I have never been into journaling. And I am not telling this story simply because it was on my “to do” list from rehab. I’m telling it because, well, it’s my story and I need to write it down, in case someday I have a rebellious kid who hates me and accuses me of having had an easy life.
At first glance it seems to be about three short weeks in my life. Or three long ones, however you look at it. In reality, the story is much more complicated, as all stories are.
This one is about my mother and me and becoming.
Where I’m writing this story is important too. I’m at my family’s beach house. While I am typing on my laptop, I’m looking out the window toward the ocean. This is what I see: one of my sisters, Abbie, with her older son, Bobby, on her lap, sitting by the swimming pool and reading aloud from the Dr. Seuss book Marvin K. Moony. I gave it to Bobby for his third birthday last month.
I’m here for a month, but it’s not just a vacation. I brought along my textbooks from veterinary school so I could study. It seems very appropriate that beside me as I write are a cat and a dog who, over the past two years, have forged a wary friendship. I knew that sitting here at the family room table and staring out at the beach would inspire me. I remember Mom sitting in the same spot that summer, with her easel and palette and the green scarf hanging over the chair.
And the sketch pads. Of course, the sketch pads.
The paintings are still downstairs. And the bikes. I love those old bikes. They’re important in my story too.
I think I am writing this, also, because I want kids who are close to giving up and parents who perhaps have already given up to realize that you can never know the ending in the middle of all the pain.
When I think about my life and Mom’s, well, I’m glad we didn’t give up. We could have. For a hundred different reasons.
I think about that, and then I see Abbie stand up and take little Bobby’s hand as they walk out on the beach. I can picture their footprints appearing—one pair so small beside the bigger ones—and I want to call out to them to enjoy that walk. Oh, my. Enjoy it!
There’s one other reason I want to tell my story. It’s because I’ve learned that the person you see staring back at you in a mirror can change. It’s important to keep observing from time to time, not obsessing over it, but looking, so as not to forget whom you see looking back.
I can’t peer into a mirror without thinking of Megan. Then I always think of the mosaic table, and the long Scottish wall with the stones that are crumbling down, and so many other broken things in life. And I say to myself, Sometimes the breaking of things is cruel, and sometimes it is necessary, and sometimes it is just an accident.
And having said that, I think I am ready to begin.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too—
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue ...
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn....
--JOHN KEATS, TO AUTUMN
From somewhere in my groggy subconscious I heard a persistent ringing. Without opening my eyes, I felt along the bedside table until I located the phone. "Yeah, what is it?"
"Ellie Bartholomew! Are you still asleep? You promised to go to the hospital to be with Mom."
"Chill a little, Abbie," I mumbled. I almost chastised my sister for waking me in the middle of the night, until I realized the sun was shining brightly and my alarm clock proclaimed it to be 9:27. "I didn't get in till after two. You know how it is at Jeremy's."
"It's not exactly the kind of restaurant I frequent." Abbie paused, and I maintained a stony silence. "Well, for heaven's sake, please don't be late. I'm counting on you. So is Dad. I'd go if I could...."
"I know, I know. Bobby's got a fever and you don't want to leave him. You explained it all last night."
With the cordless phone in one hand, I was already out of bed, in the kitchen, opening the fridge, and retrieving a can of Coke. I lifted the tab and took a long sip.
"Don't forget the sketch pads."
"They're right here," I grunted. In truth, I would have forgotten them without Abbie's reminder.
"Call me this afternoon and let me know how it goes, okay?"
"Whatever. Depends on when I get home. I have to work at four."
"Okay, Ellie," she sighed. "Thanks."
Abbie was twenty-eight. She lived in Grant Park with her husband, Bill, and one-year-old Bobby. I imagined her standing by the phone with Bobby on her hip, her hand going quickly to his forehead. She'd have worry lines on her perfectly chiseled face. Worry for Mom, for Bobby, and for the baby she was carrying inside.
Abbie was having an awful pregnancy. She couldn't keep food down and had actually lost two pounds by the time she reached her sixth month. She looked like a skeleton holding a soccer ball at her tummy. I suddenly wished I hadn't spoken so harshly.
My other sister, Nan, was twenty-five and spunky—cute, with short brown hair. She lived in Chattanooga, about an hour and a half from Atlanta. Her husband, Stockton, had just completed his law degree at the University of Virginia and was working with a fairly well known firm. Nan, who taught sixth grade at a girls' school, had recently found out she was pregnant. Big surprise. Nan didn't want kids until she was at least thirty.
And then there was me, Ellie. Twenty and single.
I splashed cold water on my face, swept my hands through my tangled hair, and pulled on a pair of jeans. My cat, Hindsight, wrapped herself around my legs and meowed.
"Oh, hush up!" I said. "You know good and well that I want to go to the hospital about as much as I want an extra hole in my head." I went back to the fridge, took out an opened can of cat food, and spooned the contents into her bowl.
Then, my mind slowly clearing, I rummaged through a drawer for an appropriate T-shirt. Though she hadn't said it aloud, Abbie's unspoken admonition rang in my ears. And for heaven's sake, don't embarrass Mom. Try to dress decently.
Don't worry, Abbie, I answered back. I'll be a dutiful daughter. I won't disgrace you, and I won't let anyone down....
* * *
The sky was already a fierce blue with the sun promising to cast its torrid spell on the city. I glanced down at my watch smugly as my little hatchback Hyundai zipped along Peachtree Road toward the hospital. 10:03. Even with my late start, I was running ahead of schedule. Ha, Abbie! She said not to arrive before ten-thirty. The chemo wouldn't be administered until eleven. One thing was sure: I didn't want to be there early. At a red light I let my eyes rest on the two large spiral sketch pads sitting in the passenger's seat.
On impulse, I didn't pull into the hospital parking lot but continued my drive down Peachtree. I looked out on the impressive skyline with its modern skyscrapers, the beautiful multitiered IBM building appearing first in the distance as I rounded the bend past Collier Drive. Atlanta! I passed the spot where a little bar called the Beer Bottle used to stand. It was torn down years ago, and now the newest trend in Atlanta apartments—what real estate agents called lofts—lined one side of this section of Peachtree. I rolled down my window and let the June breeze permeate the car as I drove over Interstate 85. The street narrowed and split, the buildings grew taller, the perpendicular street names became numbers. Eighteenth Street, Seventeenth.... I pulled into a curbside parking place on Sixteenth and hopped out of the car.
On my right stood the High Museum, a pristine white circular building. Richard Meier had received the world's most prestigious architectural honor, the Pritzker Prize, for its design.
"It's a work of art in itself, something to study and admire, like a sculpture," Mom had often remarked.
I walked in the entrance.
"Why, Ellie," said the volunteer selling tickets, "how nice to see you after all this time."
"Hi, Mrs. Wade."
She leaned over the desk and whispered, "How's your mother doing?"
"Okay. She's at Piedmont this morning. I'm going over in a little while to be with her. You know, during the chemo."
Mrs. Wade smiled sympathetically. "You give her my best. Tell her my ladies' circle at St. Philip's is praying for her."
"I'll do that," I mumbled, my throat suddenly dry.
I walked into the open, airy atrium with the skylight that let in the sun and started up the winding ramp to the second floor, where paintings by both my mother and my grandmother hung. I stared at a self-portrait by my grandmother, Sheila Middleton. She was dressed in a red satin gown, showing off her slender figure at the age of thirty-eight. She held a palette in one hand, and her jade green eyes were somber behind their thick dark lashes. Her auburn hair was swept up in a French chignon. A smile played on her face, but it didn't seem genuine. She looked more aloof or disturbed than happy.
"Your grandmother painted that during the last year of her life, after she'd discovered some things about herself," Mom had told me once. What did that mean?
Beside Grandmom's portrait was a plaque: Sheila McKenzie Middleton (1924–1962) and below that were the following framed paragraphs:
Sheila McKenzie Middleton, well-known Atlanta portrait painter, perished in the tragic Orly plane crash June 3, 1962. The three paintings displayed here reflect the great diversity of style for which Mrs. Middleton became known posthumously.
Mrs. Middleton was one of the first Georgian artists to experiment with the concept of art therapy as a way to help in mental illness. Other paintings by the artist may be viewed at a private gallery at Resthaven, a sanitarium in the North Georgia mountains, and at Mt. Carmel Church in the Grant Park section of Atlanta.
I examined the painting called Joie de Vivre. It was a landscape painting of an Italian-inspired villa, the Swan House, which was now a famous historical site, located right next door to my grandparents' home and part of the Atlanta History Center. The next painting, Spring Bouquet, showed the stately old redbrick mansion called Resthaven. My grandmother had spent quite a bit of time there as a patient.
The last painting was one I have always loved. It showed my mother, Mary Swan, when she was just four or five, swinging on a tree swing behind my grandparents' house. Mom's naked toes are thrust forward in a way that makes it seem they will punch through the canvas as she leans back in the swing. She looks delighted.
Next was my mother's collection: Mary Swan Middleton (1946-). Mom kept her maiden name professionally, though she'd been married to Daddy for almost thirty years.
Daughter of artist Sheila Middleton, Mary Swan Middleton graduated from Hollins College in 1968 with a degree in Fine Arts. She is best known for her bright provincial colors and her habit of painting symbolism into everyday scenes.
The first painting displayed here, Mai '68, was painted during the student uprising in France in May 1968....
I was not an artist. At all. There wasn't an ounce of creativity in my bones.
The painting I wanted to examine was the one called The Dwelling Place. I was supposed to go with Mom to the field where it was painted, in Scotland, later in the summer. I'd heard a few bits and pieces about Mom's 1968 European trip, the one she never really finished. Something about riots in Paris and drugs in Amsterdam and self-discovery in Scotland, but a feeling inside told me I hadn't heard the entire story.
The Dwelling Place was a bit strange as paintings go. I guess you'd call it a landscape. It showed grassy, rolling hills in the background and a deep blue sky, and you could tell it was late fall by the leaves on the ground. The main subject of the painting was a low stone wall that ran from the upper left of the canvas down to the center right edge. Mom could explain the whole technique of the way the stones were stacked, with no plaster or cement or whatever, but that didn't interest me.
What I liked best about the painting was the lamb in the far right-hand top corner. Its head was cocked, like a spaniel's, looking toward something in the foreground. The lamb was small in comparison with the whole painting, but Mom painted it in detail, with its legs stiff and braced outward and a surprised or maybe frightened expression on its tiny face; I couldn't tell. It was looking in the direction of the bottom left-hand corner of the painting, where there was part of what seemed to be a brown-and-white ear. It could have belonged to a dog or a cow or another sheep. As I said, it was a strange painting. Still, it intrigued me.
I guess I should have asked Mom to tell me the story behind it, but the truth was I didn't want to know. And of all the people in the world I could go to Europe with, my mother was absolutely the last one I would choose.
* * *
I found myself speeding back down Peachtree at 10:28, determined to keep my promise to Abbie. I reached Mom's room by 10:36, out of breath, and hurried inside. Mom was in one bed, and a woman who looked about sixty was in the other.
"Well, here they are, Mom," I said, placing the sketch pads on her lap.
She took the sketch pads and looked at them. No, she caressed them, lovingly, her eyes filling with tears. "What a nice way to pass the next few hours, since I've got to be here anyway."
"Here" was in room number 532 in the cancer ward of Piedmont Hospital. She'd already had seven rounds of chemo. Her hair all fell out after the second. Now a stylish wig, blunt cut, brown with red highlights, sat on a stand by her bed. I had to admit that it looked a lot like Mom's real hair.
But she didn't like to wear the wig, especially when it was muggy outside, so Abbie had bought her a beautiful green scarf made specifically for cancer patients. The green almost matched her jade eyes. She looked dignified, almost, sitting up in the hospital bed with her scarf on. She was wearing a pair of white Capri pants and a hot pink summer sweater. Day patients didn't have to wear the white gowns. Except for the dark circles under her eyes and her weight loss, she looked pretty great, considering what she'd been through.
Mom had breast cancer. It was discovered in a routine mammogram, and she'd had a double mastectomy six months ago.
Her eyes were twinkling. "So nice of you to come, sweetie. You look good. I believe you've lost a few pounds since the last time I saw you."
"Wishful thinking, Mom, but thanks." The words came out more harshly than I intended.
Her smile never faltered. "Well, let's get on with it, then. Start with the first one—your grandmom Sheila's."
This was how Abbie had decided I should get through the last round of chemo with Mom—planning our trip to Europe by going through my grandmother's sketch pad from her trip to Europe in 1962 and Mom's sketch pad from her journey in 1968.
A nurse came in, and we exchanged greetings.
When the nurse inserted the needle, Mom winced a little, smiled, and kept her eyes on me. "Thank goodness your father isn't here now. He'd faint."
We had a dozen family stories about my six-foot-tall father, who often fainted at the sight of a needle. Like the time when Mom was eight months pregnant with me and the obstetrician stuck her ear to see how her blood coagulated. Suddenly the doctor looked past her and said, "Do you need to lie down?"
Mom turned to see Daddy sink to the ground, head in his hands. Then, as she told it, she had to get off the examining table, which was no small feat, and stand there half naked while Daddy lay down.
"I told him not to come today. The last time his face turned an awful greenish yellow while he was sitting right next to me, just as you are, and patting my hand." She smiled. "I told him to play nine holes of golf with Uncle Jimmy after he finishes at the office. I should be home by then."
There was a knock on the door. "Come in," Mom sang out as if she were getting a manicure at the day spa.
The door opened and Rachel Abrams swept into the room.
"Rachel!" Mom exclaimed. "What in the world are you doing here?"
"I wasn't about to miss the party," Rachel replied, her blue-gray eyes flashing mischief. Rachel was Mom's best friend and had been for her whole life. But she lived in New York.
"You have enough things going on without hopping down to Atlanta for my chemo," Mom chided, but I could tell she was thrilled.
Rachel picked up a sketch pad. "I see you brought your work with you. Planning on staying awhile?"
Mom stuck out her tongue, and I suppressed a smile. They acted like teenagers when they were together, these two fifty-six-year-old women. Rachel was still downright beautiful, with soft gray highlights in her shoulder-length blond hair. She wore a pale blue summer suit that showed off her slim figure.
"Ready for treats? I made a quick stop by Publix on the way over." She opened a big Saks Fifth Avenue paper bag, the kind with handles, and plucked out a pint-sized carton of Midnight Cookies and Cream, Mom's favorite flavor.
"Rachel! You shouldn't have wasted the money on it. You know everything tastes like tin to me."
Rachel was undeterred. Producing a plastic spoon, she instructed, "Try it. You'll like it!" Just as Mom was about to take the spoon from her, Rachel shook her head. "Un-uh! You have to answer a question first."
Mom's eyes lit up. "Fire away!"
"Very well, my dear, who said this? 'I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.'"
"Who could ever forget that line? Beatrice to Benedick in Much Ado."
It was part of their friendship, throwing out obscure quotes from poems and plays they had memorized in high school. I was only twenty, and I couldn't remember a thing I learned in high school.
"Okay, you've earned it," Rachel acquiesced. She perched on the edge of Mom's bed, removed the top of the carton, and began to feed my mother ice cream.
"Delicious," Mom moaned, closing her eyes. "I can actually taste it. Of course, I'll need to try some more in a few days just to compare how my taste buds work during and after chemo."
Once again Rachel's hand went into the bag from Saks. This time she pulled out a flute case. She opened it and put together her shining sterling silver open-holed Haynes flute. She played a few quick scales before the nurse, looking uncomfortable, whispered, "I'm afraid you can't do that. It may disturb the other patient."
"Oh, let her play," the other woman said. "I'd enjoy it. My niece plays in her high school band."
The nurse shrugged, and Rachel stood and began playing Bach's familiar "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." I'd heard her play it before—at a wedding and at a funeral.
Mom's eyes misted over, and she brushed away a tear. "Really, Rachel, you're too much." Then she closed her eyes and rested back on her pillow as the smooth vibrato from Rachel's flute filled up the room and the corridors of the cancer unit.
As Rachel played, I stared at the chemo slowly dripping into Mom's veins from a plastic pouch suspended from a metal bar overhead.
We all clapped—even the nurse—after Rachel finished. She replaced the flute in its case.
"Marvelous. It means the world to me to have you here," Mom said, reaching out and patting her friend's hand.
"I've got to get you well. Remember that I've already commissioned you to paint my first grandbaby's portrait, if either Ben or Virginia ever decides to get married and have kids."
"I'll paint it—free of charge. Good price for good friend," Mom said in a thick, unidentifiable accent. "I'll paint it if it's the last thing I do."
I don't think she meant it to come out that way. I shot Rachel a fearful look.
Rachel didn't miss a beat. "Well, it certainly won't be the last thing you do, silly scatterbrained girl! I'm planning on my kids producing lots of babies in the next few years." She smoothly changed the subject. "So what's with the sketch pads?"
"I've told you. Ellie and I are going to finish the trip that you and I started. Following the sketch pad—Mama's sketch pad. And mine too." Mom's voice was intense.
"Perfect idea, Swannee." Rachel winked at me. She lifted my mother's sketch pad off of Mom's lap and started flipping through it. She found a sketch and held it up triumphantly. "May 1968."
It was a drawing of the Eiffel Tower. Well, sort of. The Eiffel Tower was in the background, rather small. In the foreground was the carcass of a burnt-out car and about a thousand empty crates strewn along the Seine.
"Strikes! Strikes all over Paris!" This Rachel directed to me. "And riots. Wild riots of crazed students. Hundreds of thousands of students." She flipped to the next sketch, and indeed, the page was covered with Mom's feverish sketching of complete chaos. A street filled with men and women, police, overturned cars, people watching and shouting from apartment windows. Smoke in the air.
I scooted my chair closer to the bed so that I could really see the sketch, secretly thankful that Rachel had preempted my role of getting Mom through chemo.
"You're looking good," Rachel said to me a few minutes later. "I like the haircut and highlights. I especially like the diamond in your eyebrow." She winked at me.
I rolled my eyes at her. I was far from "looking good," even with the pierced eyebrow and the tattoo on my shoulder. I was five-seven and a half and weighed one sixty-five. Mom and Rachel—they looked great. I mean sleek, together, manicured—and thin. Thin. For goodness' sake, Mom had cancer, and she looked a lot better than I did.
"Well, they've fixed you up just fine," Rachel was saying to her. "Never again can we call you flat-chested."
"Just think, puberty at fifty-six!" Mom joked. "I could make a mint in the tabloids."
"You deserve to look great, Swan, after what you've been through."
Mom looked away, then reached for Rachel's hand and smiled. "Dr. Stern told me he'd make my breasts any size I wanted. I think he did a fine job."
"He certainly did. Pretty soon we'll be calling you Dolly Parton." They giggled like schoolgirls.
I wanted to hug Rachel for knowing all the right things to say to Mom. I, on the other hand, had a knack for saying the wrong thing.
"So you're going to Europe," Rachel said to me.
I nodded. "Yep. If the doctor says it's okay." There I went, saying the wrong thing.
"It'll be okay," Mom said.
I felt awkward again and asked suddenly, "Rachel, why don't you come too?"
Rachel laughed. "We almost killed each other on our first European tour, your mom and I."
"That's for sure," Mom agreed. "But things got better eventually."
"Remember our first day in Florence?" Rachel asked.
"The Piazza della Signoria—my first glimpse of male anatomy!"
They laughed happily.
"I really was hoping it'd be just you and me, Ellie."
I could feel my face go red. "That'll be great, Mom, if I can get off work. It's not that easy, you know."
Mom's eyes were sad for a moment. "I know, dear."
I felt so defensive, even though all Mom had in her eyes was compassion. I didn't want her compassion.
"Jamal is on vacation in late July, and Jasmine has asked for the last two weeks in August. Which means I'd have to take off in early August. And only for two weeks."
"Are you still waiting tables at that trendy little restaurant downtown?" Rachel asked.
"That's right. Jeremy's." Rachel laughed. "Jamal and Jasmine work with you at Jeremy's. I'm surprised you didn't have to change your name to Jennifer. But surely you can get some time off, Ellie. I'd think there'd be a passel of kids wanting to work the late shift at one of Atlanta's downtown restaurants."
"The restaurant is okay," Mom offered. "I mean, the clientele is a little different...."
"She means the kids who hang out there have blue hair and pierced navels—which they enjoy showing off. We cater to the dotcom crowd—you know, the brats in their twenties who became millionaires overnight."
"They're fine, Ellie. I'm not criticizing the clientele. It's just that it's not the safest part of town. Remember the murder down there last year. Your dad and I worry, especially when you have the late-night shift."
"Which is five nights a week during the summer," I informed Rachel casually.
"Lovely," Rachel said. "Don't you think it might be wise to investigate another line of work?"
Mom switched sides and came to my rescue. "Oh, now, Rach. Didn't I tell you that Ellie's back in school at Georgia State? She's got a 4.0 grade point average from the past three trimesters. She's planning to go to vet school."
"Well, now, that's good news. When did you decide on that?"
"Whenever," I said, rolling my eyes again. "Sometime this year."
"I'm thrilled to hear it. You'll make a great vet, Ellie! You certainly have experience from all those strays you guys always had around the house. I remember you nursing Mr. Boots back to health when you were just a little kid. And then who was it? Dilly?"
"Daisy. Poor dog. You and Trixie always had a knack for picking out the ones at the Humane Society who were at death's door."
"And they all lived," I added proudly.
"Exactly. You were born to be a vet."
* * *
"I've gotta get home," I said, feeling relieved when the nurse told Mom she was free to leave.
"Oh no you don't, kid!" Rachel said, grabbing me by the wrist. "You and I are taking your mother out for lunch."
"Lunch?" I scrunched up my nose.
"All food tastes like tin, I've told you," Mom protested.
"We're going to the Swan Coach House for lunch, and that's that! No ifs, ands, or buts about it." Rachel glanced at her watch. "Trixie reserved a table and is already waiting for us."
The Swan Coach House is a ladies' restaurant in Buckhead, a ritzy neighborhood in the northwest part of Atlanta. Back in the early 1900s the Coach House was the carriage house for the mansion that was called the Swan House. When the mansion was turned into a historical site in the sixties, the carriage house was transformed into a restaurant, gift shop, and art gallery.
I had begun my "wait staff career" at the Coach House a few years ago. It was a family joke that while Mom was painting the real Swan House and getting paid a bundle for it, I was eking out my living off the tips of the penny-pinching rich of Buckhead.
"Remember that time that Daddy and Uncle Jimmy came to eat with us, and they didn't have on coats? The restaurant made them wear those awful sports jackets from the fifties that they keep on hand just in case!" Mom said, almost giggling again. "Jimmy's sleeves only went down to his elbows."
"And the time the lady came over for your autograph, Swannee, and asked you to sketch a swan on her napkin?" Rachel added. "And you did, but it turned out that there was a stain on the napkin right under the swan's tail, so it looked like your swan had peed all over it."
They were laughing so happily that I volunteered, "Or my first day on the job, when I spilled six strawberry daiquiris! It's a wonder they kept me."
I could still see myself, awkward in my new polyester uniform, bending too far over the table, desperately trying to balance the tray of iced drinks in my left hand. Suddenly the frosted glasses began slipping, and before I could grab the tray with my right hand, they crashed onto the table and spilled all over the startled guests.
* * *
When we got to the Coach House—Mom rode with Rachel, and I followed in my car—I saw Trixie waiting inside. Trixie was my grandmother. Well, actually my step-grandmother. She was almost eighty, and today she was dressed in a red-and-white polka-dotted suit with a red hat and matching polka-dotted French-style shoes. She was tiny and elegant, and she was chewing gum. Ever since it became gauche to smoke, Trixie had been trying to stop. She wore a nicotine patch and chewed gum and carried a bag of plain M&Ms in her purse, "in case I get a craving."
"Well, here's a sight for sore eyes!" she exclaimed brightly.
That sentence comprised about twenty syllables with her long, lazy, and delicious Southern drawl. It was becoming a lost art in Atlanta, and I always loved to hear it.
"Ellie, what a treat to see you, sweetie." She turned to Rachel. "I see you made it down here just fine, Rachel. You're looking very New Yorkish. And Swannee, dear, what a lovely scarf! It is just your color."
"Isn't it, though?" Mom laughed. "I like it, even if my roommate at the cancer ward this morning said it was the same color as her daughter's bridesmaid dresses—she called it 'baby diarrhea.'"
The three of them started laughing again, and then, amazingly, I joined in. The other prim-and-proper ladies who were waiting for tables stared at us with disapproving glances.
But it felt good.
I liked eating at the Coach House, even though it wasn't a thing like my typical hangouts. The walls in the main dining room were covered with beautiful material—splashes of bright pink and purple and red and orange flowers—giving the restaurant a happy, feminine atmosphere. I liked the food there too, even though I'd eaten the "Swan Special" probably a thousand times.
"Girls," Rachel said in a mock Southern drawl, "what'll it be? How 'bout the Swan Special? Two of those little pastry timbales full of our homemade chicken salad with those delicious cheese straws and the mouthwatering frozen fruit salad."
"That's what I'm having. No doubt about it," Trixie said, smacking her gum.
Mom was looking over the menu that she knew by heart. "Oh, I suppose I'll have it too. No sense trying something new, since—"
"Everything tastes like tin," Rachel chimed in.
It was near the end of the meal, when we'd finished our frozen fruit salad and timbales full of chicken salad and munched on the cheese straws, except for Mom, who really didn't feel like eating and had left most of the food on her plate, that Trixie asked, "So this was the last round of chemo. What did the doctor say, Swannee?"
"He wants to see me in three weeks. He knows I'm planning to leave for Europe with Ellie sometime in August." Mom gave me a loving glance.
"Well, that's just marvelous!" Trixie said, reaching into her purse for another piece of gum. She popped the gum into her mouth and then pulled out a cell phone from her red polka-dotted purse. "I guess I'd better call Thomas." She held the phone close to her face, squinting behind her glasses to read the numbers, and punched it enthusiastically. Trixie had always believed in keeping up with the times.
"Thomas, yes, dear, be a love and come pick me up now. Yes, I'll meet you out front."
Trixie used to walk home from lunch at the Coach House. Now she had Thomas on call. He was my grandparents' handyman, as Trixie called him. He was twenty-six and had run his own carpentry business for three years before he decided he wanted to get his master's degree at Georgia Tech. So he went back to school and hired himself out to help Trixie and Granddad JJ with driving and "general upkeep"—another of Trixie's favorite expressions.
"Do you want to come by for a while, Swannee?" Trixie asked. "Your father would love to see you."
My granddad was eighty and could no longer drive. He did play golf, sort of. He got out his putter and practiced in the office of his big home on Andrews Drive, which was only a three-minute ride away.
Mom readjusted her wig. "Sure, Trix. I might just take a little nap on the sunporch if you don't mind."
"Absolutely marvelous! Well, we'd better get out front. Thomas will be here in no time. Drives like a maniac," she whispered, glancing over her glasses. "Be careful at that job of yours, Ellie. You know it makes me a nervous wreck with all the crime in that area—and the murder last year." She gave me a kiss on the cheek. "Lovely to see you again, Rachel. Will you be staying in Atlanta for a while?"
"A few days. I'll drop by for a visit. I'm at my parents'."
"I'll count on that."
* * *
After Mom and Trixie left, Rachel and I browsed in the Coach House gift shop. It was filled with tasteful china, all kinds of silver accessories, cookbooks with Southern recipes, packages of bright floral paper napkins, pretty soaps and lotions for the bath, and baby clothes that cost a fortune.
"When's Abbie's baby due?"
"Oh, not until January, I think."
"I should pick out something for Abbie's baby while I'm here. Aren't these just adorable? The smocked rabbits and all? Does your sister know what she's having?"
"Another boy. Sixteen months apart. She's crazy."
Rachel purchased a smocked outfit for some outlandish price. Then she laced her arm through mine. "What are you up to now? Feel like a stroll in the garden?"
I shrugged. "If you want. I need to get home soon, though. I start work at four."
We walked down the driveway toward the Swan House, which appeared as if from another century, serenely standing among the oaks and hickories and tall magnolia trees. It was an "Italian manor house" or something like that. The inside was rather impressive, but I preferred the grounds around the mansion.
Thick woods with lots of walking paths lay to the west. Trixie and Granddad JJ's house was on the other side of the thick foliage. Rachel and I walked past a path leading to the "Victorian playhouse" into the boxwood garden next to the Swan House's screened-in porch.
"You doing okay, kid?" Rachel asked.
"Fine," I said curtly. "Great. Promise."
"That does not sound convincing."
"Oh, Rachel, don't worry about it."
She pulled a lipstick out of her purse and began painting her lips a subtle shade of peach, which perfectly matched her fingernails. "Are you excited about the trip?"
She patted my hand. "Not really, huh?"
"No, not really."
"And why is that?" We sat on the stone bench in the garden.
"I can think of fifty other people I'd rather see Europe with than Mom."
Rachel crossed her arms over her chest and leaned forward. "What makes you say that?"
"You know how different we are. Her life is too perfect. I can't relate."
Rachel narrowed her eyes. "Perfect? Perfect, did you say? Excuse me, but what do you know about your mother's life?"
I found the remark a bit odd, but Rachel was looking at me intensely, almost angrily, so I complied. "She's very happily married, she's pretty, she has enough money, she's a famous artist. She travels a lot, and her husband is madly in love with her. She has great friends. And two of her kids turned out perfect too."
"I see." She replaced the lipstick.
I got up and walked away, but Rachel followed.
"Your mother needs you, Ellie."
I looked at her defiantly. "Oh, Rachel. Needs me for what? You know all the crud Mom and I have been through. Life is better when I just stay away from her—I know everything I need to know about her life."
"I don't think you do."
I met her eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I think deep inside, you'd like to know a lot more about your mother's 'perfect life.' You want to know how she did it—how she held herself together and became a respectable, peaceful woman, a blessing to society. Because to tell you the truth, I don't know anyone who's had a harder life. But she isn't complaining, not even with cancer eating up her body." Rachel's voice dropped to a whisper. "There's a lot you don't know about your mother, kid. Or a lot you've chosen to ignore."
I started to protest, but Rachel cut me off.
"I wouldn't wait too long, Ellie. You may not have a whole lot of time left."
The Dwelling Place by Elizabeth Musser
Copyright © 2005; ISBN 0764229265
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Unauthorized duplication prohibited.