Outside the call, it was an ordinary day. The phone cradled between ear and shoulder, Mae watched through the kitchen window as two blackbirds balanced on a string of patio lights. On the phone her mother was crying. Through the sobs, words were indistinguishable.
“Your grandmother is dead. I was a horrible daughter. Your grandmother is dead.”
Outside two blackbirds built a nest in the crux of the patio covering.
When Mae did not respond, her mother said, “What is wrong with you? Don’t you have anything to say? You’ve always been so ungrateful.” One last shriek and her mother hung up. The dull dial tone murmured on.
It was 1993, and Mae was in the back of a minivan with six cousins, Grandma was driving, her mother in the passenger seat. It was after another baby blessing, the third in two months, and they were on their way back to Grandma’s house. A new spirit added to the Bedford clan, a Mormon family is only as good as the children it bears. Mae’s cousin, Christy, ten years old, far superior to Mae’s mere eight years of existence, was going on about the children she was going to have. She would have seven and marry a prince in the Salt Lake City Temple. She asked Mae, “How many will you have?” Mae said she would have no children. She did not want children. Christy was incredulous.
“If you don’t have any children, you can’t go to the highest heaven. You can’t go to the celestial kingdom.”
The memory tasted metallic. The phone rang. Doubtless, it was her mother calling to guilt her for the silence. She answered. It was her little sister, Charlie.
“Mom’s a mess.”
“I know. That’s Barbara for you.”
“She says you didn’t say anything.”
“What can I say?”
“The funeral will be in Las Vegas. Will you go?”
“Should I go?”
They had not been Mormon for twenty years. When they first left the church, their grandmother, their aunts, their uncles, their twenty-seven cousins thought it was merely a phase. They believed Barbara would come to her senses. She would return and repent, bring her family back to God. Barbara never went back; she wore the hair shirt. The family would not let her have it any other way.
Mae grew up feeling defensive. They were called “inactive.” Missionaries showed up at their house mid-week to coax them back. Mae’s father answered the door with a beer. He converted to marry Barbara, and when they left the church, he picked up his old drinking habit. He loved to offer the missionaries a Coors. Mae would listen to the rehearsed dialogue from the couch, resenting the young men in their bike helmets. She turned the TV up louder hoping the robots at the door would feel her seething.
Every summer of Mae’s childhood there was an event known as Grandma Camp – a week at Grandma’s house, just for the girl cousins. After Mae and Charlie stopped attending church, Grandma still demanded that every granddaughter bring her Book of Mormon for scripture study and attend church on Sunday. Mae complained in the weeks leading up to camp; she did not want to sit through three hours of church, she hated bringing her Book of Mormon. Packing for her final Grandma Camp at twelve years old, she removed the worn book from her duffel when her mother was not looking.
At camp, Grandma’s lips pursed, “What do you mean you didn’t bring your scriptures? Lucky for you, I have an extra.” The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price landed like a brick in Mae’s lap; Grandma, victorious over the insurgent, sat smugly on the piano bench facing her obedient granddaughters. She commanded Mae to read the selected verses aloud. Mae saw her sister’s tiny blonde head over the pages, tears in her great green eyes. Her eyes said, “Why did you shame us? Couldn’t you just play along?” Charlie. Little Charlie, here it was rushing back, a wave sucking her under. She rolled. She never knew which way was up. Where was the surface?
Barbara pulled her family from the church after the affair. When Mae was nine and Charlie seven, Barbara slept with another man for a year while their father worked the graveyard shift as a police officer. This man was a Mormon too with his own family, a pair of teenage twin girls who would occasionally babysit Mae and Charlie. Mae’s father forced Barbara to sit down with their daughters and take responsibility. He didn’t want his children thinking this mess was his fault. It was two days after Christmas, the tree still in the living room, the stockings hanging on the fireplace. They sat on the couch. Their mother stood in front of them. Mae remembered Charlie asking, what’s an affair? On the green carpet, beside their dangling feet, were two expensive dolls they hadn’t expected to receive in tiny wooden beds their father built in the garage. One Christmas, too many secrets.
Their mother turned from the only life they had known. They stopped going to church on Sunday, Family Home Evening on Monday was off calendar. Wednesday night pot lucks were done. The subject was closed. The picture focused slightly when Mae was fourteen. Going through a junk drawer in the kitchen, she came across a folded letter. Opening it, she read, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” It was a list of classes and counseling appointments Barbara was supposed to attend to regain her salvation. The list was profuse, the language harsh. Mae approached her mother, letter in hand, Barbara’s face flamed. She said she would never talk about it, don’t ask again.
Mae’s most infamous standoff was during a family dinner at Grandma’s. Barbara’s six siblings convened once every two months for a dinner of skillet fried pork chops, canned green beans and Jello in wine goblets with clouds of whipped cream on top. The table was set, butter softening on a crystal plate and baby dill pickles in antique dishes. The family waited for Grandma to take her seat. She always wore clip on earrings. They smacked her neck as she walked. Her hair dyed black, teased in a high, curly nest on her head she came in, hovering over the enormous table.
“Well, there were twenty more of them today!” She was furious.
“Twenty more of what?” Barbara said.
“Twenty more of those gay people getting married in Massachusetts. Disgusting. It’s a sign of the times.”
Mae dropped her fork with a clang. The entire table turned.
“How can you! How can you say that? Are you listening – I can’t believe what you just said. You are basically saying that these people can’t love each other- they can’t…I just.”
She was angry, young and intimidated. Barbara was next to her, pinching Mae’s arm. She shook off her mother and pushed her chair back, smashing into the antique credenza behind her – the credenza where Grandma kept butterscotch candies and Dum Dums. It was a loud crash. Grandma’s hand flew to her chest. She staggered back into the kitchen looking like she’d been shot. She called for Daniel, the loyal son, she was about to faint. The adults jumped up from the table. Mae was revolted by the dramatics. It was laughable, Grandma lying there on the kitchen tile fanning her face.
Now she was gone. Mae would face family she cut many years ago. She was tied to the tracks, waiting for a puffing train to rip through her. She heard her husband unlock the front door. She tried to think of a way to tell him they were going to Vegas.
Marriage in a Mormon family is the most sacred event, but when John and Mae married, it isolated her from the family further than a defense of homosexuality ever could. They had a twenty year age difference and at the engagement news, Grandma said, “Well, I hope you know you’ll be an early widow.”
There were these things Mae could not release, fiery balled up moments of energy comprising her core.
Grandma’s funeral was scheduled for Saturday. They planned to get on the road early Friday morning. As she packed their bags, Mae realized she was nervous. She worried what the family would say when they saw her.
Charlie called Friday morning as they were getting on the road.
“You still coming?”
“I’m sitting in the car.”
“Thought I’d chicken out?”
“It crossed my mind.”
“Ha. Well, we are driving through Fontana now.” There was silence. Charlie chewed on her lip.
“All the usual suspects?”
“All except Ben and Alex. They’re still on their missions.”
“I’ll make you a deal. I’m showing up for the final act, but I am not going to the viewing. I am not going to stand around and bullshit. So make sure you tell Barbara. I don’t want her nagging me because I didn’t go to that morbid display. And! I want to sit in the back.”
“Mae? Come to the damn viewing, the luncheon…all of it. I don’t want to do this alone. I can’t always be the one taking care of Mom.”
“She doesn’t need you to-”
“She does. She’s wallowing. There is one more thing.”
“All of us, the grandkids, great grandkids…”
“You don’t even..”
“Yes, I do, and the answer is no.”
“They’re not going to want me…”
“They do want you. It’s tradition. We did it at Grandpa’s funeral. All the grandkids sing – you know how it is. It’s important to Mom. The cousins are meeting at Grandma’s to rehearse. Will John drop you? He can go back to the hotel and get settled.”
“Charlie. I don’t want to go in that house. It’s weird.”
“There are two pianos. We’ve got to go through it at least once. Everyone is excited to see you.”
“HA! I don’t even remember how to get there.”
“I bet you do.”
“I really don’t want to fucking do this. I want to sit in the back of the church. I’m here for you, not even for Mom, for you.”
“I know. So you’ll come to this rehearsal for me.”
“Give me the address, just in case.”
“1123 Shady Pine.”
“There isn’t one fucking piece of shade on that street.”
“Try and watch your language when you get here. We don’t need anyone else dropping dead. I’ll see you in a couple hours.”
“Wait. What are we singing?”
“If I tell you, you have to promise you’ll still do it.”
“Families Can Be Together Forever.”
“I thought you’d like that.”
Charlie hung up. Mae turned to John, squeezing the phone in her hand.
“She wants me to go to Grandma’s. She’s making me sing with the cousins. They want to rehearse.”
“I don’t have to stick around – do I?”
“You can go back to the hotel while I suffer.”
He put his hand on her knee, “You don’t have to do this.”
When they got off the freeway and rolled into Grandma’s suburb, Mae was irritated. They passed the elementary school and the park where they picnicked during Grandma Camp. The place looked like a dirt bomb went off. The neighborhood was run down; it must have taken a beating during the recession. When they turned onto Shady Pine, John laughed, “Not a tree on the street.” He parked a couple houses down. There were already four mini vans and two suburbans in front of the looming brown house with Spanish arches.
“How many years since you were here last?”
“I’m good. I’ll be better when it’s over.”
She kissed John, checked her hair in the mirror and got out of the car. Half way up the walk she turned and waved. He would wait until she was inside. Good man. Knocking on the door, she noticed a distinct smell. Even with Grandma and the dogs gone, the place reeked of poodle farts. She had to knock twice. Inside, there were at least two screaming babies. Her cousin Christy answered, wrapped around her legs were twin boys with ketchup stains on their shirts, a newborn at her breast.
“Oh my gosh! Well dang! It’s you! Come here and give me a hug, Mae.”
“Looks like you’ve got your hands full.”
Christy shook the boys off and hugged Mae with the unoccupied side of her body. Mae saw Charlie over her shoulder, a smirk on her face.
“You made it!”
“Let’s go to the living room.”
They walked through the foyer. Mae tripped over children. The place was a disaster; toys strewn everywhere, someone had gotten into the music basket and three little girls were running up and down the hall with tambourines, two boys had maracas and Christy’s twins were banging on mini drums. The living room was surreal, exactly as it had been. The only difference was now all twenty seven of her cousins were grown, the youngest must have been eighteen and Mae could not remember her name – was it Tina? There were ten different conversations and each was competing. Six more children were in the living room, including two toddlers. It was impossible to tell who belonged to whom. They all looked alike, creepy. Charlie was gripping Mae’s hand as they entered.
“Look who we found.”
The group fell silent. Christy said, “It’s Mae. Aunt Barb’s oldest.”
Clint, the eldest cousin, said, “We know who it is. Been a long time. Glad you could take some time off from your fancy teaching job to make it.”
Mae had expected something like this reception and turned toward the door. Charlie gripped her hand harder, and Christy ignored her older brother.
“Now that she’s here we can start. EMILY!”
A six year old girl came running down the hall and into the living room. She pointed and said, “Who are you?” Christy handed Emily the newborn and buttoned up her blouse. “That’s my oldest. This is your second cousin, Mae,” she said. Christy sat down to the piano and her skin pooled around her. For such a young woman, she was worn from birthing so many cubs.
There was talk of dividing into sections – altos stand here, sopranos there, and baritones behind them, a mini choir. Mae wasn’t sure where she fit, so she stood next to Charlie in the altos section. Peter, another cousin, suggested they pray, and the cousins bent their heads and folded their arms. Mae stood eyes open, watching her cousins repeat a scene familiar and strange. It was like when they were children. Grandma at the piano, an uncle praying, kids fidgeting, practicing mild reverence at the words “Dear Heavenly Father.”
Before rehearsing, parents tried to corral kids, a hopeless attempt. Mae thought about how Grandma would have handled this scene. She would have gotten down the fly swatter and made spanking threats. Michelle, Christy’s younger sister, suggested they begin. Each child knew the song, it was likely they would calm down and join the adults once they heard what was happening. Mae felt momentary panic. She realized it was possible she no longer knew the lyrics. It was awkward enough; the last thing she wanted was to request sheet music to a hymn etched in the brains of all forty-two well-trained people gathered in the old house. She whispered to Charlie, “I don’t think I remember it.” “You will,” she said and patted Mae’s hand.
Christy began to play against the soft tick of the metronome and the words fell out of Mae’s mouth. The children gathered on the floor, yelling the song.
I have a family here on earth. They are so good to me.
I want to share my life with them through all eternity.
Families can be together forever
Through Heavenly Father’s plan.
I always want to be with my own family,
And the Lord has shown me how I can
The Lord has shown me how I can.
Once at Grandma Camp, they made a chain of bird seed. They strung cranberries, raisins and nuts on a white string and hung it like garland on the fence in the backyard. The birds flocked. They ate and shit all over the metal rails. Through the bay window, next to the piano, Mae could see remnants of a bird seed string. Was this the same chain or a new one?
While I am in my early years
I’ll prepare most carefully
So I can marry in God’s temple for eternity.
Families can be together forever
Through Heavenly Father’s plan
I always want to be with my own family
And the Lord has shown me how I can.
The Lord has shown me how I can.
They ran through it three times, working on harmonies. Afterward, everyone broke off into their respective units and piled into vehicles. For the first time, no one was staying at Grandma’s.
Charlie, Mae, Christy and her four children remained. They were talking quietly in the foyer. Christy’s children exhausted their energy, and now they were hanging all over her whining, demanding Burger King. Over the newborn’s screams, Christy kept saying she missed Grandma. Her eyes welled and Charlie hugged her saying, “I know. We all miss her. She was a strong woman.” Christy grabbed her diaper bag. Turning to Charlie, she handed over the house keys, “Feel free to hang around as long as you want. I’ll get the keys back to tomorrow.”
Both sisters plopped down on a settee older than them. Charlie was pleased with Mae’s performance.
“You did good. After tomorrow, we can go home and move on.”
“Weird. This place is just weird.” Mae shook her head.
“It might be me, but it smells like bacon and dog farts.”
“You read my mind.”
Charlie’s eyes lit up.
“I wasn’t going to do this. I thought of it at first, but then I felt bad. Aw hell, we’re the only ones here, and let’s face it we both have some demons to exorcise.”
Mae watched Charlie go into the dining room and return with two Mickey Mouse glasses that were once jelly jars and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Two Dum Dums were stuck behind her ears. There had been a time, a fleeting transom, when these glasses were filled with cold orange juice and sitting beside a Mickey Mouse pancake with a chocolate chip face.
“HA!” Mae said, “What the? We can’t. Not here…in Grandma’s house?”
“Mom says there was a brief time that Grandma drank Tequila Sunrises in secret. Think of it as paying homage to her younger days.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Either way, I’ve been with the Mormons for three days now. If I don’t get a drink soon,
I might as well go back to the church.”
Charlie poured the whiskey and handed Mae a glass, dribbling on the carpet. They both panicked. Charlie once spilled an entire Coca-Cola on Grandma’s carpet. The soda was retrieved on a mission to the kitchen during siesta time at Grandma Camp. Grandma got down the fly swatter and chased Charlie down the long hallway. Mae scurried under long adult legs and stood like Pocahontas over her crouched baby sister. Remembering there was no one to punish them now they stared at the brown liquor mark on the carpet.
“Speech, speech,” Charlie said.
“You want me to make a speech?”
“You’ve always been the eloquent one.”
“I raise my Mickey glass to Wilma Bedford, the woman who inspired my every revolt, even this one now, and to my sister Charlie, for bringing booze into Grandma’s house and surprising the shit out of me.”
They clinked jars and downed the whiskey. Mae stood up.
“I want to have a look. She never changed a thing.”
Charlie trailed behind Mae. Mae opened cupboards, pulled out pickle dishes and examined needlework hanging on the wall. In the dining room, above the antique credenza, was an old painting of Moroni, the angel who first appeared to Joseph Smith and revealed the golden plates to him. Next to Moroni, the scouting badges and pins their uncles earned. She circled the dining room as Charlie poured another glass of whiskey. Mae was feeling mischievous.
“What will the hallway bring? I bet she’s got that old mirror up. Don’t tell me there’s a waterbed in the sewing room, still.”
Charlie was nervous. “Mae, I don’t think…maybe we should go now.”
“Charl! I am buzzed in Grandma’s house. I refuse to leave. You worked so goddamn hard to get me here.”
Mae wandered down the hall where decades of pictures hung. Every year Grandma demanded family portraits from all six of her children. Mae approached the last frame. It was their family and the first one taken without their father, the summer Mae turned fifteen. Her mother stood behind the girls, but where Mae’s face should have been there was an old stamp. It was Mae’s fifteen year old body with a stamp head.
“Charlie.” Her voice quivered, “Charlie, there’s a stamp. Over my…”
Charlie ran down the hall.
“I can’t believe I drove all the way out here for this, to see this. I told you. I didn’t want to come.”
“Mae, I haven’t been here in a long…honest. I didn’t know she’d – the picture. I only saw it yesterday.”
“They love us when we play along, don’t they? I have a fucking stamp over my face.”
Mae ripped the picture down, leaving a white square on the aged wall and a hole where the nail had been. Somehow, she cut her knuckle open. The blood flew and she stormed to the backyard patio where Grandma kept old golf clubs. The picture slammed to the cement and Mae went inside to the antique credenza. She pulled out the pickle dishes and went to Grandma’s room where she kept her collection of gaudy clip on earrings. There were three plates of earrings, Mae grabbed them. She piled all of it on top of the picture and snatched a golf club. She raised the club high over her head and paused.
“Just do it, Mae.”
At her sister’s command, the club flew down shattering dishes and earrings. The picture frame splintered. She heaved and grunted, smashing all the pretty things to bits, crushing the grand act that was families forever, family dinner and fake earrings because Grandma couldn’t stand to put holes in her body. She beat everything into oblivion until the picture was shreds and the rest was fine glitter on the patio. Tossing the golf club to the side yard, she bent over breathing hard. Charlie was behind her. Mae’s hands were a bloody mess. Mae said, “This is not my family.”
“Ever since Mom fucked around…” She choked on spit and looked at her hands.
“I’m bleeding.” She was surprised.
“You are. Let me take care of it.”
“Call John. We are going the hell home. I’m not sticking around. Why am I here? Why am I here?”
Charlie took her sister’s bleeding hands into her own. Their eyes met, and Mae saw Charlie’s green eyes full.
“You have cried too much here, Charl.”
She took Mae inside and washed her hands at the kitchen sink. Once bandaged, Mae lay down on the settee and stared out the bay window while Charlie called John.
“He’ll be here soon. I am going home with you guys.”
The house was an antiquated place, full of ghosts, time passed, memories that would always feel like shards in Mae’s hands. Charlie pulled the wax paper off a pineapple Dum Dum and handed it to her sister.
“You know, if you dip the pineapple Dum Dum in whiskey it has an even more tropical taste.”
“Does it, Charl?”
They curled together dipping Dum Dums in whiskey and staring out the window at the old line of bird feed. The birds danced on the rail, pecking at remnants of nothing.