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Chapter no 27 – All About Me

Lesson, in Chemistry

“Boys and girls,” Mrs. Mudford said the following spring, “we’re going to start a new project. It’s called All About Me.”

Mad took a sharp breath in.

“Please ask your mother to fill this out. It’s called a family tree. What she writes on this tree will help you learn about a very important person. Who knows who that person might be? Hint: the answer is in the title of our new project, All About Me.”

The children sat in a sloppy semicircle at Mrs. Mudford’s feet, chins cupped in hands.

“Who wants to guess first,” Mudford prodded. “Yes, Tommy,” she said. “Can I go to the bathroom?”

May I, Tommy, and no. School is almost over. You may go in a little bit.”

“The president,” said Lena.

Could it be the president?” corrected Mrs. Mudford. “And no, that’s wrong, Lena.”

“Could it be Lassie?” said Amanda.

“No, Amanda. This is a family tree, not a doghouse. We’re talking about

people.

“People are animals,” said Madeline.

“No, they aren’t, Madeline,” Mrs. Mudford huffed. “People are humans.”

“What about Yogi Bear?” asked another.

Could it be Yogi Bear?” Mrs. Mudford said irritably. “And of course not. A family tree is not filled with bears, and it is definitely not about TV shows. We’re people!”

“But people are animals,” Madeline persisted.

“Madeline,” Mrs. Mudford said sharply. “That’s enough!” “We’re animals?” Tommy said to Madeline, his eyes wide. “NO! WE ARE NOT!” shouted Mrs. Mudford.

But Tommy had already stuck his fingers into his armpits and started jumping about the classroom yowling like a chimpanzee. “E E!” he called to the other kindergartners, half of whom instantly joined in. “E E O O! E E O O!”

“STOP IT, TOMMY,” Mrs. Mudford shouted. “STOP IT ALL OF YOU! UNLESS YOU WANT TO GO TO THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE,

STOP IT RIGHT NOW!” And the harshness of her voice combined with the threat of a higher authority sent the children back to their positions on the floor. “NOW,” she said tersely, “as I was saying, you’re going to learn some new things about a very important person. A PERSON,” she emphasized, glaring at Madeline. “Now who might this PERSON be?”

No one moved.

“WHO?” she commanded. A few heads shook.

“Well, it’s YOU, children,” she shouted angrily.

“What? Why?” asked Judy, slightly alarmed. “What did I do wrong?” “Don’t be dense, Judy,” Mrs. Mudford said. “For heaven’s sake!”

“My mom says she’s not giving the school another cent,” said a crusty-looking boy named Roger.

“Who said anything about money, Roger!” Mrs. Mudford shrieked. “Can I see the tree?” asked Madeline.

May I,” thundered Mrs. Mudford. “May I?” asked Madeline.

“NO, YOU MAY NOT,” Mrs. Mudford screeched, folding the paper into quarters, as if the mere act of folding would make it Madeline-proof. “This tree is not for you, Madeline; it is for your mother. Now children,” she

said, trying to find her way back to control, “organize yourselves into a single-file line. I will pin the paper to your shirts. Then it will be time to go home.”

“My mom wants you to stop pinning stuff on me,” said Judy. “Says you’re making holes in my clothes.”

Your mother is a lying whore, Mrs. Mudford wanted to say, but instead she said, “That’s fine, Judy. We’ll staple yours on instead.”

One by one, the children allowed Mrs. Mudford to affix the note to their sweaters and then filed out the door, where, just past the doorjamb, they instantly gained speed like small ponies that had been tethered for hours.

“Not you, Madeline,” she said. “You stay here.”

“Let me get this straight,” Harriet said as Mad revealed why she was late. “You had to stay behind because you told your teacher that people are animals? Why did you say such a thing, honey? It’s not very nice.”

“It isn’t?” Madeline said, confused. “But why? We are animals.”

Harriet wondered to herself if Mad was right—were people animals? She wasn’t sure. “My point is,” she said, “it’s sometimes better not to argue. Your teacher deserves your respect and sometimes that means agreeing with her even when you don’t. That’s how diplomacy works.”

“I thought diplomacy meant being nice.” “That’s what I mean.”

“Even if she’s telling us wrong stuff.” “Yes.”

Madeline chewed her lower lip.

“You make mistakes sometimes, don’t you? And you wouldn’t want someone to correct you in front of a lot of people, would you? Mrs. Mudford was probably just embarrassed.”

“She didn’t look embarrassed. And this isn’t the first time she’s given us bad information. Last week she said God created the earth.”

“Many people believe that,” Harriet said. “There’s nothing wrong with believing that.”

“You believe that?”

“Why don’t we take a look at this note,” she said quickly, unpinning the paper from Madeline’s sweater.

“It’s a family tree project,” Madeline said, clunking her lunch box on the counter. “Mom has to fill it in.”

“I don’t like these things,” Harriet muttered as she studied the badly drawn oak, its branches demanding names of relatives—living, lost, dead— one related to the other by marriage, birth, or bad luck. “Nosy little sapsucker. Did it come with a subpoena, too?”

“Should it have?” Madeline asked, awed.

“You know what I think?” Harriet said, folding the note back up. “I think these trees are a poor attempt to feel like you’re somebody based on somebody else. Usually comes with an invasion of privacy. Your mother is going to hit the roof. If I were you, I wouldn’t show this to her.”

“But I don’t know any of the answers. I don’t know anything about my dad.” She thought about the note her mother had left in her lunch box that morning. The librarian is the most important educator in school. What she doesn’t know, she can find out. This is not an opinion; it’s a fact. Do not share this fact with Mrs. Mudford.

But when Madeline had asked her school’s librarian if she could point her toward some yearbooks from Cambridge, the librarian frowned, then handed her last month’s copy of Highlights magazine.

“You know plenty about your father,” Harriet said. “For instance, you know that your father’s parents—your grandparents—were killed by a train when he was young. And that he went to live with his aunt until she hit a tree. And then he went to live in a boys home— I forget the name but it sounded girlish. And that your father had a godmother of sorts, although godmothers aren’t family tree material.”

As soon as she’d mentioned the godmother, Harriet wished she’d hadn’t. She only knew about the godmother because she was a snoop, and even then, it was obvious she hadn’t been a real godmother, but more of a fairy godmother. And she knew all this because one day, long before he’d even met Elizabeth, Calvin had left for work in a hurry, leaving his front door open, and Harriet, being a good neighbor, had gone over to shut it.

Naturally, because she was the kind of person who always went above and beyond, she’d gone inside to make sure the home hadn’t been burglarized. A comprehensive self-guided tour told her that absolutely nothing had happened in the forty-six seconds that had elapsed since Calvin’s departure.

Once inside, though, she discovered several things. One, Calvin Evans was some sort of big-deal scientist—he’d been on the cover of a magazine. Two, he was a slob. Three, he’d grown up in Sioux City in a seedy-sounding boys home with religious overtones. She only knew about the boys home because she’d seen a piece of paper wadded up in his trash— a piece of paper that she retrieved because who doesn’t, on occasion, accidentally throw away the very thing they actually mean to keep? According to the letter, the home needed money. They’d lost their main donor—someone who’d once ensured the boys were given “scientific educational opportunities and healthy outdoor activities.” The home was now reaching out to past residents. Could Calvin Evans help? Say yes! Donate to the All Saints Boys Home today! His response was in the trash can, too. Basically, it said how dare you, fuck you, you should all be in jail.

“What’s a godmother?” Madeline asked.

“A close friend of the family or a relative,” Harriet said, pushing the memory away. “Someone who’s supposed to look after your spiritual life.”

“Do I have one?” “A godmother?” “A spiritual life.”

“Oh,” Harriet said. “I don’t know. Do you believe in things you can’t see?”

“I like magic tricks.”

“I don’t,” said Harriet. “I don’t like being fooled.” “But you believe in God.”

“Well. Yes.”

“Why?”

“I just do. Most people do.” “My mom doesn’t.”

“I know,” Harriet said, trying to hide her disapproval.

Harriet thought it was wrong not to believe in God. It lacked humility. In her opinion, believing in God was required, like brushing teeth or wearing underwear. Certainly, all decent people believed in God—even indecent people, like her husband, believed in God. God is why they were still married and why their marriage was her burden to bear—because it was given to her by God. God was big on burdens, and He made sure everyone got one. Besides, if you didn’t believe in God, you also didn’t get to believe in heaven or hell, and she very much wanted to believe in hell because she very much wanted to believe that Mr. Sloane was going there. She stood up. “Where’s your rope? I think it’s time to work on your knots.”

“I know them all already,” Mad said.

“Can you do them with your eyes closed?” “Yes.”

“But what about behind your back? Can you do that?” “Yes.”

Harriet pretended to be supportive of Mad’s odd hobbies, but the truth was, she wasn’t. The child didn’t like Barbies or playing jacks—she liked knots, books on war, natural disasters. Yesterday she’d overheard Madeline quizzing the downtown librarian about Krakatoa—when did she think it might next erupt? How would they warn the residents? Approximately how many people would die?

Harriet turned to watch as Madeline stared at the family tree, her large gray eyes taking in the empty branches, her teeth gnawing steadily at the

bottom of her lip. Calvin had been a big lip chewer. Could that sort of thing be passed down genetically? She wasn’t sure. Harriet had produced four children, each one completely different from the others and wholly different from herself. And now? They were all strangers, each living in a far-off city with lives and children of their own. She wanted to think there was some iron-clad bond that connected her to them for life, but that’s not how it worked. Families required constant maintenance.

“Are you hungry?” Harriet asked. “Would you like some cheese?” She reached to the back of the refrigerator as Madeline withdrew a book from her schoolbag. Five Years with the Congo Cannibals.

Harriet looked back over her shoulder. “Sweetie, does your teacher know you’re reading that?”

“No.”

“Keep it that way.”

This was another area where she and Elizabeth still did not see eye to eye: reading. Fifteen months ago, Harriet assumed Madeline was just pretending she could read. Children love to imitate their parents. But it was soon obvious that Elizabeth had not only taught Madeline to read but to read highly complex things: newspapers, novels, Popular Mechanics.

Harriet considered the possibility that the child was a genius. Her father had been. But no. It was just that Mad was well taught and that was because of Elizabeth. Elizabeth simply refused to accept limits, not just for herself, but for others. About a year after Mr. Evans had died, Harriet had run across some notes on Elizabeth’s desk that appeared to suggest she was trying to teach Six-Thirty a ridiculous number of words. At the time, Harriet chalked it up to temporary insanity—that’s what grief is. But then, when Mad was three, she had asked if anyone had seen her yo-yo, and a minute later Six-Thirty dropped it in her lap.

Supper at Six had that same element of impossibility. Elizabeth opened every show by insisting that cooking wasn’t easy and that the next thirty minutes might very well be torturous.

“Cooking is not an exact science,” Elizabeth had said just yesterday. “The tomato I hold in my hand is different from the one you hold in yours.

That’s why you must involve yourself with your ingredients. Experiment: taste, touch, smell, look, listen, test, assess.” Then she led her viewers through an elaborate description of chemical breakdowns, which, when induced by combining disparate ingredients in heat-specific ways, would result in a complicated mix of enzymatic interactions that would lead to something good to eat. There was a lot of talk about acids and bases and hydrogen ions, some of which, after weeks of hearing it, Harriet was, oddly, beginning to understand.

Throughout the process, Elizabeth, her face serious, told her viewers that they were up for this difficult challenge, that she knew they were capable, resourceful people, and that she believed in them. It was a very strange show. Not exactly entertaining. More like climbing a mountain. Something you felt good about, but only after it was over.

Nevertheless, she and Madeline watched Supper at Six together every day, holding their breath, certain each new episode would be the last.

Madeline had opened her book and was now studying an engraving of one man gnawing on the femur of another. “Do people taste good?”

“I don’t know,” Harriet said as she set a few cubes of cheese down in front of her. “I’m sure it’s all in the preparation. Your mother could probably make anyone taste good.” Except for Mr. Sloane, she thought. Because he was rotten.

Madeline nodded her head. “Everybody likes what Mom makes.” “Who’s everybody?”

“Kids,” Madeline said. “Some of them bring the same lunch as me now.”

“Really,” Harriet said, surprised. “Leftovers? From the previous night’s dinner?”

“Yes.”

“Their mothers watch your mom’s show?” “I guess.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” Madeline emphasized, as if Harriet was slow on the uptake.

Harriet had assumed Supper at Six had very few viewers, and Elizabeth had confirmed this by confiding that her six-month trial period was almost up; it had been a battle the entire time; she was fairly certain she would not be renewed.

“But surely you could meet them halfway?” Harriet had asked her, trying not to sound desperate. She loved watching Elizabeth on TV. “Maybe just try to smile.”

“Smile?” Elizabeth had said. “Do surgeons smile during appendectomies? No. Would you want them to? No. Cooking, like surgery, requires concentration. Anyway, Phil Lebensmal wants me to act as if the people I’m speaking to are dolts. I won’t do it, Harriet, I won’t perpetuate the myth that women are incompetent. If they cancel me, so be it. I’ll do something else.”

But nothing that would pay nearly as well, Harriet thought. Thanks to the TV money, Elizabeth had been true to her word: she now paid Harriet. It was Harriet’s very first paycheck, and she couldn’t believe how powerful it made her feel.

“You know I agree,” Harriet had said, treading carefully, “but maybe you could only pretend to do what they want. You know, play along.”

Elizabeth cocked her head to the side. “Play along?”

“You know what I mean,” Harriet said. “You’re smart. It might be off-putting to Mr. Pine, or that Lebensmal person. You know how men are.”

Elizabeth considered this. No, she did not know how men were. With the exception of Calvin, and her dead brother, John, Dr. Mason, and maybe Walter Pine, she only ever seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street, someone to whom one is automatically respectful until you find out they’ve buried a bunch of bodies in the backyard.

Harriet was her only real friend, and they agreed on most things, but on this, they did not. According to Harriet, men were a world apart from women. They required coddling, they had fragile egos, they couldn’t allow a woman intelligence or skill if it exceeded their own. “Harriet, that’s ridiculous,” Elizabeth had argued. “Men and women are both human beings. And as humans, we’re by-products of our upbringings, victims of our lackluster educational systems, and choosers of our behaviors. In short, the reduction of women to something less than men, and the elevation of men to something more than women, is not biological: it’s cultural. And it starts with two words: pink and blue. Everything skyrockets out of control from there.”

Speaking of lackluster educational systems, just last week she’d been summoned to Mudford’s classroom to discuss a related problem: apparently Madeline refused to participate in little girl activities, such as playing house.

“Madeline wants to do things that are more suited to little boys,” Mudford had said. “It’s not right. You obviously believe a woman’s place is in the home, what with your”—she coughed slightly—“television show. So talk to her. She wanted to be on safety patrol this week.”

“Why was that a problem?”

“Because only boys are on safety patrol. Boys protect girls. Because they’re bigger.”

“But Madeline is the tallest one in your class.”

“Which is another problem,” Mudford said. “Her height is making the boys feel bad.”

“So no, Harriet,” Elizabeth said sharply, coming back to the subject at hand.

“I won’t play along.”

Harriet picked some dirt out from beneath a fingernail as Elizabeth harangued about women accepting their subordinate positions as if they were preordained, as if they believed their smaller bodies were a biological

indication of smaller brains, as if they were naturally inferior, but charmingly so. Worse, Elizabeth explained, many of these women passed such notions down to their children, using phrases like “Boys will be boys” or “You know how girls are.”

“What is wrong with women?” Elizabeth demanded. “Why do they buy into these cultural stereotypes? Worse, why do they perpetuate them? Are they not aware of the dominant female role in the hidden tribes of the Amazon? Is Margaret Mead out of print?” She only stopped when Harriet stood up, indicating she did not wish to be subjected to another unabridged word.

“Harriet. Harriet,” Madeline repeated. “Are you listening? Harriet, what happened to her? Did she die, too?”

“Did who die?” Harriet asked distractedly, thinking about how she’d never read Margaret Mead. Was she the one who wrote Gone with the Wind?

“The godmother.”

“Oh, her,” she said. “I have no idea. And anyway, she—or he—wasn’t technically a godmother.”

“But you said—”

“It was a fairy godmother—someone who gave your dad’s home money. That’s all I meant. Fairy godmother. And she—it could have been a he, by the way—he or she gave it to everyone at the home. Not just your dad.”

“Who was it?”

“I have no idea. Does it matter? A fairy godmother is just another word for philanthropist. A rich person who gives money to causes—like Andrew Carnegie and his libraries. Although you should know there’s a tax break in philanthropy, so it’s not completely unselfish. Do you have other homework, Mad? Besides the damn tree?”

“Maybe I could write a letter to Dad’s home and ask who the godfather was. Then I could put that name on the tree—maybe as an acorn. Not as a

whole branch or anything.”

“No. There are no acorns on family trees. Also, fairy godmothers— philanthropists—are private people; the home is never going to tell you who ponied up the big bucks. Third, we never say fairy godfathers. The fairy person is always female.”

“Because of organized crime?” Madeline asked.

Harriet exhaled loudly in a mixture of wonder and irritation. “The point is, fairy godparents don’t go on family trees. First because they’re not blood, second because they’re secretive people. They have to be because otherwise everyone would be hitting them up for cash.”

“But keeping secrets is wrong.” “Not always.”

“Do you keep secrets?” “No,” Harriet lied.

“Do you think my mom does?”

“No,” Harriet said, but now she meant it. How she wished Elizabeth would keep a few secrets—or at least opinions—to herself. “Now, let’s fill in this tree with a bunch of hodgepodge. Your teacher will never know the difference and then we can watch your mom’s show.”

“You want me to lie?”

“Mad,” Harriet said, irritated. “Did I say lie?” “Do fairies not have blood?”

“Of course, fairies have blood!” Harriet shrieked. She rested a hand on her forehead. “Let’s put this on hold for now. Go play outside.”

“But—”

“Go throw the ball for Six-Thirty.”

“I have to bring a photograph too, Harriet,” Madeline added. “Something with the whole family.”

From under the table, Six-Thirty rested his head on her bony knee.

“The whole family,” Madeline emphasized. “That means it has to have my dad in it, too.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

Six-Thirty stood up and made his way to Elizabeth’s bedroom.

“If you don’t want to throw the ball for Six-Thirty, then take Six-Thirty and go to the library. Your books are overdue. You have just enough time before your mom’s show.”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“Well, sometimes we have to do things we don’t feel like doing.” “What do you do that you don’t feel like doing?”

Harriet closed her eyes. She pictured Mr. Sloane.

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