Letters are windows casting light, illuminating the ties between two people. I could’ve sneaked a peek inside my parents’ romance by reading his letters to her, but I respected my mother’s love of curtains. At forty-five, the details of their marriage remained a mystery to me; I had no desire to confirm what I already knew. Even dead, she loved him more than me. My mother spent her days drenched in memories of safe arms and sweet music, reading his precious words, faded ink on yellowed stationery. I looked for ghosts around corners, certain I was running out of time to find a way to be enough for her. An inability to live in the present was one thing we had in common.
“Are you okay in there, Mother?” Well aware she startled at loud noises, I knocked lightly on the door nearest the driveway. No answer. By the fourth rap, I couldn’t stop myself, I was pounding.
The first pinprick of worry jabbed me as I wondered if this was the day I’d find my mother dead in her double bed, cold, even though she was covered by her wedding quilt of interlocking green and pink floral circles. Juggling two grocery bags and reminding the kids to stop at the end of the boardwalk leading to Anaskaket Beach, I jiggled the lock, but she’d bolted and double-bolted the place as if Sea Escape sat on a main street in the city instead of on waterfront acreage south of Boston.
“Henry, will you run around back and peek in the window? See if Nana’s in her chair. She probably can’t hear us.”
“Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom,” Claire said as she cupped her mittened hands down low, crossing her legs at the knees.
“Yes, honey. I know, I know. Didn’t I tell you to go before we left?”
As soon as I gave Henry permission to run, he was off. And as soon as he was out of view, I regretted asking him to help. What if my mother had slipped on her bathrobe and tumbled to the bottom of those twisting, turning stairs? For once I hoped he would be lured from me by the dunes he loved so much. Who lets a ten-year-old do a grown-up’s job? I should be the one to find her lying there, arms and legs akimbo. I should be the one to tend to her shattered hip or broken pride.
I dropped the bags filled with baking supplies and birthday gifts down on a lonely Adirondack. Digging in my knapsack for her keys, I cursed myself, and the ocean like a jackal jeered at me, pitching its sea spray the distance from shoreline to wraparound porch, chiding me for leaving her keys at home. The last time I’d let myself in, she’d lectured me for twenty minutes about her right to privacy, reminding me I didn’t live there anymore.
Worry stalled when everyone shouted at once.
“I have to pee.”
“She’s not there.”
“It’s far too oily for all this commotion. Can’t you people hold your houses?”
I remained silent as my mother admonished me through the barricade of a door; the only sound I made came from a breath of fresh relief. Lock after lock clacked—one, two, three—and the door creaked opened. The frail woman who was forever giving me a glimpse into my future stood at the entrance, her slight frame no match for the breadth of the grand room she’d once shared—and in a way still did—with my father. Her beloved Joseph.
Claire kicked off her shoes and scrambled past her grandmother, heading toward the bathroom. My mother reprimanded my five-year-old with a commanding whisper. “No running.”
Even wearing a flannel robe, her wavy bed hair dancing, my mother was intimidating. Beyond those scolding, dark eyes, she was as pretty as ever. Smooth skin, patrician nose, her face the shape of a valentine. If only she didn’t wear her unhappiness like an unflattering dress.
I grabbed the bags off the porch chair and placed them on the inside bench. “You don’t look a day over sixty,” I said, trying to start the visit over. I hung my parka in the front hall closet, ignoring her curious accessories: the legendary strand of pearls and a pair of flat black dress shoes. My tact over her mismatched getup didn’t stop her from staring at my lazy one.
“You worked,” she said.
Neither a question nor a conversation starter, my mother’s simple statement was intent on drawing attention to either my job, which she didn’t appreciate, or to the fact that I’d forgotten to change out of my uniform. I placed one hand on my chest, remembering that while I’d rushed to finish writing progress notes in my babies’ charts, a sleep-deprived intern bumped into me at the nurses’ station. Coffee sloshed, dotting the front of my scrubs. It mixed with the formula splotches burped up on me by Baby Boy Forsythe, a child I silently called Seth. Looking worse than usual after my twelve-hour shift in the newborn nursery, I’d made a mental note to change, but when I got home, the current that drags me through my life whisked me away from my need for clean jeans and a warm sweater. No time for Laura to shower. Christian was in a rush to get to the Magnolia town meeting, where his design pitch for the park renovation was the only item on the agenda. Henry and Claire kept at me to hurry. It was Nana’s birthday after all, we shouldn’t be late.
I didn’t tell them there was no real reason to rush. Duncan Hines and three meager gifts did not a gala make. My mother’s seventy-seventh birthday would be celebrated at home. Our party of four would dine seaside.
“Hey, Nana. Happy birthday!” Henry came out of nowhere, wrapping both arms around her trim waist. If she hadn’t been holding on to the door, she may well have been laid out flat.
My arrival hadn’t unpursed my mother’s lips, but Henry’s happy-go-lucky entrance charmed a smile right out of her. My brother’s rare appearances would have too, though I couldn’t recall a single time when Holden hugged her like that. I would’ve bet money he hadn’t picked up the phone to wish her happy birthday either, but I didn’t dare bring up the subject of Holden. It mystified me how a man responsible for trying big cases couldn’t remember to call his own mother. For her sake, I should’ve reminded him.
“Easy, honey. You almost knocked her over. Take off your shoes. You know the rules.”
“I didn’t mean to.” The hurt in Henry’s voice should’ve moved me to compassion. If only I’d looked at his face first, I might have seen his quivering chin and misty eyes. His uncombed hair with its cheerful cowlick and his shirt buttoned unevenly would’ve reminded me. Being inside Sea Escape, with its lush carpets and fine fabrics, each with its own name, overwhelmed Henry. He was an outdoor boy.
My mother closed her eyes briefly, using the door to find her balance. “I’m fine. He’s excited is all.”
I gave him a look, motioning for him to grab a bag and carry it to the kitchen, where I started to unload things.
“I’m going to go watch TV in Nana’s room.” He tried to duck out of helping me, though at least this time he knew enough not to ask to play on the beach alone. We were there to spend time with his grandmother.
“Not right now, I need help putting these away. I’m tired from work.” I handed him a jar of preserves and a package of English muffins.
My mother followed us into the kitchen area. She stood behind the butcher block island, gripping the edge as she watched. The first sigh came when I pulled a quart of chocolate milk from one bag. I knew how she felt about Claire’s refusal to drink regular milk and about me for giving in to my daughter’s finicky habits. She drummed the fingers of her right hand on the counter, something I did when my hand fell asleep. Something she did whenever I annoyed her. She sighed again when Henry pulled a bunch of bananas from one bag.
“For heaven’s sake, I’m not a chimpanzee,” she spoke under her breath. “I’ll be back,” she said. “I’m going to finish dressing.”
I perked up and shouted “great” a little loud, relieved that her outfit was interrupted, not intentional.
Watching her travel in slow motion through the large room, which included her oversized and underused kitchen, her elegant living and dining areas—my mother was a pioneer of the open floor plan—I realized there was something else we had in common. Morning, with all its to-dos, was daunting to both of us. I grew more exhausted the more I stood still; she, the more she moved.
I shouldn’t have agreed to take the extra shift in the nursery. Saturdays were reserved for my mother. But when one of the other nurses wore her marital status like a name tag, pleading with me to take her Friday night so she could go out on a date, all I had to do was think about a temp in the nursery trying to cope with those sixteen infants, and the word no couldn’t slip from my lips. Three hours after shift change, twenty hours since the last time I’d laid my head down, I was pulling cake mix and eggs from a shopping bag, hunting down pans in a cavernous cupboard, and preheating an oven I was afraid to get dirty. By the time I made the cake, cooled it, frosted it, and served it, I’d be asleep standing up.
All I wanted to do was sneak by my mother up those stairs, so I could climb into her bed and pull the covers over my head. Christian warned me that baking a cake with the kids at my mother’s was trying to do too much. Never mind that she might not live to see another birthday after the stress I’d cause by making a mess of her kitchen. I had to remind myself this was her day and celebrating it wasn’t about what was convenient for me. Besides, Christian knew as well as I did that a store-bought cake might well have saved time, but it would be served up with sighs and eye rolls. I could almost hear my mother saying, Doesn’t anyone make anything with their own hands anymore?
“I should help her,” Henry said as he watched his grandmother place her hand on the sturdier of the two banisters.
She couldn’t possibly have heard him from that distance, yet without turning around, she called for him.
“Joey, come, come. Give me a hand. I’ll freshen up, and you can take care of a few things for me upstairs.”
Henry looked at me, his expression a request for approval. I wanted to remind her his name was Henry. Instead I did nothing but nod, wishing she would’ve asked me for help.
He ran to her. My mother’s shoulders tensed as both of Henry’s feet hit the first step with a clomp.
“Nana, can you show me how—”
“Hush now. Remember where you are, young man,” my mother said.
When Claire returned from the bathroom, she interrupted what was likely the beginning of a sermon on indoor versus outdoor behavior. It was as though my daughter had never been in a hurry. I knew she didn’t have an accident, because she’s as fastidious as her father. Had one drop landed on her pants, she’d be insisting we go home to change. Thank God for young muscles and small miracles.
Claire plopped down in the middle of the living room next to the perfectly packed backpack she’d placed there. Out came Josefina, the Latin doll that came into the family as a result of one of my mother’s good days. Before Christmas, she’d told me to buy the girl one of those ethnic dolls, one she’d seen in a catalog. She thought my daughter would like a doll that looked like her. Claire adjusted Josefina’s fiesta dress and white stockings as if she were our fifth party guest. While Henry had a way of misplacing things like homework and time, library books and purpose—or anything else he needed to remember in favor of what lay before him—Claire was as neat as my childhood home.
As a gift for my mother, Christian forced a collection of amaryllis bulbs, arranging them in a terra-cotta planter. While I waited for Henry and my mother to come back down, I positioned the flowers on the table by her wing chair, next to the morning Gazette. I read the headline—CHILD OF STAR REUNITES WITH HER FAMILY—then turned the paper facedown, thinking maybe I could buy time before hearing my mother’s familiar lament: If your father still wrote for the paper, tabloid news would never take the place of war reporting. My eyes shifted to the chair beside the table and the envelope and letter abandoned there. She must have been lost in it until I pulled her back to the present with my banging. I knew I shouldn’t pick them up. I wanted to look away from his words, but I couldn’t stop myself.
My dearest Helen,
I don’t know how to tell you this
“Mom! When can I make the cake?”
I ripped a corner of the envelope’s flap when Claire startled me. Folding the letter, I placed it back inside. Addressed to Mrs. Helen Tobin, postmarked September 1966, the letter was sent to her the year after I was born. I ran my hand over the penny stamps, wondering why they were affixed upside down. Smoothing it out the best I could, I laid it on the side table where she usually kept it. I got an uneasy feeling after I’d put it away. I didn’t want her to think I’d read it.
“We might have to go buy one, honey,” I said. “Nana doesn’t have any pans.”
“I want to bake. We can go get our pans and come back here to make it.” Claire was a master at voicing her opinions and good at offering up solutions. I envied my daughter for being better at both than her mother.
“We’ll see,” I said, brushing a wisp of hair off her forehead. “I’ll ask Nana what she wants us to do.” Neither choice appealed to me since both required me to get back in the car and drive when all I wanted to do was curl up on the sofa.
Arranging the brightly wrapped gifts on the coffee table, I second-guessed Henry’s present to my mother. A beginner’s book on sewing didn’t seem right, but he’d ordered it through his school’s book club and paid for it with his own money. He’d insisted she would love it. I didn’t have the heart to tell him she wouldn’t. I remember the exact date my mother stopped creating her works of art. Henry’s childish gift wouldn’t be powerful enough to persuade Helen Elisabeth Tobin to begin again.
Just as I started to worry she was taking too long, I heard a thud come from the floor above me. I made for the stairs, but before my foot hit the first step, my mother appeared at the top landing. I should’ve guessed the source of the noise: Henry. My mother, more appropriately dressed in slacks and a boiled wool jacket, seized the railing and made her way toward me.
“Why don’t I run up and get you another pair of shoes?” I asked. “Those soles can be very slippery.” Her flats couldn’t have been any safer than Henry’s stocking feet on her polished hardwood.
“Stop fretting, Laura. I’m perfectly capable of choosing good hose. Now what’s this about my cake?”
If she grumbled about my lack of preparation and planning, birthday or no birthday, I’d blame her. For years now, Sea Escape appraised higher on form than on function.
“I’m having trouble finding what I need,” I said brightly, covering up my annoyance the best I could. “If you want, I could make a quick trip to my house for pans or pick up a cake at the bakery.”
I wasn’t surprised when I presented my mother with our options and they elicited a complaint about Mass. No matter what topic we started out discussing, she and I would land in church.
“Either way, at this pace, I’ll miss the four-thirty,” she said, looking at her watch.
“Maybe I could—”
She looked me up and down. “I don’t suppose you were planning on going,” she said. “Never mind. Father McNamara says the ten on Sunday. I’ll go tomorrow.”
Claire insisted we make the cake, which made it easier for me to convince her to come with me to get pans. I decided Henry could stay at Sea Escape to keep my mother company. Ever since I’d left him there the day of the hospital Christmas party, they’d shared a stronger connection, moving in close to whisper, smiling at each other. No scowls or smirks between those two. A little over a month ago, during one of our regular Saturday visits, he’d complained he was too old to visit Santa, and my mother had surprisingly offered to watch him so I could bring Claire. How could it be that my baby boy no longer believed in fairy tales?
So with eyes wide open and the car windows rolled all the way down to force a stay-awake cross breeze, I made my way from her house to mine for cake pans. The ten-minute drive from Anaskaket to Magnolia became a twenty-minute detour, jammed with ripped-up roads and slow-moving pedestrians; even a portable radar sign challenged my need for speed.
Once inside my house, I went as fast as my weary body would go. I grabbed the pans from under the stove and a clean sweatshirt from the laundry basket hidden behind the couch.
Back in the car, birds were chirping. I thought my lack of sleep was getting the better of me until I saw Claire playing with my cell. Once again she’d changed my ring tone.
“How many times have I told you not to touch things that don’t belong to you? My phone is not a toy.”
After crossly ordering her to get back in her booster seat, I threw the pans and my sweatshirt on the passenger seat. Missing, they landed on the floor with a muffled thud. When Claire held out the phone to me and started to cry, I felt guilty for being a shrew. In seconds, her red face and frightened look told me she wasn’t upset with me for yelling.
“Henry said to hurry. Nana fell down. She’s acting funny.”
I didn’t know what Claire meant when she parroted Henry. When I took the phone from her, the call had been lost. “Tell me exactly what he said. Honey, try to remember.” Turning away from me, Claire clutched Josefina and stared out the window. I could see there was no point in pressing her.
No longer could I convince myself that my mother’s earlier verbal hiccups meant nothing. I couldn’t write them off as the results of a lousy night’s sleep or her advancing age. Her choice to walk up the wrong side of the stairs had nothing to do with a loose handrail. Looking back over the morning, each symptom was a flashing light, collective warning signs of trouble that should’ve tickled my nurse’s instincts. Yet I’d been a visiting daughter.
Finally the day I’d feared would come had a date. It was her birthday when I got the call. Never once did I think Claire would take it from Henry. On one of my more optimistic days, I imagined my mother accepting me reaching out to her. She’d forgive the sins she believed belonged to me. Or, maybe so tired of being alone, she’d admit to needing me. Mostly I dreaded coming upon her in one of her treasured rooms at Sea Escape, sprawled on an Oriental rug or collapsed across the damask sofa, and it would be too late to make things right.
For most of my life, I’d been consumed with worries of how I might lose my mother completely. I had no way of knowing she was in the process of being found.
Driving back to Anaskaket, I was wide awake.
© 2010 lynne griffin
Laura Martinez is wedged in the middle place, grappling with her busy life as a nurse, wife, and devoted mom to her two young children when her estranged mother, Helen, suffers a devastating stroke. In a desperate attempt to lure her mother into choosing life, Laura goes to Sea Escape, the pristine beach home that Helen took refuge in after the death of her beloved husband, Joseph. There, Laura hunts for the legendary love letters her father wrote to her mother when he served as a reporter for the Associated Press during wartime Vietnam.
Believing the beauty and sway of her father’s words will have the power to heal, Laura reads the letters bedside to her mother, a woman who once spoke the language of fabric—of Peony Sky in Jade and Paradise Garden Sage—but who can’t or won’t speak to her now. As Laura delves deeper into her tangled family history, she becomes increasingly determined to save her mother. As each letter reveals a patchwork detail of her parents’ marriage, she discovers a common thread: a secret that mother and daughter unknowingly share.
Weaving back and forth from Laura’s story to her mother’s, beginning in the idyllic 1950s with Helen’s love affair with Joseph through the tumultuous Vietnam War period on to the present, Sea Escape takes a gratifying look at what women face in their everyday lives—the balancing act of raising capable and happy children and being accomplished and steadfast wives while still being gracious and good daughters. It is a story that opens the door to family secrets so gripping, you won’t be able to put this book down until each is revealed.
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Reading Group Guide
Lynne Griffin’s second novel is a thoughtful, deeply moving look at the complicated love between a mother and daughter. Helen and Laura are different women of different eras; a mother and daughter alienated from one another yet bonded by love and loss. Laura grows up in the shadow of her parents’ love, and when her father dies, it’s as though she’s lost both parents. For Helen, the only way to cope with her grief is to retreat into the decades old love letters from her husband Joseph, the ones she’s kept private from her children. When Helen has a sudden and devastating stroke, Laura’s world is turned upside down. Now a mother herself, she must juggle her mother’s care with her nursing career and the needs of her own family. Laura is willing to do whatever it takes to bring her mother back to health and so she goes to Sea Escape to search for the letters, hidden somewhere in her parents’ dream home by the sea. Along with the letters, Laura finds secrets and lies filling the space betwee see more