pies and breads.They sent their husbands to do the yard and inspect every inch of the house to see everything was in good working order.They took the kids for ice cream and snow cones, showered them with clothes and toys.And many nights, pairs of women showed up at the doorstep, Bibles in hand, for coffee and prayer, when all I truly wanted to do was mummify in the bed and let the ache throb away in my body until sleep came.
Slowly, the visits tapered off to a phone call once a week, but the sad smiles and knowing pats on the hand have never stopped.No matter where I go or what I’m doing, every eye meets me with an acknowledgement I am a poor, fragile flower who must be appreciated and handled ever so gently.
It’s been three years now.Gracie does not remember her father.She insists she does, and when the others are gathered around a photograph, recalling things Abe said or did that particular day, she makes up memories to talk about along with the rest.
It may be terribly unhealthy to allow her to continue creating her own past with her father, but we allow her to, because the alternative is confusion and emptiness.Gracie’s just now learning to dress herself and brush her own teeth.She doesn’t need to be faced with the concept she is the only one in the family who has a past with no memories of her father.
So we let her believe.Just like I let everyone else in Roe believe life ended for me when Abe’s life ended.Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if they paid no attention to me at all.I’d prefer it if the rest of the town would simply let Abe go and never again mention our marriage.But that’s as likely as Abe’s resurrection.
The reception is in full swing, and everyone under the age of 75 is well on their way to drunk.The girls are having a ball chasing after the Meyer’s twins, fetching them cake and cookies whenever they holler for them.Jake mills around the DJ, watching him cycle through CDs, thumbing through the volumes of albums.
I’ve been sitting at the “young mothers” table, tuning out the conversation about how wonderful Dr. Polk is, how he delivered three generations of healthy babies in the Jameson family, how he drops everything to tend to the needs of Ethan and Cryer—and how awful (Dr.) Ted (Stanton) is, how he’s misdiagnosed every illness that’s come through his office, how he should just shave off that combover, how he ought to “move on back to Lake Charles where he came from, because nobody needs him here.”
Dr. Stanton delivered Nanna and Gracie, too, and his combover didn’t bother me one bit.And it was on a thundery Thanksgiving Day when his car battery died in the hospital parking lot, because he was in such a rush to get to the third floor, he left his windshield wipers running.He delivered Gracie in two hours, and when he was satisfied she was fit as a fiddle, he apologized and explained he must rush off to his mother’s house in Pineville.
He found out soon enough he wouldn’t be rushing anywhere with a dead battery, and Abe drove him to Dean’s Auto Shop in the pouring rain to buy a new one.
Dr. Stanton was so grateful, and his mother was, too.She sent us her special carrot cake, “With Thanks and Blessings” for seeing to it her son made it home for the holiday.It was the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted in my life, even better than Aunt Georgia’s.
And yet, Mother Stanton’s carrot cake won’t bring the doctor business.It wouldn’t surprise me at all if those young mothers and their mothers, too, forced Dr. Stanton back to Lake Charles, with all their talk.As long as the Graves children were in Roe, however, he’d have at least five patients, and very grateful ones at that.
A series of chimes rings from a champagne glass, and Greg Weiner, the groom Miller’s best man, squeezes between the bridal couple, microphone in one hand, beer bottle in the other.His cheeks are the color of tomato, and sweat gleams on his forehead.
“Alright, folks!Getcher drinks, now!”
The Meyer’s twins ignore Greg and trot around the dancefloor in their ballet shoes, but as Patience rounds the corner, I call to her to grab her sisters and come sit by me.There are pouts, but no protests.Out of breath and shivering with energy, they fill the empty chairs at our table.Jake waves at me from behind the DJ, and I nod permission to let him maintain his independent position across the room.
Greg whispers something into the groom’s ear, and his face flushes a shade brighter.He launches into a gut laugh but manages to compose himself as someone whistles near the wine table and yells something mildly obnoxious.
“You hush, Red,” he says into the mic.“I know what I’m doin’.”
Brenda rolls her eyes, grinning with feminine condescension.
Greg’s smile disappears.He bows his head and sighs.“This is a sad day,” he says.“A sad, sad day for the young men of Roe.”
“Lord have mercy, what is he doin’.”The mother next to me clicks her tongue.
“You see, Shane here knows every one of us would like to be in his shoes right now—Brenda, you’re beautiful.”
“But…the best man won!”
“Well, I guess technically, the best man didn’t win—the groom did—but…”
“You two were meant for each other, and I wouldn’t give up my best friend to anyone else, Brenda.You two have a wonderful life together.And let’s see some babies!”
Noise erupts, and I suddenly feel sick to my stomach.Patience shouts to me above the laughter, “Mommy, can we go play again?”
I nod, but grab Gracie’s hand before she can run off.I leap from my seat and pull her along behind me, praying to make it to the toilet before I empty my gut.
In the stall, Gracie stands behind me in silence, staring at me with fingers in her mouth.I have a death grip on the metal bar on the wall, and the other hand is at my hair, holding back a few strands that have come loose from the clip.The gurgling sounds of my hacking reverberate, amplified by the cold emptiness.
I see the reflection of the silk orchid in the toilet water, muddied by spit and stomach acid.Tears drip from my eyes, and I smear them away with the back of my hand, oddly comforted by the fact I hadn’t had time to put on any eye makeup, so there would be no smudges.
I rip a handful of paper from the roll and dry my eyes and mouth, breathing deeply before standing with utmost caution.Gracie gazes at me, face bright with fear.
“It’s okay, Gracie,” I say.“Follow me.Let’s go wash our hands and get cleaned up.”
We stand together wordlessly at the sink.She watches me in the mirror as I squeeze out a generous amount of soap onto our hands.I turn on the faucet full force and scrub our hands together, then wrists, and upper arms, too.
The water is warm, and I miss my bathtub desperately.I decide, as soon as the kids are in bed, I’ll run the tub as full as it can be and spend a good hour or two soaking in the silence.I begin to devise ways to make our exit.It would be easy if I told anyone I just spent the last ten minutes throwing up, but that would be way too much cause for concern, and who knows what they might conclude.Instead, I resolve to stick it out at least until .That’s only an hour away, and no one argues with bedtime.
I rip a yard of paper towels from the roll and pat our hands dry.Gracie leans her head against me and returns her fingers to her mouth.She wraps the other arm around my leg and pats me the way I do when I’m comforting her.
She is so much like her father, peaceful and affectionate.Abe was a man of few words, but I never felt too much of the silence.When he was home from overseas, he stayed close, a hand on my back at the stove, a child in his lap on the couch, roughing up Jake’s hair in passing.His eyes were always open, watching for a need, waiting to offer a hand at any moment.
Gracie’s too young to remember Abe’s ways and mannerisms, but I can see already, out of all the children, she is most like him.
I smooth her hair away from her face and straighten the bow in her hair.I flatten her collar and check to see that the hem of her dress is turned down as it should be.
“Come on, Sweetie.Let’s go find Jake,” I say, leading her back to the reception.I check my watch..
Sympathy is something of which I’ve never had much understanding.Neither the hardship that warrants it, at least in the sense there might come a time in life when one acknowledges regret for whatever work her hands are obliged to do.Mother never gave me the idea there was any other choice but to own my lot and work it with the strength and sense God gave me.And she certainly never implied I might be thanked, lauded, or pitied for whatever work I might do.If we broke it, we fixed it.If we baked it, we ate it.If we buttered it, we laid in it.And if we filled the house, then by God, we kept it like an angel in the Lord’s mansion.
When Jake was born, I didn’t whine for lack of sleep.When Patience was born, I didn’t lament a lost figure.When Annie was born, I didn’t pine for vanquished youth.With Nanna, I didn’t protest my station, and with Gracie, I didn’t “What-If.”Even when Abe was gone and there was free license to question the Universe, I didn’t, because Mother taught me such self-pity betrayed my God-given intelligence and was an utter waste of time, energy, and potential.
It’s hard to say I survived.Naturally, losing Abe was an agony unimaginable and unparalleled, but a person isn’t proud of herself for breathing.We just breathe because we can’t not breathe.And we just keep going because we can’t willfully, spontaneously die.Certainly, it took a long time to claw my way out from the belly of Abe’s crypt, and I did leave a pound or two of flesh and heart behind me in the clammy soil.But I never doubted I’d stand on solid ground again; somebody had to pull the kids out.
So when Aunt Georgia continues to gaze on me with that pained heartbreak at the corners of her brows, I’m not exactly able to absorb her warmth as I’m sure she intends.And when a gentle hand trembling with sincerity is placed on my shoulder after the umpteenth retelling of the story of Abe’s passing, I am never quite able to equally return the embrace.
I lower my eyes, because it’s humble and polite; I tilt my head because it’s comely and genteele; and I offer my thanks in a whisper, because that is what everyone does when they’re speaking of death.Everyone but Mother and I.
As expected, bottle-blonde Clarice Rhine gave us the pleasure of yet another rendition of From this Moment.She took to the microphone with a misty-lashed expression of overwhelm that seemed—to the untrained eye—brand new.But I’d seen the same token-tender smile on Clarice’s face just three months before, at Dayton Owen’s wedding—same song, same dress, different color.It was a wonder to me that there wasn’t more variety in the song list, or at least her presentation.But it’s well understood that the people of Roe are creatures of habit, and I was probably the only one within a 100-mile radius who was sick to death of Clarice’s best Shania Twain.
“Murray’s daughter has a lovely voice.”Miss Olivia leaned toward her husband, nodding her admiration.
Jake stifled a yawn and stretched his shoulders.For a moment, I considered demanding his earphones so I wouldn’t have to listen to I Swear, but what kind of example would that be?Instead, I studied the back of Miss Olivia’s head, pondering how she was able to get every curl the exact same circumference.
Finally, Clarice ended her last song.Applause rippled through the room, and when the Miss Helen began to play the piano, in streamed a current of ballet pink organza.I recognized each girl as the lively little gems in Brenda Stark’s social tiara and was unimpressed.Sadly, Jake seemed very much impressed, and he sat upright in his seat a little taller than before.I chalked it up to normal injudicious teenaged impulse and reassured myself it would wear off long before his own bride would trek the same path.And hopefully, if I prayed hard enough, his wife-to-be would be cut from an entirely different selection of cloth than were the bridesmaids of Brenda’s.
Doreen Meyer’s twins stumbled in next, decked in so much tulle, their rosy little faces were hardly visible.They flung flower petals from their baskets as if they were disemboweling a goosedown pillow, and their preschool aggression was only encouraged by the collective “Awwww…” that hummed around them.
Annie, Nanna, and Patience were no exception.They thought the Meyer’s twins were cute as a button, and no doubt, my girls were at that moment caught up in the fantasy of rose petals and petticoats.Annie beamed at the twin who passed closest to our pew, and when a petal fluttered down to her shoe, she carefully retrieved it and ever so tenderly placed it in her palm of her hand.I was sure the tiny souvenier was destined for Annie’s jewelry box, to keep the company of a pet rock, a long-deceased june bug, and sundry bits of metal and plastic collected over the few years of her life self-aware.
How unfortunate there would never be a mutual admiration there.The Meyer’s twins would never sit audience to the Graves girls in procession, and even if they might, they’d pay no attention to the aisle.Rather, they’d spend the time digging in their mother’s purse for Lifesavers and dollar bills, or taking turns crawling onto the pew to make faces at other fidgety children on the other side of the room.
Suddenly, the urgent wail of the organ broke like a battle cry.We rose to our feet, and all eyes turned to the chapel doors.There stood the bride Starks-soon-to-be-Miller in all her Hall-of-Fame splendor.Another collective sigh rolled through the room, and behind us, a camera clicked away like a swarm of crickets.
True to the press release and the family budget, Brenda was a gorgeous bride.Her slim torso seemed to float in midair above a cloud of winter white silk, and the warm glow of the new recessed lighting—courtesy of Jim Tyler & Sons Custom Construction—poured over her pale bare shoulders.
A crown of diamonds arched through her gleaming blonde hair, sparkling like a constellation above her smiling face.Her veil was as light and airy as incense smoke and spilled down her back, disappearing into the pools of material behind her.
“They must be so proud.”For once, Miss Olivia’s commentary was on the money, judging from the tears that had already found their way to Mr. Stark’s cheeks.
Indeed proud.But how else would it have turned out for Brenda?I was no teller of fortunes, nor was I a woman of exceptional insight, but I knew beyond the shadow of any doubt that Mrs. Brenda Miller would no time soon stand at her husband’s memorial, wondering how on earth fairytale could so easily become massacre.