Grandma was pouring the tea at the breakfast table when a shrill noise jarred us. It took us all a while to realize what it was – my grandparents had installed a telephone only a few weeks ago and none of us had yet quite got used to its loud ringing.
Grandma set the teapot down on its coaster very carefully and hurried into the hall.
"Who might be calling us early on New Year's Day?" Grandpa wondered. "Hope it's not that nutter again." There had been some prank calls recently, heightening Grandpa's misgivings about that new contraption on the hall table.
"Maybe it's the girls calling to wish us a happy new year", I suggested. Jess and Janie loved hearing my voice on the phone. I could imagine them eagerly begging Mom to let them phone me.
A pained, almost inhuman cry from the hall made my heart race and my hands go cold. Grandpa blanched and got up so hastily that he knocked over his chair. I picked it up and stumbled after him.
Grandma had collapsed against the wall by the telephone and was crying, loudly, desperately. She had dropped the receiver on the table, leaving it to emit an unnerving beep. I put it back into its cradle to stop the noise while Grandpa tried to get her to talk.
She kept shouting unintelligibly until he seized her by the shoulders and shook her, only once, but hard. "What is it, woman? Tell us, for God's sake!"
"Alice", she wailed. I braced myself for the full news, waiting until the next fit of unbridled weeping subsided and she was able to speak again.
"There was an accident", she finally managed to cry out in a loud, throaty voice. "With the car. Dan is badly injured and Alice … Alice is …" She broke off and flung herself into Grandpa's arms, slumping against his chest, sobbing harder than ever.
She didn't have to say the word aloud for us to understand.
Grandpa held her in his arms, stony-faced, helplessly patting her back.
Even more helplessly, I stood by, unable to do anything.
I had a thousand questions, yet no answer in the world would make any difference now.
"What … what about Jess and Janie?" I asked shakily.
"They weren't there", Grandma said. "They were at home."
I leaned against the frame of the kitchen door and closed my eyes, feeling the world sway beneath my feet for a moment. Relief and shock were drowning each other out, rendering me totally numb.
I felt nothing. Nothing at all. I thought that I ought to feel something, but I didn't.
Just a few days after I had returned home, we took the long train trip in the opposite direction, my grandparents and I, silent, shocked.
I was still in that terrifying state of emotional emptiness. No tears. No feelings I could have put my finger on. That scared the wits out of me. Weren't you supposed to break down when your mother died? To be overwhelmed by grief and sorrow and regret?
All that I could think of was how stupid I had been to not even consider she could die way too soon. Strange for someone who lost his father so early in life. I should have known how quickly and easily life's little flame can be extinguished.
And sometimes, for a few dreadful, agonizing moments, there was something entirely different, shockingly inappropriate: the thought that now nobody would expect me to fulfil her high-flung dreams, to live up to her high hopes.
I hated myself for thinking that, but I couldn't make it go away, just as I couldn't drag up the grief that must exist somewhere, locked up deep within me, from its hiding place and finally feel the loss.
What hurt me almost physically was to see my grandparents, both of them looking ten years older over night. I didn't know what was worse, the quiet tears Grandma had resorted to or Grandpa's drawn face and pained silence, his grief mingling with regret for the lost chance at making up with his only daughter.
"If only we'd have agreed to come down more often", he said again and again. "If only we'd have agreed to join them for Christmas."
When we finally arrived after what seemed to have been weeks on the train, Dan's father collected us at the station. It was the first time since the wedding that he and my grandparents met. The men greeted each other with a handshake, nodding at each other silently. Grandpa Cleaver held Grandma's hands in his for a moment and quietly said, "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Walsh. She was wonderful."
This set Grandma's tears flowing again. Grandpa hugged her a little clumsily while Grandpa Cleaver embraced me and said, "Mick, my boy. I'm so sorry. I know there's nothing I can possibly say to comfort you. I just want you to know that if you need any help at any time, all you have to do is ask."
I was surprised by this generous offer but determined not to take him up on it. "Thank you", I said anyway, going on to load the suitcase I'd been carrying into the trunk of Grandpa Cleaver's car.
The dinner served upon our arrival was a dreary affair. The general mood of grief and sorrow was not helped by Dorothy's inevitable presence. She had been quick to take matters into her own hands at her brother-in-law's house and had installed herself in the spare bedroom for an indefinite period of time. This unwanted intruder distressed the girls in their shaken-up state even more.
Both of them were confused and tearful. I would have loved to spend some time alone with them, but as soon as we had entered the house, Dorothy had commanded us to the dinner table.
Janie broke into tears when the soup was served.
"Eat your soup before it goes cold, Jane, and stop that sniffling", Dorothy scolded.
Janie looked at her, big-eyed and stunned. Grandma reached over to wipe Janie's tears away with her napkin and gave Dorothy a dirty look across the table. "Try to eat a bit, darling", she told Janie softly.
The little one obediently reached for her spoon and dipped it into the soup, but she choked as she tried to swallow.
"Now, Jane! So many poor children out there would be glad if they had a nice hot soup like that!" Dorothy chided her again.
"Give it to them, then!" Janie murmured defiantly, put down her spoon and folded her arms over her chest.
"What was that, young lady?" Dorothy's head reared up like a cobra ready to strike.
"Nothing, Mrs. Cleaver. Nothing you needed to hear", said my grandfather calmly. "Leave that soup if you can't eat it now, Janie. It's alright."
Dorothy's eyes seemed about to pop out of her face, but she restrained herself. The rest of the dinner went by in tense silence except for Grandpa Cleaver's rather one-sided attempts at polite conversation with my grandparents.
The funeral was held the next day. It was another of those clear winter days with a flawless blue sky, sunny, but very cold.
At church, I felt very uneasy sitting in the front row, sensing the congregation's pitiful stares at the back of my head. The small church was filled to the last seat. As the minister said in his eulogy, Mom had been a well-known and popular woman in the parish, so everyone had come to pay their last respects to her. I hated having all those strangers around, witnessing what should have been a private, intimate ceremony in my opinion.
Involuntarily, I imagined the whispering and murmuring that must be going on in the back pews. Those poor children, motherless. And who knows what will become of their father. They say he's doing rather badly. He may never be able to work again. Just look at that son of hers. Yes, that's him with that long black hair. Couldn't even get a haircut for his poor mother's funeral. But what do you expect. And so on and so on.
Janie began to fidget next to me. Dorothy noticed her misdemeanour immediately and told her to sit still.
"I can't", she whispered. "I need to …"
Before she could finish, Dorothy had rapped her sharply about the head with her bony knuckles for talking in church.
Janie gave a little startled squeak. She had a peculiar look on her face, embarrassed and surprised at the same time.
"You …", I fumed at Dorothy, only pulling myself together because I didn't want to cause a scandal in church. I reached for Janie and sat her on my knee, gently stroking the maltreated little head she leaned against my chest while the service rushed by me.
After a few minutes, I realized that my knee felt clammy, somehow.
Oh, crap. Suddenly I knew what Janie had needed earlier. And what she didn't need any more now.
I leaned over Jess, who was sitting to my other side, and tugged on Grandma's sleeve. "Grandma … Janie just had a little … accident and needs a fresh dress", I whispered. "Would you …?"
She understood at once, nodded sympathetically, got up and took Janie home to get her changed. They were back in time for the burial, but Dorothy shot them poisoned glances nevertheless.
Jess clutched my hand all the time we stood by the open grave in the icy air. She was so very brave, my little girl, remaining calm and composed even as she shed her tears quietly. The large crowd that had gathered all over the small graveyard didn't seem to unnerve her half as much as me. A couple of times, she squeezed my hand as if to reassure herself I was still there.
Janie was on Grandpa Cleaver's arm now, looking at me over his shoulder questioningly. I wondered how much she really understood of what was happening around her. Did she realize Mom was gone for good? It felt unreal, even to me.
After the ceremony, an endless stream of people filed by to offer their condolences. Empty phrases, mostly. Well-meant, no doubt, but not fit to give the slightest bit of comfort. At least not for me.
Jess began to shiver violently in the cold, and Janie was weeping again, overwhelmed by everything. The line of mourners waiting to shake our hands was still long, and I made a spontaneous decision.
I hoisted Janie up on my arm, grabbed Jess's hand again and took them away from all the hollow words and people who pretended to commiserate but couldn't possibly feel our pain. Dorothy would give me hell for yet another breach of convention, but I didn't care.
I set Janie down outside the graveyard wall and told the girls to help me build another snowman. I knew this was highly inappropriate right after our mother's funeral, but I couldn't stand the sight of them enduring meaningless condolences with chattering teeth and tear-stained cheeks. It was far too much they had to cope with anyway, so let them have a little bit of fun.
Some of the mourners actually smiled at us as they left the churchyard.
Dorothy, of course, was not amused. She gave me quite an earful later that day after all the guests from the funeral feast were out of the house and the girls were getting ready for bed, ranting about my fisherman's manners and what a bad example my insolent behaviour was setting for my sisters. "You are such a disgrace for your poor mother, Michael, God rest her soul. Poor Alice tried so hard to make you a gentleman. All that effort wasted. And just look at you with your shaggy hair and that vulgar tan. Next thing we know you'll be sporting some garish tattoo", she spat.
"Good idea", I said with an ironic smile. The irony was wasted on her, though, she just launched into another hissy fit. I ignored a good part of it, only perking up again when she changed the subject.
"But what's to be expected of somebody of your origins. Living with those ordinary people. They may mean well, but they are very simple, your grandparents. They are not familiar with the rules of society. I can't even blame them, coming from that fishing village. No wonder they don't know how to behave properly."
"Oh, come on. This isn't exactly New York or London either", I exploded. "And when did tormenting little girls start to pass for good behaviour?"
"You may think I am tormenting them, but in my opinion, those girls need a strong hand, especially now that there is no one else around to take care of them." Her self-righteous tone made me want to smash her smug bigoted face.
"It's a fine idea of education you've got", I shouted. "You don't even have children to prove you right. Or wrong."
She inhaled sharply.
"It's probably just as well that you don't have kids. I'd feel very sorry for the poor creatures."
I must have hit a nerve. Her cold mask of rigid composure was lifted for a moment to show the first hot rush of emotion I had ever witnessed in her pinched face as she shouted, "Get out of my sight!"
I didn't budge. "I will be happy to", I said. "If you promise to keep your hands off the girls. Scold them for any little thing if you must, but don't ever lay a hand on them again."
I turned on my heel and left her alone, racing upstairs to knock on my grandparents' door. They were staying in Mom and Dan's bedroom, which was a strange arrangement considering the circumstances, but the only spare bedroom had been occupied by Dorothy.
Grandma was huddled on the bed with my mother's dressing gown in her hands, burying her nose in the fabric that may still have held a whiff of Mom's perfume. She looked up at me desperately with puffy, red-rimmed eyes.
"It still smells of her", she said tonelessly. "I feel like a silly old woman, sniffing her clothes like that, but they still smell of her."
"That's alright", I said, sitting next to her on the bed, awkwardly touching her shoulder.
Grandpa came in. "What did you do to that dragon downstairs, Mick? She was roaring loudly enough to be heard up here."
I tilted my head sideways and raised my eyebrows without answering. Instead, I asked, "Can't we take the girls to Maine to live with us? I can't stand the thought of leaving them alone with Dorothy. It makes me sick, really sick."
Both of them pondered my suggestion for a while. Grandpa finally said, "I wouldn't mind having them with us, but they still have a father who's got a say in where they live."
"I spoke to old Dr. Cleaver about Dan today", Grandma added. "He says he will be fine again in a while. His injuries are grave but not life-threatening. It will take some time but he'll recover. Much as I hate the thought of leaving those two sweethearts behind with that horrible woman, we can't just uproot them. They have lived here all their lives. We mustn't forget that."
I opened my mouth to protest, but Grandma went on softly, "They haven't got that close link with our home that you have, Mickey love. You're a Mainer. They are not. They were born here. It's where all their friends are and their school and everything. They aren't even very close to me or Grandpa because we've hardly ever seen them. And we can't just take them away from their father. That would be a very cruel thing to do. He has already lost his wife, and he will need his girls around when he comes home from hospital. Just as they will need their dad."
I had to admit defeat. She was right, of course, rationally speaking.
And yet, when we got on the evening train back home a few days later, it was the first time I was not happy to leave Missouri.
No, that's not entirely correct. It still was not the place that held my heart, but the two little figures on the snowy platform in their identical grey winter coats and red scarves.
When they had faded out of sight, I leaned my head against the cold windowpane and stared blankly out into the snowy landscape that glittered in the light of the waning moon.
I felt that a chapter of my life had closed and wondered when and where I'd see my sisters again. I had a feeling that it would be a long time until then.