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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 20

Rebecca Wells

  Sidda reached down to pull Hueylene closer to her. Therapy has done some good. Five years ago I would have gone catatonic if someone spoke such blunt crazy wisdom to me.

  “You still breathing?” Caro asked softly.


  “I think about breathing a whole lot these days,” Caro said. “Uncountable the number of breaths I’ve taken for granted in my life.”

  Caro’s words swept into Sidda with the air she was breathing, and caused her to notice her breath. For a moment, Sidda said nothing. She simply rode with her breath, like a surfer on an afternoon wave. At opposite ends of the country, she and Caro breathed into their telephones, neither of them speaking.

  Eventually Caro said, “Okay: about that sweet-sixteen business: it was ugly.”

  “What do you mean?” Sidda asked.

  “You really want to talk about this?”

  “Are you tired?” Sidda asked.

  Caro breathed raggedly. If Sidda hadn’t known better, she would have thought the breath was stagy.

  “The man had settled some big case, what have you, wanted to strut his money. Your grandmother Buggy didn’t want to have that dance. Your grandfather did it to spite her. Goddamnit, Taylor Abbott treated your grandmother like a piece of shit. Weird as she was, she didn’t deserve it. Ran around on her for years. Every maid in the parish knew about it. He treated his horses better than he did his wife. Hell, I don’t know. Your mama got caught in the middle of all their shit.”

  Caro was silent for a moment before she continued.

  “That dance. Taylor Abbott gave Vivi this drop-dead diamond ring. It was the last big party before we lost Jack. Not a birthday you’d want to remember.”

  Sidda waited for Caro to say more, but she didn’t.

  “Is that all, Caro?” Sidda asked. “What happened? How did all this affect Mama?”

  “Your mama’s next birthday is going to be grand, I can tell you that,” Caro said, ignoring Sidda’s probing. “We’re planning the party for October rather than December. Vivi announced she wanted an outdoor party this year, so we need to have it before it gets cold. I’m doing the invitations on my Macintosh.”

  Caro began to cough.

  “Queen of Evasion,” Sidda said.

  “Godmother of Evasion,” Caro said in a weary voice.

  “You’re tired. I’ve kept you too long.”

  “Yes, I am tired, Pal.”

  “Thank you for answering my question.”

  “I didn’t answer your question.”

  “No, you didn’t.”

  “ ‘There is no answer,’ ” Caro said. “ ‘There never has been an answer. There never will be an answer. That’s the answer.’—Gertrude Stein.”

  “You’re the second person to quote Gertrude Stein to me this week.”

  “Life ain’t no Baltimore Catechism, Pal—Caro Bennett Brewer.”

  Sidda laughed. From where she stood, she could see part of the moon through the tall, inky-black silhouettes of the old Douglas firs that lined the lake.

  “Caro,” Sidda said, tentative. “There’s one more thing.”

  “What’s that?”

  “There’s this photo—looks like it’s from the early sixties. It’s a group photo at an Easter-egg hunt, looks like it might be at Teensy’s. We’re all lined up holding baskets, dressed to the nines. Everyone’s there—you, Blaine, the boys, Teensy, Necie, all the Petites Ya-Yas. Chick’s dressed up in this crazy bunny outfit—with a cigarette in his hand! All of Necie’s brood, except for Frank, who was probably taking the picture. Daddy and the four of us are there. Baylor looks like he’s screaming bloody murder, and I’m wearing this Alice in Wonderland organdy affair, complete with hat. My arms are around Little Shep and Lulu, and we all look slightly tortured. The curious thing is that Mama’s not there. She was gone that Easter, wasn’t she? Where was she, Caro?”

  Caro was silent.

  “Oh, boy,” she finally said, dodging. “Back in the days of the smoking bunnies.”

  “That picture makes me sad,” Sidda said. “I think it was after we drove Mama away.”

  “What?” Caro said.

  “When we got to be too much for Mama. When she went away.”

  “Haven’t you and Vivi ever talked about this, Sidda?”

  “No,” Sidda said. “We haven’t.”

  Caro was silent.

  “She went away because of me, didn’t she, Caro?”

  Caro began to cough then, and Sidda felt guilty.

  “No, Pal,” Caro said. “She didn’t go away because of you. Life is more complex than that.”

  “What are you saying, Caro?”

  “There’s a lot more than you’re going to find in a scrapbook. Now go do something sweet for yourself. Like Necie says, go and think you—”

  “Go and think me some pretty pink and blue thoughts.”

  There was a pause.

  “That means: I love you, Siddalee.”

  “I know, Caro,” Sidda said. “I love you too.”

  A spasm of coughing followed. Then Caro said, “Sleep tight. Don’t worry bout the boogeymen; I’ve fumigated under the bed.”

  There is the truth of history, and there is the truth of what a person remembers. As Sidda sat at the edge of Lake Quinault, memory blossoms floated unbounded, as though breathed, no words spoken. Like birds that fly across national borders, between countries at war with each other.


  Sidda sat in the phone booth and practiced breathing.

  You are a grown-up.

  Do I expect Mama to be responsible for my life?

  Because she gave me physical birth, do I expect her to give me spiritual birth as well? Have I not forgiven her for being ripped from the womb of innocence and flung screaming into the raw, cruel, glorious demands of this world? Do I expect Connor to do what Mama couldn’t or wouldn’t? Am I afraid that I don’t deserve him? Am I afraid he will leave me if I’m not good enough?

  She punched in Connor’s number. She heard the phone ring five times, and then his voice on the answering machine.

  “Hi. Connor McGill and Sidda Walker aren’t in now, but we’d like to know you called.”

  The sound of his voice aroused her.

  “Hey, Dreamboat,” Sidda said softly into the phone. “Hueylene, the Canine Governor, misses you. It’s late. It smells like pine pitch and wild roses out here. Still no meteors. Is that starry starry sky stuff all fiction?”

  She made a little kiss-kiss sound into the receiver and hung up. Was Connor still at the theater, or the opera house? Or was he out having a glorious time at some groovy place without her? Fool. What are you doing, leaving him like this?

  * * *

  As she and Hueylene walked along the lake path in the direction of the cabin, Sidda found herself thinking about her own birthdays. She remembered how it was to awake back then, midwinter, at Pecan Grove.

  The first sound she’d hear on those mornings was the mingling of Vivi’s, Little Shep’s, Lulu’s, and Baylor’s voices as they sang “Happy Birthday” to her.

  It was so early on those mornings that the fields and the bayou were still shrouded in darkness. Baylor and Lulu were still half asleep, rubbing their eyes, their young voices husky with sleep, pajamas all whompa-sided. Little Shep, wired from the instant he woke up, was jumping around in the doorway of her bedroom. Sidda would open her eyes to see four people she loved most in the world, their faces lit by the glow of birthday candles on the cake Vivi was holding. She’d gaze up at her mother, still clad in her pink Barbizon nightgown, face gleaming with Beautiere overnight cream. Sidda would smell the scent of the candles burning, feel the soft cotton sheets, the weight of the covers just right on her body. Sitting up in bed, she’d sense the just-waked-up scent of her family. She would not smell her father because he was not there. Where was he? Already out in the fields? Still sleeping? Away at the duck camp, his second home?

  Sidda would sit up in bed on those mornings, mouth wide
open at the beauty of the tiny birthday candles glowing in her dark bedroom. After they finished singing, Vivi would bend down to kiss Sidda. “I’m so glad I had you,” she would whisper into her daughter’s ear.

  Some birthdays Vivi’s voice might be hoarse from smoke or tears, or both. Sometimes the tension in her mother’s voice was so high it resonated in her daughter’s just-waking body. Some birthdays Vivi was so hungover, she’d wince even as she sang. The year after Vivi got sick and went away, her eyes were so red and puffy, her voice so weak, her panic so close to the surface. Even as a child, Sidda sensed how much it cost her mother to sing, to hold out a rose-bedecked cake at dawn, and to whisper, “Siddalee Walker, I’m so glad I had you.”

  As Sidda remembered the singing of her siblings, she wondered how it was they’d grown so far apart. With the exception of Baylor, none of them kept in touch.

  Little Shep, Lulu, and Baylor would climb on her bed as Sidda blew out the candles and made her wish. Then Vivi would relight the candles, and Sidda would blow them out all over again, this time with help from the others. Vivi would leave the room and reappear with a tray set with good china dessert saucers, forks, and four tall crystal glasses of milk. They’d switch the bedside lamp back on, and Sidda would reach greedily for the biggest rose on the cake and plop it into her mouth. After that, she’d royally decide which remaining flowers would go to whom. Vivi encouraged total self-indulgence on their birthdays, and the mere knowledge that on her birthday Sidda didn’t have to share made her want to. As they licked sugar roses Vivi would make them promise not to tell their father. Big Shep claimed eating cake like that so early in the morning was a “whore’s breakfast.” The rest of them didn’t care. They were happy little whores who didn’t worry about saving a morsel. They knew that Vivi ordered not one but two birthday cakes from the bakery for birthdays. One for their morning orgy, and another for the birthday party later in the day.

  Vivi worked hard to make every birthday a good one. It was as though she had made a covenant with herself that she would do anything within her power not to let a birthday go bad.

  As Sidda walked along the lake, she occasionally stumbled over the thick, knotted tree roots that crisscrossed the path. Although she carried a small flashlight, and the light of the moon was strong, if she wasn’t careful, the very vividness of her memories caused her to lose her footing.

  She felt safe here on the Olympic Peninsula. It had been too long since she felt so protected. As a girl, she’d walked like this at night at Spring Creek, guarded by the creeks and the pine trees and the cicadas. After all her years of living in the city, it was a relief to feel her shoulders relax. It was a relief not to have to glance behind her every few steps to see if she was about to be mugged.

  She remembered a dramatic-theory seminar she’d taken in graduate school in which liminal moments on stage were discussed. Liminal moments, those moments apart from time, when you are gripped, taken, when you are so fully absorbed in what you are doing that time ceases to exist.

  Those early-morning birthday moments were liminal, Sidda thought. Mama knew how to embrace liminality. In spite of—or maybe because of—her emotional acrobatics, Mama taught me rapture.

  What were Mama’s birthdays like when she was a girl? What was that sixteenth birthday like? Did Buggy bring her a cake in bed? Hard to imagine. What happened? Was there a viscous glue of jealousy passed down from mother to daughter in our lineage, invisible and life-threatening as cancer?

  Sidda didn’t want to think about jealousy and Vivi. Not that it hadn’t been suggested to her by her therapist, by her friends. Sidda didn’t even like the word “jealousy”; she was superstitious about using it.

  The harder Sidda tried to block certain thoughts from her mind, the less aware she grew of the sweet summer air that surrounded her along the lake. As she walked, she tried to think pretty pink and blue thoughts. But old gray thoughts walked behind her, quacking and biting at her heels.

  You are not a child anymore.

  * * *

  The first time Sidda was socked in the stomach with the full impact of the word “jealousy” was on the opening night of the first professional play she directed. It was a production of Death of a Salesman at the Portland Stage Company in Maine, in the dead of winter. It also happened to be her twenty-fourth birthday.

  Vivi had flown to Boston, and a friend of Sidda’s had driven her up to Portland. Sidda had overrehearsed her cast up to the last minute and didn’t see Vivi until an hour or so before the opening. All had seemed fine. Vivi had borrowed one of Teensy’s furs and was having fun pulling it up to her neck, and asking in a Dietrich voice, “What Becomes a Legend Most?”

  The opening went well enough, although Sidda made copious notes and called a rehearsal for the next day to try several adjustments in blocking. She had not yet begun to understand how to step aside and let a production stand on its feet.

  One of the board members of the theater, who owned a huge Victorian home overlooking the harbor, hosted the opening-night party. Mediocre wine and lots of finger food. The actors were happy, and there was a cozy feeling, a fire in the fireplace, a classical guitarist in the parlor. Cast and crew, theater subscribers, and the board of directors were pleased with the production, and Sidda felt relieved and proud and nervous.

  Vivi had packed three bottles of Jack Daniel’s in her suitcase, as she always did when she traveled. At the opening-night party, she carried a sterling-silver flask. It was the first thing Sidda noticed. That and the fact that her mother refused to take off the fur.

  Sidda watched her mother out of the corner of her eye, wondering how long before things got crazy. Big Shep had been the one who’d arranged the visit, having called Sidda and told her how much Vivi wanted to come. Sidda had been doubtful, but had agreed. After all, it was her directing debut, even if it was in the far North, and she wanted to have her mother there, to make her proud.

  When Sidda was a girl at Ya-Ya parties she used to witness the women perform their “numbers”—whimsical, lightly choreographed renditions of songs they loved, done in an ever-so-slightly off-key, but invigorating, Andrews Sisters style. Vivi would take the Patty Andrews role, making faces, rolling her eyes, goofing around while she sang. Sidda would lean against the closet door in her mother’s dressing room and watch the Ya-Yas as they polished their routines.

  “How do we look, Dahlin?” Vivi would ask. “Any directorial tips?”

  Sidda would always offer a suggestion, and sometimes the ladies would take her up on it. Then a surge of delight, of power, of delicious authority would sweep over her. Later, in the smoky living room, surrounded by grown-ups and the tinkling of ice against crystal cocktail glasses, Sidda would witness the small bit of business she’d suggested, and the thrill it gave her was beyond words. It is something she still doesn’t know how to explain. Sidda’s passion for theater and her tangled relationship with her mother intersect at a place in Sidda that does not respond to direction.

  As Sidda worked the opening-night party in Portland, she took care to introduce Vivi whenever possible. But the gathering was large, and it was inevitable that they become separated. When the managing director of the theater proposed a toast to Sidda, and the host brought out a birthday cake with the twin masks of tragedy and comedy done in icing, Sidda blushed with excitement. She said a few words, thanking her cast and crew, made a joke about the challenge of directing the great Arthur Miller, and proclaimed the evening the most lovely birthday she could imagine. She forgot to mention Vivi.

  Afterward, standing next to the fireplace talking with the lighting designer, a young British man, she noticed a crowd gathering over by the windows.

  Wade Coenen, who had designed the costumes for the production, eased over to Sidda. “Mama likes her drink?”

  Sidda blushed.

  Wade was blond and funny and did fabulous Diana Ross imitations. He’d been trying to get Sidda to lift weights at the local gym with him, telling her it was importan
t for directors to be muscular. Sidda hoped they’d have the chance to work together again, hoped they’d become pals.

  “Her poison of choice?” he asked.

  “Bourbon,” Sidda replied. “Good bourbon.”

  “My old man did himself in on good Scotch.”

  “The smell of bourbon makes me ill,” Sidda said.

  “I’ll go see if I can get Mama a piece of cake,” Wade said. “In the meantime, try some of the spanakopita, and remember—it’s your birthday.”

  “Thanks, Wade,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “And thanks for your extra work on the costumes. I’ll never forget the scavenging we did to come in on budget. You’re amazing.”

  “You ain’t seen nothing till you see my Salvation Army evening-gown collection, honey.”

  Sidda was chatting with a husband and wife who were asking questions about being a “woman in the theater,” when she heard the unmistakable sound of her mother’s voice. She closed her eyes and listened. She knew that sound: the cacophony of five jiggers of bourbon.

  In front of the fireplace, center stage, Vivi was staging an elaborate promenade in which she dragged Teensy’s fur on the floor behind her. Her head was thrown back in a grotesque exaggeration of a diva, and she was talking loudly in a Tallulah voice.

  “They should not allow children to direct,” she was saying. “They should not allow children to touch an American classic like Arthur Miller!”

  Flipping the fur up and over her head and so near the fireplace the coat almost caught on fire, Vivi stared out into the crowd. She impaled Sidda with her drunken gaze. “Who gave you permission to direct a play, anyway?”

  The gathering grew deathly quiet.

  Sidda bit her lip. She took a step toward her mother.

  “I asked you a Goddamn question, Siddalee Walker,” Vivi said, her voice slurring.

  Sidda felt every eye in the room on her. The space felt suddenly hot and airless. As though all life had stopped.

  “Nobody gave me permission, Mama,” Sidda said softly. “I was hired.”