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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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Nicholas now jerked awake, his head twisting to one side, his hands thrust out in front of him as if denying his entrance
into wakefulness. He arched his back and launched directly into a full-fledged wail, his hands grabbing at the restraint holding
him in.

“Honey, it's okay,” I said ineffectually, hoping my soothing voice and nonsense words would calm him down.

Silly Mommy. Declaring things to be “okay” just inspired him to prove otherwise. In a nanosecond his cries filled all available
sound space in the car, pushing away every fragment of peace and quiet.

I careened down the gravel road, driving too fast and not even caring. By the time I pulled into the yard, Nicholas's cries
pounded against my tired head. I jumped out of the car and closed the door on my sobbing offspring. Nicholas on the verge
of a pediatric coronary and Anneke sobbing her poor little heart out and I, Lord forgive me, stepping away from the car.

I craved a few moments of silence. Of separating myself from the tentacles of motherhood and wifehood tugging me in unwelcome
directions.

The old two-story farmhouse, our home for the next year, stood solidly anchored to the ground, its foundations softened by
shrubs and plants, and sheltered by a thick wind-break of planted trees.

The few times Dan and I had visited, I thought the house quaint. Now it simply looked old and tired and abandoned.

I drew in a long breath, then another, but I couldn't push away the muffled cries of my children. Forcing myself out of my
selfish spat, I turned back to the car. Mommy once again.

The door of the house slapped shut, echoing sharply in the silence and as my mother-in-law stepped out of the house, inevitability
laid a chilly hand on my shoulder.

“You're finally here,” Wilma called out, waving to me from the back door.

Note to self: Ignore the “finally.” She's had a hard time. Do not—repeat, do not—look for hidden agendas.

I had to give her credit, though, I thought as I checked out her khaki Capris and pale pink shirt. She certainly didn't look
like she had been recently jilted by her husband.

And my goodness—makeup and earrings?

I tried not to glance down at my own stained T-shirt and wrinkled sweat pants. I had aimed for ease of movement and comfort
for our trip out here, not knowing when I would have to leap a car seat in a single bound.

Wilma strode down the cracked and slanted sidewalk, looking past me. Her usual modus operandi. “Where's Dan?”

“He should be coming soon,” I said, pushing down a pinch of hurt at her quick dismissal of my presence. “I got a little ahead
of him and Gerrit. Nicholas was crying, so I wanted to get here before he burst a blood vessel….”
And stop right now before she thinks you're a complete idiot instead of the incomplete version you're already projecting.
I opened the back door of the car, releasing the blast of my children's sorrow and pain into the great wide world.

Wilma's eyes snapped from the driveway behind me to my offspring. “Oh, you poor children,” Wilma cooed in sympathy as she
opened the door beside Nicholas. She pulled my tightly wound son out of his car seat, his back arching in anger. She held
him close, stroked his damp hair away from his face, then glanced down at his coat. “Oh, my goodness. You're all sticky.”
She flashed me a quick patronizing smile, hitting the guilt bull's-eye in one shot.

“I'll take him,” I murmured, holding out my hands for my son. “He probably won't settle for you.”

Mothers should never, ever, utter such provocative statements. Especially around a child as contrary as Nicholas.

He gave out one more long wail, but I could hear his heart wasn't in it. Then he hiccupped a couple of times and wilted against
his grandmother, making me look like some loser who would have known more about her child had she spent quality time with
him instead of working evening shifts so she could keep him clothed in Baby Gap and Please Mum outfits.

Little traitor.

“Poor baby,”Wilma clucked, stroking Nicholas's pale hair, a shade lighter than her own blonde hair, away from his flushed
and damp face. “You've had a bad trip, haven't you?”

I did, too,
I felt like saying, but, of course, mothers aren't supposed to want sympathy. I tried a smile on her, but Nicholas held her
fussy attention so I bent over and pulled out a still-sniffling Anneke.

“Hey, pumpkin. That was hard to listen to Nicholas cry, wasn't it?” I said, lifting her into my arms.

She nodded, sniffed again, and peeked shyly over my shoulder at Wilma.

“Hello, Anneke,”Wilma said quietly.

Anneke ducked her head down and clung to me. Okay, I confess I'm not above a little maternal smugness. Anneke's clinging warmed
my heart and negated Nicholas's easy defection and Wilma's casual brush-off.

“Say hi to Grandma,” I urged Anneke, ready to share her now. But Anneke only burrowed deeper into the neckline of my worn
T-shirt.

“Oma,” Wilma corrected as her prim smile glanced off me, then warmed as she stroked Anneke's hair. Anneke flinched and grunted
her displeasure. Wilma's smile shifted into a disapproving frown.

Okay. Things were slithering right along. I needed points. Fast.

“I'm really thankful you and Judy were able to help us move,” I said, injecting a hale and hearty note into my voice.

Wilma shifted Nicholas in her arms, her brisk nod accepting my little peace offering. “We were finishing up in the kitchen,”
Wilma said over her shoulder as she walked toward the porch door. “I thought that would be your first priority.”

Wilma gave me more credit than I deserved. Right now my first priority was a selfishly long hot bath and a good book while
Dan entertained the children. Such a dreamer I am.

As we stepped onto the empty, echoing porch with its gleaming floor, I wondered if I should take my shoes off upon entering
the hallowed ground of the VandeKeere home place.

I glanced around, feeling the weight of history and responsibility slowly settle on my uneasy shoulders. Dan's father had
grown up in this home with his siblings, and he and his wife,Wilma, had raised their children here.

Once Dan and I moved in, we would temporarily hold the keys of the kingdom.

I heard footsteps coming down the stairs above the porch, followed by the sound of humming. In spite of the weariness fuzzing
my mind and dragging at my limbs, I smiled.

Where Dan's older sister Gloria was forceful and up-tight, Judy was easygoing and friendly. Not hard to decipher which of
the sisters I felt closest to.

Judy looked up as we came into the kitchen. The same wispy blonde hair that tufted Nicholas's head these days drifted out
of the elastic holding the rest of her hair away from her face. Her sloppy, faded shirt and sweats couldn't camouflage her
generous size—the polar opposite of her slim and put-together mother and sister. And when she smiled, I thought for the first
time since we packed up the vehicles,
I can do this.

Judy grabbed me in a quick hug and cupped my face in her hands. “Hey, Leslie. Don't you look adorable? I like the sassy haircut.”

“Just got it done before we came.” I threw out the comment as if the new me was something I had planned. Not done in a fit
of anger when I discovered the loss of Dan's business. The sudden splurge was supposed to make me feel lighter, cheer me up.
In the end it gave me one more bill to add to the “pay it or skip it” file.

“Suits you,” Judy said, lowering her hands and resting them on my shoulder as her expression grew serious. “I'm so glad you
and Dan and the kids are here. I know you're going to miss Seattle and your job and all, but you can make a home here, too.”
Judy's voice rose in a hopeful question. She touched Anneke's cheek, then slipped her arms around my shoulders again, encompassing
both of us. She held on for that one extra split second, turning her hug from a polite gesture into a warm, welcoming greeting.

When she pulled away,Anneke stared up at her, soft hazel eyes still puffy from crying. “Who are you?” Anneke asked, sniffing.

Whoops. This she was supposed to know.

“Oh, c'mon,Anneke,” Wilma chided. “That's your Auntie Judy.”

“Do you remember me now?” Judy tilted her face to one side to catch Anneke's eyes.

Anneke shook her head.

“We have a picture of Auntie Judy and Uncle Dayton on our bulletin board. By the phone, remember?” In light of Anneke's momentary
lapse, I needed them to know I hadn't neglected the legacy that was the VandeKeeres‘. I took seriously the responsibility
of the family pictures entrusted to me each year in Christmas cards and letters.

Judy winked at me, a small gesture that connected and forgave. “You'll remember us all soon enough, Anneke. But for now, we
sure know who you are. Do you want to go upstairs and look at the rooms? Maybe if your mommy lets you, you can pick which
one you want to sleep in.”

Another solemn nod and then, to my surprise, she wiggled out of my arms to the floor and took Judy's proffered hand.

I looked around the large empty kitchen. The avocado green flooring I'd seen in pictures of Dan as an eager toddler did what
it was bought to do. Last. The bright yellow painted cupboards almost hurt my eyes. I knew Wilma had painted the cupboards
and chosen the flooring, and I felt her eyes watching me as I inspected my new kitchen. To insult her handiwork was to insult
her.

Though Wilma was always unfailingly polite, I knew she didn't care for me. In her eyes, I had committed a number of cardinal
sins of omission and commission. Where Dan and I had met headed the list of offenses. When Dan first introduced me to the family,
he told the story of our meeting in the bar and laughed. Wilma gave me a glacial smile and never really warmed up to me after
that. Though she never overtly referred to it, the subtext of her comments was that I had been the brazen hussy whose siren
song lured Dan away from church and turned him into a lush. From that auspicious beginning, things went decidedly downhill.
I was the daughter of an absent single mother, which had made the wording of our wedding invitations an awkward situation
I got to hear about until Dan and I said “I do.” In Wilma's mind, to not have a father was a misfortune, but to misplace both
parents was irresponsible.

In addition to the lack of parents, I had a sister who smoked too much and laughed too loud when she drank too much. Which
she did. At our wedding.

I was the home wrecker who kept her beloved Dan in Minneapolis, then dragged him to Dallas and finally Seattle—all places
too far away for casual visits. Easier to blame me than acknowledge that Dan's restless spirit had us packing up and heading
out every two years. Wilma even cast me as the impediment to Dan's return to the farm, when that sinister role obviously belonged
to Dan's stepfather.

To add to the growing list, I had put her dear grandchildren in day care while I sauntered off to make bags of money saving
up for an extravagant home that Dan would have to work all hours to keep up and furnish.

But my worst offense was superseding her as the number-one woman in Dan's life. The battle for supremacy had been declared
when she insisted on a church wedding and when she demanded an expensive supper followed by a reception large enough to invite
even the most removed of Dan's relatives. I smiled, nodded, then told her we couldn't afford all of that. She pushed; I held
firm. End result? One afternoon wedding held outside to avoid the hypocrisy of a church wedding, followed by a stand-up reception
that Terra almost ruined with her crazy in-your-face behavior.

The push and pull continued the first year of our marriage as I slowly weaned Dan off calling her every night to report on
our life. I encouraged him to quit asking her for advice he never took.

Our combined debt load made it difficult to travel back to Harland for Christmas, so we decided to celebrate in our apartment
in Minneapolis rather than at the family farm as she insisted we do.

Over time, our relationship became a one-way trip from bad to worse as Dan slowly became more my husband and less Wilma's
son.

Now we were back in the sheltering, smothering bosom of the family. Though I knew I would have to make a solid stand, I also
realized I needed to be sensitive to Wilma's current emotional state.

I glanced at Wilma, trying to catch some hint of the humiliation and sorrow I was sure she felt at the moment. It had been
only a few months since Keith left. Wilma had been crushed in a public way and now stood in the house where she'd enjoyed much
happier memories. I tried to imagine how difficult it must be for her.

“So, how have you been doing?” I asked, lowering my voice in an attempt to sound sympathetic, warm, and friendly.

Wilma gave me a puzzled frown. “I'm fine. Had a bit of a cold the other day, but otherwise, I'm fine.”

And the sharing moment collapsed like a cheap tent in a light breeze.

Okay. On to chirpy and mundane.

“I see you left the electric stove behind.”

“The last renters didn't have any appliances.” Wilma glanced down at Nicholas. “I'll go clean him up.”

As she swept out of the kitchen, I sucked in a big breath. Suddenly I had room to breathe and allow myself a little bit of
pity. Compromise had brought me here and, as with so many compromises, it resulted in two unhappy people.

I glanced around trying to see positives. I had more space in this kitchen than in our two-bedroom condo… and more cupboards.
I swept the room with a glance. My gaze snagged on the large, fly-specked window facing south. Through it I saw the unfamiliar
expanse of fields, fences, and hills rising to the mountains.

Open, empty spaces.

If my life were a movie, this would be the moment when the soundtrack would get all quiet, intimate, and trembly and the focus
would go soft. I would gracefully drift to the floor, holding my head in my hands and curling into the fetal position to chew
on the cuffs of my sweater and mutter incoherently.

Okay, so it wouldn't be an Oscar-winning moment, but the way I felt, it had the elements of pathos, if not elegance. All the
way here I had tried to be positive and upbeat, putting on my smiley face whenever Dan asked me how I was doing. But right
now, faced with the reality of where we would be living for the next year and with whom, I felt a jolt of panic, if not Oscar-worthy
emotion.

BOOK: The Only Best Place
10.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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