"I WISH I didn't have to go back," said Natalie sadly as she walked with Tallie to the boat landing on Sunday afternoon.
"Stay, then. We'll pick wild strawberries and make jam."
Natalie sighed. "I have to work tomorrow. Dad needs me. And the next free weekend I have—"
"You're going to go to that place—what was the funny name it had?"
"Simmons' Mills. Yes. You'll find things there that will surprise you, Natalie. You're not afraid of them, are you?"
Natalie laughed uncertainly but she said, "No. I think they'll probably be very ordinary things. Nothing to be afraid of."
Sonny, still buttoned up in his salt-stiffened jacket, helped her into the rugged little boat. She reached up and held Tallie's hand tightly for a moment; then Sonny revved the engine and the boat moved gently from the dock.
Tallie had wrapped her arms around herself to shield her body from the chilly wind that was lifting foam from the murky and turbulent water of the bay. Natalie watched her grandmother diminish in size as the Egret carried them steadily apart, until Tallie was no more than a speck on the outlined edge of the island dock, and then she was nothing at all as light gray fog appeared and blurred the transition between sky, land, and sea.
Natalie felt the edges of her backpack to assure herself that the small box Tallie had given her was still safely there. "Open it later," Tallie had said, "when you have time, and solitude. I don't know if it will help at all. But it will add another dimension. In art, it's important to find all the dimensions, even if you choose to discard some."
"MOM," said Natalie the following Tuesday evening, when she had come home exhausted from work and was resting in the kitchen with her shoes off, "why didn't you ever tell me that Tallie had been married before?"
Her mother was stirring spaghetti sauce. She put the lid back on the heavy cast-iron pot, and turned to Natalie with a puzzled, surprised look.
"Nat, you're not going to believe this. In fact, if I were you, I know I wouldn't believe it. But I forgot."
"You're right. I don't believe it."
"No, really. Of course, Stefan Chandler was my father. An incredible man. I so wish that you girls could have known him. And Tallie—my mother—did tell me that she'd been married before. I don't think she ever told me any of the details. It wasn't important. Tallie and Stefan were such a ... well, how can I describe it?...theirs was such a good marriage. It was as if they must always have been together. They adored each other. They adored me, too, when I came along, and they made me part of it, of whatever they had."
"And you really didn't remember about her first husband?"
"No. Not until you mentioned it. But now I remember that she showed me a clipping once, his obituary—"
"It was twelve inches long, she said."
"Leave it to Tallie to make an obituary sound mildly obscene!" Kay Armstrong sat down at the kitchen table and smiled. "What else did she tell you?"
Natalie grinned. "That she was a terrible mother, and you used to curl up in the corners of strange places and sleep because she forgot to put you to bed."
Her mother laughed affectionately. "Yes, I remember. She and Stefan used to take me everywhere. There were always loads of people—isn't it funny, how she's preferred solitude, since he's been dead?—and they would talk, and sing, and dance, and argue. After a while I would find myself a comfortable little spot somewhere and curl up, just the way she said.
"She's teasing, though, when she says she was a terrible mother. She was the best kind of mother. Did she tell you, though, that it hurt her dreadfully when I decided to marry?"
"It did? No, she didn't tell me that. Didn't she like Dad?"
"She does now. But then—well, I guess it was because he was so unlike Stefan. And Stefan had died only the year before. I think she hoped I would perpetuate that kind of wonderful crazy happiness by marrying someone exactly like him, so there would be three of us again."
"Was it hard for you, to disappoint her?"
Her mother thought. "No, strangely, it wasn't. Because I was all grown up then, and I knew what she wanted wasn't the same as what / wanted. I told her that. We were always very honest with each other. She understood. After a while, it was all right. She didn't tell you any of that?"
"Actually," said Natalie, "I guess she did. It was part of what she was saying."
TALLIE HAD SAID to wait until she had time, and solitude. They were both hard to come by. Her job took long hours of the day, frequently running over through dinnertime if there were patients still in the office; when she went home in the evenings, she went home still saturated with the burdens of other people's pain and with the stimulation of watching her father go about the intellectual and intuitive process of healing.
Most evenings, she saw Paul. He was working at a construction job, earning money that would help him through Yale. At night he would stop by, exhausted, and they sat on her porch, sipped iced tea, and talked. Sometimes she felt, sadly, that they had already entered two different worlds. His was the world of sunburn and sweat, and of men. When she asked him what he had done that day, he told her of the men he worked with—people she didn't know. Their talk, on the job, was of TV shows and women, Paul said, amused. They had asked him to join a bowling team and to drive with them to Boston some weekend for a Red Sox game.
High school seemed in the distant past, through it was only three weeks before that they had stood in the gym at graduation and whispered familiar jokes to their classmates, about teachers and shared pranks. Paul felt it too, the quickness of the transition. Two of their classmates had already joined the Navy; one other was married. The local newspaper had carried a picture of her on Sunday, wearing a white veil and smiling shyly over a bouquet of carnations. Four weeks before the same girl had been called into the principal's office for a lecture when she had been caught smoking in the girls' bathroom. Now she would be settling down in an apartment full of furniture sold in matched sets at Sears, joining the other housewives in their morning trips to the supermarket, carefully sorting the coupons from last night's paper, and waiting idly at the Laundromat while the week's wash floated like a collage in the dryer.
Another boy, someone they knew only slightly, had been killed two days after graduation, when he drove his car into a tree at midnight after a party. The Class of '77, which had stood in a proud group arranged according to height and wearing rented maroon graduation gowns, was already history. "What happened to———" people would ask before long, and the answers would come, in many cases, as surprises. The Class Clown would be working in his father's company, selling radial tires. The Class Flirts, photographed for the yearbook in a silly, amorous pose, had gone separate ways, the girl to beauticians' school in Portland, and the boy studying aeronautics in New Hampshire. The Class Intellectual, Gretchen, was working in a summer camp in Vermont; Natalie had had a brief letter from her, filled with funny remarks about the crafts—basket-making and what Gretchen called "wavery weaving"—that she taught to rich people's children, and the news that Solzhenitsyn, in exile from Russia, was living only twelve miles away. On her day off she had passed the long fence that surrounded his house, and wanted, she wrote whimsically, to call over it "I love you."
"Here we are," said Natalie, laughing to Paul, "the 'Best All-Around Girl' and the 'Most Likely to Succeed Boy,' and we're too lazy to do anything except push this swing back and forth with our feet."
"And hold hands," added Paul, squeezing her hand. "Nobody ever said I was most likely to succeed immediately. And you're definitely the best all-around hand-holder I know."
"Oh, well. We'll set the world on fire someday. Right now it's nice to be lazy."
"You want to go to the movies Friday night?"
Natalie shook her head. "I'm leaving Thursday, and going to Simmons' Mills."
Paul sighed. "I really think you're crazy, Nat. You're going to go up there and talk to that lawyer—what was his name?"
"Foster H. Goodwin."
"You're going to go talk Foster H. Goodwin into telling you who your parents are, and then what? You're going to go knock on their door. I can see it now. They'll be living very peacefully in a split-level house, with five kids and a dachshund and a couple of Snowmobiles. Up comes Natalie Armstrong, up the front walk. Knock knock knock. 'Hello,' you'll say. 'Remember me?' What happens then?"
Natalie made a face at him. "Paul, give me credit for a little good sense. I don't know exactly what I'll do, but I'm certainly not going to march up to their front door. Maybe I'll write them a letter."
"Which they won't answer."
"Of course they'll answer. Probably they'll be really nice people. We'll have dinner together, or something. They'll tell me a little bit about what happened seventeen years ago. We'll talk. I'll get to find out what they're like. They'll see what I'm like. We'll become friends. It won't be a big embarrassing deal, or anything."
"Then you'll exchange Christmas cards for the next thirty years."
Natalie laughed. "I told you. We'll become friends. And we won't have to wonder anymore whatever became of each other."
"It hasn't occurred to you that maybe they've never wondered at all?"
"Impossible," said Natalie firmly.
"Bullshit," said Paul. "I hope you're right, Natalie, for your sake. But I think you're the 'Best All-Around Crazy Person.'"
He gave the swing a strong push, and they moved suddenly back and forth, the way they had as children, trying to scare themselves into thinking they might fall. She held tightly to his hand.
LATER THAT EVENING, after Paul had gone, Natalie opened the small box that Tallie had given her.
If I were Nancy, she thought, peeling away the Scotch tape at the edges, I would have opened this up as soon as I got off the boat from Ox Island. Nancy is the one who leaps in the ocean all at once. And I'm the one who goes in inch by excruciating inch.
For me, she thought, the waiting and the wondering are sometimes the best part of things. Maybe that's why I've kind of cooled it with Paul, when some of my friends have become so heavily involved. I like having things to look forward to.
She removed the lid from the box, and saw the letters that were written in her own mother's handwriting. She smiled. The small, vertical strokes of Kay Armstrong's script hadn't changed, though these letters had been saved for years. There were only a few; Tallie had sorted them, she had told Natalie, and given her just the ones that would add the necessary dimension. Natalie envisioned her grandmother looking through the stack, reading through each letter quickly, with her head cocked sideways like a bird, and making the selection, in the same way that Natalie had watched her paint with bold, carefully considered definitive strokes.
The first letter was dated March, 1960.
Aren't you ever going to cut loose from Boston just for a weekend and come to see us in Maine? The house is so spacious, and we have reserved a room for you; I painted it white, and there are plants hanging in the windows and a wonderful patchwork quilt on the bed, in all the shades of blue and green that are your favorites.