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I thought Mark Taylor would never leave. Now I'm pacing from room to room, disbelief lodged in my chest. Never once with Sam has there been a whisper of another woman. Yet in this young man's tall, well-built frame, the way he tilts his head when listening and the matchless blue of his eyes, I see my husband. Everything in me screams denial, but the truth is hard to escape. Even if Sam was ignorant of the pregnancy, as Mark claims, did he think this chapter of his life could remain forever closed?
Oddly, despite my anger and hurt, I found it impossible to ignore the entreaty in Mark Taylor's voice or to doubt his sincerity. But I know Sam. A sudden confrontation between the two of them would never have worked. Even so, I resent having to be the one to break the news when he returns from Boulder where he's helping our younger daughter Lisa paint her living room.
I've taken Mark Taylor's contact information and encouraged him to return to Savannah if Sam doesn't phone him at his motel within a couple of days.
Numb, I wander to the picture window overlooking the tarn, now turning steely under gathering clouds. All my certainties are evaporating like a shifting mountain mist. In their place, questions and accusations swirl.
The next evening, I hardly let Sam hang up his jacket before turning on him. "You've been keeping quite the secret all these years. Did you ever plan to tell me or was I just supposed to drift along in ignorance?"
His eyes widen with incomprehension. "Tell you what?"
"About your fling during the Vietnam War. About the total stranger who appeared at the door yesterday announcing himself as your son."
"What in blazes are you talking about?"
With barely controlled fury, I repeat Mark Taylor's claim. About his mother Diane and her gallant sacrifice in not telling Sam she was pregnant. About Mark's stateside birth and his mother's marriage to Rolf Taylor, whose name is on the birth certificate. "He's a grown man now. He wants to meet you."
Sam turns to granite before my eyes. "I have no knowledge of any baby. I won't see him. He's nothing to me."
I am speechless, appalled by his cold indifference to his son and to my feelings. Finally I choke out, "Was she also nothing to you?"
"For God's sake, Isabel!"
"Answer the question."
"Do you think I'd have spent over forty-five years of my life with you if she meant more to me?"
"Well, you certainly spent a bit of time with her. Enough to impregnate her."
"Christ, Izzy, I was lonely and scared."
"Welcome to the waiting wives' club. Do you think it was any picnic being at home and imagining the worst?"
His shoulders slump. "I don't know what to say to you, except I'm sorry. I never wanted you to find out."
"I can believe that. But you should have told me. Then I wouldn't have had to open the door yesterday and get blindsided by Mark Taylor. Who, by the way looks just like you. He wants to meet you. Whether I like it or not, you owe him something."
"Not now." The grandfather clock sounds like a ticking bomb. "I can't deal with this just like that." He snaps his fingers to emphasize the point. "I need time. I have to go away."
"You have to go away? What about me? Am I just supposed to keep the home fires burning, carry on as if my whole life hasn't been turned upside down?"
"Izzy, please understand. I have to think."
"You know what? I don't care what you need right now. This is always the way you handle trouble. You run, Sam, you run. Like a coward."
He takes me by the arms. "Please, I need time."
I hear the coldness in my voice. "And I need an explanation."
He raises his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I know you do. Believe me, I've regretted the incident ever since. It was nothing. It was wartime and"
"Save your excuses for another timeafter you've had your precious time to think. And whatever happens, Sam, a son is not nothing. Remember that."
I leave the room seething. History repeats itself. Sam crawls into his cave, and all I can do is wait and wonder how I could have been married, happily for the most part, to a man with such a devastating secret.
Sam departs the next morning for Montana where his air force buddy Mike has offered his vacation cabin on the Yellowstone River. The fiction is that Sam is on a fishing trip. The truth? He's escaping.
The day after he leaves, our older daughter Jenny comes up from Colorado Springs where she lives with her contractor husband Don. Usually I look forward to her visits. Today, though, the effort to mask my feelings is almost more than I can handle.
"Since Daddy's in Montana, I thought you might like company," Jenny says from the kitchen where she's making our lunchtuna salad. "Besides, I'm kind of lonely myself, now that both girls are off at Colorado State."
"Empty nest?" I query from the breakfast room where I'm setting the table.
She grins wistfully. "I always thought I'd be immune."
"Impossible," I assure her. "Not if you love your children."
After making small talk during our meal, we retire to the family room, where she settles on the sofa with a book, our tiger cat Orville curled in her lap. I sit in my chair, knitting. Fifteen minutes pass before she lays down her novel. "Have you thought any more about Lisa's and my suggestion that you write your memoirs?"
"I don't know how I could find the hours."
"Mother, you're running out of excuses. Now that Daddy's off fishing, you'll have plenty of time to give it a try."
My forty-five-year-old firstborn is every bit as stubborn now as she was as a toddler when, arms folded defiantly, she would stomp her foot and tell me "no." She wore me down then, and nothing seems to have changed because I'm actually considering doing what she asks.
"My life isn't that exciting."
"Nonsense. Your history is interesting to us. We really don't know that much about what you were like as a girl or about your early married years. It'll be a legacy for your grandchildren."
"I wouldn't know where to start."
Jenny fixes me with her brown eyes, so like mine. "At the beginning, of course."
How can I tell her it isn't the beginning I'm worried about. That part I can handle. But the rest? How honest can I be? Particularly in light of recent events. Our daughters will expect portraits of the parents they think they know.
Jenny reaches into her tote bag. "Here." She thrusts a thick journal into my hands, then pulls out a package of my favorite ballpoint pens and plops it on the table. "Now you have no excuse. What have you got to hide? Just pick up a pen and jump in."
What have you got to hide? My thoughts leap to Mark Taylor. Oh, my darling girl, life isn't always as it appears. Dreams become distorted, we do things we never thought we would, and in the twinkling of an eye everything changes.
Jenny arches an eyebrow and waits for my answer.
I sigh. "You're not letting me wiggle out of this, are you?"
Her mouth twitches in a mischievous smile. "I of the iron will? Of course, not." She sobers. "Please, Mom."
Picking up the journal, I thumb through the blank pages, wondering how I can possibly fill them. Wondering how to keep the truth from shattering my daughters' illusions.
"What if you learn some things you'd rather not know?"
"Ooh " My daughter shivers with delight. "Family skeletons? I can't wait."
"Don't be too sure."
"Do it for us, please, Mom?"
In my head I fast-forward a film of memories, the laughter and tears of a lifetime welling within me. I nod. "I'll try."
After Jenny leaves, I move to the window with its view of the mountains, now in early autumn adorned with skirts of golden aspen. So many years. So many subjects I'd sooner avoid. But I cannot write a fairy tale, especially not now, when the happily-ever-after is in doubt. Sitting in the armchair that has been my refuge for years, I pick up a pen and open the journal. Where to start?
Glancing around the room, my focus settles first on the man-size sofa and recliner, then on the stone fireplace and finally on the floor-to-ceiling bookcase. As if drawn by a magnet, my eyes light on the small figurine peering at me from the fourth shelf. The Buddha-shaped body is both grotesque and comical, but it is the impish, all-knowing smile that pierces my heart. The billiken.
Now I know how to begin.
The pealing church bells and deafening staccato of firecrackers mark the event forever in my memory. My scholarly father scooped me into his arms and danced me up and down the sidewalk among throngs of neighbors spilling from their houses. "The Japanese have surrendered," he shouted. "Praise the Lord, the war is over!" Then cradling me close, he whispered for my ear alone. "Remember this day always, Isabel. Freedom has prevailed."
I didn't know what prevailed meant, but I understood something momentous had happened.
I can still picture the tear-stained face of Mrs. Ledoux, whose son was on a ship somewhere in the Pacific, and hear the pop of the champagne cork from Old Man Culpepper's front porch. Small boys beat tattoos on improvised drums and grown men waved flags semaphore-style over their heads.
I was six and had no memory of a time before rationing, savings stamps and victory gardens. When the family gathered around the radio listening to news from the front, even though I couldn't grasp much, I knew "our boys" were heroes. But the freedom my daddy talked about was a puzzling concept. Looking back, I realize how far from harm's way we were in the small, backwater town in north central Louisiana.
That night Grandmama Phillips, my mother's mother, led me into her upstairs bedroom. After Grandpapa died, she came to live with us and brought an astonishing array of antique furniture, including a china closet, a Victrola, two rockers and a canopy bed. Her room was an exotic sanctuary for me, smelling of Evening in Paris cologne, peppermint drops and patchouli incense.
Sleepy after the V-J Day celebration, I crawled onto my grandmother's lap and nestled against her bosom. "Ma petite Isabel, this is a joyous end to long, troubling years. I have something special to give you to remember this day. A token to remind you how every once in a while, things turn out exactly as they should."
Reaching into the pocket of her flowered smock, she brought forth the odd-looking figurine that I'd seen sitting in the china cabinet among her collection of delicate teacups and saucers. Smiling beatifically, as if giving me a gift of great worth, Grandmama placed the grayish statuette in my small, cupped hands. The contours of the Buddha-esque body felt cool and soothing, and I giggled when I gazed at the face, bearing an elfin grin as if he and I shared a delicious secret. "What is it, Grandmama?"
"A billiken. My father brought this to me in 1909 after a trip to Missouri." She ran a finger over the billiken's head. "He's an extraordinary little god." Then, taking him from me, she upended him. On the bottom was a circular brass plaque with an inscription around the circumference. "Can you read this, Bel?"
I screwed up my face and studied the words. She took over for me. "'The god of things as they ought to be.'" She chuckled. "No wonder he's smiling, ma chère. Today is one of those rare times when things are, indeed, exactly as they ought to be."
I fell asleep clutching the billiken, secure in the knowledge that I was safe, the world was at peace and things truly were as God intended.
Let me tell you more about my family. I was an only child, doted upon by the three adults in the home. Sometimes I wonder if their attention to me wasn't, in part, a means of buffering themselves from one another.
Daddy was a short, chubby man who wore thick glasses and taught English literature at the local college. In a household of females, his study was his haven, and he retreated there most evenings to prepare lessons or grade papers. My mother deferred to him, but with ill-concealed martyrdom, as if she were silently screaming, "I made my bed, and now I will lie in it."
Grandmama, ever the romantic, amused herself by listening to radio soap operas. When I stayed home from school sick, she would bring me into her bedroom where we would snuggle under her comforter, breathless for the latest adventures of Helen Trent or "Our Gal Sunday." My grandmother admired swashbuckling rogues of the Rhett Butler mold. Occasionally she would mutter things like, "Your daddy just needs to stand his ground with Renie" or, referring to one of the soap opera idols, "Now, there's a man for youhe's out in the world doing something." Young as I was, I knew what had been left unsaid. "Unlike your father."
In retrospect, I see she was preparing me for my own Clark Gable, spinning romantic notions of the day my personal knight in shining armor would appear.
I loved Grandmama dearly, but I wished she saw in Daddy what I dida courtly and gentle man who made me his intellectual companion and in whose eyes I could do no wrong. And what of his interior life? Did he regret marrying my mother, or, in his own way, did he care for her? Had he ever harbored otherdifferentaspirations? Amazingly, I never heard him utter regrets or say an unkind word about either Mother or Grandmama.
Irene Phillips Ashmore. My mother. It's hard, even now, to imagine she was Grandmama's daughter. There wasn't a romantic bone in her body. Businesslike, practical and fixated on propriety, she was the engine that kept the household machine running smoothly.
She found fulfillment in the Women's Club of Spring branch. No one ever worked harder to be accepted in society, or what passed for it in our community, than my mother.
And who was expected to be the living embodiment of her social ambitions? Her daughter. Me. Isabel Irene Ashmore.