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With my hands clasped and resting on my lap, I sat at the foot of my bed in my room, waiting for Grandmother Emma March's chauffeur, Felix, to come up for my two suitcases and me. This morning it was so quiet that I imagined I wore invisible earmuffs. I could hear only my memories: the muffled sounds of my mother and father having another argument behind their closed bedroom door across the hallway, the clip-clop footsteps of Nancy, the maid, coming down the hallway to clean either my brother Ian's or my room, Ian imitating the sound of some insect he was studying, Grandmother Emma's voice echoing from the other side of the mansion as she barked out an order to one of the other servants.
As I sat there, it suddenly occurred to me why I wasn't terribly unhappy about leaving my grandmother's magnificent mansion. It had never felt like a home to me. It was more like borrowed space. Mother used to say we were even borrowing the air we breathed here. My brother, Ian, and I had to be so careful about everything we touched, even in our own rooms. So-called unnecessary noise was prohibited. Often, we found ourselves whispering, even when Grandmother Emma wasn't at home. We behaved as if we believed that whenever she went somewhere, she always left her shadow behind to spy on us and make reports. There were tattletales listening in every corner, under every chair, behind closed closet doors.
The rules swirled about us like angry bees ready to swarm down and sting us at the slightest sign of any violation. Just before I fell asleep every night, I could hear the house itself chanting and reminding me, "Beware of smudging furniture or windows. Don't leave anything out of place. Never track in anything from outdoors. Walk on air. Shut off lights. Respect me. Think of me as you would a very famous holy cathedral and treat me with similar reverence."
From the first day after we sold our own home and moved in with Grandmother Emma because of Daddy's economic troubles, my mother dreamed of moving out. The moment she stepped through the tall mahogany double doors, with the gold-painted, hand-carved March crest at the centers, and followed our things in funeral fashion up the stairway to our side of the large mansion, she was draped in dark shadows and weighed down like someone forced to wear layers and layers of heavy overcoats. Each day the brightness seeped more and more out of her eyes, and later I often caught her gazing out the window like someone behind prison bars envisioning an escape. Even in this opulent, rich world, she looked poor, misplaced, homeless and forgotten, or as Ian said, "A prisoner of circumstances beyond her control."
In the end we all were prisoners of these circumstances, even Grandmother Emma.
No one would have suspected that days of happiness and joy were rare for us. After all, we were the rich March family. Those happy days, however, were our private holidays, occurring just often enough to keep us, especially my mother, from drowning in a sea of depression. She would come up from the dark depth of despair, take a breath in the sunshine and then sink again to wait for the next occasion for smiles and laughter.
Too bad we didn't have more good and happy times to deposit in some sort of bank, I thought, and draw from them when we were in need of cheering ourselves. We'd always have something for a rainy day. Whoever could do that, whoever had a vault full of wonderful memories, was rich, even richer than Grandmother Emma, whose husband had been a top executive at Bethlehem Steel during the so-called golden age.
My grandparents had been like royalty then, and in the high society of today's Bethlehem they were still treated like old monarchs. She composed and moved herself as would any queen who merely had to nod or lift her hand to open doors, raise curtains, command the obedience of not only servants but seemingly everything and everyone around her, including birds and clouds. Only Mother was beyond her reach.
Mother and Grandmother Emma never got along. They could pass each other in the hallway without either acknowledging the other's presence. My mother always believed my grandmother thought she was not worthy enough to marry a March. Mother said Grandmother Emma insisted on us moving into her home not because she felt sorry for us and wanted to help us as much as she wanted to control us and be sure we didn't stain the Marches' precious image or put a crack in their solid reputation. There really wasn't much about our lives she didn't know and didn't want to influence or change, and my father put up little resistance.
"You don't just have feet of clay, Christopher," I overheard my mother tell my father once. "Your whole body and soul are made of clay and your mother is molding and sculpting or at least still trying. Anyone would expect her to give up by now, but not Emma March. She never surrenders. Ironically, I'm not the one who will always displease her."
Most of the time, my father ignored my mother's complaints and criticisms or just shrugged and went on doing whatever he was doing. Complaints and criticisms, whether from my mother or from my grandmother, were to him what flies were to an elephant. And even if he paid any attention and really heard them, he would wave them off with a gesture or a laugh. My grandmother said he was a clone of his father in that way. I never knew my grandfather, so I couldn't say. Ian knew him for a while before he died, but he told me he was not old enough to form any opinion except to say he didn't think he would have liked him if he had lived longer anyway. I had no reason to doubt it, because my mother seemed to agree with Grandmother Emma about her description of my father and grandfather.
"March men are selfish. Their eyes are turned inward. They don't see anyone else," she muttered when she voiced a complaint and he ignored her.
I never saw that more clearly than I did when my mother told him his little girl had crossed that mysterious boundary into womanhood. At the age of seven, my body, like some impatient Olympic runner, had charged out of the gate before the sound of the starting pistol. I had lurched forward and at times had felt as if I'd been rushed into my adolescence by a traitorous inner self that, on its own, seemingly overnight, had decided to begin forming my breasts, curving my buttocks, narrowing my waist and then initiating menarche.
The most terrifying thing I had overheard my doctor tell my mother was, "Yes, Carol, it is biologically possible for her to become pregnant," and there I was at the time, finishing the second grade. Living within our protective bubble, attending a private school, and having my friends filtered through Grandmother Emma's eyes, I hadn't been exposed to the worldly side of things very much. I hadn't even known exactly how women became pregnant. It had still been one of those "somedays." Someday I'll tell you this; someday I'll tell you that.
For as long as she could, my mother hid my accelerated development from my grandmother, who made the March family appear so perfect and special that the common cold would turn and flee at the sight of her scowl. We were not permitted to do anything unusual or that could in any way be considered abnormal. In fact, in her eyes members of the March family simply were supposed to be too perfect and too strong to show signs of trouble or illness. If Grandmother Emma had even the slightest symptom of an ailment, she refused to leave her room. The world had to be brought to her until she was a March again.
Knowing this, having lived with it myself and seen firsthand how she could be, I appreciated the deep depression and defeat she was experiencing now back in the hospital, where she remained an invalid, stricken down by a stroke, confined to a bed and at the mercy of doctors, nurses and medicine. She had slipped off March Mountain. Ironically, both of us had been betrayed by our bodies, hers admitting to age and mine refusing to be governed by it.
Ian, who believed that nothing happened by coincidence, that everything had an understandable and explainable explanation, or what he called a cause and effect, once rattled off the downward slide of our family this way:
"Grandmother Emma and her husband, Blake, created Daddy's personality and weaknesses because of the manner in which they brought him up. They spoiled him and made him selfish. That's why he has not been a good father to us and a good husband for our mother, why he failed at business and why he womanized."
"What's womanized?" I asked him.
Ian's vocabulary was years ahead of my age, even years ahead of his own.
"He has sex with other women, Jordan."
"You mean with those tadpoles and eggs?"
He had once explained it all to me and showed me pictures of sperm, which had reminded me of tadpoles. At the time I'd had a great deal of trouble understanding the intricacies of the whole human reproduction process. Ian gave me a book about it on my seventh birthday. My mother was surprised he did that, but she thought it was probably sensible. To her, Ian was always more sensible than even my father, maybe especially my father. My grandmother, on the other hand, thought the book and Ian's giving it to me were disgusting. She, like my father, never understood Ian.
"Just listen," he said, impatient with my questions and interruptions. "I'm talking about our family, our father. His upbringing led him to make these choices and mistakes. Mother reacted to his mistakes and wanted to divorce him. Grandmother Emma, who refused to permit the word failure in the March vocabulary, talked Mother into backing down, but as you know, she called them up in the Pocono Mountains at the family cabin where they were meeting to iron out their problems and told them those lies about us, making me look like some pervert just because I was studying your accelerated development and she caught me measuring your budding breasts."
"Perverted isn't nice," I said, shaking my head. I loved demonstrating whatever knowledge I possessed to Ian. I wanted his respect, even more than I wanted his love.
"Of course not. It's disgusting. However, if she hadn't done that, made that phone call, Daddy wouldn't have rushed out in the storm. They wouldn't have had the accident. He wouldn't be a paraplegic, Mother wouldn't be in a coma and Grandmother Emma wouldn't have hired this sadistic woman, Miss Harper, to be our minder."
"And you wouldn't have poisoned her," I could now add. He had taken rat poison from the groundskeeper's shed and mixed it in the glass of water Miss Harper had kept at her bedside. She'd been very cruel to us, and when Ian had secretly taken me to see our mother at the hospital in Philadelphia, she'd punished him by taking all of his precious scientific things, including his private notebooks, out of his room.
Ian was already gone by the time Grandmother Emma had her stroke. As I sat thinking about the things he had told me, I concluded, as Ian would, that she had her stroke because of all the previous terrible events that now troubled her day and night. Her iron will finally crumbled under the weight of it all, and she collapsed. But even then, even now, in her battered and distorted form, she still managed to hold on to the reins and run our family.
She arranged for me to live with her sister, my great-aunt Frances Wilkens, on a farm my grandfather and grandmother had seized in a foreclosure many years ago. She kept control of the family fortune and forced my father to agree to everything. She wasn't here, but her shadows still lingered on our walls and still reported to her. Every precious piece of antique furniture, every chandelier, every painting and sculpture, the very drapes hung waiting for her commands. The house remained loyal to her. She was still the monarch, the Queen of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I could feel it even now as I sat there in my room, stared at the doorway and waited for Felix.
Daddy was below with his old girlfriend Kimberly, the woman who'd started all the recent trouble. He had been seeing her secretly, and Mother had found out. I wondered if he would wheel himself out of his bedroom to say good-bye. With his gaze down, his fingers kneading his palms like Nancy would knead dough for bread, he had told me my grandmother was probably right about my going to live with Great-aunt Frances. He would be unable to be a real father to me and with Ian now in some institution because of what he had done to Miss Harper, I would be terribly alone in this grand old mansion.
It had been on the tip of my tongue to say I had always been alone and he had never been a real father to me, but I'd swallowed it back with my tears and clung instead to my hope that someday soon my mother would get better and come for me. Together then, we would go get Ian and somehow, some way, all of us would be a family again. I wished hard for it as I fingered the locket she had given me for my last birthday. Inside were pictures of her and Daddy just after they had turned their love into a marriage, both wearing smiles trapped in gold. Ian whispered they were photographs of illusions. He made me believe they would simply disappear, so I checked often to see if they were still there.
Maybe he was right about illusions, however. In the hollow silence of this great house, in which even footsteps seemed to sink and be lost, it felt out of place to have any sort of hope. If Ian had been here, he would have analyzed it all carefully and told me why I had all these dark feelings rumbling under my heart.
"You're leaving for a place, a home you've never seen, to live with someone you've never met, someone you've only known through an old picture or some vague reference Grandmother Emma has made. Great-aunt Frances is like some fantasy, a storybook character.
"You're going to be entered into a new school and be alongside students you don't know. You won't have a mother or a father to accompany you and stand up for you. Everything will be unfamiliar, strange, even frightening.
"You won't have anyone to call. I'm in an institution. I haven't even answered your letters to me because Grandmother Emma never mailed them to me. You don't even know where I am exactly. No one will talk about it with you. You can't call me on the telephone. You wrote another letter describing what's happening to you, but you can't depend on Father sending it to me. Mother can't hear you or speak to you even if she could hear you, and as Grandmother Emma would say, our father is lost in his own self-pity.
"You still have your accelerated development to face. When the mothers of other young girls your age see you, they will probably not want their daughters to be around you. Some will think you're older and were left back or something. You saw some of that starting to happen here. They'll be afraid for their daughters. They won't call you a freak to your face, but they'll think of you that way. I'm sorry to have to tell you all this, but we have to think about it all sensibly."
"Then what should I do?" I asked my imaginary Ian.
He was silent. In my mind's eye I could see his eyes narrowing as they did when he gave something great thought. I waited patiently, relying on my imagination and my memory to help me realize what Ian's answer would be.
Suddenly his eyes lit up, his whole face brightening with his successful pursuit of an answer. They always came to him from some magical place. He heard voices no one else could hear.
"Be a March," he replied with his characteristic confidence. "Be like Grandmother Emma."
"Like Grandmother Emma?"
"How?" I asked.
"Even if you are afraid, don't let anyone know it. Not," he added, turning to me and smiling that tight, self-contented, arrogant smile, "even yourself."
Copyright © 2007 by the Vanda General Partnership