Because Polly Lodge liked to look on the bright side, the word she chose to describe her mother-in-law was challenging,
as in “the ferret makes a challenging pet.” So when Polly’s only child, David, married, Polly vowed to be the best mother-in-law she could possibly be, and the least interfering.
Sometimes this was a struggle. But even though her son’s wife, Amy, was a week overdue for the birth of Polly’s first grandchild, Polly did not phone David and Amy every day. Of course they would call her when the baby was born! In the meantime, she didn’t so much sleep at night as levitate a few inches off her bed in a trance of anticipation, every instinct straining to hear the ringing of the phone.
And then the phone rang.
It was the middle of the night. Polly lurched up and grabbed for the handset, knocking all her books off the bedside table in the process.
David’s voice was gorgeously smug. “Hello, Grandma.”
Polly shrieked. “Amy had the baby!” She switched on her bedside lamp and sat up, leaning against the headboard. From the foot of her bed, her ancient basset hound, Roy Orbison, shot her a longsuffering look, then lay his head down between his paws and resumed snoring.
“She did indeed.” David’s laugh was proud.
David and Amy’s insistence on having the baby born at home with a midwife had worried Polly, but she’d kept quiet and now the joy in her son’s voice signaled that all was well. Polly fell back among her pillows, weak with relief. “Stop it, David! Don’t torture me!” They’d also decided, when they had the first ultrasound, not to be told the sex of the baby, nor to discuss the names they were considering.
“Jehoshaphat Feast Piper has just arrived on planet earth, weighing nine pounds, three ounces, and bellowing like a bull.”
The string of unfamiliar syllables made Polly blink. “Jeho-huh?”
“Jehoshaphat was a Biblical king, famed for his righteousness.”
“Oh, David!” Tears streamed down Polly’s face. “A little boy
! Oh, darling, congratulations! How’s Amy?”
“She’s beautiful.” Now David’s voice was choked. “She was awesome, Mom.”
“Oh, I’m sure she was! Please tell her how proud I am of her. Give her a hug for me. And lots of kisses for everyone! Is there anything I can do?”
“No, thanks. I think we’re going to try to snatch a few hours of sleep. We’re exhausted. Well, Amy is.”
“I’m so happy for you all, David. I love you all so much!”
“Thanks, Mom. We’ll phone in the morning.”
Polly clicked off the phone and looked at the clock. Three seventeen. Her grandson had been born sometime around three seventeen on September 20. Her grandson. Little Jehoshaphat.
“Stop it!” Polly snapped at herself. She threw back her covers and flung herself from her bed with such energy she disturbed Roy Orbison, who, for an old dog with sagging skin, could conjure up an impressive array of expressions. Right now he resembled an exasperated hausfrau, hair in curlers, arms folded over her Wagnerian chest.
“Well, I’m sorry!” Polly told the dog. “But you’re a dog, and I’m overwhelmed, and you’re all I’ve got at the moment, so you can just bear up and sacrifice some sleep to keep me company!”
Roy Orbison sagged a bit, morphing into his Jean-D’Arc-at-thecross pose but stayed at attention.
“In the first place,” Polly muttered, reaching for her silk robe and pulling it on over her nightgown, “isn’t Jehoshaphat an awfully big name for a little boy? ‘Stop, Jehoshaphat, don’t put that raisin up your nose!!’ ” She slid her feet into her slippers. “And what if he goes through that prepubescent plump phase David went through? You know
his nickname will be Phat! Although,” Polly stopped tapping the top of her head as she did more and more these days when she was trying to remember something, “isn’t Phat cool now? I mean, the word itself? Something I saw on television . . . But never mind what’s cool now
, it’s bound to be out of style when Jehoshaphat is a preteen.”
Roy Orbison fell over on his side, groaning.
“But we’re not
going to be critical, are we, Roy?” Flicking on lights as she went, Polly headed down the stairs. She wouldn’t get back to sleep now. She didn’t have to call Roy Orbison to join her; the animal was catatonic unless he suspected someone was headed for the kitchen, in which case he became Wonder Dog. Sure enough, she heard a thud as he hit the floor, then the clicking of his nails. In the kitchen, she poured herself a mug of milk and popped it into the microwave. “Oh, Tucker,” she said aloud, “if only you were still alive.”
Her husband, Tucker, was David’s stepfather, so this baby would be his stepgrandson. Still, Tucker would have shared every ounce of Polly’s joy. Oh, she could imagine just how he would smile! Tucker had died two years ago, and while the heart-searing grief had diminished, Polly still missed him every moment of every day.
The microwave beeped. She took out the mug and held it in her hands. So nice and warm.
Roy Orbison came waddling into the kitchen. The vets warned Polly the dog was overweight. But he was fifteen years old, for heaven’s sake! He deserved a treat now and then. Instead of collapsing in his usual heap of wrinkles, he sat at her feet and cocked his head at Polly, doing his best loyal-Fido-at-his-mistress’s-feet impersonation.
“You are such a fake,” Polly said fondly. “But all right. I’ll add a celebratory spot of brandy to my milk, and you can have a great big dog biscuit. Okay?”
Roy Orbison wagged his tail and passed gas.
In the morning, Polly showered, dressed, and breakfasted, and it was only eight o’clock. She wouldn’t call David and Amy yet, they might still be sleeping, and she couldn’t possibly sit at her desk and accomplish anything, so she phoned her best friend, Franny, to share the good news, and then she went up to the attic to dig out the boxes of baby things she’d been saving for thirty years.
By noon, Polly had not only found the various little rompers and blankets and quilts, she’d put them in the washing machine and had them tumbling away in the dryer, and still David hadn’t phoned. She couldn’t wait any longer. She dialed the Pipers’ house.
David answered in a whisper. “Oh, hi, Mom. How are you?”
“Impatient!” Polly said with a laugh. “David, when can I come see little Jehoshaphat?”
David paused. “Amy wants you to wait a couple of days. She’s concerned about strange germs.”Strange germs?
Polly’s jaw dropped. “Amy thinks I’ve got strange germs
“Not just you, Mom. Everyone.”
“Oh, David, that’s—”
“Humor us, Mom. Amy’s exhausted. We all are.”
Polly took a deep breath. “All right. What about tomorrow?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll let you know.”
Polly felt her lip quiver. She felt cold-shouldered, left out. “But David, I can’t wait
to see him.”
“I know, Mom. I can’t wait for you to see him, either. He’s beautiful.”
Thank God for her garden! Polly hung up the phone, slid into her gardening clogs, and stomped outside. She’d already planted her new bulbs and put most of the outdoor furniture away, so she headed to the back of her yard to prepare her little vegetable plot for winter. She worked away furiously, thrusting her spade into the ground, turning over the lumpy soil, carrying heavy piles from the compost heap and mixing it in. Her garden would be better for this next spring. Plus, it kept her from pulling out her hair.
Relatives! No wonder Einstein had named his incomprehensible hypothesis the Theory of Relativity. E=MC2 was easy, compared to her own familial galaxy.
Polly had grown up in South Boston where her father was a schoolteacher, her mother a homemaker. Both parents were kind, loving, and as boring as turtles. Their lives clicked reliably through the familiar, repetitive routines of their days and anything else made them nervous. They never yearned for adventure, wealth, or fame. Hell, they nearly broke out in a rash when they had to travel to the middle of the state to see Polly’s brother, and two years later, Polly graduate from U. Mass, Amherst. Polly’s father died young of emphysema brought on by too many cigarettes, Polly’s mother just two months later, of a heart attack brought on, Polly was certain, by the stress of being without his familiar presence.
Naturally, since Polly’s parents never went anywhere and were totally predictable, Polly’s brother became a geologist, working in Alaska, Dubai, and any other location as far as possible from South Boston, while Polly married Scott Piper, a man so fabulously interesting, Polly’s mother took to biting her nails and weeping during dinner. Polly’s father simply hid in his basement workshop as if it were a bunker.
Scott was older, unpredictable and, because he wrote travel books for a living, seldom on one continent. For a few years, Polly traveled with Scott to Mexico, where she got some great silver jewelry, to Peru, where she got dysentery, and to Newfoundland, where she got pregnant.
Scott didn’t want to be grounded by a child, and Polly didn’t want to lug a baby around in a basket she’d woven from banana leaves and twigs. Plus, Scott had the disconcerting habit of sleeping with indigenous women. Polly returned to Boston to be near college friends during her pregnancy, and it was her college friend Franny who stood by her side during labor and childbirth. Polly didn’t even know where Scott was then, and when he got the news of the birth of his son, he sent her an African fertility statue but didn’t bother to come home or even phone. A year later, Polly divorced him.
In the early years, Polly and David lived, first, in a small apartment, and later in a little rented house. During the day, while her mother babysat David, Polly worked as a secretary for a Ford dealership on Norwood’s “Auto Mile” on the outskirts of Boston. The owner had three daughters and a wife who couldn’t thread a needle. So one day when business was slow, Polly volunteered to help when some of the girls’ clothing was torn. If her mother had taught her anything, it was how to mend. She did it at first for no charge, because it was easy enough to do at night while David slept, but very quickly the owner’s wife asked for Polly to repair or alter other clothing, and her
friends began to ask if Polly could sew just a few little things for them. The other women, busy as teachers or lawyers or accountants, didn’t have the time, experience, or patience to reattach a button, take up a hem, let out a cuff, or stitch darts into a skirt. Polly agreed, but she would have to charge them, and was astonished at how grateful they were to pay any fee for what came as easily as breathing for Polly. Before she knew it, she was able to leave her secretarial job, work full time in her own home as a seamstress, and live, if not in luxury, at least in comfortable financial security.
Every year or so, Scott dropped in to say hello, presenting David with a musk ox tooth or a box carved from Siberian birch, but that was the extent of his interaction with his son. A few years ago, Scott had died in a scuba diving accident. Scott’s own parents had both died young, without seeing their grandson, so that pretty much took care of that side of David’s family tree. Because Polly felt vaguely guilty about providing her son with so few relatives, she gave David a cat and a dog who turned out to be excellent substitutes.
For years, she sewed all day, spent her nights feeling lonely, going on blind dates that made her feel even lonelier, or visiting her increasingly withdrawn parents, who seemed perversely pleased by Polly’s difficult life because it proved what they’d told her that marrying that wandering Scott would bring only doom. When they died, she grieved, but she also felt an unexpected sense of relief. Now, no matter what, she could no longer disappoint them.
Then a miracle took place.
Polly met Tucker Lodge. They fell in love, and married, and lived almost happily ever after. Tucker loved David as if he were his own, and David worshipped Tucker. Their marriage had a truly fairy-tale quality, except that in place of a wicked stepmother, Polly had a malevolent mother-in-law.
During the eighteen years of her marriage to Tucker, the only times Polly ever considered herself unhappy or unlucky were when she was around Claudia, who considered Polly deeply inferior to her son and never attempted to hide the fact. Sometimes Claudia’s sheer intentional meanness made Polly’s heart cringe and jump like a beaten animal. Some nights Polly crept away from her sleeping Tucker, hid herself in the downstairs bathroom, and cried her heart out. And she swore to herself that when she
became a mother-in-law, she would be loving, accepting, and kind.
Then, two years ago, David told Polly he was going to marry Amy Anderson, and while Polly smiled and congratulated her son, she mentally gagged like an old cat choking on a fur ball. Not that Polly looked down on Amy. She just found Amy so strange.
Amy was a Birkenstocks, batik, and braids kind of girl, who drifted through the world in unusual garments she and her mother made on their family farm, which had been in the same family for generations. A strict vegetarian, Amy was so soft-spoken and gently, dreamily healthy, she made Polly want to swear like a sailor, smoke cigarettes, and inject ice cream directly into her veins. When Polly, David, and Amy were together, Amy said very little but stared at David with her large brown eyes, oozing a rather creepy intelligence, like some small, alert brown bat.
The Anderson family grew organic produce—strawberries, tomatoes, and squash—on their hundred acres of land forty-five minutes west of Boston. They made jam and chutneys and bread to sell in their country store, along with handcrafted dolls and handknit wool caps and mittens. It was an idyllic rural life, with many charms, and Polly believed it gave David a sense of stability that had been missing from his early life, when his adventuring father disappeared into unknown lands and his anxious mother was bent over the dining room table day and night, sewing the curtains and clothing that supported herself and her son. It was Amy’s family, Polly thought ruefully, that made David feel, finally, at home.
After college, David had worked in the same bank where his stepfather had been vice president, but when he became engaged to Amy, he quit the bank to work at the Anderson Farm and General Store. Polly was surprised, but not upset. She had suspected that David had gone to work with Tucker partly to please him and partly because he had no clear idea what he really wanted to do. She knew from her own experience how children choose different lives from their parents’. She tried to be tolerant as she saw her son change. She was just so unprepared for the changes.
At Christmas, she gave David and Amy beautiful cashmere sweaters, only to have them handed back to her, still in the box. “We make our own garments,” Amy had informed her with the gently reproving righteousness of an Amish elder. “Or, if necessary, we buy them at the secondhand shops.” Polly thought of all the pleasure David had taken, after being promoted at the bank, in buying several handsome suits from Louis of Boston. She stared at her son, whoonly smiled placidly. She reminded herself of Claudia, and kept her mouth shut.
For David’s birthday, Polly wanted to take him and Amy out to dinner at Locke-Ober’s, a posh Boston restaurant. Amy had sweetly objected. “We don’t eat at restaurants. We don’t believe in supporting the gluttonous American consumer economy.”
Polly had cleared her throat and asked, meekly, if, in that case, could she invite Amy and her family to her house for a birthday celebration for David?
Yes, Amy had said, that would be nice. As long as Polly understood they would eat only organic foods and no sugar. Polly had looked at her son, who had been born with a sweet tooth as fierce as her own. David had smiled back serenely.
“I know!” Polly had offered, without a hint of desperation. “Could I treat you two to a weekend on the Maine coast?”
Amy had wrinkled her forehead in gentle alarm, as if Polly had proposed sending them to a nudist colony. “Why would we want to go to Maine when we have so much beauty around us?”
David had always loved the ocean, finding physical and spiritual energy in its blue tumbling and surge. But now David sat so quietly, Polly privately wondered whether Amy had cut out his tongue.
“Okay, David,” she asked, in light hearted tones, “what would
you like for a birthday present?”
“We need a new tractor for the farm,” David told her, quickly adding, “I don’t mean you should pay for the entire thing, but perhaps you could give us whatever money you were thinking of spending on my birthday, and we could add it to our savings toward the tractor.”
A tractor? Her son had a degree in economics and he wanted a tractor? He hadn’t even played with tractors as a child. Was he brainwashed, Polly wondered? Had he joined a cult?
Whatever had happened, he seemed happy, so she thought of Claudia and kept her mouth shut.
David and Amy were married on a sunny July day on the Anderson farm. David wore clean but grass-stained chinos and a peasant shirt embroidered by Amy. Amy wore a see-through natural hemp garment, through which her breasts and belly showed in all their pregnant glory. Tucker’s mother, David’s stepgrandmother Claudia, was invited, and Polly, squeezing between the Scylla of Claudia’s bitter formality and the Charybdis of Amy’s organic purity, offered to drive Claudia out to the farm. Claudia accepted, and wore a suit and high heels even though Polly had cautioned her that the wedding would be outside. David and Amy walked hand in hand to stand in front of the minister—a sight which brought tears to Polly’s eyes—they looked so beautiful, so innocent, like Adam and Eve at the beginning of the world! Beside her, Claudia stiffened. The moment the ceremony was over, Claudia turned toward Polly.
“You didn’t tell me the girl was pregnant. Nor that she’s an exhibitionist.”
Several people standing near them cast startled looks at Claudia.
“Oh, Claudia,” Polly began, soothingly.
“I’ll wait for you in the car,” Claudia said, and stalked away.
Let her wait, Polly thought rebelliously. She followed the party to the reception table set out in the barnyard, toasted the newlyweds with a glass of mouth-puckering homemade Anderson raspberry wine, kissed the bride and groom, and hugged Katrina and Buck Anderson. Standing alone, she surveyed the crowd, realizing only now how few of David’s old chums were present. Had they not been invited? Her opinion about the wedding had not been requested, so she’d not offered. But now she felt even more strongly that her son had been indoctrinated into a strange sect.
She smiled at everyone, then, claiming that Claudia, who was in her eighties after all, didn’t feel well, took her leave, feeling, as she walked away from the crowd, like an outcast.
She drove Claudia back to her home in the charming, WASPy suburb of Dover, listening in resignation as Claudia criticized the wedding and each one of its participants. She was too tired and depressed to argue.
Finally they reached Claudia’s enormous old house on Madison Street.
“Thank you for coming,” Polly said to Claudia. “I know David was glad you were there.”
“I doubt that very much.” Claudia undid her seatbelt and opened the car door.
“I’ll phone you when the baby’s here,” Polly called out cheerfully.
“If you wish,” Claudia replied. “It’s of no particular interest to me.” Without a backward glance, Claudia strode up the sidewalk and into her house.
Now Polly leaned on her spade, watching the sky turn indigo. Her back ached pleasantly and the outdoor labor had filled her with a mild euphoria and a sense of accomplishment. A fat orange sun rolled low in the sky, casting a benevolent glow on the earth, and the air was sweet and chill, with a bracing fall tang. I’ll phone Claudia, Polly decided, to tell her about Jehoshaphat.
Why bother? she asked herself.
Because, Polly told herself, I believe in love, all kinds of love.
She believed in romantic love, of course, and how could she not, when she had been married to a man she loved passionately for eighteen years? Even before she met Tucker, she’d believed in all kinds of love. Her faith had infused her life.
Maternal love, she believed in, beyond doubt, because her only child, David, had, over the thirty years of his life,brought her the most profound joys, even though he also had sent her into some of her most extreme fits of insanity.
And brotherly love, or general love, whatever it could be called, Polly believed in that, too. At some point in her life she had come to a kind of bedrock belief that all life was a struggle between good and evil, darkness and light, love and hate. She firmly believed that every individual’s actions tipped the balance toward good or evil, and that if there was anything she, as one individual, could do, it would be always to try to choose the good, even when she found it
So she would not let herself pout because she hadn’t been invited out to see her grandchild. She would put away her gardening tools and pour herself a glass of wine and rejoice that her son had gained a wife and a tractor and a boxed set of relatives, and now a son of his own. She would be pleasant to her mother-in-law and respectful of her daughter-in-law. She would wait patiently to hold her grandchild in her arms.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Hot Flash Club Strikes Again by Nancy Thayer. Copyright © 2004 by Nancy Thayer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.