Ruby went to the counter; turned her back to Nora, and began chopping.
Nora spun the wheelchair toward her daughter.
“Are you okay?”
Ruby stepped back. Blood was dripping in a steady red stream from her index finger; it plopped onto the tile counter.
Nora yanked a clean towel off the oven door. “Come here, honey. Get on your knees in front of me. Keep your hand up.”
Ruby dropped to her knees. She seemed unable to look away from her finger. Her face was pale.
Nora gently took hold of her daughter’s hand. Seeing that blood-her child’s-made Nora’s own hand throb. Just like old times; Nora had always experienced a phantom pain whenever one of her kids was hurt. She carefully coiled the towel around the wound, and without thinking, wrapped her own hands around Ruby’s.
When she looked up, Nora saw the emotion on Ruby’s face, and knew that her daughter remembered this simple routine. The only thing missing was a kiss to make it all better. She saw the longing flash throughRuby’s eyes. It was only there for an instant, but Nora had waited so long to see it …
Ruby yanked her hand back. “It’s just a cut, forGod’s sake. We don’t have to go looking for my finger on the floor or anything.”
That gap yawned between them again, and Nora wondered suddenly if she’d imagined the longing in her daughter’s eyes. If she’d seen only what she wanted so desperately to see.
Her voice was shaky when she said, “Put the artichoke hearts and two tablespoons of capers into the sauce.” She turned quickly to the spice drawer, yanking it open. But when she stared down into the drawer; all she saw was Ruby’s face as it had been for that one second, that instant that had somehow been both then and now.
Nora grabbed the herbs she needed and wheeled back around, adding them to the sauce. “Put a big pot of water on to boil, won’t you?”
For the next thirty minutes, Ruby did as she was told without uttering a word. She was vigilant in her refusal to make eye contact.
But finally, the meal was ready, and they were seated across from each other at the round wooden kitchen table. Ruby picked up her fork and rammed it into the pasta, twirling it.
“Don’t you want to say grace?” Nora asked.
Ruby looked up. “No.”
“There is no we. Dinnertime prayers are one of those family traditions that went the way of our family. God and I have an understanding. When He stopped listening, I stopped talking.”
Nora sighed. “Oh, Ruby … ”
“Don’t give me that wounded-deer look.” Ruby turned her attention back to the plate and started eating. “This is good.”
“Thanks.” Nora closed her eyes. “Thank you, God,” she said softly, her voice barely loud enough for Ruby to hear. “For this food … and this time that Ruby and I have together.”
Ruby kept eating.
Nora tried to eat, but the silence tore at her nerves. It was hard enough to be estranged from your child when thousands of miles separated you … but estrangement at the same table was brutal.
One personal thing.
Leo’s advice came back to her. It had seemed easy enough when she was on the phone with her doctor; now, sitting beneath this cone of silence, it felt like a herculean undertaking.
She was still trolling for an icebreaker when Ruby said, “Excuse me,” got up from the table, and went across the kitchen. She started filling the sink with water.
Nora hadn’t realized that eating was a timed event. Fortunately, she kept this observation to herself. She cleared the table, stacked the dishes on the counter at Ruby’s elbow. In an unnerving silence, Ruby washed and Nora dried. When they were finished, Nora wheeled herself into the living room.
She mentally prepared for round two.
Ruby swept past her-practically running-and headed for the stairs.
Nora had to think fast. “Why don’t you make us a fire? June nights are always chilly.”
Ruby stumbled to a halt. Without answering, she went to the hearth and knelt down to build a fire.
She did it exactly as she’d been taught by Grandpa Bridge.
“I guess some things you never forget,” Nora said.
Ruby sat back on her heels and held her hands out toward the fire. It was a full minute before she turned to Nora and said, “Except how it feels to have a mother.”
Nora sucked in a sharp breath. “That’s not fair. I was with you every day until … ”
“Until the day you weren’t.”
Nora clasped her hands together and slid them between her legs. She didn’t want Ruby to see how badly she was trembling. “You and Caroline were my whole world.”
Ruby laughed drily and got to her feet, moving toward Nora. “We weren’t your whole world the summer I was sixteen; that was the year you walked into the living room, dropped your suitcase on the floor; and announced that you were leaving, wasn’t it? And what was it you said to us-”Who wants to come with me?“ Yes, that was it. ‘Who wants to come with me?” As if Caroline and I would set down our forks, clear the table, and move away from our dad and our home just because you decided you didn’t want to be here."
“I didn’t decide … I left because-”
“I don’t care why you left. That’s what you care about.”
Nora longed to make Ruby understand, even if it was only the merest bit. Just enough so that they could simply talk. “You don’t know everything about me.”
Ruby looked down at her. Nora thought she saw a war going on inside her daughter; as if Ruby wanted both to keep fighting and to stop. It surprised Nora.She understood why her daughter would want to keep distance between them. What she couldn’t imagine was why Ruby was still standing here. It was, in truth, a little disconcerting. She got the unsettling feeling that Ruby-honest-to-a-fault Ruby-" hiding something.
“Tell me something about you, then,” Ruby said at last.
This was Nora’s chance. She knew she needed to tread carefully. “Okay, let’s go sit on the porch-like we used to, remember? We’ll each share one piece of information about ourselves.”
Ruby laughed. “I asked you to tell me about you. I didn’t offer to reciprocate.”
Nora stood her ground. “I need to know about you, too. Besides, if we’re both talking, we can pretend it’s a conversation.”
Ruby wasn’t laughing now. “Very Silence of the Lambs of you, Nora. Quid pro quo. For every secret you tell me, I tell you one.”
“I suppose I’m Hannibal Lecter in your little comparison. A cannibal … and a psychopath, how lovely.”
Ruby studied her a minute longer. "This should be interesting. I’m twenty-seven; you were … . . when, the day before yesterday? I guess it’s time we talked. Come on.
She watched her daughter walk through the kitchen and disappear onto the porch. The screen door banged shut behind her. Nora finally allowed herself to smile.
Ruby had remembered her birthday.
Finally, she wheeled out onto the porch, thankful to see that the rain had stopped. Cool night air breezed across her cheeks, carrying with it the smells of a life gone by-the sea, the sand, the roses climbing along the railings. They had bloomed early this year; as they always did after a mild winter. In another two weeks there would be saucer-size blossoms crawling up the trellises and along the picket fence.
Shadows crept along the ground like slowly seeping India ink, moved up the sides of the house, and slipped through the slats on the picket fence. Sunset tinted the sky purple and pink.
The porch light cast Ruby’s back in an orangey glow. She looked young and vulnerable, with her black hair so poorly cut, and her clothes all tattered and torn. The urge to reach out, to brush the hair off Ruby’s face, and say softly –
“Don’t say it, Nora.”
Nora frowned. “Say what?”
“Ah, Ruby, you could be so beautiful if you’d just try a little.”
It startled Nora, that bit of mind reading. Sure, she’d said that often to Ruby, had thought in fact to say it a second ago, but it meant nothing. To Nora, the comment had simply been grains of sand in the desert of a mother’s advice. Obviously, Ruby had felt otherwise, and she’d carried the words with her into womanhood.
Nora saw how heavy they had become, and she was ashamed. “I’m sorry, Ruby. What I should have said is: you’re beautiful, just the way you are.”
Ruby turned, stared down at her.
Silence settled between them, broken only by the sounds of the sea and the occasional caw of a lone crow hidden in the trees.
“Okay, Nora,” Ruby said, crossing her arms, leaning with feigned nonchalance against the porch rail. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Nora gazed up at her daughter; saw the wary expectation in those dark eyes, and took a deep breath. “You think I don’t understand you,” she began softly, “but I know how it feels to turn your back on a parent.”
Ruby pulled away from the railing. Frowning, she sat down on the white wicker chair beside Nora. “You loved your parents. You told us all about them.”
“The stories I told you girls were true,” she answered slowly, “and they were lies. I was never good at making stuff up, so my bedtime stories were always bits and pieces of my life … cleaned up. I wanted you and Caro to have a sense of where you’d come from.”
“What do you mean, cleaned up?”
Nora’s gaze was steady. “No matter how dark a place is, there are always moments of light. That’s what I passed on to you and Caroline, my moments of light.” She took a deep breath. “On the day I graduated from high school, I left home, and I never went back again.”
“Did you run away?”
“From my father; yes. I loved my mother.”
“How long was it before you saw them again?” Nora couldn’t help it; she closed her eyes.
“I saw my father once-at my mother’s funeral. Before you and Caroline were born.”
“And never again?”
“Never again.” Nora wished those two little words didn’t hurt. The emotion was so old it ought to have decomposed by now. She leaned toward Ruby. “I never saw him again, didn’t even attend his funeral, and all my life I’ve had to live with that decision. It’s not regret I feel so much, but more of … a sad longing. I wish he had been a different man. Most of all, I wish I could have loved him.”
“Did you ever love him?”
“Perhaps … when I was young. If so, I don’t remember it.”
Ruby got up, walked to the railing, and stared out at the sea. Without turning around, she said, “I read the People magazine article about you. It said–and I quote: ‘The cornerstones of Nora Bridge’s message are forgiveness and commitment.” “Ruby turned around at last. ”Did you try to forgive him?"
Nora wanted to lie. It was easy to see that Ruby was asking as much about their relationship as she was about Nora and her father’s. But there was little enough chance for Nora and Ruby; with deception, there would be none at all. “Years later; after I’d had my own children-and lost their love-I began to regret how I’d treated him. As a young woman, I didn’t-couldn’t–understand how hard life can be. I think that’s how he felt. It’s no excuse, but it gives me a way to see him that turns the hatred into pity. Of course, that understanding came too late. He was already gone.”