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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 26

Rebecca Wells

  Hearing her true name caught Vivi the way sun unexpectedly glinting off a buckle or a piece of tinfoil might catch the eye. She looked at the nun, unsure.

  “What name do they call you at home?” Sister Solange asked.

  Vivi thought the nun looked tired. She stared at the nun’s blonde hair, and looked down at Sister’s hands. The nun was squeezing her fingers tightly together and then releasing them. When Sister saw Vivi notice this, she folded her hands underneath her cloak.

  “At home,” Vivi said, “at home they call me Vivi.”

  “Vivi,” Sister Solange repeated, “what a lively name.”

  The nun lowered her head for a moment, in prayer or deliberation. When she lifted it, her eyes looked even more tired. “Vivi, I want you to try to pay attention to what I’m saying, please.”

  Vivi was listening to the tones of Sister Solange’s voice. It was a mossy, quiet sound, the perfect green-blue.

  The nun took Vivi’s hands in hers. She watched Vivi closely.

  “Vivi?” Sister Solange said. “Squeeze my hand.”

  Vivi looked up at Sister Solange, but she did not appear to have heard her. She began to shake violently. The nun took the teacup from the girl’s hands. She did not want Vivi to hurt herself.

  Sister Solange stood, took out a key from her desk, and opened one of the cabinets against the wall. She chose a bottle of tablets and shook two of them into her palm.

  “Will you swallow these, please, Vivi?” she said. She had wondered earlier if the girl needed something stronger than tea to help her shock, but she dared not suggest it to Mother Superior. But Vivi was in her office now.

  Vivi swallowed the pills as she was told. The nun knelt back down at Vivi’s side. “Vivi,” she said softly, “tell me who I can call at home to come and help you.”

  At first Vivi thought she might have dreamed the words. So many times in the past four months she had imagined someone saying these very words to her. She studied the nun’s face. Was this some kind of trick? Was she about to be trapped and then punished?

  Sister Solange waited patiently for a response. Slowly she lifted her hand and placed her palm tenderly against Vivi’s cheek. “Vivi, dear, tell me who to call.”

  The touch of Sister Solange’s hand against her skin revived Vivi.

  “Call Genevieve Whitman at Highland 4270 in Thornton, Louisiana,” she said. “Don’t talk to Mr. Whitman, only talk to Genevieve.”

  “Is she a relative?” the nun asked.

  Terrified that the nun might not call, Vivi lied and said, “Yes, she is my godmother.”

  “Thank you, Vivi,” the nun said. “You are a dear girl, a blessed girl.”

  Vivi slept again that night in her old infirmary bed. She dreamed that she and Teensy and Jack were sitting on the sea wall at Biloxi, the sun caressing their faces.

  * * *

  The next day, Sister Solange helped Vivi dress in an outfit that she scrounged together with bits and pieces from the Lost and Found. The ensemble was mismatched, ugly, and scratchy, and the nun apologized as she handed the items to Vivi. “These garments are those of a match girl,” she said, laughing, “not a tennis player.”

  Vivi buttoned an off-white blouse with stains under the arms. Over that she pulled a nondescript brown jumper that hung loosely on her thin frame. Wool socks and a pair of uniform oxfords were on her feet.

  “How did you know I was a tennis player?” Vivi asked Sister Solange.

  “Oh,” the nun said, “you spoke of tennis many times in your sleep. Tennis and someone named Jack Ya-Ya.”

  Vivi gave a tentative laugh that turned into a cough.

  “Anyway,” Sister Solange said, “there is no reason for such a pretty girl to look like a penitent. But this clothing is the best I can do.”

  “What about my own clothes?” Vivi asked.

  The nun bit her lip before she spoke. “Vivi, they are all too damaged.”

  “All of them?” Vivi asked.

  “Yes,” the nun said. “What wasn’t burned was ruined by smoke.”

  “Except my pillow,” Vivi said.

  “Except your pillow,” Sister Solange replied. “Your pillow survived, and so will you.”

  The sight of Genevieve and Teensy standing in Mother Superior’s office was almost more than Vivi could bear. She longed to run to them, to hold them and smell them, to soak in all of the life that they carried. But she could not make herself take a step forward. She stood frozen, clutching Delia’s feather pillow in her hand, looking far younger than her sixteen years.

  Rushing to her side, Teensy and Genevieve enveloped Vivi in hugs. The suddenness of it disoriented Vivi, and she could not respond. She felt as though they were onlookers and she was a wreck on the side of the road.

  “Mrs. Whitman,” Mother Superior said, “I cannot release this child to you. You are not her mother.”

  “You are not her mother either, cher,” Genevieve shot back.

  “Do not speak to me in disrespect,” the nun said.

  “Cher is not a sign of disrespect,” Genevieve said, changing her tone so that she might charm the nun. “It’s French for ‘dear.’ ”

  “Then do not call me ‘dear,’ ” Mother Superior said.

  Leaving Vivi’s side, Genevieve stepped in closer to Mother Superior’s desk. Teensy gave Vivi’s hand a squeeze, then let it go as she stepped close to her maman.

  The light coming in through the windows seemed extraordinarily bright to Vivi. From where she stood, she could see Genevieve’s Packard parked outside near the curb. The car seemed like a car in a dream, and Vivi thought that at any moment it might shift shape into a boat or a bird.

  “If you continue to disregard my wishes, I will have to call Father O’Donagan,” Mother Superior told Genevieve, as though the arrival of the priest were a deadly threat.

  “Call anybody you like, Sister,” Genevieve said, taking Vivi’s hand. “But, Vivi, she comin home with me.”

  “Drop that child’s hand,” Mother Superior commanded.

  Ignoring the nun, Genevieve walked Vivi out of the office.

  “Let go of Joan!” the nun said, following them.

  “Her name isn’t Joan,” Teensy said. “Her name is Vivi.”

  Genevieve led the girls down the long, dark hall. Vivi could hear Mother Superior’s footsteps as she followed them; she could hear the rustling of the nun’s gown. The footsteps sped up, and then the nun was upon them, her bone-dry hand reaching down to pry Vivi’s hand away from Genevieve’s. Vivi’s fear was so strong she could taste it in the back of her throat. So strong it caused her to pee ever so slightly in the borrowed boxy panties she wore.

  Genevieve flung Mother Superior’s hand away. The nun stumbled backward, so that when Vivi looked at her it seemed a wind had lifted her black veil and spread it out in all directions. The nun was no longer Mother Superior, but a shuffling black vulture.

  “I am responsible for saving this girl’s soul!” the nun shouted.

  “You’ll be lucky if you can save your own!” Genevieve said. “Now, get out of here! Go on! Get!”

  Genevieve put one arm around Vivi and one arm around her daughter, and the three of them walked fast, but did not run, out of the building. They walked down the stone steps and into the waiting Packard. Genevieve climbed behind the wheel, and Teensy shoved Vivi into the front seat and then climbed in herself. As the car sped out of the grounds of Saint Augustine’s, not one of them looked back.

  Still clutching Delia’s feather pillow, Vivi thought she could detect the scents of oranges and pine needles and shrimp boiling in a big iron pot. She thought she could smell October in Louisiana during cotton harvest on crisp Friday nights. She thought she could smell life.

  She looked at the dress Teensy wore underneath her plum jacket. It was the garnet wool jersey with the peplum waist they’d picked out together at Godchaux’s on a trip to New Orleans with Genevieve. Reaching down, Vivi rubbed her fingers across the fabric. The materia
l seemed to come up and meet the flesh of her fingertips.

  Teensy placed her hand over Vivi’s. “Bébé, that outfit you’re wearing has got to go.”

  “Got to go,” Vivi repeated after her, trying for the old Ya-Ya tone.

  “Got to,” Genevieve said, and lit a cigarette, tears in the corners of her eyes.

  They rode along in silence for a mile or so before Genevieve spoke again.

  “Ecouté, femmes,” she said, her voice like the slow-moving rich bayou itself, her tone wavering somewhere between tears and ferocity. “God don’t like ugly, Mes Petites Choux. Ça va? No matter what they’ll try to tell you, Bébés! God don’t make ugly, and God don’t like ugly. Le Bon Dieu is a god of loveliness, and don’t yall forget it!”

  “Yes, Maman,” Teensy said.

  “Yes, Maman,” Vivi said.

  “And, Vivi, Ma Petite Chou, écouté voir ici: life is short, but it is wide. This too shall pass.”

  With those catechism lessons, Genevieve drove Vivi, mile by mile, all the way back home.


  The girl in the photo on the front page of The Thornton High Tattler, from May 21, 1943, was so thin and drawn-looking that at first Sidda did not recognize her mother. My God, Sidda thought, she looks like a war orphan.

  Accompanying the photo was the following item:


  Vivi Abbott, sophomore cheerleader, beauty, and varsity tennis player, has returned from Saint Augustine’s Academy in Spring Hill, Alabama, where she spent almost all of the past semester. Sorely missed by the entire student body, Vivi is welcomed back by everyone, from the football team to the Red Cross Canteen. Have a great summer, Vivi! Even with Jack gone, we know you and the Ya-Yas will be in high form!

  Sidda ached for more information. Searching the scrapbook, she examined each pressed corsage, each ticket stub, willing there to be more information about her mother’s departure and return from Saint Augustine’s. She tried to imagine what her mother’s life had been like during the summer of 1943. Shoes were rationed, along with meat and cheese, but what else was rationed? Was her return difficult, or did Vivi “rise above it” as she’d always told her children to do?

  When she could find no other information, Sidda began to make it up. Say Mama flourished that summer. Say she was safe and loved. Say the newspaper clipping tells the whole story: golden girl, universally welcomed home. Say Mama watched Casablanca when it first came out, and necked with whatever boy she was with. Say she was beautiful and blonde and more popular than I ever was. Say Mama did not know what lay in store for her and woke every morning grinning. Say there is no truth. Say there are only scraps that we feebly try to sew together.

  Vivi Abbott Walker lay on the table in the small rose-colored room with the piped-in music at Chez Health, ready to let Torie, the massage therapist, touch her body. Necie had been the first to discover Torie, and now all the Ya-Yas made appointments to lay their aging bodies on her table, and indulge in a sensual pampering that the Church they grew up in would have labeled a sin of indulgence, if not a near occasion of sin.

  Once a week, Vivi took off her clothes, lay down, and babbled nervously for ten minutes. Then, as her breathing grew deeper, she gave over to the stroking she craved. Never in her life had Vivi been showered with such physical attention, no strings attached.

  “A bargain at any price, Torie Dahlin,” she said at the end of each session as she handed a check, complete with generous tip, to the massage therapist.

  Now, as Torie massaged her feet and toes, Vivi felt herself sink down into the table. She found herself, as she had many times in the past week or so, thinking about Jack.

  Vivi had done her best to reclaim her old life when she returned from Saint Augustine’s. She had tiptoed back onto the tennis court, where her weight loss and exhaustion embarrassed her no end. She had hung out at Bordelon’s Drugs and drunk Coca-Colas with peanuts plunked into the bottles. She wrote Jack cheery letters at least every other day, and she tried to stay out of her mother’s way. Buggy had refused even to speak to her for the first month Vivi was back home, but as the summer passed, things began to return to what passed for normal life in the Abbott house.

  Vivi said regular novenas for Jack, and tried to get excited about the other boys she still dated. But even after she began to eat again, to rediscover some of the energy she’d lost, there was something about her that hesitated, that held back, that hedged her bets. Now she did not know who she was or what she was supposed to do. And she did not know exactly when she had stepped away from herself. She did not know if she would ever stop feeling tired. She learned to camouflage her exhaustion with a slightly forced vitality. She became a high priestess of self-presentation, and was rewarded for it at every turn. The town of Thornton, Louisiana, extolled self-presentation. It was a sort of religion.

  It had been a Sunday afternoon, the third week of June, 1943, not long after she’d returned from Saint Augustine’s. Jack was home for a visit before departing for a bomber base somewhere in Europe. Buggy had suggested that the gang come back to the Abbott home that afternoon for some homemade ice cream.

  All week long, there had been swimming parties, barbecues, and get-togethers to celebrate Jack’s visit. Vivi, Jack, Caro, Necie, and Teensy had just walked over from the Whitman house, where Genevieve had prepared a meal that included every one of her son’s favorite foods—from Saint Landry crayfish bisque to mayhaw jelly rolls.

  It was early summer, not yet unbearably hot. The clematis vine was in full bloom, and blackberries trailed along the fence in wild profusion. Some of the berries, picked and washed by Buggy, were already gathered in a big yellow bowl that sat on the steps.

  Vivi’s baby sister, Jezie, quiet for once, leaned against her mother’s leg as Buggy stood cranking the ice-cream freezer. Buggy wore the lilac-and-gray housedress she changed into every Sunday after Mass. Her hair was caught up in two combs at the side of her face, and her cheeks were slightly flushed from the exertion of the cranking. Pete was draped over the porch railing with a couple of his buddies.

  Vivi sat on the swing, between Teensy and Necie. Caro leaned against a column, her feet kicked out in front of her, crossed at the ankles.

  Jack sat in a straight-back chair in the middle of all of them, his fiddle in his lap. Not just any fiddle, but the handmade Cajun fiddle his Uncle LeBlanc had made for him when he was nine years old. The fiddle his father forbade him to play inside the house because it smacked of the bayou, of a world unacceptable to the prosperous banker.

  But, oh, Jack played on every single visit to Genevieve’s people in Marksville, on the bayou. And he played it at all his friends’ houses. And he played in the middle of fields when Genevieve loaned them the Packard and they’d head out to Spring Creek with picnic blankets and a couple of six packs.

  Jack’s French fiddle joined with the music of Harry James to break Vivi’s heart in those days. Once, after she’d sprained her ankle on the tennis court and was laid up in bed in the foulest mood, Jack had played under her bedroom window, making her feel like Juliet. Another time, she put him up to playing during a basketball game half-time in the Thornton High gymnasium. There Jack Whitman stood, waving that bow across the strings, his long legs flowing out of his gold-and-blue-satin basketball uniform, his head tossed back with the music, a wide grin sweeping across his face.

  And now he was home again, his father’s pride. Never had Vivi seen Jack so contented. His father had bragged about him all week long. Mr. Whitman, in fact, had been the one to arrange several of the parties. His son was going to fly bombing raids over France. Jack was proud that his father was proud.

  Vivi was delighted that her mother was making ice cream. It was the first outwardly kind gesture Buggy had made toward her daughter since Genevieve had talked Mr. Abbott into not sending her back to Saint Augustine’s. As Buggy cranked the ice-cream freezer, Vivi hoped this was a sign things would get better between them.

e sunlight hit Jack’s jet-black hair. His skin was tanned, and he was thinner than usual. Chiseled down to his essence. He tucked his fiddle under his chin and raised his bow. But before beginning to play, he paused. He glanced at Vivi and smiled. Then, for some sweet Jack reason, he looked over at Buggy.

  “Madame Abbott,” he said, “how bout I play this little waltz for you?”

  It was the most gentlemanly thing Vivi had ever witnessed. As she watched her mother’s face, she understood for the first time that no one—ever—had dedicated a song to Buggy Abbott. She watched as her mother raised her hand to her mouth, shy, embarrassed, and utterly delighted. Buggy let go of the ice-cream crank, and the grinding sound of ice against wood gave way to silence.

  Then Jack began to play.

  He struck up “Little Black Eyes,” a waltz he knew Vivi loved.

  There was no war on the Abbott front porch that afternoon. Just an overflowing of Cajun fiddle music, sweet, plaintive, from the heart. The notes danced through the June air; Vivi could feel them dust her hair and shoulders. She could feel the notes enter her and settle deep into her bones. Jack’s notes tumbled over all of them that afternoon, as if there were an endless supply of music somewhere, waiting to be called forth.

  As Vivi listened to the music, she glanced at Buggy, and she noticed a smile she had never before seen on her mother’s face. It was the smile of a girl with her own longings, her own pleasures. It was a smile smiled for no one else. It was a smile that forgot about motherhood and the Catholic Church and the child clutching at her leg. For that one moment, Vivi saw Buggy as a person. The music and the fading afternoon light and the berries in the yellow bowl and the sun on Jack’s face, Vivi’s own bony body sitting in the swing surrounded by her friends and family, and the expression on her mother’s face—all of this seared Vivi’s heart for an instant, and she was filled with love.

  She credited it all to Jack. That is what Jack could do: he could crack her wide open to more love; he could transform the face of her mother.