Home > Count the Ways(3)

Count the Ways(3)
Author: Joyce Maynard

This was when Louise had noticed her necklace. Amazingly, her granddaughter had climbed into her arms to study the small golden bird more closely.

Eleanor could see, on Ursula’s face, a look of caution and concern. She studied her daughter’s face now—her middle child, now almost thirty-one years old—for some familiar reminder of the girl she used to be, the one who liked to start every morning singing “Here Comes the Sun,” the one who arranged her vegetables on her plate in the shape of a face, always the smiling kind, the one who’d sucked her thumb till she went off to first grade. At which point she herself had begged Eleanor to paint her thumb with the terrible-tasting medicine, to make her stop. (Eleanor hated doing this. It was Ursula who had insisted. Ursula, so deeply invested in fitting in.)

Ursula was the one who, when Eleanor tucked her into bed every night, liked to say, “I love you more than the universe. More than infinity.” If you left the room before she got a chance to say the words, she’d make you come back.

It was three years since Eleanor had seen Ursula. Easy to keep track, because it had been three days after the birth of Louise. They were in the kitchen of Ursula and Jake’s house; Ursula had just finished nursing the baby. Eleanor was holding her when her daughter had stood up from the table. She took the baby from Eleanor’s arms.

“Don’t come back. Don’t plan on seeing your granddaughter ever again.” Those were Ursula’s words to Eleanor as she sent her away that day. Then three years of silence.

“I love our family,” Ursula used to say.

Our family. She spoke as if the five of them, together, constituted some whole entity, like a country or a planet.

This would have been in the mid-eighties, when the children were all in single-digit ages. She had been so busy with the children, most of all Toby, that she hadn’t noticed her marriage to their father unraveling. But her younger daughter did. Sometimes back then, observing Eleanor’s worried expression, Ursula had placed her fingers—one from each hand—in the corners of Eleanor’s mouth to form her lips into a smile.

At the time, Eleanor was always playing the same one song on her Patti LaBelle album, “On My Own.” She was always worried about money, worried about work. Mad at Cam. That most of all.

Ursula was just eight at the time, but already she had designated herself the family cheerleader, the one who, through her own tireless efforts, would make everyone happy again. Ursula, the one of Eleanor’s three children who had, for a while, refused to read Charlotte’s Web because she’d heard what happened in the end and didn’t want to go there, though in the end she did. Ursula, the perpetual peacemaker, the optimist, the girl committed above all else to the well-being of everyone she loved (possibly ignoring her own feelings along the way). Sensing trouble between her parents, she was always thinking up things they might do to bring them all together.

“I call family hug!” she’d announce, in that determinedly cheerful tone of hers.

Who wants to play Twister? Let’s build an igloo and go inside and sing campfire songs! Tell us the story again, Dad, about how you met Mom.

Now their endlessly hopeful younger daughter had a second child of her own on the way, evidently. Her first—whose birth had been followed, three days later, by Eleanor’s disastrous visit—nestled into her grandmother’s arms as if she’d known her all her life.

Ursula had known the comfort of those arms herself. But she’d forgotten, to the point where the simple fact of Eleanor’s ability to hold a three-year-old in her arms without eliciting screams had seemed to surprise her.

“It’s okay, Lulu,” Ursula said to Louise, when Eleanor bent to pick her up. “She won’t hurt you.”

Why would anyone ever suppose otherwise? Least of all her own child.




Intimate Strangers

In no other way that she could think of would Eleanor be called a superstitious person, but there had been a time when she could not round the final bend in the long, dead-end dirt road that led up to this place without saying the words out loud, “I’m home.” Maybe some part of her actually believed that if she ever failed to speak the words, something terrible might happen to one of them. How would she ever survive if it did?

Only, she had.

The first thing she’d always see, approaching the house, was the ash tree. Nobody remembered who started this, but they had called the tree Old Ashworthy. The oldest in town—a rare survivor of the hurricane of 1938 that had wiped out so many of the biggest trees, their neighbor Walt told her. The tallest, anyway.

The trunk had been massive, its girth so vast that one time, when Cam and Eleanor were still together, and the children were little, the five of them had all held hands and circled it, or tried to.

It had been Ursula’s idea. “I have a plan, guys,” she’d announced. At her instruction they’d formed a circle around the base of the tree in their front yard—their backs against the scratchy bark, faces looking out, fingers touching, Alison with that dark, worried expression that seldom left her by this point—rolling her eyes, no doubt, and wanting nothing more than to be left alone—and sweet, vague Toby not fully grasping the concept of what they were trying to do here but ready as always to oblige.

Eleanor had tried to touch Cam’s fingers that day, but Old Ashworthy’s circumference exceeded their reach. In the end, even with Cam’s long arms, they couldn’t reach all the way around the trunk, or even close.

Even this—the failure of the five of them to execute her plan of a unifying hug around the tree, and the ominous sense of failure they might have taken from this—Ursula had managed to transform into a signal of something good.

“You know what our family needs to make this work?” she said. “Another baby!”

Looking back on that day now, Eleanor realized that her husband must have already given up on their marriage by then, though it said something about how distracted Eleanor was at the time that she had failed to notice.

All three of their babies had been born on this farm. The worst pain Eleanor had ever known—the worst physical pain anyway, the sense that her body was ripping in two, sounds coming out of her she would not have believed herself capable of making. Then the part where this whole new person showed up, and you looked into her face, wrapped your arms around her wet pink body.

“It’s a girl.”

She’d driven Al to Logan airport, the day she saw her firstborn off to college. It was back before Homeland Security prohibited you from walking up to the gate with someone you loved, or being there to watch as she came off the plane when she came home.

Only Al might not be coming home much, she told Eleanor. She had turned to face Eleanor, just before boarding the plane, to deliver the news.

“You might not be seeing me for a while,” she said. “I need to be on my own to figure everything out.”

Figure out what? Can’t I help you? I always used to be able to do that.

Al walked down the ramp then, into the tunnel that led to the plane. Standing at the gate, watching her go, Eleanor felt a stabbing in her chest, as real as a knife.

Sometimes a person has to leave home to become who they need to be.

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