The Dearly Beloved
On both his mother’s and his father’s side, Charles Barrett was descended from old Boston families. His father was the head of the Classics Department at Harvard, where he taught seminars on the Romans and Greeks.
“Societies fail,” his father told the freshmen year after year, “when men are rewarded for seeking pleasure instead of responsibility.” His tweed jackets rasped as he cracked notes on the blackboard; his comments on papers, written in gaunt handwriting in deep blue ink, were direct and critical. At the dinner table, just before pushing back his chair to retire to his study, he often said, “Obligations are the fuel of life, Charles. Reputation is their reward.”
Their shingled, sharp-roofed Victorian house was painted grey with brown shutters. Inside it was stern, angular, and choked with books, each chosen deliberately: a collection of translation, biography, and historical analysis his father would one day bequeath to the library—a legacy of edification. Charles’s mother hid her romance magazines behind a bucket under the kitchen sink, and Charles fell on the comic books other boys brought to faculty parties, gorging himself as quickly and stealthily as his contemporaries emptied the cocktail glasses the grown-ups left behind. He never took a comic home, because his father did not
believe in leisure or in letting one’s mind run free, without purpose. If he had seen Charles with so much as a paperback, he would have assigned Charles an essay to write or a problem to solve.
Thankfully, each June, Charles and his mother packed the station wagon with canvas totes full of shorts and white sneakers and escaped to her parents’ square, damp summer house on Martha’s Vineyard, which was full of rag rugs, needlepoint pillows, and dogs. Her tanned parents were waiting when she and Charles stepped out of the car onto the crushed-shell driveway. His grandmother hugged him tightly; his grandfather clapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Stack of funnies on the table,” words that caused Charles to race into the dining room, dropping his bags hastily in the front hall.
Charles felt his full self in that house, bigger than himself—free and happy. His mother’s sisters laughed often, walked barefoot on the lawn, meandered into town for ice cream with their arms linked together. Her brothers joked with Charles around the barbecue; he and his cousins built model airplanes, flew kites, and captained remote-controlled submarines in the salt-water lake behind the shed. Summers were when Charles learned how to sail, play tennis, fix old shutters, season butter for lobster, and introduce a new person to a crowd. Summers allowed him, though he was an only child, to feel part of a brood, a clan that sailed through the world together, as stately and festive as an ocean liner.
His father visited for a week each August, sat on the beach in khaki pants and blue button-down shirts, never took off his shoes. He was not like his wife’s family, and he did not like his wife’s family. Despite this, Charles’s aunts, uncles, and grandparents respected his father. It was hard not to. He had set forth a paradigm for himself and followed it to the letter. He was well educated, eloquent, gainfully employed, and
saved from arrogance by the fact that his accomplishments were verifiable and significant. For all their diversions, Charles’s mother’s family esteemed intelligence and academic debate. Still, they took turns sitting next to his father at dinner, so that no one had to talk to him two nights in a row.
Charles had always known he would go to college, just as he had always known that to go anywhere but Harvard would cause his father to grumble and sigh. He wasn’t unduly bothered by the expectation—he loved Harvard. He loved its tree-filled commons, its stone courtyards, its brick facades, and the snippets of conversations that fell out of its open windows. He could picture himself there, walking to class in a blue blazer, books tucked beneath his arm. He could imagine the smoky smell of autumn slipping into classrooms as his professors entered, hear the gentle pop of new texts opening, see clean notebook pages white and blue beneath his pen.
Because, even though he sometimes wished he could spend his whole life playing baseball, standing in the outfield, tossing lazy balls at the deep green end of summer, when the air stayed warm well after dark, he knew he was very much like his father. Though he loved to feel his cleats kick up dirt, smell the chalk of the baselines, catch a ball in his mitt and throw it back, his body lengthening as the seam slid off his fingertips, he also loved books and everything in them: Latin, physics, algebraic equations and algorithms, the end-stop lines of geometric and philosophical proofs. Though he often longed to lean out over the side of a little boat, bracing his feet on the mast while the wind hurled him forward, pulling the line close to his hip, he also wanted to write papers, debate ideas, use his mind to read closely and accurately, formulate answers to every hidden question.
He enrolled at Harvard and majored in medieval history.
It was there, in late May 1954, that Charles sat in the library reading a book about Catherine of Aragon. He loved the library, its mahogany shelves that climbed to the ceiling, its bounty of lush pages majestically restrained. He loved it especially on days like this, when it was empty, steeped in quiet, electric with promise, as if the books were breathing, alive as big dogs sleeping at the foot of his bed. He reveled in that particular stillness, in which he felt as if he could, at any minute, turn a page and recognize everything there was in the world to know.
His junior year was drawing to a close; as soon as exams were finished, he would set off for another summer on the Vineyard. He was looking forward to vacation. He was ready to be without coat and tie, to sleep late, walk on the beach, and read whatever paperback novels happened to be on hand. It occurred to him that he should take his cousins’ children some comic books, carry on his grandfather’s tradition, but he realized, with a pang of disappointment, that he did not know where one bought comic books—his had always been hand-me-downs. He marked his page and crossed the long marble room to ask the librarian, Eileen, keeper of the key to the rare manuscripts collection, whether she knew where to buy some.
“Comic books?” she asked, eyebrows raised. “I don’t think so.” She pushed her chair back and craned her neck to ask the woman in the office behind her. “Marilyn, do you have any idea where to buy comics?” The woman in the office must have shaken her head because Eileen turned to Charles and said, “Apologies.”
Charles moved off to the side of the desk, abashed at having bothered a librarian with such a trivial question. But before he went far, he turned back to ask Eileen if she had a phone book. A girl had moved
to the front of the tall desk. Eileen was stamping her books, and as she slid the last circulation card into its cardboard holder, she asked the girl, “You don’t know where to find comic books in this town, do you?”
The girl looked up, thought for a moment, then said one word: “No.”
It was not the flat clap of a mother’s angry no; it was not the timid no of someone who wanted to always, and to everybody, say yes. It was a full, round, truthful no—not off-putting, not regretful, just an answer. It perfectly matched the girl who had spoken it. She was tall and straight-standing, wearing a navy blue skirt and a white shirt one might wear to play tennis. Her hair was thick and brown—not a deep, shiny, fashionable brown—just a serviceable, reliable brown, the color of a pony. It was cut in a plain bob. She was slightly tanned and very freckled. She looked exactly like a girl Charles might meet next week at a party on Martha’s Vineyard, except that her face was entirely sad.
He didn’t think she knew she looked sad. He thought she probably looked in the mirror and saw a well-designed face, with strong cheekbones, a straight nose, and perfectly fine, rounded pink lips. He thought she probably brushed her hair every morning and thought to herself, Good enough. He acknowledged that there were men in the world who would think she was beautiful and men in the world who would find her plain. He found her both—ravishingly beautiful and exquisitely plain. She was slim and sturdy as a board, lit up with health, and quietly, eternally sad. She looked exactly like a medieval queen.
The girl picked up her books and walked away. Charles leaned over to Eileen without thinking and asked, “What’s that girl’s name?”
Eileen answered, “Lily.”
Lily Barrett’s parents were killed in an automobile accident when she was fifteen. This fact seemed absurd to her. If she had been told it might happen before it happened, she would have said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” When she talked about it afterward she said, “I know it’s ridiculous.” Often, the person to whom she was speaking did not think it was ridiculous at all. But it was ridiculous. Whose parents died? Certainly not anyone’s she knew. The parents she knew were dentists and headmistresses, men who washed their cars on Saturday and women who cultivated roses in their spare time. And really, how could her parents be dead? Last time she had seen them, they were standing at the door, dressed for an outing. Her mother was closing her purse, her father shrugging himself into a jacket. What was it—a birthday party? A wedding? An appointment at the bank? She hadn’t asked.
They had come into the living room to say their goodbyes. Lily was lying on the blue tweed sofa. “We’ll be home by six,” her mother said, leaning over to kiss Lily on the forehead.
“Love you,” her father said, wiping away the red lipstick her mother had left on her skin with his thumb.
Lily had rolled her eyes. Rolled her eyes. She was in the middle of Jane Eyre, and she wanted to finish it that afternoon. She wanted to eat potato chips, drink ginger ale, and swallow the black-licorice paragraphs whole. Her parents went out the door. Even after the room fell still, Lily could smell the straw of her father’s hat and her mother’s lemon perfume. Outside, her cousins were playing in the backyards of the houses on either side of her own; she could hear the younger boys shouting, “This is a stickup. No, this is a stickup!” She knew the older girl cousins had been sent outside to watch them, sitting on the steps with their
striped summer skirts tucked under their knees, talking about boys, folding and refolding their socks so the lace trim fell just so around their ankles.
Lily thought they were frivolous. They thought Lily was dull. That didn’t stop them from bothering her, though; they were forever asking her to sit with them while they embroidered, or swing with them on the porch swing, or walk into town. The boys wanted Lily to play checkers with them, or help them find their archery sets, or referee their games of tag. If they had known she was home alone, they would have snuck inside to pull her hair. So she stayed in her living room all day, with her library book and its thick soft pages, its crisp cellophane wrapper that crackled slightly whenever she moved.
Lily was the lone only child in her big family. Her mother was one of four beautiful sisters, all of whom had married upstanding men. For wedding presents, their father had given them a string of sturdy white houses, lined up in a row on a leafy street in Maryville, Missouri, near the university on the west side of town. While their husbands served on the city council and ran the rotary club, Lily’s mother and her sisters took turns walking the children to school in the morning and picking them up in the afternoons. Birthday and anniversary celebrations rotated from dining room to dining room, lemonade stands from porch to porch. There was no yours and mine, only ours. Lily’s mother was the youngest, the most beautiful, and the most doted upon. Her father was the tallest, the best dressed, and the most fun.
At the hospital, Lily was given two gold wedding rings, two watches with leather straps, and her mother’s ruby earrings in a small brown envelope. She did not see the bodies. As she was waiting for her aunt Miriam and uncle Richard to finish talking to the doctors, she took the
watches out and put them on; her father’s was too big, slipped off her wrist, and had to be held in her palm.
It was still light when they drove home. Miriam, stunned and pale, did not notice the car had stopped until her husband opened the door and touched her shoulder. She got out and helped Lily out behind her, but then stood, as if lost, on the green stretch of lawn that spanned the family homes like an apron.
“Go home, love,” Richard said, turning Miriam in the right direction. Then he took Lily’s hand, led her up to her own wide, covered porch and sat next to her on the thick, weathered swing. The two of them stayed there for what seemed like hours, without saying a word. There was a slight breeze. The cicadas came out, and then the lightning bugs.
Uncle Richard was a big man, tall, who wore blue-and-white-striped shirts and kept his grey hair in the same buzz cut he had been given in the army. His stillness was as big as his being, and even then, tangled in shock, Lily realized this was why he was sitting with her, rather than anyone else. Not just because he had been first to the hospital, or because he was the oldest man and only lawyer in the family, but because he was solid enough to feel real while everything else in the world dissolved.
“Want to go in?” Richard said, finally.
Lily shook her head.
“All right. It will be here tomorrow.” He looked over at her. “It’s your house,” he said. “It will be until you don’t want it to be. We’ll leave it unlocked, and we won’t go in it much without you.”
Lily looked at him.
“So you can come here for privacy,” he said. “But you’ll live with us.”
It was then that Lily started to cry, because the offer to live in someone else’s house made her feel completely and utterly alone.
For most of Charles’s undergraduate life, the history of the Saxons, Plantagenets, Lancasters, and Yorks had stretched out across reading tables in front of him, full of petty politics and sweeping consequences, courtly love and syphilis, mental incapacity and strength beyond compare. There were wars brothers fought as enemies, and wars they won as allies. There were castles and feasts, the boundaries of Europe changed over and over, and there were the Crusades, which took his mind to the mosques and mullahs of the Middle East. He studied well and got good grades, for which he worked diligently. He wanted to distinguish himself as an academic in his own right, separate from his father. He sought no favoritism, but he sometimes thought he was being graded harder than his classmates in an effort by his professors to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were showing him none.
Those professors were not pleased when Charles decided to take a class given by Tom Adams, a young academic prodigy who ran seminars called If Henry the Fifth Were Alive Today, Could You Have Conquered Islam?, and Was Korea a Crusade?
It was Tom’s class on Korea that caught Charles’s attention, along with the rest of the school’s. It was being given just as young men who had fought in the war were enrolling for their long-delayed freshman year. Their presence alone disturbed Charles’s classmates, all of whom were the right age to have served, but none of whom had signed up. They had chosen their student deferments, read about the fighting in newspapers, caught glimpses of it on the televisions in their house common rooms: footage of men in shirtsleeves and loose helmets, crawling over
dirt, weighed down by their backpacks, their hands and faces bare as bullets exploded next to them in the ground. Now those men were years behind them, and there was a palpable sense of awkward guilt in the air. Tom’s course seemed in poor taste to some, but those who signed up for it found the chance to discuss war with actual soldiers the most affecting experience of their college careers.
Charles’s father found it ludicrous. “That man,” Charles’s father told him, “needs to align himself more closely with tradition.” He pointed meaningfully at Charles, and Charles nodded deferentially, but spent the night before registration sleeping in the drafty hall of the history building to guarantee himself a spot in Tom’s fall tutorial: Martyrs and Their Murderers.
Tom Adams was not much older than his students; he wore the same penny loafers and horn-rimmed glasses they wore and had the same cut of tidy dark hair. But when he walked into the room on the first day of class, he was not like them at all. He was intense, electric, and inspired. They leaned forward in their chairs.
“We study the past to illuminate the present,” Tom said loudly, staring at them. “Is the present, then, illuminated?” He paused, shook his head, paced the perimeter of the room.
“Study does not engender wisdom,” he continued, his voice stern and challenging. “Analysis does not inspire insight.” He raised his eyebrows, exhorting Charles and his classmates to pay attention. “Only empathy allows us to see clearly. Only compassion brings lasting change.”
Tom strode to his desk, hoisted himself up to sit on one corner. “I am going to ask you to imagine yourself into the history we read. I am going to ask you to feel it. Because only living it will convince you to stop it from happening again.”
Charles knew that, in a classroom down the hall, his father was giving his own beginning-of-the-year speech, about discipline and meticulous scholarship. “Do not extrapolate; do not embellish,” he was saying. “Never underestimate the gravity of your undertaking: to analyze the ages, to evaluate what has come before.”
Tom put his hands in the pockets of his sport coat and smiled. “Everyone imagines himself a king,” he said. There were chuckles around the seminar table.
Tom nodded indulgently and shrugged. “That’s perfectly fine,” he said. “It’s what makes history fun.” He opened a drawer and took out a thick stack of stapled paper—the semester’s reading list. “But I’m not going to encourage you,” he said, throwing a syllabus down in front of each of them with a thud. “Kings are champions of the status quo. I want you all to pay attention to the serf. I’m certainly going to work you like some.” There were scattered grins; Tom stared them down. “I’m going to force each of you—you of sound, incredible, impressionable minds—to understand at least one thing here that will make you want to change the world.”
Charles felt chastened. He had been imagining himself a king. While boys his age had set up tents in South Korea, he had studied. While they slept on cots, he had played a game: the study of history for history’s sake. Now, for the first time, he was asked to ponder the purpose of his studies.
Charles realized with a start that if his father thought harder about it, he would see that he and Tom held the same goal: to inspire students to strive for excellence, achievement, insight, and understanding. His father believed their training should include intellectual rigor and ruthless critique. Tom believed it should be built on imagination and depth
of feeling. But their motives were the same: to pull their students into the world of useful men.
Lily’s family’s grief was immediate and unassuageable. They fell apart. Entirely. Her aunts took to their beds and the older girl cousins wept for days; in hysterics, they called their friends and cried on the phone. Even months later, there was almost always an aunt weeping over a mixing bowl or wiping her eyes with a flour-dusted apron.
Lily’s mother had loved to bake, had held court in the kitchen as she cut out sugar cookies or spooned biscuits into a skillet. She had talked and baked, and Lily’s older girl cousins had hung on her every word, copied her dresses, styled their hair to look like hers. Now they told Lily, “I wanted to be like your mother. I wanted to be your mother. Now I don’t have any idea who I want to be.”
Lily had never wanted to be either of her parents. When they were alive, she hadn’t fought for space on a kitchen stool next to the girls or hid under the dining room table with the boys while their fathers played endless rounds of hearts in the evenings, hoping to shoot the moon. She had just read all day and wished she lived someplace where she could do that without a boy cousin trying to steal her book, or a girl cousin asking if she had seen her other shoe, or one of her aunts asking her to clean up the dining room table, simply because she was the only child sitting still enough to be found.
Even in grief, Lily wanted to be left alone. She wanted to remember her parents the way they had been with her. The way the three of them had walked home together at the end of every family dinner holding hands. The way her mother had brushed her hair before bed and the way her father had stared into the refrigerator, looking for one last cold
7Up to drink before he went to sleep. Her parents had not been like her, but they had been hers, and it was unbearable to watch people grieve for parts of them she had never really known.
For the first year, she carried a book with her constantly, like an oxygen tank. When she was forced to venture out without one—to help carry groceries or bike one of the younger children into town—she lurched, limped, looked for things to hang on to. The outline of the world—trees, pavement, hands, the tops of buildings against the sky—was too keen, too ready to fall and slice. The unplanned chaos of people moving about her was too much to bear. She needed flat angles, thin pages, to sit quietly with her hair tucked behind her ear.
The problem was that she could no longer follow a story. Every plot seemed contrived to her: the author’s intent too clear, the layers of gears revealed. Characters were strangers. No matter how hard she tried, she could no longer care for them. They were just bland letters on a page.
She could still manage schoolwork. In fact, she liked school even more now, because it hadn’t changed; there were still assignments given, with expected page lengths and footnotes to be organized, grades received. Her teachers would have given her a pass, she was sure, but they couldn’t stop her from handing in work or discourage her from revising for hours to make certain her As were not given out of pity.
Her parents had never cared much about school. “Don’t be so serious,” they said. “Get out and have some fun.” But there was no fun to be had now, so she spent her afternoons in the library, reading textbooks and filling notecards with citations. The library closed at five. Lily packed up slowly and waited as long as the librarian would let her before heading home. It was easiest to time her arrival with Richard’s, so that
she could slip in behind him as his children ran downstairs. Every night, as he hugged them and asked about their days, Lily crept away into the living room and continued studying, alone, until dinner.
After a year passed, Richard and Miriam’s house settled back into its routine. The children fed the dog under the table and stole pieces of cake off each other’s plates. Miriam shook her head in exasperation at their antics, shooed the dog outside fifteen times a day, and constantly exhorted everyone to do their chores. But not Lily. She no longer had chores. She was a guest, a doll from another dollhouse family.
Sometimes Lily went back to her old house, climbed the porch steps, opened the door, and flipped the light switch on the wall. The blue living room couch, the hooked rug, the two wooden chairs, the tall lamp with its tasseled shade were still there. The kitchen table and its chairs, the beds in the bedrooms, the bathroom sinks and the mirrors above them had not moved. But grief was there, and absence, and loss. Lily could not stay too long, never past dark. If she did, emptiness bloomed inside her, as big and cold as a night without stars. Sometimes she worried that the darkness would dissolve her, erase her like chalk until she was nothing. One endless ache and then gone.
After a few months more, there was a discussion about money. Richard sat her down in his office and put her parents’ will on the desk in front of her. It was six pages long. He had unstapled it so that he could turn the pages over into a separate stack as he read them to her, two white rectangles on the dark wood, one striped with text, the other blank: two eyes, one opened and one closed.
“It starts with small things,” he said. We, Ava and George, being of sound mind do bequeath was followed by a long list of items that felt trivial to Lily, but she knew would feel important to those who received
them. To Aunt Miriam, they left the family silver, which everyone said should have gone to her in the first place. To nieces, they left pieces of jewelry, to nephews, radios and watches. To a pair of uncles, they left two cars Lily never knew they’d owned.
“Those were hot rods,” Richard told her. “They fixed them up together.” His voice was apologetic. She wondered if he thought there was any Earth on which she would ever consider sitting in one of her parents’ cars.
“Now, Lily, no one wants any of these things soon. In fact, I haven’t told anyone but you about the will. But at some point, people will start asking, and I wanted you to have the facts.”
She nodded. It was as if her parents had left her a Christmas list, asked her to go to the store, buy the presents, and wrap them.
Richard turned another page. “And finally, to our darling daughter Lily,” he read. “We leave everything else we own, anything in our possession not mentioned above, including all the money we have managed not to spend, and the house if it is still standing, and of course, all the love we have for her, forever.”
She had begun to cry, silently, at darling daughter, the now-familiar heat of grief climbing like a rash up her throat, behind her cheekbones, to her eyes. By love, tears dripped off her chin onto her lap. Richard handed her a handkerchief and turned to the last page.
There, Lily saw a list of three bank accounts and the value of the house. The amount was absurd to her, because she had never thought about money beyond nickels for library fines. Everything she needed had simply appeared. She did not know how to take this in: her parents’ worth in numbers on the page, the squiggles of a language she had not been taught to read.
“We’ll pay for everything you need right now,” Richard told her. “We want to. But I also want you to know that you’re not dependent on us for your future.”
Future was not a concept Lily could understand.
Still, she tried to move on. She presented everyone with their gifts from the will, and then some. She gave away all of her parents’ clothing. Her cousins and aunts took her mother’s dresses, blue-flowered and pink lace. Her uncles did not fit into her father’s suits, but they took his ties and lace-up shoes. She let the smaller cousins have all the toys and books they wanted. She found that the fewer things she owned, the easier it was for her to contain her grief, to pack it away in the closets and sideboards of her bones.
But every day there was an uncle standing on the lawn, wearing one of her father’s hats, shaking some small, broken thing and saying, “If only George was here to get this up and running.” There were pictures of her parents in silver frames on the mantel of every house she entered, placed at the front and freshly shined.
“Remember when he tried to fix the roof and nailed all those shingles on backward?”
“Remember how breathtaking she was in that ivory strapless gown?”
Lily couldn’t get them to stop talking, couldn’t make them understand that every memory unfurled her grief again, like a great wind heaving through the shelves of her being—plates broken, silverware scattered, sheets falling, unfolded, to the floor.
Slowly, she realized that the numbers on the page were like the pieces of a model airplane: everything she needed to build her way out, to get herself somewhere, anywhere, she could be something other than
an orphan. So when she was seventeen, she asked her aunts about college, saying, “I want to go to Boston.”
She didn’t particularly want to go east. But she desperately wanted to meet people who did not know the details of her life and with whom she did not have to share her story. She wanted to go somewhere she could choose a day, any day, on which she did not have to think of her parents. She applied to, was accepted by, and left to study literature at Radcliffe.