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Stepping Stones

chapter 4

by 

Carrie Michael

A few hours pass in which I am able to carefully plan everything that I will say and do over the next 24 hours.  Angela is coughing sporadically, but doesn’t seem to be feeling as down as she was this morning.  She is sitting next to me, contently sucking on the head of her little smurf, leaning into my side and staring out at the passing land.  I stroke her soft hair and remember how she looked the first time I saw her.   Her little face, the soft, feather-like wisp of hair on the top of her head, tiny little hands and feet, and those fingernails!  So tiny they barely existed!  God, I can’t believe how fast she is growing. 

“Next stop, Louisville Kentucky.  Ten minutes.”  The announcer’s voice causes Angela to look up at me with excitement.

“Tucky, Mommy?  Ann Maylan?”  I nod and hug her tightly to me, feeling my insides turning with something a little different than the excitement in Angela’s voice.

“Yes, Angel, we are almost there,” I say, throwing enthusiasm into my voice.  I want Angela to see this as an adventure, not something scary and threatening.

“Yaaaay!”  She squeals, jumping to her feet and holding her smurf up in true torch form.  I laugh hard at her victory stance and throw my hands up, cheering along with her.

 

            It is afternoon now, and we step off the train to face a small crowd of people searching around us for their loved ones.  A teenager races into the arms of an old couple who hug her tightly and then hold her out in front of them to take a look.  A business woman holds her cell phone tightly to her ear with a hand donning a diamond that is nearly blinding.  A few men in fatigues push their way around us and are greeted by similarly dressed men who are shouting, “Hey Boomer, hey Razor!” and shaking their hands fervently.  Angela is clutching my leg tightly, looking around her in awe. 

“Momma, Ann Maylan here?”  She asks, peering up at me.  I smooth her tangle of curls and pick her up, slinging the backpack over my other shoulder.

“No, she’s not…we have to go to her.”  I watch Angela’s inquisitive expression turn into a frown.

“Why?”  Her sweet little face looks so troubled, I have to laugh and hug her tight.

“Oh honey,” I breathe into her hair, and then looking at her say, “We have to take a cab to her house, that’s all!”  She sighs and her smile returns, along with a sharp cough into my shoulder.  “How do you feel?”

“I okay. I cough.”  I nod and bend down to grasp her little suitcase. 

            In front of the train station are about three cabs, and I pick the nicest looking one.  I only have fifty dollars left, and I know the cab ride will dwindle that down to twenty, so I might as well make it a nice cab ride.  “Twenty-two hundred Park Lane Drive North,” I tell the driver, “And take us through the park first.”  He turns on his meter and I watch the numbers creep higher as Angela stares out the window. 

            As we go through the park, I point out some of the huge houses looming above, explaining who lived in them when I was growing up and what they looked like inside, and Angela listens intently, as she so often does during story time, nodding and following my finger to where it is pointing.  I see a bend in the road coming, and my heart drops quickly into my stomach.  Above, amidst huge maples, oaks, and pines, stands the house where I grew up. 

            Angela notices my stare and asks, “Who there, Momma?” pointing at the big white house with yellow shutters and a porch that wraps around forever. 

            “I, uh…don’t know.” I say, staring up at the house as it slowly slips out of view.  I watch out of the back window like a child until I can no longer see the large trees surrounding the property.

            “You know, we have the biggest and most beautiful house on the lane,” Marilyn boasted to her young girlfriends one night.  She was having a slumber party, and I had to monitor five bratty twelve year olds while my parents went out to a fund raiser dinner.  “And my father is the richest man on the lane, too.”  I sat on the sofa and rolled my eyes, watching the other little girls as they listened intently, always wanting to be Marilyn’s friend.  She was the type of girl that other girls envied and hated all at the same time, yet they all were drawn to her for some reason. 

            “Marilyn, it isn’t nice for you to say that,” I reminded her, watching her cross her arms in front of her chest defiantly.  Her new pink pajamas looked crisp and uncomfortable.  “Sally lives right down the street, and I’m sure she thinks her house is just as nice.”  Marilyn turned to Sally.

            “Is that true?  Do you think your house is nicer than mine?”  Her voice was getting squeaky and loud, as it always did when she was being a snip.  Sally’s face fell and she blushed crimson.

            “N-no,” she stuttered, looking down, “I think your house is nice.  But I-I like my house, too,” she continued, fiddling with her fingernails.  The other girls were quiet and uncomfortable, but staring at the scene.  Marilyn was not one to back down.

            “What do y’all think?” she said, spreading her arms out and twirling around, “Isn’t my house the best?  If you were my FRIEND,” she spat toward Sally, “you would say it is so!”  All the other little girls nodded in agreement, siding with Marilyn, wanting her approval. 

            “Marilyn, of all the selfish and nasty things to say!” I said, jumping to my feet, “You nasty little snob!”  Sally had begun to cry, and Marilyn started to snicker at her, as did her little followers. 

            “Oh Sally,” Marilyn cooed, putting her arm around Sally’s shoulders, “I was only kidding.  Can’t you take a joke?”  Her voice was falsely sweet.  Sickening sweet.  Sally hiccupped through her tears and nodded, smiling weakly at Marilyn and the rest of the girls. 

Sally was the girl who always got the short end of the stick.  She was a little chubby, a little quiet, and a genuinely sweet girl.  I felt bad for her and demanded that Marilyn apologize for hurting her feelings.  Marilyn whispered sorry in her ear, and the other girls crowded around them, coaxing Sally to stop crying and getting her to laugh with tickles and tugs at her hair.   That was the first time I realized that Marilyn would never leave Louisville, and would follow the path that mother had so carefully laid out for her daughters.  It was also the night when I decided I wouldn’t walk that path.

We climb a steep and winding road leading from the park up into the neighborhoods above, and I tell Angela we are almost there, disguising the nervousness in my voice once again with excitement.  She is leaning against me, staring out at the beautiful houses, the beautiful cars parked in front of the houses, the happy children and their mothers or nannies  playing with them on front porches, the paid lawn services keeping everything neat and perfect and green.

                Pausing in front of a large black with the  “2200” and “Tobin” painted on it in big flowing script, the driver turns around and says, “This the one?”  I  mumble yes, staring down the long driveway.  Angela leaps up, coughing loudly and bouncing on the seat in glee.  I can only stare straight ahead, painting a smile on my face for Angela, at the enormous house ahead. 

            It is a beautiful white Victorian, one I remember some very old people living in all my life.  We weren’t allowed to get near the driveway as kids because they kept Doberman Pinschers as guard dogs and Daddy told us they would rip us apart.  And now my sister lives in that house.  Bright white with green shutters and a beautiful front porch that reached around the house and out of sight.  The front door  is made of beautiful cherry wood, with stained glass windows and beautiful brass handles.  Angela and I are both quiet, and the polite cab driver asks quietly for his fare.  I hand him his fare plus tip and he quickly gets out and removes our suitcases and bags from the trunk.  Angela  grabs my leg as we stand in front of the house, motionless, staring up at it.  Angela is staring admirably, and I am staring in fear. 

Marilyn opens the front door and stands there for a moment, looking at her poor sister and sick niece, and then she quietly walks out to us. I gather myself and brush my hair from my forehead.  “Marilyn,” I say, holding my head high, “Hello.”  Surprisingly, Marilyn gives me a stiff hug. 

“Hello Caly,” she says politely, as if I am one of those little girls at her party. 

“I’d like to introduce you to my daughter.  Marilyn, this is Angela.  Angela, this is your Aunt Marilyn.”  Angela holds up her little Smurf as a friendly offering, and Marilyn reaches to take it, but Angela quickly pulls it away and hugs it tightly. 

“Well it sure is nice to meet you,” Marilyn says, “I am so glad to have y’all here. And you may call me Miss Marilyn.  That is what proper southern children call their aunts and other ladies.”  Her voice has that same tight falseness, but I bypass that by gathering our bags.  I notice Marilyn wince when Angela lets out a loud seal cough.  I continue to hold my head up and carry our bags while commenting on what a beautiful house she has and how well kept the grounds are.  Angela is quiet and close to me, suddenly shy of Aunt Marilyn and her tight chirpy voice. 

I feel Marilyn’s surprise at my finishing school etiquette.  These are the things that will bring you to the level of class that you deserve,” Miss Theresa preached, “These are the proper manners for all high class young ladies to abide by.”  We all watched intently as she demonstrated the proper way to sit, the proper way to cross one’s legs, the proper way to hold one’s head—just a touch higher than those girls who were ‘less fortunate’ than us.  I rolled my eyes, and caught a glimpse of Marilyn intently focused on Miss Theresa’s  every word and move.  She ate it up, like any proper southern young lady should.  I learned it, remembered it, and mastered it, but never agreed with it and never embraced it. “These skills,” Miss Theresa went on, “Are the skills that will save you in those moments of insecurity and uncertainty.  If you can enter a room like a lady, the rest will fall into place.” 

And so I enter my sister’s world like a lady, clad in my old jeans and t-shirt, with a little girl that knows nothing of being a ‘southern lady' but will have to learn to survive here.  I wouldn’t ask that she buy into it, just that she learn it and use it when needed.

** Look for Chapter 5 of "Stepping Stones" on January 28, 2000! **

Copyright©2000 Carrie Michael