A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 20

The minute she turned into the driveway, Serena could see that things had changed on the farm. Gone were the two junked vehicles that Mike Murphy had been trying to turn into a single functional one. She didn’t see a single discarded beer can, and someone had planted pansies in the big wooden flowerpot next to the mailbox. Probably her aunt Pilar, she thought; her mom had never been much for decorative plants, preferring to focus on her vegetable garden. Serena saw that the garden had been raked and rototilled; had Mike done that before Madison had sent him packing? Her mother was perfectly capable of running the rototiller, but she also had a job, which limited the time she could spend on the farm in the short but crucial spring planting season. Serena felt a pang of guilt that she hadn’t made it up here sooner, but she had her hands full, too.

“Can we see the goats, Mom?” piped up ten-year-old Mariah from the back seat. “And the pigs? I want to see the pigs, too.”

“You look like a pig,” said twelve-year-old Ashleigh, riding shotgun.

“Stop that, Ashleigh,” Serena snapped at her older daughter. Could two sisters be any more different? Serena had wanted to get an early start, but Ashleigh had delayed their departure for most of an hour while she dried and curled her hair and then selected clothes for the weekend. Mariah was content to throw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and gather her hair in a loose ponytail like her grandmother. Serena had a job now for which she had to look presentable, but she secretly sympathized with Mariah. How had she wound up working in an office? She would be a country girl if she could. But life had not worked out that way.

“There won’t be any boys here,” Mariah retorted. “You got all gussied up for nothing.”

“Some of us care about how we look,” Ashleigh sniffed. “And some people are slobs.”

“I am not a slob,” Mariah said. “But I’m not a stuck-up bitch, either.”

“Mom! Did you hear what she just called me?”

“Honest to God, you kids, can you give it a rest for one weekend? I am so sick of hearing you snipe at one another. Look, there’s Grandma.”

Serena parked the car in what Mike Murphy had always called the dooryard, a patch of gravel next to the steps that led up to a small side porch. The house had a front door facing the road, but no one ever used it. Madison waved from the porch. Mariah jumped out of the car as soon as the wheels stopped turning. “Come on, Ashleigh, it won’t be that bad,” Serena said to her older daughter, who hesitated to unbuckle her seatbelt. “Your Aunt Pilar’s here. You’ve always liked her.”

“She’s your Aunt Pilar,” Ashleigh pointed out. “She’s my grandmother’s sister, which makes her my great aunt, doesn’t it?”

“I know,” Serena said. “But don’t call her your great aunt, all right? It’s too confusing, and besides, it makes her feel old.”

“Maybe she brought me a book,” Ashleigh said. She liked to read and did well in school, another difference between her daughters. Mariah loved the outdoors and had to be practically chained to her desk to do homework; Ashleigh regularly graced the honor roll. Mariah liked to put her hands on things, to touch and taste and smell the natural world – like Serena had been as a kid.

“Hi, Mom,” Serena called as she and Ashleigh got out of the car. Her older daughter had refused to dress down for the farm; she wore a favorite pair of pale blue slacks and a flowered blouse that she had no intention of allowing in contact with animal life. Serena had managed to talk her into a pair of sneakers rather than the pink dress shoes she favored.

Madison greeted her daughter with a hug. Serena caught a faint whiff of weed behind the familiar hay smell. She disapproved of her mother’s marijuana habit. It had already cost her one husband, a stepfather she had adored, who now lived in Canada and would be arrested if he tried to cross the border. She thought it made her mother lazy, though the effect had been more profound on husband number three, who couldn’t be bothered to pick up his own empty beer cans. But she didn’t say anything. What her mother did with her life was her own business, and if she and Pilar had been getting high before her arrival, Serena supposed that was fine, as long as they didn’t do it in front of her kids.

“The place looks nice,” Serena said.

“One less man to pick up after,” Madison quipped, too quickly. Serena had been a single mom for two years now; she’d had dates in that time, but as yet no sleepovers. Privately, she wondered how her mom was managing. Pilar provided some help, certainly, but she was no farm girl, and would likely prove useless with any of the heavy tasks involving the animals.

“Grandma, can I go see the pigs?” Mariah asked.

“Sure, honey,” Madison said. “Why don’t you both go? I want to talk to your mom for a minute.”

Ashleigh looked at Serena with a mixture of boredom and disgust. “Do I have to?” she said. “They stink.”

“They’re pigs,” Serena said. “They smell like they’re supposed to smell.”

Ashleigh screwed up her nose. Serena was about to warn her mother that the two girls would just fight if they went off on their own, but fortunately Pilar came out of the house at that moment and said, “Ashleigh, why don’t you help me make lunch? I brought some nice cheese down from Quebec. I need someone to slice it thin enough for sandwiches.”

“Go on, sweetheart,” Serena said. “You can practice your French with Aunt Pilar.”

“I don’t speak French,” Ashleigh mumbled.

“Says the girl who brought home an A in French on her last report card.”

“Mom, it’s different in school. All you have to do is memorize a bunch of words and stuff.”

“I never got an A in French,” Pilar said. “Je suis impressionnée.”

Ashleigh followed Pilar inside. Serena sank into a deck chair beside her mother’s. “It’s exhausting the way they squabble all the time,” she said.

“You’re lucky you only have two,” Madison said. “You have no idea how your Uncle Jeremy and your Aunt Gretchen and I used to get into it. And Joanie and Pilar, too, when they got older.”

“What about Uncle Everett?” Serena said.

“Oh, your Uncle Everett was the baby of the family. Everybody loved him. He was always so damned charming. Still is.”

“Graham and I never used to fight like that, did we?”

Madison shook her head. “But you were so much older, Serena. You were as much his live-in babysitter as his sister.”

“I remember.”

“And besides, he was a boy. Boys are much easier to get along with.”

“Thanks a lot, Mom.”

“Well, look at your own two kids if you want proof,” Madison said. “Every parent I’ve ever talked to says the same thing. Girls are temperamental and fussy. Boys are simple. The problem with boys is that a lot of them stay boys long after they’ve physically turned into men.”

Serena laughed at this bit of parental insight. “Speaking of men,” she said, “here we are on a farm without any. You going to tell me what happened?”

Her mother sighed. “Oldest story in the world. Mike found himself a little something on the side. Some married chickie-poo down in Winter Harbor, probably ten or twenty years younger than me. Good luck with that, is what I say.”

“So did he move in with her?”

“Fat chance. He’s staying down the road with some friends. Shows up every few days, to see how I’m doing, he says. I’m sure he’s hoping I’ll take his sorry ass back.”

“Are you going to?”

Another sigh. “It’s surprising how little I need him, really. To tell you the truth, it was more of a pain in the ass taking care of him, cooking his meals, making sure he had clean clothes, and everything else, than it was helpful having someone to chop and haul wood and feed the animals. I can swing an axe. I can throw slop into the pigpen. And I can always hire someone to do the butchering, when the time comes. I’m the one with a real job, after all.”

“But I thought you were wanting to cut back.”

“Well, things change.”

They fell silent for a moment. Serena heard Ashleigh’s laughter from the kitchen. Good. Her aunt was engaging her daughter in something. Maybe the girl would forget what a drag her Grandma’s farm was, at least for a while.

“And Aunt Pilar?” Serena said. “Same thing? Man troubles?”

“Story of our lives. Maybe your Aunt Joanie has it right. Maybe we should have been lesbians.”

Serena leaned back in her chair and took a long look at her mother. “I don’t see it,” she said.

“Neither do I,” Madison said. “But it makes a woman think.”

“How is Graham, by the way? Have you heard from him lately?”

“He called me last week.” Her mother’s face became animated, as it usually did when she talked about her hockey-playing half-brother. (The same expression, Serena now recognized for the first time, came over her grandmother Annabelle’s face when she spoke of her seldom-seen Uncle Jeremy.) “He’s under contract for the same team next season. But he’s been invited to training camp in Minnesota, which starts at the end of August, so I’m hoping he’ll come visit before then. Gram’s getting out of the hospital next weekend, if her doctors say she’s ready. She wants to have everyone down to the point sometime this summer for a polka dot party.”

The family names got a little confusing – Graham, Gram, Grandma – but though an outsider might have been bewildered, the two women had no trouble keeping them straight. Serena’s daughters called Annabelle “Gram” as well, though she was their great-grandmother. Annabelle kept a wall calendar in her kitchen on which she affixed colored dots for family birthdays. A different color denoted each generation. Annabelle’s and Paul’s dots were red, as were the dots for Paul’s sister, whom he never saw, and her husband, and Annabelle’s brother in the Midwest. Madison and her siblings and their spouses had their birthdays marked by blue dots, while those of their kids, including Serena and Graham, were yellow. For Ashleigh and Mariah, Annabelle had broken out green dots for a fourth family generation.

This got confusing, because Billy, Everett’s son, was younger than Madison’s granddaughters. Nonetheless, as a member of Serena’s generation, he had a yellow dot. The situation became still more convoluted when spouses and significant others were considered, for Annabelle had a set of criteria that existed only in her own mind.

A cluster of family birthdays fell in late June and early July. Annabelle liked to gather the family around her in midsummer for a lobster feed at the point. Over time, the increasingly scattered family adopted the custom of celebrating everyone’s birthdays at once, and the gathering became known as the polka-dot party, a nod to Annabelle’s calendar.

“That will be fun,” Serena said. “I haven’t been down to the point in a long time. I saw Dad, did I tell you?”

Madison shook her head. Serena’s parents had been divorced since she was a baby, and her relationship with her father had been sporadic. He had attended her high school graduation but not her wedding; he had later confessed that he had been on a year-long drinking binge during that time and had subsequently done several stints in rehab. But in recent years he seemed to have straightened out his life. He was still in Blue Hill, managing the hardware store that his cousin Brad had bought from his father and moved from the center of Blue Hill out onto the commercial strip that had sprung up on South Street, near the house in which Madison and her siblings had grown up.

“Everything comes full circle, I guess,” Madison said, when she relayed this bit of news. “He’s got a new wife, I heard, and two young kids, is that right?”

“A boy and a girl,” Serena said. “They’re like, seven and five.”

“That must have been strange,” Madison said.

“His wife thought so. We went down there for lunch last week, at it was pretty clear that she was weirded out by her husband having a grown daughter with kids of her own.”

“She must be a lot younger than he is,” Madison said. “Is she pretty?”

“In a fake sort of way, yeah,” Serena said cautiously, not sure of her mother’s emotional stake in this conversation. “She’s overly made-up, every hair in place, dressed too nicely for a casual lunch in Blue Hill. She’s maybe forty, forty-five, trying too hard to look younger. But he seems happy. He’s not drinking. At least he wasn’t when we were there.”

“Well, that’s good.” Serena could read nothing in her mother’s flat tone. She had heard stories of her parents’ excesses, and witnessed firsthand the Spraulings’ drunken holiday celebrations, but somehow the family predilection for substance abuse had not touched her. She drank alcohol only rarely; a glass of wine on a dinner date, perhaps, or a cup of punch at a company Christmas party. She’d tried pot in high school and disliked it. All other drugs she had left alone. Life was hard enough without creating avoidable problems.
“So what’s the plan for this big family reunion?” she asked. “When’s Graham coming up?”

“You sound like your Aunt Gretchen,” Madison replied. “What’s the plan, what’s the date, when should I be there? Heck if I know. I can’t pin Graham down to anything specific. You got the planning gene, not him.”

Serena laughed, though she suspected that this was not a compliment. She had thought her life secure; she had a husband with a good job and two kids, spaced appropriately in age, who did well enough in school not to cause her undue worry. All had seemed fine until the husband had announced that he was unhappy in the marriage and wanted out, that he had found a woman who was fun-loving and spontaneous. And so she had become a single mother in her thirties, and she had not planned for that.

Pilar came out onto the porch to tell them that lunch would be ready in a few minutes. “I’d better go corral my other daughter,” Serena said. “She’s probably got mud all over her shoes, if I know her. I’ll make her take them off before she goes in the house.”

Madison waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “There’s been more mud tracked through this house than Sherman tracked through Georgia.”

Serena acknowledged this with a short laugh, though she only vaguely understood the reference. Her mother’s lackadaisical housekeeping habits often irritated her. She knew that her mom liked to smoke pot when she cleaned the house, and the cleaning usually got about halfway done. It was another difference between them; Serena couldn’t go to bed at night until every dish was washed and the counters and stovetop were spotless.

“She’s your farm girl,” Serena said. “Any time you want to borrow her to help with chores, give me a call. She’d consider it a vacation.”

“I may just take you up on that,” Madison said. “Maybe tomorrow morning she can milk the goats.”

“I’m sure she’d love it,” Serena said. “The other one will want to sleep in and then spend an hour picking out what to wear.”

“Yeah, but she’ll be the one to go out into the world and make her fortune. Farmers are always broke.”

“But never starving,” Serena pointed out.

“Not necessarily true,” Madison said. “Plenty of Irish farmers starved during the potato famine. Not that we’ll starve, but the garden’s got to get in this weekend. There’s plenty for everyone to do.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Serena said. Sherman, the Irish – when had her mother become such a history buff? The shelves in her bathroom were lined with paperbacks, but they were mostly popular novels by the likes of Stephen King, Sue Grafton and Dick Francis. Serena supposed that a few historical novels lay scattered in there somewhere. Serena read self-help books and magazines but not much else. Ashleigh liked the books her relatives gave her, though. The Spraulings were a literate bunch, which made for wide-ranging, if often drunken, holiday table conversations. Serena sometimes lamented that so little of it had rubbed off on her.

She worked thirty-five hours a week in the billing office of a cable television company and spent the rest of her time tending to the needs of her daughters. In the evenings she was too tired to read, and besides, one of the benefits of her job was that she got the full cable package for the price of basic service. Was it any wonder she preferred movies and dramatic series to books? At least she didn’t wallow in pablum like soap operas and reality shows. Her job was repetitive and boring, but she liked her co-workers, and her salary was enough to support her one-parent household. Occasionally a male customer flirted with her, and she found that she didn’t mind that, either.

But in unguarded, unexpected moments, she caught herself wondering what it was all about – wasn’t there more to life than living from paycheck to paycheck and supporting her kids? Her mother lived close to the land, and though she needed an outside job and couldn’t seem to keep a relationship (the story of most of the women in her extended family, come to think of it), she at least had the farm, as a source of both identity and comfort. Her Uncle Everett had his music; her brother Graham had hockey, and her grandmother Annabelle had her place on the point. She had… what? Aunt Pilar had her writing, even if little of it seemed to get published. Her Uncle Jeremy was a stranger, but then he lived in California, which might as well be the moon. She had never been west of Ohio.

Pilar brought out sandwiches of sliced cheese and some sort of salami on French rolls, accompanied by a large salad filled with things Serena never put in hers: olives, artichoke hearts, red onions, small sweet peppers. Even Ashleigh liked it, though she pushed the onions to one side of her plate. Pilar was drinking green tea from a can; Serena poured cran-raspberry juice for her daughters and herself. Madison cracked a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Serena must have said something with her eyes, for her mother looked at her and said, “What? It’s noon.”

“I thought we were going to work after lunch.”

“We are.” Madison tipped up the can. “You know how you put oil in a tractor, or a rototiller, to keep it lubricated? Beer is lubricant for people.”

“Whatever you say, Mom. Don’t listen to her, girls. It isn’t true.”

But work they did, and by evening they had half of the large garden planted, including the tomatoes they transplanted from the kitchen window, and everyone was gloriously tired. Maddie cooked burgers on the outdoor grill. Pilar produced a bottle of red wine, and Serena indulged in a glass when the girls went to bed, before the last of the sunlight left the sky.

The first stars found them still sitting there, talking of family, and the people who hade come into and out of their lives, of years that had reeled away. They talked of Annabelle and her impending release from the hospital. And they talked of Elliott Sprauling, a man Serena had never known, but in whose shadow she had lived her whole life.

“I remember him a little bit,” Pilar said. “I remember when we went swimming at the beach in East Blue Hill, he would pick me up and twirl me over his head, and throw me as far out into the water as he could.”

“You were always little,” Madison said. “We were all jealous that he could throw you the farthest.”

“It scared me, “ Pilar said.

“Really?” Madison said. “We all thought you loved it.”

Pilar shook her head. “Everyone else thought it was funny, so I laughed, too. But inside I was terrified.”

“You hid it well.”

“Yeah, well, we Spraulings are good at that.” Pilar poured another glass of wine for herself and her sister, and glanced over at Serena, holding out the bottle. Well, why not? She was eager to hear more, and the wine would likely keep the two women talking. She indicated half a glass with her finger.

“Was he tall?” Serena wanted to know.

“Was what, sweetie?” Pilar said, splashing red wine into Serena’s glass.

“Whoa, that’s enough, thanks. My grandfather. Was he tall, like Uncle Everett?”

“I honestly don’t remember how tall he was,” Pilar said. “I was five when he died. He was huge to me.”

“He was tall,” Madison said. “Only Joanie and Everett got his height, though.”

“You’re sort of tall, Mom,” Serena said. “And so’s Graham.”

“Graham gets his from his father. And I’m five-six. Not even as tall as your Uncle Jeremy.”

“But you’re taller than all of your sisters, except Joanie,” Serena said. “You’re taller than me. And you’re way taller than your own mom.”

“Annabelle’s shrinking,” Madison said, surprising Serena with the use of her grandmother’s first name. “I’ve seen pictures of her and our dad together, when they were first married. They were a handsome couple. And she wasn’t all that short.”

“Probably wearing heels,” Pilar pointed out.

“Yeah, well, those days are over,” Madison said.

The image of frail Annabelle stumbling about in high heels was so absurd that all three women laughed. Serena felt a little guilty, but not much.

“What’s going to happen, when she goes back to the point?” Pilar said.

“Oh, she’ll have Paul waiting on her hand and foot,” Madison replied. “She’ll go downstairs in the morning and upstairs at night. She’ll sit out in a lawn chair in the afternoon and have him bring her drinks, one after another.”

“Surely she’ll have to walk, or do something for physical therapy,” Serena said. “They’re not going to just let her go home and drink.”

“Your grandmother will do what she wants, honey,” Madison said.

“And why not?” Pilar put in. “She’s eighty. She’s earned it.”

“I’m sure they’ll give her some sort of exercises,” Madison said. “And she might even do them. But mostly she’s going to enjoy sitting back and being the center of attention.”

“Hence the polka-dot party,” Serena said.

“Precisely,” Pilar replied, and Madison nodded.

“But can she get up and down the stairs?” Serena asked.

“That’s the ten million dollar question,” her mother said. “They’ll let her go home once they’re sure she can make it from one floor to another, at least to get up in the morning and go back up to bed at night. I guess they’re having her practice in the hospital. It’s too bad they didn’t put a bedroom on the main level.”

“The bigger question, though, is what’s going to happen down the road, when she can’t do stairs any longer,” Pilar said. “And that day is going to come. Then what? It’d be a shame to sell that place.”

“Yeah, but what would you do, if you were sitting on a million bucks worth of real estate?” Madison said. “I suppose it’s up to Paul, ultimately.”

“What does Paul want to do?”

“Drink with Gram,” Serena quipped, and the two older women laughed.

“I couldn’t live down there,” Pilar said. “Too isolated.”

“I could,” Madison said.

“Mom, you’ve got a farm to run,” Serena protested.

“Yes, I know, sweetheart. And I’m not making any plans to move. All I’m saying is I wouldn’t be bothered by the isolation. I understand why Gram likes living down there. It’s uncomplicated. I don’t need a crowd of people. I could have been perfectly happy as a lighthouse keeper.”

“All those lights are automated now,” Serena said.

“Too bad,” her mother replied. “Sounds like a great life.”

“Isolation or not, we’ve got to find a way to keep that place in the family,” Pilar said. “None of us would be able to buy a place like that today. Not all of us put together. But if we could turn it into some kind of business…”

Serena didn’t expect Maddie’s sudden burst of laughter. “I’m sorry, Pilar, but since when do you know anything about business? You’re an artist. You’re about the artsiest artist I know.” She watched Pilar’s face for a reaction, and saw the corners of her mouth turn up, just a little.

“All I’m saying is we ought to do something to keep the place. Otherwise it’ll be gone forever.”

There was more conversation after that, but the two glasses of wine and the two girls had tired Serena enough that she excused herself and went to bed, leaving the two sister to talk late into the night.

Serena and her daughters stayed on the farm until Monday morning, by which time Ashleigh’s whining had worn her down and Mariah smelled thoroughly of the goat pen. The three women and two girls got a lot of work done. Her mother seemed fine, if a trifle sad. Mike Murphy did not put in an appearance, and Claude, Pilar’s French-speaking paramour, did not call. Their only communication with the outside world was a phone call from Gretchen, who told Madison that Annabelle was eager to leave the hospital the following Saturday. She wanted to know which weekend they might all be free to attend a polka-dot party at the point.

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