In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train.
Summers began with our little group clustered, my father presiding on the platform, the tinny train-coming smell that electrified the air. Weeks before school let out, the steamer trunks had been brought up, followed by the ritual of packing. In June, we boarded the Super Chief, pulling out of Pasadena, my mother and father, my sister and I, Louisa our nurse, my grandmother and her parakeet, her chauffeur, her cook, and two maids who had parakeets of their own. My grandmother, Bada, who was my father’s mother, visited with us in the club car and viewed the dresses our mother had bought—appliquéd beanstalks meandering up one side, Jack at the hem, the Giant at our shoulders. Bada smiled and patted our heads and gave us sour candies. Then Louisa pulled us away to the dome car where we watched the rocks and sand and cactuses of Arizona glide by.
Like Louisa, the porters were Negroes. They called my father “sir,’ and he called them “sir” back, but I knew it wasn’t the same. My father was a tall man with a proud nose and a bearing bred from Choate and Princeton and World War II. He seemed to stand taller than anyone in the Chicago train station. I shook off Louisa’s hand, my Mary Janes clacking upon the tiles as I ran through a vast cavern rife with cigars and diesel until I found my father’s hand and grasped it. Can’t you keep hold of her? my mother hissed at Louisa when they caught up to us. My father laid his long fingers on my shoulder as if he was going to embrace me. Instead, he prodded me toward my mother.
From that time on, I was put on a leash. They strapped me into a sort of vest I could not undo, and Louisa grasped that rope of leather as if her life depended on it. After I grew up, my mother told me it was only one summer I traveled to Michigan at the end of a leash, but if my memory serves me, I traveled like that for years.
Now it is blackness below—acres of woodland, lake and river. The inside of the plane is barely lit, and even thought the seats are full, no one talks above the engines. It is late, and everyone just wants to get there. Except for me. I want the plane to turn around. I press my forehead to the glass until I vibrate, becoming one with the engines, scanning the landscape for that one place where gravity takes me as if nothing else exists. Finally, I make out a band of lights on a smudge of land, the dots of moored boats in a harbor. Below on that island huddle forty or so summerhouses. Some of them are silent with sleep. Others have people sitting on porches, drinking their nightcaps. In more than one, someone is playing bridge or charades. Someone is dancing. Someone is making love.
But not in our house. In our house, my brother-in-law has nodded off beneath his book, and my sister, if she’s awake, is knitting. Upstairs, in the front room—the good room facing the lake—my mother, too, is sleeping, as she has slept for months, her eyes not quite closed, unable to move, her snore penetrating the board-thin walls.
I am not returning because of my mother. It is my sister who calls me back. We are descending now, the runway traced by a pale, blue glow. The plane lurches, stops. The passengers rise, their heads ducked beneath the low ceiling. I grab my bag, waiting my turn to push out the door into the humid sweetness of the Michigan air.
Except for the bars, Harbor Town is dark. It is late, and even the ice cream store has been mopped up, the chairs stacked on tables. It’s been eleven years, but I know that in the daylight, colored awnings will flank the streets, shading boxes of petunias and impatiens—red, white, and violet. From every lamppost, American flags imply that the Fourth of July, already one month gone, is just around the corner. The airport van has dropped me off. Standing beside my luggage on the pier, I fix my eyes on the humpbacked island less than a half-mile off shore. It looks the same. It always looks the same. For a moment, dread gives way to the anticipation that I felt as a child after a four day train ride when we first saw the lake, the ferry, heard the gulls, smelled the rotted essence of fish.
I ring the old brass bell that has hung for over a century. From across the harbor, the rhythm of a chugging propeller grows louder until I make out gleaming teak lake boat of my childhood. The driver is young. He wears a guard’s uniform and a change-maker on his belt, but he doesn’t charge for the ride. After he docks and loads my bags, I sit in the cockpit, crossing the channel that, like the river Styx, divides one world from another. The faint strands of U2 coming from the driver’s radio seem jarring, and I don’t know the driver’s name, but I give him mine, whisper it like a password, a name that passes unnoticed in New York. But here, the name is currency, and I feel a prick of shame and pride as I use it—Maddie Addison—and he motors me across, politely calling me “ma’am” which irritates me. At least he doesn’t say, Addison, like the cough medicine?—but why would he? Half the denizens of Sand Isle have names that read like major brands.
The carriage isn’t running tonight. One of the horses threw a shoe. The ferry driver tells me I can use the wagon my sister left, or he can bring my bags in the morning. Taking him up on his offer, I shoulder my carry-on and set off down the boardwalk. There are no cars on Sand Isle. With the exception of a golf cart added ten years ago to deliver groceries, everything and everybody else travels the island by foot, by bicycle, by boat, or by the clomping, bell-hung horse-carriages full of old people and children who know all the horses’ names.
Voices drift down from some of the porches, but mostly it is quiet. A man and a woman ride by on a tandem bicycle. The woman has hiked up her dress, and the man snaps at her to stop leaning out so far, and she throws back her head and laughs loudly, saying, “I’m glad you’re steering.” They glide by as if I am a tree. Perhaps I am, in my dark clothing, so unlike the woman in her bright patterned dress, something I would never have in my closet, even as a teenager when my aunt insisted that “everyone has a Lilly Pulitzer!”
I’m nearly out of breath when I arrive. One yellow bulb burns on a porch two stories up, but our house still dazzles me—the mere physical fact of it. The word “loom” was created for this house, rising as it does four stories—a “cottage” that, built before the turn of the century, continued to grow as more rooms were needed for children and staff and friends. Four generations—five with the niece and nephew who’ll be arriving soon, along with the cousins.
There are ghosts in this house. We’ve known it since we were children. Most of us think we have seen them, except for my sister who resolutely hasn’t. But what she hasn’t seen, I’ve seen in spades—twice the sightings of anyone in our generation, and if it’s imagination or madness or too much drinking, who cares? Ghosts there are, and they’re watching me now.
I start up the first flight of steps and stop underneath the ship’s lantern on the landing. Something scurries in the eaves. I switch my bag to my other shoulder, catch my breath, feeling addled by the smell of the lake. It is redolent of fish, and the air is so heavy, my lungs strain for oxygen. In a few days, the living room will be filled with relatives. My sister will be complaining about the help, and my mother, if she’s talking at all, will be ordering her nurse. When I saw her last fall after her stroke, my mother’s bark had been replaced by a whisper, but the tone was still there, imperious and demanding, the last surviving Mrs. Addison.
I drop my bag at the front door, walk around the widow’s walk to the porch overlooking the lake. Someone says, “Hello?” and I stiffen. If I listen carefully, I will hear the clicking of needles. My sister says knitting calms her mind, but compared to me, she’s as serene as a windless lake. Perhaps she’s thinking about her daughter or how to construct a menu for ten. Perhaps she’s thinking about Mother and wondering, as I wonder, how long this will go on.
I step out of the shadows and see her by the lamp. Her profile is lovely and even. She has cropped her hair since last fall. It looks easy-to-manage and, while it would make me look severe, seems to suit her. Neither of us is letting the gray come in the way our mother did when she was only in her thirties. Mine, I am keeping a honey sort of blond. Dana’s is dark, as it’s always been dark, the two of us like bookends—slender girls, unremarkable, with moments of prettiness, some would say beauty, I with my father’s nose, she with my mother’s.
“Dana,” I say.
“Ah!” She drops her knitting and rises. “There you are.”
She reaches for me. As we embrace, I take in her smell—our smell—the smell synthesized from a chromosomal likeness of blood and skin and guts, the smell my child would have had.
“Mother?” I say to my sister.
“Asleep. All day.” Dana pushes away from me. “You must be exhausted.”
“And you! You never stay up this late.”
“It’s the excitement.”
I look around. I can’t imagine a less exciting place in the world. The lulling lake, the dull-leafed trees and rocking chairs all evoking the benign calmness of a sanitarium. From the window above, the drone of a snore.
“Have you talked to hospice?”
Dana pushes back her efficient hair-do. “I have. They want to come out. But I’m afraid it’s going to upset her.”
I look up at the window and wonder how Mother would even know. For a year, a hired caretaker has seen to her. We are neither of us nurses, my sister nor I. Besides, Mother wouldn’t want us to bathe her, change her diaper or bedding. We have never been a family for sharing nakedness, much less our effluence.
“She hasn’t spoken for days.”
I turn back to my sister. Almost ten months since my cell phone rang, Dana’s words—like a blood clot—moving unstoppably east: Mom’s had a stroke, Maddie. You’d better come. And though I immediately joined them in California in October, it’s been more than a decade since I’ve come to our summer place in Michigan. Now that I’m finally here, Dana looks happy. She has been waiting up, longing to find in me hope and solutions. It is August, and her summer can begin, and all the things we have to tend to. Calling hospice, checking with the doctors, setting up the kitchen for when the cousins arrive.
“Look,” I say, “I’m tired.”
I see her face fall in the porch light, but what can I do? Five minutes, and I’m craving solitude. I wish I could call someone. Ian, perhaps. But there’s only one phone in the house—at the base of the stairs—and my cell-phone doesn’t work here.
“What room am I in?” I say.
“Your old room,” she answers, her voice slightly bruised, and I tense, wondering if she means the nursery in which I slept as a child. “The Lantern Room,” she adds.
I relax. We refer to rooms by themes. A painting of a boat hung on the wall designates the Schooner Room. The room looking west becomes the namesake of an iron Jack Russell doorstop that was a house present in 1890. In my twenties, I slept in the Lantern Room, called so because of the base of a lamp.
Dana says, “You’re the first one here, you know.”
Later, lying under a quilt, I listen to the house. My mother’s snoring has subsided, but she still breathes. I have looked in on her. Against the pillow of the hospital bed, her face appeared ancient, twisted to the side. I touched her arm through the sheet. I did not kiss her.
I am engulfed by the dark honey of cedar walls. A toilet flushes, the squeak of mattress springs as someone gets into bed. Already, I can taste the rain and know that tomorrow will be spent indoors. The house groans. The ghosts are waking.
Excerpt from Good Family by Terry Gamble. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022