There’s nothing wrong with this family that a funeral or two wouldn’t fix.
—MY PATERNAL GRANNY MAMA LOU
I HAVE SOME family secrets to tell, but first, I need to make one thing crystal clear: With two glaring exceptions, my mother is a true Southern lady of infinite grace and discriminating taste.
The first exception—and by far the least—is the fact that as soon as the four of us girls were safely on our own, Mama moved to a double-wide in Clearwater, Florida, where in short order she married, then buried, two “diamonds in the rough” who smoked cigars. Good men, but phew. Only recently did she find the second great love of her life besides Daddy: retired rabbi David Rabinowitz, who loves her back just as much as our sainted daddy did.
The second, and worst, exception is that Mama (who hated being named Daisy) broke her own vow to give her daughters normal names and succumbed to the centuries-old tradition of christening all female descendants of our direct ancestor Lady Rose Hamilton with floral names. Mama said she wasn’t afraid of the ancient “unlucky in love” curse that’s supposed to fall on nonfloral daughters, but Daddy, romantic that he was, loved the idea of siring his own little bouquet, so Mama finally gave in, sparing herself the infamy of breaking the chain of ages. Her only rebellion was naming me, the firstborn girl, Dahlia instead of Rose.
Frankly, I would have preferred Rose. Weird names like mine made me fair game for the Susans and Patricias and Nancys and Cathys of my era. Not to mention the fact that I still have to spell out Dahlia for everybody.
I was unlucky in love, too, so maybe there’s something to that curse, after all.
Two years after I was born, feisty, colicky Iris arrived. After another two years, we were blessed with precious Violet, an angel-child from her first breath. I was eight before placid baby Rose was born and Mama made her nod to the woman who started the whole tradition back in England.
We’ve forgiven Mama for our names, but Mama hasn’t been able to forgive our grandmother for her shortcomings, which were many, as you shall see.
My three sisters and I had the privilege of growing up in Atlanta during that golden illusion of domestic innocence between World War II and the sixties. For us, magic was real and had a name: Lake Clare. We didn’t know and didn’t care that the lake was Old Atlanta’s premier summer watering hole, its rustic homes handed down from generation to generation, among them our great-grandparents’ impressive three-story Hilltop Lodge and Mama’s tiny Cardinal Cottage. We only knew we loved spending our summers in the little log cabin just down the hill from our beloved great-grandmother and our black-sheep grandmother Cissy (short for Narcissus), who was so vain she never let anybody—even Mama—call her anything but Cissy.
We never suspected how much Mama hated it at the lake, or why. All we knew was that there, in the cool beauty of the mountains, we could go barefoot, drink café au lait instead of milk with our eggs and bacon, and spend our days swimming and exploring and playing. And, in Iris’s and my case, fighting. We were so busy, we never suspected the secrets that hid in the shadows of Hilltop.
THE LAST TIME my sister Violet and I saw Cissy was two years ago, and she was trying to kill us—and enjoying herself immensely.
But that was Cissy for you. She never had been anybody’s idea of a grandmother—or a mother, for that matter.
It was just before Christmas, and Violet and I were on our regular holiday run up to Lake Clare, bearing gifts and a perky little decorated tree along with the food we and my other two sisters took turns delivering every month. Normally, Violet and I really look forward to our December drive from her place in Clarkesville to the northeast corner of the state. We both love the bare-bones splendor of the mountains in winter, and the trip provided welcome escape from the pressures of the season and a chance to visit.
But this time, an unexpected Canadian Clipper had barreled down on us, sending the temperature plunging in the cold, hard drizzle. By the time I picked her up and got back onto Highway 441, the Bank of Habersham sign said 31 degrees, and the pine trees were already bowing slightly under a coating of freezing rain.
“I should have let you drive,” I fretted, slowing down to fifty. There wasn’t much tread left on my ten-year-old Mercury Sable’s tires, but the home-building crisis had put a serious dent into my developer husband’s income and his ego, so I’d used the car maintenance fund to buy him a new golf club for Christmas to cheer him up. “These tires are okay for regular driving, but not ice.”
“Nothing’s okay for ice,” Violet said without alarm. “But we’ll be fine. WSB said it wasn’t going below freezing, even up here.” As always, her blue eyes and soft expression radiated calm and reassurance.
It took a lot more than the prospect of running off the road to ruffle Violet. Of the four of us Barrett sisters, she was the most stable and well-rounded.
“Oh, gosh.” Violet delved into her huge purse. “I almost forgot to call Cissy.” We were nearing the fringes of the cellular network, and it wouldn’t do to arrive unannounced in our grandmother’s isolated mountain realm. Even when we called ahead, there was no guarantee what we’d find when we got there.
After dialing, Violet stuck her finger in her ear (we all have midrange nerve deafness) and waited, then hollered, “Cissy? Hello? Cissy!” She frowned at the phone and muttered, “Still plenty of signal. She just hung up.”
Our grandmother Cissy was almost as hard of hearing as she was crazy, so even the special amplified phone we’d gotten her didn’t make communicating much easier. You have to pay attention to the other person for it to help, something Cissy never had mastered.
Violet dialed again, waited, then hollered hello again. After a brief pause, she brightened. “Hi! It’s Violet! We’re on our way with your groceries!” Pause. “Violet! Your granddaughter!” Her soft alto voice wasn’t made for yelling. “No, Daisy is my mother! I’m Violet!” She gave the thumbs-up (Cissy had remembered Mama, at least), but she crossed her eyes at me when she did it, which made me laugh. “Dahlia and I have your groceries!” Pause. “Dahlia! Your granddaughter Dahlia! We’re coming with the groceries!” A sigh of resignation and renewed volume. “We’re on our way with the groceries! Your groceries are coming today!” Her lips folded briefly. “No, we’re bringing groceries to you!”
The routine was so familiar, I could hardly keep my tickle box from tumping over, which would only set Violet off, too.
Violet enunciated every word emphatically. “We … are … bringing … your … groceries … today!” She frowned, then gave up and flipped the phone shut. “Boy, that wears me out. I have no idea if she ever connected with what I was saying before she hung up on me.”
Based on experience, things wouldn’t be much easier when we got there, even though Cissy seemed to be having a fairly good day. I mean, she’d remembered Mama, which was something.
Beside the road, pine saplings were bent double now. I gripped the steering wheel. “Let’s get her the food and get back home ASAP.”
“Works for me,” Violet said.
Thirty minutes later, I was relieved to turn off the slick pavement onto the rough tar and gravel road that led over the mountain to the family compound where we’d spent our summers as children. The way was steep, but offered a lot more traction than the highway’s slick blacktop. It took us another twenty minutes to navigate the cutbacks up and down the other side, but at last we reached the single-lane dirt road at the edge of Cissy’s fifty-three acres, and scraped our way through ice-laden rhododendrons and mountain laurels down to the turnaround at Hilltop Lodge.
“Let’s take the stuff to the side door, so it won’t get wet,” Violet said as we broke out the umbrellas and hurried to unload.
Nobody ever used the side entrance on the verandah, but there was no protection from the elements at the kitchen door, so I agreed. I didn’t hear Foxy (Cissy’s mangy old red mongrel that she insisted was at least half fox), but the dog was as deaf and ancient as she was, so I didn’t think anything of it.
Worried that a huge branch might break off and kill one of us any second, we skirted the thick laurel hedge that shielded the little vegetable garden and the kitchen door, then carefully picked our way up the mossy flight of native quartz stairs to the verandah.
Built in 1919 from virgin timber as a hunting lodge, the rambling old three-story place had sunk and sagged till it seemed to have grown up out of the sodden drifts of leaves like a giant mushroom fantasy, with thick moss on the log walls and curling shingles. Down the slope of the orchard beyond, Lake Clare lay shrouded in mist like a Turner painting.
I put down the gifts and groceries on the ancient wicker settee, then turned to gaze across the lake and breathe of the cold, clear air, mold be damned. No other place on earth had the power to calm me like this one.
Sending me half out of my skin, Violet shattered the quiet with an ear-piercing rendition of the distinctive five-note whistle that had been our family’s summons for generations.
“Violet!” I scolded, heart pounding. “You scared me half to death.”
She just smiled her graceful little smile, but I knew her calm façade hid a streak of mischief a mile wide.
We listened for some sign of life inside, but there was none.
Violet whistled again, but this time, I was prepared.
After the brief echo died, we heard nothing but the rain and the ominous creak of ice-coated branches from the surrounding forest.
I jumped at the crack of a breaking branch in the big hemlock by the kitchen, but when I whirled toward the sound, there was only the soft whuff, whuff, whuff, whump as it fell through the foliage to the ground.
“She’s probably holed up under the electric blanket,” Violet said. “I can’t blame her.” The screen door was hooked, so we picked up our umbrellas and headed back out into the rain toward the kitchen door.
When we got there, we found its screen hooked from the inside, too, so we circled around to the terrace. Violet and I both peered into the sliding glass doors that made up the corner of the master bedroom—a sixties renovation the Captain and Cissy had made that included a sunken tub (the only one in the whole house) overlooking the terrace, the verandah, and the path to Mama’s now-derelict guest cottage. Amid the piles of old magazines, clothes, newspapers, and junk, Cissy’s unmade bed was empty except for the black plastic mesh hair protector she wore to keep her French twist in place as she slept. She was a dead ringer for Queen Nefertiti with it on.
The sunken tub was full, a film across the cloudy, hard well water.
“Uh-oh,” Violet said. “Her boots are gone.” Summer, winter, rain or shine, Cissy wore those bright green rubber barn boots whenever she went out.
I checked the pegs by the hall door. The rest of her “uniform”—a tall-crowned, floppy denim hat stuffed with newspapers to keep it from coming down over her face and the Captain’s WWII trench coat and wool army trousers—was missing, too. “Oh, lord. She’s gone out in this weather.” I scowled. “Perfect. We’ll have to call Mountain Patrol to bring the search dogs.” Again. So much for getting home before dark.
It never occurred to Violet or me that this time, something might have actually happened to Cissy. As our other grandmother was wont to say about people as difficult as Cissy, “The Good Lord wouldn’t have her, and the devil’s gettin’ too much use out of her to kill her.”
The Mountain Patrol had to be getting sick of finding Cissy when she got lost (which was often), but she was so fiercely determined to live out her last days in her own home that even the authorities didn’t want to mess with her. They’d tried carting her off to a nursing home once, but she’d escaped three times in less than a week, leaving rampant destruction in her wake. So they, like us, left her pretty much alone, except for the visiting nurses, who—thanks solely to her—had the highest turnover rate in the state. Maybe even the whole Southeast.
“She might have just gone to get the mail,” Violet suggested. “Let’s check the boat house.” Which was where the postal boat delivered.
Wary of falling ice and debris, we headed down that way.
“Damn.” I scowled when we found no sign of her there. God forbid, we should have to spend the night in Hilltop with the mildew and the fleas and who knew what else. And if we had an ice storm, there was no telling when we’d escape. I shuddered at the prospect, but at least we’d brought a HoneyBaked Ham we could eat without fear of ptomaine. “Crap, crap, crap. We’ll have to call the patrol.”
“At least we know she hasn’t been gone long,” Violet said. “She answered the phone when we called. Let’s look awhile longer.”
We were almost back to the house when the first shot went off.
At first, we both thought a tree had snapped, so we frantically scanned the oaks and white pines overhead to see which way to run.
Only when the second shot blew a huge hole in the furled rhododendrons not three feet from Violet’s shoulder did I realize what was happening. But sound plays tricks on the steep slopes beside the lake, and I couldn’t tell where it had come from.
“Run!” Violet shrieked, dropping her red umbrella in the path as she took off for the neglected orchard’s open spaces.
Hearing the click of reloading nearby, I dropped my umbrella, too, and launched myself toward my sister, barely catching her raincoat in time to drag her down into the vinca minor beside me. “Stay down.”
It never even occurred to me that it might be somebody besides Cissy shooting at us. A crack shot, she had hunted with Hemingway in Africa and taught us all how to use and clean a shotgun. Even with cataracts and arthritis, she posed a very real threat.
“Head for the basement,” I whispered to Violet. It was hidden from the yard by an overgrown hedge that offered the closest cover, and the doors hadn’t been lockable in decades.
When the third shot blew Violet’s umbrella to bits, showering us with red nylon confetti, we screamed and flinched in unison, then made a break for the hedge.
“We got rid of all her guns,” Violet panted out as we cowered behind the ancient tractor stashed behind the hedge. “We both went over every square inch of that house. Where did she get this one? Nobody in the county would be stupid enough to sell her one!”
“I don’t know,” I snapped, in mortal terror for my life. “Maybe Santa Claus gave it to her.”
Another blast sent my umbrella soaring, sieved with holes. “Hah!” Cissy crowed from somewhere nearby. “Got the other one!”
Better my forty-five-dollar Brookstone umbrella than me. My son thought I was an old stick-in-the-mud, but he’d miss me if I was gone. And he’d be mortified to have to tell everybody his great-grandmother had killed me.
I peered gingerly over the tractor and was hugely relieved to see no sign of Cissy, so Violet and I picked our way over to the only pair of functional French doors that led into the basement, and tried to pull one open. When we did, ice cracked and fell from the wisteria and honeysuckle that covered it, so we retreated back to the tractor.
Then we heard a rustle from the woods, followed by heavy steps treading up the path toward the house.
“Vile rapists!” Cissy’s voice rang out. “My womanhood is all I have left for them to take, but they shall not have it, my Captain.” Our step-grandfather the Captain had been dead for fifteen years. “I know I sought the ideal lover many times before we met,” she went on dramatically. (She did everything dramatically.) “We both dipped our oars into many a lake of passion, but all that’s over now.” I heard her start up the stone stairs, followed by the click of Foxy’s labored pace behind. “It was war. But my chamber of treasures opens to no one but you now, my darling. No one but you.” She started toward the side door.
Gripping each other’s hands, Violet and I pressed ourselves hard against the stone foundation under the verandah so she couldn’t see us.
Several steps onto the floorboards, Cissy halted, and I heard her open the breech, slide in two more shells, then snap it shut. “Filthy rapists. I’ll kill every man-jack of them if I must, but I shall not be defiled.”
Her steps came closer above us, then stopped directly overhead. “Here, now! What’s this?”
Violet and I both winced and tightened our hold on each other, expecting the worst.
Cissy’s strident tones abruptly became almost dainty. “Presents. How lovely. Look, Foxy. Santa Claus has been here.” A rustle of wrapping paper. “From Violet. From Dahlia. Who the hell are they?” More rustling. “From Iris and Rose.” Her voice sharpened. “What, they’re too cheap to get me a gift apiece?” Another rustle. “Rose. Rose.” There was recognition in the way she said it. “That child is the spitting image of my mother, Foxy, only she lacks backbone. Isn’t she a nurse or something?”—no, a preschool director—” I do believe she is, a talent she undoubtedly got from me—all those years in the Red Cross, you know.” Just as abruptly, she became suspicious again. “They weren’t so picky about official training back then. The government’s absolutely destroyed individual liberty in this country. It’s those industrialist whores, the Republicans, who did it. Ike, indeed! Rapists, all of them.”
After a hard thump, we heard cans rolling on the verandah and the sound of something being dragged. “Foxy, no,” Cissy ordered. “Put that ham back!” So much for safe eating. “Obey me, cur!” She swatted at her pet, who sounded a feral growl that made me wonder if she really might be part fox after all.
After a brief scuffle, we heard tinfoil ripping, then the smack of meat on the boards. “There. That should tide you over till supper. Come.” Cissy’s boot steps schlepped toward the French doors to the two-story living room. “Let’s bring these presents in, then clean our gun. Only the basest sort would put a gun away dirty.”
The phrase took me straight back to pistol practice and skeet-shooting sessions in the orchard with Cissy that were our rite of passage from childhood to adolescence. “Every woman should know how to handle guns, dear,” she had confided to each of us in turn. “Men find it incredibly sexy.”
Mama had been horrified, but Daddy had said learning gun safety was a good thing. I’ll bet he never dreamed we’d end up being her targets.
Cissy’s voice grew fainter as she went inside. “Can you believe they just dropped these boxes at our doorstep like a bastard child in a wash-basket?” She clumped to open the side door. After a plink and skreek of rusty screen-door spring, she came back out. “They didn’t even bother to ring the doorbell or let me know they were here,” she fumed as she started moving things inside. “Not so much as a hello. Probably those sneaky Christians. I am nobody’s charity case. Thank the Buddha and the Great Creator for Transcendental Meditation, that’s all I can say. Without it, those sneaky Christians would drive me insane.”
“What do you mean, the grandchildren, Captain?” Pause. “Oh, they did, did they? The little ingrates. It’s why I’m glad I never had any more children of my own. No respect for their elders. And I’ll bet one of those presents is another cursed cotton nightgown. Same thing every year, underwear and coarse cotton nightgowns I wouldn’t inflict on the maid. I’ve got a chest full of those wretched things upstairs, but they’re not the ones I like. I’ve told them a hundred times, I like the nylon Madame Lillie peignoirs and the Madelaine silk-knit tap pants with six-inch legs, but do they ever listen? No.”
Never mind that those hadn’t been made for a generation.
“Should we make a run for it?” Violet whispered tightly as Cissy continued her delusional conversation in and out of the door with small loads from the boxes.
“Not yet,” I breathed into her ear. Cissy was so deaf, we could have spoken normally without fear of being overheard, but both of us were too rattled from being hunted. “She still has the shotgun. Let’s wait till she closes up and goes to her room. Then we can sneak across the path and cut through the woods to the car.”
A bolt of adrenaline sent me groping for keys in the pocket of my coat, but they were there, thank God. “Whew!”
“Double whew,” Violet said in a more conversational tone.
It seemed like hours, but was probably only about ten minutes before we heard Cissy retreat to her room.
With painstaking care, we crept back out into the freezing rain, made our way to the path, sprinted across its ten-foot span into the woods, then beat it for the car. I clicked open the doors, and we jumped in. Then I started the engine and threw the car into reverse, backing out with such force that I didn’t realize I hadn’t taken off the emergency brake till I whipped into the turnaround at the blackberry patch, and the smell of burning rubber caught up with us. With tingling fingers, I reached for the release and popped the hood instead. “Oh, damn!”
“Don’t panic,” Violet said. “Put your foot on the brakes and take a deep breath. I’ll get out and close it. Deep breaths.”
I did as ordered, managing to find the proper release and pull. Violet got back in and away we barreled, heedless of the branches lashing at my car as we bounced up the rutted road toward safety. Halfway up the hill, we both burst into a hysterical mix of laughter and tears.
“Can you believe that? Can you?” Violet asked. “She really tried to kill us!”
Jouncing and lurching, I pleaded, “Oh, please, don’t make me laugh. I’ll wet myself.”
“Merry Christmas!” Violet said, hilarious.
“No, really, don’t,” I said, wracking my memory for the nearest restroom and remembering that the one at the River Road convenience store had holes in the floor and smelled of sewage.
Excerpted from Ladies of the Lake by Haywood Smith.
Copyright © 2009 by Haywood Smith.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Griffin
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.