On Christmas Eve 1964, a month after he’d eloped, my father and his young bride Donna picked me up for a family party at my grandmother’s house. My older sister, as bitter as I was at being left out of Dad’s nuptials, invented a headache and stayed home.
We three were the last to arrive at Grandma Claire’s house that December night in Seattle. I watched as my family gathered around the woman my father had married, only twenty-five, twelve years his junior. They hugged her, gushed over her dark eyes, her tiny frame. When she held out her hand to show her wedding ring, I shut my eyes tight. That ring was proof my parents would never get back together, a hope I’d held close for three years, since their split when I was ten.
Before dinner Donna sang for the family, an ersatz Maria Von Trapp with my cousins seated on the living room floor at her feet. At the first strum of her guitar, I ran upstairs and barricaded myself in one of the bedrooms, the one with the old Victrola and the stack of 78s. I chose an Ella Fitzgerald record from the ’40s, set it carefully on the turntable, and cranked up the volume to drown my stepmother’s voice.
No one there had ever asked my mother to sing. She had a real voice, nothing like this weak chirping coming out of Donna. Mom’s alto sounded like velvet on songs by Ella, Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee. Grandma’s collection once included recordings of my mother singing with a big band, but those went missing after the divorce. Probably smashed to bits by Dad or his mother. What I would’ve given to play one of her records that night. My mother’s voice, so familiar and comforting, while Donna’s magnified for me what I’d lost.
When I crept back downstairs my little cousin Jennifer stopped me in the hallway to tell me how lucky I was to have Donna for a mother. I walked away from Jenny, trying to swallow the boulder stuck in my throat.
Grandma called the family to dinner. The table was fitted with all its leaves for two aunts, two uncles, and six cousins, as well as Grandma Claire, Dad, and his shiny new wife. Platters and bowls heaped with my grandmother’s specialties, the same foods I’d eaten every Christmas since I had teeth, crowded its surface. Under the table my youngest cousin Jimmy prowled around poking at people’s legs, as usual, which the grown-ups ignored.
Someone asked about the wedding. Donna described the ceremony in Long Beach, California, her hometown. Her pastor father officiated. So special, she said. She’d worn a sleeveless dress with a short jacket, and a hat with a lacy veil. I half expected her to say birds and squirrels helped her dress like Cinderella before the ball. But she ended with a gut punch.
“My whole family was there.”
I kicked Jimmy.
When Dad dropped me at home later my mother would be waiting. She’d want to know every comment made, every glance cast by Grandma Claire and the aunts. Once after a post-divorce, pre-Donna visit with Dad’s relatives I’d told Mom with a little too much enthusiasm how we’d eaten coconut cake and played cards after dinner. My mother countered by telling me my grandmother never liked me, not since the day I was born. My sister was her favorite, she said. Now I knew to keep my stories to myself.
I didn’t know then about my mother’s infidelity. I only knew she harbored a fiery animosity towards Dad’s family, and they reciprocated. Years later cousin Jenny, by then in her fifties, would surprise me by saying, “Your mother liked to party,” even though Jenny was four when my parents divorced.
After dinner, I followed my cousins into the living room to open gifts. The top of the Christmas tree touched the ceiling. Decorations I recognized from other years hung in its branches, ornaments made of mercury glass and papier mache. Above the fireplace a nest of angel’s hair held Claire’s carved wooden crèche, the baby Jesus worn from generations of children playing “family” with the figures. I sat on the floor with my cousins for the ritual opening of the packages, a frenzy of joy and greed that lasted but a few moments, the carefully chosen contents soon forgotten.
Just before we left that night, Donna took me aside and gave me her gift. I could see from the shape it was a hardcover book. When I tore off the paper I found The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, with a drawing on the cover of a girl in Victorian dress opening a garden gate. Sprinkled through the pages were lush color illustrations on slick glossy paper. I had never owned such a beautiful book.
I hugged her, and for a moment, I meant it.
Halfway through the embrace, I realized what I was doing. This book was Donna’s attempt to win me over, and I’d fallen for it. I looked up and saw my father smiling, gratified by the sight of his new wife’s arms around his youngest child. I jerked away from Donna and ran outside, leaned against Dad’s car, arms crossed, face burning. I’d lowered my guard. Now she’d think I liked her, and I didn’t. I couldn’t.
When I got home I smuggled The Secret Garden into the house and hid it under the clothes in the bottom drawer of my dresser. For months when I saw my stepmother, she asked me if I’d read the story. I answered truthfully, “Not yet.” I left it tucked away with the clothes I didn’t like to wear, were worn out, or didn’t fit, and never read a word.
I remember the weight of that book in my drawer. How seductive it was, how dangerous to know any minute it might be discovered. I wonder sometimes why on earth I kept it for so many years. Why I didn’t simply throw it out.
But I kept it because it was beautiful. I loved the smell of its pages. I kept it because I both hated and longed for the ache it gave me. The same ache the memory gives me, still.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Kevin Trotman