A Contemporary Novel
WHEN SHE WAS SIX YEARS OLD Annabel wrote her name with a red crayon in large block letters on the pale green cushions of the patio furniture that Mother had just recovered. Mother was furious when she discovered it but Daddy didn't even spank her.
"Well, Annabel," he said, "how nice that you've learned to write your name. But in future will you please write it on your blackboard or on a piece of paper and not on the furniture."
"I didn't do it, Daddy," Annabel insisted. "I didn't!"
Who would have dreamed that fifty years later Annabel would forge Mother's will?
Rooms of my childhood haunt my dreams, I walk through every one and it is as if I am back there touching the old familiar things, like some safe haven stored in my memory, that nothing has changed when everything has. The houses have other owners now, different furniture, yet why do I see everything in detail as if they await my return?
I will never return to any of them, that is my past now, the doors are closed, the key is turned. Yet they remain, still they remain.
My bedroom in the house in Washington on the third floor looking out into the tulip trees that were bare all winter, the twin beds of green metal with flowers painted on the headboards, the mahogany bureau with the lace runner and silver dresser set, the radiators under the windows hissing on chilly mornings when I dressed for school.
The children's rooms were on the third floor, mine and Annabel's, and one for the governess and the cook. Mother and Daddy slept in separate rooms on the second floor and there were two other bedrooms which were for guests, like when Grandfather and Grandmother came to visit from Pittsburgh or other relatives and friends.
I knew little of the outside world and I believed that everyone lived like that.
Out of our beginnings emerge the adults we become later in life, and I keep going over and over in my mind my childhood memories of Annabel, like the picture puzzles I used to do on rainy days, I try to fit the pieces together, but they don't fit. Annabel, my sister. How could she do what she did? Did she not realize the consequences of her act, or did she honestly believe it was justified?
Daddy always admired the poems of Edgar Allan Poe and Annabel was named after one of his favorites, "Annabel Lee." Sometimes after he had had a few bourbons I would hear him reciting it in the library. I think he wanted to be a poet, but that wasn't practical so he became a stockbroker instead. He came from a romantic city, Charleston, and when I was small and went to visit my other grandparents there, the Ashfords, I remember ornately-carved gates in front of the houses and the sweet scent of jasmine and the salt-air smell of the sea.
For Mother, no man ever lived up to her father, Henry Calhoun, the steel magnate from Pittsburgh, who had started with nothing as a young man in Glasgow, Scotland. Poor Daddy. All the money we had came from the Calhouns but Daddy said we got our good name from the Ashfords. It was a strange marriage of two totally different people.
I am five years old and I am waiting at the top of the stairs, peering eagerly through the spokes of the railing for Uncle Edgar to arrive for a visit from New York. He is Mother's younger brother and my favorite uncle. I have on a new dress, pale blue with smocking and a lace collar and high white socks and white shoes with bows and a strap around the ankle. My knee has a big scab where I tripped and fell in the garden last week. I keep trying not to pick it off and make it bleed again because that will only take it longer to heal, Mother tells me, but it is difficult. I am always getting scratches and scabs and I want to look nice for Uncle Edgar and I hope he will not notice. He is so wonderful! Mother says he is off now on a trip to South America with a friend. I wonder who the friend is and I am jealous.
Suddenly I hear a bustle downstairs. The front door has opened, and Mother and the chauffeur have returned from meeting Uncle Edgar at Union Station.
"Where's Barbara?" I hear his voice. "Is she hiding someplace?"
"Uncle Edgar, Uncle Edgar!" I run down the stairs, almost tripping on a step in my eagerness to see him and, yes, let's be honest, like all small children to see what he has brought me.
He has put down his suitcase and is holding a large, gaily-wrapped package.
"From F.A.O. Schwarz. Oh, Edgar, you shouldn't, you'll spoil her," Mother says, as I throw myself into Uncle Edgar's arms and he gives me a bear hug.
"Nothing's too good for my favorite niece," he says.
I rip open the package eagerly. It contains a doll, the most beautiful doll I have ever seen. She has a china face and blue eyes and long golden curls. I am speechless.
"What do you say?" Mother asks.
I hang my head shyly. I am embarrassed. Why is everyone watching me?
"She loves the doll, Edgar," Mother says. "Don't you, Barbara?"
I hold the doll in my arms. She is mine. Mine. "Oh, yes. Thank you, Uncle Edgar."
Uncle Edgar is so handsome. He seemed tall to me then, but he was of medium height with soft brown eyes and dark curly hair. His eyes, though, have something sad about them and I wonder why. Later, years later, I recognized that look. It was the look of tragedy.
The floors smell of fresh wax and the scent of apples and cinnamon wafts from the kitchen. "Lavinia has baked an apple pie for you, Edgar," Mother says.
"My favorite." Uncle Edgar smacks his lips in anticipation. I love apple pie too. The smell makes me hungry. I hope we aren't having sweetbreads or something awful like that for dinner, as I know I won't be allowed any dessert if I don't clean my plate. "Think of all the starving children in China who would be happy to have this," Mother is always reminding me.
Dinner was roast chicken with stuffing and rice and lima beans. I pushed my lima beans around my plate, hoping that no one would notice that I wasn't eating them while I listened to the grown-ups talk. Daddy was saying something about the stock market to Uncle Edgar and Mother was listening intently with a worried expression.
"Do you really think we're going to have a depression, Lamont?" Mother asked. "Father doesn't think so. He says the steel business has never been better."
Daddy looked annoyed. "Your father-" he started, then stopped.
"Well, I'm sure Edgar wouldn't be going on this cruise," Mother continued, "if the economy was in as dire straits as you predict."
"Are you going on a big boat, Uncle Edgar?" I asked.
Uncle Edgar smiled. "A pretty big boat, Barbara. I'll be sailing all around South America." And I listened in awe to names like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires and Santiago.
"I'd like to go to all those places," I said. "Will you take me one day?"
"When you're bigger I will," he promised. "And I'll send you picture postcards from my trip."
Mother was looking at my lima beans pushed in a corner of my plate under my knife and fork. Please don't make me eat them!
"And you'll have to tell me all about the Inauguration Parade," Uncle Edgar said.
"I certainly hope things are better under Herbert Hoover than they've been with Calvin Coolidge," Daddy said.
"At least Al Smith didn't get elected," said Uncle Edgar.
"No chance of a Catholic ever being President," Daddy said.
I didn't understand all of this conversation but I was looking forward to the parade next month. I loved parades and Daddy told me we were going to sit in a grandstand opposite the White House so we would have a good view of everything.
Lavinia came in and removed the plates and brought in the dessert plates. They had pink and lavender flowers on them and were trimmed in gold. I guess Mother had decided not to make a scene about the lima beans because Uncle Edgar was here and I was glad. Lavinia served the apple pie. Dessert was always my favorite part of the meal.
"I see you've inherited my sweet tooth," Uncle Edgar said. "And your grandmother's pretty blue-gray eyes. Doesn't Barbara look like pictures of Mother as a child, Myra?"
"Yes, I see what you mean."
"You're going to be a beautiful woman when you grow up."
Uncle Edgar always made me feel so good. I wish he could come and stay with us more often.
"But Barbara didn't inherit my curly hair," Mother said, and I immediately felt deflated. Why couldn't she pay me compliments like Uncle Edgar?
"Where do I come in in all this?" Daddy asked.
"She has your chin, Lamont," Mother said. "Stubborn."
"Let's go to the zoo tomorrow," said Uncle Edgar. "Would
you like that, Barbara?"
"Oh, yes!" I clapped my hands in delight.
"Good. Then I'll take you." He turned to Mother. "I know Lamont will be at his brokerage office, but would you like to join us?"
"You two go together, Edgar. I've got some shopping I have to do."
And so the visit with Uncle Edgar passed quickly and then he was gone back to New York to board the big white ship and sail away. Perhaps the reason I remember it all so vividly is because it was the last time I was ever to see Uncle Edgar.