Iris Stern turned her car into the parking lot in front of the supermarket and sighed; there wasn't an empty place to be found. Of course not. It was three days before Thanksgiving! What was worse, she was going to be back here all over again tomorrow when she came to pick up the fresh turkey the supermarket was holding for her. She'd have to get up at the crack of dawn to make it ahead of the crowd.
A more organized woman would not have found herself in this predicament. For instance, Iris's daughter, Laura, would have been shopping and cooking and freezing side dishes for weeks. "You make the holiday so hard for yourself," Laura told her once, "doing it all at the last minute."
Iris had tried to explain that she couldn't make herself think about sweet potato casseroles and cranberry sauce when her mind was still full of the classes she was teaching at her college. She was a professor with a full course load, and she wanted to have all the exams graded, all the lectures given, and all the office appointments cleared from her calendar; then she could focus on sweet potatoes.
"But you need to learn to compartmentalize," Laura said. "It's simple." And for Laura it was.
It certainly had been for Iris's mother, Anna. Even today seven years after Mama's death--she'd died in 1972--Iris could still remember the ease with which Anna had run her home and family while devoting hours to her charities, and somehow always managing to look as if she'd just stepped out of a bandbox. There had been a time when Iris had compared herself to her mother and had felt woefully inadequate. And if she was honest about it, she still did a little, but not nearly as much as she once had, because she'd finally gathered up her courage and gone to graduate school to earn her PhD. Her degree was in special education--she'd always been a gifted teacher--and now she trained young people who were planning to go into the field themselves. To her surprise and delight, she'd become one of the most popular professors on her campus, and this success had made it easier to remember her mother's formidable skills as a cook and hostess. Skills that Laura, who looked exactly like Anna, had inherited.
If it hadn't been for Laura, Iris would not be racing back to the supermarket tomorrow for that fresh turkey. "We can't serve one that's been frozen, Mom!" Laura had protested, making it sound as if Iris had proposed feeding the family fast food from a hamburger place. Since Laura would be flying in from her home in Southern California the following evening and doing most of the cooking for the holiday meal, Iris had bowed to the voice of authority and ordered the unfrozen bird. Today she was shopping for the rest of the items on a list that Laura had dictated to her on the phone.
If she could ever manage to find a parking space! She'd already reached the end of the first row of parked cars with no luck. She made a careful turn around a blue station wagon that was sticking out slightly in the line of traffic and started down the next row at a snail's pace. Thank goodness she had plenty of time today.
Thanksgiving was Iris's favorite holiday; there was something so . . . undemanding about it. There were no presents to be bought and wrapped and then opened with false exclamations that this was exactly what you had wanted. There were no tiny candles to be blown out as you tried to smile about the creeping passage of time. And there were none of the more complicated feelings Iris sometimes had during the traditional Jewish holidays. Holidays that Iris's husband, Theo, refused to hold in their home. Theo had been born into a prominent Jewish family in Austria in the 1900s, and he had lost everyone, including his young wife and child, in the Holocaust. It had been more than three decades since those horrors, but he still could not forgive the God who had allowed such things to happen.
So it was Iris's second son, Jimmy, who, with his wife, Janet, did the honors for the Sterns on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hannuka and Passover. Theo did go with Iris to Jimmy and Janet's home to celebrate these holidays, as he had gone to her parents' house before Anna and Joseph died, and Iris had always told herself she was content with that; marriage was a series of compromises after all. And Janet did the holidays efficiently and smoothly, as she did everything. But lately Iris had started to feel . . . a little . . . well, "cheated" was probably the right word.
She remembered her mother on the holidays. Anna had presided over tables that groaned with the food she had cooked; the pot roasts with rich dark gravy, and crisp potato pancakes, the stuffed fish in silky jelly, carrots sweet with prunes, and apple strudels wrapped in crisp buttery crusts and running with cinnamon-flavored juices. On the holidays Mama's table had gleamed with the fine china, sparkling silverware, and crystal that had been bought for just such occasions. The grandest of grand occasions, because they were for the family.
Of course Iris would never manage that level of splendor, she knew that. But there were times when she thought perhaps she would like to create her own traditions. And perhaps her grandchildren would remember them fondly. She was in her fifties, with sixty looming, a middle-aged woman, although that was a misnomer because how many people lived to be a hundred and twenty? She had two grandchildren already, and hopefully there would be more. Suddenly it seemed very important that they have fond memories of her. Funny, how you woke up one day and wanted immortality when you never had it before.
But her feelings went deeper than that. Her religion, and the holidays that were such an integral part of it, had always been precious to her. She was like her father in that way. She could still see how his eyes would shine when he watched Mama bless the holiday candles on the first night of Passover. That moment was the best time of the year for him. It had been that way even during the Depression when they had to scrimp to get by--although Papa had been happier when Mama presided over their Seder table wearing the huge diamond ring he'd bought for her. He'd had to pawn it when they were broke, but when his fortunes had finally turned, the first thing he'd done was redeem it. When Passover came that year and the ring was once again sparkling on Mama's hand as she served food and poured wine, Iris knew that had been the proudest day of her father's life.
That was what the holidays were truly made of, little scraps of memory like that one. Some of them were purely joyful, some were more somber if there had been pain and loss during the year, but when you put them all together, over time they became the story of a family. And on the holy holidays your personal story was then added to the bigger one of your people that stretched back for four thousand years. It was a story that children absorbed without even knowing they were doing it, especially if it was told with humor and love over food cooked from old family recipes. Sometimes Iris felt that Janet's efficient gatherings, catered and served by professionals, were rather bloodless. Or maybe she was jealous.
And if you are, that's just plain foolish, she told herself sternly. Theo has made his wishes clear and you won't go against him. That's the marriage you have. Stop wasting your time thinking about all of this.
Besides, the holiday ahead of her was not Rosh Hashanah, or Passover. It was Thanksgiving. Cozy Thanksgiving, when the weather was just cold enough and the days were just dark enough to make it a pleasure to be indoors. Thanksgiving, that most American--and neutral--of all holidays. Theo loved it even more than Iris did and happily celebrated it in his home each year. And this year they were going to be even happier than usual because all of their children would be together under their roof for the first time in years. Given how busy and scattered the kids were it was nothing short of a miracle.
Iris spotted a parking place at the far end of the lot, and headed toward it. But at the last second, a white van slipped into it ahead of her. She resisted the temptation to pound on her horn and continued her slow round of the parking lot.
Of course Janet and Jimmy were coming for Thanksgiving; they lived in Manhattan, which was a forty-five-minute car ride away from Iris and Theo's home in the suburbs, and they and their little daughter, Rebecca Ruth, always celebrated Thanksgiving with Nannie and Grampy. Iris shook her head. Could there be a worse nickname for regal, old-world Theo? When Jimmy's wife had first suggested that Rachel call him Grampy, he had actually winced. But Janet hadn't noticed. Janet was the salt of the earth; not only was she a successful doctor--an anesthesiologist--she was a fine mother and a conscientious daughter-in-law. But Iris couldn't help feeling that she was a little . . . stolid.
"What does Janet laugh at?" Iris had once asked Laura. She and her daughter talked on the phone every week, and Iris enjoyed the calls thoroughly. "I don't think she has much of a sense of humor. Otherwise she'd understand how funny it is to watch poor Theo trying to answer to 'Grampy.'"
"I know," Laura had said. "But Jimmy doesn't have a sense of humor either. So they're well matched."
"Do you really think so? Because sometimes I wonder, you know. Janet is so certain about everything, and Jimmy has never been a fighter . . ."
"What on earth would he have to fight about? He and Janet are practically the same person." In her mind's eye, Iris could see Laura on the other end of the phone ticking off her points on her fingers. "They're both doctors, and they love to talk shop. They both agree they only want one child. They both adore living in Manhattan, and they're both passionate about the opera. They're perfect for each other. Even you can't worry about them."
After that Iris hadn't--at least, she hadn't worried as much. Laura could always do that for her.
A large delivery truck cut in front of Iris, forcing her to stop. She looked in her rearview mirror and saw that she couldn't back up because the cars were lined behind her. There was nothing to do but wait for the men, sweating in the cold, to unload their cargo onto the loading dock of the supermarket.
Once again, Iris went back to her thoughts. I wish just for a moment I could get inside my children's minds. So I'd be sure that they are all right. But do we ever know that about anyone we love? Especially our children. Those little creatures we held and rocked and fed, grow up to be full of surprises.
That was certainly true of her oldest son, Steven, arguably the most brilliant of her children. Throughout his teens and early twenties, he had been a rebel, sullen, and bearded, with long hair that was seldom clean--the uniform of his time, although he would have been furious at anyone who suggested that. He had been passionately opposed to the Vietnam War, which Iris had thought was understandable and perhaps even laudable, although it had infuriated Theo.
But then Steven had taken his politics too far, even for Iris. He'd dropped out of college and joined a radical group that "protested" in ways that were downright terrifying. Iris shuddered, remembering the torment of those years when she'd been afraid to look at the evening news, because the young face suffused with rage and screaming obscenities as its owner was taken off to jail might be her son's. Eventually Steven had been arrested, nearly breaking his father's heart and causing a schism in his parents' marriage. Or, to be more honest, he had widened one that had already been there. This had led to an accident that had cost Theo, a plastic surgeon, the use of his hand, and his career, and . . . Iris stopped herself. She never let herself think about the days and months after Theo's accident.
It had been a dark, bleak time, but they had weathered it. With an amazing effort of courage and will, Theo had retrained himself in a new medical discipline, and become an oncologist. And she had become Professor Iris Stern. Together they had discovered the gift of forgiveness and their marriage had endured. Enough said.
And Steven? Iris felt a smile creep over her face. Her son, the rebel, who had once wanted to tear up the Constitution, was now . . . a lawyer. "We have to change the system from within," he'd told his bemused parents. He'd had this epiphany after the worst of his rebellion was ended and he was working as a researcher for a liberal think tank in Washington, DC. Finding the ivory tower atmosphere too limiting, he'd gotten his law degree--in record time, Iris thought proudly--and he'd gone to work for a not-for-profit legal firm called People's Prosperity. They only represented clients who were desperate and unable to pay for their services, so Steve still hadn't sold out to The Man, but--as his sister, Laura, pointed out--he was wearing a shirt and tie every day. And he seemed happy with his life at last.
"At least, I hope he's happy," Iris had said to Laura six months earlier during their weekly phone call.
"I think he's lonely," Laura had said.
"There's plenty of time for him to meet someone. There's no hurry about that."
There had been a pause on the other end of the line. "Actually he has met someone, Mom," Laura said. "Her name is Christina. He told me about her."
And not for the first time, Iris had been aware of how much everyone in the family confided in Laura. Laura never judged, and she never gave her opinion unless asked, but her advice was usually sound. Anna had been like that. In the worst of times she could get through to the Stern kids when their frantic parents couldn't. Lucky Mama, who had been not only beautiful and charming, but wise. Lucky Laura, who was so like her.
"Steve never said a word to us," Iris had said, trying not to sound hurt.
"I know. He asked me to smooth the way for him first. Bringing a girl home to meet his parents isn't easy for a son."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Heartwood by Belva Plain. Copyright © 2011 by Belva Plain. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.