"You're too close to the fireplace. A spark could fly out," I warned her. "Remember Grandma Minnie." There was an oft-repeated family legend that when she was a young girl, my great-grandmother's hair had caught fire because she'd sat too close to the hearth. Although it was certainly a fable, I had often reminded Lilly of it, just as my mother had reminded me and her mother had reminded her.
"I'm not too close," Lilly answered without looking at me.
I put the tray of tea things and a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies down on the coffee table and poured the tea into my grandmother's fine, Limoges teacups: bone china decorated with a pattern of violets and ivy.
"Do you put lemon or sugar in green tea?" I asked.
Lilly turned and gave me a patronizing smile. "No, Mom. You don't put anything in green tea." Her tone had been more mocking than her words, as if she were saying, Don't you know anything? She was annoyed by my ignorance of a subject so important to her. I was momentarily relieved -- anything to replace the forlorn expression of sadness etched on her face.
Handing her a cup and saucer, I tried not to show any solicitude. But she saw past my benign expression.
"Don't look at me like that, Mom. It's okay that I'm upset. It means that I'm alive."
"I don't want a Zen lecture, Lilly. I want to know what's the matter. Why are you upset?"
Reluctantly she started to speak, then stopped. She took a sip of tea and started again. "Why bother? Anything I say about Cooper will be held against him."
Since meeting Cooper Davis, who was immersed in the philosophy and study of Zen Buddhism, Lilly often spouted aphorisms intended to confound me. Interest in religion is healthy, but obsession is not: especially for impressionable teenagers who don't have the intellectual tools to protect themselves from dogma and cultism.
"At least Grandma understands what I'm talking about," Lilly would throw back at me when I objected to her Zen absorption. It didn't help my arguments that my own mother was involved in a myriad of Eastern philosophies and New Age disciplines and had been since my father's death.
My mother was notoriously eccentric and off-center. Although I didn't want her to influence Lilly too much, neither did I want to interfere in their relationship. I wanted Lilly to have that same kinship with her grandmother that I'd had with mine.
"It's my fault your mother is so much better at taking than giving," my grandmother had once said to me. "Being the last child and the only girl, I let everyone spoil her and now she's very selfish, isn't she?"
But she wasn't selfish with Lilly. And watching them together or hearing snatches of their long-distance conversations, I was beginning to like my mother more. As much she had not been there for me when I was an adolescent, she was now there for Lilly.
More steam escaped from the burning logs, and I leaned back, sinking into the chintz-covered couch, gazing around the cluttered room that my grandmother had decorated over sixty years ago. It took some effort, but I did not pressure Lilly to tell me what was wrong; instead I waited patiently, focusing on the china cachepot on the coffee table. My grandmother had always kept lilies of the valley in it this time of year. Forced flowers brought in from the conservatory. Even though the pot was empty, I could recall the fragrance of those fragile bell-shaped flowers. Shutting my eyes for a moment, I saw my grandmother: finely dressed, pearls encircling her neck, a stack of diamond-and-platinum wedding bands glittering on her ring finger.
She wore five thin bands, each different. One was a simple channel-set band made of square-cut diamonds, which had been her wedding band and I had chosen to be my wedding band when Robert and I got married. Each of the other four were to celebrate the birth of my grandmother's children. Some held round diamonds, others baguettes; altogether they stacked one on top of the other as a testament to my grandmother's sentimentality. I had never seen her without them, until finally old age and arthritis forced her to take them off and she had given them all to me. And because they were hers, when Robert and I separated, I chose not to take them off. In my mind, they ceased to be connected to my marriage and became my grandmother's bequest.
Copyright © 2000 by M.J. Rose. For permission to reproduce this excerpt please contact the author at http://www.mjrose.com
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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