Janine stepped out the door of her red brick apartment building in Rose Hill. As she turned the key in the old fashioned lock, she again admired the way the charcoal paint matched the wrought-iron fence enclosing the little courtyard. Her landlady was just finishing planting out the huge ceramic pots with a profusion of summer flowers, and was starting to tidy the potting bench. She gave Mrs. Andrews a nod and a little wave, as she descended the steps and started down the brick path. Pink and yellow petunias, red verbena and icy blue lobelia tumbled from their crowded green-glazed containers in wild disarray. Evergreens and a dwarf red maple provided a backdrop for their riot of color.
“Beautiful day for a walk, my dear!” her landlady called after her.
“The flowers look great, Mrs. Andrews!” At this her landlady smiled and nodded. Janine waved again and walked towards the gate. She could hear the hum of the bumble bees that had discovered this bounty, and paused to watch them busily gathering pollen and nectar. She smiled to herself. This little garden was the reason she’d chosen the Havemayer Flats five years ago, and had never regretted her choice. Even in winter, when the holly and arborvitae were decked out in twinkle lights, she felt closer to nature.
She exited the gate, and turned south towards 5th Ave. She preferred 5th, since Madison Avenue sound too snooty. As she rounded the corner onto the street, she saw that it was one of “those” days. She sighed; she really hated it when the streets were packed with crowds. Busy people crushed cheek to jowl, serious faced and somber clothed. She usually tried to run her errands on Saturdays, enjoying the more casual, relaxed atmosphere of the weekend shoppers, but today was unavoidable. Why was it, no matter which direction she was moving, it was always against the tide? Was this some cosmic commentary on her life in general? She passed the bodega on the corner, and made note of the organic produce being offered.
“Hey Mr Maldonado,” she greeted the owner. “Did you get that organic jicama in I asked for?”
“No, no one have it, the regular, yes, but not the organic, so I no order it” he replied.
“OK, I'll try to find some at the green-market next week” she said, knowing that would motivate him to look harder. It was a game they played out on a weekly basis.
It had taken months of polite haranguing to finally convince Mr. Maldonado that organic wasn’t just a passing fad, and that there were plenty of interested customers if he would only consider stocking a supply. She had eventually worn him down, and if the selection was somewhat limited, it was better than busing twenty-six blocks to the Dag Hammarskjold Greenmarket. Besides, Dag’s was only open on Wednesdays, and a girl had to eat seven days a week!
“No, no! I find, you see!” he insisted. She assured him she would wait for his next shipment before going to his competition, thanked him politely, then turned away.
She continued down the street, past the newsstand, stopping to check on the latest issue of Organic Lifestyle. She could smell the gyros cart across the street and her mouth began to water. She often dragged Jonathan here, rather than the fancy restaurants he preferred. It was faster, and she got to avoid the arrogant wait staff sniffing in disdain at her selections. The exotic blend of garlic, spice, roasting meat and creamy tzatziki sauce was a temptation she faced almost daily. She had lost exact count, but was pretty sure temptation was ahead by four. Not enough time right now anyhow, she thought. As always there was a long line of suits, not so patiently waiting for their turn. Maybe on the way back, she promised herself and hoped she would be strong and hold out for the brown rice and tofu wrap waiting for her back home.
On the next corner, she passed the gray stone façade of the Museum of Sex, the risqué hot pink signs screaming from its windows. It embarrassed her to walk by here with Jonathan, he always stopped to look at the posters, claiming mere curiosity. She wasn't sure why this made her feel uncomfortable and awkward, but it did, and she avoided the place whenever she could. No one else seemed to notice the museum anymore, with it's suggestive words and kinky advertising. Perhaps people really can get used to anything, she thought, how depressing.
The crowds began to thin as Janine turned down 23rd, giving her a little more room to breathe. Sometimes she felt battered and bruised after fighting her way just a few streets over to the little bijou theater where they aired only the most campy, saccharine movies, almost every one a musical. She loved it there; perhaps she would treat herself after this day’s ordeal.
On the next block, she finally spied Balducci’s, housed in the old New York Savings Bank building. She had always thought the building pretentious, with its copper dome framed in stained glass and roman columns at the front entrance. That it should now be home to a high-end food store with overpriced, unpronounceable delicacies , seemed appropriate. She did love the clock, though, and was pleased when they finally restored it. The two-sided bronze clock, with industrious bees carved in relief and, of all things, a giant bee skep on top, was so incongruous in this urban setting that it utterly delighted her. As she crossed the street and started up the stairs she mentally ran through her list of excuses. It was a little more difficult this time, as she really had no idea why her parents wanted this meeting. Her mother had called her three hours earlier.
“Janine!” her mother began, in her usual clipped tone. “This is your mother. Your father and I have something to discuss with you.”
“Yes, Mother, I know it’s you, I have you on caller ID.”
“Oh, yes, well then.” Janine had derailed her for a moment, but she recovered quickly. “We will be down town this afternoon, meet us at Balducci’s, 1:30”
“What is this about, Mother? I have plans this afternoon,” she lied.
“That is unimportant, change your plans. Balducci’s. 1:30. Today.” She hung up.
She had wanted to refuse. Had wanted to insist that she was a grown woman and that, perhaps, she just might have something important to do and was not always available to do their bidding. She wanted to. But she just sighed, turned off her soldering iron, and went to get cleaned up. She was disappointed; she was finally making progress on the stained glass panel she was making for Ellie’s wedding gift. She’d had a terrible time finding just the right pattern. Ellie was eclectic in her tastes, and Janine really barely knew David, but had eventually settled on an adorable koala in a eucalyptus tree, remembering Ellie’s confession that she called her 6’5” Australian born rancher fiancé “my koala bear”. Janine was amazed Ellie could get away with it. Jonathan hated it if she even tried to call him “Honey” or even “John”.
Imagining the look on his face should she ever address him as her “Johnny Bear” or something equally cutesy made her chuckle, which confused the dark-suited man holding the door of the food market open for her. He gave a startled half smile, and then looked nervously away. As he slipped past, Janine resisted the urge to apologize; once again she had broken the social “code” of this city. The rules were simple. No eye contact, no smiling, no friendly gestures. Stay inside your own personal space, and avoid any attempt to breach its perimeter. Obey these edicts, and no one gets hurt, or, God forbid, uncomfortable.
She entered Balducci’s and headed towards the coffee bar, where she could see her parents already seated at one of the sleek gray granite-topped tables. Her mother, it seemed, was delivering a diatribe aimed at the barista standing near their table. The poor girl looked miserable, and Janine silently commiserated with her. Having been on the receiving end of her mother’s verbal lashings many times before, she tried to gift the poor thing with an encouraging smile as she approached, but it went unnoticed.
As the girl stepped away, Janine groaned. Perfect Rachel was with them. She hadn’t been expecting that. For a brief moment, she thought of turning around and making a dash for the door, but stopped herself. This is my family, for heavens sake, why am I such a coward?
Then her Mother spotted her, stood up and started gesturing imperiously for her to hurry, at the same time launching a final sharp word at her retreating victim. Should have run when I had the chance, she thought. “We who are about to die, salute you!” She reined in her wayward sense of humor and greeted her family.
Her sister Rachel was dressed impeccably, as usual, in a wheat-colored linen suit and blush pink blouse. She wore a pair of low heel peep-toe pumps and carried a matching clutch. Her short cap of blond hair was beautifully cut and subtly highlighted, her only jewelry a simple fine gold chain. Janine was suddenly self-conscious of her large hoop earring, multiple bangle bracelets, and the strands of bright-colored glass beads she wore around her neck. Her curly brown hair was in a windblown tangle and her tropical print wrap dress was loose and flowing. Her red roman sandals and patchwork hobo bag completed her raiment, and gave the impression that an inquisitive bird had arrived from some exotic place.
“My God, you look like a gypsy!” her mother said, sniffing in disapproval, as Janine approached the table. “How can you go out in public like that?”
“Please Janine, let me take you shopping. I know you just need a little help finding things that suit you!” Rachel added.
“But these do suit me, they’re comfortable!”
“So are sweat pants!” her mother said. “I hope you're not running around in those too!”
Janine pulled out the last chair at their table, hung her bag on the back of it and sat down.
“Alright now, we are not here to disparage Janine’s choice of attire,” her father said. “We have something important to discuss. Janine, listen,” he said, taking both her hands in his. “I’m afraid I have some bad news, honey, your Aunt Ruby is gone.”
“Gone?” Janine was confused. “Gone where?” she asked, as a cold dread began to creep over her. No, no, no! Say Thailand, or Morocco or something like that! But her father’s next words stopped her internal monologue.
“Gone, Honey. Passed, uh, deceased,” he murmured. He bowed his head to their joined hands. “I am so sorry.”
It just wasn’t possible; her Aunt Ruby couldn’t possibly be dead! She was indestructible! She was vibrant, vivacious! More alive than anyone she had ever known!
“What happened?” she asked, nudging his head up. “I just saw her last week, she was getting ready to head down to Mexico.” She wanted to see his eyes. To see that this was a joke. But of course, it wasn’t, Father wouldn’t joke like this. “You know, that Red Hatter’s trip. The one she’s been talking about? She wanted me to come along and wear pink!”
“Her heart, Sweetie, they think it was her heart,” came his soft reply.
“She traveled too much, she should have settled down a long time ago, started a charity group, learned to knit or something,” her mother said. “Not go running all over the world and live like a native. I’m sure she contracted some vile disease, and it weakened her.”
“She did do charity work, Mother, all over the world. She was a very kind woman,” Rachel pointed out.
“Never the less.” her mother said, and that seemed to end it.
They sat a moment, in silence, Janine absorbing the news, as the unfortunate barista returned with their coffee. With a quick, “Can I get you anything else?” she moved away before anyone could answer. Another moment passed, as her family preformed the mundane tasks of checking the acceptability of their drinks, made any necessary corrections from the assorted shakers and packets on the table, and began to sip.
Her father cleared his throat. “So, your Aunt,” he started, rethought his words, and tried again. “I don’t know if you were aware, but a few years back, after Uncle Lucien passed, Aunt Ruby asked me to be executor of her estate. I, of course, agreed. So I am here now in that capacity.” He must have thought that sounded callous, because he added, “too” and cleared his throat again.
Janine’s thoughts could not resolve into any thing cohesive to say, so she just continued to listen.
“So, to cut to the chase, as it were,” he continued. “She left you girls each something in her will.”
“She left me something?” Rachel gasped in surprise. Janine heard the exchange distantly, through the filter of her shock.
“Yes, you are to have the beach house in Hampton Bay and all five acres it rests on, along with enough shares in Uncle Lucien’s company to maintain the property until you should decide to sell.”
“But, she never even liked me! She always said I was just like Mother, and she didn’t make it sound like that was a good thing! Why would she leave me anything?” Her mother snorted in affront.
“Well, she did. She left you a message too, though it seems pretty cryptic to me. Now where was that…, oh here it is,” he said, removing some papers from the briefcase Janine hadn’t notice before.
“'Dearest Rachel,'” he read, “'Always remember to slow down in life; live, breathe, and learn. Take a look around you whenever you have time and never forget everything and every person that has the least place within your heart. With love, Aunt Ruby.'”
From the perplexed looks on their collective faces, Janine could see they were at a loss. It didn’t surprise her. Her single-minded sister had been on the fast track since junior high and it had never occurred to her that something may be missing from her carefully scheduled life. How like her beloved aunt, to see straight to the heart of Rachel’s driven personality, and find the one thing she would need most in the future.
The Hampton Bay house was warm and inviting, unlike the hard-edged modern designs of Rachel’s Mid-town penthouse, and the closest thing to a family home they’d had growing up. Her parents social duties had kept them moving from one exclusive neighborhood to another, all properties they owned, but none of them “home”. But every holiday was spent with Aunt and Uncle in the Hamptons, and it was there they both learned to bake, crochet and bond. Family traditions were formed and shared, and the two little Kemnitz girls could be just little girls, and not a reflection of their parents social worth. These were Janine’s fondest memories, and it surprised her to see Rachel’s eyes tearing up in remembrance as well. Ruby, you were one bright lady! How well you know us! Or knew us, she thought sadly.
“Well, how odd,” Mother said,” but it is a beautiful property, do you think you will sell, or hang on to it for a bit?”
“I think I’ll hang on to it, Mother.” Rachel smiled in fond recollect of a past life. “I think I’ll go up there in a couple weeks, if I can get away.”
“Yes, well, now for you, Janine,” Father began again “to you she left a property in Washington.”
“D.C.!” Mother said, “My God, that must be worth a fortune! Do you know what real-estate costs in the capital?”
“No, Dear, not D.C. the state. Washington state,” he said. “Twenty acres, a place called Highland Hold, outside of Tonasket, Washington.”
Her mother looked stunned.“Washington State?” she asked, “What is in Washington State? Some cows, fields, isn’t that where they grow apples? Doesn’t it rain there all the time? Who on earth would want to live where it rains all the time? Do they even have cities?” She was clearly appalled at the thought of no cities. “Just how big is this Tonk-a-set place?”
“I have no idea,” he replied, as Janine sat silently. “Honey, are you with us, did you hear me, twenty acres?”
She nodded. “Yes, Dad, I heard you, twenty acres, Washington, the state, not D.C. Ton-kas-ket. But I am confused, give me a minute.”
“There is a note for you as well, shall I read it?”
“'My Darling Jay-nine,'” he read,”'I am leaving you this property, in hopes that it will be the catalyst to finally propel you into the life you deserve. It is arable land, with open fields and a fenced pasture. The well is deep and pure, and the house is small, but sound. There are trees for firewood, and it is only a ten mile drive into town. They have two grocery stores, a library, and only one small tavern, which seems a good sign. Your father will tell you, I have left you a small sum, enough to pay land taxes and incidentals, until you can establish yourself. This is it, my dear, no more excuses, take your dreamy head out of the clouds and pick up a shovel. I have great hopes for you. Remember this: “Poor is the woman whose dreams depend on the permission of another...” Your Loving Aunt Ruby'”
At this point, Father read off a list, with amounts and particulars that passed by Janine as a whisper. Not Rachel and Mother, though. They both started talking at once. “But why? I thought you were her favorite! Why so little, that land isn’t worth a fraction of the Hampton Bay house!” “It will take forever to sell, are there even people living there?” “What on earth are we going to do?”
At this last comment, Janine halted their rant by holding up her hand and nodding towards their audience. The other patrons were starting to notice, casting curious looks in their direction. The two women quickly quieted.
“Me.” Janine said into the sudden silence, and they both turned to look at her, “I mean, I. What am I going to do?”
“Just what is that supposed to mean, young lady?”
“Just as it sounds, Mother, this decision is mine, and mine alone.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you cannot make a decision like this alone, you have no idea what you are doing, how to hire a real-estate agent, how to research the property values. God only knows what kind of shysters they may have in that backwoods place! Of course your father will take care of all that,” her mother said. Rachel was surprisingly quiet.
“I don’t think so, no, I don’t think so…” Janine fell into silent thought. She glanced at her father and caught the slightest of smiles, which he quickly covered with his usual serious frown.
She couldn’t remember the first time she had realized she was different from the others in her family, that she didn’t quite fit. Perhaps she had always known, in the back of her mind. In her family, success and failure were measured by academic and physical achievements. Things that were tangible and quantifiable, usually accompanied by certificates, trophies and plaques. As a small child, she was forever bringing home creative efforts: paintings, clay sculptures and short stories as she got older. But for concrete people like her parents, these things were less definable, they had no basis against which to measure their changeling daughter, so her talents were downplayed, or completely ignored.
Certainly they had beautiful art in their various homes, expensive pieces, meticulously selected to showcase Mother’s taste and their financial status. But there was little room, nor understanding, for a little girl's childish efforts. She had tried. She remembered bringing home a project she was particularly proud of, a God’s Eye, made from two twigs she had begged off their gardener at the time, and beautifully woven in a rainbow of bright yarn. She was so pleased with the careful way she had wrapped the colors, not crisscrossing, just the way her teacher had taught her, and she thought the fringe of beads she had added made it really special. She was sure that this time Mother and Father would be so impressed, that she had carefully placed it on the mantel in the front parlor, under the big painting of the horse and next to the pretty blue egg she loved so well.
That evening, she waited impatiently for dinner to end, and her parents to retire to the parlor for drinks, excited to see their reaction to her gift. Her mother noticed the God’s Eye immediately, asking what it was and how did it get there, but with a note of disdain in her voice that pierced Janine's tender heart. Her father dutifully admired it and gave her a distracted pat on the head, and the matter was quickly forgotten. But, she remembered, the weaving was gone by the end of the week. That was the last time she showed them her work, waiting instead for visits with her aunt and uncle.
Their house in the Hamptons was always littered with the results of her fascination with handcrafts. They were always so willing to help her explore some new craft, had even set aside a room just for her visits. “Now this is your studio, Honey!” Aunt Ruby told her, “not just a craft room, you are making art, so it is a studio! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” From Uncle Lucien she had learned woodworking and minor household repairs and Aunt Ruby had taught her the basics of needlework. Even Rachel had gone through a brief “crafty phase” and learned to crochet, and Janine knew that even now, as an adult, she still enjoyed it as a way to unwind. As she grew older, and adolescent angst consumed her life, Janine no longer visited her aunt and uncle as often and felt adrift in a world that seemed to find her increasingly lacking.
By trial and error, she tried to find a place for herself; she tried different “alternative” schooling, joined protest marches, collected food for the homeless, and even tried to save the whales. Her parents despaired at her “flighty” behavior, her inability to “settle into something”. Janine had to give them credit, they were forever showing her yet another school brochure, had always been more than willing to finance another enrollment, but only if her proposed course of study was one they had stamped as “acceptable”. This did not include courses on personal wellness, homeopathic remedies, straw bale construction or organic gardening.
“Of course,” Mother said, “gardening is fine, so long as you hire someone to do it for you. But certainly not vegetables, you are not, after all, a farmer.” But she continued to study and learn all she could about life in the country, all the while dreaming of a time she could find the place she really belonged.
When her parents had finally had enough, they purchased her apartment, hired an interior designer to furnish it to Mother’s exacting standards and figuratively washed their hands of her. She imagined her mother held a particularly high level in the pecking order of “mothers with wayward children” at her club. They probably commiserate over drinks after each screw-up! she thought. They had finally reached an unspoken, but mutual understanding: she kept the worst of her “flights of fancy” to herself, and they didn’t ask too many questions they did not want the answers to.
Now, here she sat, with the answer to her dreams, no more excuses, and the chance to pursue her lifelong obsession. Thoughts swirled and she felt light headed. She felt brave and frightened, confident and confused. The words “no more excuses” kept running through her mind, she had to get out of there. She scooped up her purse, and started to retreat.
“Where are you going? This isn’t finished, Janine!” her mother said.
“I have to go, I am meeting Jonathan,” she lied, as Rachel and Father joined in protest, “ he is expecting me.”
She thought that was a safe bet, she needed some time to think, but her family had the tenacity of a pack of terriers. Out of thin air, she had come up with the lie about meeting him. They would never argue with her going to see Jonathan. She knew they already considered him part of the family, their last great hope for Janine to have a “normal” life. Her lie had the desired effect, they quickly released her and sent her on her way.
“Just give me a call when you are ready to go over the details, oh and the funeral will be this Saturday, 3 o’clock, at St. Bart’s, Aunt wanted to be buried up north with Uncle Lucien, so we’ll have a small family gathering there later next week.” She mumbled her good-byes and hurried outside