Masks of Morality

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Chapter 6

On Sunday morning, Anna Beauvais rose, dressed, and went quietly out of her Sausalito loft to seek the spot where her thoughts were night and day. Her daughters’ graves. She walked through the rose and bougainvillea gardens and into the field beyond. There, a footpath led to the churchyard.

A light rain sheathed the gardens in a frothy mist. Walkway lights burned in blurred images like the sun through thick clouds.

The air was mild as she entered the churchyard, and when she reached the two graves side by side, she caught the scent of two huge bouquets of flowers. She knew who had left at least one of those bouquets. There were only two people who visited often enough for such fresh petals. Her family, what was left of it, lived in France.

Her ex-husband Pierre. At least he visits his daughters, she thought sorrowfully. Pierre had written her off not long after that day. That dreadful day, when it had all started.

Letting images flow through her mind, Anna pictured the days when they were all so happy. She and Pierre married for over thirty years and still deeply in love. Two well adjusted, happy girls doing well in school, lots of wonderful friends. Cassidy, in particular, highly talented in art, had won numerous talent awards and had her work exhibited at several Sausalito Art Festivals.

Until that day, when her perfect world had fallen apart. Pierre never getting past the anger, the blame, pointing fingers. Was she that terrible a mother?

She had always spent time with her daughters, curtailed her dream of owning her own business, working out of the house only very part time until the end…the end.

Had Pierre done anything like sacrificing career time to help with day-to-day parenting? No, it had always been her. She had taken them to school, picked them up, and engaged them in all their activities, taken them to pediatrician appointments. So why did she feel all the guilt? And why did he blame her?

Anna bowed her head over the graves, as if she could see through the thick covering of earth to her daughters. Tears fell freely upon the granite stones. Nearly five years had passed since that day, when her world had spiraled out of control…and she was still racked with sobs at their gravesite.

She knew the anguish would never end. She knew she would continue to bury her sorrow by putting all of her life into her business. At least there was one thing left that belonged to her. Well two—her adorable grandson.

Anna loved her work. As much as any human being can possibly love what they do for a living. But she would trade it all in forever to have her daughters back. Her babies. Her life.

A deep voice broke her traumatic trance. “You should be crying.”

Pierre stood there, in a long dark cloak, looking every bit as handsome as he had been when they were together. But he was still angry, after all these years.

“I wasn’t expecting you to be here,” was all Anna could think of to reply.

“I come to visit my daughters every day, sometimes twice a day,” Pierre roared into the cold misty space between them. The wind howled, deepening the distance with anger. “I don’t see you here much.”

Twice a day? For someone who had spent more time working or on the golf course than with his daughters? And if so, why did she not bump into him more often, since she visits at least three times a week?

Rather than challenge him on technicalities she asked “Do you really still blame me for all that has happened? How much could you have loved me if you think that way? I loved our girls more than life itself! This is killing me!”

Pierre stood there, glaring at her. His jade green eyes, beautiful eyes, sparing into her. How could this man be so beautiful on the outside but have such ice in his soul?

She knew how much she still loved him. She knew she always would. She gave him a sidelong, assessing glance. Over the past few years, his once thick, sandy blond hair had thinned and turned gray. His face was lined. His shoulders sagged. He had aged considerably. Obviously, this was killing him as well. But he was still devastatingly handsome.

And she knew, beneath the veneer of anger, the sensitive, loving man buried deep in his own sorrow.

“Oh Pierre, you are hurting too. Why can’t you see that we desperately need each other?” Anna was shaking over her girl’s gravestones.

He turned on his heel and strode away, not looking back. If silence speaks a thousand words, then Pierre had just told her one thousand times that yes, he still blames her for all their misery. She may as well have thrust a stake through their girls’ hearts herself.

She was, after all, the mother. Mothers should feel guilty for whatever happens to their kids. It’s a mother’s prerogative to hold all the guilt. Part of their job description, at least here in America. But it was not like that in France.

The rush of responsibility, the tremendous ache in her heavy heart never went away. They had quarreled over their daughter’s graves. How could they argue at such a sacred moment as this?

She turned toward the graves again and prayed. “I am so sorry girls…so very sorry.” Then she too turned and walked away.

Both originally from Giverny, France, Anna and Pierre had graduated together in 1978 from the Ècole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Anna had studied painting and Pierre, sculpture. Both won awards with solo shows while students. They knew each other in Giverny, but something happened when they met again at student orientation in Paris. They fell instantly in love, became art-school sweethearts and married before they even graduated.

They moved to America in 1989, when Anna was nine months pregnant with their first-born, Cassidy. Pierre had accepted a position teaching sculpture at The Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Neither of them had initially wanted to move to the States, but it was where Pierre was offered a job in the world of art, so they did.

The happy couple bought a cozy condo-loft with a bright studio attached in the quaint little affluent town of Sausalito and began to build a life together.

Their street—in a very narrow, winding, hilly area with no sidewalks—was always a point of contention for Anna. She wasn’t able to stroll her kids or let them walk to friends’ houses, and she didn’t like that limitation. But she loved the artsy Bohemian community, the culture. It all reminded her a bit of the French Riviera.

Anna gave birth to Cassidy in September of 1989, exactly two weeks after moving into their new home. When Cassidy was three months old, Anna started teaching young children art classes out of her home studio. It wasn’t a big money maker, but it gave her an outlet and the ability to stay in touch with her passion for painting.

Her students ranged in age from five to ten. They used markers, paints, pastels, papier machè, and Anna’s favorite, collage. Cassidy had inherited the art gene, and by age two was clamoring to join in the classes.

Their second daughter, Bianca, came along in early 1994. Even with two children, Anna had continued working part time out of her loft. She taught art and design classes to children about ten hours a week.

To help her, Pierre had hired a part-time nanny to come to the house to care for Cassidy while Anna worked out of her studio, and this nanny continued on with them until Bianca was about four. A good eleven years with “Nanny Nancy” as she had become.

But the cumulative costs of a good nanny combined with the girls getting to an age where they could be present in the art class eventually prompted Anna and Pierre to give tearful goodbyes to Nanny Nancy.

They had toyed with the idea of having a French au pair live in to care for the kids while young. An au pair would be more affordable than a nanny, and would teach them to speak French. But their little cozy home did not have ample space for that.

Anna had planned to continue working the way she was until her girls each left for college. But Bianca’s death changed her plans.

After the losses of her daughters and the subsequent break up of her marriage, Anna was too devastated and numb to do anything. Time was a blur to her. She did nothing but grieve. She fell into a deep depression. She could have handled losing her home, her business, all her assets, her spouse, and stayed strong. But losing a child is the most difficult loss anyone could ever experience. And Anna had lost two.

She managed to lift herself and go on. With all her nervous energy and the newfound time on her hands, she opened a gallery, “Exotic Exposure.” There she created and sold her paintings. She also carried a small assortment of handmade art from around the world, particularly Indonesian, Indian, and Thai crafts.

Anna traveled to some of these exotic places at least twice a year to keep her inventory of arts and crafts fresh and new. She especially loved going to Thailand. It gave her a calm, peaceful feeling she never experienced in the States. Buddhism made sense to her. She figured if she couldn’t see global peace happening in this crazy world, she may as well find as much inner peace as possible.

She still lived in the quaint little loft in Sausalito she and Pierre had bought together. After their divorce, Pierre had moved to the city to be closer to work, first renting a studio apartment and eventually buying a small Victorian home near Pacific Heights. She had no idea of his personal life, whether he was dating anyone, what he did. They no longer spoke.

Walking out of the churchyard after her encounter with Pierre, Anna thought about how one day things can be going along as usual, and the next day all one knows is changed…forever. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and made a conscious decision to put it all behind her as best she could. To draw on her inner strength as she had done for five years, and to keep moving forward.

She had come this far, hadn’t she? Her business had grown to the point she could no longer run it out of her home studio, and she had moved it to a rental space in a very trendy location in Sausalito. Not just a key location, the best, drawing international artists from across the globe.

And the emotional tones that had been coloring her daily life over the past few years had gone from black, to a somber dark gray, to what might look like a light pink. Not rosy…but pink nonetheless. Things were looking up.

She had her grandson Jared, sweet, beautiful Jared. He was all she had left, a bittersweet reminder of happier times and of tragic losses. Anna had not been able to look at photos of her girls for a long time.

When she returned to the loft, she brewed a pot of chamomile tea, cut some sourdough bread and spread the slices with sweet cream butter and raspberry jam. “It’s time,” whispering to herself. “You can do this. It’s time.”

She put her snack on one of her carved Indonesian trays and carried it into the living room. She set the tray next to the cedar chest that doubled as a coffee table in front of her yellow leather couch. Then she dropped to her knees and, hands shaking, carefully cleared off the art magazines and lifted off the top.

She wasn’t hungry anymore. The smell of the bread and jam made her feel sick. Her hands trembled. Her vision blurred. She felt the sensation of an ice pick in her solar plexus. There was the shoebox. There was the scrapbook. All she had to do was reach and lift them out, one by one, and set them on the floor in front of her. All she had to do was nestle into the soft plush carpet and lift the lid off the shoebox.

She sat there for a long time. The tea got cold. When she realized that her knees were cramping and her feet were asleep, she returned to the moment. The noonday sun was burning through the slats of her open vertical blinds, sending rays across the room. How could that be? She had only been at the gravesite for an hour or so. It must have been 8 o’clock when she’d arrived home. She had planned to open the gallery after breakfast and…

She finally reached in and drew them out, first the shoebox, then the scrapbook carefully, as if handling precious china. She placed them on the carpet. She took a deep breath. She lifted the lid off the shoebox. And there, miraculously, were her girls. Masses of pictures of her girls.

Tears flooding her face, smiling and crying at the same time, Anna dumped the photos onto the carpet and began spreading them about so she could see them. Her girls. All pale blond with big green eyes, smiling at her from the photos in her hand, on the floor, her tears spilling onto them. Her girls, alive and well, laughing into the camera. Bianca, a real ham, with her “sexy” pose: hip out, hand on hip, opposite arm flung into the air, sassy smirk on her face.

And then she saw it. Sweet Lord! How had she never noticed it before? Perhaps she had been buried in too much pain and grief to see it. But there it was. Jared’s jade green eyes, his mother’s eyes staring back at her from the photo.

“Jared is a complete replica of Cassidy! “Anna murmured. Cassidy, who looked so much like Anna’s dad. Generations of love in those jade green eyes, destroyed in a moment’s time.

She could only look at the photos for a few minutes. Then she had to put them away. The last photo she dropped back into the chest was of her parents. She chased away the pain of knowing they never had the chance to see their granddaughters. It had taken nearly five years to be able to open the chest of cherished moments. She could wait a little longer. One day she would find joy in them. But today hurt too much.

Looking at those photos brought a flood of memories. Anna leaned against the couch. She put her head back and closed her eyes. She knew she would be opening the gallery late today, if at all. She let the memories come...

Cassidy, at age two, in Anna’s studio…reaching up to the palette and covering herself in paint. She remembered being so annoyed. “Those supplies cost an arm and a leg, and we can barely afford this place!” she had yelled.

The stab of guilt washed away in an instant. Cassidy, she had realized, was already demonstrating amazing artistic abilities at age two. Most children that young could barely make a smiley face or stick person. But Cassidy had created a sidewalk mural with chalk, knew names of world famous sculptors and painters, and made amazing things out of clay molds. She had crafted a dog with clay that actually looked like a real dog.

And she was always such a happy baby, a happy toddler, and a happy teenager. Until…her baby sister was killed riding a skateboard…

Bianca, with her lithe, gymnastics body and graceful dancing. At the same time, she could be such the tomboy, at the skate park riding better than any of the boys; she ruled the half pipe. When Bianca came along, the boys would move out of her way as she bombed the hills, and watch her in awe. They begged her for tips on how to do tricks.

Bianca had asked her mom and dad continuously if they could help her open her own skateboarding teaching business when she was old enough.

That skateboard. Anna had fretted over whether or not to get her daughter a skateboard at all, never mind the new pro-grade, electric one she got that Christmas. That Christmas, not even a month before the day she was killed.

Anna had paid a thousand dollars for that gift…the gift that got her daughter killed. Oh my god, I had bought her that!

Please Mom, I got nearly all A’s on my report card…please, it’s all I ask for, nothing else. It goes 18 mph!”

Her eyes shifted to her small entertainment center, where another photo stared back at her. A photo she deemed worthy of framing then. A photo she will forever cherish now. Pierre, holding baby Bianca in his arms, while kissing four year old Cassidy on the cheek.

It’s her favorite hobby, and she is damn good at it,” defended Pierre at the time. “Let her have her fun. She needs an outlet. We can’t go on protecting them forever, they will just want it more if we do. Let them learn to take risks in life!”

Kind of ironic, the one defending the decision to buy the skateboard in the first place, the one to point fingers of blame in the end: "It’s your fault, you were not paying attention to her!"

The next morning, Anna woke bright and early. The emotions of the previous day had slowly subsided and she was determined not to get caught in that quagmire again. Today she would celebrate her life. She would move forward as she had determined to do. She pulled on her exercise clothes and running shoes for a jog in the breathtakingly beautiful hills of Sausalito. On the way out her door, she passed yet another favorite photo. Of her as a toddler on her daddy’s shoulders. Her daddy…

Jogging through the quaint streets of Sausalito, Anna took in the views, sights and smells she loved so much. She passed the San Francisco Bay Model exhibit and kept going through town for a while, then up a short but steep hill on Alexandra Avenue. She slowed to a walk.

Stopping at the top of the hill, she turned her gaze to the magnificent view below. She could see the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. There were scattered sailboats all about, and the city was shining beyond them.

She had been doing this circle back to her loft since moving to Sausalito twenty years ago, and knew it well. Sometimes, if she had the time and extra energy, she would keep going through town and then across the Golden Gate Bridge. Usually she would stop at the Visitors Center, other times go farther up Lincoln Blvd, past the WWII monument. But those fifteen mile runs are now few and far between.

Besides…each time she had done that reminded her of those last bitter, nerve-racking years with her dad. These monuments, she felt, glorify involvement in wars deceivingly deemed “inevitable.” Yet, even with WWII, the proverbial “good war”—Wall Street filled ranks of government procurement offices and armament boards and arranged for their cronies to cash in. And every decade since has been managed by bankers from Wall Street advising Congress and the president on what is “good for the country.” Then we wonder how we come to electing dictators with no morals.

She would rather remember the happy years, riding on Daddy’s shoulders to the beach, how he taught her to ride a bike, his daily “Who do I love more than anything in the world?” How she would giggle, and point to her heart and say “Moi! Papa, Moi!” And he would pull her into a bear hug.

Albert de Gaulle. How a man once so happy-go-lucky, healthy, and devoted to his wife and only child could have become so harsh and detached was mind boggling. Full of revenge and hatred. He had become addicted to heroin in Vietnam and had quit cold turkey with each trip home.

Yet, she knew why. Every time her father came home during that period at war, she overheard terrifying stories her parents never meant for her young ears to hear. Including how he was taken, prisoner. His narrow escape, along with two American soldiers working as allies. But not until after months of brutal treatment, and watching in horror as his friends were tortured and killed one by one.

She remembered…God she remembered…how emaciated daddy looked. She hated how the war had changed him. That was what had killed her mom, she was sure. Cassandra de Gaulle had never been the same after her husband went off to fight. In the end, she died of heartbreak.

As she ran through the streets of Sausalito, moving into runner’s high, listening to the sound of her breathing and her footfalls on the pavement, Anna remembered the last time her parents argued.

She remembered hearing Maman scream: “Alby, tu ne devrais pas y retourner. La plupart des soldats français sont déjà partis... les américains peuvent les remplacer Alby! Ça suffit pour toi, tu es presque mort! Ta fille a besoin de toi! J’ai besoin de toi!”

Alby, you should not go back. Most all the French soldiers have left already…let the Americans take over, Alby! You’ve had enough, you are nearly dead now! Your daughter needs you! I need you!”

She had heard him scream back: “Je me réveille en sueur avec des images de mes amis de guerre entrain de mourir, brûler à vif devant mes yeux Cassie.”

I wake up in cold sweats with images of my friends at war being killed, after seeing them burn to death before my eyes Cassie.”

That was his last tour. In May of 1968, at nearly the same time that fierce demonstrations broke out against President de Gaulle’s government, Anna’s daddy died in a massive explosion in South Vietnam.

Anna will never forget as a preteen, sneaking down the stairs when the two death messengers were whispering to her uncle. The men had quarreled about the war. Anna’s little face pressed between the staircase railings, she had overheard her uncle whisper harshly in a French accent “my baby brother died in a war waged with master illusions of threats of communism put forth by shady CIA. A control of resources feeding the industries of imperial centers. Don’t fucking tell me otherwise!”

With all her losses---her parents, both at such a young age. Her daughters, her marriage, which was like yet another death. Hard times make a stronger person, right? Well then, she should be able to handle whatever life blows her way going forward.

Which brought her back to business. Her art business had been thriving for a while. Even in the current nasty economic climate, people in Sausalito and surrounding Marin locales seemed to be buying art. However, lately even this was slowing. Her target market—which tended toward middle-upper and upper-upper income—was apparently forced into downsizing its lifestyle as well. Some were even moving out of the area.

Anna had been toying with the idea of a closing of her shop and going back to teaching kid’s art classes. She loved her business but wasn’t sure whether it made sense to invest more to make more in a downturned economy. Closing would enable her to spend more time with her grandson.

But could she afford that? Her business, even with the downturn, made more for her than teaching art would. And she already had to watch every dime.

Anna’s inventory was getting low, which meant more trips overseas, more investing in quality works, and overall more work for her. Lately, she had seen a few would-be art purchasers walk into her studio and then walk right out after asking when she would be carrying more oriental arts and crafts.

She made the last turn that signaled she was now heading back to her loft. Running is good for the body and the soul, but it’s also good for business. Something about all that oxygen to the brain. It helps me think things through, she thought.

And profit margins seem to be feeling the squeeze. Is it time to raise prices? Lower prices?

Regardless, to sustain any success, or even keep her business open for that matter, would be dependent on making sure her collection is of exceptional quality. At the same time, priced to market well in a crappy economy. Merde!

And then there was her own work. She wanted to make sculptural art books, in which she would combine painting, collage, photography, and light in multi-layered wall pieces. All this would take time and money for supplies. And speaking of money, the building owner had recently lost a few rentals from business closings. So he had raised her rent.

Anna slowed to a walk for the last couple of blocks. She would stretch out on the floor in the living room. It had been a good run. She’d make notes after her stretch-out and shower. But here was the most important factor of all, in all these considerations: She wanted to spend more and more time with her grandson. Anna was at her happiest when she was with Jared.

She also wanted to help Jared’s dad out as much as possible too. Josh Bowen was one of the nicest boys she had ever met. And he was, really, still a boy. A boy-man, at age nineteen, with a four-year-old son. Her heart ached with Josh’s recent words to her. “I do what I can, and love my son Jared unconditionally. But it’s kinda really hard for me.” Anna sees this, both financially and emotionally.

Anna started up the stairs to her loft, holding onto the redwood handrail, a little out of breath still. After losing so much, she knew one thing. She would never sweat the small stuff again.

She would survive, whether her business did or not. What’s money, but just another brush stroke in this painting called life?

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