May 27, 1930
Leaning on her broom, Myrtle peered down the tree-lined street, watching Celeste meander across the Green, school satchel swinging, nose in the air, catching the sweet scent of linden flower now perfuming the town. “There she is,” Myrtle said loud enough for her neighbor’s ears. “There’s my beautiful daughter.”
Mrs. Harris stopped her sweeping, wiped her hands on her apron and squinted in the same direction. “Oh my, yes, hasn’t she blossomed over the winter!”
Myrtle waved her arms to catch Celeste’s eye. “Sixteen and nearly grown. Can you imagine? Where do the years go?”
Mrs. Harris shook her head. “Soon married with a brood of her own, and you a grandmother – ha ha! Any good prospects?”
“A few,” Myrtle coyly twisted her head. “But we’ll see what summer brings.”
A block away, Celeste waved and hollered: “Mama, I’ll be at church for choir.”
Myrtle nodded and ducked her head, returning to sweeping her walk. No longer interested in chatting, she wanted only to imagine the upcoming months, when her hopes and plans would finally converge. Never before had her dreams been so close to fulfillment. After years of false starts, slogging through the lower ranks of Gladdenbury’s social fabric, she’d finally secured invitations to a selection of coveted summer parties that would place Celeste among the town’s best set and win the most desired prize: an invitation to the Women’s Club Fall Cotillion, where social merit was confirmed and rewarded with a proper introduction.
The Cotillion, Myrtle mused, sweeping harder. Where debutantes were presented and lifelong alliances forged. And, if the fates were kind, her own ascent up society’s ladder, which had thus far eluded her anxious grasp. Although the season was weeks away, she could already smell the heady bloom of roses at the Conner’s June soiree, feel the jazzy sway of the Club’s midsummer dance and delight in the riot of hats at the August regatta. But the Cotillion! Ah the Cotillion. If this one wish were granted, she would ask for nothing more. Her blood rushed at the thought of her daughter’s prospects, so shiny, so bright, so far from her own tattered childhood. Everything she’d schemed for decades was now unfolding, and she couldn’t wait for the festivities to begin.
“Excuse please, Myrtle?”
Myrtle’s head jerked up at the old-country voice of Gamma on the front porch.
“I like to make some discussion with you. Please, you come soon?”
Myrtle forced a smile for Mrs. Harris’s nosey eyes and nodded. Gamma re-entered the house, and Myrtle muttered, “Yes, your majesty,” giving each step a hard sweep as she climbed the stoop. Leaving the broom by the door, she crossed through the parlor into the glass-walled conservatory where Gamma held court. The woody-green smell of the many plants assaulted her nose, along with a large fern frond. Roughly pushing it aside, she heard a flutter of wings retreating from the six outdoor feeders and saw Gamma sitting on the wrought iron love seat, as she often did, calmly needle pointing. “I’ve got a lot to do today. What do you want?” she asked, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice.
Gamma’s hands briefly stopped moving. “I have idea, for your agreement, something for Celeste; a promise made long ago, but now is right time, I think. Sit.”
Myrtle perched on the iron chair across from Gamma, wincing slightly at its cool hardness. “Go on then. Supper won’t start itself.”
Gamma cleared her throat. “Ten year ago, I promise to show Celeste our roots, in Bohemia. This summer I like to take her, as I am well enough and she 16 – same as her father was.”
Myrtle’s entire body flushed. “Roots? What are you talking about? No old roots are going to tangle my girl’s shining future!” She couldn’t believe her ears nor stop her rushing mind. “You want to dismiss all my hard work for this summer’s plans? For some crusty old roots? What have they to do with our lives today? With her life and future?”
Myrtle’s upset exploded well beyond her sense of reason. But having broken with her own past long ago, she knew of what she spoke. The first of too many children, she’d cut her teeth on want for something better, something more, and learned young how to snatch it, like apples off a cart. What else could she do? With a worthless father and haggard mother, living in the stench of New York City’s Five Corners, polluted by fetid factories and savage people, she had no one to protect her from life’s wretchedness. It exhausted and shamed her to recall any of it, but she’d vowed to escape her mother’s washerwoman fate, and finally did, opting to roam the streets, searching for a smidgen of hope – when she spied young Master Howe, striding confidently in spats and spit-shine boots, posting notices for free tutoring. Fresh from college and eager to help those less fortunate, he was the sole heir to a small chain of hardware stores. From the moment Myrtle saw his softly tilted, handsome face and honest eyes, she recognized a means to a better tier of life where her old roots could be severed and her warehouse of want might be satisfied.
Clutching the cold, iron chair arm, Myrtle furiously shook her head. “No! You’ll not steal my daughter’s future. Not when it’s her time to rise.”
Gamma had anticipated such a response. “Hers – or yours, Myrtle?” she asked. “Celeste’s future include her past. She has right to know from where she come.”
“That makes no difference,” Myrtle sputtered. “This is where she was born, not Bohemia or Ireland or some filthy New York alley. This is what she knows, and all she needs to know, for the life she was born to live, with people more like her than we’ll ever be. Certainly more than backwoods strangers across the ocean.”
Myrtle finished with a huff, still full of fury. From her first day in Gladdenbury she’d kept a gloved finger in the social pie, setting her sights on the doyenne with five sons a few blocks away. The time had finally come to reap what she’d carefully sown, to claim her dream, if only as mother of the most promising young woman about to enter the town’s highest echelon. “No, Gamma, I won’t abide your wish. It’s been arranged. It’s … all … been … arranged, and I won’t let anything change it. You can’t do that to … to … her. Not after all we’ve been through.”
Gamma slowly wagged her head. “We? Did Celeste help make this choice?”
“She’s my daughter,” Myrtle shot back, “and I know what she needs,” she popped up, spinning on her heel. “And I’ll not have you filling her head with your Bohemian religion.”
“Ne!” Gamma’s raised voice arrested Myrtle’s departure. “Is not religion. Is philosophy and history and art in the blood of her veins.”
Myrtle jutted her chin “So you claim. But what does Martin say?”
Gamma blinked calmly. This, too, she expected. “I ask your blessing first.”
“Well, I’ll not give it. And let’s just see what he has to say.” Myrtle flicked her skirt as she turned to leave.
Gamma called after her. “What of Celeste’s dreams and desires? Speak of those?”
Grasping the overhanging frond, her back to the old woman, Myrtle squeezed the foliage tight. “What can a child know at such an age?”
Gamma narrowed her eyes. “Much as you – when first you see my son.”
Myrtle swiveled and locked eyes with Gamma, standing in mute defiance. After a long moment, Gamma spoke slowly.
“She must know her own heart voice or have no compass to find her truth, for no one walks the same path.”
“Poppycock!” Myrtle released the frond, ducked under the leaves and stomped out, untying her apron as she strode.
Gamma sank onto her chair. “Bolení hlavy,” she sighed, listening to her daughter-in-law pound across the parlor, rip open the coat closet, slam the glove box and bang the front door behind her. Through the conservatory’s glass walls, she watched Myrtle flounce down the road toward town and their hardware store, hat bouncing with each step. Gamma shook her head. “Another headache,” she translated for the birds re-clustering around the feeders. She knew Myrtle would badger Martin until he agreed to whatever his wife demanded, if only to regain peace. That’s how it always was, and this time would be no different – unless she put up a fight, a fight worthy of her granddaughter’s right to choose her own life.
Turning back to her needlepoint, Gamma tried to concentrate on the pillow in her lap. It was a gift for their distant kin, depicting Celeste’s life and hopefully a map for her first campfire storytelling. She had not wanted to upset Myrtle, but time was not her friend. She’d learned first hand that too much could change too fast; and now supper would be smothered by angry silence. “For what?” Gamma asked the birds. “Ticket to a dance?”
Had her husband lived, she’d still be in New York, running their three shops with closed eyes, for everything her husband knew, she knew as well, thanks to his blessed mother, Katrine. She’d hoped to do the same with Myrtle, despite their rocky start, until the sudden deaths led them to sell the stores and move to this town of glassy eyes and wagging tongues. Oh, how she missed New York’s quirky imperfections, so unlike this hamlet where everyone strived to be the same; Myrtle most of all, willing to become whatever she thought they wanted in exchange for acceptance and status.
Gamma sighed again, putting away her stitchery. Truth be told, she had failed her own son with the same blindness now driving Myrtle; guilty of putting her own wants ahead of her son’s dreams. And for that, she was deeply sorry. But it also was the reason she felt such urgency with Celeste. As the last of their Bohemian line, the girl was Gamma’s only chance to honor the vow she’d made so many moons ago. If Celeste did not come to understand their Heart Code, no one would be left to pass it on. So no matter the discord, Celeste deserved more than an invitation to a cotillion by which to measure her self-worth.
Brusquely opening the door of their hardware store and finding it empty, Myrtle brushed past the shop’s counter and burst through the office door. Martin jumped in his seat, dropping his pencil.
“I refuse! Simply refuse!” Myrtle stamped her feet for emphasis. “To sacrifice my daughter to that old woman’s ancient faith. What can Celeste gain among those … those … mountain people?”
“Jeepers, Myrtle, lower your voice,” Martin cautioned, pulling off his green visor. He felt muddled by the sudden interruption after working on the shop’s accounts all afternoon, and he hated arguing with anyone, especially in public.
“Don’t you admonish me, Martin Howe, not after what I’ve been through. It’s not you who has to spend all day dealing with your mother’s foolishness.”
Rubbing his face, Martin sank back into his chair. “Sit down. Calm down. What’s the hoo-ha now?”
Pulling off her gloves, Myrtle perched on the chair alongside his desk. “If you don’t put a stop to it, she’ll ruin all our plans and our daughter’s future.”
Leaning back, Martin saw a dozen images of this same conflict flash through his mind. Since the move to Connecticut, his wife repeatedly clashed with his mother over the identical issue: Her lust for all things social, juxtaposed with his mother’s ideology. “What is it today?” he asked quietly.
“The plans for this summer, to introduce Celeste to the right people so she’ll have a chance – a chance I never had, until I met you. But times are different now. We must keep her on the right track.”
“What?” Martin was baffled.
“Your mother wants to take Celeste to Bohemia this summer. The most important summer of her life! When they’ll be choosing who to invite to the Cotillion! Everything I’ve
worked for will piffle away!”
“The Women’s Club Cotillion? In the fall?”
“Yes, in the fall, but if she isn’t around this summer to make the proper impression, they won’t even know she’s alive. Don’t you see? We can’t miss this opportunity.”
Martin rubbed his face again. Twenty-six years ago it seemed like a good idea to move to this small town to escape their losses: first his newborn son, then his father, then his youth, abruptly shunted aside to become head of household with a grieving mother, an inconsolable wife and three New York hardware stores to run. Barely 22 before his father died and still a boy in many respects, he was well educated but apprenticing the family business, with all the serious responsibilities still squarely on his father’s shoulders. It had been only a few short years from his knock-about days on the docks of New York, dreaming of being a sailor like his Uncle Yazi, traveling the world with a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. But then he met Myrtle and quickly eloped for reasons that now seemed hazy, and instantly his whole world changed.
“What did Mother say?” he asked.
Myrtle knew he would check her every word. “She said she promised to take Celeste to Bohemia when she was 16 – same as you – and wants to do it this summer, in spite of knowing what a sacrifice it would mean for Celeste’s future.” She quickly rose, leaned on Martin’s desk, her face close to his, her voice quiet and intense. “Can’t you do something? Convince her that next year would be better, so as not to jeopardize our daughter’s chances? Besides, how can we afford it after the crash and talk of depression?”
Martin shook his head. “Father willed Mother her own money.”
Myrtle whirled around, dropping in her chair, summoning forced tears. “I can’t believe you’d let all my hard work slip down the drain.”
Martin stared at her contorted face. When they first met, her frailty had captivated him. She seemed the polar opposite of his mother and grandmother, the two towering pillars of strength that dominated his life. Her fearful nature, adoring eyes and neediness gave him a cause. Myrtle was someone he could protect. So, despite his Mother’s probing and his own gnawing doubt, he followed Myrtle to a justice of the peace and became a young husband with a soon pregnant wife, living in his father’s ample house and enjoying his mother’s meals as he tested the sails and riggings of life. But with his father’s sudden death, he was called on deck and thrusted the tiller before he even knew how to tie a proper knot. In that moment, trading New York for Connecticut seemed right, a place to begin anew. Before he truly knew his wife or welcomed the birth of his daughter; or held his breath through the “war to end all wars” or endured prohibition and the women’s right to vote and the 1920’s roar when Noel Coward’s plays and Fitzgerald’s books and Picasso’s paintings ruled the day. Now, with Wall Street’s debacle unhinging everyone’s plans, Martin questioned what he’d done with his life. How changes he’d innocently set in motion nearly three decades before had come to impact everything he held most dear: his wife, his mother, his child, his heritage and especially – especially – the man he had hoped to become.
“We’ll talk tonight,” he offered, “and see what can be worked out.”
After supper, when Celeste slipped off to do her homework and Myrtle began washing up, Martin broke the tense silence that had shrouded their meal. Stirring his coffee, he quietly asked, “Mother, how long were you thinking to be gone?”
Myrtle gasped, turning from the sink with soapy hands dripping on the floor. “But Martin, it’s already settled. I’ve made the arrangements. We can’t cancel now.”
“Four weeks.” Gamma ignored Myrtle’s glare, stirring honey in her tea. “Six days on ship to London, then Paris and Prague, and six days back.”
In the corner of his eye, Martin saw Myrtle vigorously shaking her head. “You promised me.” Her voice shook. “There won’t be another chance like this. Think of Celeste’s future.”
Gamma nodded slowly. “Yah, Myrtle is wise. Think of Celeste’s future and the children she have one day. Who tell your grandchildren of Bohemian culture? Or will they know only Gladdenbury ways?”
Myrtle huffed. “You and that Bohemian piffle. It’s your answer for everything.”
“Myrtle…” Martin cautioned.
“What do you want from me, Martin? I’ve worked hard and long, and now you take it all away so she can traipse through the woods with…with…some hooligans across the sea! After all I’ve done to give our daughter the best possible life?”
Myrtle’s puffy face saddened Gamma. Too much weary discord. “Myrtle,” she began softly. “Is not your answer or mine that matters. Is the questions in Celeste heart and what she dream to follow.”
Martin’s head lowered and tilted to the left as he considered his mother’s words.
Remembering his own trip to their homeland so many years ago, he’d never been able to explain to Myrtle how he felt among the Bohemian hills of their family’s settlement, where the air felt soft despite the hard life the farmers led. Where laughter rang clear among his aunts, uncles and cousins, who wished each other well no matter what road they took. Nor had he told her how he felt growing up in New York, surrounded by his mother’s varied friends who, like his Bohemian relatives, laughed and talked incessantly of questions and dreams. Where had his own dreams gone, he wondered? Did any embers of questions still hide in the recesses of his heart?
Then he thought of Celeste. His body filled with unfettered love. Despite the losses, discarded dreams and disappointments in the ten long years before his daughter’s miraculous birth, he’d repeat every step just to see her smile.
Looking at his scowling wife, hands planted on her hips, and then at his mother’s placid face, he realized it was probably too late for his own questions and dreams, but not for his daughter’s. Downing his coffee, he squared his shoulders, faced his wife’s glare and then his mother’s attentive gaze.
“I think this is the time for Celeste,” he said, enunciating the words that would reverberate for hours. “Take her, Mother. Take Celeste to Bohemia for as long as you like and show her all she needs to know.” And silently, he finished the thought to himself: “Maybe she’ll do what I could not and follow her heart’s call.” ¤