Authors: Louise Farmer Smith
Tags: #Literary Fiction
Table of Contents
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF MARRIAGE
A NOVEL IN STORIES
Louise Farmer Smith
This is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, or locales are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
For my gracious, loving mother,
Virginia Storm Farmer, in her 98th year.
“The House After It Was Leveled” was published online in 2006 by THE WRITING SITE under the title, “One Hundred Years of Marriage.” www.writingsite.com/
“Return to Lincoln” was published Spring 2004 by Bellevue Literary Review which honored it with a Pushcart Nomination. blr.med.nyu.edu/
I am in debt to my New York and Washington writing groups who have read my work and kept up my courage while I grew into a writer: Eva Mekler, Nancy Kline, Susan Sindell, Betsy Mangan, Susan Malus, Mina Samuels, Anne Korkeakivi, Ronna Wineberg, Fiona Mackintosh, Wendy Mitman Clarke, Jan Linley, Melanie McDonald, and Gimbiya Kettering.
I want also to thank my wise and generous teachers, Maureen Brady, Martha Hughes, Gail Godwin, Richard Bausch, and Susan Richards Shreve.
For decades of patient and generous tech support, I thank my son, Timothy K. Smith.
My friend Ann Starr, writer, artist and critique, has countless times buoyed my sinking spirits with her trust in my imagination.
For precious space and time I must thank Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Ragdale Foundation, serene refuges for artists.
And my gratitude is overflowing to my husband, Larry K Smith, who cooked a thousand suppers so that I could go on writing.
Note to the reader:
What was your father thinking the night he proposed to your mother? Why did she say yes? By the time we ask, all the compelling details have cooled into whatever myths they’ve chosen to tell us. Our grandparents’ stories are even more frozen, and the truths of our great-grandparents’ unions have perished in the airless memories of the dead.
THE HOUSE AFTER IT WAS LEVELED
It looked like the four of us might eat supper without talking about Mother’s situation, but before he picked up his fork, Daddy laid both palms on the table, and cleared his throat in his commanding way, bringing the meeting to order. Although he was a small man, someone had once told him he looked like General Patton and, at times like this I could see him swelling into the belief that he did. He’d left the army as a major, but Olivia and I called him The General.
“We’re going to have to stay very organized during the next—well, as long as it takes,” he announced.
“What’s she got?” Ernest asked, looking up from his hash. He was twelve, a very tall boy with catsup in the corner of his mouth and the big eyes of a child who expects the grown-ups to clear everything up for him.
“Shh, she’s sleeping now,” The General said.
I was nineteen, the oldest, and Ernest looked at me thinking I would be the one to tell our daddy that Mama had sobbed off and on all day, gasping as though she were in pain. But I kept quiet.
“So we must each volunteer for broader assignments,” The General said.
“I’ll do the laundry,” sixteen-year-old Olivia said, grabbing a job she could take care of and take off.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll look after Mother and do the cooking.”
“The trash,” Ernest said. “And the mowing. I could mow, right, Daddy?”
“Okay,” my father said. “But you’ve got to be a lot more careful with the edger than you have been. What you want is to get a slanted edge to the grass along the sidewalks. Like the bevel on a watch crystal. The edging is as important as the mowing.”
“I can be careful. What’s wrong with Mama?”
“Ernest,” The General snapped. “This is not the kind of thing—This is not the measles!”
Ernest’s pointy shoulders jerked up toward his ears. “I just asked.”
“It’s the Change, Ernest,” Olivia said.
Ernest’s eyes and mouth opened wide. “She won’t change into anything, will she?” he asked. “She won’t get mean?”
“Ernest, that’s enough,” The General said, growing red in the face. “Your mother is simply going through a time when—” He did a little throat clearing, “—when a woman’s family has to make allowances until she’s her old self again.” The General gave Olivia a glare for her contribution to this outbreak.
* * *
We lived in a very old house my grandfather, Dan Hale and his father James Eliot, had built on his family’s original claim—living room, dining room, music room and two bedrooms on the first floor, another bedroom up the stairs on the right and an unfinished storage space through a little door on the left. The town and the University had grown toward us through the years, and we were now surrounded by a very ordinary neighborhood. All that was left of the farm was a neglected orchard in back.
I was going to be a sophomore at the University next fall, and had the whole summer to get my formerly cheerful and frankly alluring mother back on her feet. It seemed right that I, the oldest, should do it, as I was the only member of the family who could stand to watch her cry. I myself never cried, and, I confess, that summer I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just take a walk around the block to clear her head. Daddy, who had been an army ordnance officer in charge of keeping all the Jeeps, trucks and tanks running, certainly expected people to shape up, buckle down, and carry on. We kids had been raised that way, each one pulling his own weight. On the other hand, I knew Mother was truly embarrassed to be lying in bed when she wasn’t really sick.
Days passed and then weeks as the heat of that Oklahoma summer moved in and stayed. The family tightened ranks, treating each other with greater courtesy, being more careful not to leave a dirty sock on the bathroom floor or a milky glass in the kitchen sink. Every Saturday Ernest mowed and trimmed and mowed again, coming into the kitchen red-faced and shining with sweat, wanting The General to come inspect his slanted edges. My father loved work—pursued it, sucked it toward himself, or manufactured it when it wasn’t readily available. Family legend held that my father could fix a car with wire off a fence post and wasn’t above scavenging at the dump for machinery to repair during his college years. For my parents, Depression survivors, work was the only way out of trouble. But in spite of everything we did, Mother got worse, curling her body away, even from me.
* * *
The last Saturday in June, as soon as I’d vacuumed and made the Jello, I stuck my head in the front bedroom. “I’m gonna run a quick errand,” I said. Mother, her eyes widening, sat up in bed and gripped the edge of the sheet. Finally she managed a little smile. “Sure, darlin’, take your time.” I rushed to the library and came back with an armload of books. Obviously work was not the answer. Maybe I could read my way out of trouble.
The next morning Mama insisted we all leave her and go to church. We sat in our usual three-quarters-of-the-way-down-on-the-left pew, and I realized I hadn’t been out of the house during the day for three weeks. After the benediction, as the organ swelled and the congregation peeled their sweating bottoms off the pews and began to chat, I stood to look around for my boyfriend, Tom, to remind myself what he looked like in the daylight.
I tried to glance about inconspicuously. My bosom rose and fell as I scanned the milling congregation for Tom. I was a little self-conscious about having a bust measurement for a girl four inches taller. I stood just as Mother had taught me—waist drawn back taking all the bow out of my spine. Thank heavens the stick-out slips and waist-makers had gone out in high school. Now, in my chemise, standing carefully, bottom tucked under, bosom pulled back, I could still pass for a straight, modest Methodist.
Shoot! Instead of Tom, I saw Mrs. Eugenia Pryor coming against the crowd down the center aisle, waving to catch my eye. I pretended not to see her and turned to shepherd my bunch back toward the other end of our pew, but The General, seeing the center aisle to be the most efficient route to the exit, made a two-handed sawing gesture like an M.P. diverting a convoy, and we three kids turned back around to face the oncoming Pryor.
“Patricia, dear, we’ve missed your sweet mother,” she said resting her hands on the backs of the pews effectively plugging up our escape route. “The Women’s Society of Christian Service. The Sunday School Committee. We hardly know how to turn the lights on around here without her. How many Sundays has it been?”
“Mrs. Pryor,” I exclaimed, “where’d you get that lovely hat?”
“Is she sick?” Mrs. Pryor asked.
“Oh, she’s all right. This heat is getting to all of us.”
“So she’s all right then?” This question she addressed to Ernest behind me.
I turned to watch his little Adam’s apple bob.
As the official church visitor, the one in charge of knowing what every Methodist was doing on Sunday morning, Mrs. Pryor was also a one-woman cheerleading team for Reverend Mapple, and I knew the only thing that distracted her from other people’s business was an opportunity to promote her man. “I really wish Mother
been here,” I rushed to say. “That sermon! Boy, was he wound up.”
“An absolute human dynamo!” Mrs. Pryor avowed, her eyes rising to the stained glass windows.
“We are blessed,” I said, turning to push Ernest out the now empty aisle. The General and Olivia had already fled.
* * *
That summer Ernest had trouble getting organized. Although he seemed shy about talking to Mother, he also seemed anxious about being away from her for very long. He didn’t fish for crawdads in the University golf course pond or visit the Biology Building to gape at the formaldehyde bottles of two-headed calf fetuses and diseased brains. Olivia, however, didn’t have any trouble being out of the house. Morning after morning I’d come into the kitchen to make breakfast and see her folding up the ironing board, giving me a big smile as she grabbed the hangers of shirts and blouses to deliver to our closets before she sailed out the door with her tennis racket.
I heard Ernest quietly phoning his friend R. B., inviting him over to help build an orange crate canoe, a project Ernest had started in our storage room last winter after finding a tiny blueprint in
Ernest put the phone down quietly. “R.B. says oranges don’t come in crates anymore.”
“It’s kind of a hot project for summer,” I said. “And when you leave the storage room door open, I just about choke on the dust.”
“I can’t help that. If I close it, I can’t breathe.”
* * *
Meals were no problem. There was nothing much to do but check the cans of salmon, tuna, and corned beef hash, the catsup, cereal, and milk. If anyone missed Mother’s cooking, they were too polite to mention it. I carried her meals to their room and arranged the old embroidered footstool so she could sit up straight on the edge of the bed to eat. I sat on the dresser bench to keep her company.
As she struggled to swallow the lunch, we both listened to the bam of Ernest’s hammer in the storage room. Lately each blow was answered by a faint shower of plaster in the walls of the bedroom. There were dry pockets in the soft green wallpaper that were now filling up with crumbled bits. Bam, bam, the hammer sounded; shhh, the plaster fell. I glanced up at Mother. “I don’t care,” she said. “He can knock the whole house down as long as he’s happy up there. Where’s Olivia?”