We bundle the dog into the car, my husband and I, and ﬁll up the trunk: books for one sister, the teapot my mother wanted, an article for my father, something for the baby. The trip down will take us two hours, three in heavy trafﬁc, and the familiar terrain—the cattle on the hillsides, the billboards, the iron-worked toll bridge—slips by as we play our versions of Botticelli and Ghosts. Crossing the Bay Bridge, he snaps off the air conditioning and I open the windows. The dog perks up and climbs to his post behind the back seat, tilting his head to sniff at the cool air and whining in anticipation. I hang one foot up on the dash and tune in KPFA. We are all going home.
Only the dog was actually raised here on the Peninsula. Only he grew here from milk to solids, learning the passage of time, hiking with us in the back trails. But this is where we travel to on holidays, reserving time for both households, eating two Christmas dinners, two Thanksgiving turkeys, saying two rounds of hellos, two of goodbyes. It is a place where we once lived ourselves; it is a place of returns.
The intervals between exits shorten now and the dog keeps trying to push his head against the wind through the half-open window. I distract him, playing one of the games we’ve developed in his two years of life. Teasing him, I make a rush for one of his paws and he jumps backwards, barking madly. I grab at one paw, then the other, quickly; he tucks them under his chest, hiding them from me and worrying noisily at my hand. I feint; he counters. Tiring ﬁnally of the game, he settles back up at his behind-the-seat post, ears drawn back, eyes half-shut, panting quietly.
We have reached our exit. The hill curves gracefully upward before us. Two more lights and we are there. The sister who stayed when my mother left waves from her window and comes running down to greet us. Hugging us both, she grabs a bag and we cross the street. She lives in an upstairs apartment now and has a long bird’s-eye view of the hill. If it’s a holiday, the out-of-state sister, tanned and smiling, will have arrived with the baby. She will be in the kitchen talking with my mother. Her husband will be in the carport out back, discussing cars and drinking beer companionably with my father. My sister’s husband no longer wears his hair past his shoulders, and he and my sister have been married almost a year. He is accepted now. Marriage absolves the sins of the past.
There is a bustle at the door with suitcases, bags, packages; from the kitchen my mother and sister come to help, from the carport the two men; the dog tears through the apartment, barking wildly, and the baby holds onto the coffee table, her eyes startled, her mouth open. This is her second time here, but she is too young to remember the ﬁrst. I hug the baby, who does not protest, and then my sisters, who do in jest, squealing delightedly. We all talk at once. These initial greetings can be unrestrainedly delirious; later the lassitude will set in, the resentments begin. Something sputters now in the kitchen, burning on the stove, and my father makes a derisive comment, eyes small. My husband, already in his customary corner, picks up a magazine and ﬂips through it. He dislikes confrontations. My sister’s husband looks away and takes a long, pensive draw off his beer. The three of us sisters glance at one another for a brief moment; then one runs to my mother’s assistance in the kitchen, trying to smooth things over, one of us always trying to smooth things over. The other two dandle the baby gently, holding her in their arms and cooing nonsense softly. Has it been bad today? the one asks. Her companion shrugs with studied nonchalance and glances up quickly, warningly. Best not to talk too openly.
My mother returns from the kitchen, laughing her tinkling company laugh and smiling a wide overbright smile. The baby grabs at the dog’s tail and the youngest sister arrives. Her child, taller by two summers than the toddler, runs in screaming delightedly, Grandpa! Grandpa! My father gets down on the ﬂoor to play with her and the dog barks, joining in. A new round of hellos and the fourth to arrive smiles wanly from behind large designer sunglasses, her makeup impeccable. My mother reaches for her drink and, in a little while, the two youngest sisters disappear into the back bedroom to talk, stretched out on the large sagging bed with its fraying bedspread redolent of childhoods past.
My better half is still buried in a magazine, so I wander into the kitchen to help the mother of the toddler, the only one of us ﬁve daughters who ever developed a talent for cooking. Her sauces are rich and creamy, her dinners several courses long. My father will open the wine, when we sit down, passing it ﬁrst to the two husbands present; he will wax loquaciously eloquent on the bouquet and texture of the grape while the rest of us pass steaming dishes piled high with traditional fare around the table. We will talk about the sister who is not here, who is never here, but not about the man the youngest currently lives with, nor about her ex, who once told my father just exactly what he thought about him, about this family. If there is a phone call for the youngest, she will take the phone into the bedroom, and when she returns to the table no one will openly acknowledge her having left it. Later, my mother will make coffee, setting out the low-fat milk and the cream, serving her ﬂaky blackberry, or perhaps the Southern Pecan or Key Lime that we know so well. Then she and I will talk. The children will be put to bed and one of my sisters will joke about our “son” being less trouble. The dog, hearing his name, will raise his head sleepily and look at us. On the radio ’40s jazz plays real low. We all savor these rituals: once we ran from them, now they bind us strangely together by their familiarity.
. . .
We left home, the home of my parents, at an early age, my sisters and I. We left with suitcases and knapsacks: two hitch-hiked cross-country within a year of each other, one found religion, one became pregnant before her time. Only two graduated from high school (one saw a counselor during those years); two have never been with, two never long without, a man.
When only my mother and the one forgiving sister were left, when the decaying ruins of the family threatened openly, my mother left too. She returned to her aging mother and sisters, to her childhood, to those problems she had sought to escape in marrying my father. But the foundations had rotted through the years. Dust settled on the sepia photographs, querulous old women played scrabble in the long, humid afternoons of the tropical summer, and the little dogs had all died. They didn’t do the Bunny Hop down at the Club Hall anymore; the boyfriends had all gone away, married, died. I’m all alone, she said on the phone from so far away. Please take me back.
She never did like that, being alone. I remember those long, long years, the sizzling pavements and the neighborhood children shrieking and racing through the prickly, closely mown lawns, the cool coconuts cracked in the street and the sticky-sweet liquid running down our chins, my father backing the car crazily out of the driveway and roaring down the street, my mother on the porch, crying. Later, seeing us silently gathering in the hallway, long after we were to have been in bed, she’d cup her hand to the phone and hiss us back to our rooms. The streetlights came on one by one in the long tropical twilight of the summer night, and I lingered out of sight, listening to the foreign adult whisper-words, harsh, frightening. Leave him, let’s leave him, I used to beg her, although I was afraid of that too. She just smiled sadly and stroked my hair.
I have learned to thrive on solitude: it is my defense, my escape, regeneration, renewal. Solitude threatens my mother. The closer she is to the madding crowd, the happier. Don’t play games, I once said to her, from the lofty scorn of sixteen. What do you mean? she asked sharply. She does not see the games, does not see the rituals I think even now. But she is good in crowds. She shines at parties, basks in the light of attention, while I lurk gloomily in the sidelines. I am afraid, ﬁnally, that I am more like my father. (And afraid too to pursue this thought too far.) Alas, that blighted side of his is one she’d had no sign of before she married. She knew only the glittering, the harmonious, the false aspect. He commands admiration, my father does, in this sunny mood. He is then the attentive host, the constant friend, the wise and generous Irishman. In marrying the sunny ediﬁce, my mother unknowingly sentenced herself to the thunderous, unpredictable blackness as well.
It was a long, long time ago, but I remember it well. We were on our way to Sunday morning church when my sister did or said something that provoked his outrage. It never seemed to take much, especially coming from her. Then he was dragging us both up the steps, back into the house, Mother screaming and crying and pulling on him to stop, stop, stop, please stop, Johnnie! Mute and terriﬁed into nonresistance, we knew where we were headed. Suddenly—I see it clearly even now—he has her under the faucet, the bathtub faucet in the children’s bath. Water rushes over her face. Her eyes are opened wide, soundlessly screaming. Her nose and her mouth are ﬁlling now with water. It runs over her face and down her neck. I can see her blank stare through the clear water rushing over her. My father grimly holds her down, his jaw tightly clinched, the telltale vein on his temple throbbing. Finally she stops struggling. Tearing wildly at him, my mother screams that he’ll ruin her dress, her new church dress, screams and screams and screams. Everywhere is horror and I don’t know where the baby is. My sister is ﬁve or six. I am a year and a half older.
. . .
Through the echo of those years, she is under the water still. I think she cannot ﬁnd herself in the tangle of who she was shaped to be. I think about her often, see her only rarely. She does not return to our reunions, does not attend our gatherings, dutiful holiday assemblies. Not any more. She carries the past too closely with her and the rest of us are uneasy in her presence. She doesn’t play the game that nothing unusual ever happened, the game that permits us to spend time together now, playing ﬁercely at normality. She cannot talk to any of us for very long without turning cold and wrathful. Pictures of her when young show a sweet, open child with a shy, delighted, trusting smile tentatively curling her lips. By eleven or twelve, she has become pale and withdrawn; her eyes focus elsewhere, off-camera, while the rest of us gaze darkly and directly into the lens. Our photo albums record hostile, guarded moments, skirmishes repressed, rebellions squelched, sedition waylaid.
The rest of us have worked to reconcile the past with the present. We have hated and we have tried to understand, to forgive, to forget. We have fashioned new lives for ourselves. Only my mother and the absent sister continue to play out the same roles: my mother who cannot leave, my sister who cannot return.
The station is going off the air now. My husband and I have retired to the sofa bed upstairs, taking our unruly son with us—tomorrow I must vacuum up after him, for this sister is exactingly clean. She is already asleep, always the ﬁrst to leave us after dinner. She tolerates the rituals, seemingly unaffected, but only for a time. Downstairs, in my parents’ apartment, the couple from out of state will talk long into the night with my father. This sister is young enough not to remember the very bad times, and my father has mellowed somewhat with the years. They will talk philosophically, expansively, about future plans, job advancement, more children. My father will grow jovial and warm in the late hours, and in the comfort of his wine. The youngest will be out with friends, and my mother, having ﬁrst fallen asleep on the couch, will get up and stumble off to bed, her hair disheveled, her robe in disarray. The children are already asleep in her bed, so she will slip quietly into the makeshift bedroom, my father’s studio transformed. Outside the wind rises and it grows chilly. She checks on them one last time before going in to sleep. Upstairs, the dog ambles over and climbs into the bed with us, settling himself with a sigh against my free side. My husband grumbles half-intelligibly and snuggles in closer. Tomorrow we will return to our home and the goodbyes will be as heartfelt as the hellos; promises will be made to visit again soon, and grand plans made for all the fun we will have. The babies will be hugged and kissed, my mother will hand over half a pie for us to take home, protesting that too much is left over for her and my father to eat. And the last thing we will see, as we toot the horn and drive slowly away, is my mother and father standing side by side on the precisely manicured green, standing together by the side of the road and waving, waving goodbye.