Molly heard a sensual, warm sound drift into her mother’s voice, reminding her of the times when her mother and Aunt Minna sat alone and talked. That was the only other time she heard her mother’s voice sound so musical. “Who was he, a stranger?” She could not help herself, she was compelled to ask, she needed to know. She expected consternation to creep in, she expected her mother to say ‘hush,’ that she would tell it in her own way. But Esther did none of these. Tears filled Esther’s eyes and dropped down onto her cheeks.
“He was a handsome young waiter from Harvard, completing his pre-med. He came back from the war and went to school on the GI bill, and so he was older than the others, maybe thirty-three. His name was Bill O’Brien and he was from Boston. He noticed me the first night and he pursued me. And I believed everything he said because we both wanted it to be true. And it was true. For a little while.”
Molly’s sense of her mother was skewed. She fluctuated widely from the mother sitting before her, the mother she grew up with, the woman who talked to Aunt Minna. They were all different, and now they seemed to all be coming together into a woman she did not know.
“Miriam warned me, but I didn’t want to hear her. I wanted to hear him.” She reached her arm across the table, her fingers splaying, as if a drowning woman trying to grasp something.
“Mom, you don’t have to,” Molly began, as she reached out and took her mother’s damp and cool hand in hers. “It’s okay.”
“I want to. Because here is the thing that must be said. Bill loved me. We wrote when he went back to Boston, we saw one another on weekends when I could slip away from New York. We walked together on the Harvard campus. And when I became pregnant, he wanted to marry me.” Esther began to cry in earnest, with small rocking motions as if to comfort herself. “But I couldn’t. He was Catholic, he was Irish. He’d have to give up his dream of becoming a doctor. What would that do to him and finally to us?” Esther got up from the table and opened the fridge for an orange. It had a thick skin and she slit it with a paring knife all around and peeled it, handing sections to Molly and keeping some for herself.
“Finally, I wrote to him and lied, saying I had miscarried. It was in the third month, at a crossroad. But I couldn’t. There were doctors in the Bronx for that sort of thing. There are always doctors.” She cocked her head, as though listening to some silent voice inside her. “And there was Sam. He had been there for years, waiting. First waiting for the hard times to go away, then the war. There was always something. And I was pushed to marry him, by your grandmother, then the cousins. So I went to him and I told him and he cried, and then he asked me to make him the father and not this other person. He asked me to marry him right away and he’d tell everyone you were his. And he did and you were.” She sobbed. “You know how much he loved you.”
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