(This story first appeared in The Medulla Review)
For my mother, always
To my mother, the characters in novels were as real as you or I. She remembered every detail about them, the way they spoke and the way they dressed, as if she had met them yesterday on one of her many long walks. She spoke of them as if they lived in her own house which, in a way, they did.
But she was unusual in her approach, to say the least. My mother focused on the minor characters, the ones whom literary critical often ignore, the characters who seem to make comic points or add texture to the story. For her, War and Peace was "really" about the orphan Sonia-- “Sonia’s is the real tragedy. Natasha gets what she wants, but Sonia has to work as a maid to that awful religious horror, Princess Mary.” My mother always grieved for Sonia.
Decades after she’d read a novel, my mother could recall specific scenes and descriptions as I never could. I suppose that explains why later on, I often told her stories drawn from my own life.
One of those stories concerned a certain Cathleen Carter and her family. Cathleen was a woman of grave demeanor who worked in my small office building. Like many consultants, she called herself a group, The Carter Group. I believe that she consulted on environmental crises, which have might have accounted for her earnestness. In her tiny way, Cathleen was pretty with intense blue eyes and a pixie-style haircut.
Cathleen and her husband had two daughters: one from her husband's first marriage named Muriel, and the other from her own first marriage, named Marianna. I confess that I often got the daughters mixed up because their names sounded similar.
Both Cathleen and her husband had been married to Jews: in her case, a neurotic scientist, in his case, a sarcastic writer. These marriages had ended bitterly, but now the divorced parents were forced to share the daughters.
Cathleen's daughter divided her week between her “real” father and Cathleen. Even so, the girl consumed, or appeared to consume, Cathleen’s every waking hour. For Cathleen, this daughter—Marianna--was a mystery of tears, whims and tantrums.
I held tiny Cathleen's shoulders. “Your daughter’s just a teen, teens are moody. I was a sad sack of a teen myself--it broke my mother's heart. Besides, Marianna is a daughter anyone would be proud of, what are you worried about?”
Because to me, you see, the girl was perfect, sparkling and filled with life. I had seen her once with her mother-- a Viking girl, towering over her tiny mother, dressed in blue jeans and a pink tee with a little red heart.
Cathleen explained. She wanted her daughter to be engaged with “meaningful” community activities, Model U.N., working in the community, studying voice, learning about music. And her daughter did those things.
But, Marianna had a mind of her own. She wanted to become a fashion designer, work for a clothing company like Anthropologie and perhaps one day have her own clothing line. Cathleen admitted that the girl had done well at a summer fashion school-- her designs had been singled out.
Still, Cathleen viewed her daughter’s dreams as pipe-dreams. She wanted Marianna to have a profession filled, as Cathleen put it, "with dignity." Cathleen had no sympathy for a life devoted to style—to her, it meant nothing at all. She herself wore clothes from a decade or so ago, with ungainly shoulder-pads.
So the daughter went on with the life that Cathleen had organized—the model U.N., community leadership and so on. And there was school-work--calculus, history, literature-- all subjects which the other daughter, Muriel, excelled at. Marianna fell behind in school. Even though she worked past midnight, she failed to finish her homework –and teachers complained. She became sick, angry at her mother.
The Jewish scientist father complained that Cathleen pushed the girl too hard. “Leave her alone,” he said.
I told my mother about Cathleen, her two husbands, the two daughters, how the histories and names confused me. I spoke mostly about Marianna, Cathleen's daughter—my mother and I both loved fashion.
My mother, though, was eager to hear about the other daughter. “What is with the other girl, Muriel? What’s happening with Muriel?”
Muriel was fine, I said, an honors students, about four years older than Marianna. In pictures, she appeared dark and beautiful. I believed she lived, most of the time, with her sarcastic mother, who took her daughter’s success for granted. I told my mother, “No one has to worry about Muriel.”
From that point on, my mother worried only about Muriel. She felt someone had to care what happened to Muriel, even if her father and her step-mother and her sarcastic mother and I did not.
“There's something wrong there,” my mother said.
A year passed, and things had improved for Cathleen and her daughter. They had gone to a holistic spa in Arizona, just the two of them, where they attended meditation courses. Later that year, they took a mother-daughter weekend on Cape Cod where Marianna had held her hand and said I love you, Mom. Cathleen looked overjoyed as she told of this -- as if it were a rare event.
“Perhaps it was,” said my mother.
By this time, I learned, Muriel had entered college, not the Ivy League college she had aimed for but a small school down South. Muriel's sarcastic mother was unable to conceal her disappointment. At first, Muriel was crushed, but she recovered and now was happy, popular—and, Cathleen told me, made Dean's List.
“That’s Cathleen’s version,” my mother said.
I started to piece together a different narrative about Muriel.
At her Southern college, Muriel had become socially ambitious. She sensed that her sarcastic brilliant mother looked down on her. But Muriel felt she could outshine her mother on a social level. She joined a sorority that, in earlier days, did not accept Jewish girls. She dressed down in the way wealthy college girls do, wearing shorts to fancy restaurants just to show how little it mattered. She wheedled her father into buying her expensive jewelry for Christmas, jewelry he never bought for either of his wives—and even made him pay for trips to Europe, ski vacations in Switzerland.
Around that time, Muriel started dating a boy from a nearby college. His name was Richard Madden, and he was considered a catch, from a prominent family. Soon, Richard introduced Muriel to everyone in his social circle. When she came home, Muriel showed pictures of Richard to everyone so they could see how successful her college years were.
It was an old-fashioned kind of romance, Muriel said.
I told my mother that Muriel was now in love. “It’s like an old-fashioned romance,” I repeated, as if brainwashed.
My mother was completely unimpressed. “Mark my words,” she told me. “This is no old fashioned romance.”
Over the next months, I learned that Muriel's real mother, the writer, was to be married again in March, in Washington, D.C., which was not far from Muriel's college in Virginia. It was to be a surprisingly grand wedding, for a second wedding, with hundreds of guests.
The timing of the wedding was inconvenient, right before college mid-terms. Muriel didn't expect Richard to accompany her, but of course, she hoped. Richard insisted he needed to be there, just to support Muriel.
Muriel told her father and Cathleen, “Richard will do anything to please me. That’s the kind of man he is.”
Muriel spent days searching for the perfect dress—and when she found an amazing pale blue gown trimmed with a tiny band of white lace, she marveled. She e-mailed an image of herself in the dress to her step-sister—she even swept up her hair to reveal her diamond earrings.
Marianna created a beautiful crystal bracelet to go with it. “You’ll be more beautiful than any one there,” she told her step-sister.
The day before the wedding, Richard did not call and he did not return any of Muriel’s many messages and e-mails. Muriel even called local hospitals, just in case he had been in an accident. She waited all night for his call.
Early the next morning, Muriel called Richard’s parents—it was awkward by that time, but she didn’t know what else to do. Richard took the call. He was angry at the intrusion, especially at his parents’ home. He told her that he had no time to speak, and besides, she didn’t deserve it. She asked about the wedding--she had no other date. He said he did not owe her an explanation and hung up. He didn’t pick up when she called again. He was done with her.
Muriel entered alone in her pale blue dress. At dinner, she sat next to an empty seat. She made excuses but she knew no one, especially her sarcastic mother, believed her. Several times, she checked her voicemail and e-mail, hoping for an apology. But he sent none. She knew she would never hear from him again, but she did not know why. She reviewed every word and gesture, she could think of nothing that resembled an argument.
Muriel assumed she would never see Richard Madden again, but in this, she was wrong. The next week, he showed up on campus with one of her classmates. Richard gave a friendly hello and no more, as if he hardly knew her.
After that, Muriel rarely saw her father or Cathleen—and mostly spent vacations with her sorority friends. She disliked visiting the home that her father had made with Cathleen. Most of all, she couldn’t stand the sight of her step-sister, with her blonde hair and her doting mother. She never been close to Marianna, but now, she despised her and taunted her. Cathleen's daughter listened to the insults in silence—but she cried herself to sleep at night.
My mother was unsurprised about Richard Madden. “I never liked that boy,” she said. And for a while, we did not speak about Cathleen and her family.
Another two years passed, and Muriel went to Paris—the trip was supposed to last a few months. That is when Muriel disappeared. Her father hired a private detective to find Muriel. There were the usual false sightings and many dead ends, and eventually, the families gave up. They accepted her disappearance. Her father removed her pictures from the wall—and no one spoke of her by name.
Marianna, though, had blossomed. Despite her mother's opposition, she had entered a national fashion design contest and she had won. She was perched for success.
But Cathleen told me, Marianna rejected the idea that Muriel was lost forever. She had faith that Muriel would return eventually.
I debated about which part of the story to tell my mother-- Marianna's new found confidence or the disturbing disappearance of Muriel. Like many Jewish families, we had ghosts of our own and names that we never spoke. But I ended up telling my mother the whole story.
And after I had told her everything, my mother said:
“The real story isn't about Richard Madden and Muriel. It’s about the girls, Muriel and Marianna. That's the real love story. That's the one that no one else can see.
“Marianna will find her. Mark my words, Marianna will be the one. You'll see, years from now, she will not have forgotten her. She will never forget her step-sister. Marianna is not that kind of person. She will go through every city in Europe. She will never stop until she finds her. The girls will be re-united, and when they have children of their own, they will know each other and love each other. Marianna is the only one who can find her.”
You'll see, mark my words.