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Fiction Family Christmas

Illustration by Doug Smock

Part of what I felt was shame -- shame for something I didn't understand, shame for other people's misery, shame that it had lain naked and exposed before us, shame that we'd seen it

by Roxana Robinson

AT Christmas we went to my grandparents'.

My grandparents lived outside New York City in a private park, a strange nineteenth-century hybrid between a club and a housing development. The park was enclosed by a thick stone wall, and at the entrance were a pair of stone gateposts and a gatehouse. As we approached the gate, a man would appear in the doorway of the gatehouse, sternly watching our car. Our father, who knew the gatekeeper, would roll down his window and say hello, or sometimes he would just smile and wave, cocking his hand casually backward and forward. The gatekeeper would recognize my father then and nod, dropping his chin slowly, deeply, in confirmation of an unspoken agreement, and we would drive through the gates into the park.

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One year there was a new gatekeeper, who did not know my father. The man stepped out of the gatehouse as we approached and waved heavily at the ground, motioning for us to stop. He was frowning in an official way.

"He's new," my father said, slowing down. "Never seen him before."

My mother laughed. "He probably won't let us in," she said.

My father pulled up to the gatehouse and rolled down his window. "We're here to see my family, the Weldons," he said politely. "I'm Robert Weldon." My father looked like his father: he had the same blue eyes, the same long, straight nose, and the same high, domed forehead. The gatekeeper glanced noncommittally at the car and then he nodded. He was still frowning, but now in a private, interior way that no longer seemed to have anything to do with us. He gave us a slow wave through the gates; then he went ponderously back into the little house.

The four of us children sat motionless in the back. After our mother had spoken, we had fallen silent. Our faces had turned solemn, and we had aligned our legs neatly on the seats. Our knees matched. Our docile hands lay in our laps. We were alarmed.

We did not know why some cars might be turned away from the park gates. We had never seen it happen, but we knew that it must happen; why else would the gatekeeper appear, with his narrowed eyes and official frown? We knew that our car did not look like our grandparents' car, or like any of the other cars that slid easily between the big stone gateposts without even slowing up. Those cars were dark and sleek. They looked fluid and full of curves, as if they had been shaped by speed, though they always seemed to move slowly. Those cars were polished: the chrome gleamed; the smooth, swelling fenders shone; and the windows were lucid and unsmudged. Those cars were driven sedately by men in flat black hats and black jackets. The drivers nodded to the gatekeeper. The passengers, who were in the back seat, never in the front next to the driver, did not even look up as they drove through the gates.

Our car, however, was a rickety wooden-sided station wagon, angular, high-axled, flat-topped. The black roof was patched, and the varnished wooden sides were dull and battered. Our car was driven by our father, who did not wear a black jacket, and next to him in the front seat was our mother. The two slippery brown back seats were chaotic with suitcases, bags of presents, the four of us children, and our collie, Huge. We felt as though we were another species when we arrived at this gate, and we wondered whether we would be turned away. The rules of entry and exclusion from the park were mysterious to us; they were part of the larger, unknowable world that our parents moved through but that we did not understand. Fitting in was like the struggle to learn a language -- listening hard for words and phrases and idioms, constantly mystified and uncomprehending, knowing that all around us, in smooth and fluent use by the rest of the world, was a vast and intricate system we could not yet grasp.

After we were through the gates that day, my mother turned to us.

"Well, we made it," she said humorously. "They let us in this time." She smiled and raised her eyebrows, waiting for us to answer. My mother was small and lively, with thick light-brown hair parted on one side and held with a barrette. She wore her clothes casually, sweaters and long full skirts.

We said nothing to her. We disapproved of my mother's levity, all of us: Sam and Jonathan, my two older brothers; Abby, my older sister; and me, Joanna. I was the youngest, and the most disapproving.

Inside the gates the road meandered sedately through the park, on the slopes of a small, steep mountain. Up on the top, along the ridge, the land was still wild and untouched. Deer moved delicately through the thickets, and we had heard stories of bobcats, though we had never seen one. Down along the narrow paved roads all was mannerly, a landscape of wide snowy lawns, graceful flowering trees and towering shade trees, now all winter-bare, and luxuriant shrubberies mantled with snow. Unmarked driveways slid discreetly into the road's docile curves. Set far back, even from this private road, were the houses: tall, ornate, gabled and turreted, half hidden by brick walls, stonework, and the giant old trees that surrounded them, they stood comfortable and secure within their grounds.

Our grandparents' house was called Weldonmere. It was set below the road, at the bottom of a wide, sloping oval of lawn. The driveway traced a long semicircle, swooping from one corner of the front lawn down to the house, at midpoint, and then back up to the road again. Along the road stood a screen of trees: dogwoods, cherries, and an exotic Japanese maple with small, fine-toothed leaves, astonishingly purple in the summer. Down the hill, protecting the house with its benevolent presence, stood a great copper beech, dark and radiant. Its dense branches, like a vast layered skirt, swept down to the lawn, and beneath them were deep, roomy eaves, where we played in the summer.

Weldonmere was white, with pointed Victorian gables and round neoclassical columns. At the front door was a big porte-cochère, and above it the house rose three stories to the scalloped blue-black slates of the roof.

MY father stopped the car under the porte-cochère, and we cascaded out. Huge darted alertly into the bushes, his long nose alive to a new universe. We children, following our parents through the brief shock of cold air, clumped noisily into the big square front hall. We stood among the suitcases on the Turkey carpet, blinking in the light of the chandelier. Our parents called out in a general and celebratory way.

"Well, hello! You're here!" Grandpère appeared in the doorway to the living room. Grandpère was tall and dignified, with a neat, thick silver moustache. He held himself very straight -- like an officer, which he had been, or a rider, which he still was. About him was an air of order. He was always in charge. Grandpère carried his gold watch on a chain in his pocket, and he wore a waistcoat, which was pronounced weskit. He was a formal man, courtly but kind. Underneath the moustache was always the beginning of a smile.

"Hello, Robert! Sarah, children." His voice was deep, his manner ceremonial. He included us all in his smile, and he opened his arms in a broad welcoming gesture.

Grandmère appeared behind him. Grandmère was narrow and elegant. She wore a long dark dress, and her white hair was parted on the side. It started straight and then turned to dense, regular curls, pressed flat against her head. Her mouth was eternally bowed in a gentle smile. Grandmère was from Charleston, South Carolina, but her mother's family had been from Baton Rouge, where they spoke French. She had been brought up to think that English was common, which was why we called our grandparents "Grandpère" and "Grandmère."

"Here you all are," Grandmère said faintly. She sounded pleased but exhausted, as though we were already too much for her. She stood gracefully in the corner of the arched doorway, leaning her hand against it and smiling at us. We milled around, taking off our coats and being kissed.

Huge had come inside, and now held his plumy tail tensely up in the air, his head high and wary. Tweenie, Grandmère's horrible black-and-white mongrel, snake-snouted, sleek-sided, plump, and disagreeable, appeared in the doorway behind her. The two dogs approached each other, stiff-legged, slit-eyed, flat-eared. They began to rumble deep in their throats.

"Now, Tweenie," Grandmère said, not moving.

"Oh, gosh," my father said from the other side of the hall. "Get Huge, will you, Sam?"

Sam was the closest, but we all took responsibility for our beloved Huge. We all began shouting, and pummeling his solid, lovely back, sliding our hands proprietarily into his feathery coat. "Huge!" we cried, sternly reminding him of the rules, and demonstrating to the grown-ups our own commitment to them. Of course, this was hypocritical. We believed that Huge could do no wrong and was above all rules, and that Tweenie was to blame for any animosity -- in fact, for anything at all. We thought that Huge was entirely justified in entering Tweenie's house and attacking her, if he chose to do so, in her own front hall, like some Viking raider. Huge ignored our calls to order, shaking his broad brown head, his eyes never leaving Tweenie's cold stare. I laid my head against Huge's velvet ear.

"Huge," I said, holding him tightly around the neck, "no growling."

We did not touch Tweenie: she had been known to bite us without hesitation.

"Now," Grandpère said firmly, "Tweenie, come here."

The authority in his voice quieted us all. Tweenie paid no attention, but Grandpère strode across the rug and took her powerfully by her wide leather collar. Tweenie's growls rose suddenly in her constricted throat, and she twisted her head to keep Huge in sight as she was dragged away.

"Oh, dear," Grandmère said gently. "Tweenie gets so upset by other dogs."

Huge, unfettered and unrepentant, trotted triumphantly in small, swift circles on the rug, his tail high.

"Huge," I said sternly, and banged on his back. I looked at my father for praise, but he was making his way toward us through the luggage. When he reached us, he grabbed Huge's collar.

"Now calm down," my father said sharply to Huge. Huge, who had never been trained in any way, ignored my father completely. My father pulled him in the direction away from Tweenie, and Huge whined, twisting his great shaggy body to get a last view of Tweenie's smooth, repellent rump. Tweenie was being slid unwillingly, her feet braced, past the front stairs and past the little closet where the telephone was, through the small door behind the staircase which led into the kitchen quarters.

Grandpère opened the door. "Molly," he called, "take the dog, will you?" Without waiting for a reply he closed the door behind Tweenie and returned to us, brisk and unruffled.

"She gets upset," Grandmère murmured again, smiling at us in a general way.

"We'll take Huge up with us," my father said. "Let's get settled now -- let's get our things upstairs."

We set off. The staircase was wide and curving, with a heavy mahogany rail and carved banisters. The steps were broad and shallow, and the red-patterned carpeting was held in place by brass rods. Lugging our suitcases behind us, we went up in slow motion, step by step. On the second-floor landing was a door that was always closed.

ONE afternoon I had climbed the stairs by myself. When I reached that landing, instead of going on to the upstairs hall I stopped at the door and opened it, though I knew I should not. I looked in: a narrow hallway, with closed doors on either side. I stepped inside. It was hushed and dim; everything seemed different there. The ceiling was lower; the carpet was plain green and thin underfoot. I walked silently, on my toes, down the hall. I pushed open one of the doors and peered into a small bedroom. It held a painted wooden bed, a modest bureau, and a chair. Everything was perfectly neat. The window looked out the back of the house to the garage. The curtains at the window were limp, and the air seemed muted and dark. A clock ticked in the stillness. I stood without moving, looking at everything, staring into a world I didn't know. My heart began to pound, and when I heard someone coming up the back stairs from the kitchen, I fled to the front landing.

Later I asked my mother what was behind that closed door on the landing. She said it was the servants' wing, and that we must never go in there, because it would disturb them. That was where they lived, she said. I didn't understand this: how could you live in a place like that? How could a whole life be compressed into that small room with nothing in it, in someone else's house?

We had no servants in our own house. My father had been a lawyer in New York, like Grandpère, but he had given that up. He had left the law and the city, and moved to Ithaca in upstate New York, where we now lived. My father worked for the university, helping poor people in the community. I'd heard him tell people about this change, and from the way he said it, I knew it was something unusual, and that we were proud of it.

We lived outside town, in an old white-clapboard farmhouse. We had only one bathroom, and the house was heated by a big wood-burning stove in the middle of the living room. In the winter, after supper, we sat around the stove and my mother read out loud. While we listened, my father peeled oranges for us, pulling them apart, separating the succulent crescents and passing them to us, fragile and treasured. Then he would unlatch the heavy iron hatch on the stove and throw in the thin, bruised-looking orange peels. We heard the faint hiss as they gave themselves up to the red heart of the stove. We closed our eyes for a moment, listening, and feasting on the sweet fragrance of the peels.

At Weldonmere we slept on the third floor, Abby and I in one room, the boys in another. Our room overlooked the porte-cochère, and it had been our father's when he was little. It had low twin beds, foot to foot, and an engraving of a Raphael Madonna and child, in velvety blacks. The boys' room overlooked the back lawn and, beyond it, the small pond that gave the house its name. Our parents slept on the second floor, with Grandmère and Grandpère. We children were alone on the third floor, and we liked this. On Christmas Eve we felt boisterous and wild, and we didn't want the presence of our parents to constrict us. In the morning we were not allowed to go down the front stairs for our stockings until it was light, and on some Christmas mornings the four of us had sat lined up and silent on the landing, shivering, waiting for the first gray pallor of day to lighten the darkened rooms below.

THIS Christmas we had arrived late. The drive was a long one, and by the time we got there, Grandmère and Grandpère had already had dinner. Our parents were to have trays in front of the fire in the living room, and we children were sent into the kitchen, where Molly would give us something to eat.

Molly was Irish and fierce, with pale-blue eyes and a thick cloud of white hair. She had slim arms and slim legs, and a thick middle. Her hands and feet were small, and she moved fast. She wore a white uniform, a white apron, and white stockings, and lace-up shoes with thick low heels. She ruled the kitchen absolutely. We never did anything to make Molly mad. She would have our heads. That's what she told us, shaking her own wild white head fiercely, and we believed her.

Molly had a husband named Bud, but he was a mysterious figure, like the bobcats; we had never seen him. We did know Molly's son, Richard, who was my grandparents' chauffeur. He was fat, and moved slowly. We children had a poor opinion of him. We called him Ree-ard, which we thought was funny. When he wasn't driving my grandparents' long black car, Ree-ard sat on a chair in the kitchen, near the back stairs. He took off his black coat and sat in his shirtsleeves, his white shirt vast and billowy. He looked like a lump, and sometimes Molly told him that, rounding on him suddenly from the big stove and laying into him without mercy. Molly might do that at any moment to anyone -- erupt into a high, foamy rage, and say things with her fierce, thin Irish lips that you never wanted to hear.

But Molly was nice to us, and we liked her. That evening we pushed through the swinging door from the dining room into the pantry and filed into the kitchen. Molly turned at once from the stove.

"Ah, here they all are, then," she said, her Irish accent thick. Molly's mouth didn't smile easily, but her eyes did. "Come over here and let me have a look at you." We presented ourselves expectantly, waiting to see what she would find. "You're growing," she said warningly to Sam, as though this were something he should look out for, and to me she said accusingly, "Where's that tooth gone?" I had no answer, but I knew she was not angry. She put her hands on our heads approvingly, as though we belonged to her, and then she moved briskly back to the stove. "I'm going to take this out to your parents first, so you all sit down at the table and don't make any trouble." We didn't need to be told that. Making trouble in Molly's kitchen was the last thing in the world we would have considered doing.

We sat and waited for her to come back. Tweenie lay on a towel next to her bowl, which had milk in it. She eyed us disagreeably.

"I hate Tweenie," I said, and made a face at her.

Jonathan always disagreed with me. "She's just a dog," he said scornfully. "Why would you hate a dog?"

"She looks like a snake," Abby said. "Look at her."

We looked at her. Tweenie looked back at us, ready to bite.

"Where's Huge?" Jonathan asked.

"In with the grown-ups," Sam said. "We can't bring him in here because he'll upset Tweenie."

"Oh, Tweenie," I said with loathing, rolling my eyes.


(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Roxana Robinson is the author of Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life (1999) and four works of fiction, including This Is My Daughter (1998).

Illustrations by Doug Smock.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; Family Christmas - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 97-105.