Beyond the Border of Love
From The North American Review
and The Art of Friction
What struck me most—in the initial moments of surprise, before I realized that all of it made sense—was that my father had not gone to any great lengths to hide anything. The letter, the notepad, the Boston Symphony Orchestra program, and the photograph were simply lying in the bottom drawer of his old rolltop desk. Simply lying there! And I wondered, did he mean for me to find them? He must have known my mother would not ever look through his desk, even after his death. He must have known I would have to, after hers.
The sepia envelope, brittle and thin, was stamped with a 1946 New York City postmark and addressed to William Foster, 741 Western Avenue, Holliston. I had never known my father lived there. Inside lay a single folded sheet of paper.
This twilight state without you is agony. I think of you, of that new concerto, and I am like some precious Stradivari, plucked and left to quiver.
There was no signature, no return address, just these smoldering words, written in spiky, elegant handwriting I didn’t recognize, sent to him long before he met my mother.
At first, the leather notepad seemed to offer no clues. It had a smoky, charred smell, like outdoor cushions my mother once bought at a fire sale. They made my father so nauseated he asked her to throw them out. The cover’s gold, circular stamp read United Shoe Machinery Corporation, Boston, Mass, 1945. Inside were pages of my father’s infamous lists:
Dr. Coty’s Mist
Cryptic, but that was my father. ‘Just answer the question you’re asked,’ he used to counsel. ‘Then zip it up.’
Equally peculiar was the BSO program, announcing the first performance of Samuel Barber’s cello concerto, in April 1946. This concerto was my father’s favorite piece. It inspired my playing from childhood. Yet in all the years of listening to it, of watching me try to master it, he never once mentioned he’d been to its premiere.
And the strangest thing, too weird, was this week’s performance schedule: we were playing the piece in Symphony Hall, for only the second time since that premiere so long ago.
Coincidence? Fate? Life happening for a reason?
I gazed down at the snapshot, a laughing couple standing in front of a hedge. I thought about how I would never know who these people were, or why my father saved their picture, then I looked more closely. The man was my father, lean and blonde⎯so young!⎯his arm around a woman as tall as he was who was caught in the motion of turning her head toward him, laughing.
The motion had caused the woman’s face to blur. I fished around the boxes I’d packed for my father’s magnifying glass and held it over the picture with the distinct sense that he’d done this, too: strained in vain to get a sharper look. I could make out the separate strands of the woman’s platinum forties-style waves, the weave of her dress, splattered with large flowers, but I could not clearly see her face.
I wondered what had become of her. I had never seen my staid, dignified father look like this—infatuated, almost giddy. On a second pass through the notepad, I found her name—my name, but not my name—on the next-to-last page:
333 E. 54th St.
Then: Edith, Edith, Edith⎯these last three wildly scattered around the page. And folded and tucked into the back pocket of the notepad, a marriage certificate.
Edith Mary Worth and William Henry Foster, May 22, 1946
It was like a symphony’s finale making sense of disparate parts. I knew there had always been a void in my father’s history, a time, after the war, when he had never been quite clear about what he’d done or where he’d lived. But both my parents had been private people, evasive about intimate matters, like many of their generation. I knew the facts: they had married in 1963 when my father was 49 and my mother 37. I didn’t know much else.
Francine would know, I thought. She was more than a housekeeper the last twenty years, she was my mother’s best friend. But she was out getting more boxes, so I waited, a half-hour passing swiftly while memories shifted and re-formed: the times I’d surprised my father at his desk, the motion of his hand shutting the drawer, the way he’d look down at that hand, and then, finally, at me. Those old images sandwiched together like glass slides: my father alternately slack-jawed/distracted/happy. The happy times he’d turn to me and say, ‘Edith is my joy!’ and pluck me off the floor and onto his lap to recite The Children’s Hour, the poem I loved best because my unlovely, old-fashioned name was in it in a way that made it pretty and new:
‘From my study I see in the lamplight
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
and Edith with golden hair.’
Edith with golden hair. I had golden hair. Was it possible that Edith was my mother? Even though their marriage took place more than twenty years before I was born? The dates made it unlikely, but it would account for the distance—never acknowledged, and certainly amiable enough—that had always existed between my mother and me.
The last time she and I had talked was a Thursday, almost a year ago. I’d been feeling guilty about the fact that I hadn’t seen her for a while and stopped in between a morning rehearsal and the evening’s performance. I found her in the study, the glass doors of the bookcase hanging open, my father’s law books in disarray.
‘Edie!’ she said, waving me in. ‘I’ve decided to turn this room into an aviary.’
Her manner was so firm and decisive that I could only look at her stupidly. She was more assertive since my father died. She even looked healthier. She’d joined a birding group and her arms were heavily freckled from being out in the sun, her face tan under a white cotton headband.
I wasn’t very nice. ‘You can’t get rid of Dad’s stuff,’ I said, snatching the back of my old chair, where I had spent so many evenings practicing my cello while my father went over cases.
‘Don’t try to talk me out of it,’ she said. ‘I’ve decided. In fact, I’ve already put in a call to Francine.’
‘For help. I’m just waiting for her to call me back. She’ll be glad to see me do this, finally. It’s my house, after all.’
‘Francine has no business telling you what to do with Dad’s stuff.’
‘It’s my business, Edie.’ Her voice was firm and annoyingly pleasant. ‘Perhaps you should focus on fixing your own life instead of trying to run mine.’
She rarely criticized so bluntly. Even though I knew she thought my marriage ended because of my devotion to music, which she considered excessive, the most she’d ever said—and that under her breath—was that I should have stepped aside once in a while and let the spotlight shine on my husband.
‘Tim wasn’t—isn’t—a successful artist because he doesn’t know what art is,’ I said flatly. ‘There’s too much ‘me’ in his playing.’
She had no idea what I was talking about. I reached for the rolltop impatiently. ‘At least let me choose what I want of Dad’s,’ I said. But she laid a hand on my arm.
‘No, no, dear. I want to put that in storage, as is.’
She was wearing this new assertiveness with pride, like a merit badge. ‘Fine!’ I said. I threw off her hand. Then I caught our reflections in the hall mirror and saw our faces⎯hers stricken, mine hard and satisfied⎯like a stranger might. I came close to mustering up an apology and later, of course, wished that I had, but an apology just wasn’t as satisfying as leaving in that huff.
Hours later, the personnel manager met me at the stage door and told me that my mother had suffered a stroke. Her healthy appearance had been just that: appearance.
The creak and swing of the back screen door announced Francine’s return. I found her in the dining room, planted in front of the hutch, ready to bubble-wrap the Christmas plates.
She jerked her head toward the study when she saw me. ‘Finished?’
‘I filled a lot of trash bags.’
‘Stick them outside. My guys—they pick them up.’ Francine was raised in remote Quebec. Words dropped from her mouth like bricks.
I didn’t waste time. ‘Did you know my father had a first wife?’
There was the slightest hesitation in her packing, I was sure of it, but she shook her head and said, ‘First wife?’ as if the idea was nuts.
But if she knew the truth, then she would also know why I was not told. Loyal to my mother, she would reveal nothing.
‘Because,’ I said, thinking fast, ‘right before my mother had the stroke that day? She did a lot of talking.’
She looked at me sharply and I scrambled to keep her interest. ‘Maybe it was some kind of premonition, but she did a lot of talking.’
‘What did she say?’
‘Something about—a wife.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘Huh?’
‘She wasn’t ready to talk about it, she said.’
‘So why didn’t you ask later?’
‘She couldn’t speak in the condition she was in.’ Which was true. ‘I hoped she would recover.’ There hadn’t been much chance of that, but I’d hovered, hoping that behind those roving eyes, something saw and appreciated that I was there and sorry.
I could see that although Francine didn’t quite believe me, there was something more. But she said, ‘I don’t know about any wife,’ with some finality and for the next minute, there was just the sound of scissors cutting bubble wrap, the rip of tape across plastic teeth.
There had always been this barrier between us, and I didn’t know how to penetrate it. ‘Take those,’ I said impulsively, gesturing to the holly-trimmed plates she’d always admired.
She backed away as if I’d said something scandalous. ‘I will not!’
‘These are for Jane’s grandchildren.’
I almost laughed at how that remark completely bypassed me. ‘Grandchildren? I’ve had exactly two dates in two years, both with self-involved primadonnas that made Tim look like a prince.’
‘There’s plenty nice guys out there, you’re just too caught up in how they look or are they artists. Anyways—.’ She looked toward the dining room, where my mother had lain in the rented hospital bed those last months, head turned toward the deck railing, watching finches and swallows fly among the feeders Francine had lined along the deck. ‘I wouldn’t want Jane to think I was after her things.’
‘She wouldn’t think that,’ I said, but I was distracted by the sight of a box peeking from the top shelf. ‘My mother’s poems,’ I said, reaching for the old Stouffer’s candy box, recognizing it at once. Years before, my mother had written poems about birds, about winter in New England, and sent them to Yankee Magazine. The editor’s name had been, maybe still was, Jean Burden, and the name had seemed appropriate. My mother’s hopefulness, the way she checked the mail each day, her continued disappointment, became a burden that I took upon my twelve-year-old shoulders. I’d sensed that something important was riding on those poems.
‘She went through a poetry phase,’ I said. ‘She kept them a secret from my father. Wanted to surprise him when one was published. ‘Just hand him the magazine,’ she said. Finally, she stopped writing them.’
‘I didn’t know about these.’ Francine seemed almost affronted.
‘Well it was before you came.’
‘After all that rejection, she was probably embarrassed.’
‘Aren’t they any good?’
I scanned them. ‘No.’ There was no natural cadence, no form to the poems. But they were felt. One of the titles was From My Center. So much was making sense now. Remembering how badly she had wanted to present my father with a poem. The way she had glamorized her name as ‘Jayne’ for a while. She must have known, or at least felt that something was missing.
I remembered, too, how sacred personal privacy in our home was. Who started that? Her? Him? There were no locks, no keys; there was only trust. ‘The strongest lock,’ my father called it.
‘She should have showed them to me.’
‘What’s your interest in poems, Francine?’ Over the years I’d sometimes wondered⎯then quickly shoved the thought away⎯about the nature of unmarried Francine’s affection for my mother. Her cleaning company employed a hundred people who cleaned stadiums and apartment buildings. There was never any need for Francine to personally scrub our floors.
‘I just would have appreciated them is all.’
‘I’m sure you would,’ I said. I meant to sound sincere, but must have come off sarcastic, because she snatched up the carton, brushed past me, and dumped it into the hall.
‘Your father always gave up on her,’ she said. ‘And you, you were as bad. Oh, from the time I first came here, I saw how it was. You and him always going off to them concerts, leaving her out.’
It was no good pointing out that my mother never liked the symphony.
‘Maybe she changed her mind,’ Francine said.
‘All she had to do was say so.’
Francine’s square, stubborn face took on the distinct look of a bulldog once she got going on a subject. ‘And then, when he sold the practice, she thought they’d buy a little Cape Cod place, but no. He buys you that.’ She gestured down the hall to where my Gagliano’s case leaned against the wall. ‘Giant fiddle costing more than a house. Crazy.’
I could almost imagine my mother there, silently siding against me. She’d been the type of person who never came right out and told you something was bothering her. No, you were supposed to read her mind.
Of course, it hadn’t been she who had encouraged my music. It was my father, when I was barely old enough to hold an instrument, who played Rachmaninoff and Sibelius with the volume turned up so I could leap around the living room. It was my father who drove me to my cello lessons year after year, who encouraged me to audition for Juilliard when I was feeling too intimidated to try, who understood that it was Tim’s professional jealousy that ultimately poisoned my marriage.
‘If my mother had a problem with my cello, she should have said something.’
Francine gestured across the hall to the deck. ‘What you going to do with them bird feeders?’
My mother had been like this⎯changing conversational gears like a bad driver. She and Francine’s conversations had made for odd music, cacophonic, annoying to listen to. Birds, they’d be talking about one minute, then a certain kind of furniture polish, then grandchildren—or rather, Jane’s lack of them.
‘Pack them,’ I said. ‘The realtor said the auction people will take them. She thinks they’re some kind of folk art.’
‘Huh. That one’s got her head you-know-where.’ Over the weeks of packing, Francine and I had ripped up the wall-to-wall in the living room, as the real estate agent advised (‘Hardwood floors are what people want’); we had pulled down drapes (‘Buyers today want light-filled spaces’). Francine was fed up.
‘I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.’
‘Since when’s a bird feeder a work of art? Your mother would have a laugh over that one.’
‘My mother wasn’t perfect, you know,’ I said, remembering, for some reason, how I once gave my mother a bird for her birthday, a parakeet from Woolworth’s. She’d stiffened, and the sight of that bird with aqua-dyed feathers seemed to me suddenly and obviously grotesque. I cried that I’d chosen such a gift and tried to fake why I bought it. ‘We’ll let it go,’ I said, ‘and watch it live in one of your birdhouses.’ But my mother said it would die if we let it outside, and for the next nine months, until it did die, the bird lived in a white wire cage in our living room, and I could never pass it without a messy mix of shame and pity.
I’d never known my mother well enough to know what she liked. I’d always guessed wrong.
‘What’s perfect?’ Francine said.
I lugged the trash bags out to the curb, glad for the excuse to get away from Francine. I would have to figure things out on my own. Maybe my father and this Edith tried for years to have a child. She finally got pregnant, only to die in childbirth. No, the dates just didn’t fit. All I knew was that my father eventually married his secretary, Jane, who had often recounted the story of how they got together: I used to make a tuna macaroni dish he loved. I’d bring him some for lunch. Every Tuesday. One day, he said he wanted to see what it was to eat tuna macaroni on a Monday night.
How disappointed I was in that story, when I was old enough to understand it. I remembered quizzing him. Why did you marry so late? Why did you bother? How did it feel to be so old having a kid?
He was sitting at his desk, and there was something about its order, about his precise way of pausing to think before answering, that lent assurance to his words. ‘I wanted you,’ he said. ‘I wanted a child. Age just didn’t factor in.’
Age factored in later. He was 84; I was 33 the day he died—a luminous April morning with sailboats skimming the Charles River, which I could see from my chair by his hospital bed. My mother was running some errands; I was watching him fall in and out of sleep. I couldn’t get a childhood memory out of my mind—the day I’d grasped so fearfully just how old he was. We were in Vermont, in a cabin we rented for years, during a late-afternoon storm. I was standing against the tattered screen door, intoxicated by the breeze on my face, watching the lightning flash blue over the mountains, when my father appeared beside me. ‘The pain of finite hearts that yearn,’ he said in his quoting voice. He pressed his palms against the screen. ‘Mr. Robert Browning.’ The backs of his hands were spotted, ridged with bulging blue veins. He was old, I realized then, as old as my friend Laura’s grandfather who’d died in May.
From his bed, he murmured something, and I leaned across the bed-rail. His eyes were on me, watery blue and rimmed red.
‘Don’t give up,’ he said.
‘Give up music? Gee, Dad—.’
He shook his head with all the impatience he could muster. ‘Love.’
At that point, I was only recently divorced from Tim and this kind of talk made me weary. ‘Oh, Dad, really,’ I said. I no longer believed in romantic love, at least not in a lasting sense. I’d married a fellow cellist expecting shared vision, that sort of thing, but Tim kept a mental relationship scorecard⎯who gave what and when, and criticized my every performance, even though I was the one with the BSO seat.
He closed his eyes. The lids were nearly translucent. ‘We use the word love as if it has a concrete, agreed-upon definition. But it is barely defined, I think.’
He dozed off, and as I watched his ribs rise and fall under his johnny, I steeled myself—there were so few breaths left.
Then he spoke my name. ‘Edith.’ He said it in an odd way, as if my name was just a word, a dreamy half-murmur of a statement.
His eyes flickered open. He waved a weak hand toward the sailboats. ‘I thought I could not sail beyond the border of love.’ His gaze turned inward. ‘Here is Kundera quoting his Rubens: First you must understand this apparent contradiction: beyond the border of love there is love.’
The silence in the room became rhythmic. A red minute hand ticked its way around the clock.
‘What are you saying, Daddy?’
His eyes remained fixed on the window and I wasn’t sure whether to press for explanation.
‘Oh, too much,’ came the eventual answer.
After Francine went home, I stayed up late, looking, with no luck, for more information. The next morning, onstage at Symphony Hall, I was buzzing with lack of sleep. Even though I was eager to do the Barber, I wanted to get through the rehearsal so I could get to Holliston and investigate town records. A canvas curtain, meant to simulate the acoustics of the full hall we would have for the evening’s open rehearsal, hung in front of the stage. The curtain cut the orchestra off from the rows of hard leather seats—unchanged since that premiere in 1946—that I wanted to peer at, just to try to get a handle on the fact that my father actually sat there while Raya Garbousova played the piece for the first time.
I studied the program notes. The premiere was performed on April 6. Edith’s letter was postmarked April 19, and sent from New York. It was a month before their marriage. She’d heard the new concerto and had felt herself, alone and apart from him a week later, to be like some precious Stradivari, plucked and left to quiver.
I’ve always believed that a truly great performance, if recorded somehow, is art at its purest: transcending its fleeting presence to become endlessly present. Like a painting. Like poetry. The recording might not even have to be an actual reproduction of the music, but some witness to it that conveys the soaring spirit of the original—like Edith’s testament. Her words made me wish I could have been witness to that first performance.
There was no guest soloist—Ilya, our principal cellist was doing it. When Arkil, the guest conductor, raised his baton, the rest of us plunged into the first movement: a startling, jagged, unrelentingly forward-moving orchestral progression that subsides as the solo cello snakes its way in. Immediately, with dismay, I heard that Ilya was not quite good enough to perform this piece. Few people are. Masterfully played, the early solo is like a skater twisting and turning but all the while gliding smoothly forward. Ilya’s skates were dragging, and I decided that I would draw slower, then sink quicker, into the strings when my chance came to play this—as it would, as it must. Because the coincidence of performing this piece, now, was like my father encouraging me one more time.
In the afternoon, I made my way out to Holliston. In the town hall, the young clerk, a pregnant girl who was filing when I came in, perked up when I told her what I was looking for. ‘I love stuff like this,’ she said. We searched deeds, then moved to fire logs and newspaper microfiche and finally to the 1947 birth and death ledgers.
Edith was not my mother. The truth was simpler, and sadder, than that. A short piece in the Holliston Gazette clarified:
We note the tragic passing of Mrs. William Foster (formerly Edith Worth), on Sunday, the 27th of April. Mrs. Foster, a violinist with the Greater Boston Ladies’ String Quartet, reentered her burning house at 741 Western Avenue for reasons unknown and there perished. Services will be held at the First Congregational Church in Mount Hope, New York on Wednesday at nine o’clock in the morning. Cause of the fire is under investigation.
So she had been a musician. I wondered—with a cringe, I must admit—about my father’s motives for encouraging me in music. For naming me Edith. He definitely guided me, but the euphoria came from inside. Every teacher said it: I was born to play, my vibrato came naturally.
‘And here’s the cert,’ the clerk said, leaning over a black ledger filled with handwritten birth and death records.
NAME: Foster, Edith M. CAUSE OF DEATH: flame burns.
‘What a horrible way to put it,’ I said, lingering over the cold fact of my name on a death ledger.
The clerk laughed. She was sweetly unaffected. ‘They were very straightforward then.’ She was young and about to have a child and other people’s pain was an abstraction. ‘There’s a man listed in one of these books as ‘self-strangulation by necktie.’’
Shush, I wanted to say. I was thinking of the notepad, and how paper and leather, shut in a drawer for more than half a century, could still retain the smell of fire.
‘The poor woman,’ the clerk said. ‘A relative?’
‘Sort of.’ And wasn’t she, in a way? If she had not died, I would never have been born.
I asked for a copy of the ledger. According to it, she was 25 years, five months, and three days old when she died. She was buried in her birthplace: Mount Hope, New York.
Outside, I started the car but sat for a while, gripping the wheel, trying to put it all together. The few facts triggered more questions, but there was no else to ask. I was the last of my parents’ line, truly an only child. There was an older cousin in Montreal, a woman I didn’t know. A memory stirred—this cousin, Carole, visiting when I was a child. Jealous of my doll bed, my dresses. Whispering mean things to me, threatening to snap my bow. Your dad was in a loony bin. Me not believing anything Carole said, telling her to shut up.
He started his practice in 1960. Where was he after 1947?
Your dad was in a loony bin.
Back at the house, I found Francine on the deck, wrapping bird feeders in newspaper. I held out the ledger copy, but her wrapping hands didn’t even pause.
‘What exactly did she tell you that day?’ she finally asked.
‘She didn’t say anything.’
‘So how did you find out?’
‘I found stuff, in my father’s desk.’
‘Huh.’ She eyed me closely. ‘So what did she talk about that day?’
It occurred to me that Francine was after something specific. ‘Other things,’ I said, deliberately vague.
For a long while she didn’t say a thing. There was only the distant sound of a weed whacker. When she finally spoke, it was with resolve and rancor. ‘She was afraid you wouldn’t understand, that you’d lose respect for her.’
‘I wouldn’t,’ I said, a reflex. But I thought of my mother’s face in the mirror that day I lashed out at her newfound assertiveness. The cedar railing was warm under my hand; I gripped it tight. The scent of field-flowers, the catbirds calling, these were things I associated with my mother.
‘I wouldn’t,’ I said again. ‘Lose respect.’
People are supposed to respond to touch, to the sound of their own names. I touched Francine’s arm and said, ‘I wouldn’t, Francine,’ but she shook me off.
‘I’ve only got bare facts,’ she said stubbornly.
She told me what she knew; I filled in the rest.
A simple kitchen fire, grease probably, and both of them in the living room, reading the newspaper, perhaps. It was a Sunday afternoon. My father always liked reading on a Sunday. A Sunday afternoon in April, so the day was probably chilly, with a bit of a breeze.
It hadn’t been too bad to start, Francine said. After they realized it was spreading too fast for them to extinguish, they simply ran out the front door and down the porch steps. People gathered. Someone called the fire brigade.
For a while, perhaps, no one spoke. Fires have a way of mesmerizing people. I pictured the laughing Edith of the snapshot, pictured her leaning against a tree, watching the flames while neighbors crowded around. The fire bell clanged, louder and louder; all eyes turned to watch the truck arrive. Nobody noticed Edith running back inside.
Francine said she must have noticed that my father was nowhere in sight. With all the confusion and noise, she must have panicked, blindly and completely, jumping on the assumption that he had returned to the burning house.
Behind the house, well back from the blaze, my father was standing with a few of the men, considering the damage. They were probably talking insurance policies and reconstruction costs when he heard his name, heard Edith screaming his name. He ran for the porch, but the heat threw him back. There were hands pulling at him, pulling him from the black, pressing wet rags to his face, pressing him to the grass, his ears filling with the crack and pop of timber burning, with the shattering of glass as the windows exploded from their casings.
‘And your father had a nervous breakdown after that,’ Francine said. ‘He was in some sanitarium for a while and then he got out and there was about a decade of working in different law firms, then settling here in Wellesley, starting the practice. Then your mother went to work for him.’
A sanitarium. I let that truth sink in. He must have been consumed by guilt, by grief, to end up in such a place.
‘And that’s it,’ she said, firmly. ‘That’s all I know.’
But what did anyone know?
Maybe I’d gotten it wrong. Maybe he wasn’t reading. Maybe that quiet Sunday habit came later. Maybe Edith was playing her violin, maybe they were engrossed in listening to a new recording. Maybe they were so engrossed in each other they forgot dinner was on the stove and never heard the first hiss and crackle.
Imagining this, imagining a young couple mad in love, I wondered how my mother could possibly have allowed me to be named Edith.
Maybe when I was born she did not yet know. Or knew about the wife but not her name, or knew her name but not the nature of the death.
Or maybe she had her own peculiar understanding.
She was 37 when they married, a woman well into spinsterhood by the day’s standards. She was probably grateful to have found a husband, grateful for a baby.
Whatever the reason, I wished she had felt she could tell me.
Francine picked up a lighthouse-shaped feeder and set to wrapping it. ‘You got a performance tonight?’
‘An open rehearsal.’
She busied herself with paper and masking tape, but her movements were rough. She kept clearing her throat. Finally, she squared her shoulders and looked me in the face. ‘That day she did all that talking⎯.’ She shifted her weight from foot to foot; she cleared her throat again.
I looked at her.
‘That day she went sick, she left a message on my machine. She wanted to talk to me. About the house. Big changes.’
Right. She had wanted help creating her aviary.
She fussed with a piece of newspaper, inching closer, her face darkening to red. She lifted her chin, but her eyes darted back down to the deck floor. ‘Do you know,’ she asked, ‘what she wanted to ask me?’
It was the look on her face that got me. It was that same humble, hopeless mix I’d seen on my mother’s face when she went for the mail during those poetry- submitting days. I saw that hope and thought: what is the harm in giving her what she wants? What is the harm?
‘She wanted to know,’ I said slowly, ‘if you wanted to move in here with her.’ When her eyes jerked up and held mine, I knew I’d gotten it right. I felt a surge of that overwhelming generosity of spirit that can soar through you when you least expect it. It was as if I were finally giving my mother the right gift. ‘Keep each other company,’ I said.
I pretended not to notice how hard Francine tried not to look emotional. I gave her time. I wrapped the log-cabin feeder and blocked any squeamish feelings from my head. When her packing movements returned to their normal briskness, I said, ‘So tell me what you know.’
She grunted. She peeled a sheet of paper from the stack. ‘I did.’
‘No. What you know about how my mother felt,’ I said.
‘How do you think she felt, you being named after that woman?’
‘It must have taken some pretty impressive understanding on her part.’
She laughed quietly. ‘Sorry to delude you.’
‘That wasn’t how it was?’
‘Your mother said no but your father filed your name that way anyway.’
The dismay on my face must have stirred Francine’s sympathy. ‘Sometimes you’re such a pup,’ she said, in a tone that sounded almost affectionate. ‘Do you have any idea what the not-so-very-old days were like? He was the man. And once the deed was done, it was done. And she figured, ‘Well, I’ll call her Edie. Well, if it makes him happy.’’
‘Did she feel awful, knowing he’d been so devoted to someone else?’
Of course not, her snort of disgust said. ‘That first wife, she was still new. The marriage hadn’t had time to slide into habit. It was still in that strappy high-heel stage. Hadn’t become the worn old shoe. Your mother knew that.’
‘But I don’t understand why they never told me.’
‘Don’t you?’ There was good-natured disdain on Francine’s face. ‘We grew up in a time when people kept their business to themselves. Not like now, with every-one telling every-body every-thing.’
‘But I’m not everybody. I’m their daughter.’
She threw up her shoulders. ‘It was a different time. It really was. And anyway, what’s the point in people knowing everything?’
‘It’s the way people are. We want to know.’ I was thinking out loud. ‘We want to know and be known.’
Or maybe that was just me.
‘Your father couldn’t talk about her,’ Francine said. ‘And your mother certainly didn’t want to.’ She put down the birdfeeder she was wrapping; she looked off beyond the yard. ‘But she was okay with it. She said she liked the idea of having a man who wouldn’t be out looking for something else.’
Had my mother looked for something else, something she found in Francine? I studied Francine’s solemn, settled face, its look of a person long disappointed by love, and decided, no.
‘I remember your mother saying ‘What was left was all I ever wanted.’’
I nodded. ‘Right.’
But I didn’t believe it. I remembered the poems. I remembered the ‘Jayne.’ I remembered the photograph and that look on my father’s face. There’s a difference between not wanting something and resigning yourself to never getting it. Nobody doesn’t want ecstasy.
Then I saw the time. I had an hour to get back to Boston and onstage. Of course the traffic down Route 9 was jammed and I was late arriving. I quickly rosined my bow then slipped in the stage door to take my place behind the violins, bumping chairs and apologizing as I went. My fingers were quick and practiced plucking and tuning the strings, and finally my spine relaxed, my shoulders became fluid, in that way of perfect moments when everything comes together and each stroke, each note is just right.
I breathed deep and looked out at the gilded simplicity of Symphony Hall. It was full. Open rehearsals tend to sell out. They’re inexpensive, and conductors don’t do much stopping of the music once it starts, but more than that, people seem to like being part of art-in-process.
Far out in the center section, on the aisle, was an old man I could almost imagine was my father. He was tucked under the first balcony, already closing his eyes, and something about his mild, gentle manner told me why my father never said anything about that first, beloved wife. He didn’t want me to question who I was, or why I was loved, didn’t want to cause pain to my mother. He might have meant to tell me, but sometimes we never find a way to say the hard things.
So he left behind evidence. Maybe there’s something in all of us that wants our secrets found out, because our secrets define who we really are. I remembered how he’d mused on the word love, how he’d called it ill-defined and thought, maybe it doesn’t matter what we call it. Maybe what we really crave is this: to be longed for by someone who sees exactly who we are.
It was then that I noticed the man by the left exit doors, hands on his hips, watching me. He was slight, nondescript, the kind of person I might describe by saying he had brown hair. But he couldn’t keep his eyes off me, off my bow, my darting fingers.
I couldn’t know that after the rehearsal, this man would be waiting for me on the sidewalk by the stage door, that he would be embarrassed and awkward and I would think he was not my type at all but would remember Francine criticizing my choice of men, would remember my father talking about finding love beyond borders. And before I knew it this man would have drawn me into my favorite debate—about whether music could truly be recorded and thus preserved. I would argue my side and he would argue the other, and when I told him he had contradicted himself he would say, ‘That’s all right. For every truth there is an equal and opposite truth.’
I would consider this apparent contradiction. I would say, ‘I think that might be true, if a truth is something apart from a fact.’
But I didn’t know any of this when the stage door opened and the applause began, the conductor striding through, bowing, climbing the podium. The clapping quickly died down, rustling subsided. We all got into position, bows poised, fingers raised.
Then Arkil raised his arms and there was no time to dwell on anything else.