Behind the Pretty Pictures
When she thinks I’m not looking, Katie chews her hair. It’s past her shoulders, and has a scraggly appearance much of the time. In my day it would have been called chestnut. Katie’s mother calls it mousy.
I still can’t believe my granddaughter is in my house and will be for three weeks. She’s never set foot in my house before, and I think the smallness surprises her. All the rooms are tiny. Though it does have three bedrooms, one of those is my sewing room. There’s no upstairs and the basement is an old root cellar with a dirt floor. My previous visits with Katie have been at her home in Connecticut, on Suzanne’s terms. My daughter’s lived her whole life her way, so it’s foolish for me to expect anything different.
Katie took the plane with me back to Georgia after the wedding. Suzanne kissed us goodbye and left with Husband Number Two for a long honeymoon in Europe. I need to start calling him Derek in my head and not just Husband Number Two or one of these days it’ll slip off my tongue and who knows how Suzanne will react.
The house tour takes only a few minutes and we end up in what was Suzanne’s old bedroom, where Katie will be sleeping. It still has the white eyelet comforter and matching curtains. The furniture is all white and the walls are pale yellow. A high shelf holds collectible dolls while a Homecoming sash and pompoms are pinned to a corkboard. And of course, the pictures. I’ve seen them so many times, I forget they’re everywhere.
It takes Katie about a minute to move from one picture to the next. Frank used to say he loved being a photographer since he had the perfect subject. The images are flawless. A progression of Suzannes parades around the room from precocious toddler to stunning young woman.
After Suzanne finished college, I wanted to turn her room into a sewing area but Frank objected. He wanted to keep her room just like she left it, so she’d always know she was welcome. I let him convince me our guest bedroom could double as a sewing space, though I didn’t see how without changing the room’s dimensions.
He did it. One day he surprised me with a wall bed. It looked like a piece of furniture, but it came down into a bed. Frank was proud. “We’re the first ones on the street to own one,” he said. Well, we were the last ones, too. It never caught on and I was embarrassed whenever we did have guests. I slept on it once, just to try it. It was better than a pull-out sofa. My brother has one of those and that metal bar just kills my back. I’ve left Suzanne’s old room alone out of respect for Frank’s wishes, but I know she’s never coming back.
Over chicken and snap beans I’m ashamed I don’t know what to talk to my granddaughter about. I only see her twice a year and we’ve exhausted talk about the ceremony and reception on our way here. My questions about school elicit only yes or no answers. She’s not sullen, just quiet. She’s a good girl and smart, too. I can tell by her eyes, the way she notices everything. As I clear the table, I see Katie bring her plate to the sink, unasked, and I know I’m right about her.
I don’t have a dishwasher, so I wash and Katie dries. The radio’s on and we both sing, but to different songs. I know only the older tunes. Not many radio stations out here, and this one plays a grand mix spanning our generations.
After dinner, I set her on the couch and bring out the scrapbooks. She seems real interested. I know I was interested in what my mom was like as a girl. I’d bug my grandma for stories. And the stories I wanted to hear were ones in which my mom was naughty, because she was always so good, it was hard to imagine her being bad.
“Here’s your mom at one of her birthday parties. She’s your age.”
“But there are nine candles.”
“One to grow on, honey.”
Suzanne is beautiful in the picture. Her blonde hair is done up in little curls and the glow from the candles illuminates her face. I wonder if a girl can be too pretty.
I remember what happened next. After cake and ice cream, Suzanne threw a fit because the ring her daddy gave her that morning was gone from her finger. She wailed and carried on and soon all the guests were on their hands and knees looking for her ring. We pulled up rugs, moved furniture — it was a very trying ordeal. Almost an hour later, I glanced out the window and saw Suzanne in the neighbor’s yard, swinging on their shiny, red metal swing set. I marched out there to talk to her. Turns out, she’d found her ring a long time ago and gone out to play. She didn’t think about saying a word to anyone. When I brought her back and announced she found her ring, they cheered and hugged her. I couldn’t tell all those folks they’d been wasting their time. I want to tell Katie this, but something holds me back. These scrapbooks are full of such stories behind the pretty pictures.
I close the book, then step out onto my back porch to grab a few mint leaves for our iced tea and Katie follows.
“You have a garden.”
“Yes, I do.”
There are potted herbs lining the steps from the porch to the back yard brimming with tidy rows of vegetables.
I didn’t garden until after Frank died several years ago. My friend Mattie dragged me along to her garden club meetings. I didn’t pretend to have an interest in gardening and the other ladies didn’t mind. It was a small town, still is. They knew my circumstances and approved of my quiet presence.
I started small, with tomatoes in pots. Then a row of zucchini. It grew and grew as I added peppers, squash, and okra. Now I have manicured-looking rows of veggies and a front yard full of flowers. One of my favorites is the Black-Eyed Susan. It’s a hardy little plant and it reminds me of Katie, something that can thrive wherever dropped. It’s not showy like a rose, or delicate like an orchid. Now that’s a bloom that requires special attention, kind of like my Suzanne.
I don’t like thinking ill of my only child. For the most part, she’s nice enough to be around, but she can be cruel in a thoughtless kind of way that always gets forgiven because it’s unintentional. I think her beauty blinds people, as it did Frank. He was like me — pleasant features that added up to plain. We didn’t understand where Suzanne got her looks. “Heaven,” was Frank’s answer, which explains why he thought she could do no wrong. One time I grounded her for breaking my hand mirror and hiding the pieces, only to later find her room empty. Frank had overruled me and not only released her but given her pocket money, too.
Katie spots the blueberry bushes running alongside the fence.
“Do you want to pick some?” I ask.
She nods and I go inside for a bowl.
In profile, I recognize Suzanne’s little nose, but thankfully that’s all. We pick berries side by side and Katie starts to talk.
Katie joins my daily gardening routine with berry-picking after dinner. I learn she takes gymnastics but doesn’t like it, that her best friend is named Meg, and her favorite book is No Flying in the House.
I buy her child-sized gardening gloves and bring her to my garden club meetings where she is adored by all. “Even though she talks like a Yankee,” Mattie teases. I am used to her presence. The only jarring moment is Suzanne’s weekly phone call. I try to talk but she cuts me off to declare her fascination of castles in the Loire valley. I pass the phone off to Katie, but as soon as she tries to talk about the garden, she stops abruptly. If she wants her mom’s attention, she’s learned already that means giving in.
The second weekly phone call goes along the same path as the first, when Suzanne tells me after next week in Paris, she and Derek have been invited to spend a month in an Italian villa. I wait patiently with the phone pressed to my ear.
“What was your answer?” I don’t know why I bother asking the question when I can hear the excitement in her voice.
“Yes, of course. What a fabulous opportunity. You don’t mind, do you?”
“What about Katie?”
“We’ll be back two days before school starts. Put her on so I can tell her.”
I pass the phone into Katie’s eager hands. I watch her wide mouth change from smile to straight line to scrunched up button.
Her voice is a shaky whisper when she says, “Yes, Mom,” then hands the phone back to me. Katie walks away, her shoulders hunched up. I recognize that pose. It’s of a sob getting ready to shake itself out of a body. As soon as that thought crosses my mind, I hear a low guttural moan, then the firm closing of a door.
“Suzanne, your daughter’s crying.” But I’m speaking to a dial tone.
I lace my fingers together and squeeze them tight until they hurt. I remember my own mother doing that while muttering under her breath, “Lord, give me strength,” whenever my brother did something crazy. Like the time he climbed up a tree so high, he was swaying in the canopy’s thin branches, too scared to come down. The fire department had to rescue him while all the neighbors stood around and stared. Once my mother resigned herself to the situation, she put on a smile and brought out trays of lemonade for everyone. It turned into a block party.
I knock on Suzanne’s door. I can hear fast panting sobs. Then a loud crash and the tinkle of broken glass. I open the door and see Katie standing across the room wearing only one shoe, her face blotchy, eyes and nose running. One of the framed pictures of Suzanne is on the floor, glass broken. Katie’s red sneaker lies nearby.
“I hate her,” Katie says. “I hate her.” Her shoulders are trembling.
I walk over and put my arms around her. Katie leans all of her weight against my body and I’m not strong enough to hold her up for long. I shuffle us a few feet away to the bed where we sit side by side, Katie’s face buried in my chest until the last sob is wrested free and gone.
I stroke her forehead the way my mom did me, the way I tried to with Suzanne, but whenever she was upset she’d run to Frank.
“Since you’re going to be here awhile, let’s make this room really yours.”
Katie lifts her head, but says nothing.
“We can go to town tomorrow, get a new bedspread and curtains, some posters, even repaint the walls.”
Katie sits up a little straighter and I hand her a tissue from my pocket.
I give her shoulders a gentle squeeze then walk across the room for the white wicker wastebasket into which I drop the pieces of broken glass. One by one, I start removing the framed pictures from the walls. Katie joins in and soon we have two piles. This room will be hers to come back to whenever she needs it.
“Do you want to help me pack up all this stuff?” I picture a neat stack of boxes in my root cellar.
Katie nods and I’m glad we have a new project to tackle.
“I’ll get some boxes from the cellar,” I say.
When I return, I see that Katie has brought in the kitchen radio and is sweeping knickknacks on the dresser off to one side to make room for it. I pull the corkboard off the wall and for the rest of the afternoon we both sing along with the radio, to different songs.
My daughter broke my heart when she lived here, and this little one will break it when she leaves. Now I know better than to pull out the scrapbooks anytime soon, but when I do, it will be good stories that I’ll tell, the kinds of stories Katie needs to hear about her mother.