Friday morning arrived before I knew it. Let’s just say the house was not how I wanted it to look at all. Actually, to assume I was embarrassed is putting it very lightly.
Phyllis and Val arrived precisely when they said they would. At least they were reliable people.
Val Lutz was robust and kind of a jolly guy. He was quick to embrace Liev and tell him how much he’d missed him. The kids took to him immediately. I could really see why Liev called Val “dad.”
Phyllis seemed like she was a bit on the serious side. She smiled and everything and wasn’t stand-offish. But she wasn’t as quick to laugh or to give a hug. She touched Liev’s shoulder and told him how proud she was of him and his family, which was nice.
I felt a little out of place. You could say, though, that I wasn’t trying very hard. All I could think about was how filthy the house was and how unkempt the children were looking on top of it all.
Val gave Liev another hug, enthusiastically patting him on the back at the same time. I did smile at that. It reminded me of my own dad, Marvin, doing much the same thing with everyone he saw.
Then my worst fear of the day came true. Phyllis started cleaning! She hadn’t even taken off her coat yet and she was gathering all the dirty laundry. I forgot she knew her way around this house as it had belonged to Gramps (her father).
“You don’t have to do that,” I meekly protested.
She waved a hand at me and said, “Nonsense, I don’t mind.”
Well, I mind, I wanted to shout.
Liev didn’t seem to notice my distress. What should I do? Should I stop her? How would I do that?
My mind was racing a million miles a minute and my embarrassment at the dirty house turned into anger. How dare she! They were supposed to be here visiting with their son and his family and she has started cleaning? The gall! The audacity!
I tried very hard and with great difficulty to gather myself before following her downstairs to the laundry room.
By the time I got there, she had already loaded the washer and was adding the detergent.
This lady! I clenched my fists at my sides. I could feel my cheeks beginning to burn.
“Really, Phyllis, you don’t need to do that.” My voice shook despite the fact I was trying really hard not to show how upset I was.
“Oh my dear!” she exclaimed when she saw my flushed cheeks. “I was only trying to help. Please, accept my apology.”
Of course, she had just disarmed me with one sentence. What was I so mad about? If I had to admit anything to myself, it was that I was angry that I couldn’t keep up with anything and that the house looked like this in the first place. I was pissed that my mother-in-law, whom I’d never met before, had seen this. I should be grateful that she pitched in.
But I still felt…. insulted somehow.
Felling deflated, I let my shoulders slump. My appearance couldn’t have been described as anything less than gloomy, I’m sure. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry. The house shouldn’t have looked like this for company. Or even for my family.”
Her expression softened, just like Liev’s does when he looks at me. “I’m not judging you. For goodness’ sake, you have four little children! I mean, really, I can’t imagine how you accomplish anything. I really only was trying to help.”
I tried to smile but I knew I wasn’t quite pulling it off.
She patted my hand lightly. “Let’s see what those children are up to, shall we? I highly doubt Val is capable of keeping them out of trouble!”
I followed Phyllis upstairs and found Liev playing the piano. Jilly and Leo were in their walkers and Rachel was on her play mat. Daylynn was in one of the baby swings, fussing, so I picked her up and joined the rest of the family around the piano.
As the children played and the adults sang, my anger dissipated a little. This was a nice family. And I was lucky to be a part of it.
Who was I kidding? If I was so lucky, why did I feel like I couldn’t breathe? Why was I so angry all the time? Why did it feel as if a vice grip had a hold of my heart and lungs, making them hurt?
What I really wanted was for all of this noise to stop!
The next morning was the usual hectic thing, times two more people. I was up before dawn feeding babies, bathing them, clothing them and finally getting them settled for a short while so I could get Leo and Jilly up, bathed and dressed.
Liev made pancakes for breakfast as it was inexpensive and could feed a large crowd.
After breakfast, we bundled the children up and went outdoors. Phyllis and Val wanted to see what we’d done with the old place. They really seemed to enjoy exploring the outbuildings and meeting the animals.
Val was very animated, swinging his arms about and loudly telling Liev a story about an adventure he and Phyllis had experienced in Shang Simla. Boy, would I like to go there someday.
Maybe when these babies were older? Much older.
I sighed inwardly.
I moved a few steps away, my booted feet crunching on the snow. It was the first snow of the season and my first snow ever. Like a little cloud, my breath hung in the air in front of me and my cheeks turned red from the crisp air.
I kind of liked it.
Jilly snuggled into me to keep warm and I gave her a small hug.
“The kids are getting cold,” I said to Liev. “Maybe we should take them inside.”
“Nonsense,” he said smoothly. “They’re enjoying it out here and it’s good for them.”
This was a really stupid time but for what seemed like no reason at all, my eyes filled with tears. I mean, I didn’t boohoo cry all over the place and carry on but I just couldn’t control them as they rolled out of my eyes and down my freezing cold cheeks.
Phyllis perked up at this and suddenly joined the conversation, taking everyone aback. Especially her son.
“What’s wrong? Your wife is worried that the babies are too cold and she wants them back in the house, but you just brushed her concerns off,” she abruptly shouted. “The woman has four small children and not a moment’s peace! Sure, you help with things like breakfast, but where are you when they need to be bathed or held or put to bed? The least you can do is take her concerns seriously!”
Liev shrank back from her as if he’d been struck. “Jeez, ma, I help!”
“He really does,” I injected, hoping to calm the situation.
“Well, I only had one child and it was hard as heck trying to keep up! I can’t even imagine dealing with two sets of twins so close together in age!” She turned on him again. “You listen here, son! You take these four babies and get them warmed up. Memphis and I are going inside to have a cup of tea.”
And with that, she pushed Rachel into his arms, then she took Jilly from me and gave her to Val. “Now, you boys take good care of them. We’ll see you in a while!”
I was still stunned as Phyllis shooed the men inside with the children and shooed me downstairs to the kitchen. She put the kettle on and turned toward me with a conspiratorial smile.
“Let them see what it’s like. There’s two of them and you’ve been doing this with only one of you!”
I felt a little laugh escape from my throat. “Honestly, it’s not all that bad.”
Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “No, we’re going to enjoy this moment without husbands and children. We’re going to have a nice cup of tea and chat.”
I must say, the tea did wonders for me. Or was it having someone to talk to who understood?
“Please don’t take this the wrong way. I meant what I said when I told you I wasn’t judging you.”
“What is it you want to say?” I asked, dread filling my stomach. Did she hate me? Was I a worse mother and wife than even I imagined?
She smiled softly then, apparently deep in thought. “I want to tell you something about myself that may help you now.”
“When Liev was born, I was really young and married to his father Thom. Liev was a wonderful baby but there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t put my finger on. I became angry all the time over things that were so little, they shouldn’t have provoked me at all and normally wouldn’t have.”
This was sounding familiar. “What happened?”
“I became very frustrated. All the time. I felt like I could explode at any moment. I wasn’t enjoying my husband’s company any longer and I virtually ignored Liev. Now, I know you’re not ignoring your children. I can see quite plainly that you’re very attentive to them and even to Liev. I just want to tell you how it was for me and what I did about it. Okay?”
Intrigued, I nodded.
She told me then a story about how Thom didn’t seem as interested in her as he was before the baby. He’d begun to act jealous of the time she spent with Liev. She had become more and more irritable, to the point that Thom began to spend much less time with her. She felt alone and miserable.
“I cried all the time; I couldn’t sleep or eat. I was constantly afraid that I was a terrible mother and I felt so inadequate. It didn’t help that all I could think about was that since giving birth, my life had changed drastically, yet his didn’t seem to have changed at all. Back then, they had different terms for things. But what I had was postpartum depression.” She paused as I considered this. “Memphis, you’ve had four babies, all close together. I’m no doctor and I’m not saying this is for certain what you’re dealing with, but I think it would be good for you to speak to your doctor about how you’ve been doing. Whatever is going on, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
I don’t know why all of this didn’t send me through the roof with anger. Probably because it was really making sense to me. While what Phyllis had gone through didn’t match me one hundred percent, I’d had this underlying anger I couldn’t control since not long after I’d given birth to Leo and Jilly. I’d blamed feeling this way on what had happened with Keniesha but perhaps it was more than a fight with my sister.
As I considered all of this, something unexpected happened. Relief poured over me, washing a lot of the anxiety away. Phyllis was definitely on to something. And it sure wouldn’t hurt to ask Dr. Sommers about this. It would be such a comfort to have a good way to cope with these hostile feelings for a change.
Phyllis was smiling in the same way Liev did which made me appreciate her all the more. She wasn’t being forceful or telling me I was a loser because of all of this. She was coming from the perspective of having been there herself.
“Thank you,” I said in earnest.
She patted my hand. “If I can ever help in any way, I’d be more than glad to.”
We were silent for a while as we sipped our tea. Then I dared to say, “If you don’t mind my asking… Liev has said such good things about both you and Val and also about his dad, Thom…”
Her smile crinkled the edges of her eyes now. “I was prepared to talk to you about this. You’re wondering what happened?”
I nodded sheepishly. “Liev doesn’t talk much about the past and I guess I’m curious.”
“Thom was a really good man. He just wasn’t a good husband. He loved us very much, I think.” She shrugged. “I’d been somewhat cruel to him, accusing him of never being home and not being particularly understanding that he had to work long hours to support us. He was somewhat cruel to me in not understanding what it was like to care for a newborn baby and the kind of attention Liev needed from me. He was a bit like a child himself in that respect, always wanting all the attention. Anyway, we decided to go our separate ways when Liev was still very young.”
“So it was amicable, then?”
“I suppose it became that way a while after it happened. At first, we vehemently argued and I hated him. I couldn’t imagine despising anyone more than I despised him. But after a time, things simmered down and we were able to accept each other for who we were. He was one of my dearest friends until the day he died… Even though he was also one of the reasons Val ended up in prison.”
I gasped, completely forgetting my own worries. “Prison?”
“Oh, yes, the big house.” She poured out more tea and stirred some sugar into her cup as she spoke. “I met Val the summer after my divorce from Thom. He was a land developer and such a big shot. I was immediately drawn to him. We were married when Liev was five years old. Val always loved Liev.”
Putting my cup down, I nodded. It was completely apparent that Liev and Val had a great relationship. “Was Thom jealous of Val? Did he do something terrible to get Val put away?”
She laughed prettily and dabbed her mouth with her napkin. “Heavens no! Val was greedy and did a rotten thing. Of course, I didn’t know any of that. I was infuriated when Thom told me what he’d uncovered because I was sure it was all a terrible mistake. But Thom had been right and Val had to pay the price.”
I was in complete shock. “What did Val do?” Visions of a younger Val, wearing one of those full faced burglar masks and carrying
a knife – no, a gun, crept into my mind. Had he been a bank robber? A car thief? Then it hit me and I gasped again. Had he killed someone? Unconsciously, I put a hand over my heart and waited with baited breath.
Her eyes twinkled as she watched me. “Val is, for the most part, a good man. He has a kind heart and loves his family. But, as a young man, in the pursuit of getting rich quick, he did some unscrupulous things with his business. Things that he wouldn’t dream of doing now. He hesitated to do them then, but instead of fighting his greed, he gave in to it. Since prison, however, he’s earned money the old fashioned way, thank heavens.”
From her purse, she pulled out a worn page from a newspaper. It was yellowing and heavily crinkled. Clearly, she’d held onto this scrap of paper for a good, long time. “Read the article. It will explain what happened better than I ever could. I brought it with me because, being new to the family, and knowing my son well enough to know he probably didn’t mention any of this, I thought you’d find it interesting.”
“You never tried to forget this or cover any of it up?” I asked, amazed. My first instinct would be to pretend it never happened, move somewhere no one knew me and change my name!
“No, why would I? This was a huge event in my life and a large part of who I am now is because this happened. Val and I almost got divorced because of this. Instead, we chose to let it bring us together. In time, we overcame the scandal and the years Val was away from us. This changed Val’s life and, in turn, it changed my own. We decided this incredibly negative thing would instead become something positive for us.”
“But how could this ever be a positive thing?”
Her eyes became distant as if she was living the moment again. “He realized how much he loved us and how close he’d come to losing us because of this very stupid thing he’d done. In turn, because he let this change him, I realized I had a real life partner who would do everything in his power not to let something like this happen again to his family. I suggested we leave Storybrook and start a new life elsewhere. He considered this for several months before deciding that part of regaining my trust again meant that he had to stay right here and pay everyone back.”
Wow, I thought. I sadly couldn’t think of a time I hadn’t run away from a problem and this one was so much bigger than any I’d ever faced.
“So you forgave him?”
“I didn’t forgive him that night. Nor did I forgive him that year. After a time, my father, who had let Liev stay here quite a lot so I could visit Val at the prison, told me something I hadn’t previously considered. He said that forgiving Val wasn’t for him. It was for me; so I could move on. See, forgiveness isn’t about letting someone off the hook to make it easier for them. It’s not about excusing their actions either. It’s to release yourself from the burden that the hurt caused.”
I thought about this for a few minutes. “Well, I think if I thought like that, I’d just be more of a doormat.”
Surprisingly, instead of taking offense, she laughed a little. “I can see why you would say that, believe me. No one should ever be a doormat, Memphis. If someone hurts you deeply, you can forgive them without bringing them back in your life to do the exact same thing to you again. That business about forgiving and forgetting is hogwash, in my opinion. Forgive, yes. Forget, not always.”
That was a more satisfying answer, but I decided I would have to think about this some more. Had I really forgiven Keniesha? I definitely know I hadn’t forgotten any of it! But would making the decision to forgive her “release me from the burden” of hurt that she had caused me? I would have to think about this in more depth when I had a chance.
Whether I could agree with Phyllis or not, she was obviously an incredible person. Suddenly, I had a lot of respect for this woman. On impulse I hugged her tightly to me.
“Thank you so much.”
Her pretty laughter rang out again. “Oh! I have something for you.”
Before I fully realized what she was doing, she took the ring off of her finger and slipped it onto mine. “This ring was given to me by my mother. I wish I could say it’s been in my family for generations, but she bought it for me as a wedding gift when I married Thom. I want you to have it now as a wedding present from me because you are my new daughter.”
I looked at it in amazement. All of the anxiety and fear that had been building in me for the longest time had been assuaged by the acceptance of this woman as her daughter.
I knew that no matter what happened, I was welcomed and loved just as I’d always wanted to be. And I would pass this ring down through my children, thereby starting a tradition that would last for generations.