Mommy and Daddy are going. My sister cries a little, her tears turning to a forlorn silence. They are not going in a bad or permanent way but rather on a three day marriage retreat to “work” on how to be married. I don’t understand this. Their marriage is as permanent to me as the Wasatch Mountains. Mountains don’t need work so why should a marriage? I keep asking questions but no one offers answers. Granma says the time will fly by and before we know it they’ll be back.
This is the first fracture I have seen in my family, the first fault line to run a jagged line through the comfortable security of my childhood. I see it like a dark edge cutting us until my stomach hurts and I’m gnawed by worry. They’re not all right. We’re not all right. Our marriage needs work means our world is not all right.
“I miss mommy.” I stand beside my sister on Granma’s front porch, looking at the road that took our parents away.
“I miss Daddy.” My sister whispers, her small hand slipping into mine.
We hear the trot of tiny feet as four poodles run passed us. Granma walks behind them.
“Do you miss your Daddy?” my sister looks up at our tall strong grandmother who is so wise and brave that I can’t imagine her ever needing or missing anyone.
“I miss him,” she says, her lips forming as sad, wistful smile.
“He was called Frank William,” I offer up his name as conformation that I listen, that Granma’s stories matter. “He was a farmer, a carpenter, an undertaker, and a black smith.”
“…and a sheep herder,” my sister looks up at me, scowling because I forgot.
“A shepherd.” Granma corrects her gently, “Yes we kept hundreds of sheep on Hefthelton Farm. There were sheep and pigs, cows and geese, ducks and chickens. I had my pony Topsy and we had our giant Sire horses.”
“And the bull!”
“The big mean bull!” My sister adds.
“The biggest meanest bull that ever grazed on Dorset grass.” Granma settles down on the porch bench her eyes fixed on the garden, her words conjuring up a huge red bull in our imaginations.
“I had a penny farthing bicycle,” she begins, “the kind with one huge front wheel and one tiny back wheel. It was impossibly heavy, old and hard to ride. I was peddling home in a hurry on the day it happened. I’d done something terrible and was trying to make it home before anyone knew I’d even gone. Hefthelton farm was so big that it was easy to lose track of people. I rode my bicycle up the lane and left it in the shrubbery to the right of the drive.”
“Because of the geese.”
“Yes, the geese hated my bicycle. They would honk and bite at it and me, making so much noise that the men would come out of the hay fields and barns just for a laugh. Those geese gave me terrible bruises. My plan was to sneak up through the front pasture to the house and pretend I’d been in the garden all morning. I ducked through the wooden fence and ran as fast as I could for the house. The geese were in the lane grazing but they hadn’t seen me. It was then that I heard a great bellow of noise. Turning, I saw my father’s massive bull emerge from the shade, his nostrils flaring. He was coming towards me at a steady gallop, his horns lowered. I know he hadn’t been in that pasture when I snuck out. The ground shook as he ran at me, coming faster and faster. He was almost on me when I jumped through the fence, landing in a heap on the other side. The geese saw everything. They came running and honking into the lower garden, their long necks outstretched, their wings flapping. I ran for a nearby oak tree and swung up into the lower branches. All I had to do then was catch my breath and wait for the geese to go away. But then it happened. Theresa? My mother called. Looking through the branches I saw her standing by the farm house with the constable I had thought I’d outrun.”
“What had you done?”
“I had pinned a lit string of firecrackers to the constable’s coat tail. You should have seen that man jump.”
“What did they do to you?”
“I was caned and sentenced to a week of weeding the vegetable garden.”
“That evening when the men came in from the fields I was still on my knees in that garden, my arms and bottom whipped red with welts. My father laughed when he saw me there. Theresa Phillis, he said, you spend more time in that vegetable garden than you do out of it. When are you going to behave yourself? ”
“Never! I said, glaring up at him.”
“Well if you are going to be wicked I suppose it’s a good thing you’re also fast. That’s when I knew he knew about the constable and the bull. Everyone knew. I was the talk of the village and somehow that made it all worth it. I loved my father and he loved me. I loved my mother too but she made loving her hard.”
“Did your parents’ marriage ever need work?” I ask, still missing my parents.
“In those days there was no such thing as working on a marriage. You were married and that was the end of it. Marriages didn’t break, they endured.”
I think about what it would be like to live when Granma did. I like the farm, her pony and all the adventures but I don’t like the caning or the never ending hard work.
“Is it terrible to be a grownup Granma?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer for a bit. I watch her think, her face reflects her father’s death, the war, her exile from the village for having a war time child that wasn’t her husbands. Then there was the divorce that took my mother from her father and the immigration that made England only just a memory. All the starving and death, work and sacrifice for a life of instability and uncertainty.
“Is it awful?” my sister asks, her eyes big and sad.
“No,” Granma shakes her head, “it’s the biggest adventure you will ever have. No regrets. Not ever.”
“No regrets,” we repeat the words like a promise to her to be as tough as leather as strong as iron, as enduring as Granma? But how can we know this is a promise we can keep? After all, what is there yet to regret?