Far from the Treeby Donna Grant, Virginia DeBerry
Celeste English and Ronnie Frazier are sisters, but they couldn't be more different. Celeste is a doctor's wife, living a perfect and elegant life. But secretly, she is terrified: her marriage is falling apart and her need to control the people around her threatens to alienate her entire family. And Celeste allows no one to see how vulnerable she really is.
Celeste English and Ronnie Frazier are sisters, but they couldn't be more different. Celeste is a doctor's wife, living a perfect and elegant life. But secretly, she is terrified: her marriage is falling apart and her need to control the people around her threatens to alienate her entire family. And Celeste allows no one to see how vulnerable she really is. Ronnie is an actress, living in New York. Her life, however, is a lie: she has no money, has no home, and her life is held together by "chewing gum, paper clips, and spit," though she wants everyone to think that her life is one of high glamour and budding fame. When their father dies, the sisters inherit a house in Prosper, North Carolina. Their mother, Della, is adamant that they forget about going there and dredging up the past. Because Della has secrets she'd rather not see come to light-secrets and heartbreak she's kept from everyone for years. Neither Ronnie, Celeste, nor Della realize just what their trip to Prosper will uncover and they must discover for themselves who they really are, who they really love, and what the future holds for them. Far From The Tree is a novel that asks the questions: can the past ever truly remain hidden? Can mothers and daughters put aside their usual roles long enough to get to really know each other? Long enough to see they each have felt the love, loss, heartache and joy that they share as women. And can two strangers realize that they are, and always will be, sisters?
"A brilliant new saga of family ties."Black Issues Book Review
"Captivating and compelling...brave, realistic, and touching."Booklist
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Read an Excerpt
Far From the Tree
By Virginia DeBerry, Donna Grant
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant
All rights reserved.
"You can't cut your dresses by my pattern."
Present Day Buffalo, New York
"Ma?!" Ronnie leaned against the blue Formica counter and shuffled the hodgepodge of dishes in the cabinet. "Where's my mug?" Even though she'd been away for years, there was something about being in the kitchen at home that made her sound like she was nine years old. She looked over her shoulder at her mother.
Della sat at the dinette table, head in hand, staring into her lukewarm cup of coffee like she was searching for something she'd misplaced a long time ago.
Ma is really out of it. Ronnie had been torn up since she got the call about her Daddy — and getting through this long, sad day had sucked her dry. In between her own tears and grief, she wondered how her mother could act so calm. Not that she ever goes to pieces. Ma's just strong, I guess. Ronnie stretched to reach the top shelf and tugged at her little bit of skirt, trying to keep her butt covered. "You know the one, Ma, with the Esso tiger on it?"
Della's expression never changed.
"You mean the Exxon tiger? I haven't seen that cup since ... maybe since before I left for college, Aunt Ronnie." Niki left the bag of garbage she was tying and opened another cabinet to look.
"There are a hundred mugs here!" Celeste backed against the swinging door and came in toting an armload of platters and serving bowls. "Use one of them!" Her tone was sharp as barbed wire. She set the stack on the counter and examined a gold-rimmed plate. "Humph! Friends call themselves helping you, but these are still greasy, Mother." She looked across the room for an acknowledgment, but Della stayed in her own world.
"Do you mind if I drink my tea out of the cup I want to?" Ronnie slid a foil-wrapped pound cake, a stack of paper plates, and a shrink-wrapped fruit basket out of the way and hoisted herself up on the counter. "You know that mug has been my favorite ever since ..." Ronnie's voice caught in her throat. "... Ever since Daddy brought it home."
"Daddy died five days ago and you just showed up yesterday, so don't come telling me about how much some cup means to you!" Celeste rolled up her sleeves, dropped her pearls inside her blouse.
"You haven't seen your sister in a long time, Ma." Niki spoke in a hush as she stepped between her mother and her aunt. "Maybe you don't want to argue ..."
"I do not need you to tell me what I want, Nicole. Maybe you could finish taking out the garbage some time tonight!"
Niki just barely turned her head before she rolled her eyes. "Right, Ma!"
"And you might sit on kitchen counters in New York, but we don't do that here!" Celeste reached in the pantry and snatched the apron.
Ronnie crossed her leg defiantly.
"Fine. Sit there. But I have work to do." Celeste turned the hot water on full force. "Of course, helping out would be of no interest to you."
"Get over yourself," Ronnie barked, then jumped down from the counter. "This has been a hard day, and I'm exhausted...."
"Exhausted?!" Celeste gripped the sink with both hands to keep from throwing the plates at her sister. "You flew in here yesterday like the queen bee, acting like everybody was supposed to stop what they were doing and buzz around you."
"I did not!"
"You have no idea what we've been through this week! All the planning, the arrangements. Funerals don't just happen!" Celeste took aim and launched a laser beam of anger. "And where were you?"
"I got here as soon as I could!" Ronnie's red-rimmed eyes filled with tears.
"Don't start that again!" Celeste snapped.
The bickering finally penetrated Della's haze. She left her long-ago memories of leaving Prosper at the bottom of her coffee cup and looked up at her daughters.
"You don't understand," Ronnie sniffled. "I didn't see him for so long, and now ..."
"Whose fault is that? Nobody stopped you from visiting," Celeste snapped. "You barely call. We could all be dead ..."
"Celeste!" Della fired a warning shot.
"I'm sorry, but it's the truth." Celeste planted her hands on her narrow hips.
"That's a lie," Ronnie sputtered.
"That's enough!" Della's look could have cut glass.
"I ... I couldn't get here any sooner," Ronnie whimpered.
"Why not? Your father died! Is your so-called acting career more important than that?!" Celeste demanded, then sucked her teeth, turned around, and attacked a platter with a soapy sponge. "You might fool other people into thinking you're the dutiful daughter, but I know better!"
"Aw right, both of y'all." Della rubbed her thumb over the chip in her coffee cup. "Everybody's had enough today. The dishes can wait. I'm not plannin' for company tomorrow."
"It won't take me long. You never know who might stop by." Celeste put the wet platter in the dish rack and picked up a bowl.
"I said leave 'em."
"Fine." Celeste wiped her hands on her apron. "I'll go put the folding chairs away."
Della watched her first born storm out of the kitchen. As headstrong as she ever was!
The morning she realized she was pregnant, Della awoke to the tippy-tap of sleet against the windows. It was still dark, and the heat wasn't up good when she rolled out of bed to fix Will's breakfast and his lunch bucket. She lit the oven, popped open a canister of ready-made biscuits. That's when she felt the tickle that started deep inside. At first she felt foolish, wanting to laugh for no good reason. And then she knew.
Will was almost done eating when she told him. He stopped, the syrup dripping from his biscuit, and gave her the biggest, silliest grin she'd ever seen on his face. There was plenty of food in the house, but that night he came in with an armload of groceries because he wanted to make sure his babies ate good.
Della stayed happy the whole nine months, and no matter what people said about carrying high or low, or whether she craved salt or sweet, she knew this was a girl, her daughter. The only thing that would have made her happier was if her own mother could have been there with her, crocheting baby blankets, telling her what it would be like.
Contrary to the horror stories about labor she'd heard from young mothers on the Michigan Avenue bus and grandmas in the Broadway Market, Celeste came into the world in a rush that was over only five hours after it started. However, the bliss ended not long after the baby came. Della was expecting a pudgy, brown cherub, but Celeste was that pinky-beige newborn shade, bald as a cue ball, and all spindly arms and legs. She was almost scared to hold her child, but when the nurse laid daughter in mother's arms, Della felt her heart swell with a new kind of love. As soon as they got home, though, the colic started. No matter what formula Della tried, Celeste puked it up. Her piercing, vibrating cries made Della feel frazzled, but the doctor assured her nothing was wrong; some babies were just fussy. So Della would walk the floor with her, bouncing, singing, whatever she thought of to make it better, but mostly Celeste cried until she fell asleep. By then Della would be exhausted, but she'd put Celeste down on the bed and lie next to her so she could feel her warmth, inhale that baby-sweet scent, play with her fingers and toes, and pray for her to grow out of this difficult stage. But colic led to teething, earaches, and colds, all of which kept Celeste cranky.
As a toddler Celeste didn't care much for cuddling. She'd squirm out of her mother's hugs, push away from her kisses. Della craved more, and what made it even harder was that Celeste was the spitting image of Della's mother, Annie. Celeste turned out to be that red-brown that people say comes from Indian blood in the family. She had Annie's delicate build, petite, with slim, long hands and feet. Her face was wide at the forehead and cheeks, tapering to a point at her chin, and she had a slow, sweet smile that could catch you off guard when she revealed it. A sliver of brow framed deep-set, old folks eyes. Della always thought she was too serious to be a child. She'd sit at the table, drawing, with a crayon tightly clenched in her fingers, her forehead furrowed, her mouth tense with attention. Della knew Celeste wore that same expression now.
"Grandma, did you see the hat Miz Godfrey had on at church this morning?" Niki wanted to neutralize the atmosphere. "I think some sparrow is still looking for home." She tied up the trash bag.
"I bet she got that at Dixie Hats about 1962." Della swallowed a gulp of cold coffee.
Ronnie blew her nose on a paper towel. "At least she took it off when she got here. Y'all need to tell her straw is not a fall fashion accessory." Hands still shaky, she took a cup and saucer from the cabinet and turned on the burner under the kettle.
"Katherine wears that hat to everything, weddin's, christenin's, funerals ..." The word echoed off the sunflowered wallpaper and hung awkwardly in the air.
This time last week, nobody dreamed there'd be a funeral for Will Frazier, least of all Will. He loved to brag about his full head of hair, and he'd happily compare biceps with "knuckleheads young enough to be my grandkids." But Della had buried her husband over at Forest Lawn today.
Nobody could get over how awful it was, him being electrocuted, of all things, working on one of the rentals he bought and maintained so proudly for years. There were whole blocks in the Fruit Belt that still held on to their dignity because Will and Della owned houses there. Shorty Mayo, his handyman and right arm, was so broken up he cried until Della gave in and had the funeral procession drive past the fourteen doubles Will had acquired through the years. Shorty swore Will would rest better that way.
When they got to Buffalo in the fall of 'fifty-seven, Will and Della rented the lower half of a tiny, gray frame house on Emslie Street and stepped on the first rung of the neighborhood ladder. A German family had the upper, and Della and Will had a good laugh about how in Prosper you had to go clear across town to see White people. Right away Will got a good-paying job at the steel plant, and within the year he had saved up enough to buy the house. Almost immediately the Steinbachs moved. Living in the same house was okay, but paying rent to a colored man was another story. Will shrugged it off, mentioned the vacancy at the plant, and easily found new renters. Every year he added a new property, and after three he moved the family up a step to a white clapboard single with forest green trim and a wide front porch on Chester Street in Cold Springs. Whenever he wasn't shoveling coal at the plant, Will was tinkering on one of those houses, painting, repairing, putting out folks who didn't pay or who thought that since they gave him their money order by the fifteenth, most of the time, they had the right to tear up the place.
Ten years in he finally moved his family to the house he'd been driving by to visit ever since he saw a Black family go in the front door. Hamlin Park was a solid middle-class community, home to doctors, teachers, preachers, assembly-line workers, and undertakers. Had been for years. Hard work was the price of admission. Magnificent elms, oaks, and maples lined the sidewalks and made the substantial brick and wood homes look elegant. Nobody had peeling paint or raggedy curtains at the windows. Front and back lawns were carefully mowed and weeded on Saturday mornings, rows of boxy hedges marked property lines, and driveways led to two-car garages. Will bought it from his dentist when he moved to North Buffalo. The Craftsman-style house had a mustard-colored brick front and a roof that swooped dramatically over the porch. Will used to tease the girls that he would take them up there in the winter and teach them how to ski. The mirrored basement had a wet bar, red leatherette banquettes, and a pool table, and Will swore it looked better than half the watering holes he frequented on Friday nights. Celeste and Ronnie had their own rooms and a swing set out back. There was a sewing room for Della, and Will finished the attic, added a bathroom, and made the top floor his office. And whenever he came up the walk and put his key in the door he felt proud. This was a long way from his family's rented shack in Prosper, North Carolina.
After twenty years, Will figured he'd left enough sweat by the coke oven and retired to manage his empire full-time. Even though he still worked hard, there was no time clock, no blistering heat, and nobody on his back. It had been that way for the last twenty-four years and would have continued if a faulty ground wire and a puddle on the floor hadn't changed everything.
Ronnie stopped pushing cans of cling peaches and soup around another shelf and looked at her mother. "I swear I got here as soon as I could, Ma." Celeste always knew the fastest way to make Ronnie feel like two cents' worth of nothing, even if she didn't show it. Tonight was no exception.
"I know you did. Ain't no need to talk this into the ground." Della absentmindedly flicked crumbs off the bust of the green flowered duster she'd stuck on after visitors had gone.
"Okay, Mamacita." Ronnie doused a tea bag with hot water. When she got home yesterday she was shocked by how much older her mother looked. The sprinkling of gray at Della's hairline had sprouted into a fuzzy ring around her face, and she moved slower than she used to. Ronnie piped up before the silence was too thick. "Where's the honey? Somebody told me it wouldn't collect on my hips as fast as sugar." She flipped the hair of her dark auburn human-hair fall, the one she trimmed herself so it hung straight down her back and the bangs dusted her brows à la supermodel. She wore it when she hadn't quite made it to the hairdresser to get her extensions tightened. Hands on hips, she flashed a honey-dripping smile and batted her eyelashes. "Girls my age have to work to keep it together, you know."
"Girls your age. Ain't that nothin'." Della mashed stray cracker crumbs off the table with her middle finger ad sprinkled them in an empty plate.
"Sugar or honey, makes no dif. It all goes to the same place." Niki still had on the tangerine knit dress she had worn because her granddaddy liked it so much. She had worn it for her graduation from Cornell, and he said it made her stand out in the crowd, like she should. Her mother didn't see it as an appropriate tribute, and they were still only half speaking.
"I knew it sounded too good to be true." Ronnie squeezed her tea bag against the spoon, flopped it in the sink, then looked up at Niki. "And I can't believe I'm getting nutrition advice from you. Look at you. I swear you were just a little pipsqueak, but I haven't seen you in ..."
"Four years." Della knew exactly. Ronnie had been scarce ever since she first left home right after high school, and over the last seventeen years her visits had gotten fewer and farther between.
"It can't be, can it?" Ronnie shook her head, looked off for a moment. She couldn't believe it had been that long since she'd seen her dad, and now ... "And now you're bigger than me." She turned back to Niki. "And got the nerve to be managing a hotel restaurant. I'm scared a you."
"Assistant manager, and it's just the café, not the caviar and wine list restaurant."
"Well, I'm proud. Doin' your thing, movin' to Atlanta. I know your mother had a cow when you told her that." Ronnie continued her cabinet search.
"A cow? How 'bout the herd!" Niki set the trash bag by the back door, listened for approaching footsteps. "You should hear her." One hand on her hip, she waved the other back and forth, underscoring her words. "'Why do you want to live all the way down there? Restaurants? Any fool can work in a restaurant! You're smart, Nicole. You should apply to law school. At least get your M.B.A.' Blah, blah, blah. She won't give it a rest."
"That's my sister, Celeste the Magnificent, all-seeing, all-knowing." Ronnie plunked the remaining half of a five-pound sack of sugar on the counter and fished behind the boxes of cake mix and chocolate pudding. "You made it through the worst of it. How bad can she annoy you a thousand miles away?"
Niki pulled a new garbage bag from the box, flapped it open, and lined the can. "Yeah, but I'm afraid I've got something to tell her that's gonna fire her up again." She paused. She wasn't planning to bring this up, but now she could feel the question marks aimed at her. Besides, these seemed calmer waters to test. She sighed, dropped her voice. "I want to quit my job and go to culinary school. I want to be a chef."
"Oh shi — oot. Is that all?! What's wrong with that? It's in the same field." Ronnie opened the refrigerator and examined the bottles on the door.
"You don't get it. To my mother I'm a manager. At least she can tell people I'm in charge and that I'm planning to run a major international hotel conglomerate someday. A chef? I might as well tell her I'm flipping burgers."
"Move and let me find this honey before you have the whole kitchen upside down." Della planted her fists on the table, lifted herself out of the seat, and shuffled slowly across the room. Her big toe had poked through her panty hose.
Ronnie rested her hands on Niki's shoulders. "It's your life. If it makes you happy, she'll have to fix herself to deal with it."
Excerpted from Far From the Tree by Virginia DeBerry, Donna Grant. Copyright © 2000 Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant are the bestselling authors of Better Than I Know Myself and Tryin' to Sleep in the Bed You Made. Tryin' to Sleep in the Bed You Made won the Merit Award for fiction from the black caucus of the American Library Association, the Book of the Year award from Blackboard, and the New Author of the Year Award from the Go On Girl Book Club. Virginia and Donna first met while working as models, and what should have been a rivalry ended up as a decades-long friendship. Virginia lives in New Jersey, and Donna lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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This is my first read from these talented authors and I have to tell you that I was completly hooked! I went to bed with it and woke up reaching for it. Thank you for sharing your gift with us!
I really enjoyed this book. These ladies are gifted writers of the pen. I was captivated from Page 1 and did not want to put it down. Especially impressive is the way they took you back to your childhood as they recounted items from your past. I do not want to be more specific as I do not want to spoil your fun! I love this book.
Best book I've read in a while. You'll love it.
good book recommend it to someone who has sisters and had a loving mother
One of the few 'can't put down' books that I have read in a long time -- all women will enjoy this one -- the writer is exceptional in that she doesn't drag in any area -- moves fast and is a decent book you can safely recommend to anyone!
Really enjoyed this book! I have recommended it to my new book club members. It will be our first club selection. I think the authors are extremely talented
I am from Buffalo, attended Cornell, lived around the corner from the Science Museum and felt like someone had recorded my life and published it. So many other themes resonated such as the secrets black mothers keep from their daughters, the career and romantic notions we impose on ourselves and others, coming home for my father's funeral. I called all my girls from home and said 'someone stole our story'
I am a big fan of Ms.DeBerry & Ms. Grant since their first book, Tryin to Sleep in the Bed You Made. As with that story (Tryin), I felt as though I was there with each character - I hated when it came to an end!
These two ladies have done it again. They are excellent writers. This book was not boring at all. It was wonderful. I don't know how they did it. Great minds do think alike. The drama and the secrets make the book an unstoppable page-turner. It gets you excited and wanting to read more. I love it. Can't wait for another from the 2 ladies.