“The beach house is the least of my concerns, Caroline,” my mother said now, as our waitress passed by again with a frazzled expression. We’d been waiting for our entrees for over twenty minutes. “I’m doing this new phase of townhouses, and the zoning has been extremely difficult. . . .”
“I know,” Caroline said. “I understand how hard it has been for you. For both of you.”
“I don’t think you do.” My mother put her hand on her water glass but didn’t pick it up or take a sip. “Otherwise you would understand that this isn’t something I want to talk about right now.”
My sister sat back in her chair, twisting her wedding ring around her finger. “Mom,” she said finally, “I’m not trying to upset you. I’m just saying that it’s been a year and a half . . . and maybe it’s time to move on. Dad would have wanted you to be happier than this. I know it.”
“I thought this was about the beach house,” my mother said stiffly.
“It is,” Caroline said. “But it’s also about living. You can’t hide behind work forever, you know. I mean, when was the last time you and Macy took a vacation or did something nice for yourselves?”
“I was at the coast just a couple of weeks ago.”
“For work,” Caroline said. “You work late into the night, you get up early in the morning, you don’t do anything but think about the development. Macy never goes out with friends, she spends all her time holed up studying, and she’s not going to be seventeen forever—”
“I’m fine,” I said.
My sister looked at me, her face softening. “I know you are,” she said. “But I just worry about you. I feel like you’re missing out on something you won’t be able to get back later.”
“Not everyone needs a social life like you had, Caroline,” my mother said. “Macy’s focused on school, and her grades are excellent. She has a wonderful boyfriend. Just because she’s not out drinking beer at two in the morning doesn’t mean she isn’t living a full life.”
“I’m not saying her life isn’t full,” Caroline said. “I just think she’s awfully young to be so serious about everything.”
“I’m fine,” I said again, louder this time. They both looked at me. “I am,” I said.
“All I’m saying is that you both could use a little more fun in your lives,” Caroline said. “Which is why I think we should fix up the beach house and all go down there for a few weeks in August. Wally’s working this big case all summer, he’s gone all the time, so I can really devote myself to this project. And then, when it’s finished, we’ll all go down there together, like old times. It’ll be the perfect way to end the summer.”
“I’m not talking about this now,” my mother said, as the waitress, now red-faced, passed by again. “Excuse me,” my mother said, too sharply, and the girl jumped. “We’ve been waiting for our food for over twenty minutes.”
“It will be right out,” the girl said automatically, and then scurried toward the kitchen. I glanced at my watch: five minutes until one. I knew that Bethany and Amanda were most likely in their chairs already, the clock behind them counting down the seconds until they finally had something legitimate to hold against me.
My mother was focusing on some distant point across the restaurant, her face completely composed. Looking at her in the light falling across our table, I realized that she looked tired, older than she was. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her really smile, or laugh a big belly laugh like she always did when my dad made one of his stupid jokes. No one else ever laughed—they were more groan inducing than anything else— but my mother always thought they were hysterical.
“When I first got to the beach house,” Caroline said, as my mother kept her eyes locked on that distant spot, “I just sat in the driveway and sobbed. It was like losing him all over again, I swear.”
I watched my mother swallow, saw her shoulders rise, then fall, as she took a breath.
“But then,” my sister continued, her voice soft, “I went inside and remembered how much he loved that stupid moose head over the fireplace, even though it smells like a hundred old socks. I remembered you trying to cook dinner on that stove top with only one burner, having to alternate pans every five minutes just to make macaroni and cheese and frozen peas, because you swore we wouldn’t eat fish one more night if it killed you.”
My mother lifted up her hand to her chin, pressing two fingertips there, and I felt a pang in my chest. Stop it, I wanted to say to Caroline, but I couldn’t even form the words. I was listening, too. Remembering.
“And that stupid grill that he loved so much, even though it was a total fire hazard,” Caroline continued, looking at me now. “Remember how he always used to store stuff in it, like that Frisbee or the spare keys, and then forget and turn it on and set them on fire? Do you know there are still, like, five blackened keys sitting at the bottom of that thing?”
I nodded, but that was all I could manage. Even that, actually, was hard.
“I haven’t meant to let the house go,” my mother said suddenly, startling me. “It’s just been one more thing to deal with. . . . I’ve had too much happening here.” It can’t be that easy, I thought, to get her to talk about this. To bring her closer to the one thing that I’d circled with her, deliberately avoiding, for months now. “I just—”
“It needs some new shingles,” Caroline told her, speaking slowly, carefully. “I talked to the guy next door, Rudy? He’s a carpenter. He walked through with me. It needs basic stuff, a stove, a screen door, and those steps fixed. Plus a coat of paint in and out wouldn’t hurt.”
“I don’t know,” my mother said, and I watched as Caroline put her hand on my mother’s, their fingers intertwining, Caroline’s purposefully, my mother’s responding seemingly without thinking. This reaching out to my mom was another thing I’d been working up to, never quite getting the nerve, but she made it look simple. “It’s just so much to think about.”
“I know,” my sister said, in that flat-honest way she had always been able to say anything. “But I love you, and I’ll help you. Okay?”
My mother blinked, then blinked again. It was the closest I’d seen her come to crying in over a year.