William N. Richardson holds graduate degrees from Stanford, UC-Irvine, and Penn State. His recent essays and fiction have appeared or will be forthcoming in The Hamlin Literary Review, Crucible, The South Carolina Review, The Southern Humanities Review, The Missouri Review, Appalachian Heritage, and Japanophile. His story "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (StoryQuarterly 37, 2001) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Like a commander called upon to witness the certain defeat of his troops, my grandmother had insisted on occupying the field of battle that morning. What she wanted was to make sure that the moldings on the chimney cupboard Howard Carter had promised her weren't damaged in their removal. What she witnessed was the piecemeal dismantling of the elegant, Federal home that her great-grandfather had so painstakenly built.
By the time we arrived, the house had already fallen under the siege. To a chorus of whining power tools and the tattoo of pounding hammers, regiments of fielded panel doors, followed by two columns of mortised window frames, marched out of the house and into the gaping maw of the waiting tractor-trailer. Out on the front lawn, the site of that morning's most recent skirmish, sat two attic dormers, the glass in their Palladian windows somehow miraculously intact. Playing its gears like the multiple stops of a great organ console, the man operating the crane for Carter Construction Company swung the ungainly rig into position and neatly lifted off the third. Smoke signals of distress, little puffs of plaster rose through the three gaping holes in the roof.
"That's Howard Carter, the developer who's paying such a handsome price to have the home place torn down," said my grandmother, pointing to a man who wore a crisp white shirt and snappy red tie with his yellow hard-hat. "He plans to salvage the more important architectural elements, then use them in the construction of his new home."
The derision in my grandmother's voice, not to mention the disdain on her face, made her opinion of those plans perfectly clear.
Pat Wainwright, the developer who had sold Mr. Carter the house, walked over to where we stood. He took a red bandanna handkerchief from his pants pocket and wiped a rivulet of sweat from his blanched forehead. Not yet eight o'clock, it promised to be yet another hot and humid day. Waves of summer heat shimmered above the busy army of construction workers who labored to complete the still-unfinished units of his new subdivision which was fast closing in on my grandmother's soon-to-be-demolished birth place.
"Come for your chimney cupboard, have you, Jessie?" asked Pat, flashing his winning smile. My grandmother nodded but did not speak. Choosing to ignore the slight, Pat fanned his straw hat to deflect a curious wasp, one of the recently evicted tenants from the homestead's cavernous, third-floor attic. "Fred Wahln, Mr. Carter's head carpenter, is out in the kitchen right now, loosening up the mortar around the hearth so's not to harm your cupboard moldings. I don't reckon you'll want to go upstairs," Pat observed, gesturing toward the general commotion in the front hall. "If you do, though, best step lively. They plan to take out the staircase next."
My grandmother refused to meet Pat's eyes. "I expect I've made my last trip up those stairs. Yours, too, from the looks of things. I still think you're a fool for not wanting to live here," she added, keeping her gaze fixed on the rapidly disappearing house.
In Pat's blue eyes I detected a hint of sorrow.
"Now don't start up again, Jessie. It'll soon be thirty years since your dad sold me the home place."
"Yes, and it's sat empty all these years just because you didn't have sense enough to know what a fine house you owned. At least Mr. Carter will make some use of it."
"Oh, yes!" agreed Pat, brightening. "Why, Howard claims that the mantel pieces and staircases alone are worth every cent it's costing to have them removed and shipped down to Cincinnati. He even plans to haul away the foundation stones. After they grade the site—take down that rise from where they dug the cellar—he says you'll never know a house once stood here."
"No, I suppose not," Jessie replied, obviously unimpressed by Pat's high-spirited narrative. "I guess I'd better go see what that fancy carpenter plans to do with my chimney cupboard." And turning to me: "If you want to take a last look upstairs, John, best go on ahead. I don't have the heart for it."
Climbing the winder staircase to a dirge of crackling lath, pausing on each step to bid farewell to a rapidly departing host of shades, I bid a fond farewell to those childhood companions I'd played with so happily in the abandoned house. Come tomorrow, even they'd be looking for a new home.
At the gable end of the second floor parlor, Mr. Carter's restoration crew worked busily to remove the last of the Delft tiles from the fireplace surround. Up near the ceiling, faint traces of ancient red and blue stenciled swag peeked through multiple layers of now-tattered wallpaper. Even in undress the elegant room appeared ready to host a lively party. Intended for music and dancing, the most popular entertainment of its day, the Morris parlor was identical to a ballroom I'd once seen in a production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The space projected warmth, invited a special happiness. I stood there, trying to memorize the room's every detail, hoping to fix them in my mind's eye.
As a second team of workmen pulled the last panel of tulip poplar wainscoting away from the west wall, a cache of hidden papers fluttered onto the floor. The chromolithographed postcard addressed to Miss Jessie Lucille Morris and signed Aunt Lizzie showed a view of The Palace of The Legion of Honor, one of the neoclassical structures built for The San Francisco 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition. The three dance programs, all dated June 12, 1914, bore the names of Jessie Lucille Morris, Kathleen Morris Cummings, and Elizabeth Cummings Morris. My cursory examination revealed that William Doud, the man whom my grandmother would later marry, was her only dance partner that night. Daniel Alsop's name appeared opposite the first dance on Elizabeth Cummings Morris' program; the remainder went unclaimed. Pat Wainwright had asked Cousin Kathleen for her first dance; Daniel Alsop took all the rest.
As I turned to leave, a workman handed me what he'd found tucked behind a chair rail. The old-fashioned calling card was engraved with Elizabeth Morris Kennedy's name….
Downstairs in the kitchen, Howard Carter was attempting to strike up a conversation with my grandmother. Ignoring his efforts, she focused her attention on the removal of her chimney cupboard.
I handed her the dance cards.
"Good Lord!" my grandmother exclaimed. "I always wondered what happened to these. They were printed for our high school graduation dance."
On hearing her comment, Pat Wainwright spun hard on his heels. Despite a deep summer tan, all color had drained from his face.
"That was quite a night, wasn't it, Pat?" my grandmother remarked, giving Mr. Wainwright a knowing look. She offered him the dance programs, but he declined. This time it was Pat's turn to say nothing.
"Aunt Lizzie sent me this postcard," my grandmother continued, examining the rest of the find. "As I recall, the Panama-Pacific Exhibition celebrated not only the rebuilding of San Francisco after the '06 earthquake, but also the opening of the Panama Canal. This little card with its spray of violets in the upper left-hand corner was Aunt Lizzie's carte de visite. She had these printed shortly after she married her Mr. Kennedy. This was fancy in its day," Jessie observed, handing the calling card over for Mr. Carter's inspection.
"Please accept mine, Mrs. Doud, and call on me once the elements from your family home have been installed in my new house."
"I'm afraid I won't be able to honor your kind invitation, sir. I'm sure that you will understand why. There is one thing that you can do for me, though. Do you plan to remove the fan light above the front door?"
"Oh, yes! Its mullioned sections represent the thirteen original states."
"I'm well aware of that, sir. Could you please take it down while I'm still here?"
"We'll do that right away. Fred, go get a ladder."
After Mr. Carter's head carpenter had wrapped my grandmother's chimney cupboard in moving blankets and carried it out to his truck, he set up his ladder in the front hall and began removing the fan light from its surround.
"Easy, Fred," Howard Carter fretted. "That old glass is very fragile." Ignoring the boss's unnecessary directive, Fred Wahln chomped away on an unlit cigar. His task completed, the master carpenter climbed off the ladder and carried the fan light over for Mrs. Doud's inspection.
"No, it's not the light," my grandmother protested, waving the man off. "That facing board above the door jamb. Could you remove it?"
Howard Carter's interest piqued. "What's in there, Mrs. Doud? Are the family fortunes hidden inside?"
My grandmother ignored his question. "Do I remember, or did I dream that?" she asked herself.
Just then, a facing board popped off, and a conglomeration of walnut shells, old bones, and slips of paper tumbled onto the floor. As Mr. Carter and Pat Wainwright ran over to inspect the cache, my grandmother smiled a smile that I will always remember. Although she was seventy-six at the time, her face wore the mischievous expression of a young girl who had just played a successful prank.
"Why, would you look at that!" exclaimed Pat. "These are chicken wishbones, and some have messages tied `round them."
Unwrapping a wish bone, my grandmother read its note aloud:
If I could marry with Tom McGee,
I'd be the happiest girl you'd see.
And all my friends would envy me,
Although I'll soon be thirty-three!
Todd Duncan is the handsomest man!
Each night I pray he'll take my hand
And slip on it a wedding band.
And with the other—!
Pat Wainwright stroked his chin. "Didn't Tom McGee die in France during the First World War, Jessie? Todd Duncan ended up a pauper in the county home. What do you make of these?"
"These are my old maid aunts' courting wishes. Whenever a beau would come to call, they'd tie a wish around a wishbone and hide it over the front door. It was to bewitch the poor man into marrying them. I did remember! I was only a slip of a girl at the time. When Lizzie, Kathleen, and I got to be older, the aunts didn't let us watch. They were afraid we'd tell Father Morris."
"So did the magic work?" asked Howard Carter.
"Yes and no. Two of my aunts died old maids in this house. The third—Aunt Lizzie—married a man three times her age….
"Here's Aunt Lizzie's wish:
The dapper Mr. Kennedy
Writes that he hopes to marry me.
To meet him I must cross the sea,
Or travel o'er the Rockies!
Jessie handed Mr. Wainwright a slip of paper. "This one's about you, Pat. Cousin Kathleen must have written it. "
As Mr. Wainwright read the note, his face turned redder than his bandanna handkerchief.
"Take what you want, Mrs. Doud," Howard Carter offered. "The rest I'll donate to the Moore County Historical Society. They'll be tickled to have them, don't you think?"
"Tickled to have one last laugh over Father Morris and his girls! I'd check these out first if I were you, Pat."
Having issued that caution, my grandmother walked under Fred Wahln's ladder and out the front door.
Back at my grandmother's farm, after she had seen to the safe storage of the chimney cupboard in the loft of her barn, we repaired to the front porch. Before sitting down to enjoy a tall glass of iced tea, she disappeared into the downstairs bedroom. When she came out, she was carrying the Morris family album she'd taken from the trunk at the foot of the bed.
"Here we all are," she announced, handing me a photograph that I'd never seen.
Of the three adolescent girls who stood side by side, two I recognized immediately—my grandmother and Cousin Kathleen. The third, according to my grandmother, was Aunt Lizzie.
She paged through the red velvet-covered photo album until she came to a cardboard-mounted portrait dated 1915 that had been taken by Mr. D. W. Sutton, 430 O'Farrell Street, San Francisco, California. "Here's your Aunt Lizzie," she said.
The young woman in the photograph has all the style and presence of the Gibson girl, the loosely piled hair, the carefully tailored blouse and skirt, the openly flirtatious look Charles Dana Gibson made famous in his popular, turn-of-the-twentieth-century, magazine illustrations. Equally up-to-the-minute fashionable in his natty three-piece Edwardian suit, her dapper elderly companion sports snow-white handlebar moustaches that droop well below his chin. Conspicuously displayed against his vest is the large gold nugget fob on his watch chain. The man occupies a high-backed arm chair. The woman, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder, stands behind him. The couple's pose suggests that of a loving father, his dutiful daughter….
"So who's the gentleman?" I asked. "My great-great-grandfather?"
My grandmother let out a laugh. "Oh, that's not Father Morris! This is Lizzie's wedding photograph. In it, she's the bride and the Mister is her groom. How old would you say Lizzie's Mr. Kennedy was?" she asked, never missing a beat.
I said I didn't know. The man in the photograph was very well-preserved. Aunt Lizzie's Mr. Kennedy could have been sixty or seventy, even eighty….
"Lizzie never owned up to exactly how old Mister was," my grandmother continued. "When Ulysses P. Kennedy died, she never sent us his obituary. He had to be older, though. According to his biography in The Pioneer Sons of California, Mr. Kennedy went west the year Mr. Sutter struck gold. When Lizzie married him, she was twenty-six. Your great-great aunt would be seventy-five, if she's still living, which she very well might be, though I've not heard from her in thirty years…."
My grandmother had seldom mentioned this aunt. From Cousin Kathleen's stories, I'd always assumed Aunt Lizzie had died young. I'd also assumed she'd died in Mooresville. The white Vermont marble obelisk in the Morris family plot at East Hill Cemetery bore all three sister's names, but as my later check confirmed, Lizzie's inscription lacked a death date.
My grandmother's remark raised an interesting possibility. Was my great-great aunt still living?
I remembered the dance programs. "So Aunt Lizzie's the same age as you and Cousin Kathleen?" Unsure as whether to use a past or present tense, I opted for the present.
"Aunt Lizzie and Cousin Kathleen were born a year apart. I'm three years older. Like my mother and Cousin Kathleen's, Lizzie's also died in childbirth. After Cousin Kathleen's father remarried, she came to live with us at the home place. Although each of our fathers were still living, we called ourselves the three little orphans. Lizzie's older maiden sisters raised us. Aunt Flora was born in 1869, and Mary in '73, so they were well up in years by the time their little sister came along. Back then, a great many families were like that. Some still are! When Lizzie got to be marriage material, both her sisters were well into their forties. Because Cousin Kathleen and I called them aunt, Lizzie did, too. She thought that having maiden ladies for sisters didn't reflect well on her."
My grandmother handed me another photograph.
"In this picture of the three sisters, Flora is forty-five, Mary's forty-two, and Lizzie's twenty-one. So you can see why it was easy for Lizzie to think of her sisters as her aunts."
"Aunt Lizzie's older sisters never married?"
"It wasn't that Flora and Mary were homely or ill tempered women. Father Morris was the reason his two daughters died old maids. He ran off every beau who ever courted them. Aunt Lizzie's, too! In Father Morris' mind a daughter was born to do her father's bidding. So he expected his girls to take care of him in his old age. There was the rub, you see. Since all those Morris men lived well into their nineties, the three sisters knew they were in for it….
"But I was telling you about Lizzie's Mr. Kennedy. Once Father Morris' eyes went bad, Lizzie, Kathleen and I used to take turns reading him his newspaper aloud. He particularly liked the ads, and in those days a great many of them read, `Established gentleman of independent means, age such and such, resident of the Golden State of California, wishes to correspond with single or widowed Christian female. Object: matrimony.' Lord knows what conditions really were, out there, but the impression those ads gave was that California had something of a woman shortage. When I'd tease Cousin Kathleen about writing, she'd say, `Oh, Jessie! I'd never do a thing like that!' Aunt Lizzie was different. `Would you, Jessie?' she'd ask. And I'd reply, `If my papa ran off every beau who came to call on me, then I just might!'
"That winter I'd made up my mind to attend the high school. Out in the county, school went only as far as the eighth grade, so if you wanted to continue, you had to go to town. I'd finished the eight grade two years before and stayed on to help the teacher. I asked Dad if I could go, and he said, yes, but since I'd have to ride the trolley into town each day, who'd ride with me?: Why, Cousin Kathleen and Aunt Lizzie,' I replied. They'd finished the eighth grade that spring, which was why I'd held back asking, well knowing that Dad would never let me ride to town alone."
"And so you went?"
"That very fall. Our first day of school, Dad drove us to town in the buggy. After that, we took the electric trolley. Mornings, a car ran from Mooresville to Glenwood; afternoons, it returned. All we had to do was walk up the road a quarter of a mile, flag down the car, and climb aboard. Four years we did that—rode the twelve miles into town and back five days a week. We thought we were something, which I suppose we were, considering that we were the only farm girls to attend the high school. All the others were the daughters of doctors and lawyers who lived in town. Because Mooresville was the county seat, all the swells lived there.
"With only eight girls in the high school, we three had to stick together. Every noon, we'd walk downtown and look in the store windows. Mostly, though, we'd visit the library. In those days, the library was located in one room of the courthouse, as was our post office. Lucy Morgan, who also attended the high school, had a beau who lived over in the next town. Since her father didn't approve of him, he'd write Lucy in care of general delivery, and she'd call for his letters at the post office window. After Aunt Lizzie found out you could do that, she started answering the ads. From then on we had to check at the post office window once a week to see if there was any mail for Miss Lizzie Morris, General Delivery, Mooresville. The first time that Lizzie called for her mail, our postmaster mentioned his not recollecting our having had any relations, out in California. Well, Lizzie looked Mr. Brown straight in the eye and said, `That letter is from my third cousin, once removed.'
"We'd read the bachelors' letters on the trolley ride home, and while they were never improper, they were from older men. Whenever Lizzie wrote back, she'd show me her letter. Not once did she mention that she was a thirteen-year-old school girl. I told her she was asking for trouble. What would the aunts or Father Morris think? Lizzie made me promise to vouch for her should she get caught, and I agreed. I'd say that the letters were a part of school work, which was reasonable, considering how our civics teacher made us write weekly to the Civil War veterans who lived in the county poor house. We'd burn the bachelors' letters at the trolley stop before starting home. Everything went swimmingly until the first day it snowed. Dad came to pick us up in the cutter, so a letter went home. Of course, the aunts found it. But what astonishes me to this day is when Aunt Flora read it—that particular letter wasn't from Lizzie's Mr. Kennedy but from another `Mr.'—she wanted to know how she could write! So before long, letters were coming to all three sisters, and not to General Delivery, Mooresville, but to RFD, Glenwood."
"Did you ever write?"
"I had no reason to. The year before, I'd attended all the oyster suppers and harvest socials with Will Doud. We were going to be married the following spring. Until the cousins started fighting over Daniel Alsop, Cousin Kathleen didn't either. Once she did, though, she'd say the most terrible things—that she was crippled, or had tuberculosis—and sign Lizzie's name. Well, the men still wrote back! Cousin Kathleen only did it to spite Lizzie, and that was because poor Daniel Alsop just couldn't seem to make up his mind. He'd court first one and then the other. Pat Wainwright had calf eyes for Cousin Kathleen, but just like Lizzie, all she could see was Daniel. Yet, the Christmas of our senior year, Daniel up and proposed to Lizzie. Kathleen was a good sport, I must say. She kissed her cousin…"
"And that was that?"
"Or so we all thought. Lizzie and I began planning our double wedding. The trouble was, the more we two talked about getting married, the stranger Father Morris acted. Although he'd been born in Tennessee, he'd fought for the Union, so after he was captured, he had an especially hard time of it. Something had happened to him at Andersonville, the Confederate prison where he spent most of the Civil War. He'd have these spells and turn peculiar. When that happened, there was absolutely no reasoning with the man. In his mind, he was digging graves under a Colonel Clifton's orders. Oh my, but it was morbid! But that wasn't the worst of it. In the end, Father Morris made up his mind to take it all out on poor Daniel."
"Truth to tell, Father Morris was afraid that Lizzie would marry him, and he was determined to do anything he could to prevent it. Father Morris had known Daniel since he was a little boy. Like our family, the Alsops attended Ben Davis Church. Well, one day Father Morris took a notion that Daniel was a Confederate officer. After that, whenever poor Daniel would set foot on the home place, Father Morris lapsed into one of his fits. `You're Colonel Clifton,' he'd holler, `and you're not getting any information out of me.' `Father Morris! It's Daniel,' the boy shouted back. And Father Morris would swear, `You ain't Daniel, you Confederate varmint!' It went on and on like that, the two back and forth. Well, one day Father Morris charged like a mad bull and butted Daniel right out of the house. Aunt Lizzie was despondent and took to her bed. Aunt Flora and Aunt Mary even wrote the government, asking who this Colonel Clifton was, but no one ever responded.
"Until then, Aunt Flora and Aunt Mary had kept house for their father. After Father Morris' fits started, nothing was right unless Lizzie did it. She had to serve Father his breakfast in his room, then read to him aloud from Harper's, Scientific American, or The London Illustrated News. Things came to a head the morning he asked her to shave him. Lizzie said she wasn't going to do it. He'd been shaving himself all his life, and she wasn't about to start that now. Well, Father Morris accused Lizzie of being an ungrateful child and ordered her out of the house."
"Did she leave?"
"Of course not. Their spat never amounted to much. By the time the aunts got Father Morris quieted down, he'd forgotten all about it.
"Lizzie always thought the Colonel Clifton business was nothing more than an act that her father had hatched up to keep her from marrying Daniel Alsop, and I believe it was. Cousin Kathleen thought Daniel and Lizzie should elope. Things would quiet down eventually. Lizzie wouldn't do it. She was afraid Father Morris would kill the Confederate skunk. Well, by then Daniel's parents had just about decided they weren't all that keen on their son marrying into a family with a crazy man and two old maids, so the following spring, Daniel up and surprised everyone by breaking off his engagement with Lizzie and asking Cousin Kathleen to marry him."
"What did Lizzie do?"
"Needless to say, she was absolutely beside herself. The day of Cousin Kathleen's wedding, she went out to the hen house and ate what she thought was rat poison. It turned out to be nothing more than grainy laundry starch, so all that happened was poor Lizzie swelled up and got even more miserable than she was before."
I let out a low whistle. "Cousin Kathleen never mentioned any of this."
"I should hope not!" my grandmother assented. "After their wedding, Kathleen and Daniel moved to Greensburg. I don't know that Cousin Kathleen and Aunt Lizzie ever saw one another after. Until Lizzie's suicide attempt, the letter-writing to the bachelors had been something of a lark. And while Aunt Flora and Aunt Mary wrote, I doubt that either would have gone to California had some man asked. In any event, those two managed to accumulate a sizeable collection of pictures of `their men.' Here's one. Have you ever seen a wilder looking character?"
In his picture postcard photograph, the miner-trapper-adventurer wears a leather vest, buckskin chaps and a big Stetson hat. He's posed before a canvas backdrop of the Yosemite with his booted foot planted firmly on the snarling head of a bear skin rug….
"Whenever company came to call, Aunt Flora and Aunt Mary passed these about. As you can see, most all of their men were wild and wooly. Mr. Kennedy wasn't that sort. If he'd ever had dirt under his fingernails, it had been a very long time ago. Well, Lizzie took a fancy to his photograph. The trouble was, he'd written to Flora. And what made matters worse, Aunt Flora had up and sent Mr. Kennedy Lizzie's high school graduation picture!"
"What did Lizzie do?"
"She took matters into her own hand. That summer Lizzie went to stay with her brother in Greensburg. At the conclusion of her visit, Uncle Matt—though he was Lizzie's elder brother, she still called him Uncle—put his sister on the train to Mooresville. When the aunts arrived at the station to pick Lizzie up—no sister! From the description they gave, the conductor recollected that Lizzie had changed trains in Louisville. The railroad traced her to St. Louis, then on to Carson City, Nevada. After that, the trail went cold. Lizzie had simply disappeared. The Pinkerton man assigned to the case told Dad those things happened all the time. Young women got fed up and ran off. Headed west, mostly. Dad and his sisters decided they'd say nothing to Father Morris who, by then, was completely batty. He believed Lizzie was still visiting with Brother Matt. Three months later I received this photo graph. Lizzie had married her Mr. Kennedy."
"And she never confided in you?"
"That's what hurt. We'd never kept secrets from one other. I was so mad I gave her picture to Flora, and since she felt even more betrayed than I did, she showed it about. Exactly what all was said I never knew, but out in the country what's not is easily enough made up. Well, by that time, Father Morris had made up his mind that Lizzie had run off with Daniel, but as Flora and Mary reminded their father, Daniel had married Cousin Kathleen. They even drove him over to Greensburg in the buggy and showed him Daniel and Kathleen's new house."
"I take it they didn't visit."
"Only with Matt. Lord knows what would have happened had Father Morris laid eyes on poor Daniel!
"Well, with me and Kathleen married, then Lizzie gone, all life seemed to drain out of the home place. It was as if the house went into mourning, which, in a way, it did. After Lizzie disappeared, the sisters never went out—not even to church—and without Lizzie to calm him down, Father Morris got even crazier than ever. Aunt Flora and Aunt Mary grew stout and wore black all the time. Father Morris grew thin and wore his Civil War uniform. He'd sit on a high backed chair in the downstairs hall all day long, just waiting for the call to muster. He wore that uniform up until the day he died. It got so crusty that the undertaker said he'd have to cut if off the body. Since Father Morris wanted to be buried in it, Dad and Matt decided to leave well enough alone and just closed the coffin."
"What did the neighborhood think?"
"The same as always—that the Morrises were crazy as bedbugs. I continued to visit, because my aunts had raised me. Everyone else simply stayed away….
"By 1915, those who owned motor cars made a regular excursion of driving out past the house where the crazy man and his two old-maid daughters lived. The youngest sister, so the story went, had run off with one of her older sisters' beau! The motor cars would slow way down, which caused them to backfire, and that set Father Morris off. He'd throw open the big, front door and charge the car, brandishing his Civil War sword. Then Aunt Flora and Aunt Mary had to run out and quiet him down. Oh, let me tell you, it was quite a show!"
"When did you next hear from Lizzie?"
"Not for some time. The winter of `36, both Flora and Mary died of pneumonia; two years later, Dad sold the home place to Pat Wainwright. That was back in `38, the worst year of the Depression. Dad had no choice. He needed the money to pay his taxes. I wrote Lizzie. Not knowing whether she was dead or alive, I sent my letter in care of the photographer who'd taken her wedding picture. Well, stranger things have happened, but Lizzie wrote back. It was a shock, she said, learning that her two sisters were deceased, but it didn't surprise her one bit to hear that Father Morris had died crazy as a loon. He always had been, or so she thought. She wrote me that she had been widowed since `24, and while several gentlemen callers continually begged her to marry them, she thought once was quite enough. Mr. Kennedy had left her with adequate funds and good social connections, so she got out—to the opera, concerts in Golden Gate Park, and shopping downtown. `And despite all the trouble'—meaning Daniel, though she never mentioned him by name—`know that I love you as a sister,' she wrote. She said she missed the home place. If Dad was planning to sell it, she'd be willing to buy it for more than his asking price. She said she wouldn't mind spending her summers in Mooresville. As Mark Twain had written about San Francisco, about the time you thought it ought to be getting warm, the weather would turn cold. She enclosed her calling card and asked me to hide it somewhere in the old house, just as the aunts had done with their wishes. It was to express the hope that she'd return someday."
"And what did you think about that?"
"I remember what I wrote exactly: `Elizabeth Cummings Morris Kennedy,' I replied. `Are you completely out of your mind? Why would you want to come back to a place where plenty of people remember your original ruckus and start another? I, too, love you as a sister, but as I must live here, so must you abide there. Besides, Daniel's dead, and the home place burned to the ground. Neither's here anymore.'"
"Which wasn't true…"
"Those are only two of the lies I've told in my day for which I'm not the least bit sorry. The home place had the power to draw Lizzie back. So did Daniel. If Lizzie returned to Mooresville, trouble was sure to flare up. Now, I ask you, what would you have done had you been in my shoes?"
My grandmother told me this story the summer before I began my senior year in college, and while I'd found it amusing, simply another arcane snapshot taken from my family's history, had I heard it six months later, it would have held a quite different meaning….
Twelve years later, I found myself in California. Earlier that morning, I'd
dropped my spouse off at San Francisco's International Airport, then driven into
the city to pay a leisurely visit to my favorite North Beach Italian restaurant.
As I watched the winter rain clouds blow over Russian Hill and sipped an
after-dinner espresso, I contemplated Alice's sentimental journey. My wife had
flown east to visit her dying father. Sarah, Alice's older sister whom she had
not seen in a dozen years, had agreed to meet her at Logan Airport. I closed my
eyes and reviewed the circumstances that had led to the two siblings' prolonged
estrangement. Once again I experienced the panic, even the revulsion, I'd first
associated with it. And while the
chaos was not entirely my doing, I'd had a hand in it. I signaled my waiter and requested a copy of the City Directory. Paging through it, I scanned the entries under the Kennedy surname. If Daniel had broken the ties that bound one sisterhood together, I'd shattered those of another….
It was still raining when I mounted the stoop to one of San Francisco's grand painted ladies. The woman who answered the door wore a nurse's cap. She took my coat, then ushered me down a long, narrow hallway, into a high-ceilinged Victorian parlor. At one end, a frail, bird-like lady sat in a wheel chair. The hand that wore the large amethyst ring struggled to rearrange the great bun of silver hair piled high on her head. The other smoothed a Scottish shawl woven in soft pastels. Just beyond, double French doors opened onto a fog-bound garden planted with tree ferns and blue hydrangeas.
"Ah! There you are!" she said, offering me her hands as if I were a fond grandchild just come in from play. "You must forgive me for not greeting you properly. As you see, I cannot get up. Please sit here. Lucille? Bring Mr. Doud's chair closer. Mr. Doud! It's been many years since I last spoke that name."
I would have recognized her anywhere. Her face had the Morris brow, my grandmother's nose. The ironic eyes I'd first seen in Lizzie's wedding photograph now had a color—tourmaline blue. They matched her dress. While softened by time, the corners of her mouth still hinted at the Gibson girl's conspiratorial smile. Several moments passed before either of us spoke. As the steady ticking of a French ormolu-mounted clock on the nearby mantel punctuated our mutual silence, we studied each other's faces, those ancient runes of family comedies and tragedies. I reached into my wallet and took out what I had carried with me for so many years.
"This belongs to you," I said, handing over the calling card that the workman had found behind the chair rail in the Morris upstairs parlor.
Arthritic fingers reached out to grasp the small treasure. "Oh my goodness! My carte de visite! I had these made shortly after I married my Mr. Kennedy. And my violets in the corner!"
"Jessie hid it, just as you asked her to. She wrote you that the house had burned. That's not true. In 1938, your brother sold the home place to Mr. Wainwright, though Pat never lived there. Until its demolition twelve summers ago, the house sat empty."
"So it's Jessie who's told you my sorry tale? She's still living and well, I hope?"
"She is, as is Cousin Kathleen. Neither knows I've come to see you. I didn't know, myself, until this morning."
Lizzie's mischievous eyes twinkled. "Please remember me to them when next you speak or write. And you're Jessie's grandson! I think of her so often. We were like sisters, you know. I suppose it's impolite to speak of her in the past tense, but the past is what's over and done with, isn't it? It was a foolish thing I did, back in `38, suggesting that I might come home…. As soon as I'd sent my letter, I realized its potential for embarrassment. Cousin Kathleen was married and living in Greensburg. Jessie would be the one to bear the renewed scrutiny of my misadventures. Had I returned home while my father was still living, I would have been a servant in his house. That's not to say that Father Morris was an evil man; he was no different from most men of his generation, those who saw their children as property, their female children in particular. It created a certain tension between my sisters and me, a fear that what didn't fall on one would eventually fall on the other. Jessie's and Kathleen's fathers weren't like that. Is Mr. Alsop living?"
"He is, and enjoys good health and many grandchildren."
"As well he should. He was my true love, you know. Giving him up was the hardest thing I ever did. Before I left for California, I went to Greensburg and made my peace with him. I had a fine life with my Mr. Kennedy, let me assure you, though it was not the life that I would have chosen, nor this lovely city the place, nor this house as my home…. But tell me, did you feel an affection for the Morris home place?"
"I used to call the upstairs parlor my Russian dancing room. I felt a special happiness there."
"What a joy to hear you say that! The house had a soul—a happy one, I think. I felt it. Jessie and Kathleen did, too. In spite of the lives that my sisters and I had, living in our father's house, there was always a separate happiness to being there. I so much wanted to share that with my Mr. Alsop, but it proved impossible…"
"It very much hurt my grandmother to see the home place come down. Cousin Kathleen and Daniel refused to witness it."
"What a strange hold that house exerted on us all. Those years I lived there, I thought of my father as the master from whom I had to escape. Yet once I left home, I mourned the house, not my family. The house had the power to draw me back. That's why Jessie wrote me that it had burned, isn't it? Well, it's finally gone…. We're better off to be free of it. It held us all too tightly."
"When the house came down, Jessie remembered the wish bones hidden under the fan light in the front hall. She kept yours—the one about Mr. Kennedy."
"Did she! Oh, that's delightful. I remember it exactly:
The dapper Mr. Kennedy
Writes that he hopes to marry me.
To meet him I must cross the sea,
Or travel o'er the Rockies!
"And that's what I did, didn't I? We were such naive, country children, always dreaming, making foolish wishes…. You must be careful of wishes, you know. More often than not, they turn out to be the exact opposite of what you meant to wish for. Now tell me about yourself. What brings you to California?"
"I have my research. Currently, I'm finishing my graduate studies in biology at the university in Palo Alto. But I must confess that one of the reasons that my wife and I live here is because someone once held the same affections for me that you had for Daniel."
"Oh? And who was that?"
"Sarah and I met in college. Following our graduation, we planned to marry. In the middle of our senior year, Alice, Sarah's older sister, returned home from Spain. I'll never forget the first time we met. I was very taken by her."
"Ah! Love at first sight!"
"I didn't want to believe in such things. Sarah and I were already engaged. We'd set our wedding date six months hence. I loved her but I had these feelings for Alice… "
"So what happened?"
"Sarah and Alice decided that the three of us should spend our Christmas holiday together, at their father's house on Lake George."
"I take it that your affections changed."
"One night the three of us went dancing and changed partners. Alice and I returned home to find Sarah unconscious. She'd taken a handful of pills. Once she was out of harm's way, I admitted my feelings for her sister. I didn't need to say it. She'd already seen as much. We agreed to break off our engagement. After we graduated, Alice and I were married in a civil ceremony. We didn't want to involve the other members of her family. Ever since, the two sisters have been estranged. Sarah has agreed to meet my wife's plane in Boston. Their father's dying. It's why Alice flew home."
As the story tumbled out, I felt a tightness grip my chest. It had been a long time since I'd replayed the scenario. By mutual agreement, it was something my wife and I agreed not to discuss. Now here I was, telling it to someone I'd just met. Was it the anonymity of the encounter, or the presumption of shared experience?
"Aunt Lizzie, when Sarah tried to kill herself, she frightened me. After I'd worked my way through the guilt, I had to admit I didn't love her anymore. I didn't want to marry someone who had confused love with death."
"May I tell you something that I've never shared with another living soul?"
"Daniel felt the exact, same way. The morning after our high school graduation, I'd made up my mind to kill myself. I thought the contents of the bottle that I swallowed contained strychnine. I didn't know it was only laundry starch. Ever after, Daniel was afraid of me. That's why he married Kathleen. He told me so. And that's why I married my Mr. Kennedy. We both decided to love differently."
"But Jessie said you swallowed poison the day of Daniel and Kathleen's wedding."
"Oh, that's not true! It was the morning after our high school graduation dance. The night before, Kathleen and I changed partners, just as Sarah and your Alice did. As I watched Kathleen and Daniel dance, a radiance lit up the room. I admitted what I'd refused to see all along. After the dance, we three girls took our dates back to the home place and played the Victrola in the upstairs parlor. Daniel, Will and Pat left before dawn. Kathleen and Jessie went to bed. I couldn't sleep. I went down to the parlor and waited for the sun to come up. Once it had, I dropped our dance programs behind the wainscoting, went out to the chicken house, and swallowed what I thought was rat poison."
"But why do you say you loved differently?"
"Daniel did the right thing, marrying his Kathleen, just as you did, marrying your Alice. Had you married Sarah, she would have been dependent on you, as I would have been dependent on Daniel; and you would have been fearful of her, as Daniel was of me. Daniel pitied me. When love turns to pity, it's no longer love. I wanted a husband, not a prison. I'd had that, living in our father's house. Like the home place, my love for Daniel held me too tightly. I loved my Mr. Kennedy, I can assure you. If I hadn't, I would never have found the strength to live alone all these years. Jessie and Kathleen were stronger. I dare say that's true of your Alice. So how will the two sisters work things out?"
"Their father wants to leave his lake house to both of them."
"And how does your Alice feel about that?"
"She wants her sister to have the house. She says that she could never be happy there."
"Poor Pat! That's probably why he never lived at the home place. He was the one who found me, you know."
"But you said the boys went home."
"Well, somewhere along the way, Daniel and Pat stopped to talk. They decided they'd both been in love with the wrong girl. Daniel confessed his love for Kathleen. Pat admitted he'd always been sweet on me. They agreed to love differently. Pat couldn't sleep. He had to rush back over to the home place and confess his love for me. That's when he found a hysterical girl, gagging and carrying on. So you see, if I hadn't acted so foolishly, things might have turned out differently….
"It frightened Pat, finding me like that. Afterwards, he'd never set
on the home place. I'm surprised to hear he even bought it."