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Meet the Austins
The Telephone Call
It started out to be a nice, normal, noisy evening. It was Saturday, and we were waiting for Daddy to come home for dinner. Usually he's home early Saturday, but this day he had a maternity case, and babies don't wait for office hours. Uncle Douglas was up for the weekend. He's Daddy's younger brother--ten years younger than Daddy--and he's an artist and lives in New York, and we all love him tremendously.
Mother had a standing rib roast cooking in the oven, because it's Uncle Douglas's favorite, and the kitchen smelled wonderful. Uncle Douglas and John were out in the old barn working on John's space suit, but the rest of us were in the kitchen. I don't suppose we're what you would call an enormous family, Mother and Daddy and the four of us children and the animals, but there are enough of us to make a good kind of sound and fury. Mother had music on, Brahms's Second Piano Concerto, kind of loud to drown us out. Suzy was performing anappendectomy on one of her dolls. She was doing this at the same time that she was scraping carrots, so the carrot scraper was a scalpel as well as a scraper.
Rob was supposed to be helping her, both with the appendectomy and the carrots, but he'd become bored, so he was on the floor with a battered wooden train making loud train noises, and Colette, our little gray French poodle, was barking at him and joining in the fun. Mr. Rochester, our Great Dane, was barking at one of the cats, who was trying to hide behind the refrigerator. I was being angelically quiet, but this was because I was doing homework--a whole batch of math problems. I was sitting near the fireplace and the fire was going and I was half baked (that's for sure, John would say) on one side, but I was much too cozy to move.
"Clamps," Suzy said loudly to an invisible operating-room nurse. "Retractors."
"Choo choo choo chuff chuff chuff," Rob grunted.
The Brahms came to an extra-loud part and everything was happy and noisy and comfortable.
Mother opened the oven door and poked at the potatoes roasting around the beef. "Vicky," she said, "why don't you go somewhere a little quieter to finish your homework?"
"Do I have to?" I asked.
"It's up to you," Mother said. "Suzy and Rob, please keep it down to a quiet roar."
Then the telephone rang.
Heaven knows, with Daddy being a doctor, we're used to the telephone. It rings all night as well as all day. We have two separate phone numbers, and when you call one it rings only athome, and when you call the other it rings both in Daddy's office and at home. John and I are the only ones allowed to answer the office phone, but when it's the house phone the younger ones run for it, too.
This was the house phone, and Suzy dropped her doll in the middle of the operation and ran. Rob shrieked, "It's my turn! I'll get it!" It really was his turn, but Suzy kept on running and Rob shrieked louder, especially because she got to the phone before he did. Mother turned down the volume on the record player and shouted at Mr. Rochester to stop barking and told Rob that he could answer next time, and Suzy said in a breathless voice, "Hello, this is Suzy Austin, who is this, please?" There was a moment's silence; then she said, more loudly, "But who is speaking, please?" and then she held the receiver out to Mother, saying, "Mother, it's for you, and I don't know who it is. I thought it was Aunt Elena but she didn't say hello to me or anything, so it couldn't be."
Mother went to the phone and I put my math book down on the floor and Mother glared at me and said, "Be quiet, Vicky!" as though I were hammering or something, and I knew something was wrong.
Then Mother said, "Oh, Elena, oh no!" and it was the strangest thing, looking at her, to see her get white beneath her summer brown. And then she said, "What can we do?" and then she was quiet for a long time, and then she said, "Oh, Elena, darling--" as though she were going to say something more, but she didn't say anything more, and then she hung up.
She stood there by the phone without saying anything, and Suzy said, "Mother, what is it? What is it?" and Mr. Rochesterbegan to growl, and Rob said, in the terribly serious voice he gets when he thinks something important is going on, "Mr. Rochester, I think you'd better be quiet."
Mother said, "Vicky, go get Doug."
It wasn't dark yet, because we were still on daylight saving, but it was cold, windy cold, the way it gets around the time of the first frosts, and I ran across the brittle grass to the barn, shivering; I wasn't sure whether I was shivering because I was cold or because something awful had happened.
When I got to the barn John was in the space suit. He and Uncle Douglas had been working on it ever since last Christmas, when Uncle Douglas was up. It has a space-band radio, and a tank of oxygen and something-or-other mix, and in the helmet are all kinds of controls for the radio and air and heat and drinking water and even aspirin, because that was the only kind of pill Daddy would let John have. John spends every penny of his allowance on his space suit, and every penny he can earn mowing lawns or chopping wood or even baby-sitting if nothing else is available, and I'm sure Uncle Douglas slips him extras, though he's not supposed to, for things like the rubber gaskets John said he absolutely had to have. It's quite a space suit, and it won first prize for the state at the Science Fair.
They were so busy they didn't hear me, John in the helmet and Uncle Douglas wearing earphones. I knew the kind of thing they were saying: "Firefly calling Little Bear. Come in, Little Bear." And: "Little Bear to Firefly, shift to directional frequency at two centimeters." I pulled Uncle Douglas's sleeve.
He kind of brushed me away. "Just a minute, Vicky."
I pulled harder. "Uncle Douglas! Please!" I knew they couldn't hear me, but I babbled on, "Mother wants you right away. Aunt Elena called and I think something bad's happened."
Uncle Douglas must have seen by my face that I wasn't just interrupting them to invite them in for a cup of tea. He pulled off his earphones. "What?"
I told him again.
He spoke through the mike to John, told me to wait till John got out of the space suit, and ran out of the barn and across the lawn.
It takes John a good five minutes to get either in or out of his space suit. He lifted off his helmet and put it carefully on its shelf. "What's happened, Vic?" he asked me.
"I don't know," I said. "Aunt Elena called. And then Mother sent me out to get Uncle Douglas."
We didn't say anything else in all the minutes it took John to get out of his space suit. We were both afraid of the same thing. If Aunt Elena called, and it was something bad--and I knew that it was something bad--it must be about Uncle Hal.
Aunt Elena and Uncle Hal aren't our real aunt and uncle, but we love them as though they were. Aunt Elena was Mother's roommate at school in Switzerland and they've been best friends ever since. Aunt Elena is a concert pianist, and she plays all over the country and in Europe, too. Uncle Hal, her husband, is a jet pilot.
Now, we all knew Uncle Hal's work was dangerous, but he was so tremendously alive you couldn't imagine anything ever happening to him. He wasn't nearly as tall as Daddy, but he was sort of big and solid, like a rock, with a great booming laughand brown eyes that twinkled and crinkled. He was one of the first pilots to go through the sound barrier, and whenever a new experimental plane was being invented, you knew Uncle Hal was going to be one of the first to fly it.
I stood there in the deepening shadows of the barn while John got out of his space suit, saying over and over to myself, Oh, God, please, please, make it be something else, not Uncle Hal, oh, please don't make it be anything awful.
Then, at last, John was out of his space suit. He said, "C'mon, Vic," and we went across the lawn to the house. It was just beginning to get dark, and the windows of the house were blank and empty, and no one turned on a light inside.
We went into the kitchen and Mother was still standing by the phone in her blue-and-white-striped cotton dress and I could see that she was trembling, and I was afraid. Usually, whatever happens, Mother can make it safe again, but whatever this was, I knew there was nothing she could do to make it all right. She put her hand up to her forehead as though to smooth back her hair, but her hair was quite tidy. She said--and her voice sounded like somebody else's voice entirely--"Uncle Hal had an accident with his plane today. He was killed instantly."
I looked at Uncle Douglas and he looked angry, as though he wanted to swear, as though he wanted to stamp around, as though he wanted to hit somebody. But all he did was sit down and glare into the fire.
Mother said, "Vicky, take Rob upstairs and give him a bath and put him in his pajamas before Daddy comes home."
Suzy said, "But we were all going star--"
John said, "Suzy!"
But Mother just said, in that funny quiet voice she uses only when she's very angry or very upset, "Not tonight, Suzy. Go on up and get into your nightclothes. All of you. You, too, John, please."
John is the oldest and wisest of us, and I think he knew that Mother wanted terribly to be able to call Daddy, and all I wanted in the world was to have Daddy come home, to feel him put his arms around me and give me a tight hug and know that he was all right. As I started upstairs with Rob I saw John put his arms around Mother, and I realized suddenly how he must have shot up during the summer, because as he stood there by her he was as tall as she is, and we are a tall family. His face was very grave, and he looked almost grown up as he gave Mother a hug, and then he turned and came upstairs, too, but slowly, not three at a time, his usual way.
I ran Rob's bath and let him put in all his bath toys, which meant that there was scarcely any room for Rob, since he has all kinds of things for bath toys as well as the usual ducks and boats. He has a sand bucket and an old telescope and a bent muffin pan. He played noisily, and I had an awful time trying to keep him from splashing water all over the bathroom floor, and I was angry because I didn't think he cared or understood about Uncle Hal at all.
John and Suzy were absolutely quiet getting ready for bed; the whole house sounded like another place, not like our house at that time of day. I just sat on the toilet lid and watched Rob and told him to wash his knees, and he wouldn't wash his face with soap, so I did it for him, and then he started to yell andscream and I was sure I hadn't got any soap in his eyes; I'd been especially careful. Then John came in and shouted at me, for heaven's sake, couldn't I think of Mother for once and do a simple thing like giving Rob his bath without causing all this sound and fury?
I sat back down again and I started to shout at John, but, instead, my voice sort of crumpled and I said, "Oh, John."
He said, "I'm sorry, Vic," and went out, buttoning the top of his brown-and-white-striped pajamas. Colette, our French poodle, lay on the bath mat and waited for Rob to get out of the tub so she could lick his feet, and Rob giggled at her when she did it, as though nothing had happened at all. And I wanted to shake him.
I got Rob's pajamas on him and took him in Suzy's and my room and sat him down on my bed while I got into my own nightclothes. Colette scrambled up on the bed by him. I think both Mr. Rochester and Colette are particularly fond of Rob because he's such a baby--he's almost five years younger than Suzy--and he loves them so, he's always hugging them and kissing them. When he was a baby he used to ride Mr. Rochester as though he were a horse, and sometimes Mr. Rochester will still let him do it.
Suzy had taken off her clothes but she hadn't done anything else. She stood there, naked except for a bandage on her knee where she'd skinned it, and scribbled on the blackboard with a scrap of yellow chalk, and I said, "Suzy, you'll catch cold and Mother'll be furious," and she turned away from the blackboard as though I'd woken her up in the middle of a dream.
We heard Daddy coming in. The back door slammed andwe heard him call out to Mother, but we didn't go tearing down the stairs and dash at him the way we usually do. Suzy sat on the floor pulling on her slippers and I tied the belt to my bathrobe three times, and John came in and said, "Everybody ready?" Rob put up his arms to be carried, as though he were still a baby, and John picked him up and said, "Well, I think Daddy's home," and we all crept downstairs.
Daddy was standing in the kitchen with his arms around Mother and neither of them was saying anything, but for just a moment everything seemed safe and all right again; and then Daddy saw us and said, "Well, children," and dropped his arms, and Mother said, "We'd better eat dinner. Call Douglas, please, Wallace." Daddy called and Uncle Douglas came in from the study, still looking terribly angry.
We sat down and said grace, but saying thank you, even for food, seemed a strange thing to do. And not one of us tasted the roast beef or any of the other special things Mother had fixed for Uncle Douglas. It might have been sawdust.
I took up a mouthful and tried to chew it, and when I looked over at Daddy my heart ached with love and fear. Uncle Hal was dead, and so, suddenly, Daddy was in danger, too; and I looked at him and thought how very terribly I loved him, every part of him, and then I noticed all kinds of things about him that I'd just taken for granted or hadn't seen before. There was quite a lot of gray in his nice brown hair, more than I remembered being there, and his forehead seemed higher, too. And there were some new gray hairs in his bristly eyebrows. He sat there eating, grave, but not sort of stricken like the rest of us. He saw me looking over at him, and he looked up at meand his brown eyes, with sort of golden flecks in them, smiled at me, and somehow I felt better.
After dinner Uncle Douglas took Suzy and Rob into the study and played with them, and John and I helped Mother and Daddy put the dishes in the dishwasher and clean up, and before we'd finished Daddy got a call and had to go down to the hospital. He put his arms around Mother again and said, "I don't think I'll be very long. I'll be home as soon as I can and I'll phone you if I'm longer than I expect." Then he kissed us all good night and slung Rob over his shoulders like a sack of flour and took him upstairs and dumped him down on his bed.
Mother came up to read to us and put us to bed. We were in the middle of The Jungle Book then. We always try to pick things everybody will like for the read-aloud books, and even Rob enjoyed Mowgli and Rikki-tikki-tavi. But Mother only read us a couple of pages. We were in Suzy's and my room. We take turns: one night Suzy's and my room, the next night John and Rob's. There are twin beds in Suzy's and my room, and John sat on the foot of Suzy's bed, and Rob got in with me and messed all the bedclothes up, and Mother sat on the floor between the beds. Colette curled up cozily in Mother's lap and yawned all through the reading. Mr. Rochester very seldom comes upstairs; Mother and Daddy don't encourage it, he's so big. But that night he didn't seem to want to stay downstairs; he must have sensed that something was wrong, so we heard him lumbering up. Poor Rochester, he's very heavy on his feet, and clumsy, too, and he's always getting scolded for bumping into things and knocking them over. It's very sad for him, becauseColette's so delicate and graceful. Now Mr. Rochester sniffed around both beds and finally sat down with a thud by Mother and Colette.
When Mother closed the book, we turned out the light and said prayers. We have a couple of family prayers and Our Father and then we each say our own God Bless. Rob is very personal about his God Bless. He puts in anything he feels like, and Mother and Daddy had to scold Suzy to stop her from teasing him about it. Last Christmas, for instance, in the middle of his God Bless, he said, "Oh, and God bless Santa Claus, and bless you, too, God." So I guess that night we were all waiting for him to say something about Uncle Hal. I was afraid maybe he wouldn't, and I wanted him to, badly.
"God bless Mother and Daddy and John and Vicky and Suzy," he said, "and Mr. Rochester and Colette and Grandfather and all the cats and Uncle Douglas and Aunt Elena and Uncle Hal and ..." and then he stopped and said, "and all the cats and Uncle Douglas and Aunt Elena and Uncle Hal," and then he stopped again and said, "and especially Uncle Hal, God, and make his plane have taken him to another planet to live so he's all right because you can do that, God, John says you can, and we all want him to be all right, because we love him, and God bless me and make me a good boy. Amen."
Mother didn't sing to us that night. She usually sings to us, but she said, "I'm going downstairs now, children. Please be good and try to go to sleep right away. Run along into your own room, John and Rob. I'll come tuck you in as soon as I tuck in the girls."
Rob slowly got out of my bed. He stood up on the foot of it and said to Mother, "Do you ever cry?"
"Of course, Rob," Mother said. "I cry just like anybody else."
"But I never see you cry," Rob said.
"Mothers have to try not to cry," Mother said. "At least, not too often. Now, run along to your own room."
She tucked Suzy and me in, and kissed us, and then we heard her go in to Rob and John.
I couldn't go to sleep. I lay there and my bed was all rumpled up from Rob, and I got up and straightened it out and tucked it in again and lay there on my back and I couldn't sleep. I whispered, "Suzy," but she didn't answer. She only sighed heavily and turned over and I knew that she was asleep. I was cold, and Mother hadn't put on our winter blankets yet, and I pulled up the bedspread and lay there with the covers under my chin, and it wasn't only because autumn was coming that I was cold.
Suzy's and my room is over the study, and I could hear Mother and Uncle Douglas talking, just the rumble of their voices, Uncle Douglas's deep and rich, Mother's lighter. Then the phone rang and then there was silence for a long time, and then their voices again, and then another phone call. Suzy's little blue clock seemed to tick louder and louder, and finally I put on the light to see what time it was, and it was after eleven.
I couldn't stand it any longer. I got up. I went to the bathroom, and then I looked into John and Rob's room, but they were both asleep. I'd been hoping John would be awake, too, because I knew that he felt worse about Uncle Hal than any of the rest of us.
I went and sat for a moment at the top of the back stairs,because the light and warmth from the kitchen came up to me and gave me a feeling of safety. Then I heard Mother on the telephone: "Yes, of course, Douglas will drive right down; wait a minute, Elena, I'll put him on."
I knew that I mustn't eavesdrop, but I couldn't go back upstairs and to bed, so I went on down. Uncle Douglas must have been right by Mother, because he was holding the phone to his ear, and Mother saw me and said, "Vicky," and then, "Go wait in the study." In a moment she came and joined me, saying, "What's the matter, Vic?"
"I couldn't sleep."
She nodded. "I know. How about the others?"
"I think they're all asleep."
"He's asleep. Mother," I started. "Why? Why did Uncle Hal have to be--"
But then Uncle Douglas came in. "Vic," he started to say to Mother; then he saw me. "Oh, hello, Vicky, what are you doing?"
"She was just wakeful," Mother said quickly for me. "So now what, Doug? Are you going?"
"Yes," Uncle Douglas said. "Right away."
"Where's Uncle Douglas going?" I asked. I was all tangled up in my mind, because it didn't seem fair for Uncle Douglas to be dashing off again just after he had come. We all loved him so terribly much, and I hadn't had a chance to see him at all, really, since he'd arrived the night before, and yet I didn't understand how I could be disappointed about a thing like that at a time like this.
He came over to me and put his hand under my chin so that he could look down into my eyes. I looked up at him, hoping that he could straighten me out, because, though Uncle Douglas is always making jokes and people call him a bohemian because he's an artist and maybe because of his beard, too, he also seems able to straighten things out. He says it's because he's not around all the time, so he has perspective on us.
Now he said, "Aunt Elena needs me, little one. I'm going to see if I can be of any help to her. She's very much alone now. And Uncle Hal's copilot was killed, too, you see, and he had a little girl. She doesn't have any mother, so your Aunt Elena's in charge of her for the moment. So that's another complication, too."
"Oh," I said, and it all seemed more frightening and terrible than ever.
"Go upstairs now, Vicky," Mother said. "Try to go to sleep or you'll never be up in time for Sunday school tomorrow. I'll come up to you later and see if you're still awake."
Uncle Douglas kissed me goodbye, his beard tickling me softly, and I trailed on upstairs. I climbed into bed and the night-light from the bathroom came in gently, and by and by a rectangle of light came in through the window and wheeled across the ceiling, and it was Uncle Douglas getting his car out and driving off.
Because I knew that Mother would come in to me, I was able to relax a little as I lay there, instead of just bouncing around the way I'd been doing before. I didn't want to sleep. All I wanted to do was to talk, to talk to people who were alive and who could help make me less frightened and confused. Idon't know exactly why I was so frightened and confused; maybe if I'd known why, I wouldn't have been.
I heard Daddy come home, and then he and Mother came upstairs. I heard Daddy take Rob to the bathroom, and then Mother came in to me and sat down on the side of my bed, and the light from her bedside lamp shone across the hall and onto my bed and her face.
"Mother, how old is the little girl?" I asked.
She must have been thinking very hard about something else, because she said, "What little girl?"
"The one whose father was Uncle Hal's copilot."
A year older than Suzy; two years younger than I am. And she didn't have a mother or a father. "Mother, I don't understand life and death."
Mother laughed softly, a little sadly, and ran her hand over my forehead. "My darling, if you did you'd know more than anybody in the world. We mustn't talk any more now. We'll wake Suzy."
And Daddy came and stood in the doorway, saying quietly, "Vicky, John is asleep and you must try to go to sleep, too."
He and Mother went into their room and turned off their light, and the soft sound of their voices talking quietly together must have acted like a lullaby on me, because I turned over and went to sleep.
Sometime during the night the phone rang again; I woke up just enough to realize it. And it rang again in the morning--the house phone both times, not the office ring; but once I hadfinally gone to sleep I was so sleepy that the sound of the phone hardly got through to me, and it was only as I was waking up, with the sun shining full across my bed, and heard the office phone ringing that I remembered the phone had rung during the night.
We have lots more time on Sundays than we do on schooldays, but there always seems to be more of a rush to get to Sunday school on time than there is to catch the school bus, so we don't make our beds till we get home from Sunday school and church. As soon as we got home from church Mother told us to get out of our good clothes and into play clothes (I don't know why we'd never do it if she didn't tell us, but there's always so much to do that we just don't think about it) and then she told me to strip my bed and make it up with clean sheets. "And check the guest room, Vicky," she said. "Make sure there are clean sheets on the guest-room beds."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because I tell you to," she said, as though I were Rob, and that was all.
I was almost through when she came up and said, "Vicky, would you mind sleeping in Rob's room for a while?"
"Me? Why?" I asked in surprise.
"You must have realized that Aunt Elena called several times last night. I talked with her again this morning, and Uncle Douglas is driving her up here with Maggy."
"Margaret Hamilton, the little girl whose father was Uncle Hal's copilot."
I hadn't quite finished making the bed, but I sat down on the edge of it. "When are they coming?"
"They're on their way now," Mother said. "They ought to be here this afternoon. I thought that since Maggy and Suzy are so close in age, I'd put Maggy in your bed."
"What about John?"
"He'll sleep in the study tonight while Aunt Elena's here. When she goes, he can have the guest room. I know you have a lot of homework this year, Vicky, but John has even more, and I think he must be the one to have the room to himself. It won't be all gravy, you know; he'll have to move out whenever we have company."
I thought this over for a moment. Then I said, "How long is the little girl ... Maggy ... staying?"
"I don't know," Mother said. "We'll just have to see."
"And Mother ... why is she coming to us?"
"It's too complicated to go into now," Mother said briskly. "Come along, Vic, let's get the beds done."
Mother usually gives us nice, full explanations for things, but on the rare occasions when she doesn't (I think being cryptic is what I mean), there's no point asking any more questions, so we just finished up with the beds.
After lunch John had to work on his science project, so he went off to the barn, with Daddy warning him to do his project and not his space suit. I biked over to the center of Thornhill to check my math homework with Nanny Jenkins, my best friend. Nanny's parents run the store in the village and Mr. Jenkins plays the cello, too. Math is not my best subject and I find that ifI don't check my problems I'm apt to make silly mistakes in adding or subtracting that make the whole problem wrong even if I've been doing it the right way. We finished about five o'clock and it was time for me to get along home, anyhow. Mother doesn't like us to ride our bikes after dark unless there's a very good reason. It's a nice ride home from the village, up the one real street in Thornhill, a nice wide street with white houses set back on sloping lawns and lots of elms and maples (it's just a typical New England village--at least, that's what Uncle Douglas says), and then off onto the back road. The back road is a dirt road, and it's windy and hilly and roundabout and so bumpy that cars don't drive on it very often. Our house is at the other end of it, just about a mile and a half. In the autumn it's especially beautiful, with the leaves turned and the ground slowly being carpeted with them. Where the trees are the heaviest and the road cuts through a little wood, the leaves are the last to turn, so that as I pedaled along, the evening sun was shining through green, and up ahead of me, where the trees thinned out, everything was red and orange and yellow.
A little green snake wriggled across the road in front of me, and I thought how thrilled Rob would be if he were along. Almost every day all summer he would go up the lane hunting for a turtle to bring home as a pet. We never found a turtle, but we've seen lots of deer, and a woodchuck that lives in the old stone wall by the brook, and any number of rabbits; and once we saw a red fox.
When I got home, Uncle Douglas's red car was parked outside the garage behind our station wagon, so I knew they were there.
And suddenly I felt very funny about going in, and took twice as long as I needed to put my bike in the shed. I hung my jacket up in the back-hall closet and picked up Suzy's and Rob's jackets, which they'd evidently hung on the floor, and put them on hangers--anything to put off opening the back door and going into the kitchen.
Why was I so shy about seeing Aunt Elena and meeting Maggy, or even saying hello to Uncle Douglas again when I'd been talking with him only the night before?
Finally there was nothing to do except open the door and go in, so I did. And instead of finding the kitchen full of everybody as it usually is at that time of day, I saw Aunt Elena standing in front of the stove alone. She turned to greet me and she said immediately and briskly, "Ah, Vicky, you've saved me. I am not ten feet tall like your mother and I cannot reach the coffee."
So I didn't have to say anything. I didn't even have to kiss her, which would have been the easiest thing in the world to do up to the time the telephone rang the day before and which now seemed to take more courage than I possessed. I pulled a stool over to the stove and climbed up on it and got the can of coffee.
"No, the other one," Aunt Elena said. "I promised your mother I'd make some café espresso for after dinner."
And all I could say was, "Oh." I stood there, watching her. She didn't look any different; she looked just the same way she had a few weeks before, when she and Uncle Hal were up for the weekend; and yet she wasn't the same person at all. She stood there in her black dress measuring coffee, wearing blacknot because of Uncle Hal but because she is a city person and she looks beautiful in black and wears it a great deal. Her hair is black, too, and in one portrait Uncle Douglas painted of her he used great enormous globs of blue and green in the hair, and, funnily enough, when it was done it was exactly right. We have a lovely portrait of Mother Uncle Douglas painted, and he's painted quite a few others of her, too, and one is in a museum. Uncle Douglas says he paints only beautiful women. But, he says, beautiful is not pretty. I don't really know whether Mother is beautiful or not. To me she looks exactly the way a mother should look, but only in the portrait where she's holding Rob just a few weeks after he was born does Uncle Douglas see her the way I do.
Aunt Elena doesn't look like a mother at all--and, of course, she isn't. Her black hair falls loose to her shoulders and she always looks to us as though she were dressed to go to a party. When she plays with us we always have a wonderful time, but it's as though we were brand new to her each time, not as though she were used to being around children at all. Uncle Hal, with his big booming laugh and the way he could roughhouse with us all, was quite different. I thought of Uncle Hal and remembered that I would never see him again, and I looked at Aunt Elena, and it was as though it were terribly cold and my sorrow was freezing inside me so that I couldn't speak.
John came in just then, bursting in through the kitchen door with his jacket still on and his face so pink from the cold that the lenses of his glasses began to steam up from the warmth of the kitchen.
John and I fight a lot, but I have to admit that John is the nicest one of us all. He seems to know what to do and say to people without having to think about it, and whenever there are elections and things John always gets elected president. So now he was able to do what I wanted to do and knew I ought to do and simply couldn't do. He went right up to Aunt Elena and put his arms around her and hugged her hard and kissed her. He didn't say anything about Uncle Hal, but it was perfectly obvious exactly what he was saying. For a moment Aunt Elena sort of clung to him, and then, just as I thought maybe she was going to start to cry, John took his arms away and said, "Aunt Elena, you're the only person around here who can untie knots, and my shoelace is all fouled up. Could you untie it for me?" And he yanked off his shoe and handed it to her.
Now, I am very good at untying knots and I always untie John's knots for him and I started to say so, indignantly, but then I realized what John was doing and I shut my mouth, just in time. Aunt Elena bent over John's shoe, and the tears that had been starting in her eyes went back, and when she handed John the shoe she smiled and looked like herself.
"Where's everybody?" John demanded.
"Your mother's out picking carrots," Aunt Elena said.
"Oh, no, not carrots again." John groaned. "I wish Rob had never planted those carrots. Where're the kids?"
"Your Uncle Douglas took them for a walk."
"What's for dinner--other than carrots? Carrot sticks this time, I hope. We had 'em cooked last night." He went over to the stove, lifted the lid off a big saucepan, and sniffed. "Um, spaghetti. Garlic bread?"
"But of course," Aunt Elena said as Mother came in, her arms full of carrots.
I was helping Mother scrape the carrots when there came the sounds of shouting and talking and then in they came, seeming like a whole horde of children instead of just three and Uncle Douglas.
And a dark-haired little girl came dancing in, screaming shrilly, "You can't catch me! You can't catch me!" and went dancing around the table, Suzy and Rob after her, and, of course, Rochester came dashing in to see what was going on and knocked over a chair, and the little girl knocked over another chair, not because she was clumsy, like Rochester and me, but because she wanted to hear the crash.
"All right," Mother said, far more pleasantly than she would have if it had been just us or one of our friends from around here, "this furniture has to last us for quite a long while. Let's keep the rougher kind of roughhousing for outdoors, shall we?"
And the little girl paid absolutely no attention. "C'mon, Suzy, chase me!" she shrieked, and knocked over another chair.
Mother's voice was still pleasant but considerably firmer. "Maggy, I said not in here, please. Suzy and Rob, pick up the chairs. Maggy, you haven't met John and Vicky yet. John and Vic, this is Margaret Hamilton."
John shook hands with her and said, "We're glad you've come to stay with us for a while, Maggy."
Maggy looked him up and down and said, "Well, I don't know if I'll like living way out in the country," in a sort of a disapproving way.
I shook hands with her and she looked me up and down inthe same way she had John and said, "You're not as pretty as Suzy."
Now, this is true, but it wasn't very tactful. Suzy is pretty and fluffy and she has curly blond hair, and I'm tall and skinny and my hair is sort of mousy and doesn't have any curl at all and I cut off my braids when I went back to school this autumn and I wish I hadn't. I know all this about myself, but I still got kind of red and unhappy when Maggy said that about Suzy and me.
Uncle Douglas said quickly, "Remember the story of the ugly duckling, Maggy? Vicky's going to be the swan of you all. Someday I'm going to paint her."
I could see that Maggy didn't like that very much, because she flounced over to Suzy, saying, "C'mon, let's go up to our room and play." Even when she flounced she was graceful, sort of like a butterfly, and if you hadn't known she wasn't Aunt Elena's daughter or any relation at all you would have thought Aunt Elena was her mother, because Maggy has the same shiny soft black hair and enormous dark eyes. Well, I guess that's really all that's alike, because under the flesh the bones are shaped differently. Aunt Elena's features are strong and definite, and her nose has a high bridge. And Maggy's face is soft and wistful, and her eyes are just a tiny bit almond-shaped.
She and Suzy started to dash upstairs and Mother called Suzy back down and told her to set the table first, and that from now on Maggy could help her.
"I don't know how," Maggy said flatly.
"Suzy will show you."
"Sure," Suzy said. "Come on, Maggy. How many tonight?"
"Count," Mother said automatically.
"Six of us," Suzy said, "and Maggy and Aunt Elena and Uncle Douglas is ... is ..."
"Seventeen," Rob said.
"Nine," Suzy said. "So we'll have to put the leaves in the table."
John went to get the leaves, because they're quite heavy, and there was a frantic scratching and a shrill barking, and Rochester bounded to the door, and we realized that Colette had been left out.
"I'll let her in," I said. "I'll be back in just a minute." Usually, just before dinner is the nicest time of day, but this evening I suddenly wanted to be alone for a few minutes. Was it just because Maggy had reminded me that I am plain? Mother says that I'm getting very broody, and part of it is my age, and most of it is just me.
I walked slowly around the house, with Colette prancing about me. It was nearly dark and lights were on in almost all the windows of the house and rectangles of light poured out onto the lawn. There were still a few leftover summer noises--a frog or an insect--and the air was clear and cold, and finally I had to run to keep warm and Colette began yipping and nipping at my heels in excitement, thinking I was playing a game just especially for her.
Then there came the sound of the piano, coming clear and beautiful out into the night, and I knew that Aunt Elena must be in the living room, playing. When she's with us she often sits at the piano and plays and plays and plays, but somehow I hadn't expected her to this time, and it made me feel more the crying kind of unhappy than I'd felt since the phone call. It wasn't thatshe was playing anything sad or anything--mostly it was Bach, I think--but just having her sit there at the piano, playing, and knowing that Uncle Hal would never hear her again made me want to go find Mother and put my head against her and howl.
I stayed out, listening for a moment, and when I went back in the house things had calmed down considerably. Aunt Elena was still at the piano; Suzy and Maggy must have gone upstairs; Rob and Uncle Douglas were watching television in the study; and John and Mother were talking while Mother made the salad.
"Vicky," Mother said, "tell Rob he hasn't put the napkins on the table yet and to come do it as soon as there's an ad on." Putting on the napkins and the table mats, when we don't use a tablecloth, is Rob's part of setting the table. Suzy does the silver and I do the china and glasses.
I went in to tell Rob, and when he'd gone into the kitchen to do his job I sat down on the arm of Uncle Douglas's chair.
"Turn that thing down, Vicky," he said. "It's blasting my ears off."
I turned down the volume and then went and sat by Uncle Douglas again. "What's on your mind, young lady?" he asked me.
I did have something on my mind; I did want to talk to him; how did he always know? "Uncle Douglas," I said, "why is it that John can show Aunt Elena he's sorry about Uncle Hal and I can't, and I'm so terribly, terribly sorry?"
Uncle Douglas put his arm around me and his beard rubbed gently against my cheek. "Aunt Elena knows you're sorry, dear."
"But why does John know what to say, and how to say it, and all I can do is act stupid, as though it didn't matter?"
"Just because it matters too much. Have you ever heard of empathy?"
I shook my head.
"John can show Aunt Elena how sorry he is because he has a scientific mind and he can see what has happened from the outside. All good scientists have to know how to be observers. He can be deeply upset about Uncle Hal and deeply sorry for Aunt Elena, but he can be objective about it. You can't."
"Because you have an artistic temperament, Vicky, and I've never seen you be objective about anything yet. When you think about Aunt Elena and how she must be feeling right now, it is for the moment as though you were Aunt Elena; you get right inside her suffering, and it becomes your suffering, too. That's empathy, and it's something all artists are afflicted with."
"Sure. But I'm older than you are and I can cope with it better."
"But, Uncle Douglas, I'm not artistic. I haven't any talent for anything."
Uncle Douglas patted me again. "Don't worry, duckling. That will come, too."
Uncle Douglas can always make me feel more than I am, as though I were really somebody. It's one of the very nicest things about him.
Rob came in just then and turned the volume up on the TVagain, so I kissed Uncle Douglas and went back out to the kitchen because I didn't feel like watching cartoons.
After a while Daddy came home and Mother told me to go up and tell Suzy and Maggy to wash their hands and get ready for dinner. I went into the bathroom with them to wash my hands, too. Suzy and Maggy were kind of giggling together while they washed up, as though they were sharing a secret they weren't going to let me in on, but after she'd dried her hands Maggy turned to me and her eyes seemed to grow very dark and big and she said, "My father's plane exploded yesterday."
"Yes," I said. I thought I ought to say something else, but I didn't know what else to say. You can't just politely say "I'm sorry," as though it were one of Rob's toy airplanes.
"If he hadn't died he was going to take me to the ocean for two weeks and I did want to go."
Now I could say, "I'm sorry."
"People ought to be sorry for me," Maggy said. "I'm an orphan."
"I'm sorry for you," Suzy said earnestly. "I'm terribly sorry for you, Maggy."
"So you'll be nice to me, won't you?" Maggy asked.
I was sorry for her; with my mind I was sorry for her, but I wasn't feeling any empathy. And that was peculiar: here was Maggy, almost my age, only a couple of years younger, and her mother and father were both dead, and I couldn't think of anything more horrible in the world; and Aunt Elena was a grownup, so of course I couldn't feel about her the way I couldabout another girl. But it was Aunt Elena I ached over, and for Maggy I could feel only a strange bewilderment.
Mother called us down for dinner then, and after dinner Aunt Elena and Uncle Douglas left. The funeral was to be the next day, and Mother and Daddy were going down in the morning.
Bedtime was even stranger than it had been the night before. Mother read to us in Suzy's and my room, only now it wasn't Suzy's and my room, it was Suzy and Maggy's room. Suzy and Maggy giggled together while Mother read, and when I told them to be quiet so the rest of us could hear, Maggy said, "My, but she's bossy."
Suzy said, "I should think you'd be ashamed of yourself, Victoria Austin."
Rob said, "What for?"
And John said, "For crying out loud, all of you kids shut up."
Mother didn't say anything. She looked around at us with sort of a quizzical look on her face and went on reading.
Rob went to sleep right away; he always does. I was allowed to read till nine, but even after I turned out the light I couldn't sleep--partly, of course, because I'm older, but also, I wasn't used to being in John's bed. John has a big double bed, and Rob's, which is across the foot of it, is much, much smaller.
Rob has allergies and he often snores in the autumn, and he snored that night and it was a cold night again and he burrowed down under the covers and only a tuft of light brown hair showed and his snores sounded contented and comfortable. I could see him because we always have a night-light on in thebathroom all night, and it makes just enough light come into our bedrooms so you can see a little.
I was just about to settle myself and try to go to sleep when John tiptoed in. He had on blue jeans and his heavy red jacket, and he came over to the bed and whispered, "Get dressed in something warm--you know, jeans or slacks--and come on down," and disappeared.
I got up and dressed and went down the back stairs into the kitchen and Mother was standing there in her polo coat and she said, "Get your jacket, Vicky. I thought maybe you and John and I might take some blankets and just go sit outside and watch the sky."
"Can we go up Hawk," John asked, "and watch from the top of the ski trails?"
Mother hesitated. "Let me check with Daddy."
Daddy was in the study reading an article in a medical magazine, and he said to go on, he wasn't expecting any calls, but we'd better not stay more than half an hour; it was too cold, anyhow.
So we got in the station wagon, with Colette in my lap and Mr. Rochester in back sitting on the three army blankets we'd brought, and drove to Hawk. Hawk is a beautiful mountain with ski trails and picnic places, and from the fire lookout you can see five states, and we love to go there. When we got out of the car Colette dashed out and barked madly and rushed around in circles the way she always does, and Mr. Rochester bounded around, and Mother and John spread one of the blankets out on the grass and we sat down on it and put one of theother blankets about our shoulders and the other one over our laps. Mother sat in the middle and both of us sat as close to her as we possibly could. The sky would probably have been just as beautiful if we'd sat on the north lawn at home, but we could have seen the lights of the village, and up on the mountain it seemed as though we were miles and miles from everywhere. The sky was enormous and terribly high. It's a funny thing: the colder it gets, the farther away the sky seems and the farther off the stars look. The sky was so thick with them it was almost as though it had been snowing stars, and down below us there was a white fog, so it seemed as though we were looking out over a great lake. The Milky Way was a river of light, and John began pointing out the constellations, and I found the Big Dipper and the North Star and Cassiopeia's Chair and Scorpio and Sagittarius. Sagittarius is my favorite because it's my sign of the zodiac and I like the idea of aiming for the stars.
Mother said, "I know you're both very upset about Uncle Hal and Maggy's father. We all are. I thought maybe if we came and looked at the stars it would help us to talk about it a little."
Just then a shooting star flashed across the sky, and John said, "There's a shooting star and I don't know what to wish. I want to wish it back to before yesterday and that none of this would have happened, but I know it wouldn't work."
I said, "Mother, I don't understand it," and I began to shiver.
Mother said, "Sometimes it's very hard to see the hand of God instead of the blind finger of Chance. That's why I wanted to come out where we could see the stars."
"I talked to Aunt Elena for a while," John said, in a strained sort of voice, "when everybody else was busy. We took Mr. Rochester and Colette for a walk." Mr. Rochester came up to us then and lay down beside me with a thud, putting his heavy head across my knees. Colette was already cuddled up in Mother's lap. I looked toward John, and the lenses of his glasses glimmered in the starlight. "She said that she and Uncle Hal knew that they were living on borrowed time," John said. "They'd always hoped it would be longer than it was, but the way their lives were, they only lived together in snatches, anyhow. And she said she was grateful for every moment she'd ever had with him, and, even if it was all over, she wouldn't trade places with anybody in the world."
"She said that to you, John?" Mother asked.
"Yes," John said, and then another star shot across the sky, this time with a shower of sparks. We sat there, close, close, and it was as though we could feel the love we had for one another moving through our bodies, moving from me through Mother, from Mother to John, and back again. I could feel the love filling me, love for Mother and John, and for Daddy and Suzy and Rob, too. And I prayed, "Oh, God, keep us together, please keep us together, please keep us safe and well and together."
It was as though our thoughts were traveling to one another, too, because John said, "Oh, Mother, why do things have to change and be different!" He sounded quite violent. "I like us exactly the way we are, our family. Why do people have to die, and people grow up and get married, and everybody growaway from each other? I wish we could just go on being exactly the way we are!"
"But we can't," Mother said. "We can't stop on the road of Time. We have to keep on going. And growing up is all part of it, the exciting and wonderful business of being alive. We can't understand it, any of us, any more than we can understand why Uncle Hal and Maggy's father had to die. But being alive is a gift, the most wonderful and exciting gift in the world. And there'll undoubtedly be many other moments when you'll feel this same way, John, when you're grown up and have children of your own."
"I don't understand about anything," John said. "I don't understand about people dying, and I don't understand about families, about people being as close as we are, and then everybody growing up, and not having Rob a baby anymore, and having to go off and live completely different lives."
"But look how close Grandfather and I still are," Mother said.
John shook his head. "I know. But it isn't the same thing. It's not like when you were little."
"No," Mother said. "But if I'd never grown up and met Daddy and married him you wouldn't be here, or Vicky or Suzy or Rob, and we wouldn't be sitting up here on Hawk Mountain shivering and looking at the stars. And we must have been here at least half an hour. Time to go home."
We went home and then we just stood outside for a while. The moon was sailing high now, and the sky was clear above the black pines at the horizon, with Northern Lights, which we hadn't seen up on Hawk at all, sending occasional rays darting high up into the sky. Daddy had heard us drive up, and he cameout and stood with us, his arm about Mother. I'd never seen such a startlingly brilliant night, the fields and mountains washed in a flood of light. The shadows of trees and sunflowers were sharply black and stretched long and thin across the lawn. It was so beautiful that for the moment the beauty was all that mattered; it wasn't important that there were things we would never understand.
MEET THE AUSTINS. Copyright © 1960 by Madeleine L'Engle, renewed 1988 by Crosswicks, Ltd. Copyright © 1980, 1997 by Crosswicks, Ltd.