But this is a seasonal community, casual in style, and some of the bolder tourists and residents of nearby developments consider the estates along Beach Plum fair territory for sightseeing, especially on a waning early autumn afternoon, with the air too nippy for lingering at the beach. The weekends are the worst. Last Saturday a carload of women had encroached halfway up the Brosnans’ driveway. Fortunately, Moira happened to be outside clipping a few fat flowers from the strawberry hydrangea and was able to head them off. Their intrusion was annoying, but she had to smile in spite of herself when she overheard one of the invaders comment as their Toyota maneuvered a U-turn, “Sure, they’re rich . . . but they’re not happy!” It could have been Mary Rafferty talking. Verbatim. Moira’s mother used to say that very thing about the rich, for whom she’d had a peculiar and touching compassion.
Rising from her vanity, Moira sheds her robe and dons a lace-trimmed gossamer slip. As she smooths the fabric over her breasts and rib cage, she is thinking that she will miss Wilma, whose job it has been to tend her wardrobe. She hears beneath her window the crunch of wheels on gravel as George, the chauffeur, glides the car around to the front of the house, where her luggage is waiting to be hoisted into the trunk—or the boot, as Richard would say. At Moira’s request, however, Richard is elsewhere. Although their divorce has been relatively uncontentious, she has given him to understand that his assistance will not be appreciated on this day, when she is to vacate his house on Beach Plum Drive.
Richard is nineteen years Moira’s senior and twenty-eight years the senior of her replacement, a giddy but sincere jewelry designer named Gwennie, to whom Moira has been commendably polite. Despite her expulsion, she bears Richard no grudge. A man of limited emotional fervor who manages both his life and his investment portfolio by the same rules, he has opted to discard a wife in whom his interest has palled in the same way he might discard a stagnant stock. Long before she’d said her optimistic “I do,” Moira was aware of his shortcomings, and she has never denied that Richard’s wealth had some bearing on her decision to marry him. “I’ll believe in May-December love,” her mother used to say, “when you show me a poor December.” Capping the bottle of lotion tightly, Moira places it in her cosmetics case, packs a few more toilet items, and resolves not to think about Richard or Gwennie. Instead she reaches for an envelope on the dressing table that contains a comforting letter from her stepdaughter, Lucille. Moira can recite the whole letter from memory. Still, she opens it just to gaze at the bold slanted penmanship, feel the paper between her fingers.
Lucille is spending this domestically turbulent summer touring Europe with a friend from college. As she writes, they are in Le Beausset, a little town in the south of France which, according to Lucille, is the cacophonous cicada capital of the world. There is little in Lucille’s present demeanor of the willful, unruly eight-year-old she was when Moira first encountered the demon of her second-grade class at the Whittendale School, a child whose obstinacy and generally disruptive behavior necessitated an emergency teacher-parent consultation. Richard Brosnan turned out to be a concerned parent, recently widowed, anxious to cooperate. He radiated an aura of wealth and success, which might have been daunting were it not offset by a charming, self-effacing wit, and Moira was flattered by the way he deferred to her suggestions in the matter of Lucille. With the child’s mother gone, he saw the wisdom of less nanny care and more of his own physical presence in her life. He took to dropping her off every morning at school himself. There were additional consultations and a bussed outing for the entire class to celebrate Lucille’s ninth birthday at a pumpkin patch near the Brosnans’ summer home. Not long after that, Richard and Moira became an item. Together they coaxed Lucille out of her grief and back into her childhood.
Lucille hadn’t been the only one at sea in those days. Moira was floundering, too, in the wake of a five-year marriage that had crumbled miserably under the stress of her infertility, the final two years a nightmare of surgery, scheduled intercourse, and insidious drugs that played havoc with her hormones and emotional stability, while her ovaries remained stubbornly unresponsive. She and Tom had met as freshman at the state teacher’s college and tied the knot right after graduation. Tom’s level of maturity was no match for the indignities and disappointments that are the lot of infertile couples, and he finally abandoned ship. At the time of the break-up, they were both teaching at the same public school, a suddenly untenable arrangement. It seemed fair that Moira be the one to leave, since Tom was entrenched and she had been anticipating retirement in favor of full-time motherhood. Nevertheless, teaching was work she enjoyed, so she moved on to the position at the Whittendale School. Posh, well-staffed, equipped to the nines, Whittendale provided the serene environment she needed, a rest cure for her battered self-esteem. If it didn’t pay well, at least it didn’t sap her energy for the graduate courses she began to take in the evenings.
It was Lucille who had proposed to Moira—coached by her father, of course. Richard always had a talent for effective presentation and speedy closure. He was in the market for a new mother for his child. Motherhood was what Moira had been striving for all along. She liked Richard. She loved Lucille. They married on her tenth birthday in a ceremony festooned with as many balloons as flowers, featuring an all-chocolate wedding cake with three figurines at the top.
Now Lucille is grown and traipsing around Europe. Thinking about her contracts Moira’s throat; for the first time today she feels the urge to weep. Lucille’s letter insists that their relationship will not be changed by the divorce, but Moira knows that the tie that binds them could unravel or break. It is anchored in this house of glorious summers, with Richard joining in mostly on weekends, and in a phase of their lives which is coming to a close. Lucille is Richard’s child and goes with the territory.
At a time like this, Mary Rafferty would have said, “This isn’t the end of the world,” or “Everything happens for the best,” or, a favorite of Moira’s, “The things you worry about most, never happen.” Her mother was not given to melancholy, and Moira will not let it take hold. She sighs, lets her head fall back, rakes her fingers through her hair and tousles it furiously to dispel self-pity. She locks the cosmetics case and carries it into the bedroom, which is on the bay side of the house and has a wall of glass. She is thinking about how seldom she saw her mother cry. Mary Rafferty cried when her sister Margaret died and when Eddie, her first born, went off to join the Marines. She cried on the night of the fire that consumed their apartment and the meager collection of worldly goods, to which, until then, she had shown no particularly attachment. Moira, aged thirteen, had caused the conflagration. She’d been smoking in her bedroom when her mother returned too soon from the supermarket. Just lighting up again when she heard the key in the door, Moira panicked, shook the match, tossed it, and blew wildly into the air to chase the fumes. She ran to meet her mother at the door, took the grocery sacks from her. They stocked the fridge and were setting the table when her mother straightened and said, “What’s that I smell?”
It was the damn drapes that had caught, the drapes that masqueraded as a wall in Moira’s room. Gouges in the woodwork left by hinges indicated there had been doors where the drapes hung, French doors probably, suggestive of the dilapidated building’s more elegant past. Now flames unfurled from the dusty brocade, blistering the woodwork, lapping at the ceiling. Mother and daughter raced to the back bedroom, where the boys were playing Legos, and bundled them in coats. On their hands and knees, they all crawled to the front door beneath a cloud of billowing smoke. Once outside, they crossed the hall and pounded on the door of the Maloney’s apartment. “Call the fire department,” Moira’s mother commanded, “and get out! Get out!”
Moira hasn’t thought about that in years. It was all so long ago, in a different reality, another lifetime. She wonders if one day she will remember Beach Plum Drive with the same detachment. All those calamities — the fire, Aunt Margaret’s death, Eddie’s enlistment — happened within the same year. “Bad things come in threes,” her mother observed with all the stoicism of a woman whose philosophy derived from the soothing balm of aphorisms, her favorite prayer clipped from a Dear Abby column: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Mary Rafferty would have faulted Moira for not having seen the Gwennie thing coming, for not having launched an all-out offensive. But her mother’s recipe for marriage was a simple mixture of a few hearty ingredients; she would have had no understanding of the precariousness of soufflé.
The suit Moira has chosen to wear is laid out on the bed. She places the cosmetics case beside it and discovers, to her dismay, a coating of dog hair on her skirt and several creases pressed into the fabric by the body heat of Lucille’s 80-pound Labrador retriever. For a frantic second she considers calling Wilma upstairs to do her the one last service of pressing it. All day it has seemed important for her to look her best. A gracious exit is what she has in mind. She remembers another garment laid out on another bed —her prom dress, which suffered a similar fate: it was mashed not by a dog but by the wriggling bodies of her two younger brothers locked in playful combat. The dress was very pale blue and as wrinkle-resistant as aluminum foil. Directly quoting her mother, Moira says out loud, “It’ll get wrinkled in the car anyway.” She brushes off the dog hair with her hand, gives the skirt a vigorous shaking, and puts it on. Crossing the room, she slides open the glass doors to the deck and steps out for a last look at the view.
The afternoon is clear and still, the wind barely strong enough to stir the beach grass. Resting her elbows on the deck rail, she contemplates the calm bay, the shimmering red globe of the setting sun reflected on its surface. A sailboat is skimming along on motor power, headed for the marina. It disappears behind the rocks of the inlet, but the top of its mast can still be seen, moving above the rocks like a target in a shooting gallery. She doesn’t hear Wilma’s gentle knock on the open bedroom door, doesn’t hear the maid advancing across the carpeted floor, and is startled by Wilma’s voice.
“Is there anything I can help you with, Moira?”
“No… no, thank you. Wilma. You can tell George I’ll be down to the car in a few minutes.”
Wilma is embarrassed; it shows in her eyes, which do not match her smiling mouth. “Isn’t the sky gorgeous,” she observes. “What is that saying? Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning . . . red sky at night —”
“Sailor’s delight,” says Moira.
Wilma spots the cosmetics case on the bed. “I’ll take that down for you,” she offers, relieved to have something to do. Moira is relieved, too. She would rather the goodbyes be said downstairs. After Wilma leaves, she lingers a while on the deck, studying the bay. This is the memento she wants to take away with her — this view, the patterns of sand and sky, the colors and motion of the water.
When she goes downstairs she finds Wilma and George outside, standing by the car. She hugs Wilma, and they both say something about how they will keep in touch. George holds the car door open and Moira slides into the back seat. The divider window that separates her from George is closed and she decides to leave it so. Feeling strangely at peace, she settles into the soft leather as the car moves down the driveway and turns onto Beach Plum Drive. The ride along the drive is particularly pleasant with the setting sun casting its red glow over all, flashing through the filigree of trees and hedges.
On that night of the fire the sky was a brilliant orange-y red that didn’t last long because the top-floor blaze was quickly doused, though not quickly enough to save their apartment. Moira stood in the street with her mother and brothers and guiltily hoped no one could guess the elation she felt, as flashing lights and chaos swirled all around her. Later, when the sky had turned gray from the smoke, her mother turned to her and said, “We’ll tell your father it started in the kitchen.” If rebellion and mother-hatred had been fomenting in the adolescent Moira, it was at that moment instantly extinguished, as dead as the embers in her charred bedroom, never to be revived. Her mother put her arm around her and rested her cheek on the top of Moira’s head. “Well, now we’ll have to move,” she said, “whether your father likes it or not!” Then her mother chuckled, and soon she was laughing, uncontrollably, uproariously, the way one does in the aftermath of tears and on the edge of exhaustion. And Moira laughed, too. They stood there, mother and daughter, beside a soggy heap of their ruined belongings, laughing like loons.
Author's CommentThe story was sparked by something I heard my own mother say while we were driving friends through a posh section of the area where my parents had a modest vacation home. “Sure, they’re rich, but they’re not happy,” prompted an outburst of laughter and became a comical mantra whenever we’d find ourselves in the vicinity of impressive affluence. As I worked to invent a crisis for my protagonist, I recalled other Momisms, and the story took shape.
My Middle-Aged Baby Book is a best seller. It didn’t hurt one bit that Erma Bombeck wrote “A perfect gift for middle agers and those in denial.” Fans tell me that once unwrapped, the birthday girl or boy can’t resist reading it aloud, which turns many a birthday party into a laugh fest. Here’s a sample from the chapter entitled “I Forget.”
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