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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 3

Rebecca Wells

  Vivi looked at each of her friends. Finally, she raised her glass.

  “To Ya-Ya-rabilia,” Vivi said, and raised her glass.

  Then, each of them in turn met each other’s eyes as they clinked glasses. This is a cardinal Ya-Ya rule: you must meet each person’s eyes while clinking glasses in a toast. Otherwise, the ritual has no meaning, it’s just pure show. And that is something the Ya-Yas are not.


  Back at Pecan Grove that night, Vivi sat in her bedroom. The air conditioner was on, the ceiling fan was whirring, and the windows were thrown wide open to the night sounds of the bayou. She turned off the bedside lamp and lit a candle in front of her Mary statue.

  Mother, Most Merciful, she prayed, hear me in my prayer. You are the Queen of the Moon and the Stars. I don’t know what I’m the queen of anymore.

  There is no excuse for that period in my life. These days, if you start to drop your basket, somebody sees it coming. And you fly off to someplace sweet like The Betty before things get too bad. Those days, well, those days I took the Goddamn Dexamyl, and confessed to the priest three times a week. Those days there was no Oprah.

  That Sunday afternoon I had my husband’s belt, the one with SHEP tooled in leather, the ruby set in the sterling-silver buckle, a sterling-silver tip on the other end. When I beat my children, the worst marks would have come from where that silver tip landed.

  I can see their beautiful bodies as they were that day. I have been told what I did. Their baby bodies were such naked, easy targets.

  Can you see the scar on Sidda’s body now? Does Connor McGill see it when he loves her? If I could pass my hand over my daughter’s back, over that entire Lent, over entire seasons of her childhood, I would erase it all. But I cannot do the godlike things I wish I could. This may be the only thing in my life I have learned.

  Sidda should have stopped me. But she stood there and took it. Like I did, as a girl, with Father.

  Does she dream of the leather against her thigh, against that spot on her shoulder?

  And then I left. When I came back from the hospital that nobody called a hospital, we said I had been tired, that I had needed to rest. No explanation, ever. It was never discussed.

  It was not the only time I hit them. But it is the only time I hit so hard they bled. It is the only time that Sidda lost control of her bladder.

  I made Caro tell me this. I made my best friend tell me what I did.

  Does she still sleep with all the covers pulled tight under her chin, a second pillow clenched in one arm, her other arm flung over her head? Does she wake with her old nightmares, gasping for air? Have I done this to her? Will I never be absolved? When she was little, I told her that her twin brother who died was her special guardian angel. Does she still believe that?

  Is it my punishment now to watch my oldest one turn away from love? Holy Mary, you are a Mother, Lady of the Fields and Prairies. Give me some kind of sign, will you? Some kind of comfort. Indemnify me, too, while you’re at it, will you? Must I carry my daughter inside me all my life? Must I be responsible for her till the day I die? I do not want this guilt, I do not want this weight.

  Mary, Mother of the Motherless, intercede on my behalf. Make God listen like only you can. Take this message to your Son:

  Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Lord, bend your ear to Our Holy Mother as she beseeches you on my behalf. I’m still mad as hell at my loudmouth daughter, but I’m willing to bargain. Here are my terms: You stop Sidda from chickening out of love, and I’ll quit drinking. Till the day she and Connor say “I do.” And I’ll throw in the Ya-Ya-rabilia too. I hear you laughing. Knock it off. This time I’m serious.

  Make Siddalee turn around and walk through the fire. If she starts that “I-don’t-know-how-to-love” crap, don’t fall for it.

  One caveat: they have to get married before October 31, got it? No abstinence guarantees past Halloween. It’s August now. You have plenty of time.

  Let my oldest smile that real smile.

  Through the intercession of Our Lady of Shooting Stars, I pray. Amen.

  After she made the Sign of the Cross, Vivi lit a cigarette. She wasn’t supposed to smoke inside the house, she wasn’t supposed to smoke at all, but hell, Shep wasn’t home. She thought better with that red tip glowing in the dark. Her bedroom was dark. She made the Sign of the Cross again, this time with her cigarette, and when she did, it gave her an idea.

  She walked down the hall to the kitchen, and opened her firecracker drawer, the one where she stashed firecrackers from New Year’s and Fourth of July. She kept a supply around for special, unofficial celebrations. Vivi pulled out two sparklers and carried them outside with her.

  No one else was home at Pecan Grove. Vivi walked down to the edge of the bayou and lit her sparklers. She watched the little slivers of light as they shot out into the night sky.

  Then she began to wave them around in the air, and, without questioning why, she began to run up and down the bayou, holding the sparklers up above her head.

  If anyone sees me, they’ll say, Well, it’s finally happening. Vivi Abbott Walker has gone over the edge. What they don’t know is that I went over the edge years ago, and lived to tell the tale. Although not to many.

  Vivi ran until she was almost breathless, then she stopped and held the two sparklers out in front of her. Staring at them, she thought: These are all I have. I do not have the wide, bright beacon of some solid old lighthouse, guiding ships safely home, past the jagged rocks. I only have these little glimmers that flicker and then go out. Let me see my daughter like my mother could never see me. Let her see me, too.

  Back in her room, she lit another candle and set it with the sparkler stubs in front of her statue of the Virgin Mary. Then she wiped off her feet and climbed into bed.

  I’ll burn the candle for my daughter all night while I sleep, she thought. I don’t care what the fire department says about fire hazards. I have lived through fire before.


  Sidda stood on the upper deck of the Bainbridge Island ferry and watched as the Seattle skyline receded. The snow-tipped Cascade Mountains rose to the east. To the south, Mount Rainier watched over the city like a giant guiding god. When Sidda turned to face west, she could see the jagged peaks and shining glaciers of the Olympic Mountains, which shot up to the heavens from the Olympic Peninsula.

  Sidda was only vaguely aware of the smiling tourists who ambled by her as she stood on the deck peering out across the water. She was remembering a day the previous February when the view in front of her had been quite different.

  It had been a cold, sunny day, midweek. The glowing major reviews for Women on the Cusp had just come out, and the disastrous personal profile was yet to come. Sidda and Connor had played hooky to celebrate their success, taking Hueylene for a long walk in Central Park, then returned to Sidda’s apartment and opened a bottle of champagne in the middle of the afternoon.

  As the sun dropped in the sky and evening’s chill set in that February afternoon, they made love. She leaned down and smelled the skin at Connor’s shoulders right at the spots where, as Martha Graham might have said, his own wings might have been attached. She crawled higher on Connor to smell his hair. Thick black hair, with gray hairs around the temples, soft, as though washed in rainwater the way her grandmother Buggy used to wash her hair. His lean muscled body was sexier than any twenty-year-old’s could have ever been.

  She’d had more lovers than she cared to count, years of couplings that had left her feeling raw, slightly lost, and emptied of sweetness when she woke up. She’d had two long-term relationships, but it was not until Connor that she felt fully met and deliciously cherished.

  After they made love that day, they lay naked next to each other, their skin warm and flushed. Sidda sank down into the wide flannel embrace of their bodies, and she rested. For a moment she died a good little death, they died it together. And then her eyes began to fill with tears. She cried. At the beauty of what she had stumbled onto, a
t the fear that something terrible would happen because she was not vigilant enough. She cried at the fear of something so good that she would not be brave enough to bear it.

  When she stopped crying, he kissed her eyelids. Then he asked her to marry him.

  She said yes.

  She had decided years ago never to marry. Anyone. Ever. She had sworn she would never sign on for what she had witnessed in her parents’ marriage.

  But she said yes to Connor.

  He lowered his hand to her belly, laying it on the small rounded place, so that when she inhaled, her belly pushed up against his palm. Her instinct was to suck in her stomach so it would seem flatter, but she didn’t have the energy. Love had worn her out.

  Later, they had pulled on sweaters and heavy socks, and stepped out onto the small balcony of her twenty-second-floor apartment, with Sidda’s old Rolleicord camera in hand.

  They set the camera on the tripod and let the automatic timer capture their image. Smiling. Wind blowing their hair. Not leaning on each other, heading to trouble, but standing side by side, holding hands like in an old-time photograph.

  Sidda drove off the ferry and headed west toward the Olympic Peninsula. An hour or so into the drive, she began passing vast corporate “managed forests,” where the land had been logged, burned, then replanted. Through small towns with sad-looking houses with Day-Glo orange signs in windows which read, THIS FAMILY SUPPORTED BY TIMBER DOLLARS. She drove past wide, angry swaths of clear-cuts where bleached-looking tree stumps and gnarled branches looked like human bones.

  She passed a poster in a gas-station window that showed three generations of robust loggers. The caption read ENDANGERED SPECIES/SUPPORT THEM. At one point, Sidda almost drove off the road at the sight of a logging truck, stacked high with old trees, rolling past her. On the front of the truck a tattered spotted owl hung in effigy from the grille.

  Late that afternoon, Sidda turned onto the dirt road that led to May’s cabin. It was an old white clapboard from the thirties set up off Lake Quinault, on the edge of the rain forest. From its deck, Sidda could see almost the entire lake. To her right she could see the lush growth of the Quinault River’s floodplain as it disappeared into rugged, snow-laced Olympic peaks. The sky was gray, and it was so quiet she could hear a loon as it surfaced on the flat water.

  Inside, the cabin was dark and cozy, with old knotty pine paneling that gave off a golden glow even on the darkest Northwest days. A kitchen, one sizable bedroom, and one great room lined in windows and glass doors that opened out onto a deck comprised the building. Along one wall in the great room were photos of May Sorenson and her family. Sidda felt welcomed by the sight of books and overstuffed chairs, and the jigsaw puzzle of Venice that was still set up on a small table in the corner.

  After she had hauled her bags in from the car, Sidda made a cup of tea and immediately began to regret her decision to get away. She itched to call her agent and check in. She kicked herself for not having brought along a cellular phone. She was too used to being plugged in.

  Once she’d forced herself not to run out in search of a telephone, she decided to go out to the car and bring in an unfamiliar box that Connor had put in at the last minute. She set the box in the middle of the big room of the cabin, on an old pink-and-faded-green hooked rug, in front of the sliding glass doors that led onto the deck overlooking the lake. The doors leading to the deck were open, and a light breeze blew in off the lake.

  Hueylene was circling the box, sniffing with curiosity. It bore Vivi’s handwriting and Pecan Grove as a return address. Following Hueylene’s example, Sidda too began to circle the box. She thought about bending down and sniffing it, along with her dog, but stopped herself. That thing is emitting Mama-rays, she thought. It had FedEx stickers plastered on it, and the word “Fragile” written large in Vivi’s hand.

  Sidda leaned down and picked up the box. She leaned her ear to it. Not ticking at least. It weighed perhaps twenty pounds, and didn’t have any odor. She placed it on the table and walked into the kitchen, where she slowly drank a glass of water. Then she walked back into the big room and stared at the box again.

  Hueylene went to the door and stood with her ears pricked up and tail wagging, waiting to go outside.

  Sidda changed into her swimsuit and led Hueylene down a set of rough steps until she reached the dock that jutted out into the lake. She stuck her foot into the water and immediately pulled it back out. She was not about to dive into such cold water. It invited a heart attack for any Southerner. So she sat on the dock and watched her dog run, delighted, up and down the dock, until the cocker came to rest at a spot beside her.

  Back inside the cabin, Sidda unpacked the books she’d brought—from Chekhov to Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols to a biography of Clare Boothe Luce to a book called On the Way to the Wedding: Transforming the Love Relationship. She unpacked her clothes: khaki pants, shorts, some linen shirts, a pair of sweatpants, and one voluminous soft white cotton nightgown. She unpacked the talismans she always traveled with: the feather pillow she’d had since infancy and could not part with; the framed engagement photo of her and Connor; a frayed stuffed bear that May Sorenson had given her at the first staged reading of Women on the Cusp; a Ziploc bag with two cotton bolls grown on Pecan Grove Plantation; and a tiny antique vial found in a shop in London.

  Sidda arranged her talismans on the mantel above the fireplace, along with a sanctuary candle with a picture of Saint Jude, and one with a picture of our Lady of Guadalupe surrounded by roses.

  She put away fresh pasta, apples, cantaloupes, and Gouda cheese; she refrigerated the bottles of champagne; and she laid out Hueylene’s travel bed.

  But she did not touch her mother’s box. Not yet.

  It was not until she woke up in the middle of the night and could not fall back asleep that Sidda gave up trying to resist Vivi’s box. She pulled on her robe, a poodle-and-rose-patterned creation that Wade Coenen had whipped up from a 1950’s chenille bedspread, which made her feel a little like Lucille Ball on acid. It had begun to rain, and the air was chilly. August in the Northwest was like November in Louisiana.

  Hueylene followed her from the bedroom into the great room. Sidda stood frozen for a moment. Then she pulled the lamp that hung over the table closer to the tabletop, sat down, and opened her mother’s box.

  What she found inside was a large, heavy-duty plastic garbage bag sealed carefully with strapping tape. Taped to the bag was an envelope with Sidda’s name written on it.

  Inside the envelope was a letter, written not on Vivi’s monogrammed stationery, but on Garnet Bank and Trust Company notepaper, which always sat next to the phone in Vivi’s kitchen. The note looked like it had been dashed off quickly, then ripped from the pad before Vivi could change her mind.

  Pecan Grove Plantation

  Thornton, Louisiana

  August 15, 1993

  5:30 A.M.


  Good God, child! What do you mean, you “don’t know how to love”? Do you think any of us know how to love?! Do you think anybody would ever do anything if they waited until they knew how to love?! Do you think that babies would ever get made or meals cooked or crops planted or books written or what Goddamn-have-you? Do you think people would even get out of the bed in the morning if they waited until they knew how to love?

  You have had too much therapy. Or not enough. God knows how to love, Kiddo. The rest of us are only good actors.

  Forget love. Try good manners.

  —Vivi Abbott Walker

  P.S. Have decided to send along some Ya-Ya memories. You lose this album or give it to The New York Times and I’ll put a contract out on you. I want it returned to me safely and in impeccable condition.

  P.P.S. Don’t think this means I’m giving you all my secrets. There is more to me than you will ever know.

  Sidda put the letter back inside its envelope, as though to restrain all her mother’s question marks, exclamations, and italics. She turned ins
tead to the plastic garbage bag.

  From the bag she pulled a large brown leather scrapbook, stuffed fat with papers and various little items falling out. Its spine was cracked, and the leather was scratched and scarred. It appeared that the album had been taken apart and rebound after more pages had been added, and that those extra pages could barely be contained within the binding. The cover of the book was edged in gold, and in the lower right-hand corner, embossed in gold, was the name Vivi Walker.

  The first thing Sidda did was to smell the leather. Then she held the album to her chest and hugged it. She wasn’t sure exactly why, but it occurred to her that what she wanted to do, what she needed to do, was light a candle.

  Bringing the sanctuary candles to the table, she lit them and set them on either side of the scrapbook. She stared at the tiny flames for a moment, then she opened the album. On the first page of brownish tan construction paper, written large in a youthful hand, was the title: “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”

  Sidda smiled at the grandness of the scrapbook’s title. How Ya-Ya. Running her hands across the cracking leather, she vaguely remembered seeing the album as a girl, but being forbidden to touch it. Yes, she recalled, Mama kept it stored on the top shelf of one of her closets, next to her winter hats.

  Gently, not wanting to tear the old paper, she opened to a page at random. The first thing she saw was a photo of her mother with the Ya-Yas and two teenage boys on a beach. Her mother sat on the shoulders of a dark-haired boy, whose face was radiant with laughter. The smile on her mother’s face was one of sheer delight.

  She looked at her mother’s face. How old was she in the photo? Fifteen? Sixteen? The cheekbones were higher than Sidda recalled them, the skin unwrinkled, the blonde hair curly, the eyes unmistakable with their sassy glint. She found herself smiling automatically at the sight of her mother’s smile.

  She wanted to devour the album, to crawl into it like a hungry child and take everything she needed. This raw desire made her feel dizzy. It mixed with the excitement of the voyeur and the curiosity of a dramatist. Her hands all but shook at the sight of the cornucopia that lay before her: clues to her mother’s life, evidence of her mother’s life before children.