Frankly, I didn’t know how to re-open the conversation with John about cleaning the closets; I hated arguments. I had experienced too many while growing up in my grandmother’s household between her and my mother and I avoided them at all cost until I was faced with a situation I couldn’t back away from. I clung to the hope that John would change, that he would soon accept my status in the household if I just showed patience.
• • •
Every Sunday that fall, I soon learned that the Stewart family tradition was for Charles and Dennis and their wives to come over in late morning mainly to use the amenities—the pool, large Jacuzzi, volleyball court—and to watch pro football. The open door policy included my sister-in-law, Joann, her husband, Dick, and their two children, who were the same ages as my sons. And whenever Joann and Dick were there, so were my in-laws, Alma and John Sr., who would wander in from their house, a two-minute walk down the driveway from John’s front door. This was the day that John chose to work all day at the store, leaving me stranded among his family, closing at 5 p.m. in time to enjoy Sunday night football. When he arrived with all the fixings for dinner, he carried the box of food on his shoulder like an East L.A. gang member carrying a ghetto blaster, a peculiar habit I never really understood.
Everyone who came over made themselves at home, getting food from the kitchen and drinks from the bar. On one particular Sunday during my illness, I remember my mother-in-law Alma fussing about how cold the house was, and Joann shook her head in disgust.
“Nothing works right in this house,” she said as she went to the bar and poured herself a stiff Black Russian, using the best vodka on the shelf.
“I loved Gloria dearly, like a sister,” Joann said after she took a gulp of her drink. “But for ten years before she died, she suffered terribly from menopause. She was only thirty-eight when she began having hot flashes so bad her face would turn blood red, and since she was fair-complexioned, Gloria would hide in the bedroom from embarrassment. Her disposition changed, too. She turned angry, and Brother did not know how to cope with her. And what did Brother do? Well, he just downed his Jack Daniel’s and worked longer hours!”
Joann shook her head and looked around the house. “Brother fixed this place into something special—because he so likes to entertain—but Gloria would lock herself in the bedroom while the guests were enjoying themselves. Oh, my, she was the talk of Moraine! She never took any interest in his entertaining and in the affairs of the house. Deena isn’t any better, as you can see by her room, but how could she be with a mother as sick as Gloria?”
My sister-in-law reached over and gave my hand a pat. “I don’t envy you, cleaning this up.”
I coughed in response, feeling embarrassed at the amount of green phlegm that I spit into a Kleenex, wondering what she would say if she knew the edict that John had imposed. Joann’s concern seemed so real that I sucked it up like my foul-tasting cough medicine.
Alma nodded in concert with her daughter. Joann took another sip of her Black Russian and tapped the edge of the glass with her long acrylic fingernails that was so popular in the 1980s. “That’s why.” she continued, “for the last three years—before Brother married you—I got the house ready for all those big political parties he threw. It was a lot of work, and that live-in housekeeper, Olivia was a good-for-nothing, so I couldn’t depend on her anyway! But the parties were such great fun, I just loved playing hostess!”
If I’d had a better grip on my thinking process, I would have caught what she really said about playing hostess, but my mind was foggy. I had barely dragged myself from bed and was bewildered by the crush of family—the hubbub of the TV, the children running around the back yard, the clink of glassware—when all I wanted was to sleep. However, her explanation about Gloria helped me to better understand my husband and step-children and I felt gratified for that small bit of information. Obviously, I had only known everyone on a surface level, when the dating game was being played and everyone was on their best behavior. Thinking back, I hardly interacted with John’s children except to smile politely. I suffered from a ridiculous assumption: they would accept me because I was marrying their father.
On that same Sunday when Joann declared how much she loved being hostess at John’s parties, I observed a dust-up between Joann’s husband Dick and John’s two grown sons, Charles and Dennis while viewing the crowd from my sick chair.
Dick was a lineman for the local gas company. From what little I knew of him, he seemed to love his children and was heavily involved with their soccer as either a coach or referee. But on this day, the sharp edge of his personality appeared after he had downed several Black Russians, also made with John’s best vodka—a habit I soon came to loathe.
During a football commercial break, Dennis and Charles talked about the planned repaving of the store’s parking lot. Joann and Dick lived on a residential street that ran parallel to Stewart’s Market. Four doors down from them on the same street was the home of Dennis and Beth whose backyard fence opened up into the store parking lot, an easy access for Dennis to get to work.
“Jesus Christ,” Dick sputtered, hearing their conversation. “When in the hell is that going to happen? Why weren’t Joann and I told?”
Dennis looked at his uncle with surprise. “Why…what’s the problem?” he asked.
“The smell of the asphalt and the inconvenience! Where’s everyone going to park while the lot is being resurfaced? Not on my street, I hope.”
“It’s only for a day, Dick,” Dennis said, his voice tight. Dennis’ hand automatically moved down and fondled the throng of keys he always had clipped to a belt loop on the side of his denim pants.
“Why weren’t we notified of this repaving? Didn’t the market have to pull a permit or something? Well, I know why we weren’t notified—because it’s Stewart’s Market, that’s why,” Dick sputtered.
Joann looked up from her drink. “Why don’t you shut up?” she said sharply.
Dick glowered the rest of the day and proceeded to hammer John when he came home, but John simply said, “The parking lot has pot holes, Dick. Do you think I want to spend thousands of dollars repaving? I don’t want to do it, but it’s become a problem for the big Certified Grocers delivery trucks.”
When Joann and Dick and their children finally left, Charles said to his father, “What the hell’s the matter with Dick?”
“He hates the store, and what it represents—money he’ll never make.” John said. “You ought to know that by now.”
At these Sunday gatherings, the only person not glued to the football games was old Mr. Stewart who sat in a dining room chair glowering at the members of his family. The old man had worked hard all his life, first in the field of oil exploration as a wild cat operator, and then later in life he opened Stewart’s Market in Moraine. A product of the Great Depression, he never could swallow that John and his adult children took groceries from the market without paying. He knew better than anyone else what that free-handed attitude did to the store’s bottom line.
When he spoke to his son, it was rarely without contempt for John’s easy living, and he would voice it in no uncertain terms. Once, after one of my husband’s large political parties, John and I wandered the next morning down to his parent’s house to have coffee. John was expounding on the glories of having a well-known congressman at his house, and the old man said to him, “All those people love to come to your place and eat all that high-priced food and drink the expensive liquor you take from the store. Those people are pretty goddamn smart and you are a goddamn fool.”
John’s response always was, “Dad, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I can call on those politicians any day I want and get whatever I ask for.”
The old man would shake his big head and retort. “Mark my words, John, when hard times come, those people never remember the booze they drank and the food they put into their bellies. And it’s a damn sight sure they won’t remember who the hell you are.”
John blithely ignored his father while his mother fluttered about like a distraught parakeet who wants out of its cage. When a verbal exchange like that occurred, she would move nervously around the room, trying to change the subject, eventually landing behind her husband of more than 60 years, stroke and kiss his bald head, and say, “There, there, dear. You mustn’t be so critical. John is aiming for higher things.”
Alma always succeeded in smoothing over the tempest and the old man would quiet down but not without a “harrumph.” The subject would then change to who recently died in Moraine, something the Stewarts were always vitally tuned into because they had lived there so long and viewed themselves as Moraine’s founding family. With her husband calmed, we would leave, my husband thoroughly satisfied his parents were fully aware of the prominent guests who had graced his threshold.
These Sunday visits during the time I was sick only served to remind me even more that I had stepped into an uncharted mine field. My only recourse at that time was to feebly sip my tea. But that was when I began questioning my motives for marrying John, not an easy task as I stared at people who were now my family. After sitting in that damnable chair during the day, I wondered if my moral compass had pointed me in the wrong direction; I had equated money and prestige equaled a loving family environment for me and my children.
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