Read What We Keep Online

Authors: Elizabeth Berg

What We Keep

BOOK: What We Keep
10.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Berg keeps a tight grip on readers as she takes us back and forth from a 12-year-old’s perspective to the memories and secrets revealed at the reunion—35 years later—of three sophisticated, mature women. By its finish, the story has taken your breath away with its twists and turns; it delivers an impact that stays with you well past the ending.”

—Rocky Mountain News

“In her earlier novel,
Talk Before Sleep
, Berg was able to draw together remarkable humor and incredible pain with enormous insight into their intricate relationship. She does so again in
What We Keep.

—The Seattle Times

“Fans of Elizabeth Berg are familiar with her extraordinary talent for description—you can almost taste, feel, and hear her novels with amazing intensity.… The poignant twists of rejection and eventual redemption will pull you along at full throttle, making you happy you stayed for the tear-jerking, life-affirming finale.”

—Detroit Free Press

“Elizabeth Berg remembers what it was like to be a child.… She gets it all delightfully right.”

—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Please turn the page
for more reviews…


Berg has an almost painterly gift for choosing the telling detail. She neatly accomplishes that most ephemeral trick of memory.”

—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Berg is very good, as always, at reconstructing the emotional and conversational rhythms of girls on the edge of adolescence.”

—New York Daily News

“Compelling …
What We Keep
takes the reader back to a time when TV didn’t occupy every waking moment, when Mom was generally at home, and when families ate there together. A big night out might be a trip to Dairy Queen.”

—San Antonio Express-News

What We Keep
“bring[s] to mind such highbrow novels of girlhood as Lisa Shea’s
and Susan Minot’s
.… Ginny’s shame, anger, guilt, and sorrow are presented with subtlety and suave humor in Berg’s novel, which manages to be charming and painful at the same time.”

—The Baltimore Sun


Berg writes with tender confidence … The life a girl growing up in the late ’50s rings true, and the relationship between the sisters is perfectly realized.”

—Dayton Daily News

“Love redeems us … Berg hooks you when you least expect it through her talent for a well-crafted metaphor, and she uses that talent to full advantage in this ode to motherhood.”

—Greensboro News & Record

“Berg’s appeal as an author is our assurance that she’s not creating fictional emotions and reactions, but that she’s taken very real emotions and reactions and wrapped them up neatly. If the events in her books ever happen to us, we will respond exactly the way her characters do.”

—Sunday Oklahoman

“The truths revealed in
What We Keep
are all too real.”

—Austin American-Statesman

Also by Elizabeth Berg


Books published by The Random House Publishing Group are available at quantity discounts on bulk purchases for premium, educational, fund-raising, and special sales use. For details, please call 1-800-733-3000.

To women who risk telling the hard truths


Thanks to my editor, Kate Medina
and to my agent, Lisa Bankoff
Always true

Decorates our table
Funny how the cracks don’t
Seem to show

You’re right next to me
But I need an airplane
I can feel the distance
Getting close

—From “China,” by Tori Amos

utside the airplane window the clouds are thick and rippled, unbroken as acres of land. They are suffused with peach-colored, early morning sun, gilded at the edges. Across the aisle, a man is taking a picture of them. Even the pilot couldn’t keep still—“Folks,” he just said, “we’ve got quite a sunrise out there. Might want to have a look.” I like it when pilots make such comments. It lets me know they’re awake.

Whenever I see a sight like these clouds, I think maybe everyone is wrong; maybe you
walk on air. Maybe we should just try. Everything could have changed without our noticing. Laws of physics, I mean. Why not? I want it to be true that such miracles occur. I want to stop the plane, put the kickstand down, and have us all file out there, shrugging airline claustrophobia off our shoulders. I want us to be able to breathe easily this high up, to walk on clouds as if we were angels, to point out our houses to each other way, way, way down there; and there; and there. How proud we would suddenly feel about where we live, how tender toward everything that’s ours—our Mixmasters, resting on kitchen counters; our children, wearing the socks we bought them and going about children’s business; our mail lying on our desks; our gardens, tilled and expectant. It seems to
me it would just come with the perspective, this rich appreciation.

I lean my forehead against the glass, sigh. I am forty-seven years old and these longings come to me with the same seriousness and frequency that they did when I was a child.

“Long trip, huh?” the woman next to me asks.

“Oh,” I say. “Yes. Although … Well, I sighed because I wish I could get out. You know? Get out there and walk around.”

She looks past me, through the window. “Pretty,” she says. And then, “Of course, you’d die.”

“Oh, well. What’s not dangerous?”

“Beats me,” the woman says. “Not food. Not water. Not air, not sex. You can’t do
. Well, maybe put your name on the list for Biosphere.” We smile, ruefully. She’s pretty, a young blond businesswoman wearing a stylish navy-blue suit, gold jewelry, soft-looking leather heels now slipped off her feet. At first, she busied herself with paperwork. Now she’s bored and wants to talk. Fine with me. I’m bored, too.

“Do you ever think that this is the end of the world?” I ask. “I mean, don’t get me wrong—”

“Oh, I know what you mean,” she says. “I do think about that. Dying planets, how … unspecial we are, really. Just the most current thing in the line since paramecia.”

The flight attendant stops her cart beside us, asks if we’d like a drink. This seems petty, considering the content of our conversation. Still, I request orange juice; the woman beside me says she’d like a scotch.

“You know what?” I tell the flight attendant. “I think I’ll have a scotch, too.” I have always wondered who in
the world would want a cocktail on an early morning flight. Now I know: people with a load on their minds that they would like very much to lighten.

After my seatmate and I have pulled down our trays and set up our impromptu bar, I say, “I don’t even like scotch.”

“Me neither.” She shrugs, takes a sip, grimaces. “But I really hate flying. Sometimes this helps.”

I smile, extend my hand. “I’m Ginny Young.”

“Martha Hamilton.”

“You live in California?”

“Yeah. San Francisco. You?”

“I live in Boston. I’m going to visit my mother. She lives in Mill Valley.”

“Nice. How long since you’ve seen her?”

I do some math, then answer, “Thirty-five years.”

Martha turns toward me, stares. I know her scotch is pooled in her mouth.

I shrug. “I don’t like my mother. I’m not ashamed to say that. She’s not a good person. She did some things … Well, she’s not a good person.” Whenever people I’ve met tell their mother horror stories, I save mine for last. It’s the best, because it’s the worst.

“So … why are you going to see her?”

“It was my sister’s idea. She thinks she’s sick. Not my mother—her.”

“Is she?”

“Don’t know. She’s waiting for some test results. But she wanted to go and see our mother. Just … in case. You know. Unfinished business that she feels she needs to attend to.”

Martha breathes out. “Jesus. I’m sorry.”


She touches my arm. “Are you all right?”

“Me? Yes! It’s … this is old. It’s so old. I didn’t intend ever to see my mother again, and I was perfectly comfortable with that. I won’t see her after this visit; I know that. I’m just doing this for my sister. Even though I don’t really think she’s sick. She can’t be.”

Martha nods, cracks an ice cube with her teeth, then looks at me, one eyebrow raised.

“Right,” I say. “I know.”

“I’ll tell you something,” Martha says. “I was in a cemetery last week, walking my dog. You’re not supposed to walk your dog there, so when I heard someone coming, I hid behind this big marker. I saw a woman stop just a few graves away. She knelt down and started talking out loud. She was apparently talking about one of her kids who was giving her a really hard time, and then she said, ‘I didn’t do that to you, Ma, did I? Did I?’ And then she lay down and just started crying. She cried so
It was one of those things where the grief is so raw, you can’t help yourself—you start crying, too. And when I started crying, my dog started barking. The woman looked up and saw me, of course. She got all embarrassed—jumped up and wiped her face, started straightening her clothes and rummaging around in her purse for something or other. And I felt terrible. It was terrible to have a dog there, those rules are absolutely right. I apologized, but I still felt like a jerk.

“All the way home, I wondered what that woman was crying about, what she had remembered. I wondered if other daughters talk to their mothers when they visit their graves, whether if, when my mother dies, I will.
Seems like a good party question, doesn’t it?—What would you say at your mother’s grave? Well, maybe not a
question. But an interesting one. At least you’ll have the chance to speak to her in person.”

“Right,” I say, although what I’m thinking is, there’s nothing I want to tell my mother. I’m only going for Sharla. I love my sister; I’m finished with my mother, have been for a long time. Not for nothing did I sit in therapists’ offices going through a forest’s worth of Kleenex.

“Where does your sister live?” Martha asks.

“Texas. San Antonio. She’ll be at the airport waiting; her flight gets in twenty minutes before mine.”

seen your mother in all this time?”


“Wow. This will be some meeting.”

“I know,” I say, and drain what’s left of the scotch. Then I squeeze the plastic glass to see how far I can bend it. Not far: it cracks in my hand. I put it in the throw-up bag, fold the top over, place it neatly in the center of my tray table. I don’t want to talk anymore. I lean back, look out the window. I have my reasons, I tell myself—and Martha, too, in case she’s picking up on my thoughts—she’s from California, after all; they do stuff like that. But I do have my reasons. I absolutely do.

“Miss?” the flight attendant asks. “Breakfast?” I startle, then smile and nod yes to the fat slices of French toast she is offering me. I am probably the only one in the world who likes airline food. I appreciate the inventive garnishes, the only-for-you serving sizes. I like the taste of the salad dressings. When the entrée is something like
pizza, I think, well, isn’t that the cutest thing. Naturally, I don’t admit this to anyone.

Martha has opted for the cheese omelet, and when I watch her cut it neatly in half, I wish I’d gotten one, too. She shrugs after her first bite, the physical equivalent of “Yuck.” I smile, shrug back, pour the thick artificial maple syrup over my French toast. It looks delicious.

BOOK: What We Keep
10.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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