Home > Count the Ways(2)

Count the Ways(2)
Author: Joyce Maynard

The noise was like nothing she’d ever heard. A crash, followed by a low, awful groaning. Then silence.

“Oh, God,” someone cried out. “Dios mío.” Someone else.

“We’ll find your mama,” Eleanor told Louise, scanning the assembled guests for her daughter, Louise’s mother, Ursula. Eleanor herself took in the event—whatever it was—with a certain unexpected calm. Worse things had happened than whatever was going on now, she knew that much. And though the piece of land on which she now stood had once represented, for her, the spot where she’d live forever and the one where she would die, this place was no longer her home, and hadn’t been for fifteen years.

It was impossible to know, at first, where the sound came from, or what had caused it. Earthquake? Plane crash? Terrorist attack? Her mind went—crazily—to a movie she’d seen about a tsunami, a woman whose entire family had been wiped out by one vast, awful wave.

But Eleanor’s family was safe. Now she could see them all around her—dazed, confused, but unhurt. All she really needed to do at a moment like this was to make sure that Louise was all right. Her precious only granddaughter, three years old.

At the moment they heard the crash, Louise had been studying Eleanor’s necklace, a very small golden bird on a chain. “You’re okay,” Eleanor whispered into her ear, when they heard the big boom. All around them, the guests in wedding attire were running with no particular sense of a destination, calling out words nobody could hear.

“Everybody’s fine,” Eleanor said. “Let’s go see your mother.”

Cam’s farm—she was accustomed now to calling it that—lay a little over an hour’s drive north of her condo in Brookline. She had made the trip to bear witness to the marriage of her firstborn child, Ursula’s older sibling, at the home where she once lived.

After all these years, she still knew this place so well that she could have made her way down the long driveway in the dark without benefit of headlights. She knew every knot in the floorboards of the house, the windowsill where Toby used to line up his favorite specimens from his rock collection, the places glitter got stuck deep in the cracks from their valentine-making projects, the uneven counter where she rolled out cookie dough and packed lunches for school, or (on snow days) fixed popcorn and cocoa for the three of them when they came in from sledding. She knew what the walls looked like inside the closet where she’d retreat, holding the phone she’d outfitted with an extra-long cord, in a time long before cell phones, when she’d needed to conduct a business conversation without the sounds of her children’s voices distracting her.

And more: The bathroom where her son once played his miniature violin. The pantry, shelves lined with the jam and spaghetti sauce she canned every summer. The record player spinning while the five of them danced to the Beatles, or Chuck Berry, or Free to Be . . . You and Me. The mantel where they’d hung their stockings and the patch of rug, in front of the fireplace, where she spread ashes to suggest the footprints of a visitor who’d come down the chimney in the night.

Eleanor knew where the wild blueberries grew, and the lady’s slippers, and where the rock was, down the road, where they’d launched their cork people every March when the snow thawed and the brook ran fast under the stone bridge. The pear tree she and Cam had planted, after the birth of their first child. The place in the field where cornflowers came up in late June. Just now starting to bloom. A shade of blue like no other.

And here she was, attending the wedding of that same child. In another lifetime, they’d named that baby Alison. They called him Al now.

There stood Eleanor’s old studio, and Cam’s woodshop, where she would sometimes pay him late-afternoon visits and they would make love on a mattress by the woodstove. The crack in the plaster over the bed she’d chosen to focus on while pushing their babies out into the world.

How many hundreds of nights—a few thousand—had she stretched out on the bed, her children in their mismatched pajamas with a stack of library books, the three of them jostling for prime position on the bed (three children, but there were only two sides next to their mother)? Downstairs, she could hear Cam in the kitchen, washing the dishes and whistling, or listening to a Red Sox game. Outside the window, the sound of water running at the falls. Moonlight streaming in. Her children’s hot breath on her neck, craning to see the illustrations in the book. Just one more. We’ll be good.

Sometimes, by this point in the day, she’d be so tired the words on the page she was reading would no longer make sense, and she’d start speaking gibberish, at which point one of them—Alison, generally—would tap her arm, or Toby might pat her cheeks.

“Wake up, Mama. We need to know how it turns out.”

They were all grown up now.

Older people (the age she was now herself, midway through her fifties) making small talk at the grocery store, back in the days her cart overflowed with breakfast cereal and orange juice—when there was always a baby in the front and someone else scrunched up among the groceries—used to tell her how fast your children grew up, how quickly it all passed. At Stop & Shop one time, Toby got so wild—sticking carrots in his ears and pretending he was a space alien—that she’d abandoned her cart full of groceries, there in the middle of the aisle, whisking the children out to the car until her son calmed down enough that she could resume their shopping. Bent over the wheel of her late-model station wagon while her three children cowered in the back, she imagined hightailing it to someplace far away. The Canadian border, maybe. Mexico. Or half a mile down their dirt road, to spend one entire morning with her sketch pad and pencils, just drawing. Only there were the children to think about. There were always the children, until there weren’t.

All those small injuries, sorrows, wounds, regrets—the hurtful words, the pain people inflicted on each other, intentionally or not, that seemed so important once. You might not even remember anymore what they were about, those things that once made you so angry, bitter, hurt. Or maybe you remembered, but did any of it matter, really? (Who said what? Who did what, when? Who hurt whom? Well, everybody had hurt everyone.)

Now here you were at the end of it all, opening your eyes as if from a long sleep—a little dazed, blinking from the brightness of the sun, just grateful you were there to wake up at all. This was Eleanor, returned to the home of her youth on the wedding day of her firstborn child. Concentrating on the one thing that mattered, which was her family, together again. Beat up and battered, like a bunch of Civil War soldiers returning from Appomattox (whatever side they’d belonged to, it made no difference) but still alive on the earth.

Earlier today, when Ursula introduced her mother to her daughter, her voice had been polite, but wary—the tone a parent might utilize when overseeing her child’s first meeting with a new teacher, or with the pediatrician in preparation for receiving her shots.

“This is your granny, Lulu,” Ursula explained to Louise, who had shrunk back in the way a three-year-old does with a stranger. Then to Eleanor, “How was your drive?”

“I missed you,” she said, getting down low, studying her face. Memorizing it. She could see her daughter in that face, but mostly what she saw was a whole new person. “I was hoping I’d get to see you.”

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