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Family Quartet II: The Heron
  1. To my mother and her family (and especially to Lisa)

”You can refute Hegel, but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence.”
—W.B. Yeats

They didn’t much look at each other or talk about it when it happened. It could have happened to anyone, after all: the visibility in the back of those newer models is so limited, and with the way the rhododendrons were blooming, you really couldn’t see the edge of the driveway—and then her foot had slipped on the pedal, with those silly little flats she shouldn’t have been wearing, but Martha loved that supple turquoise leather so much, and before she knew it, there she was in the ditch, and they had to call triple-A to pull her out. The young man who responded was courteous and understanding: yes, it could happen to anyone! But Caroline knew how embarrassed Martha was, so she didn’t say anything. 

Just a few years earlier, there would have been no need to call, since Ray would have been right there and hauled her out with one of his many trucks half-covered in weeds on the other side of the house. Some of them ran and some of them didn’t, ditto with the three or four motorboats, variations on tractors she didn’t know the names of, and the houseboat, which they’d used for five years but which after that most definitely would not budge. But Ray knew what was what and always got done what needed to be done. When he died, Martha had had to spend nearly a thousand dollars to have the collection hauled away, but that had been a tiny price for years wth a steady, kind man. 

Martha didn’t even know about Caroline’s own episode of helpless panic. Two months earlier, out running errands and driving, suddenly she could not recognize where she was, the street or the stores. Was it a wrong turn into a newly developed neighborhood, or had her mind just made a little click of closure that refused to remember something familiar? She wasn’t even sure which town she was in. She thought of the story she’d read in the paper years earlier of an elderly woman who’d mistakenly gotten on the highway after construction blocked her usual route and didn’t come home for two days—so befuddled she did not know what to do, or just too embarrassed to stop for help? Caroline had wondered. Her own dismay now turned to panic when she realized she could not remember the name of the town where she lived now with Martha: it was, it was—she knew it but it wouldn’t come, so how could she even ask directons? She had pulled into a minimart parking lot and trembled for a bit, on the verge of crying, then remembered: I do have my phone, and in it addresses and phone numbers, and I can call Celia or her son Richard, I couldn’t be too far, I can’t have been gone more than two hours—and in looking in the phone saw, remembered, yes, Celia at Grandmother’s in Florence, Richard in Rogersville, and of course we live right between in Killen. Of course. Then her breathing steadied and she thought maybe she would just drive a little more and see what she could see, keep the minimart as a marker, and just five blocks on she saw the turn-off back onto 72 and knew instinctively to turn east, soon spotted the fork where she must have kept right instead of going straight, probably too busy thinking about the fudge bars in the back and whether to make hasselback potatoes or rice to go with the barbecue chicken tonight. But why had she forgotten the name of their town?

It was, by her own count, the 15th she’d ever lived in, although the first in Alabama, where she’d come for visits her whole life. When they’d moved for Dad’s work a half dozen times, they had always known the summers and holidays here would not change; and so it was when Hal’s work did the same, first Seattle, then Tai Pei, New Orleans, Flagstaff. Caroline and Hal had both fallen in love with Montpelier, Vermont, and so it had been the perfect place to stay for six years while Andrew and Amy were young. After he’d left her, when they were living halfway across the continent, she had returned, Andrew in college and Amy about to start high school. Caroline had envisioned recovering the sweet small-town life for them both, the friends and usual teenaged rituals for Amy—but it hadn’t turned out that way. Amy had dropped out of school, fled for Boston at the first opportunity, put on an abiding resentment of her mother’s foolish, hopeful choices. And Caroline’s own attempts at friendship and romance had brought distinctly limited results. So. But all that did nothing to dim the abundant starshine, the sound of tumbling water beside the house, the smell of earth and hope when April rolled around again each year. She had stayed, made her own home this time, learned to garden in summer and to read by the fire all winter long, other worlds always around her even though the money wasn’t there for actual travel. Her second year back she had planted two river birches near the front deck, spending whole days digging out the granite stones and making a careful bed for them of peatmoss and topsoil and a little sand. They had survived the worst of the ice and snow and wind, their delicate branches, curled bark, and tender leaves  yearning upwards until they had tripled in height. She ended up staying longer there than she had anyplace else in her life, and she hung on even when the work fell off, cutting down on food and repairs until she had to choose between fixing the car or the leaky roof and said, this won’t do. After all, she tried to tell herself, no one gets to stay anywhere forever.

It was May when she left Vermont, driving Route 100 past Echo Lake and Lake Rescue and all the other ponds and ridges, and then down Route 5 through Putney and into Brattleboro before she got on the interstate, and along the way she saw that every apple tree in the state was in bloom, all the small graces of white etched in sunrise pink where they perched above grazing sheep, suspended white handkerchiefs of farewell that beckoned and chided, how could you leave us in Spring? She’d cried until Hartford, when a hard practicality set in, and she stopped for gas and coffee, 16 hours to go. 

  When she arrived three days later, she was caught in a bustle of cousins and welcomes and careful cheer. The boxes arrived a week later. Still grieving, she was relieved when Martha took herself to a friend’s in Nashville for a few days while she unpacked. Some treasures she couldn’t bear to see for now and left in a box in the back of her closet; she avoided Andrew’s calls, texting him back brief, reassuring news when he left messages. But on the third day, pausing in her tasks with a cup of coffee rich with milk, she sat in the deck swing and felt the heat rise, which down here began at only ten o’clock, and closed her eyes and felt around her a wind as beautiful as any she’d ever known, heard a motor buzz somewhere across the lake and thought of laughing times with those cousins, before they all had their own children and grandchildren, and the bathing suits and soda cans and velvet water, the crackles and chirps and splashes of talk and bustle. 

  Then she’d opened her eyes and seen the heron, just fifty yards away, in the small cove Ray had dredged a decade before, now fringed with water grasses as though it had always been there. The heron was still, legs poised, one reaching to its point of anchor at the lake bottom, one angled in sharp readiness. The curve of blue was massive but still above those legs. And his beak looked westward, while the one eye she could see stared, clear and dark. She held her breath and watched its silence, and she was sure she could not have looked away for even a second, suddenly aware of the teetering coffee cup in her hand, but when she looked again, he was gone. After that she looked for him every day, and while he didn’t always appear, even once a week was enough. One time Martha was on the porch with her, watering her ferns, when the heron glided low and long into view and took up its place in the water, and she stopped what she was doing too, acknowledging quietly, “There he is,” and they watched together.

It was seven years before she’d addressed the matter of the box in the closet, and then only because, trying to move it further in so she could fit her make-up case beside it, she’d tugged a little too incautiously and the tape, after more than forty years, had given. Dozens of letters spilled out over the shoes, along with ticket stubs and programs, post-its and match books, and a few curled and fading photos, her cousins she thought, at some Christmas gathering, and a lone water skier, bikini awry and hair flying–she could not tell if it was herself or Martha, since they’d both looked so much the same in those years. The letters, some bundled and some not, were from Chuck, who had died so long ago, a mere boy of thirty, and Bernard, who had died by his own hand when he was fifty, and Marty and Mary and Tanya and Alice who she hadn’t seen in thirty years, and Myrna, whose most recent e-mail she’d just read that morning, and Daniel, whom she’d seen in Nashville last fall when she met Andrew there for his convention and Dan came through with his youngest granddaughter.There were letters from Hal tied in a red satin ribbon, and she still knew as if she’d read them yesterday all the merry comforts and wrenching truths they contained. 

But she picked up one from her grandmother, addressed in that cheery sprawling cursive from another time, anticipating a brief visit Caroline vaguely remembered making in a chugging VW bug, one of her cats in tow. “So glad you’ll be here soon. I have bridge that Tuesday,” her grandmother wrote, “and I know you don’t play, but you can have lunch with us. Muriel Hascombe’s daughter was a TriDelt with your mom, and she has a grandson who just graduated Vanderbilt, starting law school there in the fall. Then there’s Tiny L’Anoigne, who has a really adorable grandson who was just made vice-president at the bank! He has a cute sister, too, Melissa, and I know she’d be happy to introduce you to some of her crowd.”

Caroline  had been 23, stubborn and disdainful: such a joke, to think she’d ever be interested in moving back to her mother’s home town. The world was too big for that. She knew New York, and California, and her boyfriend was a Philosopher who had been to India. What could her grandmother know about the kind of life she was seeking? Looking back, she was sure on Bridge Day, if she hadn’t made some excuse to be out all day, she’d have politely but unmistakably rebuffed all the offers, condescendingly chatted with her grandmother’s friends, sighed and rolled her eyes as she went off to bed each night in the quiet, pleasant house with the high ceilings and ticking clock and warm beds and any sort of breakfast she could want every morning. Now, all those years later, she blushed at her ungrateful self and saw: all she ever really wanted was for me to be happy. That’s all, and who was I to ever deny her the pleasure of my happiness?

And have I been? Have I been happy? Surely from time to time, and more than most, she had been. Probably her grandmother even understood, in her own way, that it had been up to Caroline to find that. 

Leaving the mess, she went out to the deck and looked through the trees to the water, recalling the garden below the fire escape in New Orleans and the ponderosas that rimmed the small yard in Flagstaff. Nearly eight years had passed, which meant she’d lived here longer than she’d lived in the little house on Route 12 when the kids were young, and almost as long as in that final house on the hill above Montpelier. The heron she saw now could hardly be the same one. Herons might keep their homes their whole life once they’d settled, the same hidden fold of brush and same acres of water and shore their backyard, but surely they didn’t live this long? She pushed the question out of her mind, resisting the urge to look it up. He looked the same, absolutely, and moved with the same speed and grace and stood with the same unshakeable composure, and on the infrequent times she saw him walk through the cove’s shallows, she witnessed the same purposeful seeking. She had come to trust that he would always be there, or another like him.

That night, after the car-in-ditch fiasco, they’d headed to town for supper at Celia’s. Celia had bought their grandmother’s house from her mother and aunt and uncle soon after Grandmother had died, when she was still a young divorcee, and although she, too, had gone far in her life, living in Milan and Seoul with her military husband, she’d had years now to establish herself. Celia’s next door neighbor Audrey was there, and Celia had made tacos and margaritas, and after their second Celia advised them to just stay on over so they could have another, and Martha and Caroline agreed that sounded like a good idea. Celia explained to them all the ongoing saga of her granddaughter’s indecision, majoring in Software Engineering and then in Psychology, engaged to a man none of them could stand and then to a woman who seemed nice enough but a little dim—and she was determined to stay out of it and just let the poor confused thing come visit her for awhile next week. Caroline had a little gas and they all recited poetry about tooting and beans they had known for seventy years. Martha told them all they had to read Evaline Stapleton’s latest and how well it captured Nashville in the 70’s, and that lead to more literary reflections, and Caroline realized just for a moment that skirting her consciousness was a pang of mourning that she had no books about life in Vermont to recommend. Audrey took out her iPad and showed them a cat flying off a ceiling fan on a YouTube video, once, and again, and again, leaving them breathlessly howling with laughter at their own wickedness at finding it funny, and then it seemed they each had another bit of comic naughtiness they had to share.  

It was after eleven when Audrey headed home, and Martha and Caroline helped Celia tidy up. “I guess she wasn’t ready to make the announcement,” Celia told them, “but Audrey just told me she’s decided to move to Atlanta to be closer to her oldest.”

“Oh, no, you’re going to miss her,” Martha said.  

Celia sighed. “Yes, I am, but it’s more than that. We had talked about her moving in here with me. This place is getting too much for me, five bedrooms and almost five hundred dollars a month to run the AC in summer. Even when the grandkids visit that’s at least one bedroom too many, and the boiler and the fridge aren’t going to last too much longer. I just can’t keep up.” 

She sat down on the couch and sighed again, and Caroline and Martha looked at each other. Finally Caroline said, “We should talk about this in the morning.”

Soon, she and her sister would move to town, and Caroline would take the same first floor room in their young cousin’s house where they’d sleep tonight, where they’d played and slept and celebrated as children, when Mom and Dad and Aunt Stacy and Uncle Bob were young, their Grandmother and Grandfather lively hosts to the Christmases and lazy summer weeks.  One August night Grandmother had gathered them at that room’s window, all the inside lights turned off and the traffic quieted while the street light at the end of the walk illuminated the side yard, and shown them the maple, dark limbs sillhouetted against the neighbor’s brick and casting a glorious symmetry of reaching shadows on the ground. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she’d whispered to them, as if she were showing them Jesus, or a magic stone.

The stairs in that house had been recently carpeted in plush taupe, replacing the sculpted royal blue pile from her grandmother’s time, but still sweeping and welcoming one to the second floor, where the landing gave way to the tasteful hallway, the doors opening to four more bedrooms, two baths, all larger than in any house she’d lived in. Behind  the closet door in the front bedroom, where their aunt had once slept, were shellaced pictures from magazines, sassy, smiling girls with tightly curled hair spouting slogans of encouragement, and in one, a uniformed pilot, era WWII, inviting a dreamy-eyed blonde, “Hey! How’s about a ride to heaven?” The narrow wooden stairs behind the door to the attic still held the iron with its curled cord, the hat and boot boxes that were neither opened nor discarded as far back as she could remember, dust and cobwebs on its landing, and then the attic space itself, burdens and bundles of old furniture draped with sheets and a display case from the women’s clothing store a great-great uncle had once owned. One year, when they were old enough, her mother had shown them how she and her friends would contort themselves  through the attic window and onto the roof, where they could sit and look below at passing cars and pedestrians and talk, or maybe, in their teens, sneak to share a stolen cigarette.  

Nights there when she was young, after so many hours of running in and out and laughing with cousins and eating cold fried chicken and bread-and-butter pickles and walking the dog a half-dozen times, stopped along the way each time by neighbors delighted to see how much she’d grown, she would fall quickly asleep, drawn down in by the sounds of the attic fan and the cycling air conditioner if it was summer. But sometimes she’d awake to a dream and clutch herself in the covers, hiding her eyes just below them, until it passed: grandparents and great-grandparents, the newly departed or those she’d never met, living in the attic space above in their own cozy apartment. Sometimes there’d be people from her father’s side of family too. She would hear their muttering and push open the door and there they’d be, surrounded in early-century flowers of draperies and lamps, cupboards and tables, ambers and oaks and sienna reds confining yet sustaining them: they would speak to her as if they were alive, familiar and matter-of-fact and and certainly without any menace, but even as she listened in the dream she would know, this is wrong, you’re not alive, you’re dead, and you’re not supposed to be here. She’d have that dream again even when she was older and older still, even when she was states away, with her newer family, or alone. Once when she was a young woman and she and Martha and Jerrod and Celia were there and a little drunk, maybe it was after Grandfather had died,  she’d confessed to the dreams, and each had nodded, yes, I’ve had those too. 

Soon, their lives would be there again, for five years or ten, who knew. Their cousin Celia’s children, or the children’s wives or husbands, would bring them shopping, to the doctor, to the library. There might even be friends to find there, another crew of bewildered double-transplants, out of that soil for decades but come back at last, digging in for a final push, years of other homes and lives still clinging to them. Andrew would come at holidays, or maybe in summer to take them out to the lake, and they would see if the heron was still there. Surely Amy would finally come, tempered and gentle, recalling too where her mother had begun her life, and surely they would find memories of their own to laugh about and weep over. And Caroline would sleep each night in a bed by windows that framed light she’d known for 80 years or more. 

Then one day she would become one of those ghosts, fluttering and muttering atop the attic stairs, troubling the sleep of those alive below, the fullness of life condensed into a final unyielding concern, reminding strange children of something dismaying they’d rather not have to know. And she wondered, in return, in her garret above, would she feel their stirring clarity and will, take it in and at last disappear, further aloft? 

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