Chapter 35 – Alice

Hello Beautiful

ovember 2008

Alice Felt like a astro aut in her aunts’ house, as if she had to wear a clunky suit and helmet because she couldn’t breathe the

native atmosphere and had to pay attention while she walked to make sure she didn’t fall over. Her normal, safe life had been stripped away, and she had no idea how to act, think, or feel. Her aunts kept pulling her close for hugs. Emeline and Cecelia looked both similar and dissimilar to her mother. Emeline kissed Alice’s cheek the same way Julia did, and Cecelia’s voice sounded almost exactly like her mother’s. Izzy was so excited about Alice’s arrival, it was clear that she’d been waiting for her cousin her entire life. Izzy talked a lot, and Alice wondered if, in her distress about her aunt, Izzy was talking more than usual to try to quell her sadness. She told Alice stories about their family and chatted about the future as if Alice was going to be part of it. Alice’s aunts, too, spoke as if her presence was inevitable, as if she’d gone out on an errand and been terrifically delayed but had finally returned home.

Alice had spent the night in the same bedroom as Izzy, each of them in a single bed. “We shouldn’t be alone,” Izzy had said to her, “after what’s happened.” What has happened? Alice wanted to say, because she would have liked to hear it as a list, in a form she could try to comprehend. She had arrived in Chicago to meet her father, and on the same day, his wife had died. Now Alice’s mother and Rose were on their way here, and she was surrounded by

devastated people she’d only just met. Alice had slept with her cousin in side-by-side beds, in a world where two side-by-side houses were shared by all of the inhabitants, most of whom Alice was related to. There was a tiny baby living in Emeline’s house— another mysterious development, because apparently the baby was staying there only temporarily. The infant erupted into cries sometimes, and Alice wished it were appropriate for her to do the same. She was alone only when she was in the bathroom. Every time she entered a room, the people there were obviously delighted to see her, even if they’d just seen her a few moments earlier.

Alice had woken up very early that morning, before anyone else, and walked the hallways. She wanted to look at Cecelia’s paintings, which were everywhere. No matter where she turned, six-inch-high portraits of women’s faces filled the spaces between the floorboards and the ceiling. There was a painting of Julia as a teenager that Alice had stood in front of for a few minutes. The idea of her mother being as young and open as she appeared on that canvas was hard for Alice to believe. There was the ancient, fierce-looking woman whom Alice had seen in prints of Cecelia’s art and who also existed on sides of Chicago buildings. Izzy had told Alice that she was a saint, St. Clare of Assisi, who was important to the Padavano sisters. “She looks like a real badass, doesn’t she?” Izzy had said.

Cecelia had painted Rose when she was young and beautiful, with her black hair pulled away from her face. A stern great-grandmother, whom apparently no one other than Rose had met, appeared on the wall too; Cecelia had painted her from the one photo Rose had of her parents. The walls were decorated with the matriarchal line of the Padavano family, plus the female saint who somehow marked both their strength and their follies. There was a painting of a red-haired little girl; Izzy told Alice that this was William’s sister, who’d died when she was young. Another aunt, Alice thought, because having a three-year-old dead aunt made as much sense as anything else. Only one man appeared on the wall: Charlie,

the grandfather who was clearly beloved by everyone, and the only family member both Rose and Julia had told Alice stories about while she was growing up. In the portrait, Charlie was sitting in an armchair, his face lit up by his smile. There were portraits of Alice and Izzy as babies and individual paintings of the two girls as they grew older. Alice was moved to find herself, at different ages, on nearly every wall. She had been inside these houses before she knew they existed. Perhaps this explained the familiarity with which her cousin and aunts had greeted her. They seemed to know her, if only because she was one of them, in a way Alice wasn’t sure she knew herself.

When Julia arrived, Alice hugged her mother hello, but the two women kept their distance after that. Alice wasn’t ready, and she was grateful that Julia knew better than to force her to talk. In any case, there were so many other people who wanted their attention that neither woman had a minute when she wasn’t squinting in the direction of an emotional sister, aunt, niece, or cousin, trying to come up with the right words in a disorienting situation. Also, Alice thought at her mother, I came here for him, not you. You gave me questions, and I need answers.

Alice kept glancing at the front door, knowing that her father would be here soon. She wanted to be prepared, to compose herself as much as possible. She hoped she could give an impression of independence or even nonchalance, her body saying, I never needed you, and I certainly don’t need you now. But her father entered through the back door, at the same time that the doorbell rang and the baby Josie was holding started to wail. The air seemed to evaporate from the room, and Alice couldn’t breathe. There was a rushing noise in her head. Don’t look at me, she thought, and thankfully he didn’t, so she had a chance to take him in. William Waters was accompanied by a few giant men, all of them with grave expressions. Her father didn’t look overtly mean or as if he was someone who disliked children and thus had easily abandoned his

own. His expression was one of unarmed sadness. He had Alice’s face and her eyes. It was true, as Alice had long suspected, that when she’d looked in the mirror, her father had been looking back.

She watched her father walk toward her mother. William was now speaking to Julia, fifteen feet away. The man who had given her up, and the woman who had been Alice’s entire family until twenty-four hours earlier.

Late the night before, from her adjacent bed, Alice had asked, “Do you know why William didn’t want to be my father?” Izzy had been quiet for a minute, then said, “I think he was afraid he would mess you up, because of his depression.”

Izzy appeared at Alice’s side now. “You all right?” she whispered.

Alice made a face of some kind at her cousin, because she didn’t want to lie. She didn’t know if she was all right. She didn’t know anything. Alice had locked herself down years ago. She’d never told a boy she liked him, or driven too fast in a car, or gotten so drunk she lost track of the words leaving her mouth, but now she appeared on a mural somewhere in Chicago and in portraits on the walls of this house, and she saw herself in the man across the room. She existed outside her own body—she was scattered across this ground

—but somehow this made her feel less vulnerable. She was painted into this family, mirrored in her father’s face. She was more abundant than she’d believed possible.

William sat down, and the other men and women in the room immediately stepped forward, as if they were an external structure designed to keep Alice’s father from collapse. Towering men leaned toward him, willing him their own great strength. Alice, in the same moment, stepped backward. Everyone here loves him, she thought in amazement. They love him so much. She realized she’d expected her father to have a smaller life than hers. After all, he’d given her up. That seemed like a retreat, a refusal to live. But someone who turned away from people didn’t inspire this kind of response. She

had never been in a room with this much love and grief, this much emotion.

Alice backed up until she reached a wall, and she looked away, out the window onto the Pilsen street. Her father’s distress was personal, and she didn’t know him like these other people did. She didn’t want to appear to be gawking, as if at an accident on a highway. She also had the odd sense that she was a counterweight to this man who looked so much like her. They were both washed of color, tall and thin, somber in some elemental way. Alice felt like if she moved forward and pinned her eyes on him, then William Waters wouldn’t be able to rise from his chair. She would swamp him there, their energies mixing until he was too heavy to move. She had to stay at a distance, on her end of the seesaw that connected them, to give him any chance. In time, William stood and left the room. Still wearing his coat, he headed toward the back door of the house.

Alice felt like she’d exerted herself simply by standing against the wall. She was aware of her heart beating in her chest, as if she’d just sprinted up a hill. What is happening to me? she thought.

A man with dreadlocks and glasses walked over to her. He said, “I’m your father’s best friend. My name is Kent. It’s an honor to meet you, Alice.”

She shook his hand. Every piece of information was new. Her father had a best friend, his own version of Carrie.

“I held you in my arms when you were a baby,” he said, and then shook his head as if to clear it. “You must feel like you’ve walked into a whirlwind.”

Alice pictured a baby in this huge man’s arms. She’d come to understand that she’d had a life here as an infant, that for a short while before she had a memory, she was part of this world. These people remembered her, even though she had no recollection of them. “Sylvie loved you so much,” Emeline had told Alice. “She would have been so happy you’re home.”

“When an old person dies,” Kent said, “even if that person is wonderful, he or she is still somewhat ready, and so are the people who loved them. They’re like old trees, whose roots have loosened in the ground. They fall gently. But when someone like your aunt Sylvie dies—before her time—her roots get pulled out and the ground is ripped up. Everyone nearby is in danger of being knocked over.”

Alice considered this. Her world had always been so small, made up of many fewer people than currently filled this room. It had been Alice and her mother, their braided roots driven deep into the earth. When she looked around at her aunts, though, and at her mother, who was keeping her distance, and at her dark-haired cousin, whom Alice had somehow loved immediately when she’d thrown open the door in greeting, she knew something was happening to her own roots. Something was happening beneath the ground she was standing on.

“Your father needs a little more time,” Kent said. “Please don’t leave him.”

The last sentence surprised her. William had left her, after all. Was it even possible for her to leave a person she’d never met, who had legally declared, while she was still a baby, that he wanted nothing to do with her? But the big man in front of Alice looked like his ground had been pulled apart. He looked weary and kind, and so she said, “I won’t leave,” without knowing what time frame she was agreeing to or what not leaving meant.

the lo G day Felt unbounded by the regular movements of a clock. The hours swelled into bubbles that floated across the crowded rooms. First, bagels were put out, then, later, pizzas and cookies. Occasionally a discussion would arise about funeral plans, but William was still outside and no one wanted to bother him, so no final

decisions could be made. “Sylvie wouldn’t want a Catholic wake and funeral,” Cecelia said, and both her sisters nodded in agreement.

Rose arrived midafternoon, wearing a black dress, dramatic in her sadness. The night before, Izzy had listed for Alice the battles their grandmother had chosen a quarter century earlier. “She stopped talking to my mom when she got pregnant with me, she’s never acknowledged that I exist, and she’s mad at Aunt Emeline for being gay.” Izzy ticked these off on her fingers. “She was mad at Sylvie for marrying your dad. And I think she was angry at your mom for a little while for getting divorced, but she got over that.”

Just before Rose arrived, Cecelia said, “Mama’s going to pretend like we’ve been a happy family this whole time, and I think we should go along with it.”

Cecelia was right. Rose swept into the house and hugged each of her daughters as if she’d seen them the week before. When Izzy stepped forward, the grandmother and granddaughter stared each other down, a moment that evoked centuries of fierce women from their line. Then Izzy said, “You had a long trip. Are you hungry?” and Rose smiled with obvious relief. She accepted a cookie from Izzy and said it was one of the most delicious cookies she’d had in years. Rose complimented Josie on her hair color and told Emeline that the baby she was fostering had handsome features. She put her coat back on to go outside and talk to William for a few minutes and then took a seat at the kitchen table, as if claiming her throne. Rose wondered aloud how she could have survived her own child.

William’s friends took turns walking loops around the backyard with him; sometimes Alice would glimpse his shoulder, his fair hair, when they passed a window. When the sky began to flicker toward twilight, a giant sub sandwich arrived, with bags of potato chips. Izzy and Alice were sent to a corner store to buy more paper plates. There was coffee bubbling in the kitchen and a table with alcohol for anyone who wanted to drink.

“Your mom isn’t mad at Rose anymore?” Alice asked Izzy, while they walked to the corner store.

“She said she forgave her right after Rose threw her out of the house, when she was seventeen,” Izzy said. “My mom said she forgave her because she wanted to keep loving her. Aunt Emmie says it’s the most impressive thing my mom’s ever done. Will you forgive your dad?”

Alice was startled again. Forgiving William Waters hadn’t occurred to her; she’d wondered only if she could forgive her mom. She’d felt emotionally paused in reaction to her father, as if she were watching a movie and waiting for more information before she decided which character was the bad guy. She shrugged at Izzy, even though that wasn’t an answer.

When the young women were reentering the house, they heard Rose talking to Julia from somewhere behind the door, out of sight. They both stopped to listen.

“I wonder if it didn’t do you girls good,” Rose said, “for me to take my foot off the pedal for a few years. I went off to Florida, and you grew up well. You built your own lives. Josie’s a nice lady. I don’t see the sense in that baby they borrowed, but it’s a harmless hobby, I suppose. And Izzy reminds me of myself—she’s terrific.” Rose hardly paused for breath, as if relieved to speak after years of quiet. “Did you notice Emeline and Cecelia’s garden? It’s not half bad, though they clearly don’t know a thing about winter vegetables. They’re wasting space, and those potatoes looked a little iffy, but I’ll have to get another look tomorrow morning to be sure.”

Alice couldn’t see her mother’s reaction, but she imagined Julia rolling her eyes. Still, her mother didn’t say anything critical or unkind. Cecelia had set the tone, and on this day, everyone who had been lost—including Julia and Alice, of course—would be accepted as they were.

“Rose is amazing,” Izzy whispered, and grinned. “All of this is amazing.”

“Is it?” Alice said, with doubt in her voice, and her cousin laughed. “You made a joke,” Izzy said with delight. “You’re warming up! You’ve looked petrified ever since you got here.” The young women stepped all the way inside and closed the door behind them. Julia was headed toward them, and she did something Alice had seen her do a few times since she’d arrived. Julia pulled Izzy in for a hug and pressed a kiss into her niece’s cheek. Julia had missed this baby, while everyone else had missed baby Alice. It seemed to Alice that her mother was able to hold herself back from her daughter in part

because she had another girl to shower love upon.

All three sisters were near them—Emeline cradling the baby; Cecelia with circles under her eyes and a stack of paper napkins in her hand; Julia looking uncomfortable, her now-empty hands at her sides.

“Is it true,” Rose said, “that there won’t be a funeral at St.


Emeline spoke in a soft voice. “It wasn’t what Sylvie wanted, Mama.”

Rose watched her daughter sway gently on her feet to soothe the infant. They could all see the old woman working to hide her disapproval, working to keep her mouth shut. Alice felt like an astronaut again, with all these women so close by. Aunts, grandmother, mother, cousin. She was filled with static, finding it hard to breathe.

Rose said, “At least Sylvie’s with Charlie now.”

Her three remaining daughters looked toward her, toward this possible truth. For a moment they looked like young girls, and Alice could see the hope on their faces. They were picturing their sister with their father. It occurred to Alice that she had left home to see her father, and Sylvie had left her home—her life—which opened the possibility of a reunion with her own. This parallel was too much for Alice to consider further, but she felt, like a physical sensation, William’s presence in the backyard.

“You know what Daddy would say when he saw Sylvie,” Julia said in a quiet voice.

Emeline and Izzy nodded, and Cecelia said, “Hello beautiful.”

aFter a di er oF the sliced-up sub sandwich, potato chips, and wine, Julia put her hand on Alice’s arm. Alice was no longer angry at her mother. She no longer had space inside her for anger. Besides, if she’d felt like an astronaut in her aunts’ houses, she’d recognized that her mother did too. Each of them had been laboring through the rooms of these two homes, because whatever Julia had taken away from Alice for all these years, she’d taken away from herself as well. The mother and daughter had arrived here from the same place, and they were bound by a tight cord of love. For Alice, part of the strangeness of this new Chicago family was that they conducted a kind of love that seemed voluminous; it required talking over one another and living on top of one another, and it was a force that appeared to include people both present and absent, alive and dead. It was remarkable to Alice that the walls of her aunts’ houses were covered with portraits of the same women who walked its halls.

“The last time I saw Sylvie,” Julia said, “she asked me to give you something after she was gone. I thought she had time left, so I tried not to take it, but…” She shook her head slightly. “Let’s go over here, out of the way.”

The two women wove through the kitchen. It was hard to get out of the way. More people had arrived over the course of the afternoon. Izzy’s boyfriend—a stout, freckled young man—buzzed around the house, fulfilling tasks for the aunts. A grizzled man named Frank, who said he’d grown up on the same street as the Padavano sisters, sat in the armchair in the corner. Librarians who’d worked with Sylvie for years gathered by the coffee station in the kitchen, and more giant men had arrived, in such great numbers that

it looked like the forty-eight-year-old William must be a member of several basketball teams. Some of the men were young and muscle-bound; others were middle-aged players with a stoop in their shoulders. Kent seemed to know them all, and he moved through the room embracing each man who arrived. It was an eclectic group, and when new platters of food were set out, Izzy shouted the news from the center of the room to get everyone’s attention.

Julia saw her daughter taking in the crowd and said, “It’s so silly, but I thought life here would have frozen when I left. That if I did come back, it would all be the same. But it’s not. It’s much bigger.”

“It’s loud too,” Alice said, because it was. She’d noticed, as the hours passed, that there was a hint of relief in the collective sadness over Sylvie. The people who loved her were glad she hadn’t suffered more; they were grateful she’d died without pain and that they’d been spared her final, ruining decline. The men and women present laughed occasionally, happy to have loved Sylvie and happy simply to have come together. The only person whose pain seemed too great for relief was William. He came inside once or twice, but he always stayed far away from his daughter and returned to the backyard within a few moments. Maybe he needed the open air, Alice thought. His friends continued to spend time outside with him, next to the vegetable garden or by the back fence. There was a bench near a small stone fountain, and occasionally William rested there with his head in his hands.

Julia held out a wrapped package tied with string. It was rectangular and solid-looking. “This is a book that Sylvie wrote about our family. I haven’t read it, but she said it’s about our childhood, and your grandfather, and everything that’s happened since he died. She said she’d been working on it for years and that it’s a mess.” Julia looked down at what she held. “Sylvie wanted me to tell you that it’s yours now and that you can do anything you want with it. Edit what’s here, publish it, or throw it away. She said she didn’t mind, but she wanted it to be yours.”

Alice took the package. The familiar weight of a manuscript in her hands was pleasing; she felt slightly dizzy at the prospect of this gift. “Did Sylvie know I’m a copy editor?”

“I told her. I told her all about you. She wanted to hear everything.”

Alice nodded. She couldn’t imagine a more perfect gift; these pages would give her all the stories and people she’d missed. Her own history was in this document. And, as a bonus, Sylvie had given her niece an excuse to hide from the noisy, affectionate world she’d entered into, or to take breaks from it, anyway. Alice had decided— she wasn’t sure when she’d made this decision exactly, somewhere in the commotion of the last twenty-four hours—that she would stay in Chicago for a little while. For how long, she wasn’t sure. Emeline and Cecelia had told her they hoped she would stay forever and that she could choose a bedroom in either of their houses. Alice had never taken a vacation from work, but she would give herself one now. She would find a quiet room and read.

Izzy had started telling Alice about the Padavano sisters’ childhood, and there was something mythic and epic in the tales she was now holding in her hands. The idea that this was a narrative Alice would find herself in by the end felt strangely exciting. The coming together and falling apart of her parents; her own birth. And what would Alice do in the pages that hadn’t yet been written? Where would she live? Whom and what would she love?

Julia looked toward the crowded room and then back at her daughter. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this”—she paused—“but I think you should go talk to your father.”

Alice had been startled repeatedly since she’d arrived, but this didn’t surprise her at all. It felt like what she’d been expecting to hear. Alice had always liked to keep things small so she could, if necessary, grab what mattered and run to higher ground. But there was no way for her to gather everything she’d found in Chicago— since that meal in the Greek restaurant, really—in her arms. The

Padavanos had shown her a bigger kind of love. It was vast; it felt like everything. And now she sensed, through the same mysterious connection that had told her earlier that he needed distance, that the quiet man in the backyard would be able to bear her. William Waters was ready, and, unexpectedly, so was she.

She put the manuscript down on the table next to her and wrapped her arms around her mother. Julia squeezed Alice tight, the same way she’d squeezed her when Alice was a small girl and Julia wanted to show how much she loved her. Alice smiled and pressed her head on top of Julia’s, so her straight hair mixed with her mother’s curls. Izzy had talked about forgiveness, and in that moment Alice felt drenched with it. She forgave herself for locking herself away, and she forgave her parents for the bold choices they’d made to protect her. She forgave every mistake she would read about in the manuscript she’d just received. Earlier that afternoon, when Emeline had noticed Alice watching Rose’s dramatic tears, she’d whispered into her niece’s ear, “Grief is love.” Now Alice thought: Forgiveness is too. The mother and daughter held each other in the quiet hallway in a house thundering with life.

When they pulled apart, Alice said, “I’m scared.”

“I am too,” Julia said, but she picked up a coat from the nearest chair and handed it to her daughter. Alice pulled it on, and walked slowly outside.

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