The taxi ride home pulled me back to what felt like another life. My high school soccer field where I stood during phys. ed. class hoping I wouldn't be picked last again, the third floor art room window where I'd wait outside the door waiting for Mr. Silveri to show up so I could avoid Richard Faulk's torment and the Buffalo Zoo that Dad had taken us kids to seemed held in the past.
The driver turned into my neighborhood where the houses built back in the early 1900s stood with purpose. Their front porches stretched across their facades with ornate woodwork and bay windows with leaded glass. My family home stood proudly amongst all the others.
The cab pulled up to the curb in front of the house. Cynthia's car sat in the driveway. I paid the driver, retrieved my suitcase from the trunk and for a moment, stood looking up at my childhood home. It hadn't changed much over the years even though we had. We were not the same family I remembered from my childhood, not nearly as secure in our regard for one another but at the same time still connected and trying to maintain a sense of family.
I drew one deep breath in before I entered the house. I wondered how different it might feel to be around motherless siblings and my father in his new role as a widower.
Dad and Claire were sitting close on the sofa and the first to see me as I walked through the front door.
"Charles! You're here... you made it," Dad called out, and started to push himself up from the sofa.
"Dad, stay put... don't get up." I left my suitcase by the front door, walked over to Dad and leaned in for an awkward hug. His boney fingers tapped lightly on my back.
"So good to see you," he said.
Claire was up, standing next to me waiting for a hug. I wrapped my arms around and felt her frailty. "Claire, you look good." I could smell her earthiness, fresh and simple. She gave me one last little squeeze before we separated. "I've missed you, Charlie," she said softly, almost as though it were a secret.
"...And I've missed you too," I whispered.
From the kitchen door, I heard, "Well, look who finally made it!" Cynthia stopped halfway into the living room, wringing a kitchen towel in her hands. "We wondered what happened to you." There was a moment where I thought maybe she'd walk over to me, or I should go to her, for at least a little pat on the arm, but we each stayed rooted in place, Cynthia wrenching the towel. "Although, I guess we shouldn't be surprised." She half chuckled as she spoke but there was no levity in her voice.
"My plane was delayed in Dallas. I'm sorry. There was nothing I could do."
Dad jumped in. "It doesn't matter," he said. "You're here now and that's what counts."
"Well, I suppose you're right, Daddy," Cynthia said. "I'd love to stay and chat but Robert and the girls are waiting at home. We'll catch up tomorrow." Cynthia walked over to the coat closet.
"Okay... sounds good," I said. It didn't surprise me that moments after my arrival, Cynthia was leaving. "Say hello to Robert and the clan for me."
She draped the kitchen towel over the back of an arm chair, pulled her coat from the front closet and rifled through her purse. "Now, Claire. You remember the routine for tonight? You know where Daddy's medication is, right? I've written down exactly what he gets when. And tonight is his bath night, remember? Not so hot this time." She pulled her car keys from her purse, walked over to Dad and gave him a brusque peck on the top of his head. "Okay Daddy, you listen to Claire now. She's in charge! Charlie, keep an eye on your sister, will you? I'll pop back in in the morning." She walked over to the front door and left without a goodbye closing the door harder than was necessary. For a moment, the three of us were silent, as though waiting for some kind of residual fallout. Dad was the first to speak.
"Jesus. Does she think I'm helpless? I can take my own damn bath!"
I glanced over at Claire. She looked confused now that Dad had thrown a twist into the evening's routine. It was a look of, but I'm the one who was supposed to be in charge. Claire caught my eye and I smiled, shrugging my shoulders helplessly.
I woke early the next morning feeling as though I'd been pulled back in time. The LaSalle banner from homecoming still hung on the wall and the model airplane, half assembled, that Dad helped me with when I was ten years old, still sat on the shelf above my desk collecting dust. The same bed, same rug, same posters of my favorite race car drivers and rock bands were still plastered to each wall. This was no longer my life. My life was with Stan, in Texas and even though as a child I had once found refuge in this room, it now left me feeling awkwardly distanced.
The house was still as I made my way downstairs and into the kitchen. Someone was up already and had made coffee. I glanced outside and saw Dad, still in his pajamas and robe sitting on the back porch with a cup of coffee in one hand and a smoke in the other.
I opened the French doors leading out to the porch.
"Morning, Dad. Feel like some company?"
"Charles... sure, have a seat."
I pulled an old Adirondack chair up alongside Dad. For a moment, we sat quietly, looking out over the back yard and listening to the creek that bordered our property.
I sipped my coffee and looked over. "You sleep okay?"
His cigarette hung tentatively from his lips, its ash about to drop into his lap. "Tossed and turned a lot," he said. "I kept reaching over for your mother."
"I can imagine." I felt at a loss for words.
Neither of us spoke for a moment. Quite honestly, I didn't know what I could say.
"It happened so quickly," he said. "Damn, three days ago we were shopping at the mall." Dad took a sip of his coffee and gazed out over the yard. "And now, poof... she's gone."
Poof, I thought. Made it sound like some kind of illusion, not real. Poof - a dove appears from a handkerchief, poof - a rabbit is pulled from a hat, poof - Mom is dead.
"Did you have time with her at the hospital... time alone with her... before she..." I couldn't bring myself to say "before she died" or "before she passed on."
"I sent your sisters out of the room at the end. Your mother and I had a few moments alone." Dad butted his cigarette out in the ashtray and cleared his throat. "I'm not sure if she could still hear me but I talked and held her." Dad cupped his coffee in his hands. "Damn, I slobbered all over the poor woman." He chuckled to himself, letting a moment of sadness flicker away. "What the hell am I supposed to do now?" he asked. "Did you know this coming Thursday would have been our 50th? What is that... gold or something?"
"I'm not sure, Dad." He looked over and smiled but it seemed more for my benefit. "I guess now, you let time do its thing," I said.
Dad gazed down into his coffee cup. "You know, I wish I'd been more attentive over the years." He tapped his fingers lightly on the side of his cup. "Guess I was too busy trying to support the family."
"You did the best you could, Dad." I waited a few seconds before I asked, "Claire still in bed?"
"No, she was up when I came down. She went for a walk. I told her to take her phone with her."
"I didn't get a chance to talk with her last night but she seems like she's doing alright. She has a pretty good support system in California, doesn't she?"
"From what I hear, but that never stopped me or your mother from worrying about her. We knew there was something different about her early on. She was so withdrawn, almost as though she was afraid to talk," he said.
I knew what Dad was talking about. We all knew. Claire was the flower child of the family, the middle child and in some ways the untethered one. It seemed to take one extra beat for things to sink in for Claire, but it was clear that Mom and Dad loved her no less or more than Cynthia and me.
"There's something so innocent about that girl," Dad said. "It's as though she lives in a bubble or something." He took one last sip of coffee and set the cup down. "Your mother and I would marvel at how different you kids are. First there was Cynthia." He hesitated. "We worried about her too, but for other reasons." Dad and I caught each other's eye and resisted the urge to chuckle. "Then Claire came along and as she got older, we worried, worried how she'd do in the world. And then you arrived... the rock," he said.
Just then, the porch door opened and Claire walked out with the carafe of coffee in one hand and her cup in the other.
"You're back," Dad said. "How was the walk?"
"It was nice... quiet. Do you guys want more coffee?" She held the carafe up for us to see. "Nope, I'm fine," Dad said. "Why don't you take my seat. I need to go get cleaned up... can't sit around in my jammys all day." Dad hoisted himself from the chair. "You guys sit and chat for a while... catch up."
"More?" Claire asked, holding the carafe out to me.
"Sure, I'll take a splash." Claire filled my cup and sat down. She brushed a strand of hair from her face. "So, how are things going? How have you been?" I asked.
"I'm okay... still treading water." Her voice dipped down as though there was an admission she hadn't meant to let slip out.
"And your job is still going well... your friends?"
"Yep, it's all fine. My friends understand. They're pretty supportive. And I still love my job at the library. There's something about losing myself in other people's lives that... well, helps me feel more centered," she said.
"You still seeing the same therapist?"
"I am. He's helped me a lot, Charlie." Claire looked off towards the creek at the back of our property.
For the next few minutes, we sat in silence. We listened to the creek, and watched a pair of robins probe the lawn for their next meal. Claire pressed her hands into her lap, trying to smooth the wrinkles out of her dress. "I wish we lived closer, Charlie."
"I know. I wish we did too." I warmed my hands, wrapping them around my coffee cup. "Ever think of maybe moving to Texas? It'd be great to have you nearby."
Claire's head turned quickly. "Oh, I couldn't. I can't, Charlie... I just don't think I'm..."
I jumped in. "I know... it's okay. I understand." We sat quietly for a moment, listening to the birds and the leaves rustling in the breeze.
"He's good. We're waiting for Texas to legalize gay marriage." I smiled.
"Oh Charlie, really? I think that's just great! I'm happy for you guys," she said. For a moment, Claire beamed. She was my ally, the sister who had my back. "I want to be there for the big day, Charlie."
"Don't worry, you'll be the first to know."
"Once you're married, do you think you and Stan might have kids, adopt?"
"I doubt it. Actually, I know we won't." I paused. "Haven't had the best role models."
Claire glanced over. "I know."
Claire and I flinched when we heard the front door open, and then a moment later, the agitated tapping of stiletto heels.
"Did I hear something about a marriage?" Cynthia asked, as she walked out onto the porch. "Who's getting married?" She stood in her Capri pants, her linen blouse and her hair up in its usual bun, pulled tight.
"Charlie and Stan, as soon as it's legal," Claire said. "Isn't that wonderful?"
"Oh. I thought you were talking about a real marriage," Cynthia said.
Claire and I looked at each other. "It's real to me," I said.
"But it isn't really now, is it? I mean, it isn't like you're going to produce offspring that will carry the family name along. And unfortunately, you were Daddy's only hope, Charlie." Cynthia blurted it out, as if talking about a stranger. "I hope you haven't said anything to Daddy about any of this."
"No, not yet but don't worry, I will eventually."
Cynthia pursed her lips. "Well, for god's sake, let the poor man get back on his feet before you do!" She started to walk back into the house but stopped and looked back at us. "I need to talk to you two. Wait here. I'll be right back." She disappeared through the porch door.
"What do think this is all about?" Claire asked.
"I don't know. Maybe she's going find her dictator's hat."
Claire thought for a minute and grinned. "Someone get her a mirror!"
Cynthia retuned with a pad and pencil. "Charlie, pull that chair over here for me." Cynthia crossed her Capris and sat up straight as if class were now in session.
"Okay, we have a number of things we need to take care of," she stated. "By the way, where is Daddy? Claire, I hope you didn't have any problems last night. Daddy can be difficult sometimes. Is he around somewhere?"
"He's getting dressed," I said. "And what do you mean he can be difficult?"
"You know, Charlie," she said. "He's constantly forgetting things. I can't tell you how many times he's lost the remote to the television, drives me nuts sometimes," she said. "I feel like I want to tie it around his neck!" Cynthia flipped through the pages of her pad until she found her list. "That's neither here nor there though. We have more important things to take care of," she said. "Okay, first we need to go through Mother's things. I think the sooner we get them all out of the house, the better."
"But don't you think this should be Dad's decision?" I asked. "We just can't go throwing things out. He may want to go through them first."
"Charlie, Daddy is in shock. He doesn't know what he wants right now. We need to get her things out of here, as soon as possible."
"But why the hurry?"
"He doesn't need those reminders, Charlie. He needs to move on."
"Cynthia, it hasn't even been twenty-four hours. I don't think we should push right now." I took a deep breath.
"That's ridiculous. He needs our help. Don't you agree, Claire?"
Poor Claire. She looked at Cynthia, then me and started to speak.
"Well, of course she agrees," Cynthia said, before Claire could get a word out. "Tomorrow is the burial so we need to make sure Daddy is up and dressed by ten o'clock. That will be your job, Claire. Charlie, make sure there's enough gas in the car and clean it out while you're at it. We can't show up in a dirty car." With each command, Cynthia crossed things off her list. "There are phone calls that need to be made to the cemetery, the funeral home... et cetera. I'll take care of those."
Cynthia looked up at the two of us. "So are we all set?" she asked. "Charlie, you and Claire can start going through some of Mother's things. Anything you're not sure about just set it aside and I'll decide later." She stood up. Class was over. "Okay, let's go... there's a lot to do!" She clicked across the porch and back into the house.
Later that afternoon, Claire and I sat on the floor in the middle of Mom and Dad's bedroom. Cynthia had coerced Dad into going to the grocery store with her and for the moment, the house was quiet.
Mom had told me about the box she kept in the back of her closet. She showed it to me years ago, saying that it was a box of "memories" from us kids and someday, when she had more time, she'd separate everything into three boxes, one for each of us.
Claire played with the fringe of the carpet, braiding it or tying it into little bows as I did the exploring. With each piece of paper or envelope I pulled from the box, we'd reminisce.
Mostly, we found drawings, if you could call them that. Actually, they were pieces of Manila paper with indistinguishable scrawling. Claire and I laughed trying to figure out what each was supposed to be. There were old report cards from elementary school, birthday cards we'd made and letters we'd sent home from camp during the summers.
"Listen to this," I said, as I pulled a letter I'd written home when I was at camp one summer. "My god, I must have been about eight or so when I wrote this."
Dear Mom and Dad,
Camp is only five days old but I like it already. I got seven mosquito bites that really itch. They are really big here. Like bats! I have a big black and blue mark on my leg too where my bunk mate kicked me. His name is Johnny Blackburn... or Blacksmith or something like that. He sleeps on the lower bunk and I'm on top. The other day he was under me and kept shoving my mattress during rest period. I got kinda mad and jumped on him and he kicked me. But we're friends now so you guys don't have to worry anymore. Mom, I hope you won't get real mad but the new shorts you bought me for camp are wrecked. They got caught on some thorns outside and got all ripped up. Can you send me another pair? If you're too busy mom then you don't have to but I sure hope you do. Also, I need another toothbrush. Mine got flushed down the toilet.
Ps: oh yeah, say hi to Claire and Cynthia for me.
Claire laughed. "You signed it, your son? Were you afraid they'd forget who you were?"
"Who knows what the hell I was thinking? I do remember thinking Mom would be pissed about the shorts though."
"With good reason!" Claire said.
"Oh god, look at this." I held up a drawing I had done when I was around five years old. "Any idea what this is supposed to be?" I asked.
Claire studied the drawing for a moment. "It's tough to tell," she said. "...looks like two worms slithering around in a blob of ketchup." She laughed.
"You want a clue?"
"Think back on a specific dinner we had as kids," I said.
"Oh my god." I could see Claire's mind sifting back. "Is that the spaghetti dinner she served that time when she was wasted?"
"Bingo!" I said. "Remember the three of us looking at each other like, Huh? This is dinner? Two limp strands of pasta and a spoonful of red water. That's what it looked like."
Claire's smile turned dark. "And I remember Dad didn't say a thing," she said.
"I know. I wonder why she put it in here. I wouldn't think it was something she wanted to remind us of," I said. Then I flipped the drawing over and my breath caught in my throat. "Here's why." I held up the back for Claire to read. In Mom's handwriting were the words I'd never heard spoken.
So sorry Charlie.
I glanced at Claire, her mouth parted in the infancy of a gasp.
As I continued to sift through Mom's box of memories, I came across one envelope that wasn't from any of us. I didn't recognize the handwriting and wondered what it was doing in this box. The post mark was from a small town in Ohio and dated roughly eight years ago.
I held it for a moment, unsure if I should go any farther, if I should open and read it. Claire looked up at me.
"What's that?" she asked.
"I don't know. It's not from any of us. I don't think it's supposed to be in here," I said. "This has to be a mistake." I looked at Claire and back to the envelope and to Claire once more. "I don't know if we should read it," I said.
"Who will know?" she said.
I finished reading and felt Claire's eyes on me.
"Well? What is it?" she asked.
"Here." I handed the note to Claire and watched her face as she read.
Dinner was chaotic that evening. Cynthia brought Robert and their two girls, Jenny and Maddy over. She thought the activity might take Dad's mind away from his pain. The energy of a six and eight-year-old wasn't what Dad needed. He seemed on edge all through dinner, snapping at his grandchildren. At one point, he asked Claire and me if there was a reason why we were so quiet.
Claire and I looked at each other, Mom's secret held tight between us. I mumbled something about being tired and apologized for not being the life of the party. People chuckled.
"Charlie? Can you come here for a minute?" Claire called from Mom and Dad's bedroom. Frustration echoed down the hallway.
"My flight gets in at 11:15 pm tomorrow night," I told Stan. "You'll be there?"
"Charlie? You coming?"
"I'll be right there, Claire," I called back. "Listen, I need to go. There's some crisis with Claire and Dad. I'll see you tomorrow. Love you too," I replied, and hung up.
Claire and Dad stood in front of the mirror, she standing behind him with her arms draped around his neck fumbling with his tie. "Charlie, can you tie this for me?" She took a step back. "Cynthia will kill me if he's not ready in time."
"Sure," I said. Claire left the room and I walked over to Dad, slipped his tie off and then put it around my neck. "It's easier if I just do it this way."
Dad looked at himself in the mirror and I wondered if our thoughts were the same. He fidgeted in the one and only suit he owned, the navy blue pinstripe that Mom forced him to buy years ago. A resemblance of a little boy, confined and awkward stared back at us, his hair slicked down, neatly parted.
"Here you go." I slipped his tie over his head and tightened it. I took a step back. "You look great, Dad."
He looked at himself in the mirror. "Damn, I look like a little boy, about to be sent off to Sunday school. I don't even know why we have to do this," he mumbled.
"It's all part of the process, Dad. Come on, Cynthia will be here soon."
"Oh, great," he said.
I thought the burial and the minister's words were typical, although this was the first burial I'd ever attended. Dad shifted his weight back and forth throughout, the rest of us stood quietly, half listening.
After the minister's words, we were each given a rose and one by one, we approached the grave marker. Claire and I placed our rose on the ground in front of it. Cynthia walked to the marker, leaned over slightly and dropped hers. Dad was the last and as he stood in front of Mom's marker, he hesitated and then knelt down. He didn't place his rose on the ground as Claire and I had, didn't drop it like Cynthia. He reached down below the surface of the ground and placed his rose on top of Mom's urn, where it would be as close to her as possible.
We arrived back at the house before noon. Dad was the first to change clothes and said he felt like a walk before lunch, and did any of us want to join him?
"Sure dad. I'll come with..."
On our way to the park, we passed the entrance to the Buffalo Zoo. Great times with Dad, I thought. I asked Dad why Mom rarely came. He shrugged, saying that she was busy, but I wasn't convinced he really believed that.
The park was empty except for few pre-teen kids kicking a soccer ball.
"You want to sit for a few? I asked.
"Sure," he said, and started toward a nearby bench.
"How about over there?" I asked, pointing to the swings.
His brows knitted together for a moment. "You want to swing?"
"Come on," I said. "We'll call it exercise."
"Keep an eye on me, okay? It's been a while!" he said.
Gently, we swung back and forth, Dad's foot lightly scuffing the ground like a pendulum, ticking off time.
"Cynthia wants us to go through Mom's things... start throwing stuff out," I said, after a minute or so.
Dad paused. "I wish you kids wouldn't. I'm not ready."
"That's what I thought... told Cynthia but she's adamant."
"Don't worry about Cynthia. I'll talk to her," he said. "There is a box in the closet you can go through if you want. It's filled with things you kids made for your mother over the years. She always talked about separating it into three boxes, one for each of you. I'd like to go through the other stuff."
We watched the kids kick the soccer ball around for a minute. "You know, Dad. I was thinking. Really, more wondering. How would you feel about coming down for a visit sometime?" We sat for a minute, watching the kids play. "I know Mom's fear of flying always prevented you guys from traveling but now, I thought... and I know Stan would like to get to know you better. We've got plenty of room."
"How is Stan? Sorry, I should have asked sooner," he said.
"That's okay. He's good. We're doing well."
"What's it been now? Four years? he asked."
"Sounds serious," he said.
"Stan's a great guy," I said. "I know it's not what you or Mom had in mind for me. Hell, it's not what I had in mind for me... at least not before I knew... or accepted it." Dad shifted in his swing, and I wondered whether it was the topic or the wide leather strap cradling his ass that had him squirming. "I feel like I've disappointed you," I said.
He turned to me. "Disappointed? Charles, you know how proud I am of you. You're my son!"
"Yeah," I said, and then under my breath, "...the son that won't give you a grandson."
I hadn't meant to add to my father's pain. I had said those words so often, silently, that for a moment, I wasn't sure I'd spoken them out loud. My bluntness sat there between us.
"Charles," he paused. "I don't claim to understand... guess I'm from a different generation, but it's not important. All your mother and I ever wanted was for you kids to be happy."
Dad said the right words, the words most parents would have spoken. My well-being prevented him from voicing his desire for a grandson. And I'm sure he sensed my guilt in not providing him with one. It was a subject we had never talked about before and most likely, never would again.
One of the kids had kicked the soccer ball into the nearby river and we watched as the boys ran down stream after it. "So, what do you think about coming for a visit? I asked. "Maybe in a couple of months, when the weather starts to turn? Might be nice to get out of winter for a bit."
Dad glanced over. He smiled. "I may just do that," he said. He stopped swinging, winced, and shifted uncomfortably again. "Can we go now? My rear end is killing me," he said. We laughed.
After lunch, Dad headed out to work in the garden, Cynthia cleaned up and Claire and I found ourselves in Dad's den, looking through an old photo album. We lingered on each picture of Mom and either commented, or held our thoughts and feelings silently. We sat close with the album resting in both our laps.
I flipped the page and both Claire and I starting laughing. Cynthia, around the age of twelve or so, and Mom were on their hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. Dad must have taken the picture from behind. Two butts, side by side facing the lens, one big, one small. Dad always did love those candid shots.
"In training," I said.
"Poor, Cynthia. Boot camp at such a young age," she chuckled.
"Check this one out," I said, pointing to a picture of the three of us all dressed up for church. I must have been nine or ten at the time. We stood there like soldiers standing at attention as Mom looked on.
"I remember," Claire said. "Every Sunday before we left for church, Mom had to make the official inspection," she said. "God forbid we didn't look our best!"
"I know. Remember how she'd tighten your pony tail or slick my cow-lick down?"
"One of her more loving moments," Claire said, sarcastically. "I'm sorry. That was mean. She tried."
Cynthia's footsteps clamored down the hall and we looked up as the door flung open. Cynthia stomped into the den, slamming the door closed behind her.
"What the hell is this?" In her hand, she held the envelope Claire and I had found in Mom's box. "Had you planned on showing this to me?"
"Where did you find that?" I asked.
"You know damn well where I found it, Charlie. It was sitting on your desk. Not too smart." She looked over at Claire. "You knew too, didn't you."
Claire glanced over to me.
"You don't have to answer, Claire. You knew. I swear you guys are like glue... always in on everything together," she said.
"It doesn't matter, does it? It's none of our business," I said.
"It seems like it's yours and Claire's business. Everyone knows about this except me and Daddy."
"And thank god he doesn't know," I said. "It's a blessing we found it and not him. I think we should just forget about it. It's not anyone's business."
"Well, I think he should know," she said.
"What? Why? What's the point? Let him remember Mom the way he wants," I said.
"So he can think of her as some kind of ideal wife and mother? He needs to move on, Charlie, and realizing mother wasn't the saint he's painted her to be may just give him the push he needs!"
"Jesus Christ, Cynthia. When are you going to stop pushing? What is it with you? You know who you remind me of."
"Don't even go there, Charlie," she hissed. "I'm the one here dealing with him day in and day out and you're down in Texas doing god knows what with Stan - pretending to be a family? Is that it, Charlie? And you, Claire. What is it exactly you're doing on the other side of the country? Still trying to feel better about yourself? Trying to avoid another melt down?"
Cynthia hesitated a few seconds, and I thought that perhaps she might have realized the cruelty in her words. But she went on. "And I'm stuck here, day after day, keeping an eye on him, constantly looking after him, finding his keys he misplaced, making sure the bills are paid, and the laundry's done. Do you honestly think I enjoy this?" she asked. "Mother sure as hell wasn't taking care of those things. She checked out years ago." She thought for a moment. "I guess it's clear now what she was doing. And the two of you waltz into town and tell me what's best? Trust me, I know what's best for Daddy. I need him to know. I'm going to tell him."
"You need him to know?" I asked.
Cynthia ignored me, turned and started out the door when Claire spoke.
"No, you're not, Cynthia," she said.
Cynthia stopped, looked at Claire and laughed out loud. "And you're going to stop me, Claire? You? Spineless Claire?" she said.
I was about to come to Claire's defense.
"We all have secrets, Cynthia," Claire said, calmly.
Cynthia froze in the doorway, stepped back into the room and nudged the door closed. She looked indignant. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said.
"I think you do, Cynthia."
Cynthia stood motionless.
"Do you remember four years ago when I came home for a few months?" Claire stared at Cynthia.
"I remember," she said.
"And, do you remember during those few months, I signed up for a sewing class at BOCES?"
"Claire," Cynthia said, "I have no idea where you're going with this."
"Hear me out. Do you remember?"
"Well, yes, but I still..."
"And do you remember that BOCES is just across the street from the Sunset Motel over on Highbridge Street?"
My eyes darted from Claire to Cynthia. I hadn't a clue as to what Claire was getting at, but Cynthia's eyes grew wide.
"One evening, after class, I was loading my machine into the car. I glanced over to the motel and saw you... you and Bobby McBlaine coming out one of the rooms."
"Well... well, that doesn't mean anything!" she stammered. Cynthia eyes shot over to me, then quickly back to Claire.
"And the embrace and kiss didn't mean anything either?" Claire asked.
There was little Cynthia could say. She stood for a moment; the blood drained from her face before she walked over to Dad's desk and set the envelope down. "I didn't know you knew, Claire." She slowly lowered herself into Dad's chair. Cynthia looked over to me and Claire. She let out a helpless sigh of resignation and her face slowly softened.
"I never meant for it to happen," she said. She took a second to collect her thoughts. "I love Robert and the girls. I do. But there was a time when he was so busy with work." She paused. "It felt like he didn't have time for me."
As she spoke, I watched her fingertips glide lightly over the envelope, as if there were a part of her that wasn't quite ready to relinquish it. "I guess that's when I started to take over here. Mother didn't seem to care and someone had to watch out for Daddy and you guys weren't around." She leaned back in Dad's chair and for a moment gazed off into space before she looked over at Claire. "You knew about me and Bobby the whole time?"
"I had no intention of ever saying a thing," Claire said. "It was your life, your decision." She paused. "Telling Dad about Mom's affair would be no different than if I had gone to Robert and told him about yours."
The three of us sat there for a moment looking at each other.
Cynthia picked up the envelope off Dad's desk and handed it to me. "Here," she said. "Destroy it."
Dishes clanked as Dad pulled them from the cupboards. Cynthia stood at the sink washing lettuce. I paused outside the kitchen door. Dad was talking.
"I'd like to go through your mother's things myself... when I feel ready."
"I know Daddy... I just thought..."
"I know you're trying to help but I need to do this on my own," he said. "Besides, you've done more than your fair share." I watched as he put his arm around my sister's shoulder, pulled her in close and then picked up the dishes and headed out to the dining room to set the table.
Cynthia stared blankly out the kitchen window, just stood there motionless as the faucet ran. She didn't bother to look over as I walked in the room.
"You okay? I asked.
She waited a moment before she answered. Staring out the window as if in a trance, she said, "You're right. I push. I am like her."
We were side by side, standing at the sink, looking out the window. I turned the faucet off. "Cynthia," I said. "You love Jenny and Maddy. You spend time with them. You're a good mother. Does that sound like Mom?" I asked. "Maybe, by trying to push things along, it's a way of not letting the hurt in," I said. "As soon as we stop or slow down, even for a minute, it comes over us and we're forced into feeling." I put my hand on the small of my sister's back. "Hell, in a way, I don't blame you."
After dinner, Claire and Dad went for a walk, Cynthia finished up the dishes and before leaving, mentioned that she'd stop by first thing in the morning to say goodbye. Claire and I had early morning departure times.
I sat on my bed next to my half packed suitcase, Mom's envelope resting in my lap. I opened the letter and reread it. It was filled with tenderness and signed, Yours forever, Jack.
I secretly hoped that Mom had found someone she could love, really love. Not pasted on concern or pretend compassion but someone she could confide in and share with. And I wondered as well if Mom could have known how her death would impact the rest of us. Silently, I thanked her.
And, Dad? I didn't worry about him. I knew he'd be okay. He was the rock, not me.
Late that evening, well after everyone had gone to bed, I walked through the house, headed for the kitchen to get a glass of water. The house was dark and quiet and as I was on my way back to my room, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement outside, just off the back porch. I walked over to the French doors and saw Claire standing alone, in the middle of the yard.
At first, Claire stood quietly in her white nightgown with the pink satin ribbon that cinched her wrists and was woven through the scooped neck line. Barefoot, she gazed at the sky and then slowly, she started to dance. She moved as if her feet barely felt the grass, floating, dancing in the moonlight with her arms opened wide and her hair touched by the breeze. And as she danced, she twirled, her nightgown billowed out around her and she raised her arms as if paying homage to some deity or as if trying to pluck the stars from the sky. A subtle glow washed over Claire. I saw unbridled freedom. Unencumbered and held in her own world, I watched as my sister danced and danced. She danced with grace and assurance, and I smiled...