Sunday, July 17, 2005

An excerpt from Edie on the Warpath

What to do with Edith Cares for the winter of 1913, when she was eleven years old, was causing the John Cares family of Summerton, Massachusetts, more trouble than she would probably ever be worth. At least this was the opinion of her brother Theodore, who gave it freely when he came home on weekends from college.

"And if you keep on clicking your jaw at people when you chew," he added at Sunday lunch after the roast beef had been served, "even a reform school won't take you."

The reason Edie could not stay at home this winter was because Madam, her stepmother, had begun to have attacks of asthma and would have to go to Florida for her bronichial tubes. Madam's children, The Fair Christine and Lou, who were not very old, only six and four, could go with her because they had Hood, their nurse, to take care of them. Edie's other brother, Hubert, was in the sixth form at his boarding school, so he was all right, and Jane, her older sister, had become a social butterfly who was supposed to lure men into taking her to football games, dances, and balls. "Quite a job at that," as Hubert remarked—especially when she was meant to take care of Father in the time left over. Therefore, there was no one who could pay attention to Edie.

Usually, any Cares who had needed more time and attention and more education at the age of eleven had been sent to their grandfather's in Charlottesville after he had moved to town for the winter and had lived in his third floor room with gas jets and black cupboards, roller-skating every day to a good Charlottesville school. This time Grandfather had drawn the line at Edie. He was too old now for that sort of thing, he had told Father.

"Well, what sort of thing?" Edie asked, clicking her jaw at Theodore because he kept his eyes on her.

She was not particularly anxious herself to go to Grandfather's. She drew the line at him, too. Whenever they played Old Maid together and he won, he looked at her through the bottom of his spectacles as if it meant something, and whenever she won and looked at him, he sat back in his chair and said: "But I can't be, I've been married already." Was that fair?

So she did not mind not going to Grandfather's. What she did mind was being shunted around like an old railroad car that no one wanted to see coming down the track, so she would really like to know what sort of thing kept everyone going on and on about her, the way they did about the Suffragettes or President Wilson.

Even if they had been willing to listen, Edie would not have considered telling them why she particularly wanted to stay at home this winter. In the first place, she herself approved of her own school, Miss Lincoln's. All the Cares children had been to her and knew about her parrot, and how she baked cookies three times a week. For herself, something extra had been added, Edie knew—outside crusts of fresh bread with butter and honey at recess. "For an exceptionally good child." So how did they like that!

In the second place, Susan Stoningham, her best friend, had come to live just up the road, or, if you went across lots, only as far as two fields, a swamp, and a lawn away.

In the third, fourth, fifth, and all the other places, Edie liked the new house they were living in. Father had built it. Nobody had wanted to leave the Red House in the valley where they had all been born and grew up. Even Edie herself had lived there for nine years. But Father had thought that being on the highest hill in Summerton would be good for Madam's breathing, so the Red House had vanished and there was the Lawn House instead. Edie liked it. Everybody liked it. It had big rooms, big halls, big corridors. Madam had done them in green and white and gold, and her own parlor was rose, as Mother's had been in the Red House. Even Theodore thought this was tactful. They all had rooms of their own, and the boys had the whole top floor away from everybody.

"And that's the most tactful," Edie said to Hubert one day as they were walking down the hall to the library. He didn not get mad but only tripped her up and left her on the floor.

From Edie's own room—indeed from any room in the house if you looked out the right window—you could see almost the whole of the west end of Summerton; the meadows that made up the family dairy farms, the chain of Reservoir basins that took water to Charlottesville, the woods that were on top of the small hills, and the scattered valley trees—giant oaks and elms and maples that the cows stood under—and the masses of corn steeped in the sun and baking. That had been this summer. The sun and wind had seemed to be everywhere in this house, so that it smelled of flowers, hay, and now in September, corn. She wanted to be in it when it smelled of snow. If there should be an ice storm, she would be able to see every branch and twig for miles. She even looked forward to mud. There was a foot scraper between two horseshoes fastened to the stone outside the front door. It had never been used yet. She meant to christen it the first time she broke through the swamp ice on her way back from Susan's. Hobbling back from the stables (which Father had put quite a way from the house to keep the house air pure), with a stone in her jodhpur boots, she kept stopping to breathe in the late afternoon air. It had been a marvelous ride. She and Susan had cantered up and down, around and around the soft clay roads of Aunt Charlotte's demesne. On the way home, while the horses were cooling, they had chanted their chant.

"I love Summerton.

"I love the trees.

"I love the grass.

"I love the dirt.

"I love the water.

"I love the stones.

"I love the woodchucks.

"I love the snakes.

"I love the mosquitoes."

In Susan's opinion, you couldn't go further than that because mosquito bites swelled her up.

There would be three horses for them to ride this winter when the others weren't home. There would be Widgy, her small brown dog to take to the Reservoir looking for muskrats. There would be Susan's rabbits—well, they weren't much, but they had little rabbits that got to look like marshmallows. There would be football games at Hubert's school—that was in Summerton because it had been started by Mother's father—and it was, very conveniently, not far from the Lawn House. You could see a hundred boys in a single afternoon. There would be—Heavens, of course she could not leave home. She had forgotten the most important thing of all. Susan, whose father was a minister, was teaching her religion. When Grandfather was in Summerton, Edie went to church with him every Sunday. She had fallen in love with Greg Robinson, the boy who carried the cross at church, and was doing her best to persuade God to make him look at her—just once.

With this sort of private life going on, Edie could not see how anyone could expect her to leave Summerton. They did, though. Aunt Charlotte had asked Father if he wished his daughter to grow up a hottentot, and when he had to say "no," she said she would be back when she had thought things over.

"And heaven knows," Hubert had said, "what dark plot she may be hatching."

The other relations, who belonged to Mother, attacked Madam on the sly. They called her on the telephone about Edie's riding pants and her hair—particularly her hair. Edie did not think her hair was bad; it was thick and yellow and went with her blue eyes, but she had chopped it off last summer with the carving knife, and to keep it out of her eyes, she pushed it back behind her ears. It made her look, they said, like a young tiger cat.

"Not bad at that," said Hubert, when he heard it.

It had been a pleasure to snarl at him, and it was a pleasure to keep arguing with everybody.

"I just want to stay here. Why can't I?"

"If you say that again, I'll—"

"I'll say it till I'm dead. Why can't I? Why can't I?"

"All right," said Theodore. "Look—do you really want to know?"


"All right, I'll tell you," said Theodore, bracing his hands on the table so that he lifted himself a little. "You are nothing but a girl and have to be taken care of. You're the weaker sex, and all you'll ever be able to do is your knitting. Why don't you get that into your silly noodle so we can have some peace?"

--E.C. Spykman

No comments:

Post a Comment

"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.