"Can you see?" Emily called from the bedroom.
"It's really nice," Jess called back.
"It's a Vivienne Tam suit," said Emily when Jess returned.
"Thank you. I could tell by the . . . label." Jess sat down cautiously on her desk chair. Comically, experimentally, she tried crossing her legs.
"You hate it," Emily said.
"No! It's really very pretty." Jess was already undressing.
"Just say you'll wear it once."
"I'll wear it to your IPO." Jess pulled on a giant T-shirt and sweatpants.
"You aren't going to the IPO. It's not a wedding."
"Okay, I'll wear it to your wedding." Jess flopped onto the bed. "Don't you miss him?"
"We're used to it."
"I never would be," Jess declared, and added silently, Never in a million years. She would never deny herself the one she loved, or make excuses for him, either. She'd never say, It's complicated, or We have to be patient. Love was not patient. Love was not kind. It didn't keep; it couldn't wait. Not in her experience. Certainly not in her imagination.
"What did Dad and Heidi get you?" Emily asked.
"Just the tickets home for Thanksgiving. And they sent me pictures from the kids. See-Lily wrote her name, and a rainbow." Jess spread their half sisters' drawings over the bed. "I think these scribbles are from Maya. And I have Mom's letter here somewhere. . . ."
Their mother, Gillian, had passed away when Emily was ten and Jess was only five. Fighting breast cancer, suffering from long treatments, alternately hoping and despairing as the disease recurred, Gillian had cast about for ways to look after her daughters when she was gone. She'd then learned that some patients wrote letters to their children for their birthdays. Jess and Emily each had a set of sealed envelopes.
Jess pulled her letter from a stack of notebooks on the floor. "It's short." The letters got shorter and shorter. Reading them was hard, like watching their mother run out of air.
"Dear Jessie," Emily read aloud as she smoothed the creased paper, "I am trying to imagine you as a young lady, when all I see is a five- year-old girl waving her little legs in the air-that's the sign that you're tired. I imagine you with your hair untangled. Your sister tried to brush your hair this morning and you wouldn't let her. I wish you would." Emily paused a moment, sat up straighter on the bed and continued. "Surely by now you are embarking on a profession. If you have not yet embarked, please do!
"Ahem," said Emily.
"I have embarked!" Jess protested. "A doctoral program is embarking."
"She means working."
"Philosophy is work. And I also have a job." By this, Jess meant her part-time job at Yorick's, the rare-book store on Channing where she did her reading in the afternoons.
"I don't mean a job-" Emily read, and then stopped short. "She knew what you were going to say."
Jess giggled, because Emily treated the letters like such oracles.
"I don't mean a job. I am talking about a career, and a vocation. George Eliot wrote 'that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life'-but that was more than one hundred years ago. I'm hoping that you and your sister will set your sights a little higher." A little higher, Emily thought, as she placed the letter on the bed, and yet Gillian had been a mother, no more, no less. Would she have done more if she had lived? Much more? Or just a little?
Excerpted from The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman Copyright © 2010 by Allegra Goodman. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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