Divining Womenby Kaye Gibbons
Autumn 1918. Rumors of peace are spreading across America, but spreading even faster are the first cases of Spanish influenza, whispering of the epidemic to come. Maureen Ross, well past a safe childbearing age, is experiencing a difficult pregnancy. Her husband, Troop cold and careless of her condition has battered her spirit throughout their
Autumn 1918. Rumors of peace are spreading across America, but spreading even faster are the first cases of Spanish influenza, whispering of the epidemic to come. Maureen Ross, well past a safe childbearing age, is experiencing a difficult pregnancy. Her husband, Troop cold and careless of her condition has battered her spirit throughout their marriage. Into this loveless ménage arrives Troop's niece, Mary Oliver, who has come to help Maureen in the last weeks of her confinement. Horrified by Troop's bullying, she realizes that her true duty is to protect her aunt.
As the influenza spreads and the death toll grows, Troop's spiteful behavior worsens. He terrorizes the household, but when Mary fights back he begins to go over the edge. Maureen rallies, releasing a stunning thunderstorm of confrontation and, ultimately, finding spiritual renewal.
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I climbed aboard the Carolinian at Union Station on September 10, 1918, at seven o'clock in the morning, and within minutes we were out of the tunnel and moving southward in a level, determined rush. In fifteen hours, I would be in Elm City, North Carolina, where I was to be a sort of temporary lady's companion to my expectant aunt Maureen, a woman I had never met in the five years she had been married to my mother's half brother, Troop Ross. Their first child was due in November. I had never met my uncle, either, but I had heard about him all my life. My mother had been able to keep up a loose, tentative connection with him, as she was always merrily impervious to insult. Maureen had been only a figure in the background of the marriage, remembered fondly and greatly pitied.
Troop's mother had been my grandfather Toby Greene's first wife. She had jerked the boy out of Washington when he was eight and taken him to her family's home in North Carolina, so angry and repulsed by her husband's new pet hobby, nudism, that she denied him any contact with his son and also dropped his name. From what my family gathered, she let people assume that he had died. She was locally admired for her well-bred, stoic refusal to go into any detail, and her sadistically critical and smothering child-rearing tactics were interpreted as the hectic attentiveness of a lonely widow, trying to do the best she could to raise her boy alone.
Her tastefully concealed rage and obsession never abated. From her departure in 1875 to her death in 1911, she hounded and taunted my grandfather and his second wife, Leslie, through the mails, demanding that the two of them rot from some "fanny disease" she hoped they would catch while romping naked in the woods, demanding that they then die of the inborn selfishness that she believed had initially compelled Toby to go off on a tangent and humiliate her. But despite her morbid hopes and wishes for him and his new wife, which eventually expanded to include my mother, Martha, their only child, she let them know that she and Troop deserved and expected to be supplied with the best of everything in exchange for Toby's having flitted off and made a mockery of her honor and her marriage by joining the American Community of Nudists, among other "sinister organizations." She subscribed to the Washington morning and afternoon papers by post so that she could keep herself and her son educated about family activities, and would fire off commentary whenever anything about the Greenes appeared.
Oftentimes, in the same letter that contained a bitter indictment of Toby and his family as freethinking freaks or idiots who had chosen to squander the excellent address and socially privileged position they so fortunately inherited, she would insist that Toby promptly finance a wild range of entitlements beyond the generous annuities, incomes, and trusts he had already settled upon her. After he married again in 1876, and when my mother was born a year later, when she married in 1895, and on the occasion of my birth, in 1896, the letters were more incredible than usual. She blistered the lot of us, including me, "that new infant who has no doubt been issued a massive silver spoon by her doting grandfather," in a crazed preface to her catalogue of insatiable demands for protracted stays in Europe, oceanfront suites at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Louis Vuitton trunks, and dresses from Doucet and Worth. My grandfather was ignorant with regard to the luggage and the dresses, but the women in the family were not. Despite their own frugality, one of their favorite pastimes was looking at the fashion magazines, and when they went to New York, they stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria and enjoyed watching the elegant ladies parading up and down Peacock Alley. After they explained the clothing request to my grandfather, how these dresses tended to be worn by the ultra-ultra set, how much they cost, he shouted out loud, "My God! Nora is too far too broad for that kind of merchandise!"
But she was determined to make him pay for, as she described it, one day marrying her in high Episcopal style, with the promise of including her in the exquisite Washington society he had always known, and then announcing, right after "that strange honeymoon trip to India, of all places," that he was now ready to explore some nontraditional interests he had been hoarding. The nudism was certainly the worst of it, but she was also angry that he could not simply be satisfied with the vision of the two of them floating forever on a river of inherited family money. By her lights, he could work in the mornings, managing investments, have lunch at a club, and then come home and tell her how handsome she looked in her new clothes. She had everything sorted out.
When my grandfather explained that he had not duped or misled her, she would not let herself understand that he was only searching for an identity beyond his family's wealth and position. He could not make her see that he would be a happier man if he could satisfy his vivid curiosity and that they were both blessed that he had the means to do it while keeping her beautifully clothed and shod. He told me that he explained a hundred times in a hundred ways that they could each do everything they wanted to do, individually and together, that he had realized how unfair it was for one of them to wither while the other thrived. When he showed me what my family called "the trove," the crate containing more than three hundred letters, which I read after my mother had decided I was going to North Carolina, I asked him why he had taken a young bride with such worldly sensibilities to India, even if he had promised her five trips to London to make up for it. What he told me about that trip, as well as the rest of the marriage, helped explain why my family always regarded the confluence of love and freedom as an elemental requirement of life.
"I wanted to see what they thought mattered in Calcutta," he told me. "And it turned out not to be whether the fricassee was prepared right. So many things made an impress on me. Manners meant dignity and not causing another person pain. But I was certainly causing my new wife pain. Poor thing, she hated it, and hated me for taking her. I was leaving her asleep in the mornings and walking out to the river and weeping. I wished I'd found out everything I did before I married her, but we all learn what we need at the right time, when we can bear the news. If she and I had been able to let one another be, things would have worked out differently."
The last letter she wrote him was dated May 5, 1911. Troop was forty-four, and she spoke of him as though he were thirteen. After I had read it, I took it to my grandfather and asked whether I should perhaps find something else to do in these months that had become open for me, whether I should leave my uncle alone and write a nice note wishing my aunt the best.
"I'll be going," I told him, "into the home of the boy this woman created."
"Oh," he said, "it's worse than that. He is the man she created."
May 5, 1911
Happy 35th Anniversary! And how is that amusing little wife of yours who had the temerity to sign that birthday check for my son? Is something wrong that you cannot sign your own name these days? Are you in jail because you've finally been arrested on a morals charge?
Congratulations as well on your picture being in the paper, raising money at a gala affair for some "cause," to which you had given a pretty penny. A piece of advice-a gentleman would pay more attention that his wife's clothing looks well on her. But I forgot that you two are above caring about that kind of thing. Speaking of which, I failed to compliment you when you had Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt in the house, enjoying helping Miss Leslie make persimmon preserves in her "homey kitchen." Did you invite her, or did she just instinctively know to come because your home is such a social magnet?
It has been 36 years since you caused me to leave, and I left under the impression that if I stayed, it would have meant not being able to do nice things and participate in life, and I have counted nine times that you and Miss Leslie or your strange housemates, Leonard and Louise Oliver, have had your pictures in the paper. There have been fifty-one mentions of these names and twelve of your "splendid" daughter Martha. Do you know how unseemly that is?
Despite your neglect of your son, you can trust that I have tried to be a good accompanist to his social and professional career. And as deprived as my son and I have been while you and your other family have been having it both ways and being naked in the woods one night and in evening clothes at an embassy affair the next, we've been happier than I could have ever imagined. Although we've been forced to live in Elm City, North Carolina, amongst people whose pathetic local social aspirations we had to adapt to if were to enjoy going around in any society at all, we have been beloved and recognized as people of quality and worth.
What is needed right now is that my son and I recover from this anniversary that you so blithely celebrate, and I think I should like to take him to Europe this summer to do it. I need to give the company a deposit in ten days. It should not be too much more than it was last year, but I cannot be held accountable for the rise in the modern cost of living.
Nora Worthy Ross
As she was writing that dunning letter, one of the few people in Elm City, North Carolina, who had more money than she was her son. Despite her portrayal of him as a shocked child, barely hanging on to his senses because of all these problems of doing without, triggered by his selfish father's wedding anniversary, he was a responsible and trusted businessman, in one of the chief vice-presidential positions at the American Tobacco Company. It had been his lack of scholarship rather than of money that sent him to a small college close to his mother that cost my grandfather as much as Harvard would have. In one of her letters, written while Troop was only thirty minutes by train from his mother, she blamed Grandfather Toby not only for her heartache but also for the fall of Western civilization, because had her son been able to attend Harvard and enter one of the professions, even the clergy, he would have been better equipped to "win the Presidency and uplift fallen standards the world over, but no." Again, Nora would not accept the truth. Grandfather Toby had not attended college at all. He had read law with a district judge, although he never practiced it. He was not in a position to influence Troop's admission to Harvard or anywhere else, but she behaved as though providing him that kind of access were merely another prerogative of both his social station and his guilt, and she was relentless about it. He was once telling me how guilty he had felt for years that he had not been equipped to provide his son with a good college, when Mother walked in. It was difficult for her to watch him rummaging around in his memory for a way he could have made everything right.
Mother told me, "Mary, I want you to hear what I have told my father a dozen times, something he cannot quite accept, because guilt tends to get in the way of his reason. I know I sound angry, but I am only aggravated that a man who has found this wonderful, authentic way to live, who has brought his family nothing but joy, has had to contend with this niggling persecution. Nothing he could have done would have changed anything. I grew up watching him carry this blame, not just about Harvard. The two of them should look to themselves. What they would see is an intellectually lazy individual who would not touch a book unless it contained instructions for his own advancement, and a mother who has told him that he is owed the world, though actually earning it would be common. And they have developed a very different notion of what normal means. It is not our fault that they fantasize that we move about in some nonexistent splendid existence. The two of them create their own problems. They think that my father has done nothing. I know he's done too much. The only thing he did not do is give Troop a sound whipping, and that, I can say from having raised your brother, was what was needed most of all."
In 1894, after the papers ran an article that celebrated the "High Sights" of female high school graduates, including my mother, a letter soon arrived in which Nora expressed absolute glee over finally having vindicated her son's remarkable failure. She confused Barnard College with Miss Porter's in an ignorant forecast of "young Martha's sad inability to realize her much-trumped promise by having to attend one of these holding schools for society cows." She hoped that my mother was grateful for the money available to groom her to properly breed. But Nora never attacked my mother directly. She sent nothing but flowers and ordinary, courteous cards to her when my father and brother died. She was justifiably intimidated by the restrained self-assurance that my mother showed in being able to contact her half brother a few times each year without mentioning to either of them the trove of correspondence.
When Mother went down to North Carolina, for Nora's funeral, she took a note her father had written for his son. "But," Mother told me later, "a remarkable thing happened. I noticed a stunningly beautiful woman at the funeral and the cemetery. She had come by herself. It became clear that the two of them were together. It looked as if he had waited for his mother to be in the ground before he touched her-which he did all right. He leaned on her heavily, touched her neck and cried on her shoulder. It was a strange sight. She was very tall and dark, almost Italian-looking, and him so pale with his white hair combed back."
Mother waited for him to walk away before she went over to meet the woman. Her name was Maureen Carlton, and she was originally from Yazoo City, Mississippi, where she met Troop when he was in the Delta on business. She had moved to North Carolina and taken a clerical job at the tobacco company two years before, early in 1909. Mother said that she seemed nice, and this baffled and intrigued her, given Troop's character. To avoid any complications that might arise from the lie that had been so dramatically lived in North Carolina, Mother introduced herself to people as an old friend of the family. When Maureen heard this, she discreetly responded that Troop had told her about the family situation in Washington, and said she was sorry, as it sounded hard for everyone. Mother was taken aback to learn that although the woman had heard Nora's praises sung for two years, the first time she actually saw her was when she was in her coffin. And then Maureen took Mother's hand as she left the room, and said how dear it had been to meet her and how she looked forward to meeting other members of Troop's family, if not before then certainly at the wedding.
from Divining Women by Kaye Gibbons, copyright © 2004 G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Kaye Gibbons is the author of four previous novels: Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman, A Cure for Dreams, and Charms for the Easy Life. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and five children.
- Raleigh, North Carolina, and New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- May 5, 1960
- Place of Birth:
- Nash County, North Carolina
- Attended North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1978-1983
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I have every Gibbons book ever written and I adore her work. I found this book a little difficult to get into but once I did, I couldn't put it down. I love the way Gibbons can make you feel so attached to her characters. You feel their hurt, their love, their pain, and they become a part of your life for a short while. I look forward to her next novel.
I just finished this book and let me start out by saying that Kaye Gibbons is an extremely gifted writer. Having said that, I found the first few chapters a chore to read. I have never read such long sentences in my life. The letter that took up an entire chapter seemed so unlike Gibbons' usual writing style and, in my humble opinion, interrupted the flow of the book. I found this to be a very depressing book and I was glad to turn the last page. I do look forward to Gibbons' upcoming sequel to Ellen Foster and will keep reading all of her books.
Ms. Gibbons is a wonderful story teller. I wandered a bit in the first 20 or so pages, but all of a sudden I stepped into a wonderful southern story. I have enjoyed all of Ms. Gibbons' books.