Quartet

christmasholly9“Sister.”

Granny called her daughters and granddaughters sister. They were all girls to her: Younger, prettier and in the bloom of life. She hadn’t felt that way in ages. Certainly not in the twenty years since her Harlan had died.

“Sister.”

It was really a question: Who is it out there?

“It’s me, Granny, it’s Linda,” and Granny turned and looked up to see her daughter Mary Kay’s youngest child, a tall, blonde, blue-eyed 20-year old, married to a submarine sailor.

Granny smiled.

A stroke robbed Granny the use of her right arm and right leg, and caused her speech to stumble through an uncooperative tongue and trembling lips, but that was last winter. This was this winter, such as it was in Orlando. She felt better, was walking around a bit, moving around better, and could see now that it was Linda was answering her, there at the Orange Grove Villa. So it would be Linda taking her home, home to see her girls.

“It’s me, Granny,” Linda offered, patiently walking up to Granny, then standing still, then turning, to place her strong left hand under Granny’s right arm, guiding Granny’s weak side, to the walker setting upright and ready four feet away. At any other time of her life, Granny would have swatted away a gesture so solicitous, but this was this time of her life. She knew it. And it didn’t matter. She was in a good mood.

“It’s Christmas,” Granny said, joy beginning to percolate up from her heart.

“Yes, Granny, it is,” Linda acknowledged, forcing her own naturally long, elegant walk to match the old woman’s short, deliberate steps.

Linda was thinking of a million things at once: Granny; getting her to the car; getting her in the car; wishing the car was a four-door instead of a two-door; asking Johnny to sit in the back seat, to let her drive, so Granny could see the road, and see her, and feel safe, and not feel disoriented. But above all, Linda was wondering how everyone was acting at her mother’s house, and maybe it might all be too much for Granny, seeing the little cement block bungalow crammed with people and decorations and food. Would the lemon poppy seed loaf come out perfect? Will she spill anything on her white slacks, so pristine, with wide legs, like Johnny’s white Navy bell-bottoms, which she loved so.

Johnny. John Martin. Oh, she was so happy he volunteered to come with her to the Orange Grove Villa, to be with her when she picked up her Granny. She had not seen her for a year, and worried about how hard it would be to see her again. She loved that he understood when she said she wanted to go in to get her by herself, and how he said “sure” when she suggested he sit in the back seat of the big Chevy Nova on the way home. She loved that he was there with her instead of in the living room sitting drinking beer and watching football with the other men, the boyfriends and friends of her sister and cousins and her mom and aunt.

Johnny. Johnny and Granny. The two people she loved most. Not that she didn’t love Mom, or Claire. But Johnny. And Granny. Those were the two people she would go anywhere for.

Linda spotted her Johnny outside the Orange Grove Villa, patiently waiting, a faint smile on his face, tall and trim in his Navy blue windbreaker and dress slacks and shiny black loafers. She knew he would be waiting, practically playing doorman for the people coming in and out of the rest home, a busy place with visitors coming to and fro on a Saturday so close to Christmas. With Johnny’s help, Linda and Granny negotiated their way through the two sets of heavy glass doors to exit the rest home. On the way from the front awning to the car, John Martin fell into step with the two. Granny stopped suddenly, and with her sparkling ancient eyes, looked up at the sky, a cloudy December Florida sky, and then looked at Johnny, and said, “I know you.”

“Yes ma’am,” John Martin replied, smiling.

“You’re with Linny here,” she said, looking him over.

“Yes ma’am,” he replied, smiling and looking at Linda.

“You’re the sailor,” Granny decided.

“Yes ma’am.”

Granny nodded.

“Call me Granny. Everyone else does.” And giving him a final inspection, with a glint of happy approval in her eyes, she turned her attention to the tedious business of walking with the walker she hated, and the three of them made their way to the car, to go to a Christmas party.

As she drove from the rest home to the house, a smile creased the side of Linda Martin’s tanned, clear, perfect face, and a drop of satisfaction fell onto her soul. She loved being with her Granny.

Linda was not rebellious by nature, but that day she drove to Charleston, having eloped to be with her Johnny — well. Her mother, Mary Kay, could not believe her reliable, right-thinking Linda could do such a thing. It was before Granny’s stroke, Linda picking up and leaving like that. And no one in the family could believe it, that much was true. Not Linda’s sister Claire, older by 16 months, and not Linda’s quiet, shy cousins, Debbie and Sue Ann, nor her aunt Alice, Debbie and Sue Ann’s mom.

But Granny said, “That girl knows what she’s doing.” Granny could see it. And Granny knew Mary Kay’s attempts to stop Linda were a waste of time. Linda knew that with Granny’s blessing, none of the other’s would make too much of a fuss. And no one did. And they never fussed again, not while Johnny was on the long deployment, and not when Linda decided to stay in Charleston and not give up her cashier’s job at the Winn-Dixie, and leave the cozy house trailer she managed to find out on the highway north of town, just to return to Orlando and be close to family. Linda decided that she was a married woman now, and that was that. No one fussed. No one liked it, but no one fussed.

Linda gripped the wheel of the car and tried to concentrate on her driving, in order to get her Granny to the house safe and sound, and was doing a good job for the most part. But the closer she got to the house, the more her mind shifted, from South Carolina to Orlando to picking up Granny to driving out to the house — all in the time it took her to realize she had to slow down and get ready to turn into the driveway. Then he saw her parking spot was open. It was close to the front door, and would make it easy for Granny to make it inside the house. This made her happy once more, and she relaxed.

+

     To his credit, Mary Kay’s companion, Walt, stood up, walked over to the television and turned the sound off when he saw John Martin open the door and then held it open for Linda and Granny as they negotiated Mary Kay’s front step. Walt, a large, beefy man, had known Mary Kay’s husband, Charlie, and liked him and was damn sorry that he dropped dead from a coronary. Walt was 55 and still a bachelor and had no idea it would be so easy to fall in love with a widow. He still had no idea it was Mary Kay’s idea they keep each other company since Charlie passed three years ago. Mary Kay liked Walt, and like the prospect of marrying a bachelor. She could not bear the idea of having to answer to someone else’s children.

As Walt stood by the television, the other men in the room, who had been quietly watching football and drinking beer, stared at the soundless picture for a moment before they realized that Walt had turned off the sound. Then they heard John Martin say, “Here’s Granny,”  just like the famous announcer from late-night television.

The beer had done its work, making the men mellow and slow-witted and not-quite-so argumentative, the way men are with other men at family gatherings, when they only know each other through work or because of their relationship with their girlfriend. And not a single one of them forgot their manners. Nearly as one, they stood in time for Granny to make her entrance, all of them silently watching the old woman with the walker, the matriarch of the family. Some were up to date on her recovery from her stroke. All of them only wanted to say hello and then fall back into that familiar embarrassed silence men feel so comfortable in.

It was Linda who said, “Hey, everybody, look who’s here,” and on cue, the women, ignoring the shuffling of the men and even Johnny’s little joke, flowed out from the kitchen and took in the sight of Granny, dressed in her festive green pants suit and poinsettia red blouse, the outfit belying how bent and withered she seemed.

“Sister,” Granny said, looking at Alice, the older of her two daughters, and Alice stepped around the table to her mother. Alice saw Granny nearly every day, so the sight of her wasn’t unsettling. But Mary Kay, her baby, came by to visit once a week,  and each time seemed a bit more of a shock than Mary Kay would care to admit. Mary Kay was petite and emotional compared to the tall, stoic Alice. Granny was never surprised when Alice went about her business without saying a word, while she knew Mary Kay had something to say about everything, and had to let everyone know it before she got down to business.

But now, Mary Kay stood back, quiet,  a dab of tear in the corners of her eyes, and couldn’t summon a word from her throat to greet her mother. She reached for some Kleenex she imagined was by the telephone table, but there were none. Ignoring the tiny dramas, Granny asked “Where am I sitting?” She needed to sit down, and wanted a cold drink. Alice knew the cues, and even though they were at Mary Kay’s house, Alice assumed the role of hostess, she being the oldest. Everyone knew it, including Mary Kay. No one said anything about that.

So when Alice turned around and said, “Get Granny some lemonade please,” no one was surprised it was Alice who said it, or that it was Mary Kay’s daughter Claire who went to get it. Claire loved her granny with the unconditional love only a grandchild can possess for a grandparent. Not so with her mother, though. And wild horses could not drag any admission on Claire’s part that she was a carbon copy of Mary Kay, but it was true. Claire was the only one who refused to admit it.

So with Claire fetching Granny’s drink, Alice’s tall, thin, pale daughters said, “Hey, Granny” almost in unison before retreating to the kitchen. Seeing Mary Kay still had a dab of tear in her eye, Linda handed her a tissue from her pants pocket. Mary Kay stared at it for a moment before she realized what it was for. But as soon as she dabbed her eyes she smiled, and turning to her mother, a warm, “Momma” came from deep inside her, and she bent over to give her momma a gentle hug around her shoulders. Granny, seated now and leaning on a cane Alice had close by just for her, smiled at the hug her baby girl gave her.

Granny smiled, but she knew her Mary Kay. That hug meant something.

Granny sighed. It was so typical of Mary Kay to have something to say and get all worked up before saying it, and then say it with far too much dramatics, and when it was over with, whimper and dab her eyes a little. Granny knew it would be up to her to pet her and tell her everything would be all right. Granny was getting too old for that, but the hug Mary Kay gave her mother was a prologue to something, and Granny knew it the moment Mary Kay put her arms around her. It wasn’t going to be just a visit for Christmas. Granny now knew it, but she didn’t care. She was too old to care. She was with her girls and it was Christmastime. There was bound to be some drama. All she wanted was some lemonade.

+

What Walt and Mary Kay knew, and no one else, was Walt had an offer for a job in Texas, and he was going to take it. And he wanted to marry Mary Kay and take her to Texas with him. And Mary Kay had said yes. Two weeks ago.

He reminded her of this three times in the last three days, when he knew Mary Kay decided to make the announcement at the Christmas party. He wanted to go on the record for wanting to do the right thing. But Mary Kay’s mind wasn’t on Walt’s future. She knew he was the best thing that happened to her, after her Charlie died. She knew that Walt, big, burly sweetheart that he was, would never do anything that was unkind or unChristian. Mary Kay’s mind was what she would tell her momma, especially after the fit she threw when Linda insisted that she was going to go be with her Johnny, no matter what Mary Kay or anyone else had to say. Everyone knew Mary Kay threw a fit for the ages in the very room she was now in with her mother, and now she had agreed to travel the same road as Linda, to up and leave home, and she had to tell her momma and everyone, with Christmas and all.

Mary Kay had spent most of the past three days thinking about what she would say, particularly after the episode with Linda and her infamous “this family always sticks together” speech. Mary Kay was not happy that first of all, Linda went to Charleston to be married to a sailor, or second of all, Claire up and left to study art, of all things, in Gainesville, of all places. It would be just like Claire to up and leave her when she needed her most.

And it was her own mother that said, “Let the girl go, Mary Kay. She has a life of her own now.” Mary Kay did not want to hear that. She told her mother she and Alice stood by her when daddy died, and now it just wasn’t fair. “I’m a widow and my girls are leaving me. It’s not fair. It’s not right,” Mary Kay cried.

But Linda left for Charleston. A week later, Granny had her stroke. It was a shock, and it was hard for Mary Kay to get used to , the idea of her momma so sick. Thank God for Walt, she always said. But that was then, and this was now, and Mary Kay had to face the fact that she’d have to say she was leaving, too, after carrying on so loudly for so long.

Linda and Claire came home earlier in the week, and Mary Kay was so pleased, and so proud of her daughters, seeing them for the first time in months, and the girls looking so happy, doing what they wanted to do in life. She decided that whatever it was out there that the girls had hold of, it suited them. It made her start to wonder.

But Mary Kay was so caught up in the talk and the laughing, well, telling them about Walt and their plans just slipped away from her. She didn’t have a chance to say anything about it, not the day before yesterday, and not yesterday, because everyone was over at the house getting things ready, and there wasn’t a moment to spare.

So now, everyone was at the house, and now Granny was there, and Walt was looking at her, his big heart anxious to hear the words she had promised she would say.

Walt. That morning he was so agitated. “Don’t you love me?” he asked, the hurt  plain to hear in his voice. “Why ain’t you told your girls yet?” It was hard for Mary Kay to hear the words coming from such a large, lovable man. Still, she was put out with Walt for most of that morning. “You don’t know how hard it is to say things to your children.” Walt just said, “I don’t know what’s so hard about saying what you gotta say.” By the time that argument settled, Linda went to fetch Granny, Alice had come up with yet another thing that had to be done, and Mary Kay let he promise slip away once more.

But now, seeing her momma,  it made Mary Kay more anxious than ever. Now she had to think: when should I do it?

+

     Thoughts like these travel through the mind of an anxious person at the speed of light . Mary Kay had no idea she was still standing in the dining room, holding the tissue Alice gave her, and dabbing her eyes, when she blurted out: “I have an announcement to make.

It made her take a deep breath. She waited until everyone was quiet. It didn’t take as long as she hoped.

“Walt asked me to marry him. I said yes.”

As the words reached the persons assembled in the house, the brief moment of hushed, shocked stillness was almost as noticeable as the pandemonium after it. Mary Kay was rushed upon by the women, and the men all got up and began whacking Walt on the back, shaking his hand and congratulating him. None of them knew each other well, but most of them, through the women, had come to know each other a little, and to them the news was not so much as a shock as a surprise. Walt the bachelor was finally going to take the plunge.

As the din died down, Mary Kay took a step over toward her momma, and the women parted a little to let her through. Claire was hugging Linda, and the two daughters watched their momma go to their Granny.

Mary Kay sat next to Granny. Granny had a smile in her eyes, having watched the event unfold. Now she prepared herself for the real news.

“Momma,” Mary Kay began. “Walt asked me to marry him.”

“I know, precious,” Granny replied.

“There’s more,” Mary Kay said.

This captured Claire and Linda’s attention. No one noticed Walt making his way to Mary Kay.

Granny waited.

“Walt as been offered a job in Texas. He’s going to take it. And I’m going to go with him.”

The gasps in the room couldn’t cover the punctuated “I can’t BELIEVE it!” from Claire. With fury in her eyes and contempt in her voice, she yelled, “After all the crap you laid on Linda about leaving home, following some sailor, you’re doing THIS!”

“Hey,” Linda said, turning to Claire, impatience mixed with some embarrassment. “That don’t matter now.”

“I think it DOES!” Claire cried.

An awkward hush fell over the room.

“Claire …” Mary Kay began.

“I’m sorry …” Walt began.

“Hush,” Granny said, fixing her gaze on Claire. No one moved.

“But Granny, you know how Mom carried on, saying that we had to stay together, and she didn’t want Linda to go off with no sailor, and that it was busting up the family.” Claire’s wounds ran deep, and she didn’t suffer hypocrites lightly, especially when it was her mother.

“Hush,” Granny said again.

“But you know how momma always talked about Grandpa coming down here from Minnesota, and how you said it was the only thing to do, because the family had to stay together! Momma wouldn’t ever let us forget that! ”

“Hush, Claire Marie,” Granny said, waving hand at her granddaughter, exhaling a little.

“Claire,” Mary Kay began, but Granny cut her off, too.

“Now listen,” Granny said, and she turned to Mary Kay.

“Do you love him?”

Mary Kay was so surprised by the question she couldn’t answer.

“Well?” Granny asked.

“Yes, Momma, I do,” Mary Kay said, to laughter and applause.

Granny waved her hands to get everyone to settle down.

“Now listen to me,” Granny said. “We were going to lose the farm in ’46, and there weren’t no place for us to go but to Florida. Harlan’s brother Roy was in the Navy here and stayed here after the war to keep dairy cattle. I didn’t want to go to Florida and neither did Harlan. But we did. We had to. You girls were little and didn’t know any better, but we didn’t come down here just for the sunny weather. We followed the jobs. Now we didn’t stay in the dairy business for long before Harlan got busy with construction and that’s how Charlie came to be a part of this family, you know, working for your daddy,” Granny said, looking into Mary Kay’s eyes, now filling with tears.

Granny said to Mary Kay, “Well, Daddy’s gone. Charlie’s gone too. Now you have a good man here and if you want him you’ll have to go with him.”

“But Granny!” Claire’s dogged indignation was unyielding.

Granny ignored the outburst, saying, “Things change. Time was I’d never let Mary Kay or Alice leave me, either, not after Harlan died, and of course they had lives here so it was simple. But that ain’t the way with Linda. Or yourself, either, Claire. I went where I had to go. So did Linny. So will you, someday. We all will, someday. Some things are easier than others. Some are harder. We don’t want to face the hard things. Then time comes and we have to do what we have to do. And it don’t have anything to do with it being hard. You just do it.”

“But …” Claire said, hearing the conviction in Granny’s voice, realizing the truth in the words, and losing what remained of her indignation.

“It’s how things are, honey,” Granny told Claire.

“Oh, Granny,” Claire whispered as she put her arms around the old woman she loved so dearly.

“Oh, momma,” Mary Kay said, wiping a tear.

Walt stepped up to Granny and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of her.”

Granny nodded, “I know you will,” and the mood shifted to something more festive, with Mary Kay’s news out in the world. Walt and Mary Kay were going to get married, and that seemed like something worth celebrating.

Watching the scene from the kitchen entryway, Alice nodded and said, “Okay, well, let’s eat.” Everyone gathered around the table, and the men used Walt’s big news as an excuse to tuck in hearty. The women stole glances at the men, and the other women, women who were their blood, some of whom set on going their own way, as the old year came to an end, and the new year held such promise. The women helped themselves, pleased with themselves, and the outcome, but mostly, pleased that Granny was among them, with a look of quiet delight on her face.

+

     The ham, brisket, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, string beans, succotash, macaroni, corn bread, and three kinds of pie were followed by three toasts that, for the men, were fueled with bourbon. All of it  reduced them to a catatonic stupor, and they settled in the living room once more, to attempt witticisms about Walt’s pending nuptials. With the table cleared, the ritual of washing the dishes commended, Claire and Linda joining Debbie and Sue Ann by the sink to tackle the task. Granny, feeling a little tired, sat in a chair in a corner of the kitchen, and resting her hands on her cane, said, “Why don’t you girls sing a song like you did when you was little. You know, in those different parts?”

After a few false starts, the girls began Silent Night, and a four-part harmony grew from there, one that came naturally, and other songs sprang forth. After awhile, Mary Kay and Alice joined in, and eventually sang some of the old Norwegian songs from their childhood and transported to the warm, tropical winters they’d known forever. The men turned the sound from the television down low, and listened to the women, hushed and still like boys in church, or in the presence of an unfathomable beauty.

To anyone walking past that small bungalow, seeing the glow from the lights in the kitchen and hearing the harmony of female voices, a thought might come to mind that there surely is peace on Earth, even as lives change, widows remarry, new adventures begin, and sometimes, an old woman gets what she asks for, to be with her girls at Christmas.

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