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The Stories We Tell
By Patti Callahan Henry
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Patti Callahan Henry
All rights reserved.
It was a good day, with all good things. It began with something my daughter and I used to say to each other, until about a year ago, when her eye-rolling adolescent angst took over and she refused our Saturday-morning ritual. But today, when Gwen turned to me and said, "Let's do something fun," I jumped into her request as if it were a languid lake on a summer afternoon. My younger sister, Willa, wasn't far behind.
"What about a pottery class?" I suggested.
"Gross," said Gwen, all of seventeen years old and picking at her nail polish. "Paris. Let's go to Paris."
"Sure," I said. "Why not today?"
When Gwen laughed, I joined in with relief.
"Sailing class," Willa said, jumping into the conversation.
That was it. And the day was the kind of dreamy, laughing suspension of time that we live for. The kind of day when you can believe in anything. There we were: my daughter, my sister, and I, the gray-blue water of the Savannah River, salt water in our eyes and laughter in our throats.
Now it's midnight and I almost regret skipping out on work. Maybe I should've done the responsible thing and forged ahead on the looming deadlines, the orders piling up, and the customers to be courted. Then I remember the look on Gwen's face when she climbed out of the water, sputtering and splashing Willa, who'd tipped the boat, accidentally on purpose, and I know I did the right thing.
This was not a wasted day.
Still, the night feels restless underneath me as a storm rips into Savannah with careless disregard. The rain's coming sideways, clamorous against the window and hard. They usually don't bother me, these storms. In fact, I like the rain in this water-soaked city; it's part of the ocean, part of the rivers, tributaries, and bays that contain the waters that surround us. Storms here are normal, an unassailable part of the water-soaked landscape that I usually find comforting. Not tonight, though.
My husband, Cooper, is out of town on business again, so his side of the bed is empty. Gwen is asleep in her room. Willa is in her cottage a few hundred yards away. No point in my tossing and turning when there's work I can do, work I want to do.
I dress in jeans and a T-shirt to walk down the hallway to my daughter's bedroom. If a watered-down light travels under her door, I'll know she's on the computer. But it's dark. Good, she's asleep, the storm a white noise to her dreams. I think about going in and kissing her on the forehead, looking at her soft face, but she'll bark at me if I wake her. I'm getting used to this new means of communication (sort of), but it still gives a quick stab to my chest.
I understand that girls turning into women are often unsettled and cruel, especially to those they love. As a psychiatrist once told me at a dinner party (aren't there always psychiatrists at dinner parties?), adolescence, by its very definition, is "a disturbance." So there's that. My sweet girl, who once wanted to play American Girl dolls and have me paint her nails a sparkly pink, now rolls her eyes at the way I breathe or chew or walk. It's difficult not to "take it personally," as Cooper says. I'm sure I did the same with my mom; I know I did the same with my mom. But here, with my daughter, I'd hoped it would be different. She's an only child; a decision made when I was so sick from my pregnancy that the doctor put me to bed for three months and Cooper told me he couldn't go through the fear of losing me again. Gwen is our blessing, he said. No need to take another chance. I'd agreed—then.
I tiptoe down the stairs and into the kitchen I redid two years ago to my exact specifications. Everything in this room works for the way I cook and move and reach for spices or pans. White and chrome dominate; an island of Carrera marble squats in the middle of the kitchen, a counter that's alternately cluttered with bowls and food and then homework and mail. The family desk is built into the cabinetry. Framed photos of the family sit on this desk, along with an ancient Remington portable number 3, which was the kind of typewriter Margaret Mitchell used to write Gone with the Wind. The typewriter once worked, but, like other things in my life, it's in need of repair.
I make a cup of tea with Tazo Calm, then sit on the window seat, my legs curled underneath me. Growing up, I'd never imagined living in a house this lovely, with a kitchen full of light and chrome, with cabinets full of fine, breakable plates. Now here I am.
The night is a blackout canvas of morphed shapes and moving shadows, yet in my mind's eye I can see everything. The side kitchen door will open and take me down two steps to the brick pathway, which leads to the detached garage and the stone path that leads to the guesthouse, where Willa lives. If I continue, I'll reach the old stables and my letterpress studio, the Fine Line, Ink.
The storm whips louder, and if I believed in portents, I'd think it was nature's morbid warning. That's the problem with having grown up here in Savannah—otherworldly portents and ghosts are everywhere. Or so we're told. Tourists line up to hear about these ghosts, to see the scant evidence of them. There are root doctors and fortune-tellers, stories and legends. There are messages in wind, rain, stars, and tides. And although I don't really believe the storm has some special message for me, the idea that it might gives me a shiver just as a crack of far-off lightning smacks the earth.
I know this about imagination: It needs a place to go. If I don't work at my cards and images and letterpress, if I don't touch the cut metal and carved wood fonts and imagine different patterns as I place letters next to others in a new way, my ideas will turn inward. I'll ruminate about the storm, Gwen's broken curfew, her annoying boyfriend, and her grades, about Cooper's travel schedule and Willa's aimless job search. I'll think about how much I missed Willa while she was gone, and then I'll be afraid that she'll leave again—off to chase a man or a shapeless dream. I'll worry about how she might start drinking again, drinking too, too much. But if I channel my imagination, if I move that energy to the letters and the paper—to this blessed thing called work—I'll be okay.
I finish the tea and slip on my Hunter rain boots before grabbing an umbrella. An industrial flashlight leads the way to my studio with a V-shaped cone of light, and I slosh through the mud. I've done this before.
The Fine Line, Ink nestles itself in the middle of a fallow field that once produced south Georgia cotton and is now filled with grass, wildflowers, and oat stems. The twenty-acre swath was handed down to my husband, Cooper, the fourth generation of Morrison men to own this land.
When I flick on the light, the mismatched furniture and letterpress machines come into view, along with cases of cotton paper piled like children's blocks against the walls. And type fonts—everywhere the cut metal and carved wooden font squares sit on tables, on machines, in drawers, and in boxes waiting to be sorted. The fonts that have been organized are held in California job cases, tall cabinets that flank the walls, like shy girls at a dance.
It's here with my coworkers, Francie and Max, that we tell our stories. There's a story behind everything—that's our tagline. We watch tales unfold, unbend, and unwind to form card lines, logos, and images: a poster for a downtown event, a birth announcement, a wedding invitation, or a logo for an interior designer. Each stall, where horses once stamped and whinnied, is now a designated office space. Each of us has his or her own stall, as do the printing presses. In the middle of the barn, on a concrete floor, rests a long pine table, where we convene. When we sit at the project table in this refurbished barn, we create new and handmade worlds.
Some of my best work comes when I'm alone like this. We have ideas and sketches, notes and scraps of paper, scattered on the table. I push these things around to pull together our emerging card line, called Ten Good Ideas. Another collection based on Greek goddesses, which sounded like a good idea at the time, has been set aside. First things first—finish what we started with Ten Good Ideas.
This card line was inspired by Willa's return to my life, and by one long-ago summer of childhood rebellion.
When she returned a year ago, Willa and I spent hours talking about childhood and our parents, who are both gone now. We pulled out memories of skipping Sunday school to run through the cotton fields and stuff small tufts of their seed-laden softness into our pockets. We remembered getting in trouble for singing too loudly in our bedroom, for laughing at Dad's too-long prayer at supper, for putting our elbows on the table. It was there, in those long talks, that we first reconstructed the summer when my best friend, Caden, and I had decided that the Ten Commandments were way too, oh my God, full of things not to do, and wouldn't it be great to make new commandments full of good things to do. Every day on the edge of a Savannah River tributary, we made our own list, our own rules for living.
We thought ourselves holy. Every night, I would go home and show Willa our new commandment. With a flashlight under our bunk beds, she'd take out her calligraphy pen and write the commandment Caden and I had added to our list. It was only a piece of lined paper torn from a school composition book, but to us, it was parchment, ancient and glorious.
We were caught, Caden and I, before we finished the Ten Ideas. The list was tacked to the back wall of my closet, warped with South Carolina river moisture. We'd made it to number nine before Mom found it and turned it over to my dad, and to the church elders. Heresy, we were told. There was a Bible verse, one in Revelations, about this very thing we'd done, about adding or subtracting from the Bible: "And if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life." We were made to memorize this verse, and for months, maybe years, Willa and I believed we'd been cut off from the tree of life, even if we didn't fully understand what that tree was and where it had been planted.
Then there was the weeklong discussion about sending me to live with a another family, one who could make me understand the gravity of what I'd done. Dad believed they'd failed in Christian parenting, and I'd failed as the dutiful daughter. My defiance, they believed, put our eternity together at risk. They needed someone else, anyone else, to help me see that rebellion was not the way to happiness or a pass through the pearly gates. In the end, I stayed home, and with a stomachache I tolerated the grave silence of my dad's disappointment and my mom's worry.
Eventually, Willa and I exhausted the stories of that summer and turned to the list—our commandments. What had we thought then, as children, were the right ways to live? Could those matter today?
Whenever I think of the list now, I taste the brackish air. I feel like I'm twelve years old again and invincible. Childhood slams into my chest and unfolds its promise of a bigger life.
It was Max who saw the potential for the list to become a card line. "Ten Good Ideas. Come on, it's the best compilation idea we've ever had." And he was right. So one by one, we've been releasing the cards with original artwork. The problem is that Willa and I can't remember number nine, and we still haven't come up with number ten.
This creation, this card line, has been Willa's work with us. In the beginning, I'd thought I was merely giving her something to do, something besides work on her songwriting and find singing gigs in town. But we all soon realized that Ten Good Ideas was the most successful line in our six years of business. Orders tripled by the third idea, and we'd added six new vendors in the South alone.
I feel a wave of intense love for all of it, for all of the ideas and the designs so far finished and for the ones yet to be created.
Number One: Be Kind. An oak tree extends its arms to the heavens, to the earth, and falling off the side of the pages.
Number Two: Tell Good Stories. Books are drawn to appear like leather-bound volumes piled one on top of the other, inviting storytelling, and story reading.
Number Three: Always Say Good-bye. Here Francie sketched human profiles, one facing the other, begging the question of who might be leaving.
Number Four: Search for the True. This design is my favorite so far: The world, blue and floating amid the dark night, stars set as sparkled dents in the Universe.
Number Five: Help Others. Here is the luminescent design, one Max drew, of two hands entwined, fingers knit together.
Number Six: Create. Paint cans of every color are splattered across the page, spilling and dripping into the number six at the bottom of the card.
Number Seven: Be Patient
Number Eight: Find Adventure
I'm scribbling a note about needing more ink for the Vandercook press when I hear the sirens. They sound far off, until they don't. The sirens swell: loud, louder, loudest. Then silence. I stand, staring at the huge barn doors, waiting for them to slide across the track and open, because I know they will. I imagine the three people I love the most in the world. I imagine the news to come.
No, no, no.
A policeman, short, with dark hair, stands in the doorway. The overhead light casts shadows across his face. Rain drips from the eaves onto the plastic-covered bib of his hat.
"Are you Eve Morrison?" he asks.
"Yes." My voice is tight with fear.
"I'm Officer Barker with the Savannah Police Department. Your husband and sister have been involved in a car accident. They're at Savannah Memorial. I'm sorry to be here telling you this. Your husband sent me, as you haven't been answering the phone." He breaks off each sentence with a quick sound: a verbal Morse code.
"Cooper? My sister? My God, are they okay?"
"I've been sent to get you. They're at the hospital and your husband is conscious. That's the only information I have at the moment." He sounds robotic, flatlined.
"Wait." I shake my head, relieved that this policeman has the wrong information. "My husband's in Charleston. My sister's at work. She's a singer. I think you've made a mistake."
Officer Barker coughs. "I'm afraid not, ma'am. They were driving in downtown Savannah. That's all the information I have. I've been sent to take you to the hospital."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, ma'am." He steps into the barn and I see his face clearly. He's young, so young that acne stands in pockmarked relief against his face.
"Take me to them." I back away and bump into a press, the Heidelberg. My hip grazes the sharp edge; it will leave a bruise. I switch off the single light over the table. "First my daughter," I say, panic a rising tide in the back of my throat. "I need to get my daughter."
"Where is she?" he asks.
"Asleep." I point toward the general direction of our house.
"I tried there first. No one answered."
"She's asleep." I stop and stare at him. "How did you know where to find me?"
I reach into my back pocket and yank out my cell phone. Eight missed calls. I hit the callback button while motioning to Officer Barker: Keep walking and I'll follow. Cooper doesn't answer, and I follow the policeman. Fear begins as a firestorm in my belly, moving along my arms and legs as electricity. No. Not my sister. Not my husband. I climb into Officer Barker's backseat and he drives up the muddy path to the house. His car will bear the splash stains as the mark of our rain-drenched driveway.
Officer Barker has barely pulled to a stop, and I'm running up the steps onto the wide front porch. In the moonlight, the white floorboards glow almost blue, reflecting the painted ceiling. I open the door and holler, "Gwen, Gwen."
I run through the front hall and upstairs to her bedroom. Damp air washes over me as pink linen curtains flutter around her open window.
Excerpted from The Stories We Tell by Patti Callahan Henry. Copyright © 2014 Patti Callahan Henry. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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