A Mother and Two Daughters
The first Saturday in April, the day of Nell's Book Club, turned out to be clear and sunny, with the temperature in the mid-sixties by nine o'clock. Early April in the mountains could be tricky, so much so that women who could afford it often had two outfits ready for social events occurring around this time. Nell laid the lightest of her two dresses -- a gray linen with tiny pearl buttons down the front -- out on her bed, and went down, still in her robe, to put the finishing touches on her luncheon preparations. Though each hostess operated under the illusion of freedom, she was bound by a great number of strictures and traditions regarding menu, decoration, and order of events. Some customs were contradictory to other customs (you were supposed to serve a selection of "nonfattening" salads, for instance; but you were also expected to keep an endless supply of hot rolls circulating around the table); and some customs had always seemed to Nell to be downright uncouth, for a group that laid so much stress on the refinements of culture. Guests arrived at eleven-forty-five; you were supposed to have them seated at the table by noon; there were no cocktails first, no alcohol ever; coffee, hot coffee, was supposed to flow from the same endless source as the hot rolls, and be served straight through, from soup to nuts; and -- this was the tradition that got Nell -- the hostess was not supposed to sit down at her own table. The hostess was expected to circulate around and around the table, pouring the coffee and passing the hot rolls and -- during hurried refuelings of coffeepot or refillings of roll basket in the kitchen -- stuff what she could get of her own food in her mouth, like a servant between trips.
Where on earth had such a custom come from? wondered Nell, as she applied hot towels to the rings of her aspics and fruit molds and waited anxiously for the reassuring clump of the preparations sinking onto the platters below. Was it some old fashioned mountain notion of high courtesy to guests? That Must be it, because even the women who had maids followed the protocol. The maids were allowed to serve the plates in the kitchen, but the hostess did the circulating in the dining room. Once, when Theodora was hostessing, Nell had choked and gone into the kitchen to get a glass of water, and there sat Azalea at the kitchen table, a nice selection of the day's goodies arranged on her plate, a steaming cup of coffee on one side, while Theodora stood at the sink, trying to chomp a mouthful of roll and chat with Azalea at the same time, while waiting for the next pot of coffee to perk.
At ten o'clock, the florist delivered Nell's centerpiece. That was another custom: even if you had won every Garden Club award in town, you were expected to order the flowers for your centerpiece, which came prearranged from the florist's. She set down the rather conventional-looking arrangement in the place reserved for it: nice, serviceable flowers, cut low, so the women could talk over them. Then, as a reward to herself for obeying so many rules, she went to take another look at her cake, which had turned out splendidly.
The ladies wouldn't have to pin red A's on their breasts, but they were going to get one served to them at the table. Nell was especially pleased with the red glazed frosting. She had experimented with raspberry juice and vegetable dye till she got exactly the shade she wanted. And the elaborate yellow tracery effected with a paper funnel: well, she wished Hester Prynne could have seen it. (Nell had not quite finished the book, but she had dutifully watched every installment of the work on TV.)
At eleven-thirty-nine, the first car drew up. Nell looked through the curtains and saw Sicca Dowling get out of her little sports car with the bashed fender. Chiffon scarf trailing like streamers behind her, she wandered halfway up the flagstone walk, then obviously recalled something she had left in the car. She retraced her steps, her ankles wavering in the high-heeled sandals. She poked her head into the passenger side of the car, removed something from the glove compartment, and (after a quick look around her) swigged from a silver flask. She put the flask back and sauntered up the walk a second time, looking jauntier. Sicca's one son had been killed in a helicopter accident in Vietnam; she had had a nervous breakdown; her husband had run off for a while with a young girl he had met on the golf course. But now he was home again and they drank together. Sicca carried her sorrows by making a joke of everything, including herself. But there was no malice in her. Nell had seen her fall flat on her face and pick herself up and make a joke about it. She had been Theodora's maid of honor-elect, before Latrobe Bell had made himself ineligible for that wedding. Nell liked Sicca and was always sorry when she was too indisposed to come to a meeting; even though she occasionally fell or knocked over a valuable glass or told one of her questionable jokes.
As Nell came out of her house to meet Sicca, Theodora and Wickie Lee pulled up in Theodora's impeccably preserved 1954 Buick Special.
Sicca floated up to Nell and kissed her. "Nell, you look truly wonderful. We've all missed you very much." Her breath was fragrant with vodka. She still had her slender figure even though her poor face was a ruin.
Theodora, bearing a basket covered with a snowy cloth, and Wickie Lee, carrying a small box in which Nell presumed were the place cards Theodora had volunteered for her to make, approached with the ceremony of guests who know they are indispensable. Wickie Lee, whose baby was due this month, had a new dress that flowed with old-fashioned majesty, and a quaint upswept hairstyle. Nell had a poignant image of Theodora dressing and grooming the little protégée like a life-sized doll about to give birth to another life-sized baby doll. But she had to admit, Wickie Lee's sojourn with Theodora had bestowed a luster: the girl looked rested and healthy and less suspicious of everyone; she carried herself better. And there was a dignity about the pale, finely made "long-ago" face that peered impassively upon the three older women overdoing their greetings to one another.
"I declare, it's so good to have you back with us," said Theodora, kissing Nell. Theodora's eyes were actually wet. "But look here what Azalea sent you. Two dozen of her special cornbread sticks. They'll need to be heated up. Sicca, where did you find that suit? It's exactly what I wanted, but who can ever find anything out at that new mall?"
"Dowling ran me down to Atlanta and gave me carte blanche at Rich's," said Sicca. "There's a lot to be said for the dividends of repentance."
The two old friends hooted with laughter and drifted toward Nell's house arm in arm. Two more cars pulled up: Lucy Bell and Jean Lewis in Lucy's new Toyota; and Gertrude Jones, who lived in the country, in her wartime Jeep.
"I've brought the place cards," Wickie Lee told Nell, offering her a Yardley's Old English Lavender soap box at just the moment Nell was preparing to greet the new arrivals. "They're in here. Want to look at them?"
"I certainly do. Let me just --" Nell heard the phone ringing inside the house.
"I'll get it," shouted Theodora, who had reached the house with Sicca. "You go on and greet your guests!"
"Nell, you look wonderful!" cried the fresh chorus of women. Lucy Bell had a new suit that looked dangerously like Sicca's new suit from Rich's; Jean Lewis, glowing in the superiority of her youth, carried a-library copy of The Scarlet Letter crammed with page markers torn from yellow legal paper; Gertrude Jones was still in her trusty old tweeds and had mud on her shoes.
"Oh, aren't they sweet!" cried Lucy Bell; for Wickie Lee had the top of the box off and was showing the place cards to anyone who would look. "What a darling idea! A little pearl stuck on a sprig of evergreen."
""That's really symbolic. You caught the spirit of the book," said Jean Lewis, who wasn't much older than Wickie Lee. (Nell wondered what Jean told her husband about the meetings when she got home. Did she say, "I do it for your sake, darling; otherwise those old biddies would drive me mad"?)
""Very simple and tasteful," said Gertrude Jones, also admiring the cards. "Oh look, here's mine. You used one of those lettering pens, didn't you? I always think simplicity is best in the long run. Look how Norman architecture has held up."
"Thank you," said Wickie Lee with equanimity. "They aren't real pearls. We bought them at Woolworth's."
"It's any day now, isn't it, precious?" Lucy Bell asked Wickie Lee, who stood perfectly still until Lucy had finished hugging her. "You must be so excited. I remember how excited I was, even after all these years. I hope you've been doing your exercises like a good girl. And Theodora says you all saw a movie --"
"We walked out," said Wickie Lee, putting the lid back on her place cards. "As soon as it got messy, we left. I don't need a nasty movie like that to help me have my baby."
"It was Grace!" called Theodora from the house. "She said not to wait lunch. She stepped in a pothole on the way to her car and thinks she sprained a ligament; she's at the hospital waiting for an X ray. She'll be here when she can!"
"Won't you all come in?" said Nell, to get the show on the road. "Come on, Wickie Lee, I'll show you where the cards go.They are very nice." She had to stop herself from putting her arm around Wickie's shoulders as they walked beside each other to the house; the stoic diminutiveness of the child, rounded with incipient motherhood, touched Nell today. But she saw that Wickie Lee didn't like being handled, and she respected that.
Lunch was madness. Nell expected this. She moved like a gracious robot, refilling coffee cups and passing rolls and Azalea's corn-bread sticks, which went fast. Sicca Dowling told a funny story about old Mrs. Wyatt, who went downtown to buy a maternity bra at age eighty, because her doctor told her it would be more comfortable with her pacemaker. Several of the members exchanged glances as Wickie Lee carefully cut off the tips of her cold asparagus, pushed them to one side of her plate, and ate only the stems. Gertrude Jones stepped outside on the screened in porch to smoke. She exhaled through the screen and the smoke drifted onto the top blossoms of Nell's Japanese cherry, in bloom in the garden below. After Rachel Stigley had died of cancer of the sinuses, all the Book Club members but Gertrude had stopped smoking. At twelve-fifteen, Grace Hill hobbled in triumphantly with a taped-up foot and regaled the others with stories of the unbelievable inefficiencies of the emergency room. Nell served the cake, and, after the ohs and ahs died, Nell saw Lucy Bell, the current secretary, jot down a few words in her notebook: a description of the cake, to be read in the minutes at the next meeting. Sicca, who had taken a fancy to Wickie Lee, who sat beside her, asked her if she'd heard about the Pole, the Jew, and the Negro who went to heaven. Wickie Lee said she hadn't. "Well," began Sicca, "Saint Peter told them they'd each have to spell a word before they could get in--"
Nell took the coffeepot back to the kitchen. She had another one ready on the back burner. "-- the Pole said, 'C-A-T,' and Saint Peter said, "Okay, you can go on in --"
Nell dipped a piece of asparagus into the leftover homemade mayonnaise and ate it head first; she wished she could start loading the dishwasher. "-- the Jew said, 'R-A-T,' and Saint Peter said, 'Okay, you can go on in --"
Nell had stashed two of Azalea's corn-bread sticks under a dishtowel. She bolted one and then the other and washed down the remaining sweet, greasy crumbs with a glass of water from the tap. "-- 'and now,' said Saint Peter to the Negro, "it's your turn. Can you spell "chrysanthemum"?' "
Nell came back with the fresh pot of coffee just as the laughter was abating.
"In my day," said Theodora, "there was another version of that joke. He had to spell 'parthenogenesis.' "
"That's strange," said young Jean Lewis, who tended to be earnest. "Because, actually, 'parthenogenesis' is easier to spell. You can sound it out. It seems to me the words should be getting easier. Even in the jokes."
"I heard this version from my little shoe-repair man," said Sicca. "He was so pleased with the way he told it that his laughter was just infectious."
"Well," said Wickie Lee, who did not look as if she had laughed, "I can't spell either word."
There was a short, baffled silence. Then Nell said, "Ladies, shall we move into the living room?"
There followed an interval of about seven minutes, during which the members repaired to one of the 'three bathrooms; several dozen gallons of tank water went rushing through the pipes; then, one by one, the members reassembled, with noses repowdered and hairdos set in order.
Wickie Lee, who had been given first chance at the bathroom due to her condition, had claimed Leonard's high-backed wing chair; she seemed scarcely larger than a doll in it.
Theodora, reelected for a third term as president, brought the meeting to order.
Lucy Bell read the minutes from the March meeting. There was an eloquent description of Grace Hill's cake, shaped like the state of Maryland, with no mention of the fallen inlets Theodora had told Nell about over the phone.
Theodora asked if there was any new business; there wasn't. "Well, I have one little item I'd like us to think about," she said. "Girls, we are diminishing. This past year, we lost Rachel Stigley. Montgomery Starnes has, gone to live with her daughter in Texas, and I think we have to face the sad fact that though Portia Jane Woodcock has made remarkable progress after her stroke, she will never be an active member again. We have, in effect, three empty spaces, which I think we ought to fill with . . . bright new faces. Young faces. After all, if this Club doesn't survive, who is going to research us when the Tricentennial comes around?"
Everybody, except Wickie Lee, who looked preoccupied, laughed.
"I therefore move that we establish a committee for new membership and that Jean Lewis, our youngest face, be put in charge."
The members clapped. They voted unanimously for Theodora's motion. Jean Lewis blushed and said earnestly she'd do her best to have a slate of potential new members by the next meeting.
Theodora should have been a politician, thought Nell; she knows just when to give, after she's taken away. Now Jean Lewis's feathers are calmed about her Rabbi's-wife book's being scratched at the last minute.
"If there is no further business, I move that we proceed to the discussion of Mr. Hawthorne's fascinating novel, which many people agree is the first American masterpiece." Theodora paused, as if she could not quite bring herself to relinquish her hold on the group. "And it's going to be especially rewarding to compare the novel with the series we've just finished watching on TV. Who would like to begin?"
Jean Lewis was busily leafing through her library copy, consulting tiny notes written on the yellow strips of paper. Everyone waited. "What I found particularly rewarding," she began in an earnest voice that made it inconceivable that she should be parodying Theodora's pet word, "was my own opportunity to compare the two books. I mean the book we had first planned to read, Rachel the Rabbi's Wife, with The Scarlet Letter. What struck me particularly was that both these books are about the same thing: a strong-minded, independent young woman living inside a repressive, patriarchal society."
"That girl's eyes on TV were such an uncanny blue," Lucy Bell was heard murmuring to Sicca Dowling. "Was she wearing contacts, do you think?"
"Maybe she was high on something," said Sicca, a little too loudly. She had stepped out to her car again when the other members had been freshening up.
Several members laughed, and Wickie Lee, frowning, wriggled in her chair as if she were uncomfortable. Jean Lewis half shut her eyes and hardened her jaw.
Nell the Hostess said, "That's a very good point, Jean. Or, to put it another way: Can the individual spirit survive the society in which it has to live?" There now, Jean looked mollified and Nell could report to Cate that she had quoted her.
"Perhaps I'm out of turn," said Grace Hill, who often prefaced her opinions with this phrase, "but I thought it was more of a love story. An unhappy one, of course, in that Puritan setting, but --"
"I didn't watch the programs," said Sicca. "I'm always conked out before those prime-time shows. But I did read the book, years and years ago, when I still had all my brain cells, and it seemed to me it was about people who enjoyed wallowing in their exquisite guilt."
"Oh nonsense, Sicca," boomed Theodora. "We read that book together, when we were at the Spenser School. You cried like a baby. You wanted it something awful for Hester and Dimmesdale to run away on that ship."
"There you go again, Thea, creating memories out of whole cloth because you know you're safe. You know my memory's awful. Well, even if I did want them to get off, they didn't. He died and she spent the rest of her life wallowing in exquisite guilt . . . ." Because they were such old friends, Sicca and Theodora felt perfectly comfortable fussing in public. It was almost as if they felt others were privileged to be allowed to hear.
"Excuse me," cried young Jean Lewis. "I simply must take issue with you, Sicca. Hester Prynne did not spend the rest of her life wallowing in guilt. She came back to that community of her own free will and helped a lot of women with their problems. She was the brightest, most positive force that community had!"
"Speaking of bright, didn't you all feel the television made everything too bright?" inquired Gertrude Jones. "I mean visually. The atmosphere was more like a Gypsy camp. There were too many colors. They did violence to Hawthorne's stern little Puritan setting."
"Wickie honey, I wish you'd tell us some of your thoughts," said Theodora. To the group, she explained, "Wickie Lee was extremely moved by that last episode. We neither of us wanted it to be over, did we, Wickie? Afterward we got out the book and I read the conclusion aloud and we both cried."
"Maybe you're confusing that with your 'memory' of me crying at Spenser," said Sicca dryly.
"I for one would love to hear Wickie's thoughts," said Grace Hill effusively. "Why, I mean, especially in your -- er -- " Realizing she had gone too far, Grace wildly backtracked but found all her exits closed. She bravely pursued, "I mean to say, there are such interesting parallels. Both of you young girls -- er, alone and --"
Theodora cut her off. "Let's let Wickie Lee speak for herself," she said sweetly, with a dark look at Grace.
Wickie Lee had been shifting more than ever in her chair since she had received notification she was expected to speak. Nell's heart went out to her now as she eased herself forward in Leonard's big chair and fidgeted with her hands a little. As she spoke, she kept her eyes down on her extended belly.
"Well, I loved her," she said in her small, flat voice. "I loved him -- Dimmesdale -- too. He had such a sad, beautiful face. I felt so sorry for them." She wriggled in her chair and frowned. "But I felt sorrier for him. He lost everything. But she had --"
The girl's face contorted. Oh Lord, thought Nell, she's going to cry. How cruel of us to put her on display like this. What can I say to help her out?
But at that moment, Wickie Lee gave an exclamation of distress and lurched awkwardly out of the chair. A puddle of water was forming on the rug at her feet.
"She's broken her waters!" cried Lucy Bell.
"She couldn't have!" said Theodora. "The doctor said the fifteenth of April. This is only the seventh."
Lucy gave a wild laugh, the likes of which Nell had never heard from her. "Theodora, there's some things even the doctor doesn't have control of. When baby's ready, baby comes."
Though it lasted scarcely longer than a second, Nell would never forget that frozen scenario in her living room: Wickie Lee, eyes round with fright, or surprise, clasping her belly with both hands and looking down at the rug; the women, some sitting, some who had risen in excitement or confusion; and -- across it all, above it all, somehow -- Theodora Blount and Lucy Bell, their gazes locked in the mutual animosity they had managed to hide from their friends for decades: Theodora could never forgive Lucy, that nobody from Spooks Branch Road, for robbing her of her rightful partner and any children they might have had; and Lucy hated Theodora for patronizing her and lording it over her, even though she, Lucy, had "won.".
"Oh!" gasped Wickie Lee, with an intake of breath. The scenario came unfrozen then.
"How long have you been having contractions?" asked Nell, going to the girl.
"Well., I felt -- oh! -- these twinges starting at lunch, but" -- the girl turned so pale she was almost blue -- "this is a right smart one."
"Call the ambulance, somebody!" ordered Theodora. "Grace, go call the ambulance."
"Hold on a minute, Grace," said Nell. "We don't have time for the ambulance to get here. Grace, you call the hospital and tell them we're coming, and ask them to locate the doctor. Wickie Lee, sit down in that chair and start counting aloud and tell me as soon as the next one starts. I'll just get some towels and we're off. Whose car are we taking?"
"But I'll ruin the chair," said Wickie Lee.
"It was my husband's chair and he would have insisted you sit right down."
"Towels!" cried Theodora. "You mean she might have it in the car? Shouldn't we call at least a taxi? I know I'm too upset to drive."
"My waters didn't break till hours after the contractions started," Lucy Bell was telling sorneone, sotto voce.
"Sicca, do me a favor," said Nell. "Pour everybody a drink. You know where our liquor cabinet is. Grace, go on and make that call. Theodora, when I bring my car out of the garage, you and Wickie Lee be ready."
". . . sixteen . . . seventeen . . . eighteen . . . nineteen" counted Wickie Lee.
"You know best," said Theodora humbly. "I'll do whatever you say."
They were settled in the car before Wickie Lee had another contraction, and well onto the expressway before the third. "Don't worry, Wickie, we're going to make it," said Nell. "First babies usually do give a little leeway, even when they're eager to get here, like yours is."
The girl started to laugh, then gasped.
"Remember to pant, darling," said Theodora, who sat in the backseat, holding Wickie Lee's hand.' And the older woman stuck out her tongue like a dog and set the example.
Grace had done her job well. An orderly with a wheelchair awaited them, and a nurse informed them that the doctor had answered his beeper; he had called in from the St. Dunstan's Forest golf course and was on his way.
"You all go on ahead," said Theodora at the admissions desk. "I'll take care of these dreary forms." She seemed anxious to get rid of Nell.
But as Nell followed Wickie Lee and the orderly to the elevator, she overheard Theodora dictating to the woman who was typing the form: "Wickie Lee Blount. No, B-L-0-U-N-T. That's right. She's my little niece and we'd like her to have a private room . . . ."
Wickie Lee, in the throes of another contraction, had overheard, too. She rolled her eyes up at Nell. "It was her idea," she said, as if she felt called on to explain Theodoras whims.
Two hours later, Nell drove Theodora back to the house to pick up her car. Wickie Lee had, with very little fuss, given birth to a seven-and-a-half-pound baby girl. Theodora was crowing with pride. She told Nell how Wickie Lee had scorned the movie the doctor made them go to. "Wickie said to me, 'I don't want to watch this naked woman with her socks on any longer. You're not supposed to see it from the outside. You're supposed to feel it from the inside.' And just look how she came through! And the baby almost as big as she is!"
"Will they be staying on with you?" Nell asked. They would soon be passing the spot where she and Leonard had gone off the road on December 16; she was driving the same car -- all they'd had to do was hammer out the roof and realign the wheels. Her broken rib had mended and she had resumed her social life. Existence went on.
"As long as they like," said Theodora, with feeling.
Back at the house, Nell found that the women had washed and put away all the dishes.There was a note to Nell from Lucy Bell that she had shampooed the rug but that she was afraid there was nothing to be done about the water mark on the linen upholstery of the wing chair. Sicca, who had told Theodora she'd stay to "congratulate" her, was stretched out on the sofa, with a snifter of brandy on the table beside her. Nell made fresh coffee and the three of them sat around, discussing childbirth. Theodora could join in with the rest; she said she felt as though she'd been through it herself. It began to get dark and Theodora said she had to get back to the hospital "to check on my chicks." Nell walked Sicca to her car in the soft spring evening. "You're sure you're able to drive, Sicca?" "Honey, I'm a walking coffeepot. I haven't been this sober at this time of day for years."
Ballantine Books | Paperback| 544 pages