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The Wednesday Sisters look like the kind of women who might meet at those fancy coffee shops on University—we do look that way—but we’re not one bit fancy, and we’re not sisters, either. We don’t even meet on Wednesdays, although we did at the beginning. We met at the swings at Pardee Park on Wednesday mornings when our children were young. It’s been thirty-five years, though—more than thirty-five!—since we switched from Wednesdays at ten to Sundays at dawn. Sunrise, whatever time the light first crests the horizon that time of year. It suits us, to leave our meeting time up to the tilt of the earth, the track of the world around the sun.
That’s us, there in the photograph. Yes, that’s me—in one of my chubbier phases, though I suppose one of these days I’ll have to face up to the fact that it’s the thinner me that’s the “phase,” not the chubbier one. And going left to right, that’s Linda (her hair loose and combed, but then she brought the camera, she was the only one who knew we’d be taking a photograph). Next to her is Ally, pale as ever, and then Kath. And the one in the white gloves in front—the one in the coffin—that’s Brett.
Brett’s gloves—that’s what brought us together all those years ago. I had Maggie and Davy with me in the park that first morning, a park full to bursting with children running around together as if any new kid could join them just by saying hello, with clusters of mothers who might—just might—be joined with a simple hello as well. It wasn’t my park yet, just a park in a neighborhood where Danny and I might live if we moved to the Bay Area, a neighborhood with tree-lined streets and neat little yards and sidewalks and leaves turning colors just like at home in Chicago, crumples of red and gold and pale brown skittering around at the curbs. I was sitting on a bench, Davy in my lap and a book in my hand, keeping one eye on Maggie on the slide while surreptitiously watching the other mothers when this woman—Brett, though I didn’t know that then—sat down on a bench across the playground from me, wearing white gloves. No, we are not of the white-glove generation, not really. Yes, I did wear them to Mass when I was a girl, along with a silly doily on my head, but this was 1967—we’re talking miniskirts and tie-dyed shirts and platform shoes. Or maybe not tie-dye and platforms yet—maybe those came later, just before Izod shirts with the collars up—but miniskirts. At any rate, it was definitely not a white-glove time, much less in the park on a Wednesday morning.
What in the world? I thought. Does this girl think she’s Jackie Kennedy? (Thinking “girl,” yes, but back then it had no attitude in it, no “gi-rl.”) And I was wondering if she might go with the ramshackle house beyond the playground—a sagging white clapboard mansion that had been something in its day, you could see that, with its grandly columned entrance, its still magnificent palm tree, its long, flat spread of lawn—when a mother just settling at the far end of my bench said, “She wears them all the time.”
Those were Linda’s very first words to me: “She wears them all the time.”
I don’t as a rule gossip about people I’ve never met with other people I’ve never met, even women like Linda, who, just from the look of her, seemed she’d be nice to know. She was blond and fit and . . . well, just Linda, even then wearing a red Stanford baseball cap, big white letters across the front and the longest, thickest blond braid sticking out the back—when girls didn’t wear baseball caps either, or concern themselves with being fit rather than just plain thin.
“You were staring,” Linda said. That’s Linda for you. She’s nothing if not frank.
“Oh,” I said, still stuck on that baseball cap of hers, thinking even Gidget never wore a baseball cap, not the Sandra Dee movie version or the Sally Field TV one.
“I don’t mean to criticize,” she said. “Everyone does.”
“Stare at her.” Linda shifted slightly, and I saw then that she was pregnant, though just barely. “You’re new to the neighborhood?” she asked.
“No, we . . .” I adjusted my cat’s-eye glasses, a nervous habit my mom had forever tried to break me of. “My husband and I might be moving here after he finishes school. He has a job offer, and we . . . They showed us that little house there.” I indicated the house just across Center Drive from the old mansion. “The split-level with the pink shutters?”
“Oh!” Linda said. “I thought it just sold, like, yesterday. I didn’t know you’d moved in!”
“It’s not sold yet. And we haven’t. We won’t move here until the spring.”
“Oh.” She looked a bit confused. “Well, you are going to paint the shutters, aren’t you?”
As I said, Linda is nothing if not frank.
That was the first Wednesday. September 6, 1967.
When I tell people that—that I first came to the Bay Area at the end of that summer, that that’s when the Wednesday Sisters first met—they inevitably get this look in their eyes that says bell-bottoms and flower power, war protests and race riots, LSD. Even to me, it seems a little improbable in retrospect that I never saw a joint back then, never flashed anyone a peace sign. But I had a three-year-old daughter and a baby son already. I had a husband who’d passed the draft age, who would have a Ph.D. and a full-time job within months. I’d already settled into the life I’d been raised to settle into: dependable daughter, good wife, attentive mother. All the Wednesday Sisters had. We spent the Summer of Love changing diapers, going to the grocery store, baking tuna casseroles and knitting sweater vests (yes, sweater vests), and watching Walter Cronkite from the safety of our family rooms. I watched the local news, too, though that was more about following the Cubs; they’d just lost to the Dodgers, ending a three-game winning streak—not much, three games, but then they are the Cubs and were even that year, despite Fergie Jenkins throwing 236 strikeouts and Ron Santo hitting 31 out of the park.
Anyway, I was sitting there watching Maggie on the slide, about to call to her to clear away from the bottom when she did it on her own, and I was just a bit intimidated by this blonde I didn’t know yet was Linda, and that occurred to me, that I didn’t know her name. “I’m Frankie O’Mara,” I said, forgetting that I’d decided to be Mary, or at least Mary Frances or Frances or Fran, in this new life. I tried to back up and say “Mary Frances O’Mara”—it was the way I liked to imagine my name on the cover of a novel someday, not that I would have admitted to dreams beyond marriage and motherhood back then. But Linda was already all over Frankie.
“Frankie? A man’s name—and you all curvy and feminine. I wish I had curves like you do. I’m pretty much just straight up and down.”
I’d have traded my “curves” of unlost baby gain for what was under her double-knit slacks and striped turtleneck in a second, or I thought I would then. She looked like that girl in the Clairol ads—“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”—except she was more “If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em” somehow. She didn’t wear a speck of makeup, either, not even lipstick.
“What are you reading, Frankie?” she asked.
(In fairness, I should explain here that Linda remembers that first morning differently. She swears her first words were “What’s that you’re reading?” and it was only when I didn’t answer—too busy staring at Brett to hear her, she says—that she said, “She wears them all the time.” She swears what brought us together was the book in my hand. That’s how she and Kath met, too; they got to talking about In Cold Blood at a party while everyone was still slogging through the usual blather about the lovely Palo Alto weather and how lucky they were that their husbands were doing their residencies here.)
I held up the cover of my book—Agatha Christie’s latest Poirot novel, The Third Girl—for Linda to see. She blinked blond lashes over eyes that had a little of every color in them, like the blue and green and yellow of broken glass all mixed together in the recycling bin.
“A mystery?” she said. “Oh.”
She preferred “more serious fiction,” she said—not unkindly, but still I was left with the impression that she ranked my mysteries right down there with comic books. I was left shifting uncomfortably in my pleated skirt and sweater set, wondering how I’d ever manage in a place where even the books I read were all wrong. I couldn’t imagine, then, leaving my friends back home, the girls who’d shared sleepless slumber-party nights and double dates with me, who still wore my clothes and lipstick and blush. Though it had never been quite the same after we’d all married. My Danny had seemed so . . . not awkward, exactly, but uncomfortable with my friends. And they weren’t any easier with him. “He’s such a brain,” Theresa had said just a few weeks before, and I’d said, “He is, isn’t he?” with a spanking big grin on my face, I’m sure, and it was only the doubt in Theresa’s eyes that told me she hadn’t meant it as praise. The conversation had left me feeling fat and desolate and drowning in filthy diapers, and when Danny came home from class that same evening talking about a job in California, I said, “California? I’ve always wanted to see California,” at once imagining dinner parties with Danny’s co-workers and their wives and weekend picnics at the beach and a whole new set of friends who would never imagine that Danny was one thing and I was another, even if we were.
Another gal pushed a baby buggy up to our bench just then, a big-haired, big-chinned brunette who had already pulled a book from her bag and was handing it to Linda, saying she’d finished it at two that morning. “No love story, but I liked it anyway. Thank,” she said, her y’s clipped, her i’s lingering on into forever. Mississippi, I thought, though that was probably because of the book: To Kill a Mockingbird.
Linda, polite as anything, was introducing us, saying, “Kath, this is Frankie . . .” Frowning then, clearly drawing a blank on my last name.
“Mary Frances O’Mara,” I said, remembering this time: Mary Frances or Frances or Fran.
“Frankie is moving into that cute little house with the awful pink shutters,” Linda said.
“Linda,” Kath said.
“In the spring, right?” Linda said.
“Maybe not that house,” I said.
“Oh, right. She hasn’t bought it yet. But when she does, she’s going to paint the shutters.”
“Lin-da!” Kath blinked heavily darkened lashes straight at her friend’s lack of manners. Then to me, “You can see why she doesn’t have a friend in this whole wide world except me, bless her cold, black heart.”
Kath said how pleased she was meet to me, her head bobbing and her shoulders bobbing along with it, some sort of Southern-girl upper-body dance that said more loudly than she could have imagined that she was an agreeable person, that she just wanted to be liked. I said, “Me, too,” nodding as well, but careful to keep my shoulders straight and square and still; probably I’d done a Midwestern version of that head bob all my life.
Kath began to unpack her baby from the stroller, placing a clean white diaper over the shoulder of her spotless blouse first, the careful pink of her perfect nails—the same pink as her lipstick—lingering on baby hair as neatly combed as her own, which was poufy at the top and flipping up at the ends the way it does only if you set it, with a big fat braid wrapped above her bangs like a headband. Not a real braid like Linda’s, but a fake one exactly the color of her hair. Still, it was easy to imagine that she slept propped up on pillows so her hair in big rollers would dry through, and that when it rained her hair might revert to disaster like mine did, even when it didn’t get wet. She wasn’t like my girlfriends back home, exactly, but she was more like them than Linda was. Not Twiggy thin. Not Doris Day blond.
Although Linda had lent Kath To Kill a Mockingbird. There was that.
“How old?” I asked Kath, glancing down at my own three-month-old Davy.
“This punkin?” Kath said, admiring her little Lacy. “She’s three months. My Lee-Lee—Madison Leland Montgomery the Fifth, he is really—he’s three and a half. And Anna Page—”
A young girl with Kath’s same chin, her same chestnut hair left alone to fall in its own random waves under a straw hat with a black grosgrain band, tore off across the park, the hat flying back off her head, tumbling into the sand behind her. She tripped and slid in the sand herself, and her dress (this smocked thing with white lace at the cuffs and neck) . . . well, you could see she was not a girl who kept her dresses clean. But she picked herself up without so much as a pout and continued on to the jungle gym, where she climbed to the top cross bar and hung upside down, her sandy dress falling over her face.
“I swear, she’ll be drinking bourbon straight out of the bottle before she’s eighteen,” Kath said.
Linda asked Kath who was coming to her Miss America party that Saturday night, then, and they started talking together about the other doctors’ wives they’d met—or the residents’ wives, to be precise. Kath had grown up in Louisville, Kentucky, and Linda in Connecticut. They’d both just moved to Palo Alto. They didn’t know any more people than I did, really. But they’d spent every Miss America Saturday they could remember gathering with their girlfriends to watch the pageant, like I had, all of us imagining taking that victory walk ourselves even if we were the homeliest things in town. Or Kath had always watched with her girlfriends, anyway, and Linda left the impression she had, too. She didn’t say anything that first afternoon about how lonely her childhood had been.