Elise slammed the car door and proceeded into the house. She retreated up the stairs and into her childhood haven. She tried to lock the faded purple door, but it was so warped with age that the bolt no longer aligned to the lock. Frustrated, she left it slightly ajar and went and sat in her window seat, also worn with age. She stared out the back or their property, that same scene which brought her into a place of serenity each time she had quarreled with her mother. They had not even talked about much in the car ride home from town, but something struck Elise deep within. She was still recovering from leaving Leon, from their phone call on Christmas Eve, and from the weariness of fighting the guilt and shame within herself for the last year.
Bertie made her way upstairs, not quite finished with her daughter. She was upset, but willing to be rational. She never knew what Elise was thinking or feeling and it was that lack of insight that drove her to constantly probe where she probably should not.
“You going to tell me what’s wrong?”
“Go away.” Elise didn’t even look up from her window seat.
“No.” Bertie could be stubborn, even more than her daughter. Elise continued ignoring her, so Bertie went and sat on the bed, just waiting. Elise was more uncomfortable than ever, but she didn’t know if she could trust her mother, trust her own feelings. She shifted slightly on her window seat and looked out toward the garden, decaying and covered in a light dusting of January snow.
“Whatever possessed you to keep me? I know you didn’t want to.” Elise shot first, to avoid being shot at. Bertie was stunned by this accusation.
“Just say it.”
“What makes you think that I didn’t want you, Elise?” Bertie asked, with an edge.
“My entire life.”
“Can you please be more specific, because on my side of things, I don’t feel like I deprived you of anything. I fed you, clothed you, supported you, educated you—”
“—Pushed me aside for lovers, made me spend most of time alone, ignored me, always put me second—”
“Stop it! That is not true, Elise!”
“Isn’t it?! You’ve had boyfriends ever since I can remember! And you always spent more time with them! You sent me off to camps, to private schools; anywhere but here!”
“I did that so you’d have a better education! I did that for you!” Elise sat back and laughed to herself. She had no remorse about accusing her mother of being unloving. She actually relished having this small amount of power over her, for the moment.
“Stop avoiding the question. Why did you keep me?” Elise turned and looked directly at her mother, needing to know the answer which had always haunted her. Bertie could not face her daughter’s direct gaze and turned her face, her cheeks burning.
“Because I needed something to remind me of him. Of your father.” The silence hurt Elise’s ears, made them burn like fire, after the sound of those last words. Neither woman spoke for over a minute. Elise felt crushed by the heaviest weight she could possibly imagine, utterly breathless.
“You said—” Elise stuttered, barely able to speak.
“I know. It was cruel of me to keep you from him. He never knew about you and I thought that would make it easier.”
“Easier? To deprive me of a father?! To leave me half empty?!” Elise began to tear up, her silent rage nearly choking her.
“It had been so fleeting. We met one summer here in Saugatuck. I had come for an installation and he happened to be the head carpenter on the construction site. He was gorgeous, intelligent, funny. I was instantly smitten.”
“What was his name?”
“Jeff. Jeffrey Ellis.” Suddenly some missing pieces of Elise’s past came slamming into her brain like a freight train. Her name, for one. Elise J. Strand.
“Just J.” Elise whispered. That had been her mother’s answer to her lack of middle name.
“Just J. Now you know.”
“Why did you keep him from me?”
“It was complicated.”
“Really? You’ll have to do better than that.” Elise asked skeptically.
“We met in June. By September we were lovers, making promises of the future. I had never really loved anyone before I met your father. I had barely even dated, even in art school. He had completely stolen my heart, this philosophy graduate-turned-carpenter. He had worked on other old homes in Saugatuck that summer as well. This was one of them. I used my paycheck from the installment piece and put a down payment on this place, hoping we would live together. By January, he was restless and wanting to get work elsewhere. Carpentry in the middle of a Michigan winter is sparse, so I let him go. I found out I was pregnant in February. I hadn’t heard from him in weeks, so I began to give up hope. It was never a question in mind of whether or not I should keep you, Elise. By April, I knew you were a girl and I knew that I wanted to have a piece of him with me forever. The minute after you were born and they put you in my arms, I knew that nothing else mattered.”
Elise was weeping at this point, not able to wipe the tears from her face quickly enough.
“Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you lie?” Elise sniffled.
“I wanted to protect you from knowing that your father left us, that he never intended on staying with me, with us.”
“But you don’t know that! He might have stayed if he knew! Why didn’t you tell him?!”
“I tried!” Bertie began to sob. Her shoulders were heaving and she was wiping her face violently trying to stop the tears. Elise went over to the bed and sat next to her mother.
“What happened?” Elise implored. After Bertie cried for a solid few minutes, she finally took a deep breath and tilted her face up.
“I went looking for him when you were a toddler. I needed to know.”
“Well?” Elise was impatient.
“Elise, honey. He. He died. He fell off a roof while he was working in Florida.”
“When?” This was the answer that mattered.
“Nineteen Ninety.” Elise stared blankly past her mother and into the empty space of her childhood room. All these years of wondering, questioning, desiring to know about her father, only to now finally hear that it didn’t even matter. He had died when she was two years old. And her mother had lied to her. This was the pain. This was the emptiness. More than Leon’s drinking, more than hating herself, more than losing her unborn child. This was the nagging hole in her heart that she had searched for and tried to satiate her entire life. Now she knew it had a name: Jeffrey Ellis.
Elise got up and went to the door, opening it and gesturing for Bertie to exit. She wouldn’t look at her or speak to her, she just motioned with one hand limply. Bertie had known this was coming. She knew from the moment she had decided to omit Elise’s father from her life that it would haunt her. She felt a selfish relief at finally confessing the secret that had kept them just enough apart for the last twenty-seven years, but she also knew that it had caused irrevocable damage. She knew that when she left the room the secret would die, the air would change, the chasm would grow deeper.
“I’m sorry.” Was all Bertie could say, before she left her daughter to fill in the pieces of her half-life.
Elise shut the door and laid on the floor, looking through the skylight above her. What could she do now? Her worst nightmare had actually come true. There had been no closure, no assurance, no real pain—until now. She thought of her own lost child and of her father. Were they together? Did they know each other? Was there a place for unborn children in Heaven? What about long-lost fathers? Was there love enough inside Elise’s frail heart to forgive her mother?
As all these questions swirled around in Elise’s head, one thing became clear: she had to tell Leon about Theodora. It had been wrong of her to keep that pain all to herself. She had done to her husband what her mother had done to her and she hated herself for it. She stayed there on the floor, for what seemed like hours, contemplating her next decision. She owed Leon the truth, but she also knew she wasn’t quite ready to face him until she had battled more of her own demons. She got off the floor, resolute, and went downstairs for more answers.