How do you survive when the desperate action of a loved one has shattered your family? In And Give You Peace, a young woman, Anastasia Dolarn, courageously examines her seemingly normal childhood to uncover the motivations behind an unspeakable tragedy. Jessica Treadway flawlessly portrays the complexity of human experience in the face of incomprehensible loss, revealing yet again why the New York Times Book Review has called her "a writer with an unsparing bent for the truth."
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About the Author
Jessica Treadway is a native of upstate New York and formerly a reporter for United Press International. She teaches creative writing and literature at Emerson College in Boston.
Read an Excerpt
I once saw a policeman in the Public Garden helping a blind woman feed sugar to his horse. This imagethe cop gently lifting the fingers folded around the sugar cube, the blind woman's sudden smileis why I went to college in Boston and why I moved back after the deaths, although I didn't realize this until years later when I began looking for meaning in small, forgotten things.
The summer I was twelve, my family took a driving trip through New England. We went on a boat tour of Boston Harbor and visited the USS Constitution. On the lowest deck of the old ship, between the hammocks and cannons, a guide in a naval suit pointed at my youngest sister, Meggy, who was five. "Can you take this and scoot down to the other end of the deck?" he asked, handing her a folded black satchel. I felt the momentary piercing of not having been picked, but at least it was Meggy he'd chosen and not Justine, my middle sister, the one most often noticed by the world.
Meggy nodded, accepted the satchel, and made her waylips pursed, pink sneakers squeakingaway from us and other members of the tour.
"When I say 'Go,' run to me as fast as you can, okay?" The guide was a college student whose enthusiasm for his summer job was still new, as it was early in the season. Meggy nodded again, brushing aside a stalk of her dark blond bangs. She wore purple shorts and a T-shirt that showed the Cookie Monster munching a cookie and giving the thumbs-up. The guide said, "Ready, set, go!" I held my breath as I watched my littlesister, clutching the black bag with crossed arms to her chest, pitch across the floor. When she reached the guide, he gave her a clumsy pat on the head as we all applauded, and Meggy leaned back in flushed pride against our mother's knees. My father reached over to rub her hair, and I raised my own hand to push at a pimple on my chin. It was the summer I stopped being cute, and I kept waiting for the shock and the hurt of it not to feel so fresh.
"Okay, say this little girl was a boy, and it was the early 1800s," the guide instructed us. "That bag would have been filled with gunpowder. Can anybody guess why they would use children to run ammunition between the guns?"
"Low to the ground," a man in the back said, chuckling as if he'd made a joke, but the guide told him, "No, you're exactly right. Powder Monkeys, they were called. Young people were also more expendable," he added. Behind me, I could feel my father growing tense.
"As you can probably imagine, anybody who ran ammo became a key target for enemy fire," the guide went on.
Justine, who was nine, asked, "What does that mean? You mean they just killed all the kids?"
"Well, not all." The guide blushed as my father clapped his hand over Meggy's ears.
"What's the matter with you?" he said to the guide. He took Meggy over to a corner, and I could see that she didn't understand any of what was going on.
"Sorry," the guide told my mother. He was humble or perhaps young enough to seem genuinely chagrined.
"It's not your fault." My mother pulled out a compact, looked at herself in its mirror, and waved vaguely in the direction of my father and Meggy. "He's oversensitive." The small tour crowd dispersed, in deference to the guide's loss of composure.
"Let's blow this Popsicle stand," Justine said, and once again I marveled at my younger sister's sophistication. She was always making adult-sounding declarations that I had never heard. She'd bought half a dozen bangle bracelets at Quincy Market that morning, and impatience made them sing against each other, up and down her arm. We left Old Ironsides a few minutes later to catch the boat back to Boston. I remember vividly the ride across the water, because it was the only time I ever saw my father refuse to pick up Meggy when she asked him to.
"Too hot, honey," I remember him saying. Then he moved by himself to the other side of the boat. My mother offered to take Meggy onto her lap, but Meggy shook her head and plunked down between Justine and me. The breeze tangled the hair of all three of us girls together. My mother took a picture, and when it came back we made it into a family joke, how we appear to be three heads on a single bodysix arms and legs and eyes, thirty fingers, each of us looking happy to be part of such a freak.
Later the same day we drove up to Salem in the afternoon and visited the House of the Seven Gables. I was trying to read Hawthorne's book about the house, but it was slow going, and I gave it up in favor of an illustrated history of the Salem witchcraft trials. I became fascinated with the stories of girls my own age who suddenly started throwing fits, their bodies convulsing as they accused neighbor-women of casting evil spells.
To me, the most interesting detail was that the whole thing began with two girls who dropped an egg white into a glass of water and tried to tell the future from the shapes it made as it moved. The egg-and-glass method was an early variation on the crystal ball. But instead of the romantic visions they expected to see, the girls divined the image of a coffin in the spreading egg white, and went berserk. (Of course when I got home I wanted to try the fortune-telling trick myself, but of coursebecause we were never allowed to touch raw eggsmy father wouldn't let me.)
After we left the House of the Seven Gables, we went to get ice-cream cones and sat eating them at a picnic table near the center of town. My father had not been feeling well earlier in the day, when we took the tour boat back from the Constitution, but when we'd been on land again for a few hours his appetite returned. I finished my cone first, lay down in the grass, and began to imitate the wide-eyed witch-girls writhing and screeching, tongues wagging as they plucked at their hair. My father was amused, and so was Meggy, who plunked her cone down on the table and came over to imitate me.
But my mother and Justine were embarrassed. "Mom, make her stop," Justine said, in the voice that had recently agitated my father into composing a riddle: "What's nine and perfectly fine, but inclined to whine?"
"She looks like a total retard," Justine added, and at that exact moment, a family with a retarded boy walked by us. I had paused in my rolling-around routine to gauge the level of my mother's disapproval, and I saw the boy just as my parents and sisters did. He was younger than me, closer to Justine's age, and he had the big head, jutting jaw, and uptilted eyes I later learned to identify as features of Down's syndrome.
He was walking between his mother and father, who turned to look in our direction, but not directly at us, when they heard Justine's remark. Both of their faces wore the same expressionnot anger, which would have been easier to witness, but sadness and a chagrin of which they were both clearly ashamed, but which they had learned to forgive in each other and, so, in themselves. Worst of all, I could tell they forgave Justine.
"Oh, shit," Justine said. It was the first time I had ever heard one of us swear in front of our parents. Instead of scolding her, my mother echoed, "Shit." The boy and his parents were beyond us by then. He was wearing sneakers with neon orange laces and a Star Trek baseball cap. The father had a camera slung over his shoulder, and that night in bed all I could think about was whether they had any pictures of the boy that made him look normal, and if so, whether these were the ones they sent out at Christmastime.
My mother told Justine, "Honey, you have to be careful. You can hurt people's feelings." My mother's cone was dripping from the bottom as she said this, and she turned it sideways to stop the ice cream from flowing out either end. It had her full attention, but my father was still looking after the couple and their retarded son. I could tell he wanted to catch up with them and apologize, or say something to make them feel better. But he didn't know what this might be. A few hours later at dinner, when my mother could tell that it was still bothering him, she said, "Tom, remember when we lived on Mercer Street, the sampler that old Russian lady had in her kitchen? When you live next to the graveyard, you can't weep for everyone."
My father looked puzzled, as if he didn't have the slightest idea what she was talking about. Justine said, "Who lives next to a graveyard?"
"It's just a figure of speech, honey." My mother spoke into her restaurant napkin, so we could barely make out her words. Her lips left the stain of a kiss in the folded cloth.
At the time, of course, I had no way of knowing the psychic torture my father had suffered earlier in the day, when he refused to hold Meggy in his arms on the boat as it sped through Boston Harbor. During dinner, I thought I understood what was troubling him. As my sisters and I flashed "see-food" at each other and giggled into our milk, I believed it was the memory of the retarded boy and his parents I saw haunting my father's eyes.
He was the one who named me Anastasia, after the youngest of the four duchesses in the Romanov family executed during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918. My father believed the legend that Anastasia had survived the firing squad, escaped Russia, forgotten her own identity, and lived to be an old lady in the United States.
My father's thoughts turned often to the assassination as he had heard it described once in a documentary. Members of the Tsar's family were awakened in the night, led to the cellar, and told that they were going to be shot. Nicholas, the father, asked the Commandant, What? What? The Commandant repeated what he had said and ordered the firing squad to get ready. Nicholas turned to his family and said nothing further. His wife and the children uttered a few incoherent phrases. "What do you think they were trying to say?" my father wondered aloud, as he told me the story of my name. My mother got mad at him for giving me all the gory details, but my father said I should be prepared for how much it was possible to suffer in this world. "Do you think they said 'I love you' or 'Good-bye' or 'Don't leave me'?" he asked me, and I could tell he didn't really expect an answer; he just couldn't help speculating aloud. "Or do you think it was just sounds of terror coming out?"
When the shooting started, three of the daughters did not die right away. Something made the bullets ricochet all over the room, and when they tried to bayonet one of the girls, they found that the Grand DuchessesAnastasia and her sisterswere wearing corsets studded with diamonds. "That's what saved her," my father said. "She played dead but she really wasn't, and somebody helped her get away. But imagine living the rest of your life, if that happened to you. Imagine wanting to live, after that."
I used to look up Anastasia in those Name-Your-Baby books. It comes from the Greek for "one who shall rise again." When I was younger, it comforted me to believe that I might come back to life somehow after I died, like the rumor of the real Anastasia. But now I know I wouldn't want thatnow, I can't imagine a prospect more frightening than eternity. There has to be some relief.
My middle name is Grace, for my maternal grandmother, and our last name, Dolan, came straight off the boat with our Irish grandfather. My youngest sister was named after our mother, Margaret, but there is no story behind Justine's name. My parents told her it was because she was an original, but I don't believe Justine ever took this as a compliment.
The number of letters in each of our namesAnastasia Grace Dolan, Justine Carolyn, and Margaret Oliviaadds up to nineteen. It was important to our father that they all have the same sum. We didn't ask him why, because by the time we were old enough to wonder, we already had a sense that it was one of the things he would never be able to explain.
Being the oldest of three daughters is one of the first ways I think about myself, and it's one of the first questions to come up in friendships, at least between women. Do you have any brothers or sisters? Where do you fall in the line? The answer helps put the two new friends in some kind of balance, gives them a landmark to show where they're starting from.
If I meet another oldest, I know she understands things about me already, as I understand them about her. If I meet a middle child, I assume she is like Justine, who always made sure to be noticed, not to get lost in the crowd.
And if I meet the youngest in a series of siblings, especially sisters, I must endure the short shock to my head and stomach that is all too familiar to me now. I know it's coming and I know it will recede, but I expect it will never leave me entirely, and I wouldn't want it to. Painful as it is, it's something to count on. Justine feels it, too. I think we both imagine it is Meggy in that moment, reaching through this other family's youngest to touch us where we live.
It depends on the person who's asking, what my own answer will be. If I sense sympathynot necessarily pity, although there are times when I want that, tooif it seems that he or she will understand what I am surviving without, I might tell the truth. In the old days, when early death was more common, people were accustomed to giving a qualified count. A mother would say she had "eleven children, six living." Remembering this, I might tell someone, "I had two sisters, but one died," so that I don't have to feel I am betraying Meggy, the way I do when I give the other answer, which is that I have one sister, Justine, who is three years younger than me.
Another choice is to try to be like the little girl in the poem by Wordsworth. When a stranger asks how many children are in her family, she tells him seven, including a brother and sister who lie in graves in the churchyard. "Then ye are only five," the stranger tries to convince her, but the child insists, "Nay, we are seven!" So sometimes I try to get away with responding that I have two sisters, but then there are the follow-up questions that leave me stammering: Where do your sisters live? What do they do?
And even when I tell the truth, that one of my sisters is dead, it does not always end them. More people than not, when they hear this, will say they're sorry and look distressed, and we agree in that moment, without saying anything, to talk about something else.
But there is the occasional new acquaintance who will, after the murmur and the wince, ask, "How did it happen?" There are two kinds of people who pursue the question like this, and I have come to understand how important it is to distinguish between them. One is the person who has learned that life is worth living only if you admit it all. That there is nothing that can't be imagined, nothing you can't say out loud. These are the people I can end up loving, who can be my friends, because what did happen I never imagined, and it feels good to have company there.
The other people who ask are the ones who hoard disasters, who collect sad stories like chits they can cash in against the misfortunes of their own lives. The more of these people you meet, the better you become at identifying them before you give too much of yourself away. They're the ones who use the opportunity of a commotion in one room to check their teeth in the mirror of another. Anything could be causing the commotiona dropped punch bowl, a heart attackbut the first thing they think, before going in to find out, is that they can check their teeth now without anyone noticing.
To these people, I say, "It was a long time ago," as if that is an answer, as if that's what they want to know. If they persist, I say, "She died young," and usually those words, along with the look on my face, are enough to make them back off. The few times someone has pressed me beyond that, I said, "She was shot to death." There must be something final in my tone when I say this, because no one has ever gone on to ask, By whom?
It's different when you talk about a parent. It's not so shocking to say your father's dead. Hardly anyone ever wants to know the details; the fact alone is enough, that branch of your tree has fallen, you're held up now by other things. It doesn't leave you swinging in the air like the loss of a sister. I don't think anything does.
This is the way they died: our father went into Meggy's bedroom on a humid Wednesday morning at the end of June, four months before Meggy's sixteenth birthday, and shot her through the head with a gun none of us had ever seen before. Then Dad walked around inside the house for a while. Through the kitchen window screen the next-door neighbor, Mrs. Waxman, saw his shadow, running a glass of water and drinking it. She saw and heard the TV in the family room being turned onthe sounds of a musical, children singing and almost immediately it went off again, the picture collapsing like a star in the center of the screen. Our father went outside to trim the rosebushes. But after he trimmed them, he cut the blooms off, too.
Then he went back inside the house, to his own bedroom, and shot himself by putting the gun in his mouth.
By that time Mrs. Waxman had gone downstairs to start her laundry, so nobody heard anythingno shot, no body falling. Justine found our father when she came home to change clothes for a party that afternoon, and the police found Meggy when they arrived a few minutes later. Our dog, Bill Buckner, had been locked out of the house, and by the time police arrived he was going nuts. At first they thought he might have witnessed what happened, through the windows, but then they figured out that he was just hungry. After they fed him he settled down in the place where the roses had fallen.
All of this was documented in the police report, after they interviewed Mrs. Waxman. "In his mouth?" I remember my mother asking. "He put something as dirty as a gun in his mouth?" She seemed almost more surprised by this detail than by the suicide itself. But then the police told us that he'd done it on top of the Sunday newspaper, spreading sections over the place he assumed his body would hit. "Well, that makes more sense," my mother said, as if this made her feel better.
If I am grateful for anything about that day and what happened in it, it's that Justine did not see Meggy, did not look into the corner bedroom, before she ran out of the house and over to the Waxmans', where she whispered "ambulance" and then threw up until she fainted.
She played dead but she really wasn't.
But yes. She really was.
They used the ambulance for Justine; our father and Meggy were not carried out until the police had gone through the house. They took fingerprints from the water glass my father had left in the sink.
Even Meggy's diary, from which the most recent pages were missing, became part of the case.
They put things in plastic bags, the way police do on TV: rug fragments, threads, the piece of Meggy's rubbing blanketshe called it her "rubbie"that lay tucked under her good cheek. Meggy would have been embarrassed to know she had been found with her rubble. And she was wearing a nightshirt spotted with old stains from her period. When I learned these details, I couldn't help realizing that this is where the expression comes from: I wouldn't be caught dead.
But when she went to bed with her secrets the night before, she had no reason to believe she would not be alone with them, under the covers, until she got up in the morning.
At first, my mother insisted that there had been a mistake. The deaths could not have been the result of murder and suicide, she told the police. It had to be foul play.
But the police showed her a letter our father had written for our mother and Justine and me. That night, our mother told us she'd burned the note without reading it. Hearing this, Justine laughed because she thought our mother was making a bad joke.
"No, I mean it," our mother said.
"Yeah, right. You burned Dad's suicide note." My sister actually snorted; it was a vulgar, piglike noise she would have mocked in another girl.
"I thought it was best." My mother squeezed her own fingers inside each other until both hands turned white. "I didn't want the last thing we remembered about him to be a bunch of rambling that didn't make any sense."
"How do you know that's what it was, if you didn't read it?" I asked. For an astonishing moment I thought I might strangle her.
My mother coughed. "I'm just assuming," she said, but something was still caught in her throat and she coughed again. Justine and I waited. "Based on his state of mind." Then she told us she thought it would be simpler, if anyone asked, to just say there had been no note.
But the media had already gotten hold of itnot the note itself, but the fact that one existed. The woman on the TV news called it "blood-spattered," but at this our mother made a sound of disgust and muttered something about sensationalism. She said that the note had actually been very clean, considering. There was only a trace of red in the top corner. It might have been a smear of Justine's nail polish, excess blotted from the edge of a finger against whatever scrap of paper happened to be around.
But it was not nail polish. We know, because they did tests. The note was folded neatly when they found it on Dad's dresser, next to loose change and his keys and the plastic photograph cube that contained pictures in only three of the six squares.
I keep the photograph cube on my own dresser now; neither my mother nor Justine wanted it. The first picture is the one my mother took on the boat that day in Boston Harbor. Then there's a snapshot of our whole family taken by Mr. Waxman at a barbecue in our backyard two summers before the deaths. Justine and Meggy and I sit with our legs crossed, at our parents' feet. On one end, my dark hair tilts toward my sisters' fairer heads. Nobody quite knows why I was born with this complexion, with brown eyes and skin that might have been blessed by the Mediterranean. My sisters and my mother have blue eyes, my father hazel, and according to the laws I learned in tenth-grade genetics, I shouldn't belong to this group.
My father's sister, Aunt Rosemary, insists that she remembers an uncle with my same coloring, but he never came up in any other conversation, and I'm pretty sure she invented him to make me feel better. When she got to the tenth grade herself, Justine took to calling me a mutation until my father made her stop.
And I remember once, when we were little, someone commenting on how different I looked from Justine and Meggy, and my mother saying that they hadn't quite gotten the recipe right the first time around. I must have seemed upset because my father told her, "I can't believe you just said that, Margaret."
"Oh, she knows I don't mean anything," my mother said. "Right, Ana? Daddy's too sensitive."
In our family photograph, my father's eyes appear dark and slitted above his smile. Here he looks sinister, although he was not. Between Meggy and me, Justine hugs her legs, her chin resting on a bare kneecap, her watchband slid all the way down to the base of her bony wrist. Meggy's braces flash in the sun.
My father is the only one touching some part of everyone else in the family. He has to stretch himself to do itto lay one palm on Meggy's shoulder and the other on mine, while his shin supports Justine's back. Next to him, her hand on his arm, my mother looks as if she is about to say something. I have heard photographs referred to as frozen time, but whenever I look at this one, I think of it as a moment in motion. My motherher white neck looking fragile in the noon light, her short hair waving away from her headstill waits to utter whatever it was.
The third picture is cut from the cover of a theater program. When she was nine years old, Meggy played the title role in the Ashmont Repertory's production of Annie. She didn't even have to audition for the part. The repertory's director, Mr. Spelich, was also the elementary-school music teacher, and he took my mother aside one day and asked how she'd feel about Meggy being in the play. "It's a lot of work, and some late nights, but I think you'll be glad you let her do it, in the long run," he advised. "She has perfect pitch, and she's a remarkable actress. I don't know if you realize."
"We had some idea," my mother told him, although in truth I don't think any of us had ever really noticed that Meggy could sing. Because she was the youngest, her voice was often crowded out. She liked to stand in front of her mirror and perform, using a hairbrush as a microphone, but Justine's stereo was always on at the same time, and her music was all any of us could hear.
In our town's Annie, Meggy was a star. With her long hair tucked up under the curly orange wig and her features accentuated by shadow and rouge, her expression of hopeful innocence reached all the way to the auditorium's last row. When she finished her solo as the abandoned daughter imagining the parents who will return for her someday, there was a moment of stunned silence in the audience before it exploded in applause. On opening night I sat between my parents (Justine was watching from a dark rear corner with the first in a series of junior-high boyfriends; I'm not sure she saw or heard much of anything that happened on the stage), and while everyone around us clapped and whistled for Meggy, my father sat motionless in his seat, unable to hide or remove the tears shining on his face. Across my chest, my mother passed him a tissue, but he wouldn't take it. His eyes were fixed on the stage, as if he had been hypnotized by his own daughter. Although I was fifteen then and thought myself too old to care about such things, I felt a chill of jealousy at the effect Meggy had on himshe had made him feel awewhich I knew I never could.
After the cast took its bows, we went back to find Meggy. Along the way we accepted congratulations from our neighbors and friends, and from people we'd never been introduced to but who, because of the size of our town, knew us anyway. I'd expected that Meggy would be flushed with pride and excitement, but instead she was sobbing in the arms of Haley Goldberg, our dental hygienist, who'd played Miss Hannigan. When Meggy saw my parents, she broke away from Haley and went to my father, who folded her into his arms. "I kept thinking about what if I didn't have you," she mumbled, barely getting the words out between shuddery breaths. She took care to address both of our parents, but we could all tell it was Dad she grieved most in her fantasy. I looked at my mother and saw her lips go tight as she understood this, too. Our father picked Meggy up and carried her out the back door, past clusters of admiring coos. When we got home, he was the one who tucked her into bed. In the morning he was ready to call Mr. Spelich and withdraw Meggy from the play, but my mother convinced him not to. And Meggy herself seemed fine after a good sleep, as if she didn't even remember her sorrow of the night before. My mother and I went to all of the other performances, but my father, saying he couldn't stand it, stayed home.
The show had been videotaped, though, and often he would watch it, late at night when everyone else was in bed. When I came home after graduating from college that summer, just before the deaths, I kept finding the worn-out Ashmont Rep tape in the VCR. By then, Meggy was spending a lot of time with her friends, trying on makeup and trading clothes, and she only clucked whenever our father called her "Annie," in an effort to win her back.
"Get over it, Dad," she'd say, in the sarcastic, world-weary tone she and her friend Gail inspired in each other. "I'm not your little orphan-girl anymore." Then she and Gail would giggle and go off to call some boy, leaving my father with the ghost of his foolish hopes still fading from his face.
The videotape was one of the things the police took from the house when they searched it for evidence. They watched the first half hour before deciding it wasn't relevant. Later, when I lay in bed next to the investigating officer, he told me that the cops had not even recognized Meggy in the starring role. I was glad my father wasn't alive to hear him say it.
The final photograph in the cube on my father's dresser shows my sisters and me laughing as we fall out of a human pyramid. Justine and I are kneeling next to each other on all fours in a pile of leaves while Meggy loses her balance on top of us, one knee wobbling on each of our denim backs. Her hair, long and loose that day, falls in front of her forehead and across one eye above her laughter, making her look like a giddy pirate. The camera caught us on our way down into the leaves, all three of our mouths opened in the same pleasurable surprise.
We learned how to make the human pyramid from Justine, who was a cheerleader. When she was in her uniform I was a little afraid of her, even though I was older. Something about the confidence she put on along with the flared skirt made me shrink before her. I knew, of course, that the orange A sprawled across the chest of her sweater stood for Ashmont, but there was a part of me that also suspected it was a code for some secret language I would never be allowed to understand. Justine knew this and didn't use it against me the way she might have with a non-sister, a girl she could afford to offend or threaten, whose worship she would welcome and perhaps even invite. Between us, my rank in the familymy firstness, which all oldest children cherish, no matter how much we complaingave me a power each of us knew would belong to me as long as we both should live.
Meggy, when she was little, begged Justine to teach her the cheers. Sometimes as I practiced with the two of them, I imagined I belonged to that species of girl you could identify purely by posture from far away. We pushed the sofa to one side of the living room and jumped and clapped and shouted until we were out of breath or until our parents made us stop.
But theyour parentswere also infected by the cheers, especially the old standard that our school's teams raised in the locker room or on the bus to away games, and which Justine took to singing around the house:
We are the Eagles, mighty mighty Eagles!
Everywhere we go-oh, people want to know-oh
Who we are. So we tell them:
We are the Eagles, mighty mighty Eagles!
Everywhere we go-oh, people want to know ...
And you kept repeating the words until you got sick of them, or you grew hoarse, or somebody told you to shut up.
One Sunday, when we were driving down to our grandparents' house for dinner and somebody in a Cadillac cut us off at a light, my father hit the steering wheel with the palms of both hands and yelled "God-dammit!" at the windshield. It was his favorite and, as far as I can remember, his only epithet. He was usually able to expel all his rage in the space of these three syllables, after which he was calm.
On the day the Cadillac cut us off, he aimed the aftershock smile at our mother, who sat next to him in the front seat. "Doesn't he know who we are?" he said, referring to the Cadillac's driver. Mom just looked at him for a moment, and then she caught on and smiled, too. Together they began to sing, and from the backseat the three of us joined in
We are the Dolans, mighty mighty Dolans!
Everywhere we go, people want to know
Who we are. So we tell them:
We are the Dolans, mighty mighty Dolans!
Of course, if anybody I knew had been within hearing distance, I would have slumped way down in the seat and rolled up the window. Even remembering it now makes me blush at how corny it was. But privately, among the five of us, it became a family refrain, especially when our parents were arguing. Say Dad was making a fuss about raw chicken in the refrigerator not being wrapped tight enough, or about somebody leaving a drop of egg white on the sponge. Next to the poison from lead paint on windowsills, diseases from eggs and chickens were among the potential invasions he dreaded most.
When his anxiety was highest, we couldn't have chicken in the house; when we did, he was the only one who could touch it before it was cooked. He buried the plastic wrapping in newspaper, which he then put into its own garbage bag and rolled into a tight twist. He brought the whole package outside to stash in his car trunk, so he could dispose of it far from the house.
And once, when he'd bought a week's worth of groceries but the cashier sneezed while packing them, my father wheeled the bags out of the store and directly to the Dumpster, where he tossed the entire purchase, canned sauces and all. If we had pancakes for breakfast, only he could crack the eggs into the batter, and the eggshells went the same way as the blood juice of the meat. (Years later, I would miss my father whenever I saw Phil Hartman playing the Anal-Retentive Chef on Saturday Night Live, while around me everybody laughed.)
Sometimes our mother just watched, without saying anything, when our father went through these elaborate sanitary routines. But other times she grew impatient and couldn't help showing it. She'd watch our father scouring the spot where an egg had leaked, and she'd say, "For God's sake, Tom, it's an egg, not a body fluid."
My father seemed to understand that his behavior was difficult to put up with, but he couldn't help it. He would ask her not to be so sarcastic, and she would say she couldn't help that. If the mood wasn't already ruined beyond repair, Meggy could start up the mighty mighty Dolan cheer and make everyone smile. It had to be the right moment, but when it worked it was one of those magic formulas every family has, a silly set of words reminding us of what's really important, that we belong to each other and this is how we know.
Justine was in junior high when she made her first cheerleading squad. Meggy was eight then, and I had just turned fifteen. Dancing alone in front of my mirror, I could move my body in a way I didn't mind watching, but when it came to gym or intramurals, I was the spastic sister. This was not a name I invented for my own masochistic torment; I heard somebody giggle it once as I passed the playing field with Justine. I was one of those girls who hates every minute of gym class except when the teacher blows the whistle to signal the end. On the soccer or hockey field I just tried to stay out of the way when the ball came to me, and let my teammates knock me down, if they needed to, in taking over the play.
The worst was cross fire, which we played on rainy days, the boys' and girls' classes combined. It was one thing to play the version we all learned in elementary school, where, if you got hit with the ball from the other side of the center line, you were out of the game. Many times, I would put myself in the direct line of these shots, so I could go sit on the side until there was only one person left and it was time to start over. Once, I was darting out when a ball bounced off my shoulder and hit Heather Shufelt in the ear. Even after I apologized and said that it wasn't my fault, Heather started a rumor that I wore boys' underwear.
When we reached high school, they taught us a different form of cross fire. Now, if you were hit, you had to go to the strip of floor at the back of the other team's territory, collect the balls that got past them, and try to hit them from behind. If you nailed someone, you earned your way back in. It meant that the game never ended, and you had to defend on all sides; you could never be safe. I suppose the teachers thought it was good for us to learn this lesson, a preparation for life. I never knew anyone who genuinely liked this version, except maybe Phil Cunningham, who was six feet tall, hid gin in his locker, and could never be hurt.
I knew I was a disappointment to my mother, who, as a teenager, had been a member of the All-State girls' basketball and field-hockey teams. And my mother didn't consider cheerleading a real sport. So it fell to Meggy to carry on the athletic tradition. She played basketball and soccer and ran the hurdles at track meets, her legs blurry flashes over the level slats.
After she died, the Kiwanis Club founded the Margaret O. Dolan Memorial Scholarship, which grants five hundred dollars each spring to a graduating senior girl who excelled in athletics throughout her high-school career. The school invites my mother, Justine, and me to the ceremony every year, but none of us has ever attended. We always receive a copy of the award program and, sometime over the summer, a thank-you note from the most recent winner. The notes usually start off by saying, "I didn't know Margaret, but ..." and end with some variation of, "I will do my best to honor the memory of your daughter's and sister's name." After three years of reading remarkably similar letters, I finally figured out that the school must keep them on file somewhere, so that each new recipient will have a model to consult when her mother forces her to sit down and write to us.
Meggy's favorite sport was baseball, probably because everyone in my mother's family had been a devoted Mets fan since Casey Stengel days. Every April our grandfather, who had connections because of his position in the Presbyterian church, took us down to Shea Stadium for the home opener, and once our grandmother caught a home run off Mookie Wilson's bat.
Meggy wanted to play baseball, but when the Little League in our town wouldn't let her, my mother organized a separate league for the girls. By the time Meggy was in high school, the league had eight teams in each of three age groups, and my mother, as founder, was honored at the end-of-season banquet every summer.
We all used to go to Meggy's games together in her early playing years, when she was an outfielder. The spring my parents separated, only a few months before Meggy died, she was promoted to pitcher, but by then it was usually only our father who went to watch her play. I was at college in Boston, Justine was busy with her friends, and our mother had moved out. She wasn't all that far awayan hour and a half or so west, to the town (actually, it liked to call itself a "hamlet") of Delphi. But of course it was a different school district, so after our mother left in March, Meggy and Justine stayed behind in Ashmont to finish out the year.
Mom was going to turn down the job at the Delphi newspaper when they offered it to her, because she couldn't take Justine and Meggy right away. But Justine told her, Go ahead, it's only for three months, we'll see you on weekends, we'll be fine. I remember realizing that our mother's absence, and our father's distress over it, would actually benefit Justine during that final semester of her senior year, when it came to staying out late and going unchaperoned. She moved into the guest room at Sue Shooby's. Justine and Sue and their friends liked to hang out at the Cat House, the attic of Sue's garage, where the Shoobys stored their old couches and where all the cats in the neighborhood sunned and slept during the day. At night it became a party den for the kids in Justine's crowd, the room rocking with shrieks and music, the air sour with filched beer.
So Justine was never around to talk to whenever I called that spring, but it didn't seem to bother my father. This should have been a clue to me that he was preoccupied by something deeper than the divorce, but I only recognized the clues afterward, when it was too late to do anything but feel guilty.
I graduated from college in May, watching through drizzle as the marching band formed a crooked 1988 on the football field. My parents and sisters came to Boston to attend the commencement as a family, and we went out to dinner afterward. My father kept looking at my mother, but whenever she caught him, he looked away. Meggy tried to make everyone laugh with her imitation of Pee-wee Herman, but we were all distracted by the energy it took to keep our grief within bounds, and in the middle of her shtick she had to stop suddenly and swallow. When the tears appeared on her cheeks nobody said anything. My mother handed her a clean napkin while my father raised his hand for the check.
After the ceremony my mother wanted me to go back to Delphi with her, but I wasn't ready to leave home. Instead I returned to Ashmont with my father and sisters, to the house on Pearl Street that other peoplea family named Crowellwould soon call home. Our father had rented an apartment in Grandview Arms, staggered stucco units with a communal Jacuzzi and badminton court. I could no more picture my father living there than in an igloo, but he seemed surprisingly resigned to it as the Fourth of July approached. That was moving-out weekend; his suitcases would go across town to the Grandview's square, white, empty rooms, and my sisters and I would help the Crisafulli brothers load our belongings onto the truck they would drive out to the condo in Delphi, which my mother had already bought with money her parents gave her.
The condo was small, but Justine was scheduled to start college at Syracuse, our mother's alma mater, that September, so the extra bedroom at the new place would really be Meggy's alone until she graduated from Ashmont High.
But Meggy and our father died at the end of June. By then, she had already decided she didn't want to play softball anymore. She told Dad it was because she wanted to spend her last evenings in Ashmont at the town pool, but he didn't believe her and he kept pestering her about it until finally she said, "Okay, okay, if you really want to know, I can't stand going to games knowing you're afraid you'll see Mom there. It makes me sick that you can't even look at each other; it makes me want to puke." Then she flung her Parrelli Hardware team cap at him in a little fit of drama and went outside to sit on the swings.
Later, she told Justine and me that she'd overheard our parents talking on the phone. Our father was crying, pleading with her not to go through with the divorce, saying it would be too much for Meggy to handle. "But he's the one," Meggy told us. We'd turned up the radio in her bedroom so we could talk. Meggy and I were eating Chips Ahoy cookies straight out of the blue bag. Justine, who always wanted to be thinner than she already was, sipped at her seltzer. "The three of us are handling it just fine."
Meggy was almost sixteen then. Although we never said anything about it, we all sensed that the three of us was changing in ways we could not guess. I remember going to the last game she pitched. I watched from the top bleacher, the aluminum under my bare legs hot from a long day's sun, which came in slanting at that hour and made the field hard to see. My sister's face was only a shadow under the bill of her cap, and her hair hung in wheat braids between her shoulder blades. Gail Harvey, Meggy's best friend, had hair of the same length and color, and when they were younger the girls asked for matching clothes at Christmas and pretended to be twins. Occasionally, from a distance, even my mother and Justine and I mistook one for the other. The only person they never fooled was our father, who could pick out his favorite daughter instantly across three playing fields.
Before each pitch, I remember, Meggy would tap the bill of her cap for luck. Her windup was slow but the ball flew fast from her fingers, and she struck out many of her opponents.
In the younger teams, you got a strike counted against you only if you swung at the ball and missed. But in the major league, where Meggy played in the end, the umpire would call it if you just stood there while a pitch went through the strike zone and over the plate. By then, you were supposed to have some judgment. You were supposed to be able to tell if what was coming at you was something you should want.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is, quite simply, the most moving, wise novel I have read in a long time. It is the portrait of a family in the wake of unimaginable tragedy, and yet the writing is so generous and rich that the reader is left feeling hopeful and redeemed.
I have mixed feelings about this novel. The writing is beautiful and the characters are believable, but although the book is only 220 pages long, it started off very slow. I had to really make myself stick with it, but I'm glad I did. The story gets much better towards the middle - end.