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An Agreement Between Sisters
By SUSAN email@example.com
Thursday, February 03, 2011
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Two sisters, as unlike as night and day, are forced by circumstance to make an agreement that will bind them both for the rest of their lives.
I sometimes wonder how we two, as different as night and day, who disagree most profoundly on everything, came to an agreement on something so important to the course of our lives. It was desperation that drove us, and as desperate people do, we were willing to give, to promise what the other most wanted, with no thought of consequence, to get what we each most wanted. All we saw in those few moments was our need and the opportunity Heaven had unexpectedly presented. Regret came later. Still I am grateful for the unlikely resolution to the long months of struggle and heartache, to have a chance to know him and the children he has brought into this world. To quench the ever-present urge to share the story with a son I agreed to call nephew, I write it instead… commit to paper what I have vowed never to say aloud.
Even now, so many years later, I remember keenly how insignificant I felt sitting there in the impeccably elegant room, as icy in its formality as the well-groomed woman seated before me, sipping her morning tea as my life fell apart. I cringe now at how adeptly she handled me… a girl without guile or art or courage, I made it easy for her to dismiss me and send me on my way. Perhaps I should have fought, should have argued and demanded and thought nothing of the scene it would make, but I did not. John’s departure and plans to sever all ties with me, so coolly and cordially stated, had taken all the fight out of me. I was defeated… bested… it was all I could do not to burst into heartbroken tears on the spot.
“He wanted no unpleasantness… no tiring scenes, which is why he asked that I speak with you myself,” his mother went on, as if my participation in the conversation mattered not one bit. “Boys his age are so fickle… first wanting one thing and then another… not knowing at all what’s good for them… like overgrown children really. But then there are always silly, wayward girls such as yourself who will indulge them.”
At this I found my voice, “I am no silly girl,” I told her with feeling, at once aware of the weight of the antique diamond ring John had slipped on my finger… a symbol of his love, the future we would share together. I drew strength from this; summoning what dignity I could manage. ” We are in love… we plan to marry. He has told you – “
She cut me off with a waive of her hand, an artful, dismissive gesture, as if she were refusing an hors d' oeuvre before dinner. “Oh he did indeed… all fire and dignity and impetuousness… until his father and I explained the facts of life to him. A man of his position cannot possibly be saddled with someone of your… of your… standing. An orphan with no connections is hardly the bride his father and I have in mind. No. He needs a wife who knows all the right people… who is connected and comfortable in all the best circles. He can hardly be allowed to tie himself to a pretty face who brings nothing to the marriage save her good intentions.”
It was the truth… bald and bare-faced, spoken in the smooth, cultured tones of the lady of the house. There was no argument I could make, for it was just what I’d believed myself, what all the world thought, though at last being proved right brought no triumph. I’d been a starry eyed fool to let John convince me such things meant little in this modern world… that we could live and build a home together, and so we’d planned our future, thinking that nothing mattered but the way we felt about each other. No obstacle was too large… no challenge to daunting. And yet here in this quiet, tastefully appointed room in a large and luxurious home John’s mother was altering the course of my life… my future… without raising her voice or giving the least hint of what she was about. A casual observer might mistake us for acquaintances sharing a bit of gossip.
“John loves me, and I him.” I made the declaration with all the confidence I could muster, but still the words didn’t carry the conviction they might.
“Foolish girl… if it were as simple as all that do you think we’d be having this conversation?” she asked me, an indulgent smile playing about her ruby red lips. “It seems that John is not so much in love that he is ready to give up his birthright for you. And that is the condition his father and I have set to your marriage. His absence is your answer.”
Again the truth of the words robbed me of any fight I might have had left. It explained why the letters had stopped, why his buddies had been uncomfortable when we happened to meet and the girls I’d counted as friends were now keeping their distance. It all made sense now. They knew… everyone knew. Everyone but me. The realization hit like a physical blow, knocking the wind from me. Though I fought to keep the dawning of understanding from showing on my face, in that single moment I felt completely the fool I was.
Tears burned my eyes.
As if something of my misery penetrated her awareness, John’s mother put aside her teacup and reached a cool hand to rest on my arm. Her voice, when she spoke again was not quite so harsh. “I do you a kindness by telling you this now, before you spend a futile lifetime trying to fit in places where you shall simply never be accepted. John is meant for great things… you know this too. But you are not the woman to help him get them. Accept this and move on… for both your sakes.”
It was pride that kept me from begging her… in the name of true love, to give me a chance to show her that I was the best thing that had ever happened to her precious, pampered son… that social standing didn’t matter in the real world… that class and breeding weren’t exclusive to the wealthy and well born. And yet as I sat before her in my worn navy day dress, clutching the patent leather purse I’d saved a month to buy, I saw plainly that Clarissa Monticello’s mind was made up. It occurred to me then how amazingly foolish I’d been to take her smiles and interested attentions during the family dinners John insisted we attend as genuine. I thought she approved… that she liked me. John had assured me his parents had been happy to see him out of the clubs.
“And now, if you would be so good as to return the engagement ring my son so rashly gave you… it’s a family heirloom you see, one that must go to my son’s bride. I’m sure you understand,” she said with a pointed look at my hand. I stared down at it… the symbol of my dreams… of the hope that a simple girl could win the heart of a rich prince and live a real life fairy tale. The ring seemed in that moment to burn my finger and I pulled it off, setting it with utmost care upon the smooth surface of the tabletop.
Clarissa had the good grace not to snatch it up, rising from her chair instead. “I’ll have James show you out.”
Our interview was obviously at an end, and I was left no choice but to come shakily to my feet. My head swam, and I could think only of getting away from this woman… out of this place I’d expected to be my home before I broke down. Dignity was all I had left, and I was determined to hang onto it. “You needn’t bother… I know the way.”
“Margot,” the use of my given name stopped me at the door, though I didn’t turn, instead standing motionless, waiting for what she would say next.
“You strike me as a smart, sensible girl… all the vice presidents at the bank speak very highly of you,” her voice was smooth and pleasing, her tone giving no hint of the venom behind the words that followed. “I should hate to see that opinion changed by an unfortunate pursuit of my son… one that you are certain not to win.”
Of course it would be within her power to have me removed from my position, discharged without references, without notice. The thought chilled me to the bone… my job was everything, the center of my well ordered life, the reason behind my hard fought independence from family and convention.
Worse yet, a horde of energetic, pleasantly disposed young women, who’d decided against marriage in favor of the working world and living on their own in the city, would be only too willing to take my place. And I would be left just where I’d started, an out of work girl with ample training and no prospects.
“I see we understand each other.”
I understood exactly, and it was this that shone in my eyes when I turned my gaze to look at her. She stood poised and confident at the table, a porcelain teacup held artfully in one hand. A flush I took for guilt came to stain her cheeks as she met my gaze, though this was small comfort as I turned my back, closing the door on her, on all my hopes, with a soft click.
What came next was terrible, tearing grief, all self-recrimination and the dashing of hopes. How could I have been such a fool? I’d not allowed myself to believe in the early days when John had courted me so sweetly, that someone like him would have an interest in a poor, working girl like me. I was a dime a dozen I told him. He’d had a time convincing me there was any chance for us… but in the end I’d believed because I wanted to… I so wanted it to be true . Now that it was over I saw that I had been right all along to guard my heart — it was this alone that saved me from utter despair. Self-reliance was cold comfort… but it was something, enough to get me on my feet and back to the office… the place where even Clarissa Monticello could not deny I belonged.
Work was my salvation and I gave my attention to it like never before. It was really all I had left… and I redoubled my efforts, worked harder and longer than I had in months. I was at my desk first thing each morning, smiling a cheerful greeting as vice presidents filed past, obliging and earnest and giving them every reason to rely on me. I was the picture perfect assistant… day in day out, pleasant and unassuming and attending to needs before they could be voiced, becoming indispensable bit by bit. Though my heart was shattered and my hopes gone, I found I had not lost my ambition… a keen and burning desire for status, for money, for something that could not be taken away by the whim of a foolish young man.
It was on the streetcar on the way to the office on a particularly blustery late November morning that I was first struck by a bout of nausea so insistent it had me gasping and covering my mouth with a gloved hand. I barely made it off the bus before being violently ill in the trash can standing on the sidewalk… sweating and shaking and shameful at the scene. To my utter horror, the incident was to repeat itself every morning of that week, and even then I refused to believe what my body was plainly telling me. I couldn’t make my mind work… couldn’t think straight… could think of nothing else.
The notion that I might be carrying John’s child stopped me cold. It could not… must not be true . I was an unmarried woman… alone and responsible, with no one to answer to, no one to tend, and not a soul to help me. It was the life I wanted — now at risk by a moment of foolish passion. How ironic that I should now find myself in need of the security of husband and family name I’d cast aside so determinedly. I might have laughed aloud except that I felt more like bursting into tears right there on the street.
To this day I don’t know how I made it through what came next. I found that I alternated between refusing to acknowledge what was slowly becoming a certainty in my mind, and absolute terror at the thought of what would become of me if I were to have John’s child, alone, unwed and without help. A thousand times I made up my mind to march right back to the Monticello house and announce my predicament, a thousand and one times my pride refused to allow it. John had made his allegiance plain enough, and though it cut me to the core to admit it, had he loved me as he claimed no power on heaven or earth would have come between us. It would be the word of a rich and powerful family against that of a friendless working girl.
Alone as I was, scared and completely miserable, I knew that I must make an appearance at Thanksgiving dinner, held as it always was, in my uncle’s rambling house of a quiet street on the other side of the city. My sister Mary and her sour faced husband Frank came precisely at noon to pick me up, a favor I was grateful to get as it saved me a streetcar ride laden down with the desserts I always made. The two came inside upon my invitation only reluctantly, standing stiffly in the living room while I went to fetch the pies wrapped and waiting on the kitchen counter.
“Bigger than our apartment,” I heard Frank grumble, though my sister shushed him with a hiss. I could hear her moving about my sitting room, examining each object as she did everything, coldly calculating its value. Her disapproval was plain as I re-entered the living room, pies in hand and ready to go.
“Frank, take those from her and let’s go. We’ll be late,” she said, watching as I dutifully handed first one, and then the other into his awkward hands. I took up my hat, pinning it to my carefully arranged hair while Mary waited by the door, Frank already gone with his burden. “Working surely agrees with you sister.”
At any other time, such words from my older, impossible to please sister would have been welcome indeed; today they made me feel especially vulnerable. Somewhere deep down inside me, a new life was growing even now depending on me… in my care and keeping.
The thought was daunting, and humbling in a way I hadn’t expected. I found I could not look at her, my attention fixed intently on securing the last of the hat pins, “Not nearly as well as married life seems to suit you Mary. You look wonderful.”
As I’d hoped, the compliment distracted her and we were out of my apartment and down the narrow stairs to the waiting car. During the ride I succeeded in keeping Frank talking about the automobile, the property of a wealthy family who’d fallen on hard times, offering the vehicle as payment for a season of work. Mary clucked her disapproval at the tale, for the steel and rubber could not put food on her table nor add comfort to her home. By the time we pulled up in front of the familiar house, and the occupants spilled out to admire the car I was feeling more confident… sure I could face whatever the day would bring.
I hadn’t expected to find such comfort in the familiar things… well-worn rituals and well loved faces. For as long as I could remember Thanksgiving dinner had been conducted at the long dining table, Uncle on one end, Aunt Edith on the other, the nieces and nephews arranged by age along each side. There were the boys — Tommy, Eddie and Michael, and their sisters, Kathleen and Ingrid. My sister and I had the last two places closest to my aunt as we were the youngest, a pair of orphans welcomed into a family of parentless children and childless adults, raised and loved without regard to anything but ourselves.
As always, dinner was a lively affair, and I caught myself laughing at one of Uncle’s latest stories… forgetting my own troubles in that moment. The table groaned under the weight of serving dishes and my aunt’s fine china and sparkling crystal, set out especially for such occasions. It was only as the conversation slowed, and serving dishes were passed around for second helpings that Mary cleared her throat.
“Frank and I would like to make an announcement,” she began, her eyes shining, lending a sweetness to otherwise plain, unremarkable features. She reached for Frank’s hand, though I had the distinct impression he’d rather be anywhere but where he was in that moment. “We have it confirmed by the doctor — I’m expecting, with the baby due next summer.”
The room erupted with sound and motion, joyous cries and exclamations echoed in my ears as I sat stunned, unable in the first blush of the news to manage my emotions, to move a muscle. Simple, proper, take no chances Mary was pregnant… would have a husband’s name for her child. And I, the smart, driven, gifted one was to bear the child of a man who abandoned me and would know nothing of it. I wanted to weep… to scream and shout at the Heavens at the sheer injustice of it all. But instead, I rose on leaden limbs to embrace my sister, to exclaim over her news… to congratulate her flushing husband before drinking deeply of the excellent wine my aunt had the good sense to serve.
I gave in to total despair after Mary’s announcement, consumed with self-pity and impotent rage, I didn’t rise from my bed for the rest of the weekend. I lay with the drapes drawn, staring at the intricate pattern on the bedroom wall, unmoving as I let the agony of my feelings take hold of my soul. No matter that John, my fiancé, had been freely given my maidenhood — in the end I’d been no wiser or more cautious than any other young woman, flushed with love and certainty. Now I found myself an unwed mother… a fallen woman… a source of embarrassment to my family. I lived the disappointment and shame of Aunt Edith, the look Uncle would most surely wear when told the news — how shocked they would be. Mary would gloat, and rightfully so.
I wanted to die, but I didn’t die. Amazingly during all my agonies of spirit, the world continued to turn, morning came and night returned, my lungs filled with air, my heart though broken, kept beating, my body lived on and I came to the realization that I must do so as well… or end things here and now in the silence and isolation of my bedroom. I couldn’t do it, no matter the wanting to. What sealed my fate was the gentle knock upon my door of the landlady, Mrs. O’Brien. She hadn’t seen me all weekend and was coming to check to be sure that I was well. She’d brought turkey soup she’d made from the remains of her own dinner, and her eyes were kind as she surveyed me.
“A good meal will do wonders,” she insisted, bustling about my kitchen as she set the pot on the stove and retrieved a still steaming bowl for me. As she returned to the table where I sat, setting bowl and spoon before me her sharp eyes caught the absence of the prized antique diamond ring I’d rushed to show her. She took the seat opposite with a heavy sigh. “Ah, so that’s the reason we haven’t seen Mr. John about so much of late.”
“Nor will you,” I told her in a tone that said everything.
She nodded to herself, her features hardening. “I might have known him for a lout Margot… though Paddy liked him well enough. But then my husband would approve of anyone who would share a drink with him. Men are such fools.”
I could think of worse names to use, but I held them back. I decided then and there that no man would do this to me again, “Well I’m done with them. I’ve learned my lesson well enough.”
“Oh don’t be so sure… perhaps one day another young man will catch your eye — “
“No, never again.” I remember even now as I write this many years later, the certainty of that moment stands firmly in my mind. No man would ever reduce me to this again, nor has one.”
She clucked her tongue in disapproval at the idea, changing the subject instead, “You eat a bit now dear, and then back to bed with you. A long night’s sleep will do a world of good.” She rose from the table, “You’ll let me know if you need anything? I’m just downstairs, and I can send one of the boys for the doctor…”
What ailed me now no doctor could fix, so I smiled at her and assured her I would be fine and that I’d see her tomorrow. I remained at the table as she left, turning my attention for the first time to the steaming soup and what must be done.
The only certainty I had in those early days was that I could not raise this child myself. Beyond the practical challenges of caring for an infant and growing child, there would be the stigma of bastardy carried for a lifetime. People would talk, and whisper and point as they always did when it came to such things. Why should an innocent soul be tainted because of my own foolishness and a father’s faithlessness? It seemed impossibly cruel and I was determined the suffering should be mine alone… a fitting punishment and lasting reminder that men could not be trusted.
Christmas that year was cold and without snow, though we gathered at Uncle and Aunt Edith’s as we always did for dinner and to exchange gifts. It was a lively day, full of friends and neighbors stopping by, so I had little time to think about myself though I found that Mary could talk of nothing save the pronouncements of her doctor, Frank’s glory in the child and her plans for the baby. Her joy in her state was especially painful, so I ground my teeth and drank deeply from my wineglass. Only Aunt Edith seemed to notice.
“You seem out of sorts Margot,” she observed as we entered the kitchen, our arms leaden with dessert plates, cups and saucers. “Are things all right at the bank?”
In fact, the bank was the only place things were perfectly fine. My direct boss, Mr. Simmons had given me a generous bonus and a beautiful broach. Each of the other officers had presented a token of appreciation… chocolates, flowers or some thoughtful trinket likely chosen by their wives. “Things are wonderful at the bank Auntie.”
“Then perhaps you’re coming to realize that your life can’t be all about work my dear,” she cautioned, and I cringed inside, preparing myself for the inevitable lecture on the loneliness of the path I’d chosen. It was a familiar theme to her, and I knew she’d convinced herself I worked only to find a suitable husband, nothing more. I could only imagine what she would say if she knew of the life, slowly growing, in my single woman’s womb.
“Oh it isn’t.”
She digested my pert reply in silence for a moment as she settled her plates in the sink before continuing in a tone she worked hard to keep casual, disinterested; “I was surprised you didn’t bring around that young man — John isn’t it — we found so charming at the Labor Day barbeque.”
Even though I’d expected the question, prepared and practiced until I could answer without a catch in my voice, the moment caught me off guard. I took a deep breath, settling the cups and saucers with utmost care into the sink, “We’re not seeing each other any more Auntie. I’ve decided to focus my energy on my career and forget romance.”
“I see,” my aunt responded, clearly disappointed. “I’m sorry to hear that dear. He seemed a fine young man… and handsome too. Good family I hear. I would surely love to see you happy and settled like your sister.”
“I am happy. I am settled.”
She sent me a sharp look, “You know what I mean. Married with someone to take care of you, to be a father to your children.”
That pushed me over the edge and I lashed out, uncaring. “I want no children to wait on, no husband to obey. I can manage just fine on my own, thank you very much.”
My hot, angry words echoed overloud in the orderly kitchen, causing the voices in the other parts of the house to hush suddenly in an effort to catch the familiar argument about to erupt. I felt my cheeks flush hot and I knew I couldn’t be sure of my voice any longer, so I turned on my heel and stalked from the room, along the hall and out into the winter darkness, leaving them all to think whatever they liked.
Upon the arrival of the New Year, 1934, I was firmly resolved in my decision. Keeping the baby was out of the question, and the risks of seeking out the wizened old woman who was known to have ways to rid me of my burden made me shudder. My family doctor, stern and disapproving, was out of the question as well. This left me with one alternative, a choice that made sense to an orphaned child raised by people who had no children. An adoption to a nice, established, childless couple would be best for the baby, and for me.
How it was to be done became the driving passion of the next months of my life.
My first priority was my position at the bank, and keeping the well paying job was my only thought, my one desire as the endless winter lumbered past. I’d always been healthy, and once the early discomforts of pregnancy passed I managed rather well, able to be at my desk, efficient and smiling first thing every morning. I was fortunate in my boss, Simmons, a careful, unassuming man who was very good at what he did and well liked by the others. We worked well together; comfortable halves of an efficient hole. I’d been with him long enough to be able to manage my daily duties and find time to look for a place to have the baby and how the adoption might be managed.
Though I had distinct advantages over other girls in my situation, still my search was long and frustrating… more than once ending in disappointment and dashed hopes. It was only the wisdom of added years, the freedom that came from having my own home and earning my own money that kept me from becoming a victim of the unscrupulous people who offered bed and board in exchange for the child. Early March found me at my desk late on a Friday afternoon, carefully cutting out an ad for a woman doctor in Miami who claimed to deliver children and find adoptive homes for them.
“Still here Margot?”
I looked up, deftly slipping the paper under the legal pad always ready atop my desk. I smiled up at Mr. Simmons, “Just finishing up sir. Are you leaving for the week end?”
He shook his head, “Not yet, I was hoping to have a word with you before you go.”
His unease was plain, and I felt a twinge of fear as I rose to my feet, careful to keep the ever-present pad of paper in front of my abdomen. My sewing skills had been put to the test of late, tearing out the seams of my work dresses and adding subtle panels to accommodate my expanding belly. In an office of men, I could be reasonably sure that no one had noticed my expanding figure, but as I settled into the chair before his desk I trembled at the thought my condition had been discovered and my employment at an end.
“I’ve been presented with an opportunity that I must discuss with you,” he began, taking a seat behind the massive desk. He folded his soft, white hands, nails carefully trimmed, before him. As always, he was dressed immaculately, and the bright blue eyes behind the spectacles were sharp and kind. “The New York office has asked me to oversee the opening of a new branch in Portland, and given me leave to choose my staff. I’d like you to accompany me as my assistant manager, to help with the hiring and daily operations… “
I’d stopped listening after that… so overcome with gratitude that I could barely keep from flying across the desk to embrace him. It was precisely the solution I needed… a chance to get far enough away to be unknown… Portland was certain to offer anonymity.
Somehow I would manage to have the baby and find some kind, caring couple to take it. There would be no shame… no risk to my position… no humiliating explanation to family and friends. It was hard to keep my emotions under control as I listened to Mr. Simmons attempts to win my agreement.
His open, earnest gaze met mine, his tone grave, as if he simply must have my consent. “Of course the bank has found us a house for the season, and you shall have your own rooms. There’s a housekeeper as chaperone who will see to meals and cleaning. I’m told enough room for either of us to invite guests for the week end if we choose.”
I pretended that this was what made the decision for me, when in truth the chance to be away from the prying eyes of my family was precisely the appeal. Already I was planning my departure… the arrangement for my apartment I would make with Mrs. O’Brien, the reason I could now honestly deliver to my family for my absence over the last, most obvious months of my pregnancy. For the first time since learning of the child’s existence, I had a spring in my step as I left Mr. Simmons well pleased that he’d convinced me to take the assignment.
Sometimes the years show you things you didn’t see at the time, and this was certainly true of my escape to Portsmouth. I settled into the comfortable house, working full time to set up the new branch, growing bigger and clumsier as the days passed, though I had energy to spare and was as sharp witted as ever. For his part Mr. Simmons paid no notice to my expanding waistline, calmly, quietly going about our work as if nothing had changed, and leaving me to mine. I’d managed quite well without John’s money… by my own wits and hard work, and was full of pride in my accomplishment… until I opened the front door on a rainy Friday night in early July to Mary, unannounced, heavily pregnant and soaking wet on the doorstep.
“A fine greeting you have for me Margot,” she chided as I stood staring at her.
“Mary… my God! It’s just that I never expected — I’m so shocked to see you.”
“It was Aunt Edith’s idea, the heat of the city was wearing me down and I — “ she stopped, her intent gaze moving over me, devouring every detail. I understood then what it is to be prey to a hunter, and I waited mutely for the end to come, helpless to move or defend myself. Her eyes widened and she took a step back, “What’s this? Why you look… you look… “
It was the moment I’d dreaded most, the scene that had kept me awake nights as I’d imagined the horror of admitting my mistake… my foolishness and facing the judgment due me. Bearing the shame of a fallen woman. And yet in that moment I couldn’t help but take some pride in how well I’d managed it all. “Yes Mary, it’s true . I’m to have a child.”
Too shocked to protest, she allowed me to usher her into the house, her gaze moving ravenously over the small foyer before returning to me. From the dining room came the clink of silver on plate as Mr. Simmons and the housekeeper, Mrs. Pritchett continued with their dinner, leaving me some hope our exchange would go unheard.
“You look well Mary,” I began, reaching to take her sodden raincoat and hang it by the door.
“Don’t change the subject sister dear,” she snapped, holding herself stiff and nearly vibrating with righteous indignation. “Tell me how this happened, and how you’ve managed to keep such a secret. Who has helped you?”
It galled that she assumed I’d had help, and my own voice was no less sharp as I replied, “Unlike you, I am alone in this sister. I’ve had no one — ”
“What about the father?”
Her words were a whiplash, and my answer held all the pain I’d been unable to master, even months later. “He’s broken our engagement and gone. He knows nothing of the baby, nor will he.”
Mary stared at me, clearly horrified by my answer. “A bastard? I cannot believe it — “
I was acutely aware in that moment of the clink of silver on plates that continued to come from the dining room. I was sure they could hear us now, and humbled by the thought they were trying to hide it. I took firm hold of my sister’s arm and ushered her into our comfortable parlor. “Keep your voice down please, Mr. Simmons is at his dinner.”
“He knows about the child — knows and keeps you on?”
It was such an obvious question… one I pondered and worried over for many years before finding the answer. Only after his retirement from the bank did I find, upon reviewing some old documents that Mr. Simmons had arranged the opening to be set in Portland, naming me as administrator on the project. Even now the kindness brings a lump to my throat… and the lingering regret that I was never able to thank him for what he did for me. But in those days I had no clue, and could only be grateful for his unexpected willingness to overlook the matter, “He has asked no questions and leaves me to my work.”
“Well, isn’t that nice,” she hissed, unable to contain the anger that we’d both always known was brewing just below the surface, waiting for a chance to be expelled. “You had to be different, had to be a working girl with the big apartment and fancy clothes, looking down your nose at the rest of us. Well see where it’s got you… a bastard in your belly that has to be born in hiding. What a credit to our family.”
“I never looked down on you Mary… if you felt that way it was your own doing.” I retorted, angry that she blamed me for a fault that was her own. But then she was quick to assess and affix blame. “I’ve made a terrible mistake… one for which I am paying, dearly. But I can assure you it’s one I’ll never, ever make again.”
“And what of the child?”
My answer was given without hesitation or shame, for I’d been fortunate to have been able to arrange for the baby to be given to an adoptive family as soon as it was born… no time for troublesome attachments. All that had been required was a call to the Miami doctor I’d seen advertised in the newspaper to be given the name of a local man I could see. The appointment had been mercifully brief, it was clear I was not at all what he had expected; he asked a few curt questions about my health and that of the father before handing me a business card with instructions to call when my labor began.
“I see you’ve thought of everything,” she retorted, clearly annoyed that I had been able to manage things so well. Jealousy, of long habit, was not to be put aside. Still how I wished in that moment that we were closer, as sisters who had only each other in all the world should be. “And I suppose you expect me to keep this shameful secret?”
Weary of the argument and oddly relieved to have faced down the scene, I shrugged, “Do as you think best Mary.”
Her disapproval of my state was hardly enough to keep my sister from settling in to one of the large, airy bedrooms on the second floor of the house. Mrs. Pritchett was quick to make her comfortable, clucking over my sister’s pallor and promising a week end of pampering and relaxation as just the thing to revive her.
Having gotten over my initial shock at her arrival, I found myself worrying over how pale and tired Mary looked. She complained that the child moved about mercilessly, refusing to let her rest no matter how hard she tried. I could sympathize of course, though I chose not to tell her that the sensations were never enough to keep me from sleep.
By Sunday morning she was looking better, though Mrs. Pritchett continued to fuss and insisted she remain with us a few more days… away from the heat and bad air of the bigger city. I could hardly refuse my sister, and Mr. Simmons was gentleman enough to agree at once to the idea. So Mary stayed the week, taking my place on the comfortable front porch while I want off to work each morning, and returned home at night. We said not a word about my condition, for she was consumed by her own, and I suspected enjoying the attention and comforts of the house.
And I was glad she had them when her labor pains began on that Friday afternoon. By Saturday morning Mrs. Pritchett sent for the doctor and Mr. Simmons vacated the house, mumbling something about a fishing excursion and scurrying out the back door. I watched him go as I set the pot on the stove to boil as the doctor had instructed. My sister’s pain and the length of time the birth was taking set my nerves on edge. So focused on hiding my pregnancy and finding a place for the baby, I’d given little thought to what was involved in bringing a child into the world. In those lonely, fearful moments I was nearly overcome by the irresistible urge to flee… to run and run and never stop… knowing as I did there was nowhere on earth I could go to escape what was coming.
Later that afternoon Mary’s child, a pale and tiny boy, was delivered stillborn. Too exhausted for words or tears, she lay silent on the sweat soaked sheets and stared at nothing, deaf to the comforting words of the doctor. He wrapped the pitiful thing in a blanket Mrs. Pritchett gave him, saw that Mary was tended, left instructions for her care and a bit of medicine and then quietly slipped from the house. I sat at her bedside watching my sister’s eyes flutter and close as I held her hand, my heart aching for her, for the struggle and pain that in the end had been for nothing.
I was afraid — desperately, terribly afraid.
I remained at Mary’s bedside for two days, and on the morning of the third I was roused from an uneasy sleep by pains, sharp and insistent, announcing the beginning of my own labor. I was overcome, not by fear as I’d expected, but by a sudden, incredible sense of relief that the months of waiting and worrying would soon be over. When the pain passed I was able to rise from the chair by the bed and slip from the room, pausing in the hallway as the feeling came again… a gripping wave of agony that caught and held me fast so that all I could do was gasp and clutch at the wall.
Somehow I made it back to my room, which is where Mrs. Pritchett found me later in the morning. She seemed not at all surprised by my condition, but rather helped me into a nightgown and put me in my own bed. She sat with me chatting pleasantly for a time, and then reading out of a novel she’d found downstairs before my discomfort grew and I needed to move about. She suggested a walk about the upstairs hall, and this I did willingly enough, anxious for anything to help pass the time.
When my own baby made his entrance into the world it was Mrs. Pritchett who lifted him up for me to see… pink and round and crying lustily at the unpleasant shock of being born. He was perfect… and I reached to take him in my arms. Even after so many years, when I close my eyes I can still see that precious little face… cheeks all pink and soft, the little button of his nose, and eyes so wide and blue, knowing me at once. My heart overflowed with love for this helpless little creature, and I knew that I’d never experienced a love in any way like this one. There was nothing, nothing I would not do for this child.
Once the idea appeared in my mind, I could not sleep, but brought the baby to Mary straight away, determined to convince her, refusing to consider the very real chance she would balk at the idea and I would have to give my son to strangers. I could not bear the thought… now that I’d seen him, held him, watched him sleep and eat — a mother’s heart had taken hold of me, and I could not imagine letting him go, never to see his sweet face again. I held my son, carefully swaddled, close, inhaling the sweet scent of him as I stood before her door… a last moment together between mother and son before I knocked gently and went inside.
She was lying propped on pillows in the bed, the lamp casting a warm glow about the tastefully decorated bedroom. Her gaze, cold and stony, stopped me as I neared the bed, “Mrs. Pritchett told me your son was born.”
I refused to let the distaste in her tone sway me, though it hurt to hear her talk that way. I told myself it was natural that she was bitter. “He is a beautiful baby… would you like to see him?”
Mary glared at me, “I would not.”
This too I ignored, moving gingerly toward the bed and holding my son out so she could see the perfect oval of his sleeping cheek. Without giving her chance to object, I placed him into her arms, and she instinctively took hold of him, pulling him closer so he was sheltered in the warmth of her arms. I smiled. “How good you are with him… see how peacefully he sleeps?”
For a moment my sister lost herself in staring down at the angelic face, a single fisted hand visible over the careful swaddling. She reached to touch his fingers and they opened and came to clasp her own. My sister couldn’t help but smile at this and I took a step back, barely daring to breathe. “You are just a perfect miracle… aren’t you?” she asked softly before her tear filled eyes rose to meet mine,
“Why do you torture me so sister? I’ve lost a baby, and now you come to flaunt your own perfect one.”
“He is perfect,” I agreed with the proud smile of his mother. My next words were carefully chosen, for so much depended on them, “and in need of a proper family… a home with a mother and a father. You can give him that Mary.”
“What — what are you saying?”
I repeated what I’d said, and as she continued to stare at me I hurried on, pulling the words from somewhere deep inside. “Think Mary… I was going to give up the child to strangers. How much better that he goes to my own family… to you, a mother who needs a baby to love, and to Frank who wants a son he can be proud of.”
I could see she wanted to believe, but suspicion came easily to her,
“And you? What role for you? Will you be content to be a mere aunt to your own son?”
I was so desperate to have her agreement that I thought nothing of the yawning gulf that stood between us, or how the years might see her grow jealous of the closeness shared by a maiden aunt and a quick witted nephew. “I was hoping you’d name me godmother,” I offered with a tentative smile… a lame attempt to inject some bit of humor to the occasion. When she didn’t even smile I sobered, took a deep breath and offered the bargain I’ve kept faithfully, though not without difficulty, ever since, “I want the best for my son. I ask only that we keep this secret… this agreement… between us. No one, not Frank, not Aunt Edith, not even the child is ever to know I am his mother.”
It was this last declaration that won her, and she cradled my darling son in her arms, and I steeled myself to look at them with smiling eyes. When she turned her attention to me again her voice was hard, her gaze full of disdain and disapproval. “I will see that you have your place… but mind it, and do not interfere with what I decide — he is my son now.”
And so it was agreed. My sister presented Frank and the rest of the family with a healthy, thriving infant while her own baby was buried quietly and forgotten. At long last I was free to return to my life… my work… my apartment full of beautiful things and peaceful silence. The Portland branch proved a resounding success, assuring Mr. Simmons and I positions at the main branch. Work has been my life, travel my refuge, and I have no complaints. I achieved all that I sought of independence, of money and status — and though it may be pride to claim it, I can’t help but think I eased the way for the women, my own great-nieces even, who take their places in the working world after me.
Not once over the long years since, during birthdays and holidays, a college graduation followed by a wedding to a neighbor’s daughter and in due course the christenings of his own children have Mary and I given any hint that she and Frank are not my boy’s parents. Too late I realized the agony it was to watch my intolerant sister and her oafish husband parent my child, to say nothing when they would ridicule his love of books and learning, scoff at his ambitions and dreams of seeing the world, favoring instead the younger brother who arrived four years later. Soon enough my boy’s talents could not be ignored, and it was my money that funded the first-class education that took him from poor city boy to respected business man, loving husband, father, friend.
All in all, it was a bargain well made. Of course there are times I wonder what my boy would say if he knew… sometimes I think, or perhaps imagine, that he does know. That he understands and forgives his mother’s foolishness and is not so hard on a father who was a pampered rich boy in thrall to his family.
But that is simple fancy and nothing more.
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|Reviewed by Donna Chandler
|I was enthralled by this story. It would make an excellent book or even a movie. Excellent. Thank you for sharing.