MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
This is the story of Winifred, Wilfred, and Zebediah; Crying Alice; and Flying Bob. It is in part the story of Thomasina and Old Tom. It is only in small part my story, but I get to do the telling. My name is Franny, and I am living with Thomasina and Old Tom because of a series of mistakes involving their neighbors. Old Tom always calls Thomasina Thomasina. But I have always addressed her as Sina because when I was little “Thomasina” was too difficult for me to say. When I was just a baby I was supposed to be adopted by the family who lived next door to Sina and Old Tom, but the night before this was to happen the neighbors’ house burned down and the neighbors burned with it. No one bothered to inform the adoption agency. The caseworker knocked on Sina and Old Tom’s door, and when Sina answered the caseworker said, “I was supposed to drop this baby off next door, but there appears to be no next door.”
Sina stuck her head around the door and spied the smoke. The smoldering embered remains of our neighbors’ house were quite a ways down the lonely stretch of coastal farm road, but across our eastern cove you could see what was left of the house. It was the smoke billowing above the waters that Sina was staring at when she said, “So there doesn’t.”
Old Tom came into the front hall and said, “Ah, that’s what all the commotion was about last night.”
“Can you hold the baby?” asked the caseworker, handing me to Old Tom. “I seem to be having a pain.”
Old Tom passed me to Sina. “I don’t have much to do with babies if I can help it,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t like them. I just don’t know what to do with them.”
Then while Sina held me and she and Old Tom looked on, the caseworker had a heart attack and died right there on the doorstep.
“My goodness,” said Sina.
“I guess we’ll have to keep her,” said Old Tom, meaning me, not the caseworker. He knelt down to see if she required anything in the way of CPR. She was quite dead, but he tried anyway. “You have to,” he told me whenever he related the oft-told tale. “Even though it is clear it will do no good. You have to try anyway if you belong to the Church of Lost Causes.”
There is no such church. It was just something that Old Tom said a lot. Perhaps he had a whole liturgy of lost causes going on in his head. Perhaps he peopled it with a whole hierarchy of clergy. Who knows? Or perhaps it was just something he said to amuse himself. A little wry comment on his character.
“We shall call her Franny,” said Sina.
“Francesca,” said Old Tom, nodding. “It’s a noble name.”
“No,” said Sina. “Franny. Not short for anything. I can tell she’s going to be a serious, practical, and realistic person. I can feel it in my bones.”
Old Tom never argued with Sina’s bones.
“I don’t suppose there’s anything left of the baby stuff next door,” said Sina, pondering the smoking ruins.
After that Old Tom called an ambulance to take away the dead body. When the ambulance workers had done so, Old Tom and Sina, carrying me, walked over to look at the smoking ruins from enough angles to determine that there would indeed be no salvageable baby stuff.
As far as the adoption agency was concerned, the goods had been delivered. As far as the ambulance personnel were concerned, the body of the caseworker was now their problem. As far as Sina and Old Tom were concerned, any adoption agency so inept that they couldn’t keep track of their deliveries had had their chance with me. Now the fates had put me with them, and I was their problem.
“Tom, go into Victoria and buy diapers and baby furniture and bottles and formula and anything else that occurs to you. I will take Franny and show her the house.”
Sina showed me the first floor, with the parlor, the library, the kitchen, the dining and living rooms with their big fireplaces, the sun room, and the attached greenhouse, which is really Old Tom’s domain even though it is in the house, which is Sina’s domain. Then up to the second floor, with the four bedrooms. Two of those face the south and the sea. They belong to Sina and Old Tom.
Although they are married, you would be forgiven for thinking they were distant cousins or something because they are both in their own little worlds most of the time and Old Tom is a foot shorter than Sina, which seems strange in a husband/wife situation somehow. I mean, you can’t choose the height of other people. But you’d think people sizing up prospective spouses would, in the back of their minds, be looking for someone nearer their own height if only to make kissing more convenient. Or, at most, having the man taller by a foot than the woman. I believe it’s really very unusual the other way around. But Sina is rather tall for a woman and Old Tom is a bit on the short side for a man, although neither is freakishly so. In addition, Sina is all caught up in her sculpting and Old Tom in his gardens, and when they sit across from each other at the little kitchen table, both just having happened to find themselves there in the late afternoon for a cup of tea, they often hardly seem to notice each other. I have come across them contemplatively eating biscuits and staring moodily out the window to the sea, and if I say hello they turn to me and answer, “Hello, Franny,” and then seem to suddenly notice each other and jump. I’m used to it but other people might find it odd, is all I’m saying.
Anyway, I have a bedroom facing the back with one window from which I can just see the ocean where it curves around toward Beechey Head. I get the sunsets from there. And then there’s an empty bedroom, and up one floor from there are six small maid’s rooms (but no maids) and an attic storage room. It’s quite the Victorian wedding cake of a house.
There’s the bathroom with the clawfoot tub on the second floor. And the bathroom with the regular tub on the third floor. But no toilets. Because the house is Victorian, running water is a recent addition, but Old Tom and Sina never put in toilets or electricity. I asked Old Tom about this once and he said by the time they were done with the commotion of putting in the running water and workmen, workmen, workmen everywhere, they hadn’t the heart for it. I can quite understand. We have always led a wonderfully peaceful life, never bothered by family, friends, or visitors. So the intrusion of the running-water people must have been dreadful, but it was all done before I joined them. Sina said thank goodness it was, too, because after I got there, diapers became, for a time, the story of her life.
Finally, on top, there is the cupola, which has wide windows on all four sides and which just sat there unused until I claimed it. Out back, Sina has a sculpture studio where she works all day. Old Tom works in his gardens and on the farm. And, of course, there is the daily care of the animals with which we all help. Twenty leghorn chickens, two plow horses, five jersey cows, and a bull. Pigs coming and pigs going, which means don’t get too attached to the pigs. Pigs are very smart. Smarter than dogs, some people say, and let’s face it, you don’t want anything of great intelligence looking up at you from your dinner plate. It doesn’t seem to bother Old Tom too terribly, but then you’d never know. He isn’t one to suffer visibly.
From every room in the house except the extra bedroom and four of the maid’s rooms and the parlor, you can see the ocean. The property is in Sooke on the coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and called East Sooke Farm. We are close to British Columbia’s capital, Victoria, and so Victoria is the city we use when we need one, which isn’t often.
From my cupola, with my telescope, I can see whales—orcas and humpbacks and occasionally a gray whale that has gone missing from its friends while making its migration down the west coast of North America, mistakenly taking a detour and floundering up the Juan de Fuca Strait. Quite often all you see is it spouting. Gray whales can stay under for a long time. I also see otters, seals, sea lions, cougars, bears, eagles, hawks, rabbits, voles, squirrels, and sometimes unidentifiable things. You used to see wolves. Now not so much.
Old Tom said they once had a hired girl helping with the pigs and the milking, and one day she came into the house exclaiming about the nice “set of dogs” that had suddenly shown up, all friendly-like and accompanying her to the creamery. When Old Tom told her what they really were she fainted dead away. Which is silly, I said to Old Tom. I mean, they weren’t any different at that moment than they’d been when she’d been hanging out with them. It does go to show that so much of your experience is based not on fact but on what you choose to believe about things. Her experience was of nice, friendly animals, but she couldn’t make that jibe with what she knew about Little Red Riding Hood. Even though you don’t see a lot of wolves anymore, sometimes you hear them. At least Old Tom and I do. Sina says they are dogs, but she is not always right—although like me, and I guess Old Tom, too, and, come to think of it, everyone, she always thinks she is.
While Sina showed me the house, Old Tom left to get me what I needed. He wasn’t sure what all that was, but he stopped any maternal-looking woman he could find on Douglas Street in Victoria and between all of them they cobbled together the necessary supplies. One bossy woman dragged him into Eaton’s, Victoria’s only department store, and told him what else he had to have. She even picked out the crib and would let him have no say. Old Tom says there’s always one bossy woman around. But he didn’t mind because he just wanted to get it over with and get back to his gardening.
Then Old Tom came home and, while Sina set things up in the nursery, he showed me his gardens, scattered beyond and around the hayfields. I was perhaps a mite young to appreciate it all, but I’m sure I was lulled by his voice. Old Tom has a gravelly voice, but it is oddly soothing because of this. It is a voice worn into chunkiness and rough edges by time. It is as soothing as an old quilt or the ocean boulders you can sit on because they are smoothed every day and night by the tides. He showed me the English garden and the herb garden. He showed me the Italian garden and the statuary garden. He showed me the kitchen garden and the apple orchard. He showed me the wildflower garden and the garden of exotic blooms and the Japanese garden and the heliotrope garden. But he did not show me the night garden. That one Old Tom kept locked up.
Then he walked me down the rocky path to show me all the little coves and beaches. Old Tom had a boat he took out to fish if the ocean wasn’t too choppy. It was anchored on a short dock on the quiet side of one of the coves. Then, coming up the steep old stairs from the beach to the field that leads to the house, he almost dropped me. That’s when it occurred to him that they had taken on a whole new human being, and the weight of the responsibility, he said, was pressing. He said this to Sina as he came in the back door.
“But we must take on what comes at us in life, or we are worthless worms,” said Sina.
Sina had decided opinions and liked things black-and-white. Old Tom was more apt to see the advantages of letting matters be gray. But I swear I remember this, coming up from the ocean, being held so that my eyes beheld the naked light of the sky and the eagles swooping and the flight of one lone heron. I was filled with a happiness so large that it seemed to have no boundaries from around me to it to the sky to this stretch of land and sea and field. I am home, I thought happily, I am as home as anyone in this earthly life can be. And Sina and Old Tom often wondered that I didn’t cry more or carry on, but who could be happier than to be growing in all that light and changing sky and life, and I was part of it.
I had dinner that very first night on their dining room table, propped up in the baby seat that Tom had bought, and I slept peacefully every night after. Sina said that the first few months of my life at their house she found herself talking to the walls quite a bit because she felt she needed to relate to someone the momentousness of what was going on, and Old Tom was always in the garden. And every night after dinner she settled down in the rocking chair on the second-floor landing, which has a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the sea. She rocked and rocked and gazed and gazed at the horizon, where the sea stopped and the sky began. She said she had often rocked there but it was different with a baby. It had a more grounded, more anchored weight to it and at the same time a kind of link to a great, nebulous future.
The first night as she rocked, Old Tom went out to the kitchen garden as he often did after dinner.
“You don’t mind, do you? Taking on a baby?” she called to him from the window.
“Would it matter if I did?” he called back over his shoulder.
“Probably not,” she said to herself. “At any rate, for all of us, Franny, for you and me and Old Tom, everything is now changed. But that is the whole of what life is. See the sun sinking over the edge of the sea? This day is done. This day will never come again. Everything has changed. Remind yourself of that every morning and every night, and then you won’t come to expect anything but what is. It’s expecting anything but what is that makes people unhappy.”
I don’t know if I heard her that first night, but as she gave that speech a fair bit at sundown, I heard it enough times afterward to have it memorized.
And then I grew up. At least to twelve, which seems plenty grown to me, and this was when Crying Alice made her entrance and, of course, that changed everything, too.
Text copyright © 2017 by Polly Horvath