A Sprauling Family Saga

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(Part Two) Chapter 10

Voyager 2 left the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida at just after ten in the morning Eastern Daylight Time, on August 20, 1977. Most Americans ignored the event. The glorious days of the Apollo program were over; the first space shuttle flight lay almost four years in the future. Launches were no longer national television events – without people on board, where was the dramatic tension? But this little spacecraft had lofty ambitions: a grand tour of the outer planets, and an eternity among the stars.

At the same time Voyager soared through the atmosphere and escaped Earth’s gravity, Bernadette Leighton, soon to become Bernadette Steele, stood outside the hospital in Ellsworth, Maine where she had worked for the past eight years, and watched a wrecking ball knock down the outer wall, making way for the new wing. A crowd of people had gathered to watch the demolition of this oldest part of the hospital. It was a big deal, this new construction project, and several dignitaries had made forgettable speeches prior to the commencement of the actual work. A huge billboard displaying an artist’s rendering of the new wing loomed behind the lectern from which they had spoken. Hospital administration boasted that the addition, which would include two new operating rooms, a modern intensive care unit, and an outpatient clinic, plus a new lobby and reception area, would provide services heretofore only available in Bangor, Portland and beyond, enabling coastal residents to receive quality care closer to home. While several of the older nurses said they would miss the homey feel of the old hallways, Bernadette harbored none of their nostalgia. Those old green walls and faded linoleum floors couldn’t disappear fast enough for her, and that went double for the stairwell that the wrecking ball demolished even as she watched. Never again would she have to climb those stairs and wonder what might have happened on that awful autumn afternoon, now nearly six years in the past, had the doctor taken the time to tie his shoe.

But life had gone well for her in those years. She’d earned two promotions, and was now, as far as she knew, the youngest operating room supervisor in the whole state. Her forthcoming marriage to a prominent surgeon promised a lifetime of financial security, plus luxuries like the Caribbean vacation they’d taken last winter. They were looking at houses on Mount Desert Island and the Gouldsboro peninsula. The wedding, planned for the first weekend in October at the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor, would be a gala affair, attended by hundreds of guests, both in and out of the medical profession.

Most of the crowd had moved toward the food tables, well away from the construction site, where an assortment of fruits, pastries and beverages had been laid out. A knot of administrators in suits and ties clustered near the end of one of the tables, joined by a few doctors, though her fiancé was not among them. Dr. Benjamin Steele was at that moment operating on a 55-year old man who had turned up in the ER the previous night with a painful kidney stone; a phone call had taken him from her bed at two in the morning. The doctor himself was not young; he had just turned fifty earlier that summer. She had a few misgivings about the difference in their ages, but who better to care for him in his dotage than a capable surgical nurse who would still be in her prime working years? Besides, she seemed to have a thing for older men.

As she watched, a young, smallish woman approached the knot of suits, wielding a pen and a small notebook. A camera hung from a strap around one of her shoulders. She was pretty in a mousy sort of way; Her straight, hay-colored hair hung loose around her shoulders, framing a youthful face with large almond eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen, and with a start, Bernadette recognized her. She’d grown up and filled out a bit, but Bernadette was sure it was the same girl, the oldest daughter of the dead doctor, who had stood stoically by his bedside, leaking silent tears while her younger sisters moaned and wailed. She reached for a name in her mind. Gail? Jennifer? Bernadette had admired the girl then for her courage. She would have been about twelve. From the set of her face Bernadette surmised that her father’s death had caused her to grow up earlier than most of her peers, and the unhesitant manner in which she approached the group of men who ran the hospital seemed to confirm this.

She watched the young woman move the pen across the notebook, listening and flipping pages and asking an occasional question. She was professionally but casually attired in a knee-length skirt and crisp white blouse. What was she doing here? Bernadette eased her way toward the tables and gathered some pieces of cantaloupe and honeydew melon onto a small paper plate. She waited until the girl wrapped up her interview, closed the notebook, and glance back at the wrecking ball, which had now knocked down half of the first wall. The tables and chairs had been set up at a safe distance, but it was still noisy, and Bernadette could smell the dust in the air. Destruction preceded construction, she thought; the new must rise atop the wreckage of the old. True for buildings, true for human lives. She set the plate aside at the moment that the girl’s eyes met hers.

“Hello,” the girl said.

“Do you remember me?” Bernadette asked her.

“I… I’m not sure. You look familiar.” The girl fumbled with pen and notebook, finally poking the pen into the spiral rings at the top, and extended a thin right hand. “I’m Gretchen Sprauling, with the Ellsworth American.”

“Gretchen. I was trying to remember your name. I’m Bernadette Leighton. I worked with your father.”

A cloud crossed the girl’s face, but then she recovered. “Of course. You were one of the nurses.”

Bernadette nodded. “I’m still sorry about your dad. How’s your family?”

Gretchen’s hand traveled briefly to her face and found some hair to brush aside. “We’re all fine,” she said. “It’s been six years. Time’s a great healer, I guess.”

“Your sisters are well? And your mother? I heard she had a baby boy.”

“Everett. He’s getting ready to start kindergarten.”

“Imagine it. Time does go by, doesn’t it? You have an older brother as well, don’t you? I don’t think I ever met him.”

“That would be Jeremy,” the young woman said. “He didn’t make it home before Dad passed. He’s at Cornell now, studying astronomy. At least he’s supposed to be. I’m not sure what he’s doing over the summer. Drinking beer and playing softball, last I heard. He came home in June for a couple of weeks. Saw me graduate, then took off again.”

“Well, congratulations on your graduation,” Bernadette said.

“Thanks. It was kind of bittersweet. One of my classmates got killed in a car accident after the party.”

Bernadette reached out and briefly touched the girl’s arm. “Oh yes. I read about that,” she said. “I’m so sorry. Were you close?”

“No.” Gretchen shook her head. “We knew each other. In Blue Hill everybody does. But we had different groups of friends. Still, it ruined graduation weekend for the whole town.”

“I can imagine,” Bernadette said. “You poor girl. You’ve seen too much tragedy for someone so young.”

Gretchen nodded but kept her composure. “It hit his family pretty hard,” she said. “He was the only boy after four girls. Kind of the opposite of our family, at least until Everett came along.”

“But look at you,” Bernadette said, trying to brighten the tenor of the conversation. “You’re all grown up. And working for the paper.”

“It’s just a summer job,” Gretchen said. “I start at the University of Maine in September. In fact, this is my last assignment. Orientation’s next week.”

“Good for you,” Bernadette said. “Are you going to study journalism, then?”

The girl shrugged uncomfortably. “Maybe. Maybe English. Or maybe something else, I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. But I do like to write.”

“So does my fiancé,” Bernadette said. “He’s a urologist, but he wants to cut back on his work so that he can do some more writing. He writes about medical stuff mostly. But he enjoys it.”

“You’re getting married?” Gretchen asked.

“Mm-hmm.” Bernadette extended her hand and showed the girl her ring, a big red ruby, because Dr. Steele didn’t like diamonds, which he said were mined by exploited South African blacks paid virtual slave wages.

“My mom’s getting married, too,” Gretchen said.

“Really? Well, isn’t that good? It must be hard for her, suddenly left on her own with all of you.” Bernadette hadn’t seen or spoken to Annabelle Sprauling since shortly after the doctor’s death, but the woman had made an indelible impression. She smiled at Annabelle’s daughter, hoping that the smile concealed her conflicted emotions. “Is she happy? Listen to me – what kind of a question is that? She must be happy. Do you like him?”

That uncomfortable shrug again. “Sure. Paul’s okay, I guess. My mom could have done a lot worse. He hasn’t given me a reason not to like him, at least not yet, anyway. He’s a lobsterman, so we’ll be eating a lot of lobster.”

“Well, there,” Bernadette said brightly, sensing that she’d pressed the girl too far. But it was the girl herself who had brought up her mother’s remarriage. Behind them, the walls of the old hospital continued to crumble against the onslaught of the wrecking ball. The warm summer air smelled like cement dust. The dignitaries, their duties done, had disappeared, and all that remained of the stairwell where the doctor had died were pieces of rebar reaching out from those parts of the wall still partially standing.

Gretchen Sprauling fumbled for her notebook and pen. “Do you want to say anything about the new addition?” she asked. “For the article I’m writing? It would be good to get a nurse’s perspective.”

Again, Bernadette found herself admiring this young woman. She was just trying to do her job, in a situation that must be trying for her. But how much did she know about the specifics of her father’s death? What had Annabelle told her? Did she even know that the doctor had died in the very stairwell that was now being destroyed behind them? The doctor had fallen down a set of stairs – that was the official version of events, and true, as far as it went – but only a few people knew which set of stairs and where they were. Now the stairs themselves would soon be gone, and the doctor’s death would eventually fade into generalized memory.

Dr. Benjamin Steele had arrived in Ellsworth a few years later, a star surgeon recruited away from a large hospital in Indiana. He was divorced, with no kids, and financially well off from investments, family money, and earnings, and he had little curiosity about her past or the hospital’s. Had anyone told him about Dr. Sprauling’s death? Her colleagues were a closed-mouth lot, especially to outsiders. Bernadette knew that it would take years for her husband-to-be to earn the full trust of the local medical community no matter how skilled a surgeon he proved to be. Fixing patients was one thing; gaining the confidence of colleagues and underlings was another.

“We’re really not supposed to talk to the press,” Bernadette said, trying to sound as apologetic as possible. “Everything’s supposed to go through the public relations department. I might get in trouble if you quoted me in the paper.”

“That’s okay,” Gretchen said, putting away the notebook with apparent relief. “I’ve got plenty of quotes from earlier, anyway. Plus they gave out a press release. It sounds like a good thing for both the hospital and the community. That’s the way I’m going to write it up, anyway. Focus on the positive.”

“A good approach to life, as well as journalism,” Bernadette told her. “Good luck at the University.”

“Thanks. It’ll be good to be away from home, but not too far, you know what I mean? Easy to get home and visit once in a while. I got accepted at Sarah Lawrence, but mom said it was too far away and too expensive, though it’s closer and cheaper than Cornell.” She forced another awkward smile. “But I guess there can only be one favorite son in any family.”

Bernadette’s heart went out to the girl. She knew what it was like to be smart but thwarted by circumstance. Her own family had not been able to afford to send her even to the University of Maine. But Gretchen was the daughter of a doctor from a wealthy out-of-state family. A dead doctor, she reminded herself. And that made all the difference.

“You just get that bachelor’s degree,” Bernadette said. “Years from now, it’ll matter more that you have one, not so much where it’s from.”

Bernadette was twenty-eight, a decade older than the young woman to whom she gave this advice. Her path had been different: a one-year certificate course and learning on the job at a small hospital, rising through the ranks. They had made her supervisor because she knew more practical hands-on nursing than anyone in the room, but she was aware that some of the college grad nurses working under her were making more money than she was. One day she would prod her soon-to-be husband with writerly ambitions to address this inequity in print.

She had accumulated a few credits by attending courses and seminars the hospital sent her to, and thought off and on about going back at least half-time and getting a degree. Now those thoughts were on hold for a few years so she could discover what married life felt like. They had talked kids; he might like to have a couple, he’d said, though they would see what happened. She was young enough that they could wait.

Meanwhile, Gretchen Sprauling would sail through the University of Maine in four years, and maybe Bernadette would see her on TV as a news reporter. No, not TV – the girl was too plain. But something – this girl would make a successful life because she wouldn’t allow it otherwise. Annabelle might keep her close in physical distance, but Gretchen would make her own way. She would find a man and have kids and become one of those pillars of peninsula society, active and involved in the schools, the food co-op, and the community softball league, sending her kids to the same schools she had attended. Bernadette could see it all unfolding like a Delphic prophecy. Gretchen would make all the right choices; she would select a reliable mate and cultivate a wide circle of friends. Her kids would have books and toys and new clothes but also love and discipline. There would be money – not always as much as she might like, but always enough. Gretchen would be, by all outward appearances, happy. But Bernadette imagined that sooner or later she would begin to pick at the edges of the wound that was her father’s death.

Perhaps the girl could see something of these thoughts in Bernadette’s eyes, for she took a step backward, shooting a quick, nervous glance at the building as the wrecking ball took out another section of brick. “I should get a few more pictures,” she said, self-consciously lifting the camera, which had hung, ignored, at her side the whole time they’d been talking. “You know, like before and after shots? I got some good pictures earlier when they were just starting.”

Bernadette smiled, letting her go. “I’ll look for them in the paper,” she said as the girl took another step away from her. “Enjoy yourself up in Orono.”

“I will,” Gretchen called back over her shoulder. “It was nice to meet you, again.” And then she was off, circling back toward the construction/destruction site and the people gathered there to watch. Bernadette trailed after her, drawn to the outer orbit of the event as Gretchen made for its center. She stood on tiptoes and saw that the erasure of the stairwell was nearly complete. Only parts of the bottom three steps remained. A jackhammer could probably clean that up in a couple of hours. She watched Gretchen Spaulding crouch and snap a couple of pictures.

And was that where it started? She had read about a tribal religion somewhere that feared cameras, believing that the lens could capture a person’s soul. Did Gretchen know that she was photographing the very spot where her father had perished? When she developed the film in the darkroom down at the Ellsworth American, would she see the doctor’s ghostly outline on the negative? Would he be waving to her?

But Bernadette would only ponder these things much later. For now it was enough that the hated staircase was being pummeled out of existence, that she was getting married soon, and that she was alive to enjoy it all. She hoped the next few swings of the wrecking ball would finish the job, for then she could go get something more substantial to eat than melon and muffins. But she would stay all day if she had to. She’d taken the day off just to attend this ceremony and watch the wall come down. She intended to stick around until every step the dead doctor’s clumsy feet had tripped over on that horrible day was reduced to dust.

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