Thursday photo prompt – Empty #writephoto

The cake calls to me, its icing as smooth as a baby’s skin, with its 5 layers of hypnotic lusciousness. A rec room, filled with relatives telling jokes, rumbles with their laughter.  Two strapping lads keep out the people who insist on joining a private party.  

One by one, people walk over to greet me.  A few dance the jig to raucous Irish music.  

Dear God!  That one looks just like my husband with his thick head of wavy chocolate-brown hair, those deep blue eyes, and a smile that could steal the heart of a nun!  My mind meanders away, the sounds of merriment fading.

My husband, rest his soul, used the word “privileged” to describe my childhood.

 “Clara,” he’d say with a chuckle.  “You can’t go around treating the world like you own it.”

“You are my world,”  I’d reply, starry-eyed.

He’d flash that smile and say, “All I can give you is my heart.”

It takes years to undo the damage created by obscene wealth.  Underneath the shield formed by years of, well…privilege…my husband found a kind woman, loving mother, and a faithful wife.

He couldn’t understand why I’d think that a better privilege than living in a 3 story mansion by the ocean.  He’d played in the mud and ran through forests, while I was forced to walk in uncomfortable leather shoes from the time I turned 10 months. My sisters and I wore starched crinolines.  My brother, heir to our mini-dynasty, attended boarding school while the other children were educated in grace, posture, being demure and learning how to take on the social responsibilities of a woman married to the bastard of our father’s choice.

Starting out life with a nanny on a mansion with 10,000 feet of ocean on one side might seem like a privilege, but I wasn’t allowed near it until the age of 15, and only with a lifeguard.  My sister, older by 10 years, married at 18 out of duty.  She learned to hide the bruises, never once revealing her misery.  I swore I’d rather die young than stare out at the world with empty eyes after having the soul beaten out of me.

How can I express the joy I felt the day I overheard my father say, “No one in the men’s club wants to marry Clara.  She’s unpleasant, irreverent, and they still remember the time she kicked Dr. Roberts in the…”

“Scrotum?”  Mother asked with a smile.  “You tried to marry a 16-year-old girl off to a 49-year-old man who asked to look at her teeth as if she were a horse.  If she had not done so, I would have done it for her.  I will never again watch one of my daughters married off to a coward!”

“He was a war hero!”

“Only a coward beats his wife,” Mother said.  “Do not lie and say you were unaware of it!”

That began a very entertaining argument, proving beyond any doubt that I had inherited my mother’s spirit and wit.

At 16, my lifeguard disappeared.  Father said he’d been imprisoned for licentious behavior. That’s what they did to men who loved men.  How was I to know that it was my father who had him arrested…or why?  

The new guy loved my sense of humor.  We bantered over politics and people, I interrupt him and he’d stop talking to listen!  A month of laughter, one kiss, his arms around me, the electric want…  

My father used the word “empty” to describe rooms, bank accounts and our icebox when nothing remained in it.  How is one to understand what empty feels like if you’ve subsisted on scraps of emotions your entire life and fed that lie called “devotion to duty” since you could walk?

Not that the first time under him was anything to talk about; passion followed by pain.  At least it was something different, not platitudes at the dinner table demanding that we never stray from a prescribed etiquette. The leaches of civility were firmly adhered to our destiny by the age of 10, and we dared not speak first or begin dinner with the wrong fork.

In the desert of my life, my lover showered me with compliments and became the sun rising to greet me three times a week.  Until the obvious happened.

Back then, you learned the facts of life the hard way on your wedding night.  I explored the joys of it behind a grey boulder hidden from the house where we expressed our love for one another under grey blankets.  The day my mother knocked on my door, a corner room on the opposite side of the house from her corner room, she met my smile with a frown.

“You are the last of our daughters living at home.  You have not used a woman’s pad in over 3 months,”  Mother said.  “I did not tell your father.”

“About what?”  I wondered.

“Have you been with a man?”

“Only my lifeguard,” I said, innocent of the implications.

“You are to accompany me to the parlor,” she said, the first hint of real emotion slipping from a face so sad I wanted to hug her.

Dutifully, I followed her downstairs, hearing my father shouting at some unfortunate soul.   I rounded the corner to find my lifeguard in a suit and tie, calmly standing at ease.

“Seamus O’Grady!  You said you were…”

“I needed a job,” Seamus replied.  “The lifeguard once in your employ didn’t seem to like you, sir, but I think you’re a good egg.”

He sent an Irish scoundrel to tarnish my family?”  

“That’s odd,”  Seamus said, puzzled.  “The bloke with him told me to say I preferred the company of men and I’d get the job. I believe he was your son, though he warned me not to mention…”

“My son?  He’s the one who told me you weren’t…”

“What is this about?”  I asked.

“From my calculations, you are 3 months with child,” Mother informed me. 

“Do you know what they’re talking about, Seamus?” I asked.

“I…I’m going to be a father!”  he yelled, dancing like a crazy person.  “Clara, darling, will you marry me?”

“Yes!” I blurted out.

“Good,”  Father said.  “You will have a private wedding, I will pay for your home, and you will never receive another penny from me again.”

Strange how that one point in my life taught me never to give up my dreams.  Seamus earned the respect of my mother, who demanded to see her grandchildren, and then my father.  He never asked for a penny from them and showed his love for family by his willingness to work two jobs, as a hotel manager and as a lifeguard, so that we lived well. 

It was hard to have three babies only two years apart, but harder to lose the love of my life from heart failure a week after he’d turned 42.  

My children grown, I wanted to live life, not watch my soul die in an empty mansion.   I was 38, not 14!  I demanded that my father pay a stipend for my living expenses and fund my college education.  After all, I birthed their only grandchildren and, due to my brother’s unsanctioned lifestyle, I was the sole heir to his fortune.  My oldest sister died young from “a fall down the stairs.”  My brother was sterile from the arsenic used to cure syphilis prior to the discovery of penicillin, and in an act of disobedience bordering on irony, my other sister became a nun.

At the age of 49, I began a long career as an obstetrician.  The second greatest moment in my life was the day one of Father’s notorious “esteemed colleagues” called me Dr. O’Grady and thanked me for saving his wife.

“I wish I had a daughter just like her,” he said proudly.  My dad said nothing, turning his head away from his shame.

Through Seamus, I learned how to love.  Through my professors, I learned I was a genius.  But through my determination to teach young girls about sexuality and childbirth, I ensured that thousands of others understood how babies were conceived and the mechanics of childbirth.  No 17-year-old girl should have to lie on a hospital bed alone, screaming.  I swore never to allow another nurse to scold a woman for her lack of “restraint” when society refused to prepared her for labor.

Looking back on my life, I hadn’t understood what the word “empty” truly meant until my first child died in the Korean war at the age of 19, my second, a nurse,was killed in the Vietnam war, and my third, a 3 star general,  lost his life when his Humvee ran over an IED in 1991.

“Clara,” a young man asks with feigned politeness.  “Would you like to blow out the candles on your cake?”

I remove the oxygen mask with my good hand, and ask in a gravely voice, “Are you serious?”

I look up at the wax “100” on top of the 5 tier masterpiece, review the faces of at least 50 grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and a few great-great grandchildren.  None of them like this man, either.

“Where is my grandmother’s usual aide?”  My favorite granddaughter asks.

“On vacation. The president sent you a letter of congratulations, Clara.”

“It’s Dr. Grady to you!”  I said.  I wheeze,  breathe into the oxygen mask and let it drop. “Tamp out the candles. I don’t want anyone’s spit on my cake.”

“You’re on a liquid diet,” he reminds me.

With all the energy available, I reach over to a cake less than 2 feet away, grab a hunk and stuff a little into my mouth before he can yell, “Noooooo!”

My favorite granddaughter grabs his arm with a sturdy hand and says, “Don’t you dare try to stop her!”

“But…she’ll die!”

“Then she’ll die happy! She’d want no less for the rest of us!”

Every member of my family laughs, and claps out their agreement.  I might not be able to smile very well, but the light in my eyes says it all. Thank the good Lord; most of them inherited mom’s spirit, my joy of a life well lived, and my husbands love of family.

I take a breath through the plastic mask. Each of my progeny grabs a hunk of cake, just as I had done. 

“May your life never be empty, and your bottle always be full!” One of my grandson’s yells out, holding up a bottle of Irish whisky.  He’s mobbed with people wanting a taste of something interesting in their punch.

The music starts to play once again.  I laugh at the young aide scrambling to clean crumbs off the floor of an expensive “rest home” while my kids add punch to the mess just for spite.

With that dreadful aide otherwise occupied, my favorite granddaughter opens the curtains.  Light pours into the rec room, and I swear I can see Seamus wave at me from the seashore.

No more aches, no more fighting for breath?  I look down at my body as I say my last worldly words, “That was one fine chocolate cake!”

©Joelle LeGendre