“I do believe in marriage. And love, and family, and commitments. I just … failed at it.”
Ruby looked surprised by that answer. “That’s an interesting word choice. Failed.”
“I don’t suppose either one of us would characterize my wife-and-motherhood as successful.”
“No. But I wouldn’t have expected you to see it that way. As a failure, I mean.”
They were finally circling something that mattered. Nora“s voice was gentle. ”How did you imagine I’d feel?"
Ruby frowned. “I would have thought you’d see leaving us as … a success. You did it so well. Like leaving a job you hate. You might miss the income, but you’re proud of yourself for finding the guts to quit.”
“I wasn’t proud of myself.”
“Why?” Ruby asked the question in a whispered voice. “Why did you do it? Couldn’t you have a career and raise children?”
Nora sighed. There were so many ways to answer that, and she was too damned depressed to pick the right one. So, she said the first thing that came to mind. “What happened to us isn’t some event, like the sinking of the Titanic. It’s little things, strung together over decades. To really understand it all, you’d have to grow up and see the way things really were in our family, but you don’t want to do that, Ruby. You want to forget I ever existed. . . forget we ever existed.”
“It’s easier that way,” Ruby said quietly.
“Yes. And it’s easier for me to walk away from my career. I can’t fight these charges … not with the life I’ve led and the choices I’ve made. The press will uncover what I did to my children … to you, Ruby … and it’ll get even worse.”
“I never saw you as a quitter.”
Nora gave her a sad, knowing smile. “Ah, Ruby … of all people … you should have.”
It was early afternoon, the peak of a surprisingly hot June day. The sea and sky were a solid sheet of sparkling blue. Sunlight glinted along the surface of the water. At the edge of the property, just before it dipped down to meet the sand, trees reached out to one another, their leaves whispering in the wind. Starlings banked and dove along the eaves, chirping loudly, flying low above the grass.
Ruby sat in the white Adirondack chair on the second-floor balcony. She couldn’t seem to stop crying.
She kept thinking about Eric, about all the times they’d spent together, how he’d been the big brother she’d never had-and the thought of losing him was unbearable … but no worse than the realization that she’d lost him years earlier, thoughtlessly, by walking away and never bothering to call.
Never bothering to call.
It was the story of her life. Ruby the half-wit girl who exits stage right. She had loved Eric. Not in the searing, heartbreaking way she’d loved his brother, but in a solid, dependable way. For all the years of her youth, he’d been there. It was Eric who’d taught her to set up a pup tent when the Girl Scout jamboree was coming … Eric who’d shown her how to stand on the bow pulpit of the Wind Lass on a windy day.
And yet she’d walked away, let him become a faded snapshot in the drawer of her life.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered aloud, hearing the pathetic edge to her voice. It wasn’t good enough, her apology into thin air. She acknowledged that. But the thought of seeing him terrified her. How could she stand by his bed and talk to him … smile as if they’d stayed friends … and say good-bye?
How could she watch him die?
Closing her eyes, she leaned back into the chair. In the bedroom behind her, the phone rang, but when she picked it up, there was no answer.
When the briiiiing sounded again, she realized it was her cellular phone. She dove over the bed and reached for the phone on the floor. She’d plugged it in less than an hour earlier.
“Jesus, Rube, I’ve been trying this number endlessly. How’s life in the outback?”
It was Val. She could hear his exhalation of cigarette smoke into the receiver. “It’s Summer Island, Val, not Siberia. And things are fine.”
“I thought you might need to be airlifted out.”
Ruby laughed. “No, just keep that alibi handy in case I need it.”
“How’s the article coming?”
“Okay, I think. Maybe even good.”
"Excellent news. I talked to Joan this morning.
Things are really heating up on this story. The press is crucifying your mother."
Ruby was caught off guard by her reaction to that. It made her mad. “She doesn’t care. She’s walking away from her career. Quitting.”
“Amazing, huh? Anyway, I’m working hard.”
“Joan’ll be glad to hear that. Remember, you’re booked on Sarah Purcell for next week. See you then, babe.”
Babe. Ruby couldn’t help rolling her eyes.
He’d never called her that before; it must be a term reserved for clients who actually made him money. “Okay, Val. Talk to you soon.”
After she hung up, she retrieved her paper and pen, then went back out onto the balcony and sat in the oversize chair her grandfather had made by hand. She forced herself to stop thinking about Eric. For now, she needed to work on the article.
She looked down at her yellow pad, then slowly picked up her pen and began to write.
I have spent most of my adult life pretending I was motherless. At first, it took effort. When a memory of my mother came to me, I ruthlessly squelched it and forced other images into my mind–a slamming door; the sound of tires sputtering through gravel; my father, sitting on the edge of his bed, weeping into his hands.
In time, I taught myself to forget, and in that state of suspended amnesia, things were easy. Time moved on.
But last night, my mother and I watched some old home movies. There, in a darkened living room, the doors I’d tried to keep closed slowly opened.
Now I am left with a disturbing and disorienting question: In forgetting my mother, how much have I forgotten about myself?
It seems I don’t know either one of us. My mother tells me now that she is going to walk away from her career. I don’t know what to make of that. She traded our family for fame and fortune; how could it mean so little to her?
Ruby set the pen and pad down on the rusty, frosted glass table beside her chair, unable to think of anything to add.
She couldn’t forget her mother’s face when she’d said, I’ll just fade away.
Her mother had looked … broken, resigned, and more than a little afraid. Just like another time.
I’m leaving. Who wants to come with me?
For eleven years, Ruby had remembered only the words, the harsh, ugly sound of them in the silence of that morning.
Now, she remembered the rest.
Her mother’s eyes had been filled with that same agonizing pain, and when she spoke, her voice had been strained.. . not her voice at all.
Then, Ruby had heard nothing beyond the good bye. She’d understood that her mother was leaving … but what if Nora had been running away?
I never saw you as a quitter, Ruby had said today.
And her mother’s answer: You, of all people … you should have.
But what could her mother have been running away from? And what had kept her away?
The package arrived from Seattle in the late afternoon, while her mother was taking a nap. Ruby knew what it was. She debated with herself for a few moments after all, she’d purposely chosen never to read her mother’s newspaper columns-but the Cache article changed things. Now, Ruby needed to know what “Nora Knows Best” had been about.
Quietly, she opened the box and pulled out a manila envelope marked BEST OF. In the living room, she plopped onto the sofa, tucked her feet up underneath her, and withdrew the pile of clippings. The one on top was dated December 1989, from the Anacortes Bee.
Do you have any tips for getting red wine out of white silk? At my sister’s wedding, I got a little drunk and spilled a glassful on her gown. Now she’s not talking to me, and I feel just awful about it.
Wedding Dress Blues.
Nora’s answer was short and sweet.
Dear Wedding Dress Blues:
Only your dry cleaner can get the stain out. If it can’t be done, you must offer to replace the gown. Because you were drunk, even a little, this is more than an ordinary accident, and your sister deserves a perfect reminder of her special day, a dress she can pass down to her daughter. It may take you a while to save the money, but in the end, you’ll feel better. Nothing is more important than family. I’m sure you know that; it’s what made you write to me. It’s so easy to do the wrong thing in life, don’t you think? When we see a clear road to being a better person, we ought to take it.
As Ruby continued to read the columns, she noticed that her mother’s mail changed gradually from household-hint questions to earnest, heartfelt questions about life. Ruby had to admit that her mother was good at this. Her answers were concise, wise, and compassionate.
Ruby began to hear her mother in the column. Not the sophisticated, greedy, selfish Nora Bridge, but her mother, the woman who’d told Ruby to wear her coat, or brush her teeth, or clean her room.
As she read a column about a sixteen-year-old girl who was having a problem with drugs, Ruby remembered a time from her own life. . .
It had been in that terrible year that Ruby had almost “gone bad.” She’d been fourteen, and Lopez Island-and her own family-had seemed hopelessly small and uncool. For a time, skipping school and smoking pot had offered Ruby a better way. She’d even turned away from Dean.
Dad had gone ballistic when Ruby got suspended school for smoking, but not Nora.
Her mother had picked Ruby up from the principal’s office and driven her to the state park at the tip of the island. She’d dragged Ruby down to the secluded patch of beach that overlooked Haro Strait and the distant glitter of downtown Victoria. It had been exactly three in the afternoon, and the gray whales had been migrating past them in a spouting, splashing row. Nora had been wearing her good dress, the one she saved for parent-teacher conferences, but she had plopped down cross-legged on the sand.
Ruby had stood there, waiting to be bawled out, her chin stuck out, her arms crossed.
Instead, Nora had reached into her pocket and pulled out the joint that had been found in Ruby’s locker. Amazingly, she had put it in her mouth and lit up, taking a deep toke, then she had held it out to Ruby.
Stunned, Ruby had sat down by her mother and taken the joint. They’d smoked the whole damn thing together, and all the while, neither of them had spoken.
Gradually, night had fallen; across the water, the sparkling white city lights had come on.
Her mother had chosen that minute to say what she’d come to say. “Do you notice anything different about Victoria?”
Ruby had found it difficult to focus. “It looks farther away,” she had said, giggling.
“It is farther away. That’s the thing about drugs. When you use them, everything you want in life is farther away.” Nora had turned to her. “How cool is it to do something that anyone with a match can do? Cool is becoming an astronaut … or a comedian… or a scientist who cures cancer. Lopez Island is exactly what you think it is–a tiny blip on a map. But the world is out there, Ruby, even if you haven’t seen it. Don’t throw your chances away. We don’t get as many of them as we need. Right now you can go anywhere, be anyone, do anything. You can become so damned famous that they’ll have a parade for you when you come home for your high-school reunion … or you can keep screwing up and failing your classes and you can snip away the ends of your choices until finally you end up with that crowd who hangs out at Zeke’s Diner, smoking cigarettes and talking about high-school football games that ended twenty years ago.” She had stood up and brushed off her dress, then looked down at Ruby. “It’s your choice. Your life. I’m your mother, not your warden.”