The Ohio evening is wood fires, cold noses, newly-turned fall leaves. My mother arrives late to the party, parallel parking her Porsche behind a blue sedan on Ranlyn Avenue before stomping out her cigarette in the ashtray, checking her brown curls in the rearview, and grabbing her purse off the passenger seat. On the porch Barb pulls her jacket up to her throat. She can hear Bill’s laugh: high-pitched, full-faced, guttural. When she opens the front door she gets a glimpse of her older brother in the opposite corner. With his straight smile, strong forehead, icy eyes and athlete’s body, Bill looks so much like his two-year-younger second cousin, Steve McQueen. Bill and Barb will never meet their cousin because Steve was abandoned by his father just as Bill’s father had abandoned him for several years after his mother died in childbirth.
Despite their different mothers and their 11-year age difference, Bill has spent the past few months looking after his little sister Barb, and she needs him right this minute. Barb tries to catch Bill’s gaze but he can’t see her—it seems like every aeronautical engineer in the universe is packed into the tiny living room, though really, it’s only the guys from Bill’s group: Customer Support reps for General Electric Jet Engines. It’s 1964, the height of the Pan Am age. Each man on Bill’s team knows how to fix a TF39 and drink his weight in single malt.
“Hey Bill!” she calls. But he can’t hear her.
The man nearest to the door grabs her hand. He’s smitten already, because they always are. She’s 25 and stunning: slightly upturned nose, green eyes, straight teeth, clear skin, small waist. And they all know her provenance, degrees in International Relations and Political Science from Stanford in ’61, then three years working as a tax technician with the IRS in San Francisco where in her off hours she campaigned for civil and migrant worker rights. Then, they have all heard, she disappeared for several months until Bill found her holed up in Acapulco.
“Dance with me,” the stranger says, but he really means what they all mean: Stay with me for the rest of my life.
My mother scans the front room again, longing for the calm her brother’s voice brings. After her San Francisco breakdown, Bill flew Barb home to live with his family in Cincinnati where she became the fifth woman in the household, joining Bill’s wife Lynn, a Lauren Bacall look-alike, and three daughters ages 11, 13, and 17. Barb is now the resident exotic sister. And everyone wants more. The party’s in full swing. Barb hears only the sounds of male laughter, clinking glasses, then someone leaning into a new song on the upright piano.
It’s hard for her to extricate her hand from the interloper’s. “No thanks,” she’s saying firmly, but the room is closing in and so is this stranger’s face towards hers. His other hand winds its way to the small of her back.
She needs to find that steadying force, her brother. He has already saved her life once.
“Excuse us for a moment,” comes a deep baritone from the staircase.
She looks up to someone familiar. It’s Ed Murphy, one of Bill’s direct reports. A protégé, really, with the quickest wit and biggest ambition in the group. In college he majored in English and Engineering and worked as a draftsman at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, making drawings of classified aircraft devices. Now he writes maintenance manual procedures on J79 engines for GE, and who knows what next? The sky is literally the limit. He is six feet tall with jet black hair and glasses. He pushes the other man out of the way, claiming my mother’s hand while opening the front door.
In the yard there is a maple tree and Ed and Barb stand facing each other underneath its bursts of red and yellow, their breath visible in the autumn air.
Ed’s dad is a musician, just like Bill & Barb’s dad. Ed starts to sing along to the faint music of the indoor piano: I know a place where the music is fine.
He’s holding a tree branch with his long, muscular left arm, crooning into a fake fist-microphone with his right.
As soon as he hits the chorus, Barb shoves him roughly against the bark of the maple trunk, kissing him hard on the mouth.
Ed Murphy, my father, kisses her back.
Five months later and deep into a dry, cold winter, my mother blusters through the back door of the reception hall, peeling off her thick coat and hurrying towards the source of warmer air. She’s wearing blue satin pumps that make her slender calves seem impossibly elegant. The pumps match her understated dress: it has a fitted blue bodice and a knee-length white A-line skirt. She dumps her purse in the small back room and warms up for a moment in front of the heater, bracing herself before Lynn and the girls arrive in a flurry of noise and small gifts. Once warm, she sits in the chair in front of the dressing mirror and lights a cigarette. She looks down at her left foot in its blue satin pump; the foot has cocked involuntarily skyward. When she’s anxious, my mother’s feet flex unnaturally as if her toes want to touch her shins. She forces the foot down again, willing it to stay there, willing herself to stay in control.
Out in the reception hall, my mother’s parents sit on rigid folding chairs against a wood-paneled wall. The room is smallish, low-ceilinged, and filling precariously with cigarette smoke as the Ewings and Murphys arrive en masse. Mary and Dwain McQueen Ewing came in from Minneapolis. They have neglected to invite their youngest son Rick to the wedding. A sophomore at DePauw University in Indiana, Rick is seven years younger than Barb, 17 years younger than Bill, and nearly always abandoned on the periphery.
Mary and Dwain are already several drinks up on the afternoon, and they are currently sucking on matching dry vermouth martinis. Thanks in part, perhaps, to her omnipresent drinking, Mary has maintained the physique of a fourteen year old well into her fifties. She is tiny, still beautiful in a carefully packaged way. She wears a tailored sage suit and her gray hair has been freshly set. She leans over towards her husband Dwain and hisses, “Look at what she’s wearing!”
Dwain, a successful attorney who spent much of his early career arguing cases for the Association of Composers, Artists, and Performers first in Chicago and then in Minneapolis, turns his head towards the front of the room where my father’s parents are standing near a folding table, admiring the three-tiered wedding cake. Frances and Edward Murphy are both tall, both substantial. Edward leans down with his well-muscled arms and embraces Frances around her full hips, kissing her on the mouth until she giggles, shies away and presents him with her powdered cheek to kiss instead. He takes her chin in his hand and gives her one more peck on the mouth, her eyes so bright and full with love it seems like they could be the bride and groom.
Soon, Bill and my father (who is counting the minutes until he can say “brother-in-law”) make their entrance through the front door of the hall, their deep laughter preceding them. They are tipsy, shoulder to shoulder like 1960’s frat boys, both with fresh crew cuts and handsome slim-cut brown suits. My father stops as soon as they cross the threshold: he sees his parents, his aunts and uncles, his cousins. He turns to Bill and clutches his arm, staring into his eyes. He’s already the sotted Irish softy; he holds Bill in a two-beats too-long embrace. Bill pats Ed on his back, pushes him off and pumps his hand, a somewhat more controlled congratulations.
The next three hours pass like seconds: there is a short exchange of vows, dinner buffet-style with paper plates, plenty more drinks, a tender first dance. When it is time to cut the cake, Dad stares down into Mom’s eyes and feeds her tenderly, like she’s a little wounded bird. When it is her turn to feed him, he opens his mouth wide, chomps his teeth. He is ravenous.
Later that night the party moves back to Uncle Bill’s little living room on Ranlyn Avenue. Edward pounds enthusiastically on the upright piano. Dwain sits next to him, eyes closed, fingering the keys of his clarinet. Ed relaxes next to his new father-in-law, leaning back into an armless chair, a glass of scotch cradled on his thin tie, his right ankle resting on his left knee. His chin is tucked down to his chest as he digs for his deepest Benny Goodman notes, They asked me how I knew my true love was true.
At the dining room table, Mary leans over to Barb and spits, “Goddamn! The soles of that man’s shoes. It’s your wedding, for Christ’s sake.”
Mom glances into the living room at her new husband. The room is spinning a little and she is more than tired.
Yes. The soles of her husband’s shoes are worn. Barb knows, but would never tell her mother, that Ed’s childhood bout with polio left his muscles wasted from the left knee down. He wears two different sizes. No, he didn’t buy new shoes for the wedding. He spent the money on her instead: dress, shoes, diamond ring. If she believed her mother she’d feel like she was making the biggest mistake of her life. But she has already made so many.
Tonight is her wedding night. Next week Ed is moving to San Diego where he will live just off base for a year, working support for GE engines at Miramar Air Station. Barb will stay with his parents in his childhood home, the three room house on St. Clair street in Covington. She’ll keep a small bookkeeping job and eat the hearty dinners Frances cooks every night: corned beef and cabbage, green beans and Metts, meatloaf.
Barb glares at her mother, stands up from the table and goes to her husband, who makes room for her on his lap.
The daffodils Barb planted flank the front steps of the house on St. Clair Street. Inside, Barb is at the formica table, she’s 26 today and adorable, her ankles crossed underneath her chair—she’s wearing cute cropped chinos and little white sneakers. Frances is at the stove, the kitchen smells like propane and vanilla, and Bill and Lynn are just arriving. Lynn’s blond hair is flawless in a Breakfast at Tiffany’s up-do. Edward greets her at the door with a warm hug. She enters the cramped kitchen and sets a bag of presents down in front of Barb.
“Happy Birthday!” she says, then kisses the top of Barb’s head.
Edward steps out on the walk and seeing the boys shouts, “Ew. Who hit you both with an ugly stick?”
Bill and Lynn have just picked Ed up from the airport, his first trip back after the wedding four months before. Bill and Ed are in the same off-duty uniforms of short-sleeved dress shirts and belted slacks. They share one of their jovial master laughs. They are about to enjoy some ribbing, since no one trades insults like Ed and his father.
Soon the younger couples have gathered on the small square of backyard grass off the kitchen. Ed and Barb kiss their hellos, seated on the swinging bench bounded by chainlink fence.
“Happy Birthday,” he says, and they hug for long moments.
After a proper greeting for his young bride, Ed pulls a snapshot from his wallet. “Ya gotta see this,” he says to Barb.
She reaches over to hold the photo. Half amused, half not, she chuckles at the keepsake from Bill’s recent trip to visit Ed in San Diego. They spent a night in Tijuana, and had a photo snapped with sombreros, Ed’s says Pancho, and Bill’s says The Cisco Kid.
And here’s how easily the seating arrangement shifts: Lynn joins Barb on the swinging bench to view the photo, while Ed and Bill move near the cellar door, laughing about Stonecipher’s gaffe at a recent meeting, about Ken Gee catching his raincoat in the faucet but not noticing until the water drained all the way down his sleeve and onto the floor, about Jer’s wife pregnant again.
“We’re the GE widows,” smiles Lynn and Barb smiles back, but the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. Until she sees Frances in the doorway.
“Barb, Bill?” Frances wipes her hands on a dishtowel.
“Your folks are here.”
The smile disappears again.
Barb hops up and hopes to intercept her mother at the front door, but she’s too late. Mary has already installed herself on the floral couch in the living room. Dwain is watching Edward pour matching whiskeys in the kitchen.
When Barb sits in the faux white leather chair across from Mary, she tries, “Did you have any trouble finding us?”
But her mother is nearly catatonic.
The little house on St. Clair street is about the size of the guest house behind the Ewing’s summer home on Cross Lake. Their home on 1st Street in Minneapolis is three stories, with maid’s quarters and a sun porch.
“This is where you live?” Mary drawls. She looks around. “Where the hell do you sleep?”
True, it’s a shotgun, with one bedroom in front, this small living room, and the kitchen in back.
“In the attic,” Mom says.
“Oh my god,” says Mary.
And she won’t meet Barb’s eye for the rest of the party.
Dwain appears and hands Mary a whiskey, which is decidedly not her drink. She sneers. Barb can’t stop remembering her younger brother Rick’s fifth birthday, she was 12, when their mother passed out drunk on the kitchen floor, and Barb had to run down the street to get a neighbor.
Its Barb’s cue to exit. She joins her husband out back on that tiny patch of grass. When she sees him, she thinks of him as a boy leaning against that chainlink fence after he spent three weeks in an iron lung, after he nearly died, after the doctors said he would never walk again. She thinks about how Frances trained herself in physical therapy, convinced she could help her only son walk again, how she forced him up on that cold kitchen table twice a day, manipulating his sore muscles until they were strong enough to compensate for those that were wasted.
Frances serves dinner buffet-style from the stove, and it’s delicious. She has decorated a cake.
In the tiny, steamy kitchen Barb grabs her husband’s hand. “Take me to Mexico.”
He’s laughing with Bill about something. “What?”
“Mexico.” She says.
When the streaming morning sun reaches them, they are tangled in bleached white sheets. It’s 80 degrees in December, and the window is open so they can hear the waves, smell the salt air.
“Oh my head,” says Barb, massaging her temples with thumb and pointer finger.
“Come here,” says Ed, pulling her close.
Last night’s tequila caught up to them quickly. There isn’t enough shrimp ceviche in all of Nayarit to absorb the alcohol they drank in San Blas square.
Barb removes herself from his embrace, turning her back to Ed and looking out towards the water. “What’s going to happen next?”
Two weeks ago she drove her Porsche from Covington to San Diego. Then she and Ed started down the Gulf of California coast with no destination. Now they have one week of their honeymoon left.
“El Playa?” says Ed. Maybe a swim would cure this hangover.
“I mean with us.”
It has been nearly a year since their wedding. Life on St. Clair Street suits her. Mornings at the kitchen table with Edward in his undershirt, always tinkering with an old radio or gadget before going to his job as a handyman in a repair shop. Frances at the stove, cooking breakfast in her work clothes. She’ll need to be at the office first out of them all, she’s a telephone operator, but she still wakes earlier than everyone else to make the coffee and fry the eggs. Before Barb can leave the house each morning the Murphys dote in stereo: It’s chilly, do you have a sweater? Here’s your lunch bag. What do you want for dinner? Wait! Your car keys, silly! Kisses and hugs on a Monday morning, Barb can barely believe it. Then it happens all over again on a Tuesday.
“Look, we talked about this.” Ed rubs the smooth skin of her back. “I’m putting in my time.” He has already signed the papers for his next two posts with GE: several months at Elmendorf in Alaska, then on to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
She turns to face him. There are tears in her eyes.
“I want to see the whole world with you.”
Later they drive to Playa de Matanchen with the top down. They plant their towels on the sand, Barb covers her skin with baby oil, cracks open a book—her favorite, Light in August. She loves Faulker, he loves Kipling. But he doesn’t open his book, this time.
Ed pushes himself up, adjusting his white suit around his skinny hips. He flashes a quick smile before he strides towards the shore, his polio limp camouflaged as a sandy-beach swagger.
Barb holds her finger on a paragraph, shifting her eyes between the book, her husband, and the mounting waves.
Ed stands in the surf up to his torso. Flashing a huge grin and waving. A little kid from Covington in the middle of the sea.
“Ed!” she screams. And he grins harder.
“Ed! Get out of the water!” He can’t hear her, and what would he do if he could?
“Ed! Come back!” She has thrown the book to the side, in the sand, she’s kneeling, trying to stand, when the wave tumbles over Ed’s head, and he disappears for what feels like a lifetime.
As she runs to the water, her mind flashes forward to a life without a husband.
Finally he resurfaces, shaken, sputtering, his shorts crooked, his glasses lost to the sea. He’s legally blind without them.
“What the fuck were you thinking?” she hisses. “What kind of fucking idiot are you?”
He’s dazed. He can’t even see their towels a few yards away.
She will have to drive him all the way back to San Diego, 1300 miles. It takes them three days to get back.
Three days of I’m sorry. Three days of it won’t happen again.
Three days and the promise of a ticket to Manila.
Her flight is nearly an hour late. Ed stands with his hand on his hip, looking out onto the tarmac, willing the plane to appear.
When he finally sees Barb, his face breaks into a wide smile. When she approaches, he takes her small carry-on make-up bag, drops it to the floor, and pulls her tightly to his chest.
It’s June and hot. Little beads of sweat start to form at her nape almost immediately. The air smells of jet fuel, Pinakbet, and Pall Malls. She grabs her bag again, and Ed’s hand, and they head towards baggage claim before getting a taxi to the base.
In the back seat, Ed feels almost shy; it has been six months since they parted ways in San Diego. He wants to reach for her, he longs for the warmth of her lips on his. When Barb leans over and kisses him, he feels a wave of relief. It’s like being home.
Once on base, they enter the small apartment that was fine for just Ed for several months, but that he has now tried to warm up for Barb with some bamboo hanging lamps and papasan chairs. He worries at first that she won’t feel at ease. But he doesn’t need to. She pushes him straight into the bedroom, where they barely get their clothes off before they are making love, sticky and sweaty in the afternoon humidity. The next morning Ed kisses her forehead before he heads to work.
After two weeks of staying all day in the tiny apartment, Barb says to Ed, “I’m going to need a job.”
They are eating chicken thighs in hot sauce at the tiny kitchen table.
“Why don’t you rest some more? Or do some touring?”
“I’m blotto bored.”
So Ed gets Barb a job with his boss doing some small administrative tasks.
After only one month, Barb comes home from the office breathless, crying. She slams the paper-thin door and flops onto the nearest chair.
“What happened?” asks Ed.
Barb won’t match his gaze. She stares at the wallpaper, her body shivering with sobs.
“What is it?” he asks again, kneeling next to her.
“He raped me.”
The next morning Ed storms into his boss’s office, ready to kill the man. Luckily his boss is able to unwind him. A secretary comes in and together they tell the story. Barb misplaced some important files. Ed’s boss hadn’t touched her. He had fired her.
Dad has to sit down outside the office and compose himself. He is known for his hot Irish temper; he was expelled from Covington Catholic after punching a teacher and had to repeat senior year at Holy Cross High School. His anger now is molten. What else is this woman capable of? All he ever wanted was this job, this life among others who speak his language.
He trudges back to the apartment.
He sits at the tiny kitchen table and starts quietly. “Why did you lie to me?”
She won’t face him. Won’t speak.
“Why did you lie? What are you trying to do?”
She’s still silent, staring out the window without emotion.
He snaps. He grabs the lamp off the table and throws it at the wall.
He leaves without a word.
They are not quitters. They keep on making mistakes then making up. A year passes and they have procured a large group of friends who like airplanes, music and booze. Barb and Ed will fly to Bangok for a sort-of celebration in the morning, but tonight about 15 people have crammed into the small apartment and are drinking commissary scotch, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and singing along to the tinny stereo in the living room.
The next day Barb and Ed are buying batik paintings at a shop near Wat Pho. They hire a boat on the Prao Chayo, where a young Thai man works as a charming gondolier, rowing them into the shadow of Wat Arun then across to the restaurants that line the river bank. The water is muddy and it smells of sewage and rotting shrimp, but they enjoy seeing the colorful vendor stalls and the hard-working shop keepers and fish mongers gathering supplies from the long wooden boats. When the tour is over, they stop for a late lunch of coconut curry and mango sticky rice, and cold Singhas to fight off the skin-searing heat of the June sun.
By the end of day one, they are in their hotel room, exhausted past the point of relaxation.
Ed stands at the round table near the window, unpacking a shopping bag.
Barb puts her finger through his right front belt loop and when he looks at her sun-browned face she says, “I want to have a baby.”
They are one floor up and even though it’s after midnight it sounds like rush hour. They hear horns, and the high-pitched whir of motor bikes, the deep rumbling of work trucks with their spitting diesel engines.
Ed does not want a baby.
He wants to live in Tokyo, and then Berlin. He wants to see Rio de Janeiro and Santiago. He wants to work his way up at GE just like Bill Ewing did. He wants a front room full of music and engineers.
They end up sitting across the table from each other.
“Explain this to me,” he says. “Because I thought we agreed.”
“I need something to make my life complete.”
Ed isn’t convinced.
The next morning they wake at sunrise. Later that day they will head to Chiang Mai, do more shopping and exploring and eating and gazing, but before Ed can push himself out of bed, she pulls him near her.
“Why isn’t this plenty?” he whispers.
“It’ll be my job. My life’s work. You have yours. Now give me mine.”
“Eat this toast, sweetie. It will settle your stomach,” says Frances. It’s late March 1968 and the sun is rising earlier now. They can hear the song of a robin outside the open kitchen door.
Frances has taken this Friday off to be with her daughter-in-law, who has gotten so big she has been sleeping on the sofa instead of climbing the stairs to the attic. Ed’s at work across the river in Cincinnati. Edward’s at the shop.
“I think my water just broke.”
By afternoon, Barb is being prepped for a c-section.
By evening, William Edward Murphy is born.
By midnight, Barb has attempted suicide in her hospital room.
By morning, baby Billy is on the infant ward and Barb is on the psych ward, barely hanging on.
Saturday afternoon in the hospital lobby, there are more bodies than solutions. Frances and Edward, Bill and Lynn, Ed, and even the girls crowd around. No one knows what happens next.
Bill thinks of the mother he never met, dead the day after he was born. Will Billy suffer the same fate?
A doctor enters the room and at first can’t tell who is who. “Ed Murphy?” he calls.
Ed steps up and the doctor says, “Your wife is alive but she is suffering from severe postpartum psychosis. We have her stabilized, isolated, and sedated. We will need her here for at least two weeks to make sure she’s on a therapeutic level of Lithium.”
Ed stares off at the clinical white wall, but his brain is churning through images: his parent’s living room where they have set up a bassinet, his new office at GE, his commute up I-71, his wife restrained to her hospital bed, his son squirming for milk.
A week passes. Ed drives to work every day and to the hospital every evening to see his son. His wife is still in isolation, and Ed asks a lot of questions but doesn’t get many answers because they don’t yet exist.
That Saturday, baby Billy goes home with Lynn, where she sings to him the same lullabies she sang to her own three babies. She changes his diapers, wakes routinely throughout the night to give him his bottle.
Another week passes. Ed’s in the hospital lobby again. The doctor says, “She’s still delusional. She says the Japanese government put a plate in her head and she’s receiving signals. We tried Thorazine. It didn’t help. We administered shock treatments.”
Ed nods, shuffling backwards until his calves knock the seat of a chair, and he sinks into it.
He leans over with his head in his hands. He has no idea what he’s going to do.
Four more weeks pass. Billy’s a big boy, already smiling and fascinated by the dangling mobile above his crib. When Ed goes to visit him at Bill and Lynn’s, Billy gurgles and grunts and wiggles.
Finally, the hospital calls. Barb can come home.
But no one can picture what that looks like.
“Ed, can you come here?” yells Barb. She’s standing on the square pad of concrete just off the sliding glass back door, staring towards the green field in the distance.
It’s September of 1970, and she’ll need a sweater later. Right now the air is crisp but not cold, the last rays of sunlight are lingering on the lawn of the newly constructed house on Yellowwood Drive.
Ed approaches the threshold, but takes a short moment to observe his wife from afar first: she’s wearing little leather sandals, navy shorts, and a bright orange tunic. When she turns sideways, he can’t believe how big her belly is, as if she’ll give birth any moment.
But not today. Today is moving day. They have boxes and boxes to unpack. The monkey wood furniture they purchased in the Philippines has yet to be delivered from storage.
He is hopeful she’ll carry to her due date, still a month away, and he keeps reminding her to take it easy.
She sees him in the doorway. “I want to build a sandbox there.” She points. “And a grape trellis here. And I’ll plant tomatoes against this wall, since the brick will soak up the sun’s heat.”
“Perfect!” he says, because he is praying that this is the Barb who will come back from the hospital, not the depressive, barely-there wife who came home before.
“Do you love our new house?” she asks Ed. Clearly she does. Her smile is brighter and more genuine than it has been in several years. Please. Let that be a good sign.
“I do. And I love you too,” he answers, but instead of leaning over and kissing her, he becomes distracted by two-year old Billy, who is toddling over the new sod.
I am in my mother’s belly.
I am not supposed to be there.
They had an agreement.
They were using birth control.
They considered an abortion.
Instead they decided they will do the best they can.
But Barb knows in her heart, and will tell me over and over, that I was never supposed to be born.
Almost exactly three years have passed and the four of us are together at the Ewing summer house on Cross Lake. My skinny, shirtless father relaxes in a green butterfly chair on the dock. My mother sits on the concrete steps with her knees jutting up to her chin. She sips from a plastic tumbler decorated with neon lemons. She’s wearing a one-piece sailor’s swimsuit with a bow tie at the chest—her brown hair is set in perfect curls, which she will not get wet.
My big brother Billy and I are knee-deep in the water. He’s newly five and I’m nearly three. We have the same white-blond bowl haircuts, the same rounded kid cheeks. We’re both wearing red swimming bottoms. I’m in heaven with the lake breeze on my face, the waves slapping my shins, my brother next to me splashing around with a stewed-tomato can as we both shriek and laugh. If my mother and father turn their heads too quickly, for a moment they don’t know which is the daughter and which is the son.
This happens to be a perfect August day on Cross. The water is plenty warm for wading, the sun is high and the sky is clear. Mom’s heading back inside for more lemonade when she hears a car pulling up the gravel driveway. She walks towards her father as he parks under the pines between the main house and The Stalag—that’s the family name for the long, narrow guest house, built shortly after the release of the movie Stalag 17.
“Hey there, pumpkin,” Dwain says to Barb. He’s 66, and newly retired. They have sold the Minneapolis house, and he and Mary now spend summers at Cross and winters outside of Tucson. He has put on weight in the belly, and he can trend towards cranky, which is why we call him “Grumpy” instead of “Grampy.” He’s got three bags of groceries in the trunk, so mom grabs one and together they walk to the kitchen.
Mary is at the table. Still slender, perhaps even more so, she looks perpetually exhausted, with large bags under her eyes and sunken cheeks. She had been called Grammy by Bill and Lynn’s kids, but when our dad’s mom took that name she changed to Nonnie.
Our little family of four is spending our first and last vacation at the lake with Grumpy and Nonnie. I’ll return often, but never again when they are there. It’s not yet noon, and Nonnie’s already drunk.
“What did you do to your hair? You look like a prostitute,” she says to Barb. “I guess that’s what happens when you marry into a family like that.”
My father walks in for the tail end of the tirade, and it’s no surprise he has already had enough. He’s holding me in his arms, and Billy’s trailing, and he hurries us into the south-facing bedroom. He is fuming, staring out at the water. Soon, the four of us head back down to the dock and pile into the speedboat. Dad takes us first to the sand dunes, a steep sandy shore where we climb the incline then slide back down, our suits filling with sand so we have to wade into the water and turn them inside out under the small lapping waves.
Then he takes us to an island farther north in the Whitefish chain, where mom pulls out sandwiches and apples and we eat a picnic at the shore.
My dad has been silent, but my mom can tell he’s thinking.
Finally he says, “I’m not going to tolerate it any more. I don’t want her anywhere near you.”
My mom can’t really argue, nor does she want to.
The next day we return early to Ohio.
That fall Billy starts kindergarten just up the street at Colerain Elementary. After Mom drops him off, she drives me to Montessori school near Tri-County. While we’re at school she does the shopping, goes to the bank, the post office. Some days she does office work for the League of Women’s Voters. Each evening we eat dinner together at the dining room table.
On Sundays we pile into the white Plymouth Fury and drive 45 minutes south, past the water tower that looks like the castle in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. We drive down Colerain Hill, where my father takes his foot off the gas and pretends we have no brakes—all of us screeching and laughing and enjoying the downward pull. We drive over the bridge that spans the Ohio River, (which seems ten times the size of the Little Miami River where we like to go for picnics). We take the second Kentucky exit off of I-75 and make three turns until we’re on St. Claire Street, where Grammy and PaPa are waiting to hug and kiss us to pieces.
My brother wears a striped shirt and brown corduroy pants. His hair stands up at the crown of his head no matter how many times my mother spit-combs it. He loves to pull at the hems of his bright white socks. We eat off paper plates at the formica table in the kitchen. I wear a frilled white dress with puffed red short sleeves and cherries on the bodice. On its white hem are the embroidered words, “My Grandmother Loves Me.” I suck my thumb a lot, and my mother hooks her index finger into my elbow to pull my hand away from my face.
After we eat, Grammy sits on the floral couch laughing with us as we play with toys on the carpet.
On the drive home, my brother lets me rest my head on his shoulder, then he rests his head on my head, and we fall asleep like interlocking puzzle pieces.
In the front seat, Mom holds Dad’s hand as he drives that Plymouth Fury across that rushing, muddy river and into the dark.