Early on the afternoon on the day after Eileen Neally was engaged and Mary Nelson and Betty Elliot had their pre-wedding party, the three women sat in Mary and Betty’s living room in Yonkers to discuss a topic each often thought about but did not speak about. Eileen brought it up in a call that morning to Mary, and Mary agreed with her that the time was ripe for talking.
The issue was Suzanne and Suzanne’s mother and specifically Suzanne’s estrangement from her parents. Mary, Suzanne’s father’s older sister, was long separated from her brother and sister-in-law. It went way back, when Suzanne’s father, William, was in high school and Mary a sophomore at Berkeley. Mary was exiled when she was in college and her mother stumbled on her nearly naked with a woman who was not her roommate. Her connection with her parents was terminated at the earliest possible moment, and she moved to New York, alone, and built her life there thirty years ago. She was marrying Betty in six days.
Before Suzanne moved to New York some twenty months earlier, she saw Mary just twice, once at a cold Thanksgiving dinner with her family and once at a warm lunch she had alone with her Aunt the next day. Suzanne was in high school and they spoke and wrote to one another frequently in the ensuing years.
Mary was always careful to tell Suzanne not to abandon her parents, that what they did to her they did because they believed their faith required them to, as her late parents’ faith, they thought, required them to as well. But she could not control Suzanne’s emotional turmoil. Suzanne knew she was gay well before she came out to anyone, and she had an almost visceral revulsion about how her parents treated her Aunt and how they would treat her when, or if, they learned.
And when the three women sat in the living room, Suzanne had had little contact with her parents. It was only six months earlier that Suzanne re-opened communications with her younger brother, Eric, a senior in high school in Mill Valley, attending Yale in September.
So the question long avoided had to be answered. If Suzanne was ever to resume contact with her parents, it probably had to be now. Which raised the hard question of how and the even harder question of what to say to Suzanne about it, if anything.
Suzanne was a woman who could take care of herself and make her own decisions. Yet. Suzanne had suffered at the long estrangement of her Aunt Mary and seemed to have moved on. Her parents might become important to her, but right now the three women were afraid to open old wounds. They agreed that thrusting Suzanne into it directly would do far more harm than good, perhaps making the separation permanent. It would be best, they decided, to approach her mother initially to see if there was a chance at rapprochement and take it one-step-at-a-time before dropping the bomb on Suzanne. Which, of course, meant that Kerry could not know either. To the question of what would happen if Suzanne found out they decided to address that when they got to it.
Betty raised two final objections. First, if she knew, would Suzanne’s mother do anything to disrupt things? After Mary said she thought it unlikely they agreed it was a risk worth taking.
More important, they would be outing Suzanne to her mother, and likely her father. Wrong as that was, though, they decided to sacrifice it to what they thought and hoped would be the greater good.
And it was agreed. Eileen would call Suzanne’s mother. Betty was too far away. Mary was too close. Eileen was Kerry’s mother and it was all about convincing Suzanne’s mother how important she was to Suzanne. Mary found her brother’s information and with some work they were able to get a number for Kathleen Nelson in Mill Valley, California.
As she drove back to Chappaqua where she’d make the call, Eileen thought-and-thought yet was never satisfied that she knew what to say.
“Is this Kathleen Nelson?
“Yes, it’s Kate. And with whom am I speaking?”
“Kathleen…Kate, you do not know me. My name is Eileen Neally and I’m calling from New York.” Pause. “I’m calling about Suzanne.”
“Suzanne? Is something wrong? Is she alright?” A myriad of possibilities, each worse than the other, immediately raced through Kate’s brain.
“Kate, Suzanne is fine. My daughter is a friend of hers, they met in law school.”
“Why are you calling? I haven’t heard from Suzanne in over a year. I just get bits and pieces from her brother. Why—”
“Kate, my daughter is more than Suzanne’s friend…My daughter, Kerry, is engaged to marry Suzanne.” Pause.
“That’s a lie. You know nothing about my dau—”
“Mrs. Nelson, please just listen. I’m trying to help.”
“This is about Mary, isn’t it? I told William that was a mistake. If Suzanne wants to speak to me—”
“Suzanne doesn’t know I’m calling—”
“I don’t know why you and Mary are doing it but it is not going to work.”
And with that, the line went dead.
In her kitchen, Kate stared at her phone. This was insane. Why was this stranger taunting her? Suzanne would never have allowed this to happen, for someone to call her out of the blue. Suzanne would have called or emailed or used Eric as a messenger. It just made no sense. Unless…
She never should have allowed William to invite his sister to the house on Thanksgiving those years ago, allowed that creature to meet and seduce her niece, entice her to New York, and whomever this woman was—she did not get the name—Mary was mixed up in it.
Her heart skipped a beat. What if it were true? Of course, it was not. But what if it were true? Sitting in the kitchen where she took the call, Kate flung her nearly-empty cup against the wall and glared as it scattered into a million pieces. She was glad her husband was playing golf. And then she did something that she had often done in the last two years. She cried and cried.
Eric was in his room when he heard the crash. He raced to the kitchen, where his mother sat weeping and he saw the scattered remains of a coffee cup on the floor and traces of coffee on the wall. He often heard his mother cry in her bedroom and caught her doing so in the kitchen once or twice. She was almost always in control of her emotions. He knew this was about his sister.
Since reconnecting with Suzanne last Thanksgiving, he spoke to her frequently. She was thrilled when he told of getting early-admissioned into Yale and she’d sent enthusiastic comments, always laced with pointed, but accurate, “observations” when he posted performance videos of some of his piano gigs on YouTube. Sometimes they use Skype, and Kerry often dropped into the conversations now and then. Eric thought she was kind of hot, which he would never dream of telling Suzanne, and Kerry thought he was kind of handsome, which she made a point of telling Suzanne (“just in case, you know, I get traded back to the other team”).
Eric’s calls with his sister were in the privacy of his room. His parents knew they regularly spoke, but everyone observed a strict don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy. Beyond that, Eric and Suzanne often talked about what he could or should tell their parents. Angry as she was about how her parents treated their Aunt Mary, and aware that Aunt Mary always insisted that Suzanne not permanently cut her parents off, Suzanne thought it best to keep the information that Eric passed on as generic as possible. That information did not include the fact that she was engaged to Kerry. That was something that she treasured. Eric assured her that he only told them that she and Kerry were “the best of friends” and to queries about Suzanne’s love life he told them that Suzanne never spoke to him about that, which was pretty true, to Eric’s relief.
Something had changed.
“Mother?” Eric carefully asked as he approached her.
She suddenly stopped crying and she turned to glare at him. “Is it true? Is Suzanne planning to marry some woman from school? Is it?”
Now Eric was shocked. Eric knew it was true but obviously Suzanne had not told their mother or their mother would not be reacting as she was now; she would have known it was true. Who told her? If he told her it was true, she would go off on him for knowing and not telling her. Suzanne had not appreciated that she put her brother in this very position should her mother learn of her engagement to Kerry, but she had not imagined that she would find out until, and if, Suzanne herself decided to tell her. Who else could have told?
“Mother, Suzanne told me about Kerry—”
“‘Kerry? Is that the friend’s name?”
“Yes, mother. Kerry. And it’s true. I don’t know how you found out but—”
“You knew and you did not tell me?” Eric expected that. He was not expecting her to say, “that Kerry’s or whatever-her-name-is’s mother decided to throw it at me.”
Eric was surprised again. Kerry’s Mom talked to his mother? Had Suzanne or Kerry put her up to it? This was something that he had to step back from until he could figure out what was going on.
“She called out of the blue and dropped the bomb, that ‘Suzanne is engaged to my daughter.’ Bitch. She said that Suzanne did not know she contacted me.” That answered one of Eric’s questions. “She wanted to lord it over me.”
“Mother,” he responded, “does this sound like Suzanne? Of all the people in the world, do you think Suzanne would be a party to something vindictive?”
“But she’s changed. She went to New York, started hanging with your Aunt and this girlfriend”—she spit it out—“and she changed, dropping out of school and not coming home.”
“Mother. Listen to yourself. We both know that Suzanne wouldn’t change in a way that would lead her to do what you are saying she did.”
“I didn’t say SHE did it. That BITCH said she knew nothing about it.”
“And do you think that Suzanne would fall in love with someone whose mom would be like that? Do you?
“Look,” Eric continued, “whenever I speak with Suzanne, she’s very careful about what she wants me to let you know. I think she was afraid to tell you that she is engaged to Kerry. She still resents what you and especially father did to Aunt Mary. She’s told me several times that Aunt Mary has forgiven both of you and moved on, but Suzanne is still angry about it. I think she thinks that if she forgives you two she’ll be saying what you did was okay.”
“I’m sorry, Eric, but your Aunt did something that was wrong and that we could not tolerate—”
“Mother, don’t you see? You’re saying that what Suzanne is doing is wrong and cannot be tolerated. How can you be surprised that she feels that you won’t tolerate her? That you won’t ever invite her here as you never did after that Thanksgiving with Aunt Mary? How can you wonder that Suzanne couldn’t take the chance that you and father would formally disown her like Grandpa and Grandma Nelson disowned Aunt Mary.”
“You know about that?”
“I told you, there’s a lot that Suzanne tells me and there’s a lot that Aunt Mary tells Suzanne. And, mother, I have spoken with Suzanne’s Kerry. She’s doesn’t seem as sweet as Suzanne but who is? But I can’t imagine that Suzanne would fall in love with someone who would be like you’re saying or whose mother would be like you’re saying about Kerry’s Mom.
“But here’s the thing. None of that matters.”
“Of course it matters,” Kate Nelson retorted.
“It doesn’t. Wherever Suzanne is she’s not here. Mother, she is not coming back. She is never coming back. She is happy. She is in love.”
Then it came out. “Do you think my going to Yale and not going to Stanford was because I want to go to New Haven? I need to get away too, just like Suzanne did.”
His mother was stunned.
“I love you and I love father. When I’m with you, though, I feel like I’m drowning. I know you are both trying your best. But I’m drowning here. And then I talk to Suzanne and I hear how happy she is and I want a piece of that happiness.”
“Fine,” was the response. “Go to your sister. Go to your Aunt. Just go.” And with that, his mother grabbed her keys, fled the kitchen, stormed out of the house, and drove away.
While the two Nelsons spoke in California, Eileen was on the phone to Mary in New York. She reported that it went pretty much as they expected. Badly. It had to be done and now it would be up to Kate Nelson to decide whether she wanted to attempt to get back into her daughter’s life. Eileen said, “I’m not surprised but I hoped I could have established some connection with that woman.”
Mary said, “you haven’t met that woman. I have. Let me know what happens,” and the call ended.
Back in Mill Valley after Kate Nelson stormed out, Eric sat in the kitchen. He was stunned. What had just happened? He did not mean to say any of that about himself and why we were heading east, true as it was. What happened?
He had to speak to someone. Not Suzanne.
“Hello, Mary Nelson.”
“Aunt Mary?” It was a tentative voice.
“Eric! My god. What’s wrong?” Eric would not be calling her unless something was wrong. She had just hung up with Eileen. It had to be something after Eileen’s call to Mill Valley.
“Do you have a minute? I need to speak to someone.”
“Eric, what is it?”
Eric told her about the conversation he had with his mother. He never called his Aunt before and only met her once, but he had asked Suzanne to give him her number “just in case.”
“This is more than I can handle. I didn’t mean to tell her about why I’m coming east but it just came out. I can’t talk to Suzanne just yet about it because…because it involves Kerry and her Mom and it’s spinning out of control.”
Fuck. Eric. They hadn’t thought about Eric. Now he’s freaking out, stuck in the house with just his parents. So Mary felt horrible for him and also worried that their whole screening-idea would blow up and things would be far worse than they were before Eileen made the phone call.
There was only one thing that Mary could say. She told Eric that she knew Eileen called his mother and that Suzanne did not know, that they were trying to get Suzanne and her mother to start at least talking again, and that they held out the hope, however slim, that they could actually meet. She said that whatever happened would happen soon and asked Eric to keep it to himself if he could and to call her at any time if he needed to speak to someone about it.
Eric said he felt better for knowing what the hell was going on and that he’d continue to keep as low a profile as possible and definitely would not tell Suzanne about it. “I just hope that I can have some semblance of a family again,” and with that, he hung up.
It was about an hour-and-a-half after she’d finished her call with Mary when her phone rang. It was Kate Nelson. Eileen knew she couldn’t let it go although she had no idea what Kate would say or what she would say in response.
“Eileen. I spoke to Eric”—Mary had told Eileen of her call with her nephew so she wasn’t surprised—“and he admitted that some of what you say is apparently true. I do not understand, though, what you want from me. You want me to bless whatever is—” The voice was rising when it was cut-off.
“Kate, I have no idea what I expect you to do. At this point, I just want to talk like civilized people. Can we just try that?”
There was a pause on the line and then, again, “what do you want from me?”
“Kate, you sound like you’re pacing. Could you just sit for a second?”
“Okay. I’m sitting. You know I can never accept what has been done to Suzanne. It is immoral and it is wrong and it’s you and my sister-in-law and who-knows-who-else that’s behind it.” Eileen was letting her run. “We are good, faithful people. We raised Suzanne to be a good person and we never understood what would happen if she left us and now we know.”
To Kate, it was a muddle. She could not think. In her darkest moments, she could not imagine anything like this. Suzanne would be gone for three years and then she’d return. She’d live in San Francisco for a few years and get married and move to some affordable part of Marin County. They’d see each other and she’d have grandchildren and the house would be filled on Christmas. And now. This.
And she was on the phone with this fucking bitch who had some role in what happened to Suzanne. And why was she on the phone with this fucking bitch? Why had she called her? To get Kate’s blessing? She would never get that. And she probably knew it. She was calling because she wanted Kate to know that Suzanne did not need her anymore. Did not need her own, loving mother anymore. And Kate was on the phone with this woman and she had to say something. Something to keep her talking like she was a hostage negotiator, with Suzanne as the hostage.
So Kate decided to play nice. Kate was very good at playing nice.
“I’m sorry Eileen. Heally is it?”
“Neally, with an ‘N.’ And your daughter. Kerry?”
“Yes, Kerry Neally.”
“I have tried to get in touch with my daughter but for some reason, I can’t. Could you just ask her to call me? I’m sure this can all be straightened out.”
Eileen was no fool. “If Suzanne wants to speak to you, she has your number. Look, she hasn’t called you for ages and she’s been engaged for six months and she hasn’t thought to call you so what I’m doing, without telling her, is trying to make it so the two of you can get together and have some sort of life together cause right now you and she have zero life together. You can just blow me off and hang up and that’s fine. I will have done my whole I’m-a-mother thing and I won’t lose a minute of sleep if I never speak to you again. Okay.
“So, again, I’m throwing this out to you. Take it or leave it. I only care because I care for Suzanne and think down the road she will care about it even if she has already written you and her father off. So get off your high horse and talk to me.”
Kate had let Eileen have her run and she’d never been spoken to like this. She wanted to tell this bitch to go fuck herself and hang up. There was silence, and Eileen was not doing anything about it. Kate needed time, so she asked Eileen for a time to call tomorrow, Monday, and it was agreed on.
Eileen added one thing. “Please. Let’s keep Eric out of this okay? He spoke to Mary and—”
“Apparently he called Mary after you stormed out and Mary told him to lay low until the dust settles. Okay. So just…can we just keep him out of it?”
And Kate said yes and the two women hung up. Neither of them slept well and Eileen did not tell Tommy and Kate did not tell William what was bothering them.
At one on Monday, ten in Mill Valley, Kate called Eileen. Eileen was in her office with the door shut. Kate was in her living room. Eileen regretted starting this thing and thought it best to just end it. She simply asked Kate, “What do you want to do?”
Kate, in hostage-negotiator mode, wanted to keep going. She started talking about how wonderful Suzanne was and how important Suzanne was to her and how much she missed Suzanne and—
Eileen cut her off.
“Kate, it’s a simple question. What do you want to do? What? If you want to get back with Suzanne, there is only one thing you can do. Get on a plane and come to New York. You have got to meet with Eileen and with Mary—”
At Kate’s attempt to interrupt, Eileen rolled on, “I know you hate her, but you will never get to Suzanne without Mary’s help, and I promise you that Mary wants to help even if you don’t believe it.”
“I will never believe that. She’s—”
“Again. Trust me. She wants less to do with you than you do with her and maybe you can work that out with her but for now she’s on board with me contacting you and we both think that Suzanne will need her blessing—”
“It’s nothing to do with her.”
“Maybe to you. But Suzanne sees your treatment of Mary as how you will treat her and if you can’t forgive Mary she won’t forgive you. That’s the reality. So you have to live with that. Or die with it. Your choice.”
There was silence on the other end.
Kate waited. Then it all came out. How she believed ostracizing Mary because of the bad choices Mary made was what was required of her; how angry she was when she found out, after the fact, that Suzanne was in regular contact with her Aunt; how she blamed Mary for causing Suzanne to drop out of school; how much worse it was when she found out that Suzanne was deceiving her by enticing Eric to come east for college. She was surprised when Eileen interrupted to say that as far as she knew Eric hadn’t spoken to Suzanne until the prior Thanksgiving, when he said he’d already applied for early admission to Yale.
Eileen then told her to stop so they could both catch their breaths. Kate sounded exhausted.
“Kate. Just listen to me for a minute. You sound like you’re pacing again. Can you sit down?” After an “Okay,” she continued. “I didn’t know what would happen if I contacted you. I just became engaged—I’m a widow and Kerry’s dad has been gone for eight years—and I realized that by marrying again I was enlarging my own family. Your daughter is already part of my family. Your daughter.”
“Mary and you and the rest.” Kate was shouting, her earlier calmness gone. “You made her think she’s gay, an abomination, and she abandoned us, and that I’ve abandoned her.”
“Stop. Just stop. If you think that I feel sorry for you. I didn’t call to get into a debate about the Church’s position on gay marriage. I’m long past caring about the Church’s teachings about anything. Okay? Here’s the thing. Right now Suzanne has me. She has Mary and Betty as her aunts and their two boys as her cousins. All right here in New York. She doesn’t think she needs you. I called because Mary and I think she does. We don’t care what you think of us but what matters is that Mary and I think she needs you. I will never be her mother. That’s you.”
Eileen’s temper had risen beyond where it had ever been.
“After what you and your husband said about Mary that Thanksgiving—yes, they both heard you. Even if you don’t remember they both do, how you called Mary a ‘bitch.’
“So here’s the deal. I know you think I’m a nasty, manipulative bitch”—which is precisely what Kate thought she was—“but I’m not. I’m a mother. That’s why I contacted you. I am Kerry’s mother. You’re Suzanne’s mother. And all I am doing right now is telling you that I don’t care what you’ve done. That’s between you and your daughter.”
Kate spent much of the rest of the day driving and the rest staring out over the Pacific. She had not yet figured out how she could get Suzanne back, but she knew she had to take advantage of this opportunity that had appeared out of nowhere just the day before. When she spoke to her husband, he endorsed the plan, to do whatever it took to convince Suzanne to return home.
Tom was finishing a conference call when Emma, his assistant, buzzed him to say that a Kathleen Nelson was in the lobby. He asked her to let them know that he was on his way down to get her. As he passed Emma, he said he’d be gone for the rest of the day and that Ms. Nelson was one of Suzanne’s relatives. Emma knew who Suzanne was, having met her a few weeks back when she and Kerry Neally had unexpectedly stopped by to take Tom to lunch, although when he got back he said, “somehow I ended up picking up the check.”
In the lobby, Tom immediately recognized a lady-that-lunched. Slim and of medium height with blonde hair of questionable but tasteful (and expensive) provenance, she wore a black dress with a white collar and black pumps, sunglasses over her hair. A nice, black leather bag was draped over her shoulder—if he knew anything he would have recognized it as Channel—and a travel bag was at her feet as she stood by the window, looking out at Park Avenue. Her stoicism masked a cauldron of uncertainty lurking just beneath her surface; she had long been able to shield herself from prying eyes with her feigned steeliness.
“Kate Nelson?” Tom said and when she turned, visibly but scarcely relaxing, “Tom Doyle. Thanks for coming.”
“Please call me Mrs. Nelson. I’m kidding, it’s just Kate. Thanks for having me. It is been a while since I’ve been in New York. It is sort of liberating. I’m always on my guard in San Francisco.”
Tom said he was just off the phone with some people there and that it is one of his favorite cities. He paused. “Kate, we appreciate you coming here. All Eileen and I, and Mary”—which generated a slight shutter in the woman he was addressing—“want is to do what’s right for Suzanne. We’ve not told her or Kerry, Eileen’s daughter, anything about your discussions. So, if you’re ready—”
And the two walked silently over to Madison and the pub on 47th Street, with Kate carrying her Channel bag and Tom pulling her travel bag. They had a 5:30 reservation for four. When they walked in, they were both seated at a quiet table in the back. Eileen and Mary would come at about 5:45 and were sitting in a nearby Starbucks while Kate and Tom were being seated, giving Tom the chance to break the ice.
Asking just for water, after small talk, Tom began. He told Kate that he had met Eileen only six months before but had come to know Suzanne and had no doubt that Suzanne was happy with Kerry. Suzanne had to be the one who told her more but that it was important for Kate to understand that Suzanne was in a good place. Eileen was reaching out to Kate, mother-to-mother.
Kate remained silent. Finally, “I’m so scared. I’m so, so scared.” And he reached over and put his hand over hers. “Just let yourself do what your heart tells you to do. That’s all any of us can do.”
Just then, Tom saw Eileen and Mary come up the stairs. He looked at Kate: “You ready?” and she nodded, turning in their direction. When they arrived, Eileen and Mary shook Kate’s hand. The waitress appeared promptly and each ordered a drink, Eileen happy with club soda.
After more awkwardness and more small talk Tom and Mary looked at Eileen. She had started this and it was up to her to move it along.
She pulled out her phone, opened her photo app, and scrolled until she had a picture of Kerry and Suzanne. It was her favorite, Suzanne holding a race trophy and Kerry smiling with her arms around her fiancée’s neck. She passed the phone to Kate. She did not know when Kate had last seen a photo of her daughter and she doubted that she’d seen a photo of the two of them together.
Kate looked troubled and after asking whether there were more Eileen told her to simply swipe through which, to Kate, opened a cornucopia of memories, of all manner of events, in which she had not shared. After looking at five or six, Kate put the phone down and excused herself.
Nothing of substance was said while Kate was gone, other than Tom whispering, “each worth a thousand words.”
When she returned, Kate shuffled around Mary and sat again between Tom and Mary and across from Eileen. The others waited.
“I have no idea what I’m supposed to say now. If you expect me to say I’m okay with this”—and she waved around the table, especially at Mary and she was breaking the promise that she made to herself that she would be calm and civil and conciliatory and she knew it and she could not help it—“because I’m not. You expect me to say I’m okay with Mary”—and now she was looking only at Eileen—“but I’m not and I never will be.” She was letting the fires burn out.
Eileen’s phone was where Kate placed it. Kate picked it up, and the photo app was still open and there were Suzanne and Kerry on either side of Mary and another woman who Kate assumed was Mary’s partner. Kate couldn’t have known it, but this was a photo taken five days before at Mary and Betty’s pre-wedding party, the one at which Tom had secretly proposed to Eileen.
Kate swiped again and there was another picture of Suzanne and Kerry, this time with Tom and Eileen, also taken at that party. And another swipe and another picture of the two girls and Kate began to wonder if every damn picture that Eileen had on her phone featured Eileen’s daughter and Kate’s daughter.
Kate placed the phone down again. She took a breath. And then a second.
“You all think I am a horrible person. Frankly, I’ve always tried to protect my children, to teach them to do what’s right and not to do what’s wrong. Right and wrong are important to me and I’ve always thought,” looking down at the phone now—“what Mary did was wrong.”
Eileen could not let that go. “Kate, it is not about what Mary does or doesn’t do. Or Suzanne or Kerry or Betty. It is who they are. Until you see that you’re not going to be able to return to being Suzanne’s mother. Spare me the hate-the-sin/love-the-sinner crap. Don’t you understand that there’s no sin in this? There’s no sinner in this.
“You know, my Kerry stopped going to Mass one day, with all the scandals going on and the no-birth-control idiocy and the rest and she told me, I always remember this, she told me, ‘that god is not my God.’ She thought she was straight back then but couldn’t stand the bible-thumpers shouting that gay people are going to hell.”
Kate was now glaring across at Eileen but remained silent.
“And you and your husband pushed her out the door when she finally understood the hurt that the two of you put to Mary, and to Suzanne, when, and you want your Bible, when like Peter you denied that you even knew her. And you’re surprised that Suzanne saw the two of you for what you are and wanted nothing more to do with you?”
And with that Eileen threw down her napkin, grabbed her bag, and stormed out.
The others were stunned. To Tom, the woman who was so meek after her trip to Chicago was a thing of the past. To Mary, the woman was able to articulate things that she, Mary, had never been able to.
To Kate, she was a bitch.
Tom knew that Eileen would not expect him to come after her. He knew this because he knew that she hoped that with her and her emotions gone, he might be able to get Kate to understand. And it was true. Eileen was speaking hard truths that needed to be said but she was aware that the purpose was not to drive Kate away but to draw her in and that the only way to do that was to make her understand, however imperfectly, that the nonsense that had destroyed Kate’s family, although Kate would never admit it, was nonsense and that this was her last chance to save her family and that while it might not seem important to Suzanne now, eventually the Nelson family needed to be saved.
For her part, Mary was angry. Kathleen Nelson wasn’t one iota improved from the horror she was on that Thanksgiving long ago. Much as she told everyone that she had forgiven them, part of the scar remained painful and, she admitted, always would. She was marrying Betty in three days. Why had she agreed with this insanity, to reopen the wound and now have salt rubbed in it? Mary simply got up, nodded to Tom, and only Tom, and was gone. And when she saw that Eileen was waiting across 47th Street from the restaurant she dodged a taxi and walked to her.
Tom and Kate saw that Eileen had left her phone on the table, sitting in front of Kate. He began in true banker’s style, “Here’s the deal. This is one of those irresistible-force/immovable-object things. If you can’t accept your daughter for who she is, she will be lost to you forever. In her mind, you already are. But Eileen thinks that she will miss you even if right now she doesn’t. I did not know her at the time, although Eileen did, but Suzanne had a very difficult period during her year in law school. You need to know that she left school in large part because of her father and because of what you and her father did to her Aunt. However justified you two felt you were in what you did, Suzanne could not accept it.
“Suzanne was also having a difficult time with Kerry. But they worked through that and have been unbelievably happy ever since. You’ve seen the photos”—he pointed to the phone—“and you see what the two of them are like together. They are always like that. Frankly, it’s annoying at times.” She did not smile at that.
“I can’t tell you what Suzanne will say or do if you reach out to her directly. I can tell you that whatever Eileen just said, in the end, she will do all she can to help you with Suzanne. Mary too. But they can’t help you, no one can help you, with Suzanne until you accept her as she is.”
With that, Tom put three twenties on the table for their drinks, picked up Eileen’s phone, and left.
Several scenarios ran through Kate’s mind since she agreed to come to New York. More appeared when she was on the way. They all, though, ended in the exact same place. If she did not accept Suzanne for who she was, and thus accept Mary for who she was, her daughter would be gone forever. All roads led to this exact same place.
Whether it was the irresistible force or the immovable object, it was her faith. It was who she was.
She sat at the table alone. The waitress had cleared away the other drinks and Kate was still nursing hers as the restaurant filled. She added twenty dollars to the sixty Tom put down on the table and put her Channel bag over her shoulder, rolled her travel bag across the room and carried it down the stairs, and hailed a cab to take her to her boutique hotel on Park Avenue South, near Union Square. After she checked in, she left to take a long walk. She had not been to New York often, usually accompanying her husband, and she enjoyed going for long walks there. It was still light out, not quite 7:30, and she headed south towards NYU and Washington Square.
Once there, she asked several people if they knew of a Catholic Church nearby and the third or fourth person she asked directed her about a block west of the Square. There she found an old church. Its doors were open and sat in a pew, not far from the altar.
Two days before her wedding, Mary put the whole sordid affair behind her as best she could and focused on final preparations. She just couldn’t spare the space necessary were she to start thinking of a re-opening to her California family.
Eileen had no such distractions. She and Tom rode quietly on the train home. She was in her office Thursday when she got the call. It was Kate.
“I know you work in White Plains. I just got off the train. I need to talk to you.”
Eileen thought of the lobby of a new hotel and gave directions to Kate. Ten minutes later they were sitting in the hotel lounge. Each had a coffee. Kate had the floor.
“After I left the restaurant and went to my hotel last night, I walked and found myself going to St. Joseph’s in the Village, near NYU. It’s been a while since I just sat in a pew and thought and spoke to God. I did a lot of that as a kid, but now it’s all in-and-out, sit/stand/kneel/stand. You know the drill.
“I thought of what you said your daughter said, about whether the God I have been told to believe in can be my God. I have faith that my God created my beautiful, perfect Suzanne. Maybe I don’t have enough faith, but I can’t believe that my God would want me to sacrifice my perfect daughter because of a whim, because of something He put in her.”
Eileen knew Kate needed to speak and that she needed to keep out of the way.
“I can dismiss Mary even though her parents were my husband’s parents. I know now how absurd that sounds. You’re a mother.” Eileen nodded. “You can understand the uniqueness of your child. And so, when I had to confront the reality that my Suzanne loves your Kerry and then saw the pictures and how happy they both were and how after you left Tom told me how happy they always were I felt lost.
“I can’t get that time back.”
Eileen quieted her. She spoke: “Each of us has time that we can’t recover. I know I do and I know that your Suzanne does. But I know that she moved on from that and to be happy all the time. She had issues with Kerry and, you know, coming out to Kerry. She wrestled with leaving school, and has put that behind her. I have my own regrets, so many. But what always comforted me, every day, was that I had my Kerry.”
Kerry was trying to keep awake while summarizing a deposition transcript. She was a summer associate at the firm where Suzanne had worked as a paralegal. She’d done the Big Law Summer associate gig after first year and she was happy where she was. She picked up her phone when her Mom called.
“Hey, Mom, what’s up?”
“I’m sitting with Suzanne’s mother.”
Kerry was awake. And silent.
“What is going on? Where are you?”
“We’re at a hotel in White Plains. I need you to stay calm and be quiet for a minute.”
Eileen told of the events, beginning when she called Kate, ending with Kate’s confession in the hotel lobby.
“Does Mary know?”
“You first. Kerry, last night this was flying out of control. I was flying out of control. I didn’t know whether this woman would have the nerve to contact us ever again. And last night I don’t know whether I even cared. But this whole thing started because of Suzanne. This is all about Suzanne.”
“Mom, I need to think. I’m sure Carol”—the partner to whom Kerry reported—“will not have a problem with me cutting out now. I can be home in an hour. Does that work?”
Now, an hour later, Kate and Eileen sat in their daughters’ Tuckahoe home waiting for Kerry. Eileen too had gotten the okay from her boss to leave early and she and Kate had taken the train down to Tuckahoe and walked to the house. Eileen spent the time telling stories of what Suzanne had done since coming to New York, and Kate listened stoically. She took in the photos in the living room.
Her brain in turmoil since her Mom’s call, Kerry came through the door. She stopped when she saw her. She looked like what Kerry expected. Nice, tasteful blue dress with simple jewelry and flats, her well-cut blonde hair hanging just above her collar. Neither knew what to say. Kerry, though, felt a momentary glare come her way and then, as if Mrs. Nelson had gotten control of it, a tentative smile and a “You must be Kerry,” which was returned with a “Yes.”
Kerry thought of what she would say from the moment she hung up with her Mom. But as happened when her mind went blank, she had to trust her instincts to say what needed saying.
“Mrs. Nelson, I had no idea until my Mom called that there had been any contact with you at least since Suzanne”—intentionally using the version of the name she rarely did—“and I have been engaged. I don’t know what you expect coming here like this and I don’t know what my Mom expected by contacting you.
“I have neither the time nor the inclination to go down some rabbit hole with you. My Mom, though, insists that this is 100% about Suzanne and I agree. Frankly, I probably owe you a debt of gratitude. Without you and her father she probably would be sitting right now”—she checked her watch to calculate California time—“in some law office in San Francisco after finishing her second year at Stanford Law and neither of us would know of the other’s existence. So, thank you for that.” She spit out that last part.
Neither of the other two women spoke.
“Beyond that, I know that Suzanne misses you. She won’t admit it even to me but I know it’s true. I mean, she loves my Mom, but she misses you.”
Kerry plopped down into one of the wing chairs, facing the other two.
Her Mom spoke. “Kerry. If you want to speak to me alone, I’m happy to. If you want to speak with, er, Kate here alone, that’s fine too. But here’s the bottom line. I don’t think Kate accepts her daughter.” This brought a shutter and sharp stare from the woman next to her. “Yet. I believe that she has come to understand her daughter and more importantly, to understand that to truly love her daughter, as only a mother can, she must toss aside anything that blemishes that love. She can speak for herself, but I believe that she has had a personal resurrection within herself, about herself, her daughter, and her God.”
Kerry and Kate stared at Eileen. They both understood, coming at it from opposite directions, that Eileen believed that there had been a sea change in Kate, that it was real and not a feigned effort to reconnect with her daughter. With the others still silent, Eileen picked it back up.
“I know how spacey that sounds to you Kerry, and perhaps to you as well Kate, but what matters, Kerry, is that I believe that the Kate sitting here today, who I met less than twenty-four hours ago, is not the Kate that effectively sent Suzanne away that day when she helped send Mary away.”
Kerry needed to think. She asked her Mom to give her a few minutes with Mrs. Nelson, and her Mom went for a walk with her phone, having some thinking to do herself.
Over the next ten minutes, Kerry and Kate spoke. It was hard for both of them until Kerry sat on the sofa next to the not-so-formidable Mrs. Nelson. “You know nothing of me. All you need to know is that I love your daughter to the bottom of my heart. I was nothing before I met her and I’d be nothing if I did not have her. She is so much better than me in so many ways and she is the sweetest, most caring person that I have ever met. I will not allow you to see her unless you tell me how you love her right now, knowing about me, knowing that we are engaged, knowing about her Aunt, knowing that she felt she could no longer look to or rely on you and her father for anything. Knowing all of that, tell me how you love her.”
Any reservations that Kate Nelson had about her daughter and herself crumbled when Kerry made this simple demand of her. She was crying, reaching to put her arms around the woman who she now knew would soon be her daughter-in-law. Someone else who understood how perfect her Suzanne was.
She clung to Kerry, weeping, for five minutes before being able to say how she loved Suzanne. And after all of that time, and the years that came before it, all she could manage was “She’s my baby and I need to be her mother again. Whatever I have to do, I need to be her mother again” and Kerry said, “well just let me give her a call and find out what that is” and she got up and headed outside and after stunning her fiancée returned to tell her soon-to-be mother-in-law simply that “the first thing you have to do is to come with me to meet Suzanne’s train in forty-five minutes.”
Kerry had cut to the chase with Suze. “Babe, you’re mother’s in the house in Tuckahoe. I’ll give you the details later. Right now, I need to know whether you are ready to see her. I only found out when Mom called me a little over an hour ago. They met with her last night and again this morning after contacting her a few days ago.” She explained that she would give Suze details later but that she and her Mom agreed that it could work if Suzanne wanted it to and that she and her Mom would support her in any decision she made and would be with her no matter what. She emphasized that the decision was Suze’s to make.
Kerry then called her Mom and Mary to give them updates, particularly that Kerry had decided Kate had said enough to justify asking Suze to come home to at least meet with her, and both Eileen and Mary said that they were relieved and hopeful.
And after getting the okay from her boss, Suze was on the next train.