Makin' Miracles, page 21
“Just asking a good business question, girl.” He shook his fork at her. “Besides, it’s typical you would care so little about profits. You’ve always been happy if you could just piddle in the kitchen and play house decorating cakes.”
Zola saw a flicker of annoyance cross Rita’s face before she grinned and responded, “My playhousing with cakes just won me the Virginia Culinary Award for the year, Grandfather.”
Stettler continued to wave his fork in the air. “Yes, and it gave our business a little helpful recognition when your picture got in the paper.”
“I’m pleased my work could help the business.” Rita grinned, obviously almost tickled with the whole conversation. She turned raised eyebrows of amusement to her dinner partner, Bryan Hall. He grinned back at her, as though they had some sort of conspiracy going together.
Zola liked them. Rita had dark short hair, brown like all the other Jacksons, but cut in a jaunty style that reached just below her chin. She wore a silky purple blouse and black skirt, and was dressed nicely for dinner, but the blouse was less formal and she wore a cute scarf tied carelessly at her neck. Her earrings, which looked like little silver fishes, dangled down from her ears to flash in the light from the chandelier. Through all the introductions and the early getting-acquainted comments over dinner, Rita had seemed to be the only one in the group, besides Bryan Hall, unaffected by the atmosphere at the table.
She looked at Zola now. “Bryan is the anchor newscaster for WXV2 television here in Richmond,” she said. “We met when Mother and I catered his sister’s wedding.”
Bryan smiled a newscaster’s smile at Zola. “My parents spent more money on that wedding than I spent on my last car.”
“Hush, now, Bryan.” Marion playfully shook a finger at him. “That’s how Rita and I make our money—catering weddings and events.”
“The money we made off the photography didn’t hurt either.” Bowden lifted his wine glass toward Bryan in a toasting gesture.
He turned a gaze to Spencer. “You’d have done well to hitch your star to the Jackson business, Two Spence. You might have done better for yourself by staying with the family than launching out on your own.”
“There, there, Bowden.” His mother offered a smile toward Spencer. “Let’s not criticize Spencer for his life choices. We’re all so glad to have him here with us. And to have Zola here, too.”
Zola heard Spencer’s grandfather mutter to his wife. “Spencer owns a poky little gallery in a resort town, when he could have worked with the Jackson Studio. Never will understand it. Boy never had a lick of common sense.”
It was a nasty, awful thing to say, but everyone simply let it ride—and no one contested it.
Zola opened her mouth to protest but saw Spencer give her a cautionary shake of his head.
Interestingly, it was Bryan Hall who came to the rescue. “I was in DC this last fall, Spencer, when you had an exhibit there and when a series of your photographs were selected for that Brighton Award. That was a fine ceremony, and I enjoyed your acceptance speech, telling about where you shot all the pictures.” He looked around the table. “Spencer has a very fine name around the country as a nature photographer. And he has five best-selling photography books out. Rita has them at her apartment and they’re spectacular.”
He seemed genuinely surprised that the family wasn’t more aware of their own family member’s success.
Everyone seemed suddenly interested in their food.
Bowden broke the silence by starting a new line of conversation. “Guess who I saw the other day, Spencer? That little Conner girl. You know, the one who had a crush on you in high school? Awkward little girl with dark curly hair. Bit of Mexican blood, if I remember. She asked about you. You always were the one to attract the unorthodox sorts of girls to you.”
Bowden glanced Zola’s way as he dropped this last comment.
It was such an obviously offensive cut that Zola could hardly believe he’d uttered it over the dinner table. The slur toward her, as partly Tahitian, was unmistakable, and the insult toward Spencer blatant.
Once again, no one said a word. No one seemed to notice, and no one offered sanction. What a family! Zola could begin to see why Spencer hated growing up with this bunch.
She caught a somewhat apologetic glance coming her way from Rita, who shook her head slightly and rolled her eyes—as if saying to Zola, “typical comment from Bowden; just let it ride.”
Stettler Jackson seemed delighted at the turn of the conversation. “The girl I remember most is that little pigtailed tomboy, Anna Kabotsky. Girl took after her mother and didn’t have much in the way of looks at all. Followed around after Spencer and that Peter Bradley he played with all the time. You know, that boy didn’t go into the law like his father—got into the forestry service instead, a big disappointment to his family. Could have gone far. And that girl, Anna, never married. Of course, I can see why.”
“Grandfather,” Rita put in. “Anna Kabotsky became a medical doctor. She’s a well-known children’s physician now.”
He scowled at her. “Well, a woman has to find something to do when no one will marry her.”
Zola began to feel ill.
These were beautiful people on the outside. Obviously successful and obviously well educated. But they were hard and critical and unloving on the inside. How sad for Spencer to have grown up constantly faced with this. No wonder he’d escaped and not come back more often.
She looked at Spencer’s older brother, Bowden Jackson, across the table—an incredibly handsome man. Of all the family members, he’d been blessed with the most stunning looks, and he oozed charm and charisma. He was obviously successful in his own right, and, yet, he felt this need to put others down, to humiliate them with these clever, cutting remarks. It seemed a shame.
Zola looked over to see Spencer watching her. She saw a sad look cross his face. Perhaps he’d hoped his family would have changed over the years, but obviously that was not the case.
Spencer’s grandfather focused his attention on Zola and Spencer. “You two sleeping together? That seems to be what all the young folks do these days.”
It was another tasteless thing to say, especially with two young boys at the table. They looked up now with wide eyes.
Zola saw a steely look pass over Spencer’s face. “That’s enough, Grandfather. Zola is my fiancée, and she comes from a fine and good family. I’ll not have you saying derogatory things about her here around our table.”
“It’s hardly your table when you haven’t shown your face here in twelve years,” Stettler Jackson snapped back. “It figures you’d finally wander back when you found a girl you wanted to show off. Although there’s hardly a comparison between her and your previous fiancée.”
Even Spencer’s mother gasped over that one. “I think that comment moved over the edge of good taste,” she said, giving her father-in-law a pointed look.
Zola noticed that Bowden seemed delighted with the turn of events.
Spencer stood up. “I believe I’ve lost my appetite suddenly.”
He looked at Zola. “Zola, if you’re finished, perhaps we could take a walk. You haven’t had a chance to see the lake behind the house yet. There’s a nice path down to it.”
Zola stood up gladly.
As they left the room, she heard Stettler Jackson murmur, “That boy never could stand up to a good fight. Always wimped out when faced with a sporty confrontation. Found an excuse to run. He obviously hasn’t changed a bit.”
Rita piped up. “And you’ve obviously shown him a few good reasons not to come home again for a long time, Grandfather. Honestly! You and Bowden always have picked on him.”
At least someone spoke the truth.
Spencer tucked his arm through Zola’s as they strolled down the winding pathway toward the lake.
“I’m sorry, Zola. My family was rude to you.”
Zola snorted. “That’s an understatement.” She hugged Sp
He blew out a sigh.
“Were they always like this when you were growing up?”
“Yes, I guess they were.” He kicked at a pinecone in the path. “It was always worse, of course, when my grandfather joined us. Friday night was always his traditional night to come. On Sundays we went to his house after attending church in Richmond.” His tone grew sarcastic. “I can remember those as truly hideous times, too.”
“Tell me what you observed tonight, Spencer. Put it into words. You’re older now. You’ve been away a long time. You should have a different perspective.”
Spencer looked down to see Zola’s serious brown eyes watching him, waiting for his answer. Oh, well—why not, he thought.
“I see that nothing is different, Zola. My grandfather is still a pompous ass. He is still rude to everyone and says whatever he wants to, without any sanction. His new wife, Charlene, is another bimbo. She tinkled with laughter over his comments, as if they were humorous. She looked vacuous and seemed unintelligent.”
He snapped off a dry tree branch in irritation. “Charlene is only one of a string of that sort of women my Grandfather has squired around, and often married, since his first wife, Sylvia, died young. I never knew her; she died giving birth to a second son after my father. The baby died, too, and that left my father as the only child in the Jackson family. None of the women Grandfather dated, or later married, bore him any more children.”
It was darker now as they turned a corner away from the light of the house, but a full moon lit their way. “I did notice tonight how different my father is when my grandfather isn’t around. Dad seemed almost kind and thoughtful when we arrived earlier.”
“I noticed that, too,” Zola said. “He was genuinely glad to see you, Spencer.”
Spencer’s pent-up anger burst out then. “So why does he just sit there when his father goes on like that at the dinner table—and is rude to his guests? Why does he put up with it when Grandfather says things that are boorish and out of line?” Spencer scowled. “He does the same thing when Bowden acts that way, too. Just overlooks it. Lets it ride. It is rare for him, or my mother, to ever come to the rescue of guests or family members that are attacked. I never could understand that, Zola. It always seemed wrong.”
Her voice grew quiet. “I noticed that when your Grandfather is crossed that he retaliates with an angry attack, never an apology. Maybe that’s why.”
Spencer laughed softly. “Yeah, you learn quickly that with Grandfather Stettler, and with Bowden, it’s better to take it and keep your mouth shut than to retaliate. It nets you more abuse to defend yourself or to counter either of them.”
“Maybe that’s your answer.” Zola squeezed his arm. “Your father grew up with that—trained from an early age to keep his mouth shut. Kind of like your nephews do.”
“Yeah, that was sad to see, wasn’t it? Two boys so young already closed off like that. Maybe they both get attacked, too, if they dare to speak up or draw attention to themselves.”
Zola leaned her head against his shoulder. “They’re cute boys. I wonder if we could have them down to the mountains sometime, Spencer. Give them a taste of another kind of family life.”
He smiled down at her. “Like your family?” He leaned down to kiss her head. “You’re kind to be worried about those boys.”
“You should know how they feel.” She paused, thinking. “Spencer, what other family helped to teach you that your own immediate family was …” She searched for the right word.
“Dysfunctional?” He finished her sentence with a chuckle. “Well, my friend Peter Bradley’s family was healthy to spend time with, despite what Grandfather said. They weren’t really surprised that Peter decided to go into forestry to become a park ranger versus studying law. I don’t think they were disappointed in Peter, either, like Grandfather suggests.”
She smiled up at him. “I’d like to meet Peter some time.”
Spencer found her hand. “He’ll come for our wedding. He owes me; I went to his.” He laughed. “And we’ll go out to Wyoming to see him sometime. He and his wife are in Yellowstone National Park now.”
They reached the quiet lake, and Spencer led Zola to a bench on the patio beside it. The moon made a soft, flickering reflection on the dark water. Spencer had always liked it here.
“You know, your sister Rita seemed to handle things well at dinner.” Zola brought the conversation back to the meal they’d just left. “There seemed to be a sort of joke going between her and her date. Did you notice that?”
“I did.” Spencer nodded. “Rita always seemed to be able to see the humor in the situation with our family, to brush things off better than I ever could.”
“You’re a serious person who takes things to heart,” she said.
“Is that good or bad?” He frowned.
She smiled up at him. “It’s simply who you are. Sensitive, artistic, a person who feels things deeply. People respond to the same situations differently because of who they are. Some people can laugh things off and some people can’t.”
He thought about that. He liked the way Zola put problematic understandings about people into simple words. Introspection had never been his strong suit.
Zola tossed a small pebble out into the lake. The ripples spread out in rings in the moonlight. “Your mother just sort of plays the gracious hostess part, doesn’t she, Spencer? In fact, neither she nor your father seemed to participate much in the dinner conversation at all. Did they talk more when you were growing up?”
“Come to think of it, I guess they didn’t. Both of them were always rather quiet and reserved people.”
“I suppose. They always opened up more when you were with them singularly. In groups, they sort of faded softly into the woodwork.”
“They’re not fighters, either.”
“No. I guess not.” He scowled. “I wonder if it’s been hard for them, always being under Grandfather’s watch. Having to deal with him.”
Zola jumped in. “You mean having him insult their friends, be rude to their guests, dominate their social gatherings, and seldom offer a nice word about anyone?”
He squeezed her hand. “You make me feel almost sorry for them.”
“Perhaps you should.” She patted his arm. “You were able to escape. They never could.”
“Do you think they wanted to?” It was a new thought to him.
Zola’s face tilted up to his in the moonlight. “Maybe you should ask them.”
He laughed. “I’m not sure I’m that brave.”
“Hmmm. Well, I get a sense there is a whole other suppressed person underneath the persona of both your mother and your father. Have you ever seen that other part of either of them?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”
And he did, through the night and into the next day.
Breakfast was quieter. When Spencer came down the stairs toward the kitchen, he paused in the hallway to listen to his mother and father talking with warmth and affection with each other. They even laughed several times.
He wondered at that. Then he realized he, Bowden, and Rita were gone from home now. His parents had settled back into the pattern they’d known before their children came, the way they were when they were young and first fell in love.
Spencer walked into the kitchen and saw both of them look up and smile. He felt love radiating from them—and it surprised his heart. He was glad when Zola tripped in behind him to cover the moment.
Now he and Zola were trekking down old trails through the Pocahontas State Park—trails he’d walked a million times as a boy—all filled with memories from his childhood.
It was a warm June day, and they both wore shorts, T-shirts, and well-worn canvas shoes. Spencer also wore an old, battered backpack he’d found on a nail in the back of the garage.
He took her hand companionably. “Yes. Being here makes me remember I did know many happy times growing up. It wasn’t all bad being a part of my family. As Aston said, no one beat me, I was well provided for, my parents weren’t alcoholics or drug addicts. I was never locked in a closet.”
She sighed. “Aston knew some of those sorrows, didn’t he?”
“Yes, and yet he survived and overcame them.” Spencer shook his head. “I should probably feel ashamed that I allowed the small problems in my upbringing to bother me so. When Aston used to share his childhood stories with me, I felt guilty for my emotional baggage.”
“It isn’t easy to shake off hurts from childhood.”
Spencer looked around with pleasure. “I always felt happy here, though—tromping through the woods and fields, playing by the streams and lakes in this park. Climbing trees and exploring. Pretending in boyish games and believing impossible dreams.”
Zola squeezed his hand. “Well, try to remember the good more often than the bad when you go back home. The good is as easy to pull up into your remembrance as the bad is—if you work at it.”
“Is that what you do?” The thought seemed to surprise him.
She beamed a smile at him. “Of course. Attitude is a choice, Spencer. You can choose to be happy, to focus on what is positive, good, and true. Or you can choose to be unhappy, to focus on only the negative.”
Zola stopped walking. “Try this.” She turned to look at him. “Frown consciously and think of some really negative, unhappy things.”
He cooperated indulgently.
“It starts making you feel all down in the dumps, doesn’t it? Depressed and heavy?”
He had to admit it did.
She grinned at him. “Now try this. Smile big and think of some really positive, happy times.”
He began to grin back at her as he made the transition.
“You began to feel the heaviness lift, didn’t you?” She cocked her head to one side. “You see how much control you have over your own attitudes and moods? Much of it is simply choice.”