Lacette Graham sat on the edge of her bed wrapping a gift for her mother's birthday, though she didn't expect more than perfunctory thanks when she gave it to her later that day. The strong, cold wind, unusual for early November, rattled her windows, and she tightened her robe. But neither the temperature nor the blustery wind could take responsibility for the chill that raced through her. Familiar with her premonitions, she began to anticipate something unwanted, and her head snapped up when the door opened without a knock. It surprised her even more to see her father, the Reverend Marshall Graham, enter her bedroom. Wasn't it one of his strict rules that each family member be accorded privacy at all times?
“I'm leaving your mother,” he said, skipping preliminaries.
“Where do you want her to meet you?” she asked him, assuming that he expected her mother to follow him.
“Lacette, I'm leaving Cynthia for good.”
She sprang from the bed and grabbed the collar of his jacket. “
What are you talking about? Daddy, what's going on?”
The easy shrug of his shoulder didn't fool her; her father preached the sacredness of marriage to his children and regularly from his pulpit. “If you want to know the reasons,” he replied in a voice heavy with tremors, “ask your mother, but I doubt she'll tell you the truth. I'll let you know where I am.” His left arm clasped her to him, and he bent and kissed her forehead.
He released her, and she stared at him, speechless, trembling and a little scared, for he had just jerked the carpet of contentment and security from beneath her, stripped her of her safety net. She grabbed the foot of the wooden sleigh bed for support. “You wouldn't joke about a thing like this. Would you? Today's Mama's birthday,” she added, grabbing at a straw of hope. “I mean . . . I was wrapping her present.”
His eyes pitied her. Kind eyes filled with the love that had nurtured her for every day of her thirty-three years. “I know. I also had a nice surprise for her, but . . . well, I'll call you in a day or so.”
“Did you tell Kellie?” she asked, referring to her twin sister.
“She's not home, and I'm not staying here another minute. I'll call her tonight. Be in touch.”
Less than a minute later, she heard the front door close, walked to the window and watched her father load three suitcases into the trunk of his gray Cadillac, a gift from the sisters and brothers of Mount Airy-Hill Baptist Church. To see her father, the person in the world dearest to her, walk out of the home he cherished, with dark clouds hovering and strong winds testing his strength, sent tremors throughout her body as the tragedy of it settled into her psyche. She would remember that scene until the day she died.
For a long while, she pondered what grievance her father could have against her mother, a God-fearing woman and dutiful wife. Realizing that the telephone had been ringing for some time, she got up and answered it, though with reluctance; she didn't want to talk to anyone.
“Where's Marshall going? I just saw him putting three big suitcases in his car,” It was her aunt Nan, her father's only sister, who lived across the street from the parsonage, which had served as their home since her teenage years.
“I don't know, Aunt Nan, but he's left Mama. That's what he told me a couple of minutes ago. I mean, he's left her for good.”
“Girl, you go 'way from here. Don't let no words like that come off your tongue.”
“It's the truth.”
“I can't believe it. Did he say why?”
“No, ma'am. He told me to ask her, but he didn't think she'd tell me the truth.”
“That don't make a bit of sense. Marshall never did believe in divorce, and he never takes a step without thinking long and hard about what he's going to do or say. Something happened that he's not telling.”
“Looks like it.”
“Well, did you ask your mother?”
“I want to, that is, if I get up the nerve to ask her. She's not home. Can we talk later, Aunt Nan? I'm having a problem with this.”
“I guess you are, child.”
After Lacette hung up, her first thought was what her father would tell his parishioners in church the next day, Sunday, and she made up her mind right then to be there. She moseyed around the room fingering the little wooden statue her father carved for her long before she reached adolescence, glancing toward a window at the deepening gray of the clouds, rummaging among the papers on her desk, doing nothing, aimless. A gust of wind from the front door told her that either Kellie or her mother had entered the house and she rushed to the top of the stairs.
“Kellie. Kellie, something awful has happened. Have you talked with Mama?”
“Haven't seen her since breakfast. What's up?”
“Papa left Mama. He's moved out of our home.” She couldn't believe Kellie's careless shrug. She may as well have said she didn't care. “Doesn't it matter to you that our father has left home?”
“Yeah. You said so. It'll straighten itself out. Where did he go?”
“I don't know.” She fought back the tears, not wanting to let Kellie feel that she was the stronger of the two; her sister already had a big enough ego.
“For goodness sake, don't mope about it. How can anybody break up a thirty-five-year marriage? Besides, Daddy can't scramble an egg, so how's he going to get along by himself?”
She hated Kellie's superior attitude. “Kellie, this is serious. I don't even know where Mama is.”
“Don't worry about it. We'd better find a restaurant so we can take her out to dinner. Uh . . . what did you get her for a present?”
Lacette threw up her hands, exasperated. Talking about presents when their family had just been rent apart. “Present? Oh. I bought her a silk gown and a bottle of Azure perfume. She loves that. What did you get?”
“Pew. Whenever I smell Azure, I look around expecting to see Mama. I started smelling it before I was born. Maybe Daddy left because he got tired of it. I bought her a red robe.”
“You what? But Kellie, you know Mama doesn't like red.”
“I'm sick of seeing her in that drab, green thing she wears around here. She will wear this robe”âshe pointed to the shopping bag in her handâ“because
gave it to her.”
Yes. She probably will,
Lacette thought, but didn't bother to articulate the sarcasm. “I have to look up some information on a group of antiques. An expert on those figurines I'm hawking next week, I definitely am not,” Lacette told Kellie. “See you about six.”
Lacette worked as a freelance demonstrator of assorted household products and personal care items, but she had not previously presented valuable antiques. Anxious to open her own marketing firm, she wasn't choosy about what she demonstrated, so long as the company paid well and the merchandise was legal and decent. Six o'clock came too soon, for she dreaded being with her mother and seeing her unhappy.
“We're meeting her at the restaurant,” Kellie explained to Lacette “She hasn't been home.”
Lacette didn't like that. Her mother had always been a homebody and wasn't given to staying away from home all day, and especially not on a Saturday when parishioners would occasionally drop in. “Did you tell her about Daddy? Or do you think she knows?”
“Of course, I didn't tell her,” Kellie said. “It's her birthday.
“You can hear this engine a mile away,” Kellie said when Lacette moved her old Chevrolet away from the curb, “and it pollutes the whole neighborhood.”
“Not by much. You need a new car.”
“New cars cost money, Kellie, and I'm trying to save to start my own business.”
“If you go around in this broken-down thing, nobody will go near your place when you open it. If you want to get ahead, you have to look like you already have it made.”
She didn't think much of Kellie's gospel: Forget the content; what mattered was the way you packaged it. However, since Kellie rarely asked for her opinion and didn't appreciate it when she got it, Lacette didn't comment.
Their mother waited at a corner table at Mealey's, a cozy restaurant with low-beamed ceilings, pink tablecloths, and stone fireplaces that crackled with fire on that cool November evening. After they greeted her, it saddened Lacette to see her mother cross her arms and rub them up and down continually as if she were cold.
“Did your father say he'd be getting home late?”
Kellie, who Lacette thought had both the guts and the audacity to eyeball the Pope, focused her gaze on the pink tablecloth, and didn't speak.
“Did you see him?” Cynthia asked, looking at Kellie, the family member who most enjoyed carrying news.
“I wasn't there when he left,” she said. “He talked with Lacette.”
Lacette hated hurting her mother, and she especially didn't want to do that on her mother's birthday, but from Cynthia's demeanor, Lacette could tell that the woman expected the hatchet to fall. “He said he was moving out of the house, and he took three suitcases with him. That's all I know.”
A groan escaped Cynthia Graham, and she seemed to wilt, slumping in her chair and closing her eyes. “What am I going to do?”
Kellie picked up her menu and began turning its pages. “Keep on living,” she advised. “Cut your hair, shorten your skirts, slap some makeup on your face and show him you don't give a hoot. Men suck, anyway.”
Cynthia straightened up just a little and focused her gaze on Kellie. “Do you realize you're talking about your father?” she asked, her voice devoid of the outrage Lacette would have expected.
“I realize it,” Kellie replied, beckoning for the waiter. “The point is, do you?”
Lacette thought the meal would never end. Birthdays had always been joyous occasions that the family celebrated with fancy meals, gifts, and pranks, catering in thoughtful ways to the birthday celebrant. Without their father, who relished the occasions, their dinner had, for Lacette, a funereal air. An onlooker would have thought that they were mourning the passing of a dear one, and in some ways, they were. She pasted an expression on her face that belied the pain in her heart and hoped that neither Kellie nor her mother detected her hypocrisy.
How in heaven's name could Kellie and her mother eat with such gusto? Although Kellie's plate had been piled with short ribs of beef, candied sweet potatoes, and spinach, it looked as if she had sopped it with a piece of bread, and Cynthia's looked much the same. It occurred to her, not for the first time, that in spite of their apparent differences, her mother and sister not only resembled each other physically, but had very similar personalities and behavior. By the time they reached home, Lacette had exhausted her reservoir of pretense. She gave her mother two packages, kissed her and fled to her room.
“Want some coffee, Mama?” Kellie asked her mother as she watched her sister hasten up the stairs.
“I wouldn't mind some. Thanks. You know, I just can't figure out what got into your father.”
Kellie hung their coats in the hall closet, a big one crowded with assorted outer wear, fishing gear, umbrellas that didn't seem to belong in the neat, elegantly furnished and modernized Federal house that predated the twentieth century.
“We are not going to discuss that, Mama. Okay?” Relief spread over Cynthia's demeanor, and Kellie headed for the kitchen, not waiting for her mother's reply.
“I hope you like it,” Kellie said before she handed her mother the box that contained the red robe. “You can use a change. A big change.”
She watched Cynthia's face as she pushed aside the tissue paper and stared down at the brilliant red fabric. She swallowed hard enough for Kellie to hear her. “You gave me somethingâ”
Kellie interrupted her, ignoring Cynthia's stammers, ready to drive home her point. “You're still a young woman, and it's time you acted like it. Fifty-five isn't old, Mama. When you're eighty, you'll curse yourself for having wasted your youth.”
Cynthia stood, held the garment to her body and walked to the hall mirror. “I guess you're right. It
nice, but I was raised to believe women wore red to attract men's attention, so Iâ”
“Pooh. It looks good on you. Buy yourself a red suit or, better still, a red coat.”
Cynthia's face bore a horrified expression that caused her daughter to wonder if her mother had been taking acting classes. When she said, “Oh, Kellie, what will people think?” Kellie stared at her, then shrugged.
“Look, Mama. If you get a decent hair style and a pair of shoes with a heel less than two inches wide to go with it, everybody will think you look great. It's time you came out of the dungeon and got with it.”