Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 22Rebecca Wells
Buggy did not answer. Caro could see her lips moving the way they often did, mumbling silent prayers to the Virgin.
Suddenly Buggy reached down and threw back the covers off of Vivi. She was curled into a tight ball, her toes barely sticking out from under her flannel nightgown. The sight of Vivi broke Caro’s heart.
Without speaking, Buggy picked up the ring and jammed it onto her daughter’s finger. Vivi cried out in pain. Instinctively Caro reached out to grab Buggy’s hand, but before she could, Buggy turned quickly around and walked out of the room.
Mr. Abbott followed. “Go to sleep, girls,” was all the man said.
“Burn in hell,” Caro said when the door had closed. “Rot and burn in hell.”
If she could, Caro would have taken her friend Vivi away from that house. She would have spirited Vivi away from that house of hate to the Gulf Coast, where her parents had a cabin. She would have taken care of Vivi because she loved her. She would have cared for Queen Dancing Creek, who had so much life in her tightly coiled body.
The three girlfriends curled in the bed with Vivi. Caro pulled Vivi close and held her. Necie began to cry and Teensy began to curse.
“Diablesse!” Teensy said. “Fils de garce! Both of them, sons of bitches.”
Necie climbed out of bed and returned with a handkerchief. Wiping Vivi’s cheeks, she said, “Vivi, Honey, we love you. We love you so much.”
Vivi did not speak. Caro could feel the pounding of her friend’s heart. She cupped her hands around Vivi’s cheeks.
“Oh, Pal,” she said.
Then Caro got up and lit them each a cigarette.
Necie, still crying, cracked open the window.
“Come on, Vivi,” Caro said, “let’s smoke a cig and talk.”
Vivi smoked the Lucky Strike that Caro handed her. She stared at her dresser, which was laden with corsages and notes, and a photo of her with Jack and the Ya-Yas together on the beach at the Gulf.
“Are you okay, sweetie-poo?” Necie asked.
“You shouldn’t have to live here,” Teensy told Vivi. “Come live with us. Genevieve would love it. And you know Jack would.”
Vivi didn’t say anything.
“Vivi,” Caro said, “your mother is crazy and your father is crazy.”
“She’s not crazy,” Teensy said. “She is a jealous bitch.”
“My mother loves me,” Vivi said.
“Well, let her act like she loves you, then!” Caro said. “You’re her daughter.”
“That ring is worth a whole lot of money,” Teensy said, gently touching Vivi’s hand.
“Father bought it for me,” Vivi said. “He picked it out himself.”
Something almost mechanical-sounding about Vivi’s voice scared Caro.
“You can do whatever you want to with that ring,” Teensy said. “You could sell it if you want.”
Caro and Necie looked at Teensy.
“That ring is all yours,” Caro said.
“It’s like money in the bank,” said Teensy.
Vivi nodded, and looked at her three friends. “How about that?” she said finally. “I’m rich, huh?”
“Yes,” Caro said. “You are rich.”
Vivi’s midnight-blue velvet dress lay draped on the end of the window seat. The branches of the oak tree brushed against the windowpane. It was mid-December. The whole world was at war, and it was growing cold in Vivi’s bedroom. The cigarette smoke drifted out the window into the night air.
If Mr. or Mrs. Abbott had stepped back in the room at that point, Caro would have jumped up and punched them, she would have knocked them down the stairs.
That night before she finally fell asleep next to Vivi, Caro swore she would wake in the middle of the night, sneak down the hall to the Abbotts’ rooms, and do something horrible to them. She’d hurt them somehow, for hurting her friend.
But she slept though the night.
When Caro woke, Vivi had been up for hours. She already wore her tennis clothes. She was smiling. She was jumping around the room like she was already on the court. She was acting like nothing had happened. She was sixteen and a day.
Pushing herself up from the recliner, Caro walked into the bathroom, filled a glass with water, and swallowed a handful of vitamins. She poured a bit of sweet almond oil into her hand and smoothed it onto her deeply wrinkled face. As she slipped on her pajamas, she thought, I don’t like to remember this stuff, Goddamn it. It makes me angry all over again. She pulled a cover from the end of her bed and spread it over her as she lay back in the recliner. Turning off the light, she checked one final time to make sure her inhaler was nearby.
Now Buggy and Taylor Abbott are gone, Caro thought, and the Ya-Yas are old. When we die, will our children wish they could still get us back, the way I wish I’d had revenge on the Abbotts? Or will they have forgiven us all the tiny murders? When Siddalee wrote, asking Vivi for information on our lives together, I said: Vivi Dahlin, send it! What are you going to do with that scrapbook of old memories? I know you want to kill Sidda and The New York Times. But send it! Life is short, Pal. Life is so short.
For a week after Vivi’s birthday ball, Buggy Abbott woke every morning in tears. When her youngest child, Jezie, with whom she shared a room, asked, “Mama got bo-bo?” Buggy could not answer.
Finally, Taylor Abbott told his wife, “If you’re going to continue to behave like this, you will have to do it somewhere other than my house.”
After that, she cried only in private, and made sure that her husband could not hear. Buggy Abbott cried alone, and prayed to the Virgin for an answer to her problem with her daughter.
Buggy was sure she received her answer in the form of a suggestion from one of the Altar Society women. One morning as they were starching the altar cloths, Buggy said: “I tell you, Mrs. Rabelais, I live in mortal fear for my daughter’s soul.”
“You ought to send her right up to Saint Augustine’s in Alabama,” Mrs. Rabelais said. “Those Saint Augustine nuns know how to straighten a girl out. They don’t put up with foolishness. I send them money every year to keep up their work of purification.”
An old Catholic boarding school in Spring Hill, Alabama, dating back to just after the Civil War, Saint Augustine’s Academy was five hours from Thornton. It was known in four states as the place to enroll pious Catholic girls who were serious about doing penance. It was also the place to incarcerate girls whose parents thought needed a lesson in piety. And discipline.
Buggy waited until the house was empty. With Jezie down for a nap, she sat at the kitchen table and took a piece of stationery. She sipped on a cup of coffee and took pleasure at putting pen to paper. It had been a long time since she’d written anything other than grocery lists.
In a careful longhand, on plain white paper, after starting over four different times, Buggy completed the following letter. She mailed it as soon as Jezie woke from her nap:
December 31, 1942
322 Compton Street
Saint Augustine Academy
Spring Hill, Alabama
Dear Mother Superior:
I want to write a mother’s letter to you about why you must take my daughter, Viviane Joan Abbott, into the academy at midterm. I am not a writer, Sister, but with God’s and our Blessed Mother’s help, I will do my best.
My daughter has gotten in with a fast crowd of hooligans. The pack of girlfriends she runs with just encourage her vanity. She pays no attention to me, her mother. Vivi and these girls are thick as thieves, Mother Superior, and bad influences on each other. They smoke and curse and flaunt themselves and have no shame. And the public high school treats them like pagan princesses. These girls put their friendship before their love for God the Father. I fear for the loss of my daughter’s soul with all this popularity that has been heaped on her at the high school.
They build her up too much, Sister. They made Viviane Joan a cheerleader
and Most Popular and Cutest and on the tennis team and the school newspaper. It is too much for such a young girl. Thornton High School is not a bad school. My boy does just fine there. But my daughter is in great danger. They encourage vanity in her to the point where she thinks she does not need to prostrate herself at the feet of the Mother of Mercy, Advocate and Refuge of Sinners.
There is not a sign of God in my daughter’s bedroom. Everywhere I turn there is nothing but pompoms, tennis rackets, and pictures of movie stars. And photographs of the boy she thinks she’s in love with, everywhere. She worships false gods, Sister. She is running out of grace.
My husband, Mr. Taylor Abbott, Attorney-at-Law and a non-Catholic, has spoilt Viviane rotten since she was old enough to pout. Ever since I had Jezie, my late-in-life baby, Mr. Abbott has gotten worse. He gave Viviane a diamond ring, Sister, when she is only sixteen years old. He should have never done that. A diamond ring is for your wife in Holy Matrimony, not for your young daughter.
She is too much under Mr. Abbott’s influence. He is an Episcopal, Sister, and he is nothing but a socializer. He drinks rum and runs with the crowd that raises the Tennessee Walking Horses. He is not the man I thought he was when we were young.
I had to go against him to even have my baby Jezie. It is not my fault that I cannot propagate the faith as I promised I would when I married. I do penance every day for only offering God three children.
Sister, I do not know the exact sins my daughter has committed. My husband has forbidden me to
talk about it. Sister, a mother can only imagine the worst kind of impurities. Mr. Abbott tells me to
stop dwelling on it; he says a wife should obey her husband. But I can’t help it. I have a dwelling kind of mind.
Mother Superior, it is not what my daughter has done to me. It is what she has done to Holy Mother Church, to the Blessed Virgin Herself, that pains me so. If Viviane had only hurt me, I would not be writing to you as I am doing now.
Viviane needs to learn self-sacrifice, she needs to be near others who are chaste and pure in body and soul. She needs the discipline only the nuns of Saint Augustine’s can give her.
Your academy must take my daughter. I give thanks to the Queen of Heaven that such a place as Saint Augustine’s Academy exists.
I beg you, Mother Superior, in your wisdom, please allow my daughter to enter the academy as soon as possible. Do not hesitate, but act fast in Our Lady’s name so that we may save my daughter. She is a flower made by God, but she is wilting. And if I do not remove her from the temptations of the world, she will die before she has had the chance to bloom in the spirit.
Yours in the name of Christ through
the intercession of the Blessed Virgin,
Mrs. Taylor C. Abbott
P.S. My husband and I understand that you are in the process of expanding the living quarters of the teaching sisters. We look forward to mailing a donation to the Saint Augustine’s Building Fund as soon as Viviane is situated in her classes.
When Sidda found two packets of letters in the scrapbook addressed to her mother at Saint Augustine’s, she experienced something akin to what an archaeologist feels when she stumbles onto an important find. The first letter was from Necie, and on the back of the envelope there were the faint imprints of three pairs of lips.
When Sidda opened the envelope, the words on the page flew out at her like angry, mixed-up birds. There were smears at the edges of the paper, and, where the writer had borne down hard on the page, there were splotches of ink. Sidda began to read.
January 21, 1943
Dearest Darling Vivi,
Oh, Honey, I never thought my first letter of 1943 would be so sad. I thought this was going to be the year we won the war and instead it’s the year we lose you. It breaks my heart into a million pieces on the kitchen floor to think that you left town on that train like you aren’t even loved, which you are. We’re over here at Caro’s now. Mr. Bob tried to cheer us up with three free passes to see To Be or Not to Be, but we can’t be cheered up.
Your big brother was so blue himself. I have never seen Pete so low. When he and Caro came by the house this morning, I just burst into tears and climbed into the car—in my pajamas—and went with them over to Teensy’s. Pete apologized over and over that he had to be the one who drove you to the train station with none of your thousands of friends to see you off! When he told me about it, he was almost crying himself. Oh, Vivi, Sweetie-poo, we would have all been there at the station to see you off. We had all kinds of things planned. There is a shoe box full of pralines and sour-cream cookies that I baked for you sitting on the counter right now. I had it all wrapped and everything, and now you are on your way to the nuns with no sign of our love. Oh, I am crying all over again.
We all went by your house at a little before noon, to the kitchen door like always. We were going to tell your mother where to get off. But the door was locked. We knocked and hollered until Buggy finally came downstairs, and when she came to the door, she was crying. That made us think twice about cussing her out. She told us she was sick.
“Mais oui,” Teensy said. “We are all sick. We are sick in our hearts at losing Vivi.” And then your mother said she had to get back in bed because she thought she might faint. Caro started to say something, but I stopped her, and then we left.
Oh, Vivi, we are so torn up, like part of our own body just got ripped away.
Please don’t think for one second that we wouldn’t have been there kissing you and holding you and begging for you to stay home with us where you belong.
Love and kisses and prayers,
P.S. I am running to the post office with this. Caro and Teensy are going to write their letters after they calm down some. They have been sitting on your back porch with your brother, Pete, smoking cigarettes in the freezing cold and crying. Caro wants to go back and let your mother have it, whether she’s sick or not. Oh, Honey, we love you so much.
Sidda felt like she’d stepped into another world. Carrying the letters with her to the sofa, she sat down, taking great pains to unfold each page with care. She read on.
January 21, 1943
Sis, I’m sorry. I woulda just about rather driven into a nest of Japs than drive you to the station this morning.
You make them treat you good up there, you hear. Stick em with my pocketknife if they give you any trouble.
Love from your brother,
P.S. Caro told Mother if the sisters of Saint Goddamn Augustine mess around with you, they’ll have the Sisters of Saint Ya-Ya to deal with. Mother just ran back to bed and didn’t say a word.
Finally, Sidda opened a Western Union envelope to find the following telegram:
JANUARY 22 1943
MISS VIVI ABBOTT-SAINT AUGUSTINE’S ACADEMY SPRING HILL ALABAMA-CHER-WE LOVE YOU-CALL IF YOU NEED ANYTHING AT ALL-QUE LE BON DIEU VOUS BENIT REAL GOOD-GENEVIEVE ST. CLAIR WHITMAN.
Sidda set the first packet of letters down and stood up to stretch. Hueylene sat staring out the glass doors, her gaze trained on a pair of noisy Northwest crows that were fighting over some imagined slight. Turning back to the letters, Sidda picked up a larger stack of envelopes that was bound by a piece of faded blue ribbon.
We haven’t heard from you in ten days. Are you all right? I have written you four letters. Haven’t you gotten them? Pal, we are worried.
Damn your parents for doing this. Your mother should be shot.
Make contact, Queen Dancing Creek.
We love you.
April 24, 1943
I think maybe my last two letters didn’t reach you because I refused to put “Joan” on the envelope. But this time I did, even though I hate to. But I want to make sure that you get this. Baby doll, I had a scary dream about you last night and I woke up crying. I t
old Maman about it, and she said to try and call you up. So we tried to call you first thing this morning and the nun wouldn’t put us through. She said students were only allowed calls from their family, and then only on Sundays. What is this place that they won’t let you talk to the people who love you? Maman got on the phone and tried to talk some sense into that nun, but she wouldn’t listen. Maman is worried. You know, she went to the nuns too when she was a girl, but it was never like this. She says you must have some bad ones up there. Jack says your letters still sound cheery, but I know that’s just because you’re putting on a good face for him. We think you’re the one that needs cheering up, Bébé.
Maman wants to know how she can help. Should she try to talk to your parents? Please let us know.
Mais oui, Vivi, we miss you so much you can’t imagine. There has been a big hole cut out of us. Our whole communauté des soeurs is suffering. And it’s not just the Ya-Yas who feel this way. Our whole class is not the same without you. School spirit has gone straight down the toilet. Even Anne Snobby-Butt McWaters and her crowd ask about you all the time.
I don’t know who I miss more, you or my brother off in uniform. I can tell you this, with the two of you gone and this war raging all over my head, I am one blue girl. Write back right away.
P.S. Did you receive the package with the Silver Screens? I’m so so sorry I haven’t been able to get my hands on more hooch to send. I’ll keep trying.
Sidda frowned as she pictured the young Vivi wrenched from her tender sisterhood and deposited like damaged freight at a convent school. As she carefully folded the letters back into their envelopes, she longed to fold the sixteen-year-old Vivi into her arms and comfort her. She longed to hold her mother, full-bloom flower ripped by the roots and thrown onto unfriendly soil. She longed to hold her mother and call her by her true name.
If Caro, Teensy, and Necie were this shook up by Vivi’s departure, what must Vivi herself have been feeling? Sidda wondered. What were her mother’s letters like? If only she could hear her mother’s side of the story. Sidda stood up from her place at the table in the big room where she had been reading.