Chapter no 11

Little Fires Everywhere

Mrs. Richardson’s first step was to read up on Pauline Hawthorne. She’d heard of Pauline Hawthorne before, of course. When she’d taken her art electives in college, Pauline Hawthorne had

been the hot new thing, much talked about, much imitated by the photography students who wandered the campus with cameras strung around their necks like badges. Now that she saw the photographs again she remembered them. A woman seen in the mirror of a beauty parlor, half her hair wound neatly in curlers, the other half streaming loose in a tousled swirl. A woman touching up her makeup in the side mirror of a Chrysler, cigarette dangling from her lacquered lips. A woman in an emerald-green housecoat and heels, vacuuming her goldenrod carpet, the colors so saturated they seemed to bleed. Striking enough that even all these years later, she remembered seeing them flashed up on the projector screen in the darkened lecture hall, catching her breath as for a moment she was plunged into that vibrant Technicolor world.

Pauline, she learned now, had been born in rural Maine and moved to Manhattan at the age of eighteen, living for several years in Greenwich Village before bursting onto the art scene in the early 1970s. Every art book Mrs. Richardson consulted described her in glowing terms: a self-taught genius, a feminist photographic pioneer, a dynamic and generous intellect.

About her personal life Mrs. Richardson could find very little, only a brief mention that she had maintained an apartment on the Upper East Side. She did find one interesting tidbit, however: Pauline Hawthorne had taught at the New York School of Fine Arts—though apparently not out of need for money. A few years into Pauline Hawthorne’s career, her photographs had been selling for tens of thousands—quite a lot for a photographer of that time, let alone a woman. After her death in 1982, their value skyrocketed, with MoMA paying nearly two million to add one to its permanent collection.

On a hunch, Mrs. Richardson looked up the number for the registrar at the New York School of Fine Arts. The registrar, when presented with Mrs. Richardson’s credentials and told she was verifying some facts for a story, proved to be extremely helpful. Pauline Hawthorne had taught the advanced photography class at the school for many years, right up until the year she had died. No, there was no Mia Warren in any of Professor Hawthorne’s classes in those last few years. But there had been a Mia Wright in the fall of 1980; might that be who Mrs. Richardson was looking for?

Mia Wright, it turned out, had enrolled that term in the School of Fine Arts as a freshman, but in the spring of 1981 had requested, and been granted, a leave of absence for the following academic year. She had never returned. Mrs. Richardson, doing some quick mental math, calculated that Mia—if this was even the same Mia—would not yet have been pregnant with Pearl that spring. So why would Mia have taken a leave from school, if not because she was pregnant?

The registrar balked at giving out student addresses, even fifteen-year-old ones. But Mrs. Richardson managed to learn, through some artful questioning, that the address on file for Mia Wright had been a local one, with no parents listed.

She would have to work the problem from the other end, then. And soon an opportunity presented itself, in the form of a much-anticipated letter.

Since Thanksgiving, Lexie had checked the mail first thing when she came home, and at last, in mid-December, a fat envelope bearing the Yale logo in the corner finally landed in their mailbox. Mrs. Richardson had called all their relatives to share the good news; Mr. Richardson arrived home with a cake.

“Lexie, I’m taking you out for a fancy brunch this weekend to celebrate,” Mrs. Richardson said at dinner. “After all, it’s not every day you get into Yale. We’ll have some fun girl time.”

“What about me?” Moody said. “I just get to stay home and eat cereal?” “She said fun girl time.” Trip laughed, and Moody scowled. “You want

in on fun girl time?”

“Now, Moody,” Mrs. Richardson said. “It’s like Trip said. This is just to celebrate Lexie. We’re going to get dressed up and have a little girls’ morning out. ”

“Then what about me?” Izzy demanded. “Does that mean I get to come?”

Mrs. Richardson had not anticipated this. But Lexie’s eyes were already alight, Lexie was already chattering about where she wanted to go, and it was too late to say no. And then, that evening, as she was washing her face before bed, an idea occurred to Mrs. Richardson, a way this luncheon might serve another purpose, too.

The next afternoon she came into the sunroom just before dinner. Under normal circumstances she left the kids alone, feeling that teens needed their space, that they were entitled to some degree of privacy. Today, though, she was looking for Pearl. As always, she was sprawled on the couch with Lexie and Trip and Moody, all of them half sunk into its overstuffed cushions. Izzy lay on her stomach on the armchair, chin propped on one armrest, feet in the air over the other.

“Pearl, there you are,” Mrs. Richardson began. She settled herself gingerly on the arm of the sofa beside Pearl. “The girls and I are going out for brunch on Saturday, to celebrate Lexie’s good news. Why don’t you come, too?”

“Me?” Pearl threw a quick glance over her shoulder, as if Mrs.

Richardson might be talking to someone else.

“You’re practically part of the family, aren’t you?” Mrs. Richardson laughed.

“Of course you should come,” Lexie said. “I want you to.”

“Go tell your mother,” Mrs. Richardson said. “She’s in the kitchen. I’m sure she’ll say it’s all right. Tell her it’s my treat. Tell her,” she added, “that I insist.”

Across the room, Izzy slowly pushed herself up on her elbows, eyes narrowing. It had been over three weeks since her mother had promised to look into Mia’s mysterious photograph, and when she’d asked about it, her mother had said only, “Oh, Izzy, you always make such a big deal out of nothing.” Now her sudden interest in Pearl struck Izzy as strange.

“Why’d you invite her?” she demanded, once Pearl had skipped out of hearing.

“Izzy. How often does Pearl get to go out to brunch? You need to learn to be more generous.” Mrs. Richardson rose and straightened her blouse. “Besides, I thought you liked Pearl.”



This was how Pearl found herself at a wooden table in the corner next to Lexie, across from Mrs. Richardson and a sulky Izzy. Lexie had chosen the 100th Bomb Group, a restaurant out near the airport where the family went for very special occasions, the most recent being Mr. Richardson’s forty-fourth birthday.

The 100th Bomb Group was crowded that morning, a dizzying swirl of activity and a bewildering buffet that stretched the length of the room. At a carving station, a burly man in a white apron sliced roast beef from an enormous rare haunch. At the omelet station, chefs poured a stream of frothy golden egg into a skillet and turned out a fluffy omelet filled with whatever you desired, even things it had never occurred to Pearl to put in an omelet: mushrooms, asparagus, coral-colored chunks of lobster. All over the walls hung memorabilia of the men from the bomb squadron: maps of major battles against the Nazis, their medals, their dog tags, their letters to sweethearts at home, photographs of their planes, photographs of the men themselves, dashing in uniforms and cadet hats and the occasional mustache.

“Look at him,” Lexie said, tapping a photo just behind Pearl’s ear. “Captain John C. Sinclair. Wouldn’t you just love to meet him?”

“You realize,” Izzy said, “that if he’s still alive, he’d be about ninety-four now. Probably has a walker.”

“I mean, wouldn’t you have wanted to meet him, if you’d been alive back then. Way to split hairs, Izzy.”

“He probably bombed cities, you know,” Izzy said. “He probably killed lots of innocent people. All these guys probably did.” She waved a hand at the expanse of photographs around them.

“Izzy,” Mrs. Richardson said, “let’s save the history lesson for another time. We’re here to celebrate Lexie’s achievement.” She beamed across the table at Lexie, and by extension at Pearl, who sat beside her. “To Lexie,” she said, raising her Bloody Mary, and Lexie and Pearl raised their goblets of orange juice, luminous in the sun.

“To Lexie,” Izzy echoed. “I’m sure Yale will be all you’ve ever wanted.” She took a swig from her water glass, as if wishing it were something stronger. At the table beside them, a baby slammed its chubby palms on the tablecloth and the silverware jumped with a clatter.

“Oh my god,” Lexie mouthed. She leaned across the aisle toward the baby. “You are so cute. Yes, you are. You’re the cutest baby in the entire


Izzy rolled her eyes and stood up. “Keep an eye on her,” she said to the baby’s parents. “You never know when someone might steal your baby.” Before anyone could respond, she headed across the room toward the buffet.

“Please excuse my daughter,” Mrs. Richardson said to the parents. “She’s at a difficult age.” She smiled at the baby, who was now trying to cram the fat end of a spoon into its mouth. “Lexie, Pearl, why don’t you go ahead, too? I’ll wait here.”

When everyone was back at the table, Mrs. Richardson began the delicate work of turning the conversation by degrees. As it happened it was easier than she’d expected. She began with that trusty topic, the weather: she hoped it wouldn’t be too cold for Lexie in New Haven; they would have to order her a warmer coat from L.L. Bean, a new pair of duck boots, a down duvet. Then she turned to Pearl.

“How about you, Pearl?” she said. “Have you ever been to New Haven?”

Pearl swallowed a forkful of omelet and shook her head. “No, I never have. My mom doesn’t like the East Coast much.”

“Really,” Mrs. Richardson said. She slid the tip of her knife into a poached egg and the yolk ran out in a golden puddle. “It’s a shame you’ve never been able to travel out there. So much to see. So much culture. We took a trip to Boston a few years ago, remember, girls? The Freedom Trail, and the Tea Party ship, and Paul Revere’s house. And, of course, there’s New York, so much to do there.” She gave Pearl a benevolent smile. “I hope you’ll be able to see it someday. I truly believe there’s nothing like travel to broaden a young person’s perspective.”

Pearl felt stung, as Mrs. Richardson had known she would. “Oh, we’ve traveled a lot,” she said. “We’ve been all over the place. Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska—” She paused, casting about for something more glamorous. “We’ve even been out to California. A few times.”

“How wonderful!” Mrs. Richardson refilled Pearl’s glass from the carafe of juice on the table. “You really have been all over. Quite the traveler, actually. And do you like it, moving around so much?”

“It’s okay.” Pearl stabbed a piece of egg with her fork. “I mean, we move whenever my mom finishes a project. New places give her new ideas.”

“You’re growing up to be a real citizen of the world,” Mrs. Richardson said, and Pearl, despite herself, blushed. “You probably know more about this country than any other teenager. Even Lexie and Izzy—and we travel quite a bit—even Lexie and Izzy have only been to a handful of states.” Then, casually, “Where have you spent the most time? Where you were born, I imagine?”

“Well.” Pearl swallowed the egg. “I was born in San Francisco. But we left when I was just a baby. I don’t remember it at all. We never stay in any place too long.”

Mrs. Richardson filed this piece of information away in her brain. “You’ll have to go back someday,” she said. “I believe in knowing where your roots lie. That kind of thing shapes your identity so much. I was born right here in Shaker, did you know that?”

“Mom,” Izzy said. “Pearl doesn’t want to hear all of that. No one wants to hear all of that.”

Mrs. Richardson ignored her. “My grandparents were one of the first families to move out here,” she said. “This used to be considered the country, can you believe it? They’d have stables and carriage houses and go riding on the weekends.” She turned to Lexie and Izzy. “You girls won’t remember my grandparents. Lexie was only a baby when they passed.

Anyway, they moved here and stayed. They really believed in what Shaker stood for.”

“Weren’t the Shakers celibate and communist?” Izzy asked, sipping her water.

Mrs. Richardson shot her a look. “Thoughtful planning, a belief in equality and diversity. Truly seeing everyone as an equal. They passed that on to my mother, and she passed it on to me.” She turned back to Pearl. “Where did your mother grow up?”

Pearl fidgeted. “I’m not really sure. California, maybe?” She poked her omelet, now gone rubbery. “She doesn’t talk about it much. I don’t think she has any family left anymore.” In truth, Pearl had never had the courage to ask Mia directly about her origins, and Mia had deflected her roundabout questions with ease. “We’re nomads,” she would say to Pearl. “Modern-day gypsies, that’s us. Never set foot in the same place twice.” Or: “We’re descended from circus folk,” she’d said another time. “Wandering is in our blood.”

“You should find out,” Lexie put in. “I did it last year, for my History Day project. There’s a huge database at Ellis Island—passenger arrival lists and ship manifests and all that stuff. If you know the date your ancestors immigrated, you can research family history from there with census records. I traced ours back to just before the Civil War.” She set down her orange juice. “Do you think your mom would know when her ancestors came over?”

Mrs. Richardson felt the conversation skating toward thin ice. “Lexie, you sound like a budding reporter,” she said, rather sharply. “Maybe you should look into journalism when you start at Yale.”

Lexie snorted. “No thanks.”

“Lexie,” Izzy interrupted before their mother could speak, “wants to be the next Julia Roberts. Today, Miss Adelaide; tomorrow, America’s Sweetheart.”

“Shut up,” Lexie said. “Julia Roberts probably started off doing high school plays, too.”

“I’d like it,” Pearl said. Everyone stared. “Like what?” Lexie asked.

“Being a reporter,” Pearl said. “I mean, being a journalist. You get to find out everything. You get to tell people’s stories and figure out the truth and write about it.” She spoke with the earnestness that only a teenager could truly have. “You use words to change the world. I’d love to do that.” She glanced up at Mrs. Richardson, who for the first time realized how very big and sincere Pearl’s eyes were. “Like you do. I’d love to do what you do.”

“Really,” Mrs. Richardson said. She was genuinely touched. For a moment it felt as if Pearl were simply one of Lexie’s friends, there to celebrate her marvelous daughter: a promising young woman Mrs.

Richardson might mentor, and nurture, purely on potential. “That’s wonderful. You should try to write for the Shakerite—a school paper’s a great way to learn the basics. And then, when you’re ready, maybe I can help you find an internship.” She stopped, suddenly remembering why she’d invited Pearl to this brunch in the first place. “Something to think about anyway,” she finished, and gave her drink a fierce stir with its celery stick. “Izzy, is that all you’re eating? Toast and jelly? Honestly, you could have just eaten that at home.”



It took several calls to find the San Francisco Office of Vital Records, but once Mrs. Richardson had them on the phone, there were no more hitches. Within ten minutes, the clerk had faxed over a birth certificate request form with no questions asked. Mrs. Richardson ticked off the box for an “informational” copy and filled in Pearl’s name and birth date, along with Mia’s name. The space for father’s name, of course, was left blank, but the clerk had assured her that they’d be able to find the correct document even without it, that the certificates were public record. “Two to four weeks—if we’ve got it, we’ll send it over,” she’d promised, and Mrs. Richardson filled out her own address, attached a check for eighteen dollars, and dropped the envelope into the mail.

It took five weeks, but when the birth certificate arrived in the Richardson mailbox, it was a bit of a disappointment. Under “Father” the word NONE had been neatly typed. Mrs. Richardson pursed her lips in disappointment. She felt it should be unlawful, allowing someone to conceal the name of a parent. There was something unseemly about it, this unwillingness to be forthcoming, to state your origins plainly. Mia had already proved herself to be a liar and capable of more lies. What else might she be hiding? It was, she thought, like refusing to hand over maintenance records at the sale of a secondhand car. Didn’t you have the right to know where something came from, so that you knew what malfunctions might be in store? Didn’t she—as this woman’s employer, as well as her landlady— have a right to know the same?



At least, she thought, she had one new piece of information: Mia’s birthplace, listed as Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, on the birth certificate next to Mia Warren.

Directory assistance in Bethel Park informed her that there were fifty-four entries for “Warren” in the township. Mrs. Richardson, after some thought, called the city’s department of records, which was not quite as

accommodating as the one in San Francisco had been. There was no Mia Warren in the records, the woman on the phone insisted.

“What about Mia Wright?” Mrs. Richardson asked on an impulse, and after a brief pause and the clacking of a keyboard, the woman replied that yes, a Mia Wright had been born in Bethel Park in 1962. Oh, and there was also a Warren Wright born in 1964; was it possible Mrs. Richardson had her names mixed up?

Mrs. Richardson thanked her and hung up.

It took several days, but by dint of careful reporting skills and copious phone calls, Mrs. Richardson finally found the key she had been looking for. It came in the form of an obituary in the Pittsburgh Post, dated February 17, 1982.


Funeral services for Warren Wright, 17, will be held Friday, February 19, at 11

a.m. at the Walter E. Griffith Funeral Home, 5636 Brownsville Road. Mr. Wright is survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Wright, longtime residents of Bethel Park, and an older sister, Mia Wright, who graduated from the district in 1980. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Bethel Park High Football Team, of which Mr. Wright was a starting running back.

It could not be a coincidence, Mrs. Richardson decided. Mia Wright. Warren Wright. Mia Warren. She called Bethel Park directory services again and when she hung up she looked down at the note she had jotted on a slip of paper. George and Regina Wright, 175 North Ridge Road. A zip code. A phone number.

It was so easy, she thought with some disdain, to find out about people. It was all out there, everything about them. You just had to look. You could figure out anything about a person if you just tried hard enough.



By the time Mrs. Richardson had found Mia’s parents, the case of little May Ling/Mirabelle was still in the news—if anything, even more so. True, the country was now titillated by the president’s tawdry indiscretions, but scandalous as it was, the whole affair felt faintly comic. Across the city,

opinions ranged from It has nothing to do with how he runs the country to

All presidents have affairs to the more succinct Who cares? But the public

—and especially the public in Shaker Heights—was deeply invested in the Mirabelle McCullough case now, and this, unlike the intern scandal, felt deadly serious.

Nearly every evening there was at least an update on the case—which, as of yet, had only recently been assigned a hearing date for March and entered into the docket as Chow v. Cuyahoga County. The fact that the case involved Shaker—a community that liked to hold itself up as the standard-bearer—caught everyone’s interest, and everyone in the city had an opinion. A mother deserved to raise her child. A mother who abandoned her child did not deserve a second chance. A white family would separate a Chinese child from her culture. A loving family should matter more than the color of the parents. May Ling had a right to know her own mother. The McCulloughs were the only family Mirabelle had ever known.

The McCulloughs were rescuing Mirabelle, their supporters insisted.

They were giving an unwanted child a better life. They were heroes, breaking down racism through cross-cultural adoption. “I think it’s wonderful, what they’re doing,” one woman told reporters during an on-the-street segment. “I mean, that’s the future, isn’t it? In the future we’ll all be able to look past race.” “You can just see what a wonderful mother she is,” one of the McCulloughs’ neighbors said a few minutes later. “You can tell that when she looks down at that baby in her arms, she doesn’t see a Chinese baby. All she sees is a baby, plain and simple.”

That was exactly the problem, Bebe’s supporters insisted. “She’s not just a baby,” protested one woman, when Channel 5 sent a reporter to Asia Plaza, Cleveland’s Chinese shopping center, in search of the Asian perspective. “She’s a Chinese baby. She’s going to grow up not knowing anything about her heritage. How is she going to know who she is?” Serena Wong’s own mother happened to be shopping at the Asian grocery that morning and—to Serena’s simultaneous pride and mortification—had spoken quite forcefully on the subject. “To pretend that this baby is just a baby—to pretend like there’s no race issue here—is disingenuous,” Dr.

Wong had snapped, while Serena fidgeted at the edge of the shot. “And no, I’m not ‘playing the race card.’ Ask yourself: would we be having such a heated discussion if this baby were blond?”

The McCulloughs themselves, after much discussion with their lawyers, granted an exclusive interview to Channel 3. Positive publicity, Mr.

Richardson had agreed, so Channel 3 sent a camera crew and a producer to the McCulloughs’ living room and filmed them sitting on the sectional with Mirabelle in front of a roaring fire, while he sat just offscreen. “Of course we understand why Miss Chow feels the way she does,” Mrs. McCullough said. “But we’ve had Mirabelle for most of her life and we’re all that she remembers. I feel that Mirabelle is truly my child, that she came to me this way for a reason.”

“There’s no one out there,” Mr. McCullough added, “who can honestly say Mirabelle isn’t better off in a steady home with two parents.”

“Some people have suggested that Mirabelle will lose touch with her birth culture,” the producer said. “How do you respond to those concerns?”

Mrs. McCullough nodded. “We’re trying to be very sensitive to that,” she said. “You’ll notice that we’re adding more and more Asian art to our walls.” She waved a hand at the scrolls with ink-brushed mountains that hung by the fireplace, the glazed pottery horse on the mantel. “We’re committed, as she gets older, to teaching her about her birth culture. And of course she already loves the rice. Actually, it was her first solid food.”

“At the same time,” Mr. McCullough said, “we want Mirabelle to grow up like a typical American girl. We want her to know she’s exactly the same as everyone else.” The news segment ended with a shot of the McCulloughs standing over Mirabelle’s crib as she cooed at her mobile.

Even the Richardson children found themselves divided on this thorny subject. Mrs. Richardson, of course, was firmly on the side of the McCulloughs, as was Lexie. “Look at the life Mirabelle has now,” Lexie cried at dinner one evening in mid-February. “A big house to play in. A yard. Two rooms full of toys. Her mom can’t give her that kind of life.” Mrs. Richardson agreed: “They love her so much. They’ve been waiting so long. And they’ve raised her since she was a newborn. She doesn’t remember her mother now. Mark and Linda are the only parents she’s known. It would be cruel to everyone to take her away now, when they’ve been nothing but the ideal parents.”

Moody and Izzy, on the other hand, were inclined to take Bebe’s side. “She made one mistake,” Moody insisted. Pearl had told him most of Bebe’s story, and Moody, as in all things, was on Pearl’s side. “She thought she couldn’t take care of the baby and then things changed and she could. It

shouldn’t mean her kid gets taken away forever.” Izzy was more succinct: “She’s the mom. They’re not.” Something about the case had lit a spark in her, though she could not yet put her finger on it, and would not be able to articulate it for a long while.

“Cliff and Clair were fighting about it last night,” Brian told Lexie one afternoon. They were lying in his bed, half dressed, having skipped lacrosse and field hockey practice for a different kind of exercise. “Cliff and Clair never fight.” It had started over dinner, and by the time he’d gone to bed his parents had lapsed into a stony, stubborn silence. “My dad thinks she’s better off with the McCulloughs. He thinks she has no future with a mother like Bebe. He said moms like Bebe are the kind of parents who keep the cycle of poverty going.”

“But what do you think?” Lexie persisted. Brian hesitated. His mother had interrupted his father’s tirade—something she did often, but never with such vehemence. “And what about all those black babies going to white homes?” she had said. “You think that breaks the cycle of poverty?” She dropped a pot into the sink with a clatter and turned on the water. Steam rose up in a hissing cloud. “If they want to help the black community, why don’t they make some changes to the system first instead?” His father’s reasoning made all logical sense to Brian—the baby safe and cared for and adored, with every possible opportunity. And yet there was something about the little brown body wrapped in Mrs. McCullough’s long, pale arms that discomfited him as it had his mother. He felt a flare of annoyance—no, anger—at Bebe for putting him in this position.

“I think if she’d been more careful this whole thing could’ve been avoided,” he said stiffly. “I mean, use a condom. How hard is that? A buck at the drugstore and this whole thing would never have happened.”

“Way to miss the point, Bry,” Lexie said, and fished her jeans up from the floor.

Brian tugged them out of her hands. “Forget about it. Not our problem, right?” He put his arms around her, and Lexie forgot all about little Mirabelle, the McCulloughs, everything except his lips on her ear.

With Ed Lim’s help, Bebe had formally filed papers and had been granted visitation rights in the interim, once per week for two hours. Mr. and Mrs. McCullough were to maintain custody of the baby for the time being.

No one was satisfied with this arrangement.

“Only in the library or ‘public place,’” Bebe complained to Mia. “She cannot even come to my home. I have to hold my baby in the library. And the social worker sitting right there, watching me all the time. Like I am some criminal. Like I might hurt my own baby. Those McCulloughs, they say I can come to their house, visit her there. They think I am going to sit there and smile while they steal my baby? They think I am going to sit there by the fireplace and look at pictures of some other woman holding my child?”

Meanwhile, Mrs. McCullough had her own complaints.

“You have no idea what it’s like,” she told Mrs. Richardson over the phone. “Handing your baby over to a stranger. Watching some woman you don’t even know walk away carrying your child. I break out in hives every time the doorbell rings, Elena. After they leave, I literally get down on my knees and pray she’ll come back like she’s supposed to. The night before I can’t even sleep. I’ve had to take sleeping pills.” Mrs. Richardson gave a sympathetic cluck. “And it’s never the same day. Every week I say, please, can we just pick a set time. Please, let’s just settle on one day. At least that way I would know it was coming. I’d have time to prepare myself. But no, she never tells the social worker until the day before. Says she doesn’t know her work schedule until then. I get a call in the afternoon—Oh, we’ll be by tomorrow at ten. Less than half a day’s notice. I’m completely on edge.”

“It’s only for a while, Linda,” Mrs. Richardson said soothingly. “The court date is just at the end of March and, of course, the state will decide the baby belongs with you.”

“I hope you’re right,” Mrs. McCullough said. “But what if they decide

—” She stopped, her throat tightening, and took a deep breath. “I don’t want to think about it. They can’t possibly. They wouldn’t.” Her tone sharpened. “If she can’t even arrange her work schedule, how can she possibly expect to be stable enough to raise a child?”

“This too shall pass,” Mrs. Richardson said.

Mrs. Richardson’s calm, however, belied her true feelings. The more she thought about Mia, the angrier she became, and the more she could not stop thinking about her.

She had spent her whole life in Shaker Heights, and it had infused her to the core. Her memories of childhood were a broad expanse of green—wide lawns, tall trees, the plush greenness that comes with affluence—and resembled the marketing brochures the city had published for decades to

woo the right sort of residents. This made a certain amount of sense: Mrs. Richardson’s grandparents had been in Shaker Heights almost from the beginning. They had arrived in 1927, back when it was still technically a village—though it was already being called the finest residential district in the world. Her grandfather had grown up in downtown Cleveland on what they called Millionaires’ Row, his family’s crenellated wedding cake of a house tucked beside the Rockefellers and the telegraph magnate and President McKinley’s secretary of state. However, by the time Mrs.

Richardson’s grandfather—by then a successful lawyer—was preparing to bring his bride home, downtown had grown noisy and congested. Soot clogged the air and dirtied the ladies’ dresses. A move to the country, he decided, would be just the thing. It was madness to move so far from the city, friends insisted, but he was an outdoorsman and his bride-to-be an avid equestrienne, and Shaker Heights offered three bridle paths, streams for fishing, plenty of fresh air. Besides, a new train line whisked businessmen straight from Shaker to the heart of the city: nothing could be more modern. The couple bought a house on Sedgewick Road, hired a maid, joined the country club; Mrs. Richardson’s grandmother found a stable for her horse, Jackson, and became a member of the Flowerpot Garden Club.

By the time Mrs. Richardson’s mother, Caroline, was born in 1931, things were less rural but no less idyllic. Shaker Heights was officially a city; there were nine elementary schools and a new redbrick senior high had just been completed. New and regal houses were springing up all over town, each following strict style regulations and a color code, and bound by a ninety-nine-year covenant forbidding resale to anyone not approved by the neighborhood. Rules and regulation and order were necessary, the residents assured each other, in order to keep their community both unified and beautiful.

For Shaker Heights was indeed beautiful. Everywhere lawns and gardens flourished—residents promised to keep weeds pulled, to grow only flowers, never vegetables. Those who were lucky enough to live in Shaker were certain theirs was the best community in America. It was the kind of place where—as one resident discovered—if you lost your thousand-dollar diamond wedding ring shoveling the driveway, the service department would remove the entire snowbank, carry it to the city garage, and melt it under heat lamps in order to retrieve your treasure. Caroline grew up picnicking by the Shaker lakes in the summer, skating on city-flooded rinks

in the winter, caroling at Christmas. She saw matinees of Song of the South and Anna and the King of Siam at the cinema at Shaker Square and on special occasions—such as her birthday—her father took her to Stouffer’s Restaurant for a lobster luncheon. As a teenager, Caroline became the drum majorette for the school’s marching band, went parking down by the Canoe Club with the boy who would become her husband a few years later.

It was, as far as she could imagine, a perfect life in a perfect place.

Everyone in Shaker Heights felt this. So when it became obvious that the outside world was less perfect—as Brown v. Board caused an uproar and riders in Montgomery boycotted buses and the Little Rock Nine made their way into school through a storm of slurs and spit—Shaker residents, including Caroline, took it upon themselves to be better than that. After all, were they not smarter, wiser, more thoughtful and forethoughtful, the wealthiest, the most enlightened? Was it not their duty to enlighten others? Didn’t the elite have a responsibility to share their well-being with those less fortunate? Caroline’s own mother had always raised her to think of those in need: she had organized Christmastime toy drives, had been a member of the local Children’s Guild, had even overseen the compilation of a Guild cookbook, with all proceeds benefiting charities, and contributed her own personal recipe for molasses cookies. When the troubles of the outside world made their presence felt in Shaker Heights—a bomb at the home of a black lawyer—the community felt obliged to show that this was not the Shaker way. A neighborhood association sprang up to encourage integration in a particularly Shaker Heights manner: loans to encourage white families to move into black neighborhoods, loans to encourage black families to move into white neighborhoods, regulations forbidding FOR SALE signs in order to prevent white flight—a law that would remain in effect for decades. Caroline, by then a homeowner herself with a one-year-old—a young Mrs. Richardson—joined the integration association immediately.

Some years later, she would drive five and a half hours, daughter in tow, to the great March on Washington, and Mrs. Richardson would forever remember that day, the sun forcing her eyes into a squint, the scrum of people pressed thigh to thigh, the hot fug of sweat rising from the crowd, the Washington Monument rising far off in the distance, like a spike stretching to pierce the clouds. She clamped her mother’s hand in hers, terrified that her mother might be swept away. “Isn’t this incredible,” her mother said, without looking down at her. “Remember this moment, Elena.”

And Elena would remember that look on her mother’s face, that longing to bring the world closer to perfection—like turning the peg of a violin and bringing the string into tune. Her conviction that it was possible if you only tried hard enough, that no work could be too messy.

But three generations of Shaker reverence for order and rules and decorum would stay with Elena, too, and she would never quite be able to bring those two ideas into balance. In 1968, at fifteen, she turned on the television and watched chaos flaring up across the country like brush fires. Martin Luther King, Jr., then Bobby Kennedy. Students in revolt at Columbia. Riots in Chicago, Memphis, Baltimore, D.C.—everywhere, everywhere, things were falling apart. Deep inside her a spark kindled, a spark that would flare in Izzy years later. Of course she understood why this was happening: they were fighting to right injustices. But part of her shuddered at the scenes on the television screen. Grainy scenes, but no less terrifying: grocery stores ablaze, smoke billowing from their rooftops, walls gnawed to studs by flame. The jagged edges of smashed windows like fangs in the night. Soldiers marching with rifles past drugstores and Laundromats. Jeeps blocking intersections under dead traffic lights. Did you have to burn down the old to make way for the new? The carpet at her feet was soft. The sofa beneath her was patterned with roses. Outside, a mourning dove cooed from the bird feeder and a Cadillac glided to a dignified stop at the corner.

She wondered which was the real world.

The following spring, when antiwar protests broke out, she did not get in her car and drive to join them. She wrote impassioned letters to the editor; she signed petitions to end the draft. She stitched a peace sign onto her knapsack. She wove flowers into her hair.

It was not that she was afraid. It was simply that Shaker Heights, despite its idealism, was a pragmatic place, and she did not know how to be anything else. A lifetime of practical and comfortable considerations settled atop the spark inside her like a thick, heavy blanket. If she ran off to Washington to join the protests, where would she sleep? How would she stay safe? What would become of her classes, would she be expelled, could she still graduate and go to college? The spring of their senior year, Jamie Reynolds had pulled her aside after history class one day. “I’m dropping out,” he said. “Going to California. Come with me.” She had adored Jamie since the seventh grade, when he had admired a sonnet she’d written for English. Now, at almost eighteen, he had long hair and a shaggy beard, a

dislike for authority, a VW van in which, he said, they could live. “Like camping out,” he’d said, “except we can go anywhere,” and she had wanted so badly to go with him, anywhere, to kiss that crooked, bashful smile. But how would they pay for food, where would they do their laundry, where would they bathe? What would her parents say? The neighbors, her teachers, her friends? She’d kissed Jamie on the cheek and cried when, at last, he was out of sight.

Months later, off at Denison, she sat with classmates and watched the draft lottery live on the grainy common-room television. Jamie’s birthday— March 7—had come up on the second pick. So he would be among the first to be called to fight, she thought, and she wondered where he had gone, if he knew what awaited him, if he would report, or if he would run. Beside her, Billy Richardson squeezed her hand. His birthday was one of the last drawn, and anyway, as an undergraduate, he had been granted a deferral. He was safe. By the time they graduated, the war would be over and they would marry, buy a house, settle down. She had no regrets, she told herself. She’d been crazy to have considered it even for a moment. What she had felt for Jamie back then had been just a tiny, passing flame.

All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled.

Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.

This philosophy had carried her through life and, she had always felt, had served her quite well. Of course she’d had to give up a few things here and there. But she had a beautiful house, a steady job, a loving husband, a brood of healthy and happy children; surely that was worth the trade. Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.

And yet here was Mia, causing poor Linda such trauma, as if she hadn’t been through enough, as if Mia were any kind of example of how to mother. Dragging her fatherless child from place to place, scraping by on menial jobs, justifying it by insisting to herself—by insisting to everyone—she was

making Art. Probing other people’s business with her grimy hands. Stirring up trouble. Heedlessly throwing sparks. Mrs. Richardson seethed, and deep inside her, the hot speck of fury that had been carefully banked within her burst into flame. Mia did whatever she wanted, Mrs. Richardson thought, and what would result? Heartbreak for her oldest friend. Chaos for everyone. You can’t just do what you want, she thought. Why should Mia get to, when no one else did?

It was only this loyalty to the McCulloughs, she would tell herself, the desire to see justice for her oldest friend, that led her to step over the line at last: as soon as she could get away, she would take a trip to Pennsylvania and visit Mia’s parents. She would find out, once and for all, who this woman was.

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