Rain splashed against the window, smearing the glow from the street lamps. Angela looked out at the wet street. November. Darkness had come early, unexpectedly, while the three of them sat at the dining room table, working their way through the pot roast and potatoes.
After supper, when the dishes had been washed and put away, Angela and her mother, Norma, moved into the living room while Dan disappeared into his den.
Norma hovered uncertainly. “Should I make some tea?”
“Tea sounds good. It’s chilly in here.” Angela rubbed her arms briskly to warm them. “Why don’t you turn the heat up?”
As if she hadn’t heard, Norma glided in slippered feet out of the room. Angela sighed. Even if they both turned blue, she knew her mother wouldn’t touch the thermostat. She and Dan kept the house at a chilly 62 degrees that during the night sank down to 55. Last night Angela had nearly frozen to death, huddled under the thin polyester blankets, trying to get warm.
Her mother was back, carrying two mugs of water she’d heated up in the microwave. The tabs of the tea bags flapped like banners in a breeze.
“It’s decaf, hope that’s okay.”
“Decaffeinated tea?” Angela picked up the mug and tilted it to her face to catch the steam. Cautiously she sipped the tea and felt the prick of an aftertaste, faintly chemical, on the back of her tongue. She lifted the tea bag into the air. They always reminded her of dead mice, somehow, the soft wet lump like a drowned corpse. “Where should I put this?”
“Just throw it in that ashtray,” Norma said, bobbing her chin toward the table.
“You’re still smoking?” Angela looked up in surprise. She thought her mother had quit long ago.
“One or two now and then is all.”
Before dinner they had been looking at old photo albums, and they were still stacked on the coffee table. Pictures of Angela and her brothers as children: afternoons at the beach, softball games and picnics, Easter egg hunts and Halloween. Angela as a teenager, braces glinting in the light of the flash as she leaned against the fireplace mantle. High school graduation and college, another graduation. Then there were fewer pictures of Angela and the albums were filled with glossy photographs of her brothers’ weddings. With the arrival of grandchildren, their pictures took center stage, pages and pages of the five grandchildren, playing at the beach, picnics in the park. Christmas and Halloween and Easter and the cycle was completed.
Norma leaned back in the chair. “Don’t you want your tea, Angie? It’s getting cold.”
Angela frowned. She was Angela everywhere else, but here in her mother’s house, in her childhood home, she was Angie, a name she disliked, just as if she were 13 again and feeling the first ripples of independence and rebellion.
“Hmm, no, actually,” Angela said. “It has a funny taste.”
Norma pursed her mouth and turned away, leaning forward to sort the photo albums. She kept them in the cabinet next to the television, stacked upright by year.
Angela knelt next to her mother and silently handed her the albums, bulky with photographs. “What are those?” she asked, pointing to a row of video cassettes. “Not Dan’s secret stash of porno movies.” She smiled at the thought.
“Of course not,” Norma stammered. “The idea. Anyway, Dan’s cabinet is that one,” she said, pointing to the other side of the room. “These are my things. And these,” she said, running her fingers across the videos, “are old home movies. Dan surprised me for my birthday this year and had all that old eight millimeter film transferred to videotape so we can watch them on the VCR.”
As if on cue, Dan entered the room, breaking the silence with his shuffling gait. Angela turned and smiled up at him. She had always liked her mother’s second husband, the man she married after Angela had gone away to college. Angela always thought of Dan as having rescued her mother from a lonely middle age.
“What have you girls been up to?”
“Memory lane,” Angela said, rising from the floor. She placed her hands on her hips and leaned to the side, stretching. “And what about you? Off watching some football game, I suppose.”
“Just the highlights,” Dan said. “I was reading, actually.”
“Not my new Tracy Malone mystery,” Norma said. “I wanted to start that tonight.”
“Oh no. Just some things from the office. But I was falling asleep in my chair so I thought I’d better come in and say goodnight.”
“I won’t be long,” Norma said. “I think Angie’s getting tired, anyway, aren’t you, Sweetie?”
Angela shrugged. “Not really. I don’t usually go to bed until after midnight. What is it now?” She looked at her watch. “Not even ten.”
Dan had shuffled off and Angela stared at the empty doorway. He was looking older. More tired and gray than she remembered.
“If you’re really not sleepy, maybe we can look at some of these old movies,” Norma said. “I was planning to show them when everyone was together for Thanksgiving, but since you won’t be here . . . .” Her voice trailed off.
Angela had been wondering how long it would be before her mother brought up the approaching holiday.
“It’s too bad you’ll miss the children. You haven’t seen them for ages.”
“I saw them in July. Don’t you remember?” She had sat in traffic for hours trying to get out of the city on a Friday afternoon. She’d rented a car and driven up to Lake Wampassett where her two brothers and their families had rented a cabin for a week. She had spent the weekend slapping mosquitoes and eating charred burgers and store-bought potato salad slick with mayonnaise, trying to make small talk with her sisters-in-law over the noise of squabbling children.
“But you only stayed for one night. I’d thought you’d be with us for a few days at least.”
“I had to work, Mom.”
“And this trip to St. Thomas. Is that work? I was hoping the whole family would be together this Thanksgiving. This is the first time we’ve all been in the same area for years. Now that you’re living in New York, I thought we’d see more of you.”
Angela counted silently to ten. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t pass up these tickets. The rates are lower now and I’ve been so stressed out with this new job. I need a vacation. Four days and three nights of warm weather, basking in the sun . . . . I don’t know why you and Dan never go away.”
“I’m certainly not going to the Caribbean during hurricane season. And what about this man you’re going with. Is he a new boyfriend?” There was hope in Norma’s voice, hope mixed with disapproval.
“Who, Jerry?” Angela laughed. “No, he’s just someone from my office. A friend.”
“Is that wise, the two of you running off together to the Caribbean? Won’t people in your office gossip?”
“About me and Jerry? Not very likely. Jerry’s gay.”
“Oh.” Norma flushed. She bent down toward the videos. “Why don’t we look at this one,” she said, straightening up stiffly and inserting the tape into the VCR. She kept her head down, her lips pressed together.
The tape began to play and Angela and her mother settled back into the sofa to watch. The image was blurry at first. Whoever was holding the camera was joggling it and the figures bumped and swam on the screen. The focus improved and Angela’s mother came into view, red-lipsticked and smiling. She was sitting out on the grass on a blue and white checked blanket holding a toddler in her arms.
“That’s you,” Norma said, settling her glasses on her nose. “Look, I’m trying to get you to wave at your father. Oh, you fussed that day. Crying and carrying on. It was so hot and I wanted you to wear this little dress I’d bought. It had lace at the collar and it must have itched. See?” She pointed to the TV. “You’re trying to pull it off at the neck. Your father had just come home with the camera that morning and we wanted to try it out.”
Angela stared at the screen. Her mother smiled and waved, picking up the child’s hand and jiggling it at the camera. In the background Angela could see part of a house with gray weathered siding and green trim.
“Is that the Chatham house?”
Norma nodded. “That was the first year we rented it. You were almost two and Mark was on the way. Although I didn’t know it yet.”
The camera jerked through scenes of Norma and Angela at the beach, making sandcastles, splashing in the gentle surf.
“You’re so young,” Angela said, studying her mother’s slim figure in white shorts and a pink gingham shirt she’d tied up at the waist. Her hair was short and dark, curling against her neck, and when she smiled at the camera, squinting in the sun and reaching up to brush her hair away from her face, Angela said, “You look like those pictures of Jackie Kennedy when she was young.”
Angela’s mother smiled, tilting her head to stare at the image on the screen. “I do a little bit, don’t I? But then we all tried to look like her. I had those little pill box hats like she had, some with a removable veil, and those short boxy suits. Mine weren’t designer, mind you, but bought off the rack at Sellerman’s. They had a wonderful bargain basement. It’s too bad they’re gone now. Oh look, there’s your father. Doesn’t he look young? I guess I’m holding the camera now. He’s putting the lobsters in the pot. I could never do it, cook the lobsters while they were still alive. We had the Ellisons’ over that night. Do you remember them? John and Lois. They were our neighbors up there for years until John had his heart attack and they sold the house. That night after dinner we played bridge out on the screened porch till the small hours. The whole time laughing. We were hysterical. I was John’s partner that night and he had me in stitches. He had this running joke about a used car salesman and all he had to do was look at me and mouth the word “car” and I’d be on the floor.”
“How do you remember all this?” Angela looked in amazement at her mother who was staring raptly at the tape.
“I remember every minute of that day. Like a photograph. Only much clearer than this,” she said, waving her hand at the TV. “And with sound of course. That was a fun summer. I was 23. Your father had just gotten a promotion at work. Things were going well for us. We were happy. Oh, the tape’s run out. Those reels didn’t last very long, did they? I’d forgotten that.” Norma stopped the VCR. “Want to see another? Or maybe not. You look tired. We can look at them some other time.”
Angela was silent. Twenty-three. At that age she had been a first-year graduate student in biochemistry at Berkeley. It had been a grueling year of classes and exams. Her biggest concern had been to get into the lab she wanted. She had no home movies of her own from those days, and except for a few important events, no crystal clear images of that time, either. The five years of graduate school had been a blur of fatigue: classes and exams and orals, research and writing her dissertation. She was 28 when she finished and had accepted a job right away at BioSynth, a startup company in Silicon Valley. She’d worked there for four years and then, feeling restless and unsettled, had left to go to law school in Chicago. In the spring she had started at Langdon and Greer, a New York firm that handled the patent rights for many top biotech companies. Angela felt that her real life was finally beginning. She was finished with school. Her job was stimulating and she liked the people in her office. At 37 she felt that she was finally going to have the life she’d always wanted.
“I guess I’ll go up,” Norma said. There were faint blue smudges under her eyes and her mouth had gone slack with fatigue. She stared at her daughter with a worried frown. “Angie? Don’t you ever want to get married?”
Angela looked up, startled. Her mother hadn’t asked that question in a long time, and Angela thought she’d grown tired of asking. “I’ll probably get married—someday. Right now I don’t have a whole lot of time to meet men.” To cover her annoyance, she bent over to kiss her mother’s cheek; it was dry and powdery, delicate as the wings of a moth. “Sleep well. I’ll turn the lights out.”
Norma stopped to lower the thermostat before climbing the stairs.
She’s old, Angela thought, as the hall light caught the silver hairs on her mother’s head. Or maybe it was only that she acted old. Her mother was not yet 60 and in Angela’s mind still young, but she behaved as if her life was over, as if the best part of her life was behind her.
She waited until she heard her mother open and close the bedroom door and then let out her breath. She wasn’t tired. She liked the idea of being the only one awake in the house, prowling the downstairs while her mother and Dan were asleep in their room. In the kitchen she poured herself a glass of orange juice. It was an old house that creaked and sighed during the night, but Angela was so familiar with the sounds of the house settling down onto its foundation that they went unnoticed.
She took her orange juice back out to the living room and turned out the light, curling up on the sofa in the dark. She had lived for 18 years in this house. Much of it had remained unchanged. The sofa had been recovered once or twice, but the dining room table and chairs were the same sturdy maple she’d always known. The table lamps and the bric-a-brac on the mantle had been taken from her grandmother’s house after she died, and the crystal vase and two porcelain milkmaids were exactly as Angela remembered them. She wrapped herself in an afghan and hugged her knees to her chest. When she had left home at 18, she had really left, going all the way to California for college and then staying there for graduate school. But like a migrating bird, she had gradually moved back East, first to Chicago and then to New York, feeling the pull of home.
The room was colder now and Angela shivered. She might as well go to bed. On her way up she passed the thermostat and was tempted to nudge it up a few degrees, but her mother—always the first one awake—would notice in the morning and there would be one more reason to quarrel. Since she wasn’t going to be here for Thanksgiving, Angela had come for the weekend as a form of atonement. She had canceled dinner plans with friends and given up a pair of concert tickets. She had thought, long ago, that she had grown out of such guilt, but it seemed to stay with her, clinging to her conscience like a sticky film.
In the morning, Angela struggled out of bed, stiff from the cold and the unfamiliar mattress. Her mother was already gone, out into the town to buy the newspaper. Still in her robe, her hair unbrushed, Angela groped her way into the kitchen in search of coffee.
“I made it strong the way you like it,” Dan said, holding up a mug as a way of greeting. “We’ll have to dilute it before your mother comes back.”
Angela smiled at this small conspiracy. “Sleep well?” she asked, reaching for the coffee pot.
“Like a rock, as always. Although I’m waking up earlier and earlier lately. It’s supposed to be a sign of old age.”
“You’re not old.”
“I should have retired last year,” Dan said. “But I can’t seem to get my mind around the idea.”
“Working is good for you. It keeps you active.” Angela settled into a chair. “And it keeps you out of trouble. What else would you do?”
Dan shrugged. “Take up a hobby, I suppose. I’d like to think there’s more to life than work.”
Norma breezed in through the front door. “Chilly out,” she said, pausing by the hall mirror to remove her hat and unwind the scarf from her neck. “We might even have a few flurries today, or so the weatherman said.” She came into the kitchen, her cheeks red with the cold. “Thought I’d splurge a little today since Angie’s here. I bought some muffins at Becky’s.” She held up a paper sack. “Still warm. I kept them under my coat the whole way back.” She smiled at Dan and Angela a little uncertainly. Her hair had been mussed by her hat and she nervously ran her hand over it to smooth it into place. “Don’t you want to dress first before you eat, Angie? I can’t bear to have breakfast in my robe. Even when you and the boys were babies I would dress first before coming down to the kitchen to give you your early bottle.” Her voice trailed off. “But those were different times, I suppose.”
Dan settled into a chair with the paper, laying it out in sections on the table. “There’s a tropical storm system developing off the coast of Mexico,” he said. “Which island are you going to?”
“Hmm. It could be heading that way,” Dan said, handing Angela the paper.
Angela scanned the article and studied the accompanying map. “If it turns into a hurricane it will probably be over and done with before I get down there. My flight doesn’t leave until Wednesday night.”
Angela’s mother arranged the muffins on a plate, her mouth a taut line. Angela could tell that she was struggling to keep her disapproval to herself.
“It’ll be okay, Mom. I’ll be fine.”
“You’re a grown up. You’re entitled to your own life. It would be nice, though, if you could make an appearance at Christmas. You should at least make an effort to get to know your nieces and nephews. You are their only aunt.”
Angela reached for a blueberry muffin, but she had no appetite for it. Dan hid behind the newspaper. Angela had been bracing herself for a confrontation all weekend, wondering when her mother would gather enough of a head of steam to start in about Angela’s selfishness, her lack of interest in her own family. It happened every time she came home to visit, ever since she’d gone off to college and had come back East for whirlwind visits during the holidays. She would be greeted by barely-disguised disapproval for the choices she’d made, flying too high, wanting too much. Find a good man, is what her mother had advised. And at least learn to type so you’ll have something to fall back on.
“I’ll be here at Christmas. Of course I will,” Angela said. “But why can’t you be happy for me? You’ve never even congratulated me on my new job. Or for passing the New York bar. I hope you realize that was no small accomplishment.”
Dan rattled the newspaper and Norma flushed. “Of course I’m happy for you. It’s just that I think you’re missing out on the best life has to offer.”
“What? A bad marriage, an even worse divorce? Money problems, whiny children?”
Norma flinched as if Angela had slapped her. “Is that what you think my life has been, all grief and sorrow? How dare you!” She jerked her chair away from the table and left the room.
Angela bit her lip. She had not wanted this to happen. What she wanted was for them to meet as equals, perhaps even as friends, not mother and daughter sitting in judgment. She stood up to get more coffee. “I’m sorry, Dan.”
“Don’t apologize to me,” he said, folding up the paper and laying it next to his plate. “Save that for your mother.”
“But she . . . .” Angela stopped. There was no point in casting blame. “It’s as if she wants to set me off. It’s her way of getting at me, sneering at my career, at the choices I’ve made. Is it so terrible that I’m successful in my work, is that what bothers her?”
Dan smoothed his hand over his head, patting down the few wispy hairs that remained on the crown. “If you had children . . .”
“Now don’t you start!”
“Listen,” Dan said. “Just listen to what I have to say. When you’re a parent you want your children to be safe. Not just happy, but safe. From all the world’s dangers and pitfalls. Look at Tommy. Tom. God, the kid’s past 40 but when I think of him he’s still that ten-year-old boy trying out for Little League. And that’s just the half of it, all the worrying, the sleepless nights when they come home late. And when Debbie got married, it was a relief. Why? Who knows, except I felt somehow my job was finished. I’d delivered her safely into another man’s hands. I know it’s not very modern, but that’s how I felt. Your mother isn’t any different. She just wants you to find a safe harbor, for there to be someone to take care of you.”
Angela didn’t say anything. What could she say without starting an argument? And she didn’t want to argue with Dan, to risk alienating him as well. If all her mother had ever expected of her was that she walk down a church aisle in a white dress, there was no hope for reaching a common ground. Until that day came, when Angela had a ring firmly on her finger, her mother would see her life as a series of failures, all her successes pulling her farther away, like a tide washing out, from the one thing her mother wanted her to have: a husband, a family.
After clearing the table, Angela stacked the dishes in the dishwasher and dragged a sponge along the countertops. She had been planning to stay until after supper and then take the train back into the city, but now she wondered if it wouldn’t be better to pack her things and go back to her apartment where she would be free of recriminations and guilt. What could she say to her mother now that wouldn’t make things worse than they already were? But instead of packing her bag, Angela pulled on her coat and went out for a walk, heading into the town that had been witness to her coming of age. Past the ice cream parlor, now a frozen yogurt shop, where she and her friends had spent so much of their time in junior high, making eyes at the boys who worked behind the counter. Past the First National Bank and old Mr. Bentley’s newsstand, where some of the kids had hung out on Saturdays, waiting for something to happen.
As she walked she looked back over her shoulder, half-hoping her mother would follow her, rush to catch up and grab her elbow, an apology in her eyes. As a child her mother had done that whenever Angela flounced off to her room in a tantrum. After an appropriate interval, Norma had knocked on the door to make peace, to explain to Angela the importance of patience and good manners. She had done it often in the years after Angela’s father left, almost as if seeking atonement for her inability to prevent his departure.
As Angela walked through the four streets of the downtown, hands pushed into the pockets of her wool coat, she caught glimpses of her profile in the plate glass windows of the shop. The town no longer threatened to engulf her as it had in the past, to remake who she was. She’d been gone too long, had hardened in her shell, for her hometown to be anything more than it was: a series of shops, four intersecting streets and three stoplights. At the end of the business district, where the stores petered out and gave way to single family homes, bigger and yet more dilapidated than she remembered, Angela turned back.
Norma was in the kitchen, an apron tied around her waist, slicing vegetables for dinner. “Want some help?” Angela asked, shrugging out of her coat. “The temperature’s dropping. Maybe you’ll have snow for Thanksgiving.”
Norma sliced carrots with the awkward motion of someone using a dull knife.
“Here, let me help,” Angela said, moving next to her.
“No need,” Norma said. “Everything’s under control.” After a minute she said, “I thought we’d have stew tonight. If that’s okay with you.”
“Stew’s fine. Listen, about what I said this morning. I wanted to apologize.”
“Water under the bridge. Could you hand me that cutting board?”
Angela sighed. She could tell by the stiffness of her mother’s turned back that there was no point in pursuing it. Whatever she might have done to hurt her mother could not be undone. It would be stored away with all her other past transgressions. She handed her the cutting board and then turned to leave the kitchen.
In the bedroom that had once been her youngest brother’s, she stripped the sheets and bundled them into a pile to wash. She jammed the few clothes she’d brought into her overnight bag and then, exhausted from the effort, sat down in a chair. The room had been turned into a guest room. The walls were no longer adorned with posters and sports photos. In this room, as in the other bedrooms, all evidence of her brothers and herself had been removed. A few years ago her mother had finally gotten up the nerve to redecorate the rooms, as if she had finally accepted that none of them were coming back.
Dan knocked softly on the door. “Angela? I’ve got the news on. That storm front has turned into a hurricane. “Fred” they’re calling it. Better come take a look.”
Angela hurried into Dan’s den. Curving arrows indicated the path of the hurricane on the weather map. Winds up to 110 miles an hour.
“It’ll blow itself out before I get there,” Angela said. “It’d better. I’m looking forward to this trip.”
Dan crossed his arms over his chest, rocking back and forth on his feet. They stared together at the path of the storm.
“You know, Angela, your mother’s not as old-fashioned as you think. Did you know she didn’t want to marry me? She turned me down at first. Flat out. Then she said she wanted us to live together, as if we were two teenagers rebelling against our parents. She was afraid of losing her independence. She’s a tough old bird, she didn’t have it easy with your father, so don’t think she isn’t aware of the downside of marriage. She just wants you to be happy.”
In the kitchen, Angela could hear her mother banging around the pots and pans, slamming cabinet doors, just a little too loudly. She’s still angry, Angela thought, contemplating what Dan said and staring at the screen, at the swirl of white that represented the storm. She hadn’t known her mother hadn’t wanted to marry Dan. She had thought her mother had been eager to tie the knot again after all those years alone. Angela tried to imagine what it would feel like to be caught up in a hurricane, flattened by the force of the wind, drenched by rain and then, miraculously, enter the eye of storm, where she’d read once that it was so eerily still not even the birds dared to sing.
Angela closed herself into the living room and curled up with a magazine on the couch. But after a few minutes she felt restless and stood up to examine the bookshelves. She opened the cabinets where the photo albums were kept and ran her fingers over the spines. She pulled one out, dark red leather, cracked with age. It was her mother’s wedding album, not to Dan, but to Angela’s father, something she hadn’t looked at in years. The photos were faded, the edges yellowed and curled. Angela lifted out one of the photographs and held it up to the light, her father and mother leaving the church in a shower of rice.
Beautiful, in a long white dress with dropped shoulders, clutching a bouquet of pink roses, Angela’s mother gazed at her new husband with unveiled adoration. There were pictures of the ceremony in the church, cutting the cake at the reception, throwing the bridal bouquet. Angela’s mother was radiant. Twenty-one years of age and clear by the look on her face that she thought her life was just beginning. There were no shadows there, no sense of what was to come: the erosion of years, the bitterness and betrayal.
Was this the reason for her mother’s persistent guilt? For not being woman enough to keep a man? Not even with her trim figure and radiant smile. Hadn’t she been taught by her own mother that this was all a woman had? In the end it hadn’t been enough. Her husband had left her for another woman, someone who laughed at his jokes and played up to his ego, who was prepared to go with him wherever he chose. This new wife was dependent and clingy in a way that made Angela’s stomach turn. And after he’d gone, after he’d taken his new wife out West when Angela was ten, she and her brothers rarely heard from him, except for the occasional postcard of deserts and palm trees, neon and sand, a brief note scrawled in his illegible hand, signed with his name, Edward, as if he were a family friend off on a holiday.
She slid the album back in among the others and shut the cabinet door. The room had grown dark and Angela straightened up and turned on the lights. Maybe it was the perfection of that one day that her mother had held on to all this years, a clear crystalline moment that she wanted to re-experience through her daughter. The satin dress, the heady scent of roses, the beaming faces of well-wishers. Everything else that came after that had faded in the glow of that one glorious day when the future stretched out in front of them like an endless sea. Angela tried to imagine what that would feel like, that sense of a new beginning, an eternal hope, but she had long grown past the age where all of life is a shining plum within easy reach. There had been men in her life whom she might have married, but none of them had seemed strong enough to her to endure that one radiant moment, to pass through the glass bubble of the wedding day and weather the slow wearing down of years. Perhaps that was what she had been avoiding, Angela thought. Not marriage itself, but the tyranny of expecting too much from love. That her mother still wanted to believe that it could happen for her own daughter, after all she’d been through, Angela found astonishing. Perhaps her mother was more resilient than she’d given her credit for, knew more about the nature of regret and redemption than Angela could imagine.
Darkness had fallen and in the dining room Norma was setting the table, laying the placemats and flatware with a precision that had come from years of repeating the same movements. Angela went into the kitchen for the plates and glasses, and in the glow from the lamp, she and her mother wove in and out of the dining room, enacting a silent dance, preparing the table for the evening meal.