Mrs. H and Family

by Jeanne Howe

From what used to be the main north-south road in and out of this castaway little farm town, I turn onto Gran’s driveway and pull up to leave room for TD to do the same thing when he gets here. This little two-story Cape Cod, like the downtown courthouse in the square I drove through a few hours ago on the way to the church, is smaller than I remembered. Beside my car, the apple tree the old woman was so pleased with dominates the side yard, all grown up now, a few dead branches overhanging the porch roof. The window screens are rust-streaked and the shutters with the half-moon cutouts are faded from the weather.

What’s past is palpable, heavy, even after these how-many years—ten, now, as if I didn’t know. As I step from the car, children’s voices reach across that time span, playground calls rising amid teeter-totter squeaks and ball-bat slaps of the years when I attended the elementary school that stood just across the highway back then.

Mounting the front steps with my suitcase, I am stopped by the recall of Gran’s little soprano whinny as she belittled me that long-gone fall afternoon, in the upper-class British tones she affected after she and Gramps had a week in London to see my mother play piano as a kid. A few days in Merrie Olde England and Gran came home sounding, TD always said, “like Missus That-cha.”

“You’re just being silly, Judith,” she told me, laughing through this screen door. “It’s out of the question, even for tonight. Just turn yourself around this minute and walk that pitiable little suitcase right back across town to your father’s house.” In her classic gesture, she raised both carefully groomed hands to the back of her head for a reassuring touch to her fabulous hair, which she wore in what she called a French twist and secured with caramel-luscious three-inch tortoise-shell hairpins.

I envied Gran’s hair in that moment, not because it was different from my own, which it wasn’t, except the color, but because of the tender, intimate way she took it in her hands. “And do stop sniveling. TD loves you, the best he knows how, and heaven knows he loved your mother so much it’s been his downfall. He’s no prize, I’ll be the first to say it,” she went on, looking beyond me, perhaps at someone passing on the highway, getting out of town. “But he is your father and you are his responsibility. I cannot take on a child at this stage in my life. You’ll be all right.” She closed the door.

Well. As TD said at the service this afternoon, forgive and forget. Plain to see why that concept might appeal to TD. Or was it live and learn? He’s forever had a string of ready-made one-liners, drizzling them out as if they were profound and suitable and all his own.

Meeting up with TD again, at the church, was truly a test of the nervous system. One of life’s recent and continuing pop quizzes. For one thing, I never expected he’d be here. Who knew where to reach him? And anyway, I wouldn’t figure he’d bother to show up. Even if he was sober. Which he was—how about that?

For another thing, I might not have recognized him anyplace else. The years had slapped him around hard. He’d puffed up about double the size he was when I lost track of his wanderings. His fingers on the hymnal during the service made me think of sausages, swollen and speckled, and that fussy little Hitler mustache had gone gray and worked itself into a drooping, oversized affair, yellowish, like a banana hung under his nose to hide his mouth. Mark Twain meets Paul Bunyan.

But the top-off had to be that station wagon. Gran would’ve died all over again if she had seen that nightmare wheel into the church parking lot. Elderly Buick as long as the Caddy she’d be leaving in, but there the comparison, um, breaks down. She probably did hear the backfire when he turned it off. And the rusty crack of the door slam.

I have to say, though, his new shirt was a nice touch, store creases still crisp down the front and back. And Dozer, always a good judge of character, liked him on the spot, and his wagon. Jumped out of my car, tugged the leash from my hand, and got right up beside TD for the ride to the cemetery, as if they’d been old dog buddies running together for a long time.

The two of them will be along any minute now. I’d better go on inside and see what’s what, while I can still do it without an audience. Deep breath, girl.

The entry foyer smells more like mothballs than the old-lady mustiness I’d expected. Her coats still await her bidding on satin hangers hung under the windows, a knock-out velvet scarf arranged just so at the collar of the tweed jacket she once ceremoniously gave to my mother and then took back after, well, after. This coat was given me by Mrs. Dr. McFarland before we went to Britain. Scots Harris tweed, it is. Most people would say “Scotch,” but the proper word is “Scots.” My family was English, of course, not Scots. And certainly not Irish.

Late afternoon light needles its way through lace curtains and into my grandmother’s living room, now—astonishingly—my living room. Here is the same-as-ever display of antique furniture, blood-red Persian carpet. Freckled shadows dart between the legs of the grand piano to reflect off the oak floor and illuminate paintings of two children who smirked judgmentally down on me when I was a small girl. Red Boy and Blue Boy are still a smug pair of rich sissies in funny clothes, but they had Gran’s approval. Gifts from Mr. H on the first anniversary of our marriage. These two dandies never had to memorize the Gettysburg Address, or embarrass themselves in a piano recital, or stop picking their fingers or quit whatever else was the annoyance du jour.

My hair had theirs beat by a mile, though. At least there was that. That was one thing I almost got right, except that my hair is red. Gran loved to brush and braid it when I was little, though all the while fretting about its color. But really, she had all the good hair she could have wanted, without involving me. Her own majestic mane, and then my mother’s, equally dense and curly and so glossy black it threw blue highlights back at the sun, as Gran said hundreds of times in her litany of praises for Saint Margaret. Not then the saint she would become too soon, my mother was only Princess Margaret when I was small. Princess Margaret—they honest-to-God named her Margaret Rose, after the Queen’s sister—a princess born onto her early childhood trajectory to fame and fable as the prize golden fruit atop Gran’s family tree.

On the piano looms the envelope the lawyer had said he’d been directed to leave there for me, propped against the alabaster bust of Schubert—or maybe that’s Brahms. We’ve already gone over the legal details: this is just some kind of personal note.

I put my purse down on the piano bench but I do not sit. Not there, not yet. That bench is occupied. A big-haired mother and daughter sit side by side, my small hands and my mother’s larger ones plodding over the keys, our heads rhythmically nodding in concentration, sharp chords and runs flying up from the dark, three-legged beast. A grandmother scrutinizes my doomed effort from the nearby Boston rocker she had acquired from somebody she made sure we all knew was important. Remembering, I fill again with what I felt then, the thrill of fingers going a little too fast, the rising dread as we race toward my inevitable trip-up.

Turning my back on Red Boy and Blue Boy, I lift the envelope, inscribed in my grandmother’s unmistakable green-ink, blunt-nib script. Judith, my dearest, says the envelope, and the letter inside begins the same way. She must have liked that opening. Say it enough times and it’s almost believable.

Judith, my dearest,
I know things have not always been as you might have wished—and from the bottom of my heart I apologize if I sometimes failed to assist with the burdens of your young life.

If, she says. A slow learner.

Perhaps someday—although not from personal experience, I earnestly hope!—you will become able to understand that when I lost your mother I lost everything, including my capacity to love even you.

Even me? Was I a contender, then?

I do so deeply regret that you and I have been estranged in these recent too-many years. My only pleasure—as I deal with the inevitability of what I have learned is next for me—is that I can now give you my house—in fervent hope that it may become for you the home that my broken heart denied you years earlier.

Even as she faced the end, pretty talk, and mostly about her. She wrote this to comfort herself. I’m part of a performance she put on to make herself feel better.

As I watch my life fall from me, almost as in a rearview mirror, events take on a new and meaningful perspective at the same time they grow smaller and (like me!) move toward disappearing altogether. Too late I see now, at last…

The closing of the front door startles me. My dog and my father. I fold the letter back into its envelope as Dozer, recovering from momentary cautiousness in this new place, clatters across the varnished floor and throws himself down at my feet, his tail whacking the piano leg. TD turns on the lights as he comes in. Not the brass floor lamp at the end of the loveseat, as Gran would have insisted, but the overhead chandelier.

“Feels like the end of something, doesn’t it?” he says, looking around him as he crosses to the back bay window. “Poor old thing, pretty much on her own all these years except for the church ladies and the Canasta set.” He pushes a curtain aside and looks down toward the slope of farm fields that hem the town. “House needs a coat of paint. But all in all, not too bad. Somebody’s been cutting the grass for her, at least.”

He turns and studies me, still standing by the piano, still holding Gran’s grandiose letter. I am immobilized by hearing from him what sounds like affection for her, or at least forgiveness: poor old thing.

“You look good in this place, Judy girl,” my father says, and the mustache banana shifts as a smile softens his weathered face. “Herself is giving you a major new chance.” Herself, TD’s historic name for Gran. “I hope you’ll take what she’s given and have the life here in your hometown—your mother’s hometown—that you pretty much missed first go-round.

“Come on,” he says, moving toward me, lifting my hand in one of his own mitts and placing the letter back on the piano. “Let’s have a look around. Been a while since she last had me in here.”

TD leads me across the rug we used to have to take our shoes off for, and into the kitchen at the back corner of the house. Without releasing my hand, he opens and closes cabinets and we glance into the refrigerator and down the stairway leading to the basement. He keeps up a running commentary about plumbing repairs he’s made under the sink, the furnace inspection that will be needed before winter comes. “I’ve been coming by every few months during these last years, first to try to make amends, like my AA program requires. Got so sometimes she’d have me clean the gutters or fix a stuck window or paint the back steps or one little something or another. Maybe…but there’ll be time for this later.”

He bends to finger a heating duct at the kitchen floorboard, then straightens and turns to face me. “How have you been? Herself told me you got your name in the Omaha paper, in the list of people who’d finished college up there. Me and her, we’d a liked to come up and make a fuss over you, if…well, congratulations, honey. I’m proud of you.” TD reaches to put his arms around me, and I let him. His shirt front smells wonderful, like the old days, of fresh air and the cigarette pack always in the pocket.

I’m in over my head here. “TD,” I say, stepping away from him, “it’s been a day. For both of us. Let’s get a quick look around upstairs and go downtown and find something to eat.”

Heads turn inside the barber shop as the station wagon backfires at the curb. Dozer, piled up in the backseat on a mound of blankets and who-knows-what, looks straight ahead as if everything is all right.

Next door, in Pop’s Café, the one remaining restaurant on the square, Pop himself, still wearing a rolled-up white apron, puts us in a straight-backed wooden booth and points at the menus behind the sugar dispenser before going back behind the counter to figure out who we are, strangers in town at the end of the day.

Across the empty, fluorescent-lit restaurant, under the pressed-metal ceiling, a familiar mirrored wall rises beyond—can it be?—the same soda fountain with the same chrome-rimmed, red bar stools. A stale smell of hot grease hangs in the air just as when TD and I used to eat here, when Mother was sick. That was before TD’s evening menu selections narrowed to Jim Beam and 7-Up, and mine became whatever I could come up with—since-you’re-here-again-anyway invitations from neighbor women or girlfriends’ mothers, or, with luck, Friday evening after-school suppers with Gran, and overnights on her daybed, where I fell asleep to the murmur of the occasional car passing or the moans and calls of cattle in some distant barn.

“Sorry about your grandmother, Miss Judith,” Pop says when he returns to take our order. “Interesting woman, she was. Did a good job with her life, improving herself, and that. My father knew her father when that whole bunch was a swarm of shanty Irish, down in Sullivan County. Mrs. H made a smart move, marrying Mr. H, and him a judge, and that. Of course, marrying up is always a good thing. There’s lots of folks does it.” He looks quickly at my father, then away, pulling the order pad and ballpoint from his apron pocket. “Fine woman, your Margaret, the pride of this town back then.”

After Pop retreats to the kitchen, TD folds his hands on the Formica table top, stares at them for a moment. “Mr. Potato Head there—” he glances up at me, “nothing wrong with him another funeral wouldn’t fix.”

We have what we always had, chocolate milkshakes and deep-fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, served as they always were in a heavenly blond bun on a dinged-up platter, alongside some no-account lettuce weighted down with a pickle and a slice of fibrous tomato. TD pushes the salt and pepper shakers toward me, and we quietly set about the business of eating. He looks played out, and strangely…soft, somehow, maybe…kind. And focused in a way I don’t recognize.

Sober, that’s what it is.

“Same greasy smell as always in here,” he says. “Probably the same grease.” The tilt of his head adds, as an unsaid joke just between us, Pop is probably listening.

I find myself telling TD about my apartment in Omaha, my job, how I got Dozer, when I last exchanged letters with Gran. He tells me about knocking around Arizona and New Mexico, “mostly doing outdoor work like house painting and et cetera, minor household repairs—you know.”

I do know. Same kind of work he did while I was trying to live with him, after Mother. Rainy days, he couldn’t go to the job so he worked the bar at the VFW instead. He got good at it. At school some boys taught me that everybody knew TD stood for Town Drunk.

“…moving livestock, until the cattle truck I was driving rolled over in a ditch,” he was saying. “Shoulda thrown a match on the whole pile-up, because the animals were insured against death but not against injury. But I just couldn’t do it to those crying cows.” The monetary losses were great and he got invited not to work for that company anymore, so he’s more or less between positions just now, he tells me, which I figure means he’s still bouncing up and down highways, confusing locomotion for progress, as Gran used to call it.

It’s almost dark when we leave the restaurant and drive the four or five blocks back to Gran’s and pull into the driveway. We exchange cell phone numbers and promise to talk in the morning. TD says to go on up to bed, he’ll walk Dozer for me and stick him in the house before he leaves for the room he’s taken at the Motel 6 out on the bypass. We hug on the front walk and leave it at that.

But I know from my own inquiries that this town has no motel on the bypass or anywhere else. This town was lucky to get an exit ramp when they put in the Interstate that swings north to Omaha.

I go upstairs to the bedroom and bath that have been tidied by the church women and pull my night things from my suitcase. Pitiable little suitcase. Gran’s voice hangs in the air, although I can’t quite bring in her message. The reception is poor. She’ll have another chance tomorrow, when I can finish reading her letter on the piano.

But she’s here, all right. I picture how she’d pause in front of her oval mirror in the hallway there, to reposition a hairpin or touch a finger to an eyebrow and lean forward to check the effect.

I saw her do those things a thousand times. Even though she lived alone. For decades. What could be lonelier than that—looking your best for your mirror? Poor old thing, as TD figured out way ahead of college-educated, home-owning, smugger-than-Red-and-Blue-Boy, self-pitying me.

From my bedroom window I look down at the street. TD stands waiting as Dozer noses the grass, both of them small from this distance, and two-dimensional like a black-and-white photo. Family portrait. The streetlight flickers to life and the two of them brighten and round with new presence. I turn off my lamp to sit in the little light spilling in from out there, and listen as the door opens for Dozer, and closes behind him, and the station wagon starts up, reverses, and drives away.

Jeanne Howe grew up in Iowa but has lived in Western North Carolina since the mid-1970s. For now, she is a sometimes nurse, traveler, and student and practitioner of writing fiction and poetry.

About Mrs. H and Family—This story deals with the pull toward and away from family, and with getting what you’ve always wanted after it’s too late—or is it?