I detest church pews. The number of times I have been obliged to sit amongst tall wooden benches, pretending to listen to a sermon, eulogy or the sacred union of two people in holy matrimony, is inhumane. I have a large extended family.
My earliest and most painful memories involve me sitting amongst aunts and uncles, counting the minutes between the service and the moment when we would be released for Sunday school. The words “hell”, “fury”, “communion”, and “confession” came from the front of the church but had no impact. I sat scheming, dreaming of ways to tease and confound the churchgoers in front of me. Eventually as I became restless and my body began to squirm, my elbows or knees would plunge into one of the relatives sitting beside me, who would become instantly disengaged with whatever message was being delivered and look towards me. I would await the stern call of my name, “Philip”, as a result. But the consequence never came; all I received was a smile from a kind aunt, a great uncle, or some other relative whose name I could scarcely remember. Their tolerance annoyed me.
“Philip can you find a place for this bouquet?” my mother asked politely as she advanced to hug one of my father’s many cousins who came streaming through the church doors. I did what any 18 year-old boy would - I immediately passed it along to my younger sister, Olivia; she’d know what to do.
We had gathered for my grandfather’s funeral, James Leslie Stanhope, my father’s father whose passing seemed to bring together every prominent socialite in Virginia and Maryland.
Weddings and funerals were perfect vehicles for my mother’s talents. Frances Stanhope, a classic southern woman for whom hospitality in itself is a religion. Frances grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and married a great man. My father courted her on visits to Alabama from Annapolis, Maryland, where he was stationed at the naval academy.
With my mother lurching towards an oncoming mob and my sister absorbed in finding a resting place for a bouquet of carnations, I was left exposed and within mere seconds my quiet was disturbed by a familiar face that I could not name.
“A good start by the Orioles this year, do you think they’ll make the playoffs this year?” The question came from behind me from a middle aged man but it was too obvious that the query was meant for me. I couldn’t avoid making a response.
“The Red Sox are too strong,” I replied.
It was a conversation stopping reply, the kind I am best at, and by the time I delivered it I spotted Olivia returning from placing the flowers on a bench. As usual she had found the perfect spot. I moved towards my sister leaving the fledgling baseball discussion behind, before it could grow.
Olivia could talk for days about our heritage, but I am unlikely to remember the names of my extended family. I take little stock in faces. People in my family assume that I am quiet because I am shy, in deep thought or forlorn but it’s not true. I stay quiet because I have not committed their names to memory. Nor do I remember their professions, where they live, or their favorite hobbies. It is not ill will; it is extreme disinterest. I take no pride in my aloof nature; it is not a source of wisdom or even a spoiled product from my life of privilege. I really just do not have an interest in the people in my life or, for that matter, anyone in particular.
My mother finished embracing and welcoming my father’s relatives and was now returning to Olivia and me.
“Stewart has brought his new girlfriend,” my mother gossiped in Olivia’s direction.
“It’s a funeral, Mom, not Real Housewives,” I felt compelled to respond.
“Sorry for your loss,” a voice could be heard from our left. I recognized it as one of Dad’s Navy buddies; probably an old college teammate of his, who has come to pay respect to my Grandfather. As he swooped towards my mother and my sister, I fell back two steps to avoid the exchange.
“The Red Sox – they don’t have the pitching!” I once again found myself being drawn into a chat by the elder gentlemen behind me. I realize he was only doing his best to kill time. Funerals are such awkward events. My father’s friends and relatives always try to engage me in talk of baseball, assuming that my father’s boyhood passion has now become my own. I wonder how good a player, John Stanhope was; I imagine he was terrific. My father was good at everything, I am good at nothing. The few talents I do have I keep hidden from view so as not to have to share them with a condescending public.
I recall my mother reminiscing about the early days before the two were married. Frances was attending Samford University in Alabama and became a dedicated member of their cheerleading squad. My father played baseball for Annapolis. My mother claims she met the handsome John Stanhope at a mixer the night before Navy was to play the Samford nine in a doubleheader the next day. Frances was a finalist for Miss Alabama as a high school senior so no doubt she would have been noticeable at any party, even by the most straight-laced of naval cadets in town for a ball game. My mother maintained she spent the entire evening trying to get an introduction to this striking young man from Baltimore, but no meeting emerged. Father would later claim that he had indeed noticed Frances immediately and could recreate her appearance and every movement she made that evening. I never knew if he was telling the truth.
John Stanhope exuded charm. He became the center of attention in every room he entered. Ladies would swoon and gentlemen would spring to attention wherever he went. Occasionally as a little boy I had the opportunity to attend formal gatherings with him, fundraisers mostly, where he needed his family in tow to present the proper image. He seemed to make eye contact with everyone in the room. His hand extended, he would give all attendees the correct amount of time and attention. His smile alone was all he needed to reach people.
The day after spotting Frances across the room, John was starting on the mound in game one of the doubleheader and Frances sat behind the stands, smiling at his every move during a seven-inning complete-game shutout. Thinking that he was smiling back and believing that she was the perfect muse for his excellent performance, Frances felt comfortable to say hello during the moments between the matches. The two struck up a conversation that led to phone numbers being exchanged. Later my father confided to me that, despite my mother’s claim, he never saw her during the game, and if he had been smiling in her direction it was meant for his coach who stood behind the plate, charting his pitches.
I presume John Stanhope had no dark moments or disappointments. If he did, I never heard of any. I was only told the good things and I heard them a lot. My father had parlayed his military accomplishments into a burgeoning political career, and my mother took care of the social details. I was one of those details, as was my younger sister, Olivia. Our role was to be perfect children for my perfect father. We played the part well.
My sister wore a pink dress and I, a dark black suit, when we sat in the front row of this same church at my father’s funeral eight years ago. I was a perfectly formed ten-year-old little man. Duty-bound and precise, I would surely attend Annapolis when my time came to add to the family legacy. I was following in the footsteps of the great John Stanhope, admiral and senator, on his way to a future Presidential bid when he was cut down in his prime, a victim of leukemia at age thirty-six. Frances, Olivia and I were now in the “survived by” category. I knew little of my father, but that is not a complaint. I knew he was intelligent, strong, and kind. But a boy cannot know his father in any true sense until he is much older. A man’s choices become his essence, and since a boy has few choices to make, there is no connection. Still today, at the age of eighteen, I have no concept of my father; I only know that I am not him – as I am frequently reminded of that fact. My little sister has grown to be the great hope of my family. She is the leader, the performer, the athlete, and the scholar.
My high school career ended unceremoniously as a slightly above-average student at a significantly above-average private school in Baltimore. Though my picture could be found on page 87 of the school yearbook kneeling with the basketball team in my varsity uniform, I rarely dressed from any of the team’s games throughout my four years on the squad. I am also listed as a member of the school’s debating team though I quietly extracted myself from that obligation early in my senior year. Still, the Stanhope name carries weight; I’m sure these lists and photos are strategic and will no doubt be placed in front of my mother as the institution asks for ongoing support in the future. The only tangible reward I have gained in my four years at high school is my height. I have grown tall and handsome like my father but unfortunately, I am of little use to anyone. People look at me with pity: I am damaged goods.
As the congregation began to seat itself; Frances, Olivia and I were left to take up one of the empty spots in the first few pews that were reserved for honored guests. It was a hot sticky day in Arlington, Virginia. The humidity was taking its toll and my warm woolen suit jacket was making me particularly uncomfortable. Olivia could tell.
Two years my junior, Olivia is ten years more mature. She began this morning at 6 a.m. out for a run in our neighborhood, the suburbs of Baltimore, then joining Frances and me for breakfast before we headed out on the road. Olivia presented me with a detailed itinerary for the day. The list composed of tasks to be accomplished and a comprehensive schedule, a copy of which would soon reside in the inbox of my phone. Olivia and Frances are forces of nature. They begin the day with a plan and proceed to add and subtract details that account for all contingencies. I have never had to make a plan in my life. These two women handle my calendar.
Now minutes before the service is to begin and just before we make the walk to our seats I am about to make an uncharacteristic error in judgment. Due to my extreme disinterest in people, and with a disturbingly uncommitted attitude towards my family, I rarely ask questions. However today, perhaps because of the overwhelming size of the gathering or because of the intense humidity I am feeling a sense of frustration which I have aimed at my overbearing female house mates.
“Is Grandma Stanhope still alive?” I asked innocently.
“Yes,” replied Frances.
“Philip, you cannot be that dense!” my sister announced. “Grandma Stanhope was at our house four weeks ago. We spoke to her on the phone last night! Are you really that clueless?”
I look over at Frances but, as always, she does not admonish me. She simply smiles in my direction just like she used to at church when I was wee. She has never held me to a higher standard.
The correct response to Olivia’s charge would have been silence. She had won this quarrel, I had lost, and I should return to being invisible. But today I feel differently.
“Did I speak to her?” I asked.
“Yes, you spoke to her, Philip. We were on speaker phone in the car,” Olivia loudly replied.
“Really, that was her? I had no idea who it was – I knew it was someone that we were meeting at the funeral.”
Olivia shuddered in rage. “Why don’t you pay attention for once in your life?” shouted Olivia.
“Quiet you two, it’s time to be seated,” my mother demanded.
“Today we gather to say goodbye to James Leslie Stanhope…..”
The Priest rehashed my family’s long military tradition and I learned that my Grandfather would be laid to rest in Arlington cemetery this afternoon not far from his son. Olivia, Frances and I were mentioned in the “survived by” category again.
The service ended but the gathering continued. There were rumors of triangular tuna and cucumber sandwiches and homemade oatmeal cookies in the great hall next door. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and was looking for a quick escape, trying to avoid more questions about the Orioles bullpen from awkward but well-meaning Uncles.
Somewhere between the egg salad and the crab cakes (a Maryland tradition) I foolishly decided to pick up my failed conversation with Frances and Olivia.
“Are we staying overnight in Virginia?” I asked.
“Yes, we will be staying over at your Uncle Peter and Aunt Shirley’s house tonight and we’ll be there for a couple of days. Grandma Stanhope will be staying with us,” said Frances.
“I told you all of this last night,” Olivia said with a blast. “I informed you of our plans, told you where we were going and who we would be staying with. You even asked how long we would be going for, and today you don’t even know if your grandmother is alive! For god’s sake, wake up!”
“Do I have to go?” I continued to probe.
Olivia got up from the table and stormed back to the buffet line.
“What’s wrong, Philip?” asked my mother.
“I’m not sure, I just don’t feel ready to deal with another family gathering tomorrow.”
“I understand,” said Frances. “Yes, you have to come with us, but once we are back at Aunt Shirley’s house you needn’t hang around. Why don’t you find something else to occupy yourself in the city for a couple of days while Olivia and I visit with the relatives?”
“Thanks, Mom. I’ll do that.”
As Olivia returned to the table, I excused myself and walked back to the sandwiches.
“Phillip, you dog! How the hell have you been?”
I turned to see Uncle Mike, one of the few attendees from my Mother’s side at this vast Stanhope reunion. His booming voice and the red neck beneath his color make him slightly out of place in this decidedly East Coast affair. Maryland is the territory from which all of us Stanhope’s hail. The state acts as the symbolic beachhead of “the South”. I think of it as the confederate shore. Enough Yankee waters have washed over us to provide an illusion of northern sensibility, but the waters runs shallow and the tide ebbs all too frequently. But Virginia, where we gather tonight, that’s the south, and the truth is that when this gathering disperses into the twilight of the evening, Mike will be much more at home here than any of my father’s clan.
“Hi Uncle Mike.”
“Your mother tells me that you are heading to the Naval Academy in the fall, bet you’ll look fantastic in those prissy dress whites.”
Mike is teasing. I’m sure my mother has told him that I have been accepted at Loyola University in Baltimore and will be pursuing a liberal arts degree beginning in September. The truth is that I barely made the grade requirement to attend. There were no great scholarship offers. My family can make the tuition payments easily and my father was a supporter of Loyola and the Jesuit tradition in education. In typical fashion, I don’t even know what that is. Whereas my friends made elaborate applications to glamorous schools, I do not even remember applying to Loyola. One day, quite magically, an acceptance came in the mail. I declined a celebration.
I left Uncle Mike and the rest of my family at the reception and headed back to Aunt Shirley’s with my mother and my sister. Not much was said on the way home.
The next three days were painful. I spent only the required number of minutes at my uncle’s homestead and instead busied myself with long walks around Washington, D.C. I spent a full day at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, including an hour at the Spirit of St. Louis exhibit trying to imagine how Lindbergh flew such a poorly designed bag of bolts across the Atlantic.
I had read about Lindberg’s transatlantic crossing and the hysteria that consumed the country as a result. Upon his return to the United States he was a cult hero and was required to fly to every airfield in the country where thousands of fans literally lined the runways waiting for him to land. I wonder if they realized as I did that there was no possible way that Charles Lindbergh could see in front of him as he landed. The fact that hundreds of on-lookers were not killed or maimed is perhaps a greater tribute to his skills as an aviator than the world records he set. I envied Lindbergh’s sense of adventure; surely all of the frontiers in the world had now been discovered.
My only passion was music. I enjoyed folk songs. My prized possession was a used red and brown acoustic guitar that I played in my room only when I was confident no one could hear me. This afternoon, my last before returning home to Baltimore, I spent in the artsy district of D.C., listening to street performers and folk singers in the park.
Finally my sojourn was complete and I made the journey back to Virginia via the local transit system. I disembarked the tram at the corner of Arlington Boulevard and Fenwick Road where I paused for a moment, noticing the Thomas Jefferson library, my mind filing the location for another day. On my way back to Shirley’s house I contemplated the strange nature of love and family. You are cast into the world and you meet your parents, your extended family, and eventually a sibling or two and you are supposed to love them. However, one day you realize you don’t. You feel terrible about your lack of emotional connection; it isn’t supposed to be this way! You are angry at yourself and feel sad. Then it dons on you that your family likely feels the same way about you. For a brief moment you are vindicated by the realization but the moment soon passes and you are left with a profound sense of loneliness. You watch as your family loves each other and you become the only outsider at the party. People work hard to include you or encourage your participation but, alas, though it is never admitted, they would rather you were somewhere else. It becomes your daily mission to escape.
As I reached Peter and Shirley’s home there was not a person in sight. I left the house in the morning at 6:30 am, just before the entire gang was to rise for breakfast. Soon there would be a dozen family members sitting around the table, sharing stories and passing the pancakes. It would be too much for me to endure.
The emptiness of the house was strange. There were no cars in the driveway. Could I have mistaken the time, was I late? I flipped open my phone to reveal that it was 8 pm, half an hour before I was meant to be back -- plenty of time to pack my belongings, say farewell, and retire to the car for the trip back to Baltimore. I was on time!
I checked the front and side doors and discovered they were both locked. I could see no interior lights on in the house and the kitchen was barren, devoid of the trappings generally associated with a busy household full of adults staying together for an extended period. The dishwasher was humming, so I concluded that one and all must have vacated the house only a short time prior to my arrival. I sent a quick text to Frances. “Where is everyone?” I typed.
Peter and Shirley’s home stood on a two-acre lot in a village full of multi-acre properties. There were no obvious neighbors that could be easily accessed to make an inquiry. The only avenue of entry I had not attempted was the backyard, but the passageway to the back door was not a direct route for a visitor. Much of the yard was hidden from view by impenetrable eight-foot-high cedars that had grown together with the six-foot fence behind to create a barrier to uninvited guests. I did remember that there was a stack of chopped wood on the far back corner of the property which was used to feed the wood-burning stove in the parlor. Although not an obvious passageway, I felt it could be scaled and I was intrigued enough by the deserted property that I wanted to investigate further. I checked my phone for a text message from Frances, but none appeared and in fact my message had not gone through. I quickly typed a second message, this time to Olivia. “Where r u?” I asked.
I checked my email inbox but I had not received any messages since 10 pm last night. I knew if there had been any change in plans Olivia would have sent me a revised schedule. I put my phone away. I had reached the far corner of the property and had found the crack in the security. If I could climb a simple six-foot-high wooden rail fence, lodged between the cedar trees, and traverse another two feet of stacked wood without toppling the entire construct, I would be in the backyard. The plan was sound and the physicality required to navigate the stack was well within the scope of my abilities.I balanced myself on top of the lumber and jumped down towards the ground. A few logs tumbled as I leapt but as my feet hit the ground and I entered the backyard, the world and my faculties remained intact. Before I moved toward the house I checked my phone again and noticed that my text to Olivia had not gone through and that no further messages had been received. I realized my phone had no service. This was all very odd!
It was a quick walk back from the rear of the property to the eerily deserted house. There was still enough daylight present to make the trip safely, but the circumstances began to fill me with uncertainty. The changing schedule and my inability to communicate with Frances and Olivia were extremely suspicious. The logical answer was that all parties had left the house and that the girls had stepped out to run an errand before we headed back to Baltimore.However, it was now approaching our departure time, and the lack of any announcement to this change of plans was strange. I stepped up to the deck at the back of the house and reached the screen door. The lights were off in the back room which consisted of a small dining area that led out to the back deck. I tested the screen door and it moved easily.Why had it been left unlocked? I rolled back the screen and slowly entered the house. Only a small amount of light dripped through the windows, a consequence of the gathering twilight, and as I moved slowly through the house, I called out for any forms of life. “Peter, Shirley, Frances, Olivia,” I called. No one replied.
Then I saw one light left on in the den on the main floor, tucked across from the deserted kitchen. I was now moving gingerly through the house. I approached the office and saw that the desk light remained on and that it was in fact the only light I could detect in the house. The wooden pockets doors were half open. Now creeping through the house with my head on a swivel, I moved towards the office. I barely touched the doors, deciding to silently shimmy through the entrance to the office without making a sound. The room appeared empty but featured an unusual sight in front of the desk, where I would have expected the desk chair to reside. I moved cautiously towards the desk and noticed a knapsack and what looked like my guitar case leaning against the desk. I approached the items with caution and studied the guitar case with particular confusion. I had not brought my guitar with me and therefore could not conceive of what it could possibly be doing in the office of Aunt Shirley’s abandoned home. My guitar case was a travel bag ready to be slung over a shoulder; however, it had never left my room since receiving it as a Christmas gift two years ago. Leaning against the guitar bag was a new Under Armor knapsack that did not belong to me. I realized it was quite possible that the guitar bag was simply the same model as my own and therefore its likeness was merely a coincidence. The only way to tell was to unzip the stem and see if it was in fact my red and brown acoustic guitar inside. I crept towards the desk, did not disturb the knapsack, and reached for the zipper which would reveal the contents of the case.
As my fingers touched the zipper I remembered that I had not checked behind me in several seconds.
Suddenly the word “Philip” came from behind me and broke the silence.
I jumped in the air, consumed by fear. I was not alone in the room.
I turned quickly, and in the corner of the office the missing desk chair was revealed. It contained the tiny body of Grandma Stanhope who rose slowly from her seated position.
I was in complete shock and could not form a sound.
“Come with me to the kitchen, dear,” Grandma Stanhope ordered.
My body slowly became unfrozen as I followed this frail old woman from the office.
“And bring your belongings, sweetie,” she requested.
I did as I was told.