Authors: Jane Rule
Against the Season
GAINST THE SEASON, WHICH
was spring, and against the day, iris limp and azaleas sodden in rain, Amelia Larson was in a burning mood.
“Not the right spirit for the kitchen,” she said to Kathy, the maid she’d soon lose to the unwed mothers’ home. “Just leave Cole’s place set. I’ll wake him when I go up. I think it’s a morning for the attic.”
The girl nodded, a great emotional distance from what was being said to her, but serene there. Amelia’s educated eye estimated another three weeks to a month. Friends were beginning to be critical, under the guise of concern: “Now that Cole’s staying with you, wouldn’t it be better to have permanent help?” or “Don’t you think by now other people could take on this sort of thing?” They implied, of course, that Amelia was too old, too much out of touch, and perhaps always had been too much of an amateur to deal with these girls. The morality of it had, for thirty years or more, threatened propriety; but while Amelia’s sister lived and there were only the two of them, no one could say just why a string of pregnant girls in the house didn’t seem right. Now Cole Westaway, a cousin’s son who was to be with her for his college years, was a new fact, corrupting or corruptible, Amelia wasn’t sure which her friends thought. She must, within the next month, get to know her own mind, which was not as positively made up as she claimed.
Her second cup of coffee finished, Amelia hoisted herself out of her father’s large, carved chair and let her considerable weight down on her lame side. Then in a slow, strong rocking-chair movement, checking the pockets of her smock for scissors, pad and pencil, magnifying glass as she went, Amelia left the large dining room, crossed the hall, and seated herself in the chair lift, installed five years ago, not for her but for her sister, after the first stroke. Amelia had used it since in order not to waste it, she said. Having been born lame, she had never been allowed nor had she allowed herself to be pampered. Still, she was glad not to spend the energy on those stairs any longer, and she liked the ride, sidesaddle, past the mottoes cross-stitched by three generations of Larson women, a stop at the landing to look through the stained-glass window onto her mother’s rose garden, the first blooms heavy-headed in the rain this morning, then on up to the second floor.
“It would be as good as a London tube escalator if you’d put up some ads,” Cole said, standing at the top of the stairs, a little thin and sharp-faced to be handsome, his fair hair soft over one eyebrow, a child’s hair. He looked younger than twenty. “Say, some ladies’ underwear or suntan oil or…”
“Put up anything you like,” Amelia said and then added, pleased with herself, “as long as it’s uplifting.”
Cole laughed. He did not offer to help her up, having been given the simple instruction when he moved in: “When I want help, I’ll ask for it.” He stood, looking past her to the mottoes.
“When you’ve finished your breakfast, bring me some boxes from the back porch up to the attic. I’m going to burn things today.”
“What kinds of things?’ Cole asked.
“I don’t know yet, but the rain’s put me in a destructive mood—or rebellious, maybe. Sister never let me touch a thing up there, and there must be some old valentines or May Day cards from seventy-five years ago that we could live without.”
“Do you think so, Cousin A? A lot of that stuff may be historically valuable by now. Cousin B used to say…”
“I know… that every old photograph and letter should go to the city archives. I’ll be careful, and anything to do with your side of the family you can look at again yourself if you want to.”
“I just meant…”
Amelia was by now at the door to the attic stairs, and she left Cole to just mean whatever he had, if he had. Sister, if she had been on her way up in front of Amelia, would have said: “One: that remark about ‘uplifting’ was uncalled for. Two: you should take your leave of people not when they have no more to say but when they have stopped the actual noise of conversation.” And Amelia would have had to listen very carefully through the heaviness of her own progress to catch the tone in her sister’s voice, for she might be scolding or teasing or approving. Beatrice Larson, five years older than Amelia, formidable even before she was an old lady, prided herself on her own irreproachable social behavior and despaired with great good humor of her sister’s directness. “One day, as a result of you, something is going to happen to us,” she would say, and that, too, could be offered as reprimand or commendation. Whatever the moral tone, there was always hope in it And love in it.
“Memory isn’t the same,” Amelia said aloud as she labored up the narrow stairs, though in a sense she was speaking to Beatrice still, four or five steps ahead of her, there where she had always been.
Amelia had not told Cole the exact truth about her work in the attic. One of these days she must, in fact, begin to clear out a ballroom full of family history, unsorted since the year after her mother died and then with Beatrice’s sense, not her own. Today, however, she was not after old valentines and photographs and letters. She was fulfilling a promise she had made to her sister six months ago, the day before she died.
“Burn my diaries.”
Amelia had no reluctance. She would have gone to the attic the day after the funeral to carry out this last request if she had been free to believe it. But Beatrice no more wanted those diaries burned unread than she wanted anything else destroyed that had been executed by the human hand. Only she had been afraid that one day someone other than Amelia might find them. Or was it, rather, that she knew Amelia would want to burn them and not be able to without the request? Had she been sparing Amelia even then? Or was it that the order to burn them was calculated to arouse Amelia’s curiosity sufficiently to ensure a reading of them before they were burned? Beatrice’s tone had always been the clue, but on that day her impaired speech made it impossible to judge. Not knowing what to do, Amelia had done nothing for six months.
At the top of the stairs, she rested. Then she opened the door to the enormous space that had, in her father’s youth, been a ballroom. She suspected that its gradual deterioration into a storage area had to do not only with “the times” but with her lameness. In her memory, there had never been dancing in the house. First only one corner had been walled off for trunks that mildewed in the basement, but gradually furniture and boxes spilled out onto the dance floor; a cardboard cupboard was partnered with the grand piano, a large bird cage with a commode, a chest with a dress dummy, and these unlikely matings gradually produced clustered families of boxes and parcels. It was not exactly haphazard. There were winding paths and categories of sorts, and always a wide space was left to the raised turret corner where on a hard and dusty seat generations of women had sat, watching the harbor for a ship to arrive or leave. When relatives and lovers no longer traveled in this manner, it was still a place in the house for solitude. Amelia had never used it, obviously because the stairs were a chore but also because she was not of a temperament for solitude. It was first her mother’s place, then her sister’s. Amelia rocked her way over to it, pulled herself up and onto the seat. The rain had closed in the view of the sea and all but the gray line of larger buildings by the old docks. But she could look over the ten-foot-high hedges of her own acre of garden into the neighborhood, which was no longer elegant, more boarding houses than family homes by now. There was talk of buying up the old houses, restoring them, turning them into elegant clubs, exclusive rest homes. But the town—city—was really not that sort yet, and it seemed unlikely that it would ever be. Amelia was interested in the town, its strong but stunted life, and she could have turned her mind to it, but she had come to find the diaries, many pages of which had been written in this very place, though probably with few entries about this view or neighborhood or town. She must find sixty-nine of them, one for each year since Beatrice was six and had learned to write. They were not all carefully stored in several boxes. They were, Amelia believed, in “year boxes,” one book in among all the things Beatrice saved in a year.
Up again with the violent decisiveness that was part of any physical moving, Amelia started down the most likely trail, her magnifying glass out to read the labels, and soon she found “B, 1967,” a box that had brought cat food into the house. She snipped the string, lifted out carefully ribboned packets of letters and postcards, a stack of graduation and wedding photographs, receipts, canceled checks, an appointment calendar, and finally the familiar English diary, the size of a Gideon Bible and always in the drawer by her sister’s bed. She had given up the sort with a flap and key years before, perhaps in her early thirties, either for want of secrets or want of anyone to hide them from, though she had always kept the diary in her sewing bag on Thursdays when the cleaning woman came. Amelia did not turn the pages. She simply set the book aside, replacing the other contents, and wrote
in dark letters across the top of the box. She was at the year 1954 when Cole arrived with several empty boxes.
“Those thirteen should go to the basement by the incinerator,” Amelia directed, and to his again uncertain look she explained, “They’re all Sister’s private papers; she asked to have them burned.”
He took three at a time and moved quickly, with unconscious impatience. Amelia knew he had nothing to do that morning, with three days free now before his last exam, which he claimed he couldn’t study for. He always rushed at anything he was asked to do or set himself to do, as if the only pleasure were in having done with a game of tennis, a book, or a chore. But he didn’t enjoy empty time when he arrived at it. He occupied himself then with nervous habits, smoking, biting his left thumbnail, starting conversations he wasn’t interested in about things no one else was interested in either. After his third trip to the basement, Amelia told him to sit and rest for a bit. He folded himself up on the turret bench and stared out the window.
“I wonder if it will rain all day,” he said.
Amelia put the 1951 diary into the box and then turned round to look at Cole. “You’re not a happy boy,” she said.
“Why?” he asked, without turning to her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “What are you going to do with yourself this summer?”
“Work at the mill,” be said, bewildered by so obvious a question.
“Would you rather not?”
“I have to. I mean, I have to have my fees.”
“If I paid your fees, what would you do?”
“I couldn’t let you do that, Cousin A. You already…”
“There’s the money. Why don’t I send you to Europe again?”
“No,” he said. “No, thank you. I’m really not ready for that again. I don’t mean I didn’t enjoy it very much, but it was pretty overwhelming, you know, when you’ve never been anywhere before. All those people.”
“All right, but you don’t have to work at the mill.”
“I don’t mind it,” Cole said quickly. “I’m used to it. It’s something to do.”
“Something to do,” Amelia repeated and then turned her back on him.
“What are those things?”
He put a hand on one, a new interest in his face.
“To be burned, too, but later.”
“Are you going to read them?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” Amelia said. “There’s nothing in them I don’t already know, unless I shouldn’t know it.”
“It’s better not to know.”
“At your age?”
“At any age, I think,” Cole said.