“What can I do, Joanna? I want to help.”
I turned away from Magda’s outstretched arms and averted the hug she had tried to give twice before. The late afternoon sunlight filtered through the yellow curtains, giving the kitchen a matching glow. It was a bright, cheerful room with copper pots hanging over the stove. Ceramic plates decorated a brick wall. Warm and welcoming the kitchen said, but not then. Anyone entering would have felt the chill between us.
“She looked pale,” Magda said. “But at least her face wasn’t so thin. Halloran’s managed to put back some of the weight she lost.”
Magda’s eyes were red. I wasn’t impressed. Nor did I feel inclined to cry with her. I had done my crying months earlier when the cancer was first diagnosed.
“Don’t fall apart when I die,” my mother had said. “Promise me.”
She had held onto my hand and squeezed. She had all her strength then, and her nails dug into my flesh, drawing blood on my left palm.
“Promise me,” she had said again, her dark eyes, fierce and determined.
I knew what I would have to do when the time came, and nothing more was said.
“Your father, he don’t look so good,” Lotte, our housekeeper said, coming into the kitchen carrying another tray of dirty cups and plates.
The funeral tea had been a success. We had completed another family function, the last with my mother in a manner of speaking, and had performed our duties and obligations with a unified sorrowful front. The old cousins and ancient aunts appeared satisfied at our performance.
“I’ll just go to your father,” Magda said. “He shouldn’t be alone.”
“He’s with Mark and Paul,” I said. “And if he wants to be alone, leave him alone.” I snapped at her, almost baring my teeth.
I held open the swinging door and looked at my father sitting in one of the twin wing chairs by the fireplace. Mark, my husband, was nowhere to be seen. My father’s handsome gray head leaned against the back of the chair, his face still showing the traces of a summer tan. As my mother’s health had weakened, his had become stronger as he spent more time playing tennis and golf. He had had trouble dealing with my mother’s illness, and, at the end, the time spent in the hospital had shrunk to five minutes a day.
“It’s too difficult for him,” my mother had said to me. “You know he’s always been a weak person. I accepted that a long time ago.”
My father had another drink in his hand. Straight scotch, this time. A faster road to oblivion. For what was he grieving? He and my mother hardly saw each other in this large house. I was sure he wouldn’t even notice her absence.
The fire in the stone fireplace had been lighted again, thanks to Mark probably. I heard the thud and whack of an axe from out back. Mark often left me alone to navigate my way through these family gatherings. It was a sore spot between us, my refusal to explain my family, but after two years of marriage, he knew better than to ask why we behaved the way we did, my mother, Magda, my father and I.
“You’re all walking on egg-shells most of the time,” Mark had said. “Your brother Paul is the only one who is spontaneous and natural.”
Paul was sitting on the floor next to Dad, staring into the fire. Seeing us at the door, he jumped up and came into the kitchen. “Aunt Magda, see if you can get Dad to eat,” he said. He accepted another hug from Magda and gave me an uncomprehending look.
“I’ll bring out some of these little sandwiches,” Magda said, arranging cutlery and plates of food on a tray. She tossed her apron on a chair and checked her reflection in the glass butler’s cabinet.
Fulsome was the word for Magda. She was proud of her curves. “All that jogging and aerobics does more harm than good,” she had said to me often.
I had my reasons for not wanting to resemble Magda. To my dismay, we had the same fair skin and light brown hair. I was determined to never have her figure.
She fluffed her short hair and adjusted her skirt before picking up the tray. Did she think my father would notice, and, if he did, respond? He would carry out his part like an actor in a B movie, woodenly going through the motions. He’d nod his head and allow Magda’s hand to rest on his shoulder. He’d accept the consoling embrace and, maybe, even return it. And, later, after a decent interval had passed, Magda would try to get him to do more and probably succeed. I had made promises to my mother, and her harsh whispers echoed in my ears, stiffening my resolve.
“Can’t you let him alone?” I said to Magda’s back. “He doesn’t need your help.”
“Why are you being so nasty to Aunt Magda?” Paul asked after the door swung shut. “She was Mom’s best friend. She wants to help.”
“Go on home now, Lotte,” I said. I spoke as much to silence Paul as to give the poor woman some relief. She gave me a hug that I accepted, her bony arms crushing me. “Everything is under control,” I said. “You go home. I’ll take care of Paul and my father, and dear Aunt Magda, too.”
Magda was not really our aunt, but had been my mother’s girlhood friend. I had grown up accepting her weekly visits as part of our family routine. She had been present on holidays and vacations, birthdays and graduations, and even my marriage, but I would not pretend to share this death.
“Appearances can be deceiving,” I said to Paul and then immediately regretted saying it. He was 16, younger than I by 14 years, and had been unaware of the lies perpetuated since before I was born. His natural boyhood interest in monsters, motors and mayhem, and being away at prep school most of the year, had kept him from scrutinizing our behavior. I was tempted to enlighten him, but I had promised my mother I wouldn’t. It had been a point of pride with her, not to tarnish the family image.
“He ate a little and drank some coffee,” Magda said, pushing back the door. “I told him to rest, but he wants to go for a walk. I think I should go with him.”
“No,” I said. “Paul will go.” I nodded my head toward Paul. He put down his soda and pushed though the swinging door.
* * * *
I had ceased referring to Magda as my aunt just after Paul was born. My mother, because of her age, had been worried all during the pregnancy, and had called me to her room on the afternoon the pains began.
“Don’t call your father yet. And don’t call Magda. If I should die, don’t let her take over. She’ll want to move in and take charge, but you mustn’t let her.” She had clutched onto me with fear in her eyes, like she was running from some demon. The pains increased, but she still fought my attempts to call my father. “Promise me,” she had begged, extracting from me the first of many promises.
“What was that?” My father had banged into the room after a strong cry of pain rang through the house. “Is it time? Why didn’t you call me?”
My mother, leaning heavily on his arm, shot me a parting look and held onto her stomach as if to protect the baby from Magda. I didn’t understand my mother’s hatred, but I suddenly realized that her animosity had always been there and had shown itself in numerous subtle ways—her tone of voice, her avoidance of Magda’s touch, her cool treatment of Magda as the uninvited guest.
* * * *
Magda set to work washing the plates my father used. I’d let her finish up, not having the strength to create a scene. I’d call her in the morning and tell her to get involved with other people’s lives and leave us alone. Just fade away. With Mother dead, she had no more reason to torment us.
“Joanna, I’d like us to be friends, to stay in touch,” she said when the last dish was put away. “I’ve tried all these years to be a friend to Catherine and to you. She…she wouldn’t mind. Not now.”
“What a liar you are,” I said, not able to contain my anger any longer, “and a hypocrite. You and my father, both. You can’t hurt her any more. Stay away from this house. And Paul. He may call you Aunt Magda and feel some affection for you, but he wouldn’t if he knew the truth.”
She made a great show of removing her apron, folding it precisely, tucking in the loose ties, folding it once, twice, and placing it in the lower cabinet drawer to the right of the sink. Her face retained a mask like quality, eyebrows arched to perfection, wrinkles carefully camouflaged with makeup. I was certain her crying earlier had been for my benefit and Paul’s, calculated and studied. I was also certain she had a plan now that Mother was gone.
“And you know the truth, I suppose,” she said. “You saw what Halloran’s did to Catherine’s body. The cosmetician painted her face and gave her a wig. The embalmer added flesh to her wasted bones, plumped up that empty shell so that it looked almost human again instead of that living cadaver we both saw in the hospital. Do you think what lay in that coffin was the truth? That… that abomination was Catherine? That dead body was a lie, as much a lie as her living one had been.”
“Stop it!” I cried. I didn’t want to remember the final images of my mother. I closed my eyes and tried to picture her healthy and strong, standing in the kitchen where Magda stood now.
“I don’t know exactly what Catherine told you. At about the time Paul was born, wasn’t it? That’s when you changed towards me. And you believed her. Half truths and lies.”
I swung around just as the door opened. Paul and my father came in, both flushed from the wind and sending off faint waves of cold air.
“Are you staying, Aunt Magda?” Paul asked.
“She’s just leaving,” I said.
Magda looked at me and gave, what I now think, was a genuine look of sorrow. She murmured more words of comfort, embraced Paul and my father and left.
* * * *
It had been nearly three weeks after Paul was born when my mother explained her behavior on that afternoon her labor had begun. We sat in her bedroom on the silvery blue satin love seat. The air was scented with her perfume, lily of the valley. The sun streamed through the French doors warming our backs as we huddled together like two schoolgirls sharing secrets.
Magda had barely seen Paul since my mother had come home from the hospital. He was with the nanny mostly, and when not with her or my mother, I had stood guard by the nursery door to keep Magda from wandering in alone. I, in my childish imagination, expected Magda to snatch Paul away, to take over and keep him away from us.
“You know that Magda is not a real aunt,” my mother began. “Promise me you won’t tell Magda that I’ve told you any of this. Promise me you won’t tell anyone, even after I’m dead.”
I promised and waited while she fidgeted a few minutes.
“Magda is your real mother. She and your father produced you.” She silenced my cries and questions by hurrying through the rest. Magda, her best friend, had betrayed her by having an affair with my father. “I had tried for years to have a child,” my mother had said. “I loved your father, so I forgave him and agreed to adopt you as my own. Magda went away, and I pretended to be pregnant.”
At first, I didn’t want to listen to my mother, thinking it was a cruel joke, but I found myself gulping in each word she spoke, like a parched person gulps water. Each word was giving me life, a different life, one which I hadn’t known existed. I laughed, in spite of my shock, at her anecdotes about adjusting the pillows she had used under her smocks and about the old aunts wanting to touch her stomach and feel the baby kicking. She had feigned illness and kept people away by staying in bed most of the time. A month before the baby was due, she went to Baltimore, supposedly to a clinic, and returned with me, Magda’s baby, when I was four weeks old.
“Your father is a weak man,” my mother had said. “He made promises in the heat of passion, but he never intended to leave me for Magda. She believed that he would. She was going to have an abortion when he said he wouldn’t leave me. I saved you, my darling, and have loved you as my own.”
It was perfect, my mother’s choice of words. Rejected by one woman and saved by another. “But if Magda didn’t want me,” I asked, “why is she around here so much?”
“She claims the abortion threat was just that, a threat, to get your father to leave me. In exchange for giving you up and for her silence, she insisted on being near you. It’s your father she wants. And it’s her revenge. She knows her presence is a constant humiliation for me. I would have died of shame if your grandfather and our friends had known of your father’s infidelity. Even now, I couldn’t bear it.”
I had accepted her explanations without question, and her love, and had continued to think of her as my mother, my only mother.
* * * *
For three days we did not hear from Magda. Paul returned to prep school, and I remained with my father as a deterrent to Magda. I was sure she still wanted to marry him, and my promises to my mother, so solemnly made, were solemnly kept.
“Let me know if Magda calls or comes by,” I said to Lotte. She frowned, adding a few more wrinkles to her old face. “She’s too clingy,” I said. “Her type of sympathy is not helpful. My father needs to get out, not get maudlin. They’ll drink too much.”
If Lotte knew our family secrets, she was as tight lipped about them as she was about her own family. Magda’s presence in our home and our pretence had become so routine that we had seemed to forget the reasons for our drama. This was how we had lived our lives. Mother and I shared a deep love for each other and a protective love of Paul; I tolerated Magda and my father; my parents shared an armed truce.
There was Paul’s birth to attest to some love or attraction between them, but there was a wall separating them, like a fog, which ebbed and flowed, sometimes clearing enough to allow intimacy, but usually too thick to even see each other. Perhaps my scene with Magda on the day of the funeral had been enough to keep her away.
As I was getting ready to leave, my father called me to come upstairs.
“What do I do with your mother’s things?” He was in my mother’s bedroom. One hand held a scotch, the other pointed toward the open closets.
“Give everything to Lotte,” I said. “Mother gave me whatever I wanted months ago. Just don’t give anything to Magda.”
He sat on a blue tweed couch where the love seat had been years ago. The country look had replaced French regency, but my father wasn’t any more comfortable with the rugged, casual decor than he had been with the satin and damask. He rubbed his eyes as if he were fighting back tears and hunched his tall figure forward. I was sure he was pretending, like Magda. The lies, which lay in that house like layers of dust, were beginning to choke me.
“Did you love her?” I asked.
“Of course, I loved your mother.”
“Which mother? Magda or Catherine?”
That made him jerk his head up. Suddenly, he composed himself. His crying and shaking stopped, and he switched gears faster than he did with his Porsche. He looked more relieved than surprised.
“I’ve known since Paul was born,” I said. “Did you love either one of them?”
“Yes. I loved Catherine once. As we grew older, there was a mutual acceptance. And, I once loved Magda. She was afraid to raise you alone and was going to give you up for adoption if I didn’t marry her. I wanted a child, but I had no financial prospects if I left Catherine. Your grandfather Edward would have seen to that. I was between a rock and a hard place.”
He got up and began pacing. He had drained his drink, but kept a tight grip on the empty glass. “Catherine was angry and unhappy and too proud to admit to a failed marriage and let me go. We were too cowardly to face up to what our lives had become, and, after much pleading, I convinced Magda to let Catherine and me adopt you.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said, my voice, neither shouting, nor crying, but steady and determined. “Magda wanted an abortion, didn’t she?” I had remained standing in the doorway like a child afraid to enter a dark room. I was trying to hide my fear; there were rustlings there, and I just wanted to close the door.
My father shook his head. “No. She was scared, too scared to keep you. But never abortion.” He sat down again. “You know, your mother and I, Catherine, that is, we never made love in this room. She would come to mine, but never stay the night. Staying the night would imply forgiveness. And she would never do that. Even before she died, she wouldn’t forgive me. I asked her at every visit to the hospital, and she still denied giving me that peace.”
I was going to argue with him, that Catherine forgave him years ago, but I felt a tug back, like an invisible hand pulling me from a precipice. I wasn’t ready to jump into that hole yet.
“No matter our feelings for each other,” my father said, “we all loved you. Catherine and I and Magda.”
“What a happy family I’ve had. An unfaithful father, a biological mother who gave me up, an angry adoptive mother, and all three too cowardly to do anything except take the easy way out.”
* * * *
“Please meet me after work for a drink, Joanna.”
I told Magda no, but she persisted. “I have letters to show you,” she said, “Letters written to me before you were born.”
I had left my father’s house the previous day determined not to think about the past, to forget the conflicting stories that were swirling around in my mind like the autumn leaves. The colors and patterns kept changing until all I saw was a blur. But I went to meet her, my curiosity overpowering my fear of what I would discover.
Magda removed the letters from her purse as soon as I sat down. At 5:00 o’clock, Clancy’s Tavern was beginning to come alive. In another 30 minutes, dozens of bodies would be pressed into the oak paneled room, their business manners would be dropped and the laughing faces, either forced or real, would be reflected in the large beveled mirrors that lined the walls. I could see the same faces, six, seven, eight times if the angle were just right.
Magda had chosen a table in the back, near the kitchen. The lighted wick in the glass lantern flickered and sputtered, but cast no light on Magda’s face. Her expression revealed nothing. She had already finished half a scotch and soda, a taste she shared with my father. They never actually got drunk, but became “relaxed”. That was Magda’s expression, one that had made my mother grit her teeth. I often wondered if I had been conceived during such a “relaxed” state. After ordering another scotch for herself and a wine for me, she slid the letters toward me in the order I was supposed to read them.
“My hide-out in Baltimore during the pregnancy,” she said. “Six months of waiting, and hoping your father would change his mind and leave Catherine. I wouldn’t sign the papers until after you were born.”
My Dearest Magda, the first one began. The two- page letter, dated one month before I was born, was written on plain note paper. It was crumpled, as if Magda had once angrily intended to throw it away. Words of love and desire at first, then pleading. I tried to picture my father 30 years earlier writing that letter.
Please sign the papers, the letter said, I would marry you if I could, but Catherine would ruin our lives, as well as the child’s. I am so sorry. The child will have a good life this way. I am afraid of what Catherine will do if you do not sign. Catherine will be a good mother, if only to keep her father from suspecting the truth. We can’t fight Catherine and her father both. I do love you, but this is the best solution.
The second letter was a shorter one from Catherine, written on expensive vellum, the same pale ivory it was thirty years ago. The paper had aged well. The watermark was still distinctive, and there wasn’t a stain or wrinkle on it. Magda must have protected it carefully, perhaps knowing that some day she would show it to me. The script, so unlike Catherine’s handwriting before she died, was bold and underlined in several places.
Magda, it began. It was undated and signed with only her initials, CK. How wonderful it is to have such strong principles you could refuse the money. But I’m not fooled by your grand gestures.
In exchange for giving up the baby to us, you will be allowed to visit. I agree to this so that my father will not ask questions. I don’t doubt that you and George love each other and that he no longer loves me, but I shall never divorce him. He is weak willed and sentimental, as you are, and you deserve each other. But, rest assured, if you ever become intimate with him again, or if you hint to anyone of this arrangement, you will never see the child. I can ruin George financially, and I shall if you don’t stick to this agreement.
I do not intend to lose my father’s money or George. You know that I am a determined person and that I make no empty threats.
As I read the letter, my mother’s voice from long before whispered in my ear. “It was her ample figure that had attracted your father to Magda. I had been unable to conceive for so many years, and your father saw Magda as someone who could give him a child.”
The rustlings in the dark room were getting louder and more insistent. It was a little like Rumpelstiltskin turned inside out. Services were rendered, and a baby was bargained for. But Rumpelstiltskin, whomever he or she was in this tale, had not gone away.
“Maybe the real villain in all of this was your Grandfather Edward,” Magda said. She was on her third scotch, and her speech was a bit slurred. “Courage,” she toasted to me, raising her glass before taking a sip. “I didn’t have any when you were born.”
My life was being rewritten again, this revision, which was begun at my mother’s funeral, was being revised, first by my father, now Magda.
“Courage,” I repeated. “Did you want an abortion? Or threaten to have one?”
“Never. To both. I was scared and knew I couldn’t keep you if your father didn’t leave Catherine. But George was more scared than I, and he stayed with her. Catherine was even more scared of her father. He had wanted a different sort of husband for her, and the line of frightened souls stops with him, your Grandfather Edward. Catherine would not give him the opportunity to say ‘I told you so’ and to cut her off.”
The noise level at Clancy’s had risen, and I was forced to move my chair closer to Magda to hear. We must have looked cozy, mother and daughter, sharing an intimate moment over a drink.
“Catherine had not wanted children,” Magda continued. “Your father strongly suspected her infertility was a lie, and Catherine finally admitted it was. That’s when he turned to me. Someone to confide in at first. Your grandfather was anxious to have grandchildren, and thirty years ago, it seemed a small price for Catherine to pay for your grandfather’s money. Adopt your best friend’s baby and play-act at being a mother.”
Magda was crying. She made no sobs, nor did she change her position in her chair. The tears rolled down her face, leaving tracks in her makeup. I silently handed her a napkin. Truths I had learned at Catherine’s knee: Magda was the woman who had wanted to abort me; she was the woman who had given me up; she was the woman who had wanted to get even and to humiliate Catherine. I felt the truths I had known all my life dissolve like the ice in Magda’s glass. The ice was still there, but changing, getting smaller and smaller as it took on a new form and shape and dissolved into water. The same substance, but different. The truth wasn’t hard and definite in shape any more, but liquid and flowing, assuming the shape of its vessel.
Another truth was emerging as well. As my meeting with Magda progressed, I had unconsciously shifted away from thinking of Catherine as my mother. An immense sadness swept over me, the same sadness as when I had learned months earlier that she was dying.
I had already lost the physical presence of the woman I had called Mother; now I was losing the meaning of that word, and its loss was more devastating. Magda had assumed a new presence in my past. I didn’t know what presence she would have in my future.
“She did love you,” Magda said, handing me back the napkin. Maybe not immediately, but soon afterwards. A laughing baby you were. You riveted our attention.”
As I was riveted to Magda’s flow of words. One of us had ordered coffee, and we sipped it, neither having acknowledged the waitress when the cups were placed before us.
“She loved you and resented you. Didn’t you sometimes feel a chill from her?”
“I thought that chill was for you and for my father, but…sometimes…yes…”
Sometimes yes, Catherine’s voice had become distant. The look in her eyes had become cold and impersonal, and she would dismiss me with a curt, “Not now, Joanna,” or with just a slight turning of her shoulder away from me.
“But why did she have Paul if she didn’t want children? She already had Grandfather’s money by then.”
“She was getting older and felt she needed to remind me that she was still your father’s wife, in bed as well as out of it.”
“What are you going to do now?” I asked.
“About what? Your father? Nothing. Did you think I was going after him now that Catherine is dead? I’ve stayed all these years only to see you. I knew that if I hadn’t forced some concessions out of Catherine, I would have lost you forever. You can continue the lie. Or you can tell the world. It wasn’t for my reputation that I agreed to Catherine’s bargain.”
She pushed back her chair and rose. “We all loved you, perhaps differently, and at different times with a different intensity. We shared in your upbringing, and are a part of you. We’re all three your parents, and whether you like it or not, that’s an irrefutable fact.”
She tossed some money on the table.”Don’t worry. I’m done. You won’t see me anymore. This is the end.”
Reaching for the letters I tipped over Magda’s cup. We both watched the coffee soak
through the scattered pages, blurring the ink, wiping away the words. I pushed away Magda’s hand. “Leave them,” I said. “I won’t forget what was written.”
“I’m sure you won’t,” Magda said. “The words may be obliterated, but not the past, not the truth.”
She turned and wove her way through the happy hour crush. When she reached the door, she looked back. “This is the end,” Magda had said, and, for a second, there passed through me a chill.
I jumped up from my chair and called out, “Magda, wait!” and hurried to the door.
Adelaide B. Shaw lives in Somers, NY. She writes stories and essays and has been published in several journals, in print and online, in the US and abroad. She also writes Japanese short form poetry and has been published extensively. Her blog is: www.adelaide-whitepetals.blogspot.com