Frank pulls up in front of his sister’s house and parks the car. I glance out the passenger window. The house is as tall as it is wide—it looks like a box. It’s a brick house, but the brick is painted a soft blue. I glance down the street. All the houses are brick and they’re all painted different colors. I’ve only seen natural red brick houses in Oklahoma. Never blue. Or yellow. The front porch runs the full width of Helen’s house, and a large dormer window dominates the third floor. The porch sits up higher than normal. Perhaps the house has a basement with small windows—that might explain the steep stone steps leading up to the entrance. Formal planters overflowing with variegated coleus and trailing begonias flank the landing.
Every inch of Helen’s front yard is perfect. Each blade of grass stands at the same height as the blade next to it with no patches of clover or bare dirt. I don’t see one weed coming up between the pavers on the front walkway. The shrubs are unnaturally shaped to match one another, and pink inpatients stretch and bloom between them like a fluffy pink carpet. The deep maroon color of the trim and the front door pops in contrast against the pale blue brick façade.
“It’s charming,” I say, as a knot tightens in my stomach. If Frank’s sister does everything to this level of perfection, I doubt I’ll ever measure up to her standards. There’s a fine line between being house proud—keeping a tidy home and garden—and being obsessed about outward appearances. I always thought Mrs. Henderson struck the right balance at Henderson House. The front yard was well-kept, yet Johnny still felt comfortable playing ball in it. I take another look at Helen’s immaculate lawn. There might as well be “keep off the grass” signs posted on it. It’s clearly a yard to be seen and not enjoyed.
“Helen and Don bought the house in the early 30s,” Frank says. “She keeps it looking as fresh as the day they moved in.”
“She certainly does,” I say, admiration mixing with concern. “It’s almost a little too perfect.” As soon as the words escape my lips, I worry Frank will think I’m criticizing his beloved sister.
“I know. It’s a little unnerving, isn’t it?” Frank says, and I let out a breath I wasn’t aware I’d been holding.
“But porch sitting is a state-sanctioned pastime in Missouri,” he continues, “and people put quite a bit of their time and energy into maintaining a beautiful little front yard and a pristine front porch. Wait until you get inside the house—it’s a whole different story.”
“Oh, good. I’m not sure what I’d do if everything about your sister was as flawless as this yard.”
Frank turns off the engine and walks around to open my door. He helps me out and I turn to lift out the pie boxes. We bought a blueberry pie and a pecan pie from the Kit Kat Coffee Shop to contribute to Helen’s Fourth of July picnic today. Katie assured us they were the best in town.
“We certainly lucked out on the weather,” Frank says. “According to my mom, it was over 90 degrees earlier in the week. Paper said we’d only hit 78 today.”
“Yes, it’s a perfect afternoon for a picnic,” I agree, surveying the home again over the top of the two white cardboard baker’s boxes.
“Everything about this house feels square,” I say.
“Good eye. This style home is called a brick foursquare. It was all the rage a decade ago. The house is square on the outside and on the inside. Each floor has four square spaces. On the first floor, there’s a living room and dining room in the front, then a kitchen and space for the staircase in the back. There’s a little half bath tucked under the stairs. The rooms are the same size on the second floor with two square bedrooms on the front and a full bath and the stairwell in the back. Helen carved out a sewing room for herself between the bath and the staircase.”
“Oh, does your sister enjoy sewing?”
“Yes, she’s quite accomplished where drapes and pillows are concerned. She made everything you’ll see in the house.”
If Helen’s quite accomplished creating home decor, she probably won’t be interested in how my sister and I learned to sew making flour sack aprons to sell at Daddy’s store.
“What’s on the third floor?” I ask as we start up the walkway to the stone steps.
“Well, the last time I was here, it was an attic, but the boys were lobbying to turn it into another bedroom so they wouldn’t have to share. Helen was talking about turning it into a library instead.”
“A library? That sounds wonderful. Does she like to read? I’m hoping to find some common ground to help me make conversation.” I hear the tremble in my voice.
“Oh, honey. Are you worried about meeting her?” Frank stops and puts a gentle hand under my elbow.
“Yes,” I say, looking down and readjusting my grip on the pies.
“If I love you, she will love you. Don’t worry.”
“But what if she doesn’t? I know how much you care about her.”
“She will,” he says and then raises an eyebrow. “And if she doesn’t, well, it won’t change a darn thing.” He kisses me on the top of my head. “Here, let me carry those.” He reaches for the pie boxes.
“No, no,” I say, pulling the boxes away. “You’ll need your hands free to hug everyone.”
Frank shrugs and puts his hands in his jacket pockets. “Guess maybe I’m a little worried too,” he says. “It might feel good to have something to do with my hands when we greet my family. I’m not sure how I feel about hugging everyone.”
“Oh, Frank! I’ve been so focused on my own nerves; I haven’t been thinking about you seeing Pete and Annie after such a long time. Forgive me.”
Dear Lord, please bless today’s reunion of Frank with his family. Spread your glorious gift of forgiveness over each one of us today as we gather to celebrate. Amen.
Oh, and help me find some way to connect with Helen. Amen, again.
“There are two pie boxes. Why don’t we each carry one?” I suggest.
“That’s a great idea, honey. Thanks.”
Frank reaches over and takes the top pie box just the front door swings open. A woman about the same height as Frank stands on the threshold clasping her hands to her chest. Her auburn hair is rolled under and pulled back on either side of her face with side with decorative hair clips. She’s wearing a crisp cotton floral dress with navy and white spectator pumps. Florence urged me to buy a new dress for the picnic today, but I already felt indulgent buying a wedding suit. I’m wearing my old, jade-colored smart afternoon dress, the same dress I wore on my first date with Frank, with my sensible brown pumps. I feel dowdy compared to Frank’s sister. More like a frumpy old aunt than a bride. I stand on the step below Frank as Helen prattles on and on about how excited her boys are to see him and how his mother is already in the backyard and keeps getting up whenever she hears a car door, sure that Frank and his bride have arrived.
“Yes, my bride,” Frank says turning to me. “Helen, I’d like you to meet my wife, Bessie.”
Frank’s sister turns her head to look down at me as if she just noticed I was standing on her stoop next to her brother. I’m not sure if it’s my own insecurities at work, but I could swear I hear Helen make an audible sigh of disappointment when she sees me.
“Welcome, Bessie,” she coos, tilting her head to one side.
“It’s wonderful to finally meet you,” I respond.
“We’ve come bearing pies,” Frank jokes.
“Yes, yes, please come in and you can put those down in the kitchen,” Helen says, holding the screen door open for us as we enter the house. Frank described the layout perfectly, but I’m not prepared for the onslaught of clutter. Every horizontal space in the living room is covered in photo frames, figurines, books, vases, clocks, or record albums. Helen’s handcrafted drapes, while lovely, overpower the windows, and the abundance of decorative pillows on the sofa and chairs makes me wonder how anyone ever takes a seat. Likewise, the sideboard in the dining room appears to sag under the weight of brass candlesticks and mismatched serving pieces. The sheer number of items on display in these two front rooms is staggering and in such stark contrast to the neat, refined appearance of the front yard it makes my head spin. Helen leads us through the center hallway into the kitchen, which is slightly less cluttered, but still in no way organized. A door stands open to the backyard, and I see the heads of people seated around a large outdoor table. A pretty woman about my age with lovely chestnut hair stands at the kitchen squeezing lemons into a pitcher of iced tea. She looks up as we enter and smiles at us. Her large brown eyes glimmer with warmth.
“Hello, Frank,” she says, wiping her hands on her apron. “You must be Bessie. I’m Annie. It’s lovely to meet you. Here let me take those.” She relieves me of my pie box, sets it down on the counter, and then does the same with Frank’s. Maybe it’s my imagination, but Annie appears to take extra care not to touch Frank as she removes the box from his hands. Helen watches the scene with a hint of amusement in her flat smile. Once the pies are out of our hands, the four of us stand staring at each other for several long, awkward seconds.
“Bessie, let me show you where you can set your purse and gloves.” Annie puts a soft hand on my back and guides me out of the kitchen toward the stairwell. A wooden bench with a set of brass hooks above it sits to the right of a smaller door leading to the backyard. The hooks struggle under the weight of sweaters, jackets, hats, and scarves. Baskets, bags, and shoes take up every inch of the bench seat.
“Here you go,” Annie says cheerfully, pushing a tote bag full of fabric aside to make room for my pocketbook. I take my gloves off and lay them on top. “And the powder room is there if you need it.” She points at the angled door tucked under the staircase.
“Thank you,” I manage. Her kindness is almost unnerving. I wasn’t expecting Frank’s ex-wife to be nicer to me than his sister.
Annie smiles and surprises me when she takes my hands in hers. “Do you want to freshen up before you meet the rest of the family?” she asks.
“Do I look like I need to?”
“No. You look wonderful,” she says with a hint of admiration in her voice. “Jade is a lovely color on you. I wanted to offer you a minute alone if you need one before meeting everybody.”
A cheer rises from the backyard.
“Oh, dear. That must be Helen ushering Frank outside without his bride.” Annie rolls her eyes in a manner that makes me sure she has been the recipient of Helen’s sigh of disappointment as well over the years. “I guess that means I will have the honor of presenting you. Ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I respond.
Annie smiles again and links her arm through mine. We walk out the door together like old friends from high school. When we reach the circle gathered around Frank. Annie releases my arm and steps back, allowing me to enter the party on my own. In a matter of minutes and with only a few kind words, Annie managed to boost my confidence and make me feel welcome. It’s not hard to understand why Frank loved her. And why it broke his heart to let her go. My husband spies me standing at the edge of the group and his eyes light up.
“There she is! Bessie, come and meet my family.” Frank rushes over to take my hand and pulls me into the circle.
“Bessie, this is my mother, Gladys Davis.”
Frank’s mother steps forward to embrace me. Her resemblance to a stork is almost comical. Her skinny legs are entirely too long for the rest of her body. Her face is dominated by a beak-like nose, and she wears her salt and pepper hair in a low bun at the base of an elongated neck that looks suitable for plucking fish right out of the water.
“It’s his favorite,” she whispers as she slips a card into my hand. I glance down at the recipe card and tuck it into the pocket of my dress.
“Thank you, Gladys,” I say.
“Oh, please dear, I insist you call me ‘Mom,’” she replies, patting my hand.
I try to catch Frank’s eye to get his opinion on this request but I connect with Annie instead. She gives a small nod of encouragement.
“Of course. Thank you, Mom.”
The word feels unfamiliar on my tongue. I always called my mother, well, Mother. Never Mom. I suppose it is just a name, but it’s a name that comes with expectations. Will I have a mother-like relationship with Gladys Davis even though I’m a grown woman myself? Will she care for me and give me advice? My own mother passed away when I was twenty, but I’ve rarely felt motherless. I had my Aunt Maude in Wichita and Mrs. Henderson’s been in my corner ever since I came to Bartlesville. Frank and I never discussed what I would call his mother. I assumed I would call her Gladys, but it’s clear, I will be calling her ‘Mom.’
Frank introduces me to Helen’s husband, Don, then his brother Pete who wraps me in a bear hug and lifts me off the ground for a moment. I’m overwhelmed by the intensity of Pete’s hug and his happiness at meeting me. Pete holds on to me like I’m the answer to his prayers. Perhaps knowing his brother has finally found love again has lifted a weight off Pete’s shoulders. Tears prick at my eyes. For the first time, I’m aware of the important role I can play in helping Frank’s family heal. As soon as Pete sets me down and Helen and Don’s sons step forward.
“Hey, Aunt Bessie,” the tall one says sounding so much like Johnny I’m taken aback for a moment. No one except Johnny has ever called me Aunt Bessie. “I’m Leo, the oldest,” he says.
“And I’m Andy. I’m the smartest,” the younger boy chimes in.
Leo must be at least seventeen and Andy appears to be barely two years behind him. They look exactly like their father, Don, though Andy has Frank’s wavy hair.
“Mom told us you grew up over a store in Indian Territory. Is it true? Are you really part Cherokee?” Andy asks as he grabs my hand and leads me toward the outdoor table.
“What was it like to grow up Indian?” Leo asks as he pulls a chair out for me. I sit as they take their positions on either side of me clearly ready for me to spill the tea about my savage upbringing.
“Boys, boys,” their father, Don, steps in. “Give your new aunt a moment to collect herself.”
At that instant, a glass of iced tea miraculously appears in front of me. I turn to follow the arm of the angel delivering it, and sure enough, Annie smiles down at me. How kind of her to bring it to me without my even having to ask. I take a sip and prepare to tell my tale.
“The first thing you need to know is that I’m not a very good storyteller. In my family, my father is the best storyteller, and my brother Eddie comes in a close second. I’m not even sure I’m in the top five. But I’m all you’ve got today, so I will do my best.”
The rest of Frank’s family gathers around the table to listen. Another spotlight moment. Helen glares at me as if she’s waiting for me to make a terrible mistake.
There’s nothing to be nervous about, I tell myself. These people are family, now.
“It is true that my father, Billy Blackwell, owned a general store in Cherokee Indian Territory. He is part Cherokee and that makes me part Cherokee. My mother was a hundred and ten percent Irish. So, in all honestly, there wasn’t all that much Indian in how I grew up. I went to school and church. I did my chores and worked at my daddy’s store.”
The boys’ smiles fade, clearly disappointed.
“However, the legend of how my daddy came to own the store has been told far and wide. The story goes that my father won the building from Old Man Bushyhead in a late-night card game. The next morning when Daddy came to move in, the old man refused to budge, so my daddy leveled his shotgun at him and gave him ten minutes to pack and run over to his son’s place down the road. That’s how the store became known as the Pack and Run. Even though Daddy put up a sign out front that said Blackwell’s Store, everyone in Indian Territory called it the Pack and Run after the tale of Old Man Bushyhead’s expedited departure.”
Andy looks slightly impressed.
“Do you know any Cherokee legends?” Leo asks.
“I suppose most of the Cherokee stories I know, I learned from my grandmother. She was born in Georgia and came to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears when she was just a little younger than you are, Andy.”
“Can you tell us one?” Leo asks.
I look across the table to find Frank, standing behind his mother with his hands on her shoulders. He winks at me to continue.
“Well, let me see what I can remember. Oh, this was always one of my favorites. A long, long time ago, Cherokee people lived on an island far south of the United States. Their land fell into a terrible time of earthquakes and violent volcanic eruptions.”
I’ve got the boys’ attention now.
“About fourteen groups set out in canoes to find a new home. They had to travel over a vast and perilous body of water. The journey took weeks and weeks and not every canoe survived. When they reached the shores of a new land, only seven canoes remained. Those groups became the seven clans of the Cherokee.”
“What are the seven clans?” Andy asks.
“Let me see. . .Wolf, Long Hair, Blue, Bird, Deer, Paint, and Wild Potato.”
“Wild Potato!” Leo exclaims. “That’s great. What clan are you from?”
“Well, your clan is passed down on your mother’s side. My grandmother was a member of the Paint Clan. They were the healers and medicine people. But my father married a white woman and since your clan comes from your mother, the line was broken.”
“You mean you don’t have a clan?” Andy asks.
“No, Andy. I don’t.”
I smile at the boys, and they smile back—a hint of sympathy on their faces.
“Well, I think that’s enough Indian malarkey on a day when we should be celebrating our American heritage and independence,” Helen says.
Malarkey? My chest tightens. I look over at Frank to see if he heard the cruel, condescending bite of Helen’s comment, but he’s talking with Pete and his mother. If Cousin Wahya were here, he’d speak up and make sure Helen understood that celebrating American Indian stories is celebrating our American heritage. But I don’t have his courage or conviction and so I remain silent.
“Boys, help me bring out the food,” Helen commands, and the two young men pop out of their seats on either side of me. Don gets up and joins the conversation around Gladys. I’m alone, abandoned on my side of the table, feeling dismissed. The expanse of tabletop between my lonely seat and the circle where Frank and his family chatter away feels as vast and perilous as the ocean in my story.
“Don’t let her snide comments get under your skin. No one will ever be good enough for her beloved Frank,” Annie whispers in my ear. “Helen will find any opportunity to remind you of that fact.” She puts a soft hand on my shoulder. “Frank doesn’t always hear it. He loves her deeply, but it doesn’t mean he loves you any less. Now, let’s go inside and see if we can help get the food on the table. I always find the best way to deal with Helen is to ignore her and be helpful.”
I stand and Annie links her arm with mine again as if she is my best friend in the whole world. And I realize, she just may be.