Mary Beth Writes

 I wrote this years ago.  It is fiction, of course, although there were several big old wood Victorian mansions in my hometown of Ludington, Michigan. My grandfather had been a glazier during part of his life; he installed windows. He talked about a house they \ worked on where they found a secret room- there was some hidden way into it that was not a door. 

...

I was correcting term papers when the phone call came from Aunt Edith's attorney. In hindsight I suppose it's ironic that the papers, written by students in my US history class, were on American culture from the Roaring Twenties through the Great Depression.

"I'm calling to inform you of the passing of your aunt, Edith McKenna. She died two days ago and at her request her body has already been cremated. Her wishes are for a memorial service at a time when it will be convenient for you to return to Blue River."

I sat there with papers on Prohibition, profiteering, and the crash of the stock market scattered in front of me. Wistfulness washed through me.

"We can go into this in more detail when you are here, Ms. McKenna, but these are the basic components of her will. She and your grandmother owned a condo in Florida as I think you know, since Edith mentioned you visited her there once."                

I grimaced at the memory of that long ago day. Mark and I had taken Allie and Nate to Disney World that week. They were sun-burned and whiny, plus Mark was aggravated that he was missing a half day of golf.              

But I'd loved seeing Aunt Edie. She showed the kids her hand-cranked juice press which fascinated them out of their crankiness. We sipped fresh limeade as we admired the ocean from her breezy balcony. I remember how the two of us laughed so hard we got tears in our eyes when we reminisced about Jack.          

That was the last time I saw her. The kids and our ridiculously big house kept me so busy, I was working weekends and summers on my master’s degree, and  my marriage was falling apart. All I could manage was a phone call to Aunt Edie every few months.

"Edith instructed that the condo be sold and proceeds be given to AIDS research in your brother Jack's name."

Just like that tears filled my eyes. Jack died from AIDS in 1988. My parents and grandmother had been so awful when they learned Jack's secret. Now, all these years later, Aunt Edie was coming through for him.

"However, her house here in Blue River, plus its contents, she leaves to you."

My breath left me. I stammered.

"Me? Why not my parents?"

"Edith told me once that both your father's and brother's college and medical school tuitions were paid from family funds. Edie confided that she knew your grandmother offered to pay your tuition also, if you would attend a local college and major in elementary education which she considered sufficient education for any woman.

"You affronted her by moving to California where you worked until you were a resident. After that you earned your college degree through the state’s free tuition program. Edith was very proud of you and said it was about time some of the family fortune made its way to you."

I'm a public high school teacher, and therefore not often stunned and flabbergasted. But I was that day.  

The school year finished two weeks later. Allie and Nate were going with their dad and his new wife for a month-long eco-tour through Australia. If spending money on kids makes a great dad, Mark is one of the best. Enough said?

I packed my suitcase, arranged for the neighbor kid to feed the cat, and then took off from my modest condo in a suburb of Atlanta for a mansion in a hometown I'd left many years before.

Blue River is 40 miles south of Canada. It started as the logging camp to which my Great-Grandfather Lavin Worthington, fifth son of an obscurely noble family, arrived from England in 1910. As Grandmother Lavinia avowed far too often, "Father arrived with only the education in his head, the suit on his back, and the will and discipline to succeed."  

Of course, any healthy white male with a college education in 1910 was sailing with Lady Luck before he sailed past Lady Liberty.

He started working in the business office of the lumber company. Within two years he owned it. He then hired some geologists from New England who promptly discovered iron ore in the area. Great-grandfather Worthington became a mine-owner before there were unions. He founded a bank. Of course, he worked long, hard hours to make sure no other banks opened in the area.

At the tender age of 34 he married an uncommonly beautiful 15-year old daughter of a Finnish immigrant family to Blue River. She bore him one child and then died of childbed fever before she was 16.

Great-Grandfather named Lavinia after himself and never remarried. Grandmother Lavinia said he loved his bride so deeply that forever after he carried his love for her in his heart.

Well, maybe. Then again, maybe he just wasn't much for the opposite sex. That happens, too.

As the Depression hit and banks failed throughout America Great-Grandfather Lavin's bank continued to hum healthily along. Grandmother told us it was because he rose every morning at dawn, kept his clothes neat and pressed, worked hard, was diligent and organized, acted prudently, and always avoided tobacco, liquor, and unrefined entertainments..  

When I was a child, this made sense.

After I earned a master’s degree in American history, it didn't.

 

Returning to one's hometown after decades away is an odd thing. I recognized the feeling of the twists and turns of the streets as I drove to town. I knew the shabby old houses tucked between Walmart and chain stores. It jolted me that a town that started as a lumber camp now had a Home Depot.

It was when I turned onto Main Street that I finally spied it just ahead; a huge white elephant of a house with green gingerbread trim. Without a doubt it was the largest and most venerable old home in Blue River

I pulled my Subaru into the brick driveway, opened the car's windows, turned off the engine. Immediately, like an aria I hadn't heard in years, the whir of insects, the cadence of wind through tall pines, and the shriek of kids playing on the school playground two blocks away filled my ears. Tears touched my eyes. I'd forgotten I knew this song.

I took a deep breath and then climbed out of the car to make my way along the herringbone brick walkway to the front entrance. We'd marched this same path as a family every week after church all the years of my childhood. Mom and Dad, Jack and I, going to Grandmother's house for Sunday dinner. We'd walk this path, climb these wide wooden stairs, and ring the imperious doorbell.

I remember as a teenager asking my dad why he rang the doorbell to the house in which he grew up and where his parents lived still. By then my dad was one of the most prominent surgeons in that half of the state.

He shrugged his shoulders.

"This is your grandmother's turf so we play it her way."

The door was still the same dark wood with an oval window, still curtained with lace. I pulled out the key the lawyer had mailed to me and let myself in.

For an eerie moment I could almost hear our voices again.

"Mmmm, Mother, it smells delicious."

"Thank you, Son. One really has to keep a sharp eye out at the Kroger. It's so easy to get inferior meat at these franchise places. People don't have the same pride in their work as they did in my day."

My dad, invited to lecture on surgery techniques all over the world, bit his lips.

"Grandmother, did Mrs. Molloy make a pie?"

"Yes, Jack. Lemon meringue. And Tommy told me that after dinner, he wants to show you a book from the library that has pictures of airplanes or some such thing."

"Cool! Can I go find him now?"

"No. We'll eat soon enough. This is a time to relax with your own family."

Sometimes one of us would ask, "Is Grandpa around?"

Grandmother always responded with an edge to her voice.       

"Oh, you know how he is, he's somewhere. But he just wanders off and leaves all the hosting duties to me."

No one could ever please, impress, or delight Grandmother Lavinia. The only person who'd ever been good enough for her was Great-Grandfather Lavin. The rest of us got used to thinking of ourselves as minor characters filled with mortal flaws.

I walked into the kitchen. My memories stopped me in my tracks.

I remembered all this: the high-ceilinged space, the holy incense of ninety years of daily cooking and cleaning, the dappled way light splattered through the tree outside the window and onto the violets along the sill.  

Suddenly I was a child again.

"Aww, Mrs. Molloy, did you have to go and make stinky old rutabagas?"

Sometimes I'd sneak into the kitchen as Grandmother sat with my parents in the living room.

Mrs. Molloy hugged me. Her Irish brogue was a warm and snugly shawl tucked around my kid soul.

"Ah, your grandmother got it in her head this week that modern children eat shabbily. There wasn't much I could do to save you lass, she's bent and determined to serve the 'baggies today.

"So here's the trick, Miss Caddie, to nasty food. Think about something else that's terrible when you try to dab it down. When I was a lass and all there was to eat was cold oatmeal and worse potatoes, I'd think about watching a dog throw up. Then I could get through almost anything."

I started to laugh even now, all these years later.

In my kid voice, I'd pushed her that day.

"What should I think about to be able to eat rutabagas?"

She looked at me hard and then wrapped her arm around my shoulder.

"I'd go for a swayback horse dying slow in pond scum."

In addition to Sunday dinners, Jack and I also often stayed overnight at Grandmother's. Sometimes, when phone calls pulling dad away from meals at home came too thick and often, there would be fights in their room at night. And then the next thing we knew, my mom would go with my dad to lectures and conferences. That was the way their marriage worked. In summers they went to resorts together.

If we hadn't had Tommy and Mrs. Molloy, I don't know what we would have done. Mrs. Molloy was, of course, Tommy's mother. Tommy was Jack's and my best friend.                

In all the years we knew each other, Tommy and Mrs. Molloy were never invited to share a meal with us. Even back then it seemed mean.  

Once I heard Grandmother tell my mother that perhaps more poor Irish lasses should get themselves knocked up and then come to America to raise their illegitimate child. It kept them from marrying and having whole broods of kids.

I hadn't thought of that overheard conversation in so many years that it occurred to me, right then, I probably didn't know what she meant when she said it. But now I was a middle-aged woman. Did people really say things like that?

I crossed the dining room to the mahogany china cabinet that glittered with so many beautiful things. There was an entire shelf of Waterford crystal. Irish Waterford. Did she ever consider that?

Her cherished English bone china teapot was there also, on a different shelf.

I lifted it out and stood a moment to examine its hand-painted roses. And then, middle-aged sensible me carried it through the kitchen.  I opened the back door, transported the masterpiece of English civilization to the edge of the steps, and dropped it ten feet to the brick walkway.

The pot smashed to smithereens. I went back to the china cabinet and with tears down my cheeks, pulled as many teacups and saucers as I could carry, and ferried them, too, out to the porch to drop and smash into as many pieces as a heart can break.

Because, all these years later, I still missed Tommy.

Tommy got himself killed into a million pieces in Vietnam.           

Tommy would have been shocked that I broke Grandmother's teapot. Then he would have smiled. Tommy smiled more than anyone I've ever known in my life.

Just as when we were children I'd reached my limit. My feet carried me up the curving stairway that let one rise, like steam, away from the pressure cooker of Grandmother's aspersions.

I climbed past the second story of bedrooms, up to the third floor where a modest door opened into the attic. Tom's and Jack's and my world. Where we learned ourselves as we invented everything.  

I made my way across the space as I'd done hundreds of times as a kid. Open the windows. Gather the box fans still stored against the wall where we must have left them thirty years before. Set them on chairs to create cross breezes.

When Grandmother discovered we were taking over the attic she had stunned us by not caring. She announced that all healthy children need an unencumbered place to play and since we didn't have a barn, the attic would have to do. I suspect she was happy to have us out of her hair and off her good furniture.

She called a carpenter to make sure the space was safe, and then an electrician to put in more outlets so we wouldn't burn the place down.

I made my way through piles of boxes and old furniture to a particular window. I opened it, looked down, and smiled at another summer afternoon forty years ago.

Jack was 14 that year, Tommy and I were 12 and both boys were nuts for airplanes. One found a book on how to design all sorts of folded planes, so that is what they did for days -- fold planes.

I guess I was reading Anne of Green Gables that summer. I always admired the part where she walks along the ridge of a building because a snooty girl dares her to.

Tom was talking to Jack.

"If we could get to the roof of the verandah, we could fly some of our planes to see which designs are the most aerodynamic."

Jack got up from where he'd been sitting cross-legged while folding a bi-plane so complicated he'd glued Popsicle sticks to it.

"That would be cool."

The boys looked down. The roof of the house was almost a 90 degree angle that plummeted fifteen feet until it hit the relatively flat roof of the verandah. 

"We'd have to be pretty careful to not roll right off the roof."

Tommy furrowed his eyebrows and then looked at me. At 12 I was still a scrawny thing.  

'I think we could do it if we got a rope, tied one end inside the attic to something really strong then let Caddie go down it first with the other end of the rope itied around her. She takes it down to the verandah, ties it to one of the posts there, and then we can all use the rope to climb up and down this part of the roof."

Unbelievably, I agreed to this.

They found rope, tied it to an overstuffed armchair and eased me out the window.  

Suddenly, I was hanging 45 feet up in thin air. My sweaty hands clenched around the rope were beginning to slip a little, creating stinging rope-burn and well as utter terror.

Tommy urged me on. "Come on Caddie, I know you can do it. Just sort of let the rope slip through your hands and you will be down to the verandah in no time."

Right then Grandpa McKenna, walking off the porch to go somewhere, heard our commotion, and looked up.

He swore a word I didn't recognize, then said real calmly, "Caddie Darlin', stretch out your legs and feet. Yeah, that's it. Now you've got some footing. You are just about to the roof of the porch. Don't let go of that rope, okay, Sweetheart?"

I didn't. I'd never heard that gentle, stern, personal tone of voice from my grandfather before.

As soon as my feet reached the roof, Grandpa went to the garage and came back with a ladder. He propped it against the porch to climb up and then grab me.  He was muttering incredibly rude things about "gol-durned and back again" boys as he untied the rope from my waist and then walked us both slowly down the ladder, his front curved around my back.

At the bottom he hugged me like I'd never been hugged by anyone.

"Oh Caddie, you are old enough to tell boys when they ought to go to hell, and this was definitely one of those times. Now, I'm going to put this ladder back away. And then I'm going up to the attic to speak to those rapscallions in emphatic terms.

"I don't see any point in describing this little escapade to your Grandmother. Or maybe even to your parents. Okay?"

It was a long time since that crazy escapade. I made swirls in the dust on the window remembering. That was the day Jack and Tommy came closest to killing me, but in the long run, I was here and neither of them were.

…                           

That same summer, when the three of us were just lying in the grass after lunch while digesting our Creamettes, Tommy asked the question everyone in our family carefully avoided.

"Where does your grandfather go all the time? I know he works downtown at your great-grandfather's bank or something. But he comes home by supper and I see him around and then he's gone. Where does he go?"

Jack looked at me. I shrugged my shoulders. As far as I could tell, the main thing grown-ups tried to do was get away from each other.        

Jack stuck a blade of grass between his thumbs and blew hard enough to get a squeal.

"I think he goes in the basement."

I lifted my head to look at him..

"Huh?"

Jack sighed.       

"He goes through the kitchen to that door at the back of the pantry. It's the inside door to the basement, though I don't know what he does when he gets there."

Tommy smiled up at a cloud.

"Let's look."

I considered that this might be one of those times that Grandpa told me about, where I should tell them to go to hell. But frankly, it sounded interesting.

I still think it's strange that I was 12 before I went into the basement of my grandparents' house. I mean, was that just coincidence, or did it give off an aura that kids could sense in the air?

It was easy to do. The outside doors to the basement were old-fashioned bulkhead doors used back when trucks delivered loads of coal to basements. Jack filched the padlock key from its nail by the back door. I found my flashlight. Tommy and Jack pulled the doors up and open, and then looked at me, so I climbed in first. They followed, setting the doors gently back down to a closed position.

                I flicked on the flashlight. A labyrinth of dark, but utilitarian-looking passageways led from us. The floor, when I looked down, surprised me. It was more of the herringbone pattern of red bricks like the driveway and front walk.

We were very quiet as we walked to the right, found a door, opened it carefully, and inside merely found the boring old furnace for the house.

Next to it was a huge room with a dirt floor, where coal must have been stored. There was a room filled with damp boxes. I looked in one;  it was filled with mildewed magazines.

We heard Mrs. Molloy walking around upstairs; heard her voice as she talked to Grandmother. We kept snaking along ersatz passages and corridors.

We were getting close to the front end of the house when we saw a real door with a glass doorknob. I felt the warmth of Jack close behind me, I had had my hand on the back of Tommy in front of me.

Tommy turned the handle, carefully.

It opened easily.

We stuck our heads in like puppies pushing their heads under a blanket. The normality of the room was eerie. The walls were smooth and creamy white. The floor was covered with a Persian carpet. There was an overstuffed velveteen armchair, a lamp next to it, a leather hassock on which to rest one's feet. On the other side of the small room was a hi-fi player on a table, and a haphazard stack of records, including records that appeared as if they'd been played just the night before.

Obviously, we'd found Grandpa McKenna's secret hideaway. It was a small and pleasant room. It had a casement window that he must have opened often, since tucked into it was a fan to draw out the smell of smoke.

I realized that although I'd never seen him smoke in my life and although Grandmother railed against smoking, in fact, Grandpa always smelled of cigarettes.

What was more shocking was the a bottle of liquor on the table. Grandmother despised alcohol. Yet here we were, in Grandpa's secret room, where he listened to music while he smoked and drank.

Jack muttered. "So this is the mystery, huh?"

We pulled out of the room. Closing the door carefully, we noticed that the wall, a few further along, had a handle on it.                

Jack pulled it.

It was another room. The door was shut behind us so I pulled the chain for the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.           

On both sides of us were deep shelves.

On the shelves were wooden crates.

In the crated as far as we could see were black metal screw tops to glass bottles. Just like the bottle of bourbon in Grandpa's room.

It was a secret room filled with hundreds of bottles of liquor.

We didn't touch anything. We just stood there gazing at a tiny room jam-packed with dusty bottles of old, old booze.

Does authority come from power or from truth?

It was a Sunday dinner months later. Grandmother was railing away about how the Civil Rights Acts and welfare was ruining the nation by rewarding people for being lazy.

She preened that the way her father found success was to get up, work hard, pour himself into worthy work. That what this country needed was men like her father, not more shiftless people sitting around waiting for hand-outs.

I looked at Jack who looked back at me.

Right then, he winked. I pleaded silently with my eyes for him to be careful.

"Yeah, right Grandma."

Her elegant head swung his direction.

"What did you say, Jack?"

"What I meant to say, I guess, is that are you sure the key to Great-Grandfather's Worthington's success was his upright character? Because I'm only a kid and don't exactly know why there are more than four hundred bottles of really old Canadian whisky in your basement, but my guess is that it has more to do with how your dad kept his bank going through the Depression, than, say, what time he got up in the morning."

Silence fell over the table. I noticed the ticking of the kitchen clock. I heard Mrs. Molloy slide a canister across a shelf in the pantry while we sat at our damask covered mahogany oval table, staring into the ice water in our Waterford crystal.

A quiet chuckle erupted from Grandpa.  

"Well, goddamn, Livy, you're finally the one to be in a pickle. Didn't think I'd ever live to see it, but here you are, finally."

He chuckled again. And then he started to laugh.

My dad broke into a grin. Aunt Edie's eyes began to sparkle. Our mother looked confused, but she let a curious smile bloom on her face as she looked at our dad.

Grandpa McKenna pushed his chair back from the table and stood up.

"If anyone wants a drink of some damn fine whiskey, I've got enough to share. And apparently, you now all know where to find me."

With that he left the table, walked through the kitchen, stopped a moment to murmur something pleasant to Mrs. Molloy, and then opened the door to the basement. I heard it click shut behind him.

After that Sunday, everything was different. The authority in our family was no longer in my grandmother's stiff spine and strong opinions but in a cellar filled with bootleg whisky.              

So there was one place left to go in this old house.

I descended into the basement, found the door, and opened it.

The shelves were empty except for a letter, addressed to me.

"Dear Caroline,

After Mother and Dad passed, I called my attorney and told him               what we had. I half-jokingly asked him if there was any way I could stay out of prison. He laughed.

An appraiser came, went mad with joy, and bought the lot. I paid the taxes; then put the rest of the considerable fortune in the bank. I have no idea               what you are going to do with that money this family amassed, or this house, or with any of the ridiculous fortune we thought was our wealth.

Frankly, Dear Niece, the wealth in this family was always and only Jack and Tommy and you -- our healer, hero, and teacher.

Love from your old Aunt Edie.

PS: I put a couple bottles up in your clubhouse in case you are ever tempted to try to fly again."

Grandmother Lavinia was arrogant and intolerant.  We pushed and snooped until we found the deep lie that undermined her mean-hearted, self-righteous authority. 

And after we did that, our world came apart. We lost rituals that bound us.  We lost the heroic, if false, stories that inspired us.  We had to decide every morning how to behave and what to respect. 

My parents play golf in Arizona.  My kids are in Australia.             

I don't know what I will do with my old mansion and my new wealth. 

I think I will begin with a small whisky in Waterford crystal. 

                               

               

 

 

Comments

I liked it. Great story

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