We were a family, perhaps like many families, that appeared close when together. We kissed one another warmly on the cheek, a real kiss, lips to face. We hugged tightly, pushing the air out of the other's chest, a hugging umph escaping from our mouths. And we talked about the intimate details of our lives with one another, asking personal questions rather freely.
In a restaurant, eating out together, we looked like a family not only because of our physical similarities. It wasn’t just our high foreheads and tall statures. We communicated in a familial way. If someone outside the family joined our table, that person would feel his or her exclusion from a particular, insular energy. It isn’t just the slope of a nose or the color of hair, the general height and weight, the way the hands move and the face turns, the pitch of the voice. Families are recognizable by an invisible bubble extending around them. Only they know what they truly are discussing when they discuss such things that seem general: politics, the stock market, the weather, television shows or clothing styles. Everything takes on a special meaning within a family. And I know this is not a remarkable observation, but it is important to outline certain truths, despite how obvious they may be.
Our father was often hospitalized and absent, so when he was around, his girls - his wife and two daughters - flaunted their intimacy even more than usual out of an appreciation of his presence and health. His hospitalizations were times of anxiety for us; our phone calls were brief, which made it difficult to discuss the details of everyday life. The presence of a more serious issue took away our ability for chatty, loose conversation. If I asked my sister how her children were, she'd answer curtly. Her children were fine and our father wasn't. He suffered debilitating depressions, becoming so ill and unreasonable that more than once he tried to kill himself. We all feared for his health and secretly feared for our own as well. Because isn't mental illness in the genes? So they say. And secretly we hoped that the other sister would fall ill so then certainly I, she, would be safe. Perhaps only I felt this, and only I can admit it here, but I must assume that Amanda felt the same way. We are all sadly human. It isn’t a good way to feel, wishing illness upon a sister, but the circumstances made it so.
As I mentioned, when he was home, when we were children and even young adults, we clung to each other. We smiled and joked a lot. My sister Amanda and I went on long walks with our arms around each other, talking earnestly about our plans, our worries, our loves. After a dinner where my mother would prepare special meals that my father loved - Beef Wellington, Hungarian Goulash, crepes suzette for desert - no one would get up and watch TV in the den; rather we would stay around the dining room table and have another drink, that one too many drink, or continue to nibble on the elaborate desert no matter that it was tired and sticky and not good anymore. It would become difficult to leave the dining room during these times, difficult to retire to privacy. No one wanted to be the first to get up and go.
Our dining room furniture was too large for the room it inhabited. The wood was dark and heavy and the chairs had long straight backs. My mother insisted on buying it despite the fact that you couldn't push the chairs back very far without bumping against the wall. And it was hard to walk in the dining room. People shuffled sideways, having to pardon themselves, as they bumped and pulled their way out of the room. She loved the furniture though, my mother, because she thought it was beautiful, magnificent. And it was beautiful furniture. It just had no place in our house. Also, conveniently, her chair was nearest the kitchen door, and so she never suffered the cramped feeling of the other diners. She shuttled back and forth between the two rooms without any hindrance, escaping easily by being bound to her duties in the kitchen.
I say we appeared close when we were together, but we were not together often as we grew older. My sister Amanda, two years my senior, moved to Los Angeles when her husband George was relocated by the insurance firm where he worked. It was a promotion for him and we were all pleased for them when they moved. I lived in New York because, after studying advertising in Boston, I was offered a job by a prestigious firm there.
And my parents continued to live in the same house in Indiana. So we were quite spread out.
After my sister and I both left the area, there were no more weekend visits from us. And after we left my mother gleefully remodeled the house. She had all the wall to wall carpeting ripped up. The wooden floors were sanded and shellacked and then covered with deep red oriental rugs. The bathrooms were stripped of their dated, flowered wallpaper and were painted pale yellow and pale blue. The upstairs bathtub was replaced with a new, seamless porcelain. That Christmas, I came home and the first thing she did was pull me by the arm, up the stairs, saying, “You must see the new tub, you must see it!” And though I was bewildered by her enthusiasm, the dark line of her mouth so determined, her eyes hard and glittering, I gave her what she wanted. I ran my finger along the porcelain and exclaimed it was wonderful and yes, it was about time.
Four summers ago, after my father had surfaced from a particularly bad bout of depression that culminated with a two month long hospitalization, my sister Amanda and I agreed on spending two weeks in August with our parents. Amanda would bring George and her two children along. We chose to rent a house by Lake Michigan near our parents' home in Indiana, a house our parents had rented repeatedly during the summers of our childhood. As Amanda and I had grown older, one or the other of us never could make it to the lake, and our parents stopped renting it altogether. And so, although by renting it again we were clearly indulging in nostalgic sentiments, it seemed the right thing to do. My parents would not have to travel far. They both loved the lake, especially my father. He often talked about our summers there, how they were good times, with nothing to do except relax and read and swim. We hadn't all been together in so long. Amanda spent numerous holidays with George's family, and sometimes they would just stay in California. I often had to work during holidays. And so it was decided. We would all go to the lake.
I remembered the cottage well. We had summered there all through my childhood. It was a ranch style cottage with three bedrooms and a living room that served as a dining room as well. Not exceptional in any way. In fact it was quite plain, quite simple, which was part of its appeal, I suppose. It sat on a cliff overlooking the lake and had a long, sturdy staircase that led to the yellow sand and the clear water. Every evening we drove to the public beach where we bought ice cream cones, monstrous sized double scoops of strawberry ice cream, licking the huge things until we invariably developed headaches. Then, ceremoniously, the whole family walked out the long public pier to the lighthouse and my parents would hold hands and look out at the lake just as the sun was setting. Boats came and went, some stopping outside of the pier to watch the sun drop into the water. I remember being antsy then, just wanting to return to the cottage and card games and books. Not that I didn't like sunsets. I was just young and thought other things were more exciting. I have no idea how Amanda felt about those pier walks. Perhaps she appreciated them more than me because she was older and always has been less restless.
We all talked enthusiastically over the phone about the return to the cottage. Our mother said that our father was feeling much better and was looking forward to the trip. She bought him a new set of swim trunks and lots of sunblock. I had just turned thirty that June and had received a promotion at the advertising company where I worked and to where I dedicated my life energy. And the promotion, which seemed well deserved and timely, was the only thing shaking up my life, and shaking it up in a very good way. Otherwise my life had been steady and uneventful, just how I preferred it. I was feeling strong, excited about life. I was looking forward to a vacation and to seeing my family and Amanda's family. Amanda's husband, George, was a quiet man with whom I'd spoken little. She’d met him in high school in Indiana. I always held the opinion that she was settling, that she didn't love him. I felt she thought it was the right thing to do. Marry a man with a good job who is benevolent. During their courtship and marriage, I was in school in Boston. One Thanksgiving, I expressed my opinion to her during one of our walks and it was much unappreciated. So I said nothing again to her on the matter. We talked regularly, but not about her marriage. Her two daughters had learned to talk and had started school since I’d last seen them. What I remembered of them, when they were four months and a year and a half, respectively, is that they reminded me nothing of Amanda and myself. They seemed like George's children to me. Somewhat quiet, with wide faces and ruddy complexions.
I arrived to the lake first, which is my habit, because I like to look over things and feel prepared. I had left New York at five in the morning and arrived at eight in Indiana. I rented a car and drove to the cottage, checking in with the owners and getting the sets of keys. The sun hadn't warmed things yet and the air was cool and wet from the lake. I felt excited, I guess, and as I opened the cottage door my excitement left me quickly, as if it had been knocked out of me. It was a disappointment that I had experienced before, many times. It was the feeling that the cottage was not what I expected it to be, not how I remembered it to be. It was the feeling I had when I returned home from college for Christmas for the first time, and the house and the yard in Indiana seemed so small that I wondered if I had grown taller, bigger. I had wondered how we had all fit in that house, how we had all managed to fill the space at the same time without going crazy.
The living room area in the cottage was not as bright or roomy as I had remembered. And in fact, it is quite possible that it had faded in brightness. Because it had been years – and places, just like people, can dim with age. It seemed as if the owners had once taken better care of it, that previously they’d kept it freshly painted and the couches reupholstered. Now the walls and furniture looked shabby. I walked around and opened doors. The bedrooms were so small that they must have been specifically designed for children. A warm sensation of humiliation burned my face. I was ashamed of our decision to come back here, to this place with its brown stains on the walls and ugly, plaid furniture. I looked out at the lake, which comforted me, because it was glorious and smooth and the sun was just starting to burn away the morning dampness. I convinced myself that the lake would save us from this small cottage, and I went on a walk along the shore and skipped rocks, the smooth flat ones that bounce across the water endlessly, just as my father had shown me to do. Skipping rocks has a calming effect on me and that time was no different.
I came back to the cottage renewed and determined to make the place cheery. Filling a pail with warm soapy water, I wiped down the kitchen with a force that left perspiration on my forehead. I found a pile of decent looking blankets in the closet and unfolded two of them over the most unsightly pieces of furniture. I unpacked my bags in the smallest of the three bedrooms and put a pile of cheerful sheets on the end table next to the pull-out sofa in the living room for the children. My spirits lifted as I swept the floors and decided to buy groceries and flowers to brighten up the place even more.
Driving into the town, I realized that the market where we’d shopped no longer existed, and I had to drive around and settle on shopping at a large chain grocery store called Merlins. It was a type of store that is all over the Midwest, tacky and impersonal. The quality of food isn't very good. The town itself had not weathered well. It gave the impression of having once been a town where people summered, but was no longer so. Clearly people had gone elsewhere to enjoy the lake. The main street had more than a few storefronts with for sale or for lease signs. But I managed to find some nice steaks and a fresh bouquet of daisies. I bought luncheon meats and pretzels and ginger ale, thinking of Amanda's girls. With my arms loaded down with bags, I felt that I was being hopeful and industrious and that that was all that could be expected of me. And as I finished making sandwiches and pouring myself a glass of white wine, I heard the voices of my sister and her family approach the cottage.
I came out to greet them. The four walked toward me, the consummate family; man, wife, two children. They looked down at the path as they walked, carrying bags that hung heavily on their shoulders. We all hugged. I opened the door for them, taking the bags off of my sister's shoulder. Clearly they were tired after the long trip from California. George immediately took a scotch into the bedroom for a nap, his eyes bloodshot and his waistline broader than it had once been. The girls, who I didn't recognize at all and who didn't remember me, were cranky from the journey. They had surprisingly long legs and opinionated expressions. It was somewhat shocking, thinking of my sister Amanda as the mother, the keeper, of these young people. Children have always baffled me. They decided to run down to the lake, quickly changing into bathing suits, throwing their clothes on the floor in the living room. I picked up their discarded shorts and T shirts and folded them neatly and put them in a drawer.
Amanda put her feet up on a chair. She looked exhausted, as if she had driven the whole way. I brought her a glass of wine. We had hugged when she arrived but we hugged again, out of awkwardness, out of need to fill the silence. I sat with her after refreshing my drink. Her eyes never have bags underneath them like mine do. She is blessed with better genes in that area. But her exhaustion showed in her skin, in the way her neck creased, and her face seemed pasty. I put out a bowl of olives and some cheese and crackers.
"When did Mom and Dad say they were arriving, Maddy? I can't seem to remember." She smiled. "You always remember those things."
"They're arriving at six." I resented this question from Amanda. I always resented knowing the details. I envied her nonchalance, her ability to make me the responsible one. She looked around at the cottage. I wanted her to say something about the bright flowers in the vase, about how nice the place looked. I was too embarrassed to say something myself about them. Suddenly, the smell of cleaners seemed strong and I looked at the blankets folded over the furniture and the brightness of the daisies. I had tried too hard and it showed. My efforts to make the cottage nice just emphasized its shabbiness.
"This place is so much smaller than I remember it." Amanda frowned.
"I remembered it to be bigger. I didn't imagine it would be a problem, all of us staying here."
"It's not a problem. We'll be outside most of the time. We'll be at the lake all day. The only time we'll be inside is to sleep. There's room for us all."
My sister smiled slowly. She carefully registered the defensive tone I betrayed. "I know. It's just that I remember it differently." We sipped our drinks. "How's New York? How's your job?"
"Fine. I just received a promotion and I'm in control of a new account so I'm busier than ever."
"Wow." My sister never cared about my work. “Are you still living in that small apartment?"
"All apartments in New York are small in comparison to homes in Los Angeles, Amanda."
"That's not true."
"I don't need a lot of space. It's just me."
"I think I'd get claustrophobic living like that."
"That's a terrible thing to say."
"Don't be so sensitive, Madeleine. I mean, why don't you get a nice place outside of New York? I'm sure you can afford it by now. That city is so unhealthy."
"You're just like Mom."
She put her glass down. "What's that supposed to mean," she said, her voice getting higher, and a hurt look appearing on her face.
"Don't look like I've hurt your feelings now. Don't switch things around. The first thing you do is criticize my lifestyle. And you pretend, just like Mom, that you're worried about me. I like New York. I like my apartment."
"I'm not pretending anything. God, you're so defensive." She sniffed. "I mean it when I say I worry about you. You haven't had a boyfriend in so long."
"Goddamit Amanda, you think everyone should live like you. I don't want to be married to a fat, mean drunk. I don't want two brats to take care of." I stood up, my voice raised, and I immediately regretted having lost my temper. There had been other times when Amanda expressed her opinions about my lifestyle to me. Sometimes I could shrug her off carefully but I’d also snapped before. This wasn’t the first time.
She started to cry. I apologized. The girls came up from the lake, and Amanda and I immediately changed our expressions, grateful for an excuse to not deal with our fight. We ate sandwiches that I prepared and George came out of his bedroom and fixed another scotch. I wondered if he’d heard me call him fat and mean and a drunk, but I also didn't care much. He probably knew he was all those things and didn't care either. I decided to write off our argument because one argument was inevitable between the two of us. After all, we were quite different. And it didn't mean we didn't care about each other. We hadn't seen each other in a long time. My father's recent illness hung over our heads. She had difficulty accepting my life as a career woman and I didn't understand her ability to be a housewife. I had snapped, but she had provoked me. And so it was. I reasoned that it was good to have gotten the confrontation out of the way early on in the vacation.
After lunch I went for a swim and I sat in the sun a while. I'm aware that sunbathing is unhealthy, but I indulge in it so rarely that when I do, I feel no guilt. I have nice skin, young skin for my age and always have, and I know it looks nice with some color to it. I do not mean to sound vain, but as I sat on the beach, wet from the lake and my skin starting to glow warm brown from the sun, I looked down on my blue bathing suit and the swells of my body with pleasure. And I knew I had meant what I’d said to Amanda. I knew I didn't want varicose veins and dry hands from cooking and washing clothes and dishes for a family that didn't appreciate me. My eyes drooped at this thought and I dozed for awhile before heading up the stairs to prepare for my parents arrival.
The expectation of seeing my parents always affects me strongly. I become excited and sometimes even frenzied. I always am cooking or preparing something in earnest while waiting for them. My cheeks flush and my breath quickens. This occasion it was particularly so, due to the specialness of being at the lake, of us all being together for the first time in so long. I chopped vegetables for the salad and lit the grill for the steaks. I opened a bottle of red wine to let it breathe. The girls played an old board game that Amanda and I used to play. And as I watched them I felt sentimental and warmed by the energy of the evening. Amanda sat reading a paperback and George drank a scotch in front of the TV. As my parents walked toward our cottage of contentment, I felt proud of how we were positioned to welcome them.
I think a daughter often sees what will become of herself in her mother, and I must say that I always look at my mother in that way. I look to see how thin she is, how healthy she is. If her haircut is stylish and her skin still beautiful. I have never discussed with Amanda if she feels the same way. The two are so similar in their homemaking, but not really in appearance. I look more like my mother. Amanda is shorter and heavier and has paler skin. She looks like my father's mother, almost exactly.
There was a period when my mother's appearance disappointed me. I was in my early twenties and she always looked haggard and down. But since then she’d gained confidence in being middle-aged and she looked better than before. Relief sets in when I see her that way. It is a selfish thing - my wish for my mother's health and beauty. I then think I can have those things when my time comes.
That night was no different. My mothers' hair was grey and cut elegantly in a bob. Her legs were thin. She held her head high. I was relieved. Everyone hugged. I expected my father to be worn from his stay in the hospital and I was right to expect this. Mostly I had focused on how I could lift him out of his tiredness. How the steaks would be perfectly cooked and the weather temperate and how happy he'd be to see me, to spend two weeks with me at the lake.
This of course was not the first time I’d seen him after a hospitalization. I don't think my reaction has changed much since I was five, which is when the first hospitalization occurred. I’ve always tried to please him, and even when I was a child I felt that I could make him happy, could lift him from his dark moods. As a little girl, I put on my favorite dress and held on to my favorite doll. I smiled and twisted around coyly. I had been small and blonde and I knew he loved the sight of me. And although I was no longer small and blonde, I still tried to please him that night. I put on a blue dress that matched the color of my eyes. I wore an extra dose of perfume, the same fragrance he bought me when I was fifteen, when I was finally allowed to wear real perfume. I have not changed my perfume since then and normally he gives or sends me a bottle for Christmas. But after my father leaves the hospital, he doesn't notice the things about me that he normally notices and enjoys. He is usually too withdrawn and overmedicated to pay attention to the details of his surroundings. And, again, that night was no different. His eyes drifted away from me soon after we hugged. They were glazed and yellowed from the drugs. His neck was bent and his skin pale and lined. The pain he's in is infectious, although we all try to be cheerful.
But dinner was lovely. Everyone, except the girls, complimented me on the meal. Even George said something kind. My father ate half of his steak and a few bites of salad. This was not a bad thing, because he could have not eaten at all and gone straight to bed. Depressions ruin his appetite, and the medicines he takes don't help either. Mother pushed him though, saying, "Frank, honey, finish your steak" as if he were her growing boy. Perhaps he is fragile, but he is not a child. He is a distinguished and educated man, a man who taught Physics at a University for years. She started to cut his steak in bite size pieces, and spoke to him in a low, cooing voice, as if to a pet or an infant. My father's eyes grew shadowed and his hands shook from the medication as he lifted the fork with a tiny piece of meat on it to his mouth. He chewed slowly and deliberately; it wasn’t easy for him.
"He doesn't have to finish his steak, Mom."
She ignored me.” Come on, Frank. It's so delicious."
"Stop cutting up his food." I poured another glass of wine for myself.
"I just want him to eat all that he can."
"I'm sure he can do that without your help."
"Oh, Maddy, don't be rude." She glared at me.
"I guess you'll take care of the dishes because I'm going to bed."
I used the bathroom quickly and got into my narrow bed - a bed made for a child. My feet hung over the end of the mattress and the blankets smelled old. The lake air is clear and fresh at night and the crickets chirp endlessly. The waves hit the shore in a steady and hypnotic rhythm. I used to sleep so well at the lake, but that was when I still fit in the bed. I couldn't sleep that night, and I listened to the dishes being done and to George cough in the bathroom. I heard the girls get kissed goodnight and the sounds of people walking around a small place quietly, their limbs close to their sides, their feet soft and tense on the floors. Shame overwhelmed me. How could I have thought this place right? I didn’t want to hear every move of every member of my family for two weeks. I was horrified. I tried to console myself with the thought that the decision belonged to us all, not just me. I was not solely responsible for this vacation. Sleep came to me eventually, tearfully, and I dreamt bad dreams.
I woke early and the air was deliciously wet and cool. My body was stiff from the discomfort I experienced in that child's bed. I slipped quietly into the kitchen, relieved no one else would be up at dawn. I made coffee and sat outside, at the table where we’d had dinner the night before, looking down on the lake. Already it seemed my patience had left me. I was disappointed in myself, but also in my mother and my sister - how they could be so thick, how unappreciative of me they seemed, despite their affectionate gestures and thank yous. I felt no warmth from them. My head hurt slightly and I was tired. I jumped when my dad put his hand on my shoulder.
"I'm sorry, honey, I didn't mean to scare you."
"God, I didn't think anyone else was up." He was wearing a green plaid robe that he wore everyday of my childhood. It was frayed and ripped and it looked terrible. I was touched that he couldn't part with it.
"Nice robe, Dad."
"Don't make fun of me,” he said, but he smiled.
I looked back at the lake. ""Oh, I'm just teasing you. Let's go on a walk. We'll be back by the time everyone else gets up."
"Ok. But we have to walk slowly because I tire easily."
"Of course. There's no hurry."
He put on shorts and a sweatshirt and we climbed down the stairs carefully and turned in the direction of the public beach. We collected beach glass, scouring rocky parts for the precious blue color, and skipped rocks. My father taught me how to skip rocks and I'm very good at it, but he's even better. The most important thing about skipping rocks is the shape of the rock. The rock must be smooth and flat, preferably round. There is a reddish brown rock that most often comes in this shape. We hunted them eagerly, and even if the water is a little rough, you can still skip a rock for quite some distance. I prefer to skip a rock with a large number of skips as opposed to a few large skips. It's all in the wrist, much like frisbee.
We ended up walking all the way to the public beach and we bought iced coffees before we walked back. I told him about my promotion at the advertising agency and he hugged me and said, "Alright, Maddy! I'm so proud of you. You work so hard." I went into detail about my new account. The client was in London and I would be traveling often. I would fly on the Concord. He was very impressed. I told him how I’d been looking to buy a larger apartment, which I hadn't told Amanda because she had annoyed me with her judgmental tone. I told him there would be guest rooms in my new apartment so that he would have to come and visit me. My parents had never visited me in New York. I could never accommodate them before, and I could never convince them to stay in a hotel. They visited Amanda, in her big house in California, to see their grandchildren as well. I know it is not my father's choice not to visit me, because, unfortunately, he is not the decision maker in the family. I have thought before that I must have children for my mother to agree to visit me.
By the time we got back to the house, it was close to eleven. Everyone was sitting at the beach, on blankets and in chairs. The girls were building a sand castle and the older one was yelling at the younger one about something. Amanda waved as she went to break up their troubles. She wore a large one piece bathing suit with a skirt attached to it and her thighs seemed tired and veiny. I had stripped down to my bikini on the walk back. My mother sat in a chair reading a book about a Russian politician. She smiled tightly as we approached her.
"Well, at least you two aren't dead."
"We should have left a note but we didn't think we'd be so long." My Dad looked worried, even slightly scared. I believe he lives in constant fear of her wrath, as I did as a child. She has a terrible, Germanic temper. My father's face wrinkled in concern. He has two lines that crease darkly on his forehead when he's worried, and it ages him when they show - they make him look very old and fragile, although he's only sixty years old. "I'm sorry, Liz, we didn't mean to worry you. Madeleine was telling me all about her promotion at work."
"How interesting." The sarcasm in her voice was pointed. My mother, like my sister, did not care for my business. I decided to go upstairs and not react. I had reacted enough the night before and didn't have the energy for a fight. As is generally my nature, I leave when I am uncomfortable. That is why I went to Boston for college and then why I happily moved to New York. I believe in leaving situations when they are not good. So I made myself an early lunch and worked on my laptop, taking care of some business. Then I went shopping. There are no good stores in the entire Midwest, outside of Chicago, that is, but I wanted to treat myself to something. And I found a cute store, with a small selection, but with some nice things. I bought a pair of gold, strappy sandals and then got a pedicure so my feet would look nice. I had a frozen margarita at an upscale bar and flirted just enough with the bartender to make me feel good, but not enough for him to ask me for my number. When I returned to the cabin, the other car was gone and Amanda was the only one there.
"Everyone went grocery shopping." She looked at my feet. "Nice shoes, Maddy." She was sitting outside at the table with her knees curled up in her lap. A romance novel with a pink jacket lay in front of her.
"What are you reading?"
"Just trash," she said, sighing heavily, looking down at my feet. "You got your toes done. I could use a manicure. How was the place in town?"
"Oh, fine." I picked up the novel and sat next to her. It amazed me that she still read that stuff. I always thought it would be a phase that she'd grow out of. Like picking the wax out of her ears with her pinky fingers and pretending no one could notice. I had a feeling she still did that as well.
"Clementine's breasts heaved under her velvet bodice and she shuddered with excitement and fear at the thought of Cliff," I read out loud, my voice inflected to dramatize the silliness.
"Stop it!" Amanda pulled the book away for me.
"Do you watch daytime TV?" I asked my sister. And perhaps my tone condescended, but I also was genuinely curious to know about her life.
"Fuck you." Her mouthed curled in a way that was unattractive and familiar. I have always been the prettier one and it isn’t because of our bones and skin being different, but it is how we express ourselves. And how we take care of ourselves. Amanda has never cared about the same things as I do. Her figure, her image.
"No really, Mandy, I'm fascinated. Do you watch TV while the girls are at school? I just want to know."
She sighed. "Yes." My sister has always had a wonderful way of being ashamed of something. She never gets defensive. She takes it all in stride. I realize this is an admirable trait, but I also find it a way of giving up. She is so resigned.
"What do you watch?"
"I watch the talk shows and some game shows." Her face lit up as she mentioned the programs. She began discussing some inflammatory issue featured on Oprah. She had an opinion about it - whether or not you should cheat on your husband, I believe, or something equally banal. I loved the openness of her face just then. Here she was admitting to me, with a child's smile on her broad, plain face, that she watched daytime TV. She knew exactly what I thought of such activity. And yet she didn't care. Like a child, she just wanted to talk about what excited her. I thought, well thank God she was a housewife - she’d be eaten alive in the business world. Everyone turns out to be what they should be.
We moved into the kitchen together and poured drinks. When my parents returned with George and the kids, they carried fresh vegetables from a nearby stand and boxes of blueberries for dessert. We sautéed the vegetables and grilled burgers and whipped cream for the blueberries. After dinner, my mother mentioned the idea of going to the pier at the public beach to watch the sunset, for old times sake.
"We could get ice cream cones for the girls and then walk out to the pier," she said, and she stroked a stray hair off of my father's forehead. I believe we had all been hoping that someone would bring up the pier. My mother was the one to do it without sounding silly about it.
We took two cars. I drove my parents and George drove his family. The girls were the only ones to get ice cream cones. It was a lurid sunset, the clouds hung heavy and red, the sky was unnaturally dark. We walked the length of the pier, to the end, where the wind was stronger. Boats stopped to see the sun enter the water. Amanda and George held hands and the girls loped around impatiently. My mother clung to my father, one arm on his thin neck, the other on his arm. She looked up at him grimly as he looked out to the sky. I knew her mouth was set hard because of her strength, because of the endurance it takes to deal with his mental illness, but it troubled me that that was all I saw. She was all hard angles, like the cut of her steely hair. I believed my father needed more than just someone strong to get him through his illness. I believed he needed warmth and caring. And I walked up to my parents and stood next to my father and leaned against him gently, and he put his arm around me.
The next day was a perfect August day; the sun was crisp and the water cool. Everyone lounged on blankets and chairs, books and magazines scattered all over. I began using a sunblock and wearing a wide brimmed hat to cover my face. My mother's skin was dark as chestnuts and well oiled.
"Why so much sunblock?"
“I sat out yesterday without any block so today I'm being careful. Too much sun is bad for you."
"I've sat in the sun all my life and my skin is fine."
It was true, her skin was smooth and she had always indulged in excessive sunbathing. "We don't have the exact same skin,” I said. “I like to get color but I think my skin is more sensitive than yours."
"Nonsense. We have the same skin." She turned to my father, who lay next to her. "Frank, sweetie, Maddy and I have the same skin, don't we?"
"It's true, you have your mother's skin." He shielded his eyes and looked in my direction. He had been napping and the words came out slurred.
"Well, the sunblock I'm using isn’t that strong."
"But you’re wearing a hat."
"My face needs more protection than the rest of me."
My mother bristled. "A nice tan would help you out, Maddy. Maybe you'd get asked out on some dates."
"I get asked out on dates."
"Really? Are you seeing anyone special?"
"Not at the moment."
"That's a shame."
"Mom, it's not a shame and it's not really any concern of yours."
"It's natural for a mother to be concerned when her thirty year old daughter spends her birthday alone in her apartment on the phone with her parents. You could make your life better you know."
"I chose to spend my birthday at home. It was a Tuesday night and I worked late and I had to work the next morning." I stood up and wrapped a towel around my waist tightly.
"My point exactly. You choose to live like a monk or something." A look of satisfaction emanated from her stern face. Smugness was the closest she came to experiencing happiness, and perhaps I would have felt sorry for her if I hadn't bared the brunt of her emotional depravity. She continued. "You choose to work too much and never socialize with men and you could choose to live your life better." I noticed my sister sitting alertly next to her husband, a magazine in her lap that she clearly was not reading. Her eyes looked at the page but her attention was on us.
"I socialize at work quite a bit. I work primarily with men, in case you didn't know. Advertising executives are largely male."
"And let me guess, they treat you like one of the guys because you're so good at what you do."
"I am good at what I do. You're just jealous because you've never been good at anything." I was so angry at that point I couldn't help myself. I wanted to kick sand in her face. I wanted to hit her.
"I'm not jealous!" She laughed lightly, but I saw the tension in her jaw and knew she was just as angry and hurt as I was. "You're the one who's jealous. You know what they say, you're more likely to get hit by a bus than get married after the age of thirty-five. You're the one here without a family. I think you're touchy because of that. "
"And what beautiful families they are." My voice shook. Amanda looked straight at me after that comment and put her magazine down. I believe she’d been enjoying our fight, just as she'd enjoyed other conflicts I've had with my mother. They are very aligned with one another.
"Listen to you,” my mother yelled. “You are so bitter and we all have to suffer because of it."
"My God, the way you speak to your own mother. I'm just worried about you."
"You don't know how to worry about me." I went upstairs. My father came after me. I packed my bags.
"She's not worried about me."
My father put his hands to his face. "Please don't leave. We never see each other. Just apologize and so will she. Please."
My father wasn’t young anymore. He was still thin and boyish but he was old standing in front of me. And needy. He was aging faster than other people because of his mental illness, because of the ever-changing medication cocktails, because of the strain his sickness put on our family, and because we didn't handle that strain very well. I knew that he would die, perhaps not in five years, perhaps not even in ten. But he would die sooner than anyone else and he would grow weaker and weaker until then. This vacation had been for him, to cheer him up, to be warm and together and strong for his sake. I had failed. We all had. Despite all of our hugs - too many hugs - despite our coming back to the lake and despite our good intentions, we had failed. I sat next to him and he put his arms around me. He asked me to do a crossword puzzle with him. He's much better at puzzles than I am, but I enjoy them tremendously. I enjoy the slow sense of progress that comes with filling the page. I enjoy racking my brain for meanings and answers and the tense feeling of almost knowing a word. Sometimes I feel my father doesn't really enjoy crossword puzzles for the same reasons as I do, even though he's far better at completing them. I feel like he likes to lay around with someone and have the conversation focused on something light and meaningless. He has an incredible ability to relax with others. It is a gift, no doubt.
Everyone came up for showers and dinner. My mother and I ignored each other as much as possible. I unpacked my bags.
My mother and I continued to ignore each other for the rest of the vacation. This may seem unlikely in a small cottage, with just the families. But we managed very well. Amanda and I went out once and got manicures together. I took her to the shoe store and she bought the same sandals I’d bought. I stayed for my father and I am glad I did so.
I am sitting in my apartment, on the corner of Sixty-Second and Third Avenue in an overstuffed couch that folds out into a bed. There are white boxes from Chinese food on the kitchen counter and dust balls on the floor. I am still looking to buy a bigger apartment, one in which my parents could stay when visiting, although perhaps they will never come. I have not seen them since that summer. And it's hard to look for apartments while I'm working so much, and real estate is not something one buys carelessly. Outside of my apartment the traffic is a steady noise and exhaust often makes its way up to my second floor window. I am thirty-four today. I took an extra long lunch and had a martini with my Caesar salad. I then went to the salon and had a facial and a pedicure. I left the office at nine-thirty because I am busier than ever now and love it. I am very good at what I do and am one of the youngest and only female VPs at my firm. I picked up my suits from the dry cleaners just before they closed. My parents called ten minutes ago and I didn't pick up the phone. They sang Happy Birthday in unison onto my answering machine. Amanda didn't call. I will take a bath soon with rose scented oil and then I'll put my hair up in a towel and read The New Yorker. It is how I prefer to spend my birthday. It is how I prefer to spend most evenings. Some may see this as a bad choice in life, to live alone and to work hard, but it is the right thing for me to do. I know it.