Emily’s father came loping down the driveway, his third wife following close behind. She was dragging the beach chairs and bags while he carried a book. An important book. A Studies of something In Society book, probably. When Emily was a kid she used to make up names of the books her Dad might read or write; just a bunch of big words with ‘in society’ always at the end.
Emily’s children ran out to greet their grandfather. “Grandpa’s here! Grandpa’s here!”
Emily’s father looked surprised. As if he’d forgotten he had grandchildren. As if he wasn’t expecting so much running, so much activity. But he reminded himself in time to smile. And smile he did, half-way at least. Enough to give the kids reason to believe he was happy to see them. “Hey you funny kids,” he said, awkwardly putting his arm around them both.
Then Emily and her dad hugged. Still a relatively new experience. They hadn’t hugged when she was growing up. She didn’t really miss it, never pined for his touch. Hugging just wasn’t done. And so about the time Emily graduated from college and her dad all of a sudden began embracing, well it came as quite a surprise. It turned out the newfound hugging had been born from couples’ therapy. His second wife had insisted on therapy. She was into groups. Self-help groups; drug addiction groups, kleptomania groups, lack-of-hugging groups… Groups had been an anathema to Emily’s father. But the particular love he’d had for his second wife put him in a truly compliant state. Temporarily.
“Hi, Dad. Welcome,” Emily said, politely trying to break free of his hold.
“Thanks, Em.” Emily’s father then shook hands with his daughter’s husband. “My good man.”
Emily’s father probably never considered the possibility of his extremely nuclear family extending as it had. He most likely hadn’t thought that his own chubby, buck-toothed little girl might one day create a situation for him very similar to some of his predictable colleagues’. A situation replete with grandkids and beach houses and handshakes with a son-in-law.
Didi came up behind her husband and smiled unconvincingly. She turned her wan smile toward the children. She didn’t like children. In fact, it was one reason the two got married. The second wife had tried to have children with Emily’s father, had attempted to convince him he wanted more of the thing he’d never really wanted in the first place. He told Emily once that he and her mother had never really planned on being parents. It wasn’t said in a mean way, but matter-of-factly. Like most everything he said.
After the flurry of initial greetings, things grew silent in the long driveway. The kids kicked at the dirt and pebbles, the adults stood shifting their weight from one foot to the other. Emily finally reminded her children to say ‘hi’ to Didi. It was that or tell Didi to say hi to the children.
“Hi-i-i,” they chanted in unison. Then they grabbed their Grandpa by the hands and dragged him toward the little house and to his bedroom so they could show him the drawings they’d made for him. “Come on, Grandpa, we have stuff to show you!”
Harry grabbed a beat-up duffel bag that was slung over Didi’s shoulder and carried it inside.
Emily asked, “So how are you, Didi? Good drive down?”
“Yeah. No problems. How are you?”
“Good. Always glad to be here. We love it here.” Wow, really? How fascinating! Emily’s ability for sparkling conversation seemed to fade when faced with her father’s third wife. Didi’s seemed to do likewise.
“Yeah, it’s great,” said Didi, looking around at the sagging clothesline and the mildewing wood of the outdoor shower. She then walked into the house ahead of Emily, carrying the beach chairs in with her. Emily started to say something about keeping the chairs on the deck, but it just felt like too much trouble. Anyway, it was time to start mixing drinks.
Emily’s father and Didi were in the guest room with the kids swarming all around them. They were really very cute, the children. Not too loud, just enthusiastic enough. Happy about their Grandpa and his third wife visiting. Emily’s heart broke a little as she watched her children with her dad, watched him focus on something somewhere just above their bobbing heads, faintly nodding his own head only if a question was repeated consistently at him.
It was definitely time for a drink. Emily grabbed some of the mismatched jelly glasses from the cupboard. Her father came running from his bedroom like a cat who’s heard a can opener.
“Got a little something there for me, kid?”
Yes, Daddy. Now, sit. Beg. Roll over. “Sure. I bought some scotch.”
“Wowee, the fancy stuff. Now you know your old Philistine of a father doesn’t know the difference between the good stuff and – “
“Yes, but I do.” Emily poured them each a glass of scotch and yelled to Didi and Harry, “You guys want a drink?!” She wanted things to feel festive. They should have. They were on vacation, she was among family, and it was Happy Hour. Emily kept repeating those words in her head – vacation, family, Happy Hour – trying to convince herself of good times.
Emily made a Pina Colada for Didi. That was the only thing Didi drank. And always only one. Harry poured himself some white wine.
“Kids? Emily yelled, “You want something?” Yes, while they’re still young let’s get them in the habit of sitting around the house sipping drinks as soon as the clock strikes five. A fine family tradition. The kids asked for juice boxes. Cherry, if there was any.
Harry started getting things out for his grilling performance. The refrigerator door stood open for a good five minutes while he grappled with the items inside, pushing unwanted objects around like those puzzles where you have to get the numbered squares in order. The small amount of counter space was quickly covered with lettuce and eggplant, sirloin steaks and swordfish. It would be a good dinner, Emily could count on that. She felt her neck muscles relax a little bit.
Emily’s father was sitting in the recliner in the living room. Didi was perched on its arm. Emily went to the fake rattan sofa and sat down.
“So, Dad…” She took another drink from her Smucker’s preserves glass and then an extremely deep breath. “What are you working on right now?”
Didi smiled, like a mother whose toddler has been asked how old he is.
“Well,” started Emily’s father, “I’ve just come back from the International meetings in Upsala as you know. And by God, there were actually a few thinkers in the group there…”
Emily’s Dad was never really happy unless he was talking about himself. His work. His research. His theories. His discoveries. His foes on certain grant boards who continued to deny him the money to do the important research necessary. Necessary for world peace? Well, not exactly. But for the continuation of the human race as we know it? Well, no. Whose is? But necessary in order to confirm the great secrets about humanity that Emily’s father had always known but had simply been unable to back up quantitatively. Apparently his chairman was a real stickler for numbers and if there were not enough of them, then said chairman deemed any research invalid and the theories mere speculation. So the world was against Emily’s father. It always had been, yet he prevailed somehow.
Taking a slurp from his drink, he continued, “So my paper was well received, to say the least. I had many a student – and faculty as well – approach me to tell me my ideas were years ahead of anything they were doing over there. Jesus, how long have I been doing this now? For Christ’s sake, when will people catch on, huh?”
And so the professor went on and everyone nodded their heads attentively. Harry had always been able to make the right noises at the appropriate times during his father-in-law’s monologues. This time he made his commiserating sounds from the kitchen as he chopped the vegetables.
At one point, the children came into the living room and placed themselves at their grandfather’s feet. They were sipping from their juice boxes and probably hoping for a present from Grandpa which he never brought. He’d been the same way when Emily and her sister were young. He’d go on some exotic trip and return to expectant looks in the eyes of his children. Now, there was no basis for the girls’ belief that parents brought presents back from trips. Who knows where kids get the ideas they do. But when their dad realized he’d arrived errantly empty-handed, he’d run into his study, open up his armoire and pull out some odd artifact from a past trip. There was always a collection of things in there; silk scarves, cigar cutters, voodoo dolls… These were intended as rewards for his graduate students and girlfriends. But Emily and her sister would always pretend that the adult sized blouses and hand made baskets were just what they had always wanted.
The grandkids finally gave up on getting some attention and/or a gift and retreated outside to draw in the dirt with sticks. Didi sucked at her straw and was either listening attentively or was great at feigning interest. Didi, by the way, had had a job before she met Emily’s dad. Some sort of academic administrative position. The two had met at a conference. Soon thereafter she’d left her job and moved in with Emily’s father. It seems she’d always dreamed of being an interior decorator and so spent her newfound free time painting the walls of the house and hanging wallpaper – by day – and being a sounding board by night. Not the worst existence a woman could have. And obviously her choice, so no reason to condemn. But Emily did a little anyway. Privately. Just to Harry. Late at night.
Emily got up to refresh the drinks, taking the empty scotch glass from her dad’s hand on the way to the kitchen. Harry had slipped out to prepare the grill. It was now just Didi and Emily’s dad – still talking – in the living room. Vaguely looking in his direction, Emily nodded slightly so that her father might think she was still paying attention to him. So that he wouldn’t stop mid-sentence, hurt by the desertion of his audience. Emily had always felt a need to protect him, to save his feelings. It was something he brought out in women.
She poured two more glasses of scotch, passed him his glass and went outside with the rest of her family. Soon he’d follow, after realizing the crowd had dispersed to another location. He’d find a new platform from which to speak; the picnic table, the plastic recliner… Emily leaned back in a lawn chair and closed her eyes.
“Grandpa, look what I drew!” Grandpa was leaning against the doorway, patting Didi on the rear end. Emily’s son spotted him immediately. Grandpa detached himself from his present wife and ambled over to his grandson. Emily watched as her father gazed into the dirt, looking for something profound in the alleged drawing.
“Well, what is it there, boy?”
“It’s a dinosaur, grandpa. A stegosaurus.” Emily’s father looked at the crude picture skeptically. As if his five-year-old grandson was trying to put him on. “You know what, Grandpa? I’m going to be the same thing you are when I grow up. I’m going to be a anrthopopogis.”
“Anthropologist, honey,” Emily corrected. Before her father could.
The little boy looked up into his grandfather’s eyes and smiled. Emily’s dad replied by tousling his grandson’s hair. A moment was occurring. Emily couldn’t decide whether to be mad that there weren’t more of these, or grateful that her father had taken that sliver of time to actually notice his grandson. His daughter’s child. In the end, Emily decided to be grateful. So what if her dad’s paternal instincts kicked in a generation late.
“Well, you let us know when dinner’s on. I’ve got some reading to catch up on. Damn journals. So much crap in them, but if you don’t…” Emily’s dad walked back into the house, muttering. She heard the freezer open and the sound of her father scrounging for ice from the plastic bucket. Tink, tink. He dropped the cubes into his glass. Such a familiar sound to her, even comforting. She was then reminded of her own thirst and so squeezed past Didi who was still standing in the doorway, not knowing what to do.
“Uh, can I help with anything?” Didi asked Emily, not really getting out of the way.
“Oh, no. We’ve got it covered. Would you like another drink?” Emily couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“No thanks. One’s enough for me. I think I’ll go do some reading, too.” Didi followed her husband into the guest room and closed the door behind her.
“Suit yourself,” Emily said, too late for Didi to hear her. It was just one of those phrases that doesn’t get said much and so she said it, “Suit yourself.” Smiling, Emily poured another drink and sat down on a stool in the kitchen. She took in the smells of the grilling food, the liquor in the glass, and her Dad’s aftershave.