Family: The Sound a Blue Orchid Makes
You hate the fried egg in front of you, but you eat a teensy bit and try not to gag. A teensy bit no bigger than a dime, which is the weekly allowance you don’t get when you’re up here in the north for the summer. It’s that drippy, gluey yolk that always does it. Your crazy aunt is at the stove and there’s no telling what she might do. So you poke it, slide it around the plate, and when she turns around to look at you you move your mouth as if you’re chewing. She turns back and takes a swig from a tumbler. You’re old enough to know that the amber liquid is booze. You’ve never seen your crazy aunt, or anyone else for that matter, drink at breakfast. You’ve never seen anyone drink except at dinner. And when your Pop slipped on black ice and broke both knees and spent five days reclined in the recliner with his eyes closed, moaning now and then. When he blasted Wagner on the hi-fi because there was no way at first of getting to a doctor in the snow, and then as the days passed, it was too far and too late and what good was a doctor anyhow?
No, this is different, even for your crazy aunt. She’s barefoot and wearing a peach-flowered, sleeveless dress that’s gathered at the waist. From the front you’d think everything’s okay. But when she turns around to the stove you see that it’s unzipped all the way, all the way being down over her rear, and that there’s nothing underneath. No Cross-Your-Heart bra, no 18-Hour girdle, not even white cotton panties. You watch her breasts move, her bottom move, beneath the peach cotton. Your older brother Phil watches, too, but your cousin Woody looks down, cheek propped on one hand. When his mom drinks she tends to only half-dress as if she’s doing you a big favor to cover herself at all. If your Mom were here she’d yell at her because Yvonne is younger than she is. “Oh, for God’s sake, Yvonne, put some clothes on.” Then Yvonne would argue that she had a dress on, that she wasn’t completely naked, and that everyone’s seen her before anyhow, which is true. Just not in the kitchen. Or anywhere downstairs where no one, but no one, is ever allowed in a robe or pajamas or what your Mom calls deshabille making a face. Yvonne would argue in a go-ahead-I-dare-you tone, batting the crumpled false eyelashes she forgot to take off the night before. Then they’d fight in French because they’re French Canadian and they do their best fighting in French. You wouldn’t get the words, but you’d get the cursing, the verbal slaps, the tit-for-tat venom being spit across the room. Your Mom would switch back to make sure you got her parting shot, even if you had to look it up because you didn’t trust your brother to know what it meant. She’d throw out “slattern” or “slovenly” like a stinky fart that hangs in the air and glance at you. It’s her way of building your vocabulary.
But your Mom is home in New Jersey with your Pop. They dropped you and Phil off here in the northern tip of New Hampshire for the annual stay with the grandparents. There’s your father’s parents and your mother’s mother, great aunts and uncles, regular aunts and uncles, cousins of all kinds. Because it’s both families, you and Phil switch off every week between the two sides to keep everyone happy. This week is your mother’s side, the crazy French Canadians.
Phil smirks because he knows you hate eggs, knows you’ll be the one to get in trouble. He spears a whole slimey fried egg and stuffs it in his mouth, then opens wide and waggles his tongue so you can see the disgusting mess inside. He snorts. That makes Woody, who’s a year older than you, and one younger than Phil, laugh. For some reason no one ever forces Woody to eat breakfast the way they do you and Phil. You’re pretty sure your crazy aunt Yvonne cooks you breakfast only because your Mom would find out if she didn’t and World War Three would start. What are they feeding you for breakfast? your Mom asks in her letters. Are you getting enough? This from a mother who never makes you breakfast. This from a mother who taught you how to open those little single boxes of cereal and pour the milk right in before you even turned three.
Suddenly you feel sorry for your crazy aunt in her open dress knocking back a glass of something.
We’re all done, Woody announces, glancing up at his mother. All right then, she says, not even looking up. But Woody and Phil have already scraped their chairs back and are out the screen door and thumping down the porch steps before the door whacks shut. You’ll be home for lunch, she says as if they’re still sitting there, and shoves something around a pan with a spatula. You switch your plate with the egg for Phil’s which is clean.
The kitchen is large and old and painted the same mint green as all the old kitchens in this city, at least all the ones you’ve ever seen, both French and English. It might be the only thing these two families have in common. Phil calls it puke green with a touch of snot. He only says that because you once said it looked like melted mint parfait which is your favorite dessert. The wooden cabinets, the bead board, the wooden kitchen table and chairs where you’re sitting. Puke green with a touch of snot or melted mint parfait. It depends on your perspective, your Pop would say.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s not improving the colour of your crazy aunt’s skin. Now she turns around and sags against the stove. Her hair is blonde and blowsy like Marilyn Monroe’s, only she hasn’t combed it yet, so it’s sticking out on one side and matted on the other. It’s not real, your Mom told you once when she caught you staring. Her real hair’s just as dark as yours. That stunned you. Not so much that your crazy aunt was really brunette, but that you, too, could change yourself into a blonde. You could be blonde and people wouldn’t know unless they knew you from before. You could be anything you wanted. You could be someone else.
Are you done? Yvonne asks in a tone that says you are done, you better not even think for a moment that you’re not. Are you done with that breakfast I made just for you? She hasn’t washed the makeup off from yesterday and you wonder if Marilyn looked that bad in the morning. That puffiness around the eyes, the eyes red. One dress shoulder slipped down. Her naked shoulder is round with a few small moles. You get a crazy thought about walking up to her and picking at one of her moles. You get crazy thoughts sometimes around this family.
Yes’m, you say. It was very good, you add, thinking this might stall her off because you’re not sure what she might be getting at. Once you told her how the yolk makes you feel like throwing up. She’d stared at you, long and hard, as if debating what to do with you, and puffed on her cigarette sending smoke signals to the ceiling. You look straight at her now and smile a little with Phil’s empty plate in front of you. But she’s looking somewhere beyond, fuzzy and unfocused. Let’s get this over with, she says, and drains her glass with her head thrown back, making a slurping sound. Your Mom would yell if you ever slurped like that.
You follow her bare thumping feet up the blue carpeted stairs, the little black patches on the bottoms of her heels from the kitchen floor, the frosted coral toenails which she let you paint last week even though you messed up and she had to fix each one with a swab of nail polish remover. Except at the beach, your Mom is death on bare feet of any kind. You’re glad she’s not here with her speech about disgusting and dirty and tetanus and ancient manure buried everywhere you look. You wonder if Yvonne has any inkling how much danger she’s in. How she’ll get blood poisoning or TB or polio and her legs will rot off and she’ll die. Or leprosy! She’ll get leprosy from padding around on the carpet and you’ll have to abandon her on an island somewhere. You imagine her standing on a rocky shore, waving as the boat pulls away.
You feel guilty following Yvonne’s doomed, dirty feet and half-naked rear down the blue carpeted hall, past blue carpeted bedrooms, to your Grandmother’s door. Every morning before she knocks she looks down at you one last time to see if you pass muster. Sometimes she smiles, sometimes she swears, Jesus. Now she squints. I should do your hair, she murmurs. Before your mother comes back up next month. I could fix you up and make you pretty. She knocks—Maman!—and opens the door and pushes you in and closes it behind you.
Grandmother is sitting up in a four-poster across a room filled with large dark furniture. She wears a pink satin bed jacket with flounces around the collar and the cuffs. Not once have you ever seen this Grandmother without her face, without her hair perfectly crimped, without her pearl earrings. Does she still wear those damn earrings in bed? your Mom asked, rolling her eyes. She was paraded, too, growing up, every morning. “Such a ridiculous woman. Supercilious.” She hissed the word out in a way that made you run to look it up.
Now you walk across the room to the left side of the bed by the window with white frilly curtains. Walk slowly like your mother warned. Like a little lady, no funny stuff. The boys aren’t allowed here, not that they care. But you’re the only granddaughter on this side of the family, the only girl among six cousins and your brother. You feel special, singled out in a way your parents don’t like. Stop where your Grandmother’s knees make little hills under the pale blue satin coverlet and wait. She’s writing note cards, a stack already addressed beside her. On the bed tray that Yvonne makes up every day are an egg cup with a cratered shell and the remains of a grapefruit half. They look jagged and violent, as if someone smashed them and stuffed them into their face the way Phil would. Your Grandmother smiles at you.
She is very tan from Florida where she spends half the year now that your grandfather is gone. He looks on from the nightstand, heavy-lidded, lips slightly pursed. Perhaps that’s because of the plastic flamingos on the lawn. Two neon pink flamingos in a mill town hardly an hour from Quebec.
What do they mean? you asked your Mom. Mean? she frowned. Mean? Why does everything have to mean for you? She was looking very annoyed. You’d already asked why people had mirrored reflecting balls on pedestals on their lawns. Flamingos mean she goes to Florida, she said. That’s all. It says I got these in Florida where you haven’t been.
Good morning, Grandmother says, ending her scribbles with a flourish. Good morning, you say. She speaks English because she knows you don’t speak French like the rest of her family. Your Mom gave up on that long ago, after the baby books in French and the records of French folk songs. It just didn’t take is what she says with a shrug. She’d tried with Phil too. No way was it going to take in New Jersey surrounded by English.
Grandmother gestures you to come closer. The triple strand pearl bracelet on her wrist clicks softly. I think she sleeps with that stuff on, your Mom once said. Even she’s never seen her own mother without the pearls, the hair, the perfectly made face. Lean in and kiss your Grandmother’s dry powdery cheek. A light, quick brush the way your Mom taught you. Nothing sticky, nothing slurpy.
She picks up a little book and turns to a page with today’s date in gold letters: 18 juillet 1965. “Oh! We shall dine out tonight!” she exclaims. “Won’t that be fun! This morning Laurent shall come at ten”—Laurent’s the driver—”then I shall buy a new chapeau at Marcoux et Fils, and cocoa butter pour le peau. Do you know what that means?” She looks at you politely. You shake your head. You know what’s coming. “Such a pity,” she says. “La plus belle langue du monde.” She makes a large circle with the pearl-clicking arm. “But it can’t be helped, can it? All of you are anglo, all my grandchildren—tout. Tout! No more pure laine. How did that happen, can you explain? There’s no one left. Personne!” She looks disconsolate.
This is the conversation you have every morning. How your generation is the first ever on your mother’s side not to be pure Canadienne, descended from the very first settlers. Or at least not to be French. They never miss a chance to remind you. Even your Mom will suddenly look at you like she just noticed a glowy-eyed kid from the Village of the Damned. “It’s too bad,” she’ll say, shaking her head. Phil is smart-mouthed so he’ll say, “Well, don’t look at me.” But you’re not sure what to make of it. How could you be you without your Pop. How could you be at all.
Now Grandmother pats your hand briskly in a not-your-fault sort of way and turns back to her little book. At one she shall play bridge at Mme. Gagné’s. At four she shall meet her best friend Jeannette at the Gypsy Tea Room.
Your Grandmother is the only person you’ve ever heard say “shall.” And the only one who goes to Tea Rooms. You are dying to go to the Gypsy Tea Room even though you hate tea, just to see if there’s a gypsy despite what your Mom says.
There’s no gypsy, she sighs. There was never a gypsy. It’s just a name to get people like you to come in. What they would do, people would go for a drive in the mountains. They’d stop at a roadside tea room, one with a panoramic view. They’d have tea and cake and look at the mountains. Then they’d drive back. Your Mom can’t believe anyone still does it, it’s so old-fashioned. She can’t believe any tea rooms still exist in the White Mountains.
You are still dying to go.
“Now, tell me what shall you do today?” Your Grandmother peers over her little book, pen poised in the air.
You could hug her. You could jump right into that high four-poster with the pale blue slippy satin, and throw yourself all over her like a mutt. You are ten years old, you’re wearing madras shorts, red sneakers, a sleeveless cotton shirt. Your knees are scraped and grubby. This strange, dear French Canadian Grandmother believes you have a calendar. You have appointments. You have important things to do.
“We shall visit Grammy Cobb.” This is the answer you give every morning. Safe. Unalarming.
“Ah oui, there’s always that. One has obligations, n’est-ce pas? And what else?”
“I shall play poker with Woody and Phil. Then I shall lunch.” She waits, expecting more. “Then I shall read a comic book.”
“Bon!” she says. You wonder if she understands “poker” or “comic book.”
Once your Mom caught you and Phil by surprise. I shall burp (you burped long and loud). I shall barf (he made retching sounds). I shall pick my nose and I shall eat it. She came on red-faced, wild-eyed, swinging while you dodged out of reach. You don’t know what it’s like. Swat. Coming from a different language. Swat. You Americans. Think you’re better. Swat. You and your lousy Thanksgiving. We were already here a generation. Swat. Stupid Plymouth Rock.
Now, before you’re excused, Grandmother puts her notebook down and asks you to donnez-moi her perfume from the vanity. The table is filled with tinted, round glass bottles. Atomizers, they’re called. Each has a long curved stem with a pale silky bulb on the end. They remind you of mutant insects that got hit by a radiation cloud. Donnez-moi Shitty Blue, Grandmother always directs. At least that’s what it sounds like.
When you first told your Mom about Shitty Blue she made you repeat it a few times. Then she burst out laughing. Laughed until she started coughing and crying at the same time. “Oh, that’s perfect,” she gasped, wiping her cheek with the side of a finger. “Just perfect.” Orchidée Bleue, she explained. A favourite from the Twenties. She tried and tried to get you to say it right, squeezing your cheeks to make the right shape. “Oh forget it,” she gave up. “Shitty Blue it is.”