WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH
Join the PTA? Yes, according to Maggie, Barbara and Elizabeth. Because despite their differencesone is a recent widow; one is a late-in-life mother; and one is a supermom whose surprise pregnancy, she fears, will result in complicationsall three women have one thing in common: their daughters. They'd do anything for them .
But is anything enough?
Because one girl just can't adjust, one is terrified to be aloneand one is the mystery blogger who's wreaking havoc from one end of the student body to the other. Seems as if there are a lot of secrets in this small town. And despite the gossip, not a lot of talking going on .
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It's easy to look back and pinpoint what you should've done differently, to think of words you could've said, or a path you should've taken if you'd only trusted your intuition.
What's not so easy is looking forward, past the shouldas and couldas, straight into the eyes of the here and now.
I stop the car in front of the wrought-iron gates surrounding the Villa Magnolia, this place I visited so many times as a child, and I take a good look at the here and now, forcing myself to drink it down like bitter medicine.
Funny how you can look at something for years and never really see it. As far back as I can remember, my aunt Barbara has lived in the sprawling, lakefront estate, the home where Barbara and Mama grew up.
My granddaddy made and lost a fortune in the citrus industry, and the house was all he managed to hang on to. Due to family tensions I never understood, Mama was disinherited. Granddaddy left Barbara the Villa Magnolia, and left Mama and me to survive on our own the best we could. The only thing I know is that it had something to do with Granddaddy not approving of Mama's boyfriend, the man who would eventually get her pregnant with me.
All my daddy left me was his olive skin, lush lips and dark curly hair.
The trinity of his legacy.
Today, as I sit here, with the sun shining through the dense, leafy branches of the old magnolia tree, I realize I've come back seeking answers. I haven't quite figured out all the questions, but they'll come. Yes, as sure as the sword fern has invaded the grass between the driveway and the fence, the questions will come.
Barbara's the one responsible for my daughter and me moving back. She just wouldn't rest until she got us here. It took a year of her badgering me, but I lived in a daze for the first nine months after my husband Tim died. In that big old house in Asheville, just my daughter Sarah and me.
Sometimes I'd hear or read something that would make me think, Oh, I have to call Tim and tell him— and a split second later, the realization would set in that I couldn't call Tim and the only way I could cope was to take a sleeping pill and put a pillow over my head so I could obliterate the pain.
It was bad enough that sometimes I'd sleep until it was time to pick up Sarah from school; but the wake-up call came after he'd been gone five months—the morning the knife I was using to butter Sarah's toast slipped out of my hand and slid underneath the refrigerator. I got down on my hands and knees to fish it out and found a note in Tim's handwriting caught in the dusty coils.
Maggie, morning, hon, had to head out to an early meeting. Didn't want to wake you. Forgot to mention that my blue shirt needs to be spot-treated when you take it to the cleaners. See you tonight. Love you, Tim
No, I wouldn't see him tonight. He'd wrapped his white Infiniti around a telephone pole and was never coming home again. Not that night or any other.
In a stupor, I went upstairs to the spare bedroom and dug that blue shirt out of the boxes of his things I'd packed up but couldn't quite bring myself to take to the Salvation Army.
I put on that blue shirt and curled up into a ball, crying until the next thing I knew, I opened my eyes in a dark room.
I sat up with a start. Where was Sarah? How in hell could I sleep through picking up my daughter? There was no phone in the room so I had no idea if she'd called.
Oh, she had, of course. Several times. She was at a friend's house. The mom had tried to bring her home, but took her back to their house when no one had answered the door.
Sarah was worried sick that something had happened to me. Just as something had happened to her father.
I realized it was time I got myself to a shrink. The shrink, in turn, suggested that a change of scenery might be a good idea.
A few months later, I accepted Barbara's persistent invitation to come back to Florida and move into the guesthouse on the grounds of the Villa Magnolia.
It's been a long time since I last saw her, but my aunt Barbara is a Southern belle through and through—gracious, steadfast and honest. She's ready to offer you a tall glass of sweet tea, or a piece of her mind, whichever best suits the situation. She maintains there are two truths about Southern belles: they survive and they endure.
I suppose the Villa Magnolia is a Southern belle in her own right, too, because beneath her peeling paint and red tile roof that's mildewed green-black, she stands graceful and proud.
She is a survivor.
I could learn a thing or two from both of them. Sarah rests her head against the passenger window as if it's too much for her to open her eyes and take a peek at our new home.
I want to turn to her and say, "Baby girl, I know you hate me for uprooting you, but it'll be all right."
It has to be all right.
She was such a daddy's girl, and there're times I think she wishes it were me in that grave instead of him. I want to tell her to be careful what she wishes for because Death listens. Death, that cold, hard bastard, waits in the shadows, hearing every fleeting impulse your heart utters.
The gate is open, but rather than pulling up to the house and unloading ourselves without warning, I press the intercom call button to let Barbara know we're here. She's expecting us, but it only seems right to announce ourselves instead of barging in. "What are you doing?" Sarah scowls at me. These are the first words she's uttered since we crossed the Florida state line.
"Letting Aunt Barbara know we're here."
"Why do you think she left the gate open? So you wouldn't have to do that."
I ignore her haughty tone. She's been through so much, losing Tim and moving to a new state in the midst of middle school—as if that isn't an awkward time on a good day. Honestly, I don't blame her for being upset.
I never had a daddy. I suppose it's worse to lose a good one than to never have had one in your life.
It was always just the two of us, Mama and me. But sometimes when I was with her, that's when I felt the most alone. Probably how Sarah felt when I was going through my crazy spell.
Mama's been gone now for twenty-two years. In a way it seems as if she's been gone forever. In another way it hurts as if it happened yesterday. Maybe her living inside herself all the time was to prepare me for being alone. But I got soft being married to Tim. I got used to depending on him. He didn't give me any warning that he'd leave, too.
I know better than most anyone that Death doesn't just happen to other people. But I can't contemplate it for too long. I can't let my mind creep to the edge of that vast canyon where Death lives and gaze down into his eyes. Because I don't want him to be part of my here and now.
Shaking away the thought, I press the button again and wait for Barbara's voice to drift through the intercom, inviting us in. I take a good look around, drinking in everything. It's been a long, long time, but everything looks exactly the same, a little more overgrown, a little weathered around the edges.
I always did love that old magnolia tree. The way it stands just inside the gates, all tall and proud, spreading its protective branches as if no harm would come to any who entered.
The tree was here before the house. In fact, they had to veer the driveway to the right because it was smack dab in the middle of the straight line between the gate and the house. I never realized it before, but I'm glad they went around it instead of digging up its roots.
A cool breeze wafts in through the open car window. It smells of magnolia blossoms, something basil-like and the aquatic mélange of the lake off in the distance beyond the old Mediterranean house.
I close my eyes and breathe in deeply. We will be strong like that old tree, my daughter and I. Strong and sure with roots growing so deep that Death won't topple us.
The iron gate will fortify us, protect us so that Death won't march his very own hateful self in and endeavor to dig up our roots.
"Mom, no one's answering. Just go in."
I shrug, gaze back at the rusting call box, mashing the button again. It doesn't buzz or squawk or give any indication that it's announcing our arrival.
I toss it up to fate. If Barbara answers, that means coming back here wasn't a mistake.
Sarah sighs. "If this is our home, why do we have to wait for someone to invite us in?"
I don't know how to answer that question. Because it's the polite thing to do when someone takes you in?
Because if we proceed up that long, winding driveway uninvited, maybe Death will, too?
Sarah gazes at me, waiting for an answer. Barbara didn't answer, is this a mistake? Reluctantly, I put the car in Drive. "You're not real glad to be here, are you?"
It's not a challenge so much as an observation.
She's an old soul, that daughter of mine. Always has been. Despite her rampant teenage hormones, there's always a glimmer of truth in those soft brown eyes, a way of viewing the world that astounds me sometimes.
"It's hard for me, too, baby."
She bites her bottom lip and stares out the passenger window, and as the car rolls toward the main house, I try to ignore the dark shadows I see in my peripheral vision.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Aunt Barbara invites her depressed widowed niece Maggie to move into the family home in Villa Magnolia, Florida. Needing a change and worried about her young daughter Maggie accepts the offer and does. Barbara hopes that having relatives will help her with her late in life Downs Syndrome child as her spouse is too busy chasing women to care about either of them. Their neighbor Elizabeth is a supermom and super wife, but her perfect life imploded when she learns she is pregnant.-------------- These three women have secrets that they hide from everyone. Slowly as they bond as sisters with their link being their daughters, this trio of mothers reveals to one another their biggest fears and strongest desires which does not include joining the Stratford Park PTA.----------------- This is a well written character study that rotates the first person point of view between the three females. The key to the tale is that the trio seems real with their secrets, their concerns and fears, and their relationships especially with one anther and their daughters, yet each has differing personalities. Nancy Robards Thompson provides a solid look at motherhood.--------------- Harriet Klausner