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Excerpt for Sea Change


Antioch, Georgia
April, 2011

I stood outside my parents’ house feeling the heat from the black asphalt through my leather flats. My mother’s impatiens bloomed in the clay planters that flanked the front door of the ranch-style house I’d called home for most of my thirty-four years. Even the heat wouldn’t dare defy my mother by making her flowers wilt; Gloria Whalen ruled her garden as she’d ruled her five children and disobeying her was as much of a rarity as a January snow in Georgia.

A bead of sweat trickled between my shoulder blades as the heat beat down on me and my new husband as if it were the middle of July instead of just spring. I tried to explain to Matthew that summers were like that in west Georgia, so sudden that spring was like a cool evening sandwiched between winter and high summer. Matthew was from the coast, so I figured he already knew a thing or two about heat and humidity.

Matthew held my hand as I faced my father and four brothers, my siblings ranging in age from fifty-five down to forty-five, assembled as either a farewell party or as a show of force to the stranger I’d chosen to marry. Even now, standing in a suburban setting, they could still be identified as the funeral directors they were. Whalen and Sons had been in my father’s family for three generations, and the serious, solicitous expressions on all five faces was more genetic now than learned.

Their assorted wives and my various nieces and nephews remained inside by unspoken assent, perhaps gathered in sympathy around my mother’s bedroom door, a door she’d refused to open since I’d arrived that morning. I’d called the day before, the day of my wedding, to give her time to adjust. Even Phil Autry, my fiancé of four years, seemed to have taken the news better than she had.

I let go of Matthew’s hand and hugged my father. He held on tightly for a moment, then released me to hold me at arm’s distance. I was used to this. Despite being the youngest and the only girl, and being reassured that I’d been what my parents had hoped and prayed for, they’d always seemed too wary of their good fortune to hold me tightly. It was as if by holding me close the vagaries of fortune that had given me to them would notice and take me away.

“Can I try and talk with Mama?” I didn’t really want to. I hated to leave with things unspoken between us, but I didn’t want her to think that I was desperate for her approval. I’d outgrown that need along with Clearasil and braces.

My father shook his head. “Give her time, Ava. She’ll come around. It’s just been a shock. To all of us.” He paused and settled me with a stern look. “You know how Gloria doesn’t like surprises. She’ll come around.”

I hoped my expression conveyed my doubt about the sincerity of his words. My mother had been vaguely upset when I told her I was married. Although she didn’t admit it, I knew she’d always planned a large wedding in her garden with all the frills for her only daughter. It wasn’t until I told her I was moving to St. Simons that she’d had her meltdown. She had four daughters-in-law who lived within spitting distance, all more than eager and willing to cater to my mother and treat her like the matriarch she was accustomed to being. I’d grown up looking out my bedroom window, able to see three of my brothers’ houses, all the same except for different colored doors, with neat grass, and identical black sedans in the driveways. It had always made me wonder which house on this street would be mine one day. The thought gave me nightmares---even more nightmares than I’d had after my oldest brother, Stephen, had taken me to the embalming room. It wasn’t the cold reality of death that had scared me; only the thought of not living the life I had.

I went down the row of my brothers—standing in birth order from youngest to oldest as was their habit—David, Joshua, Mark and Stephen—and hugging each. Matthew followed shaking each hand before turning to my father.

“I’ll take good care of her, sir.”

“You’d better. She’s very precious to us.” My father cleared his throat, uncomfortable with any expectations of expressed affection.

My eyes stung as I looked down the row again at my brothers, each face mirroring the same sympathy. I’d never felt as separate from them as I did then, the lone dandelion in a garden of sunflowers. I was suddenly unsure of my reasons for leaving, if what I felt for Matthew was only a temporary balm for the constant restlessness that had dogged me since I was old enough to reason with the world around me.

I turned back to my father. “Tell Mama that I love her and that I’ll call when I’m settled.” I began to babble, something I’d always done when my emotions threatened to spill over. “My roommate is packing up all of my stuff and sending it, and I told her to keep the furniture and we’re having somebody bring my car. And Matthew’s positive I won’t have a problem finding a job with my background and credentials. So there’s no need to worry, okay?” I wasn’t sure why I was rambling about things we’d already discussed. Maybe a part of me wanted him to break down and tell me why I had to be kept at arm’s distance. Or maybe I was killing time waiting for my mother to run out of the house and hug me and explain to me why, after all the years of feeding me and clothing me and teaching me right from wrong, she could let me go without saying goodbye.

Matthew touched my arm. “It’s a long drive. If we want to get there before dark, we should go now.”

As we turned toward the car, I heard my name shouted. I turned to find my mother’s mother, my Mimi, walking as quickly as she could considering her ninety-one years and her insistence on still wearing heels—albeit low ones—and holding something in her hands. I’d said goodbye to her earlier as she’d stood guard at her daughter’s closed bedroom door and wondered with some lingering hope if she’d brought a reconciliatory message from my mother.

“Ava!” she called again, confirming that she had my attention. She stopped in front of us, her blond hair—courtesy of Clairol—streaming around her face. We waited as she caught her breath and I eyed the treasure in her hands.

“You don’t want to forget this,” she said, stretching out her arms. Sitting in her opened palms was a square wooden music box, the old-fashioned kind that when you opened the lid you could look inside to see the working mechanisms underneath a clear glass cover. The lid was dented and stained with watermarks, but even though I hadn’t seen the box in a number of years, I was sure the mechanism inside still worked. It had been refurbished by my brother, Stephen, when I’d found it nearly twenty-seven years before.

After a brief hesitation, I reached out to her, allowing her to gently place the music box in my hands. Of all the things I was leaving behind me, I wondered why this would be the one thing she wanted to make sure I wouldn’t.

“Just to remind you,” she said, patting my fingers as I closed them over the top of the box.

“Of what?”

She had the odd gleam in her eye that always reminded me that she was half Cherokee, raised in the mountains of Tennessee without much of a formal education but was still the smartest person I knew. “That some endings are really beginnings. If you don’t remember anything I’ve ever tried to teach you, remember that.”

She enveloped me in a tight hug as I smelled the reassuring scent of talcum powder and Aqua Net. “I will.”

Mimi glanced up at Matthew and I thought for a moment her expression was one of accusation. But when I looked back at her face, it was gone.

We said our goodbyes and with one last glance toward the house, I climbed into the passenger seat of the silver sedan and allowed Matthew to shut the door. I didn’t look back at my grandmother, or my father and brothers, standing like despondent scarecrows who’d failed to protect their crops, identical in their tall, narrow builds, their hair the same shade of dark brown that matched perfectly with the somberness of their black pants.

I didn’t look back because once, long ago, Mimi had told me it was bad luck, that if you looked back it meant you’d never return. It’s not that this place held so much meaning for me; I’d always known I’d leave, even though until now I’d never figured out where I’d go. I suppose it’s one of the reasons why I’d never set a wedding date with Phil, having always felt beneath the surface of my life the constant current of restlessness. A sense that there was something more waiting for me somewhere else. The moment I’d met Matthew, I felt that I’d finally found what I’d been looking for.

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