Home > The Summer That Made Us(16)

The Summer That Made Us(16)
Author: Robyn Carr

Before that terrible summer she used to laugh. She was smart and funny, happy and attractive. She gave up so long ago.

The very first time Charley had taken Eric to meet his grandmother he was six years old. He was bright, funny, handsome and daring. But when he saw Louise, he had gasped. Right out loud. And the most complimentary thing Louise had said of him during their entire visit was, “Small for his age, isn’t he? And a bit of an attitude. I know where he gets that.”

Charley had a few pictures of her family members taken at her grandparents’ home at the time of her father’s funeral—when Louise was three years younger than Charley was now. Louise had looked at least sixty.

Cut her some slack, her conscience had said at the time. She’s been through hell with her kids and her husband just died. Louise couldn’t be blamed for what happened to Bunny, Charley said to herself, but the rest of us she drove away with her anger, her lack of empathy. Even Daddy. Louise behaved as though everything that had gone wrong happened only to her.

She knocked on her mother’s front door before she let herself think too much about her father. Her father, who was so inherently good, so loving and generous, yet in all their familial crises he never found a way to be the least bit useful.

Louise had lived in the same spacious split-level since Charley was about twelve. The house was in an upscale neighborhood. It sat at the end of a cul-de-sac on a half-acre lot with lush trees and shrubs. Charley could hear the sound of the lawn trimmer outside and the vacuum cleaner inside. A housekeeping service van was parked at the curb.

Charley was already angry. She was pursing her lips against rage. Her mother had a gardener and maid, but Aunt Jo could only afford a small apartment? They were both single women, had once been so close. You’d think Louise would want to take care of her sister. How could they allow this arrangement to continue?

“Charley, I didn’t expect you to get here so quickly.”

“I dropped Krista at Aunt Jo’s flower shop and came right over.” She shrugged.

“Jo’s flower shop?” Louise asked. “She has a flower shop now?”

Louise knew better but Charley responded, anyway. “I believe she has worked in the same flower shop for years, Mother,” she managed to say without snarling. “Don’t you see her?”

“I see her every week,” Louise said. “As you know.”

Ah, so this had not changed since the last time Charley was home. Jo and Louise accompanied Grandma Berkey to church every Sunday. Jo took a bus to the nursing home and Louise drove herself there. They put Grandma in the front seat of the car, Jo got in the back seat and they went to the big Presbyterian church downtown. They sat on either side of Grandma and barely spoke to each other. They took Grandma to lunch, each paid for her own plus half of Grandma’s and talked mostly to Grandma. They took Grandma back to the nursing home; Jo left there by bus and Louise drove herself home. Charley wondered if Louise had ever offered her sister a ride. Jo never asked for one. The settings had changed over the years but the bottom line was the same: they were often together, at least once a week, and in twenty-seven years had not had any real conversations.

Charley took a breath. “Actually, I’m here to talk to you about Aunt Jo.”

“Would you like to talk in the doorway? Or would you like to come inside?”

“Why do you have to be so damn sarcastic, Mother? I’d like to come in! I’d like you to say you’re glad I stopped by! I’d like you to offer me a cup of coffee or tea or maybe a good belt of something stronger! My God, you’re no more welcoming than you were the last time I came to this house some twelve years ago!”

“Maybe I don’t show my feelings so much anymore because I’m a little tired of being hurt, Charley. As you said, it’s been twelve years since you came to my house. By all means, come in.” And with that Louise turned and strode into the house, leaving Charley to follow.

How the hell does she do that? Charley asked herself. Though Louise had not phoned or written one time to say she was missed or asked her to come for a visit, it was somehow Charley’s fault. It was all about Louise. This is the last time, Charley vowed. The very last time. She is an unredeemable narcissist.

She started to follow her mother, but the giant clog of jumbled furnishings slowed her pace like quicksand and she stopped to take it in. Well, this had changed. The house was a turmoil of contrasting florals and patterns and textures and styles—it swam before her. Charley looked at the walls, the pillows, the paintings, the bric-a-brac; this was how her mother spent her time—filling every inch of space. It actually seemed to move, it was so busy. Charley stopped in the foyer, the jam-packed living room on her right, cluttered dining room on her left. She slowly turned. It wasn’t so much the disarray; it was the amount! She began to feel claustrophobic. Had Louise become a hoarder?

She thought she recognized a painting. Then a familiar candelabra. And then with a gasp she realized that Louise had stuffed every last possession from Grandma Berkey’s Grand Avenue manse into her house. How the devil did these maids for hire dust it all?

“The coffee is in here, Charley,” her mother called from the kitchen.

There were two buffets and Grandma Berkey’s breakfront, filled with silver, crystal, china and collectibles. The walls were literally covered with paintings, gilt mirrors, sconces, clocks. The antique furniture and accoutrements alone were worth tens of thousands of dollars. Charley remembered her grandparents’ home and all its plenty. She’d wondered just how the Berkey wealth had been disposed. Since Aunt Jo couldn’t seem to afford a car anymore, it was possible all of Grandma’s valuables had been moved right into Louise’s possession.

Well, that could be dealt with another time. Grandma wasn’t dead yet.

She pushed through the swinging door and tried not to react to the junk-shop atmosphere of the kitchen. But again, Louise had surrounded herself with tons of useless, though perhaps valuable, possessions. She had refused to part with a single thing. It would have to be inventoried by someone smarter than Charley. It struck her that she might be the only surviving daughter when Louise died and she’d actually be stuck with this mountain of expensive junk. She shivered at the thought.

“It isn’t cold in here, Charley. In fact, I’ve been baking,” Louise said, putting a cup of coffee on the kitchen table. No baked goods appeared.

Charley pulled out a chair, picked up the cup and took a sip and sat down at the table, cup in both hands. “Mother, sit down, please. Let’s talk.”

Louise had a turn to her lips that said resistance, but she sat.

“Krista came directly to the lake house from jail. It’s very important to her to do things right after all she’s been through. She wants permission to stay at the lake house for a while. She wants to ask someone and have someone tell her it’s okay. So—who is the owner now, Mother? Would that be you?”

“Hmm. That’s more than you and your sister thought to do.”

“Yes, correct, we—or really Megan—assumed. Or would that be presumed? But that’s beside the point. Call us rude, I don’t care. But I think it’s important to honor Krista’s request to have official permission.”

“If I didn’t give her permission, would it cause the rest of you to leave and stay out of that house?”

“Not a chance.”

“Then tell Krista she has her permission. I don’t expect any of you cares how it makes me feel.”

Charley decided to let it go. “Are you the official owner?”

“I’m the official trustee to Grandma Berkey’s trust and executor of her estate. I disposed of her other real estate, pay her bills and taxes, control her income—which goes directly to the nursing home. I take care of all her needs. I alone.”

“Aunt Jo doesn’t help with any of that?”

“Hah. She’s barely capable of taking care of herself.”

“I see. Okay. Just out of curiosity—if you’re the trustee and you hate the lake house so much, why haven’t you sold it?”

“Grandma objected. I’m merely honoring her wishes. She always hoped we’d open it up again one day but I have no use for that place.” Then Louise looked away in obvious discomfort, making Charley wonder just who wouldn’t sell that property.

“I know it’s none of my business but does Aunt Jo get anything? When Grandma dies?”

Louise looked back sharply. “Grandma has a will. For the time being her worldly goods and accounts and social security and pension are being used to pay for her care. When she dies her will goes into effect. She made her decisions about that a long time ago.”

She knows, Charley thought. But she won’t tell.

“There isn’t much, Charley,” Louise said. “A lot of widows my age go on vacations and cruises and have their nails and hair done but I stay home and make sure Grandma is cared for. It’s more than a full-time job. That’s all I’ve done for almost twenty years.”

Charley decided to call her bluff, just for vicious fun. She leaned back in her chair. “I have some time on my hands, Mother. Why don’t I take care of Grandma’s needs for a month or two while you do some traveling? You could sell off what’s in that breakfront and cruise around the world a couple of times.”

“When my daughter has cancer and could be dying?” Louise countered.

“Megan is planning on staying at the lake,” Charley reminded her.

“Surely not for the rest of her life!”

“Very possibly,” Charley said. But then Louise had been told more than once. She just hated to deal with it.

“I just can’t believe that!”

“Well, you’d better. Which brings me to another matter. Aunt Jo. She won’t go to the lake unless you invite her. She’s adamant. I want you to call her and tell her that you have no problem with her going to the lake.”

“I don’t even know her phone number,” Louise said churlishly, crossing her arms over her chest and looking away.

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