For the weekend, we stay in the beach house of a friend. The drive over the bridge – onto the island that juts out into the Narragansett Bay – leaves me breathless. The white sailboats tethered, the shimmering surface of the water in the morning light spread out before me, as if arranged there only for my pleasure.
And the quiet. The house is so quiet – no noise from the highway, just the rhythmic, lapping sounds of the bay and the occasional distant winds.
We have barely set down our bags, our groceries, before we walk down to the beach. The tide is so low that we can climb out onto the big flat rocks and sit there, face the bridge, let the wind chill us through.
We are all together – what remains of my extended family – my sister, her husband and her two children, my aunt, M., Z., W. and me. My niece and my son are close in age and they disappear upstairs to explore the unfamiliar rooms. I spend the time cooking, mostly – preparing overly elaborate meals that require my constant attention. Occasionally, someone will stand in the kitchen with me, ask about my work, about my friends. And I will ask the expected questions in return. These are not so much conversations as updates that call to mind board meetings – each committee chair reporting out progress since the last meeting: We’ve booked a trip to Costa Rica. Pat went away so I took care of her cats. There was a fire in the building. Marianne is leaving her husband.
I say: “It seemed like that was coming for a long time.”
My aunt says: “Yes. They haven’t spoken in months. She couldn’t take it anymore.”
Then, after a pause: “I’m looking forward to the trip. I will tell you about it when I get back.”
As the dinner dishes are cleared, I slip outside for a few minutes, sit on the deck in the cold as the sun goes down over the water. The sky is partitioned into bands of color.
I look back to the house and through the wall of windows, I can see my brother-in-law moving back and forth, picking up toys that the children have left behind. He bends at the waist, then comes back up slowly, wearily like he is lifting stones. My aunt is sitting on the couch, her glasses low on her nose, a book open on her lap. These people I know and do not know. How knowing anyone is a bit like watching them through glass.
My aunt stays an extra night so that she can make the three-hour trip home in daylight and in the morning, before she leaves, I drive her out to Beavertail, the southernmost tip of the island. We park and walk down a bit onto the rocks. The winds are fierce and cold. We are not dressed for the cold so we only stay for a few minutes, but we watch the waves break over the rocks below in appreciative silence.
On the drive back to the house, she talks about her sister, the middle one between my mother and her. “She could have done so much more with her life,” she says, “I feel so badly that she had such a sad life.”
The story is not an unfamiliar one. She leaves the home of her immigrant parents, lured west. She meets a man from the south, follows him back to his small hometown, where she learns to keep house, to hold monthly dinners with the neighbors. For holidays and special occasions, they invite their parish priest, who blesses their meal, their home, their children.
“She wanted to leave, to see more of the world,” my aunt says, her hands folded in her lap while I drive. “She was very smart, very beautiful. She could have had more.”
“But he didn’t want it,” she says. “He wanted his monthly dinners and his football games and his television. That’s all he wanted.”
I say: “Maybe he wanted more, too, but didn’t know how to get at it.”
“I don’t know,” she says, “he seemed pretty content to me.”
I am about to say: But we can never really know anything about people’s inner lives. About what they are thinking, carrying inside. About the hungers that they cannot express. But she points to a row of purple azalea bushes in full bloom, says, “Look at how beautiful those are,” and the moment is past.
“We all have our limitations,” I say instead.
They are both gone now, this aunt and her small-town husband who never wanted anything more. Died within a year of each other. Their youngest son also. And my own mother and father, too.
I think about this as I watch my aunt wander around the house, collect the bags that she has brought. “Oh, I had forgotten about this one,” she says as she turns a corner. The flowered tote bag in which she had carried all the Easter baskets, the bags of plastic grass, the candy: chocolate-covered marshmallow eggs, jelly beans, foil-wrapped chocolate bunnies. Forty-eight plastic eggs that open and close. I think about what it must be like to watch the people you have known, have lived with all your life, pass on, one by one. How it must make you wonder: Why me? Why not me? When?
I help her carry her bags to the car, and we hug standing on the gravel driveway. I am struck by the sudden urge to say: Why don’t you stay a few days longer? Why don’t I take a few days off and we will stay here and wrap ourselves in blankets so that we can sit by the water and drink tea. I will not hurry off to the kitchen. I will stay with you and ask you about all the people you have loved. You can tell me about them, about the things you used to do together. And I will listen.
I will just listen.
But what I say is: “Drive safely.” What I say is: “Let me know when you get back.”
And she says: “Have a good week. I will talk to you soon.”
We are only gone a few days, but when we return, I am out of sorts, as if we had traveled for months. We leave our open bags in the front hallway, in the kitchen, in the bedroom. All half-unpacked, all in disarray.
At breakfast, we talk about an old friend who has drifted out of our lives. Recent attempts to get together have fallen apart at the last minute. Competing demands on all our time. “It’s so sad,” M. says, “how hard it is for us all to fit this in, to find time for this person who was such an important part of our lives.” I nod, and feel the tears well up unexpectedly.
“I just hope he doesn’t feel obligated,” I say, “like he has to keep trying to do this.”
M. is about to say something in response, but our son walks in, his shirt on backward, a tuft of his hair sticking straight up from his head like a cartoon version of himself.
“I was calling and calling for you but you didn’t answer,” he says as he climbs into his chair, “Didn’t you hear me calling for you?”
“We were right here, buddy. Just like every morning. We were right here.”