This afternoon, I sat down to start working on a short story I owe my friend Tommy for a charity anthology. I have no idea what it’s going to be about, really, but most of my short works are heavily mood-influenced, and I don’t think this will be any different. This may or may not be the beginning of the story. It may be something entirely else. It may be nothing at all. But it’s what I wrote today, so I thought I would share it with you.
It began with a dress. A white cotton affair with a tight bodice trimmed in eyelet and a full skirt that belled out around my knees when I pirouetted in the great hall at Rockhaven, it was the first newly store-bought item of clothing I’d ever owned. My mother gave it to me for my birthday that March. Fifteen was time to grow up, she said, to learn to be a lady rather than a ragamuffin. Mrs. Smithson, owner of the grand old Victorian ramble where my mother was housekeeper, had laughed at the comment. I think she quite liked my tomboy ways, but she bought me a string of lustrous pearls nonetheless, the most purely beautiful thing I had ever seen, to go with the dress.
We were a household of women. Male gardeners managed the small crop of fruit trees that blessed us with peaches and plums in the summer and apples and pears in the fall. Men tended the flowers, too—in the large cutting bed of annuals populated by geranium, snapdragon, larkspur, gladiolus, and zinnia—and kept the lawn and hedges neatly trimmed. But the separation of church and state had nothing on the separation of house and garden. The men rotated through, but the women in the house were my sun and moon.
Mrs. Smithson had hired my mother fresh off the boat to care for her infant son, Matthew. As long as wealthy American women had babies, my Aunt Eileen used to say, Irish girls would never want for work. But little Matthew Smithson died in a polio outbreak at only three years old and Mr. Smithson was shot in the back six months later walking home from his job on Wall Street. Mrs. Smithson sold their apartment in the city and retired to Rockhaven, their big, empty house in Roaring Brook, New York, an hour and a half north of the city she could no longer stand. She brought my mother with her to serve as housekeeper and companion, and gave her private quarters at the back of the house.
I was born after all those tragedies. After my mother’s own tragedy—the death of my father at the hands of Germans in a country so distant that even Mrs. Smithson’s money could not bring him home for burial—had bonded the two women in a dark sisterhood. The two of them were my guides, my co-mothers, and they agreed on almost everything except when it came to me.
“Be careful,” my mother would warn as I tore through the house on my way outside to dig for the elusive treasure hidden by one of Mrs. S’s ancestors. “Remember your place. This is not your house.”
“But of course it is,” Mrs. S. would say. And once, when I was about twelve, she went even further. “One day,” she told me when we were alone in the sitting room, “this will all belong to you. You must promise never, ever to sell it; it has been in my family for generations.”
Naturally, I promised. For I knew nothing, then, of taxes or maintenance or the responsibilities of my own calling.