The diary was bound in maroon leather dulled with age, its gilt tooling worn away in spots. Sewn into the binding was a satin bookmarker, once red, now faded to the ashy pink of a dried, pressed rose. The diary seemed to carry the scent of dried roses as well, the merest hint, like the long forgotten bundles of sachet the two daughters had been finding tucked in the backs of drawers throughout the house all this past week.
As Emily withdrew it from the cardboard carton she’d been rooting through, the small key inserted in its metal clasp fell to the dusty floorboards with a soft plink, disappearing into the gloaming of an attic crammed to the rafters and lit only by the errant rays of sunlight that had managed to slip in under the eaves. The clasp gave easily when she pried at it with her thumbnail, the worn cover falling back with a creak of arthritic spine to reveal an entry penned in handwriting so neatly rounded and girlish, it was a moment before she recognized it as their mother’s. She idly remarked to her sister, “I didn’t know Mom kept a diary.”
“A diary? Hmmm,” Sarah murmured distractedly. She was kneeling on the floor beside Emily, her rear end resting on her sneakered heels, absorbed in sorting through another carton filled with odds and ends. “God, can you believe all this stuff ? She must’ve saved every single card and letter, not to mention all our school report cards.” She plucked one from a crumpled manila envelope marked “Sarah.” “Oh, Lord. There’s that D-plus I got in Mr. Grimaldi’s class. All As and Bs except that one stupid D. Remember how mad Mom was? Not at me but at my teacher. She marched straight down there and told him that if a smart girl like me had practically flunked his class, it was because he didn’t know how to teach. I was so embarrassed!” She smiled at the memory, eyes gleaming with unshed tears.
“How could I forget?” It hadn’t been just that one incident. Their mother had been a tigress when it came to her children, questioning and sometimes berating anyone who dared criticize them when she viewed the criticism as unjust; making sure they got the best education; gently nudging Emily, the shier of the two, into the forefront whenever she appeared in danger of being overshadowed by her more outgoing sister. For Elizabeth, husband and children had always come first.
“I wonder if the old man ever recovered,” said Sarah, chuckling softly as she shook her head.
Emily’s attention was drawn back to the diary, which had fallen open to about the midway point. She struggled to make out their mother’s neat schoolgirl’s handwriting in the dim light. Her pulse quickened as a passage jumped out at her. She called urgently to her sister, “Sarah, come quick. You have to see this!”
Sarah crab-walked over to have a look, pushing a scrap of blond hair behind one ear as she leaned to peer over Emily’s shoulder. After a moment, she exclaimed softly, “Wow. Looks like this diary wasn’t the only secret she kept.” She looked up at her sister, her eyes wide and her normally animated face slack with puzzlement. “What do you make of it?”
Sarah was the rounder of the two, anchored to the earth in a way that made her seem sensible and dependable, which she was. Emily, the more excitable one, was built like a rocket poised for lift-off. Sarah had their father’s fair hair and blue eyes, while Emily favored their mother: tall and slim-hipped, with dark hair that grew to a widow’s peak on her forehead like the point on one of the heart-shaped construction-paper cutouts she’d been unearthing from cardboard cartons all day --- various Valentine’s Day projects made by her and her sister through the years.
Emily shook her head, equally bewildered. Then a new, troubling thought occurred to her. “Do you think Dad knew?”
Their father had passed away the year before. His ashes were in an urn on the fireplace mantel downstairs, where their mother had been keeping them while purportedly trying to decide where they ought to be scattered.
“Maybe it was before they were a couple,” said Sarah.
“No. Look at the date.” Emily flipped back to the first entry, where the date was clearly marked: July 3, 1951.
“The year she married Dad.” Sarah’s voice emerged as a cracked whisper.
Their mother had been twenty-one when she and Bob Marshall had wed in December of 1951, just before he’d shipped out to Korea. Sarah had been born five years later, Emily three years after that.
Emily, seated cross-legged on the floor, stared sightlessly at the jumbled pile she’d unearthed from her box: an old clock missing one of its hands, a manila envelope stuffed full of yellowing receipts, back issues of magazines, tattered paperbacks, a JFK campaign button, and an old sombrero with a hole in its brim --- a souvenir from a family trip to Acapulco. “You know how she was always telling us Dad was the only man she ever loved?” she mused aloud before bringing her head sharply round to face Sarah. “Do you think that’s just what she wanted us to believe?”
The two sisters sat in silence for a moment.
Finally Sarah replied staunchly, “No. She loved him.” Emily nodded thoughtfully. No one who’d ever seen their parents together could have doubted that. Still... “According to this, he wasn’t the only man she loved.” She peered at the diary, frowning.
“If that’s the case, it must’ve been before she and Dad were serious about each other.” Sarah found it impossible to envision their churchgoing, pie-baking, S&H Green Stamp–collecting mother involved in something as tawdry as sneaking around behind their father’s back, even if it had been before they were married.
“No. Look.” Emily brought her sister’s attention back to the first entry, where their mother had written that she was expecting a proposal from Bob soon --- proof that they’d been deeply involved at the time. Then Emily flipped to the earlier passage she’d bookmarked, dated August 12, 1951, just five weeks later.
“I don’t see how it’s possible for a human heart to hold all that I feel for AJ. Can a heart burst from too much love? How can it be that Bob hasn’t noticed? Whenever I’m with him, I’m sure it’s written all over my face.”
Sarah shook her head slowly, still struggling to digest it. “What I want to know is who is this AJ character? How come we never heard of him before?” she demanded huffily. They both knew the answer. Who had there been to tell such tales? Both Bob and Bets had been only children, so there were no aunts or uncles to fill the girls in on family lore. Their parents hadn’t been much for telling stories about the past, either. Now Emily thought she understood why: When keeping secrets, it was best to keep the past tucked away.
“I don’t know, but I intend to find out.” Emily rose with a decisive upward thrust, clutching the diary in one hand. Sarah struggled to her feet with a bit more difficulty, wincing as her cramped joints popped in release. The days when she’d been head cheerleader in high school seemed distant from the vantage point of her forty-nine years, with the twenty pounds she’d packed onto her small frame with each of her boys. Despite her best efforts, she’d been unable to shed the extra weight.
“Maybe we should wait until we can ask Mom,” she said, placing a hand on Emily’s arm.
“You’re kidding, right?” Emily gave her an incredulous look. “You know what the doctor said. We shouldn’t expect a miracle.”
“Still...” Sarah remained troubled.
It was true that their mother’s prognosis wasn’t encouraging --- six months earlier she’d suffered a massive stroke that had left her unable to speak or move, even to feed herself. But Sarah, and to a lesser degree Emily, continued to hold out hope nonetheless. At her bedside, they searched for glimmers of the woman they’d known, just as, when they were children, they’d once searched in vain for arrowheads in the vacant lot behind their house. Meanwhile, the white-haired old lady with the blank eyes and frozen rictus of a mouth who’d once been the vibrant, outspoken Elizabeth Marshall remained suspended in this twilight state, tended to around the clock by the nurses at the Miriam Hastings McDonald extended care facility. The sisters took turns visiting her there, the facility being conveniently located midway between Sarah, who lived with her husband and two sons, and Emily, with her three cats and newly issued divorce decree.
Some of Emily’s resolution fled. As she stood in the close atmosphere of the attic, motes of dust dancing in a beam of sunlight angling across the floor at her feet, she felt small and lost. Her narrow shoulders sagged with the weight of all the decisions she and her sister had had to make in a short span of time: where to place their mother after her release from the hospital, whether or not to sell
her house --- the pink, gabled Victorian they’d grown up in --- and what sort of advance funeral arrangements were to be made. Their mother had been the soul of organization in most respects, but about that she’d been maddeningly vague. Whenever one of them would broach the topic, she’d smile and say, “You girls will know what to do when the time comes.”
“I know. I hate it, too.” Emily sighed. In some ways, it was as though their mother were already gone --- all that was left a body of no use to her or anyone, an empty shell washed ashore by the tide. “But I can’t just sit on this. I have to know.”
Sarah looked unconvinced, and Emily thought she understood why: Reading other people’s diaries was what you did after they were dead.
There was also the matter of their father not having been their mother’s one and only. This was what Emily found most troubling. Their dad hadn’t been one to wear his emotions on his sleeve --- a reserve their mother had chalked up to psychological scars sustained in combat --- but she didn’t doubt that he’d loved them. Emily was certain that after their marriage, he’d never even looked at a woman other than his wife. This was the same man, after all, who’d been deacon of their church, past president of his Masonic Lodge, and a dedicated employee of the same firm for more than forty years. The term “one-woman man” had been invented for Bob Marshall, and for him, that woman had been Elizabeth. How awful, Emily thought, to find out that theirs hadn’t been the storybook romance she’d always thought was a given!
But her desire to know the truth was greater than any fear that she’d be opening a Pandora’s Box. Her sister, she could see, was leaning in that direction as well. Sarah had a habit of tugging on her lower lip when in the throes of making a decision, and right now it was pulled down so far that Emily could see the bridge where she’d lost a tooth after being hit by a runaway croquet ball as a teenager.
Finally Sarah came to a decision. “All right. I’ll phone Jeff and tell him not to wait on me for supper.”
“While you do that, I’ll go see if there’s still some of that wine left in the fridge,” said Emily as she headed for the stairs, the diary clutched firmly to her breast. “I have a feeling we’re going to need it.”
Excerpted from The Diary © Copyright 2012 by Eileen Goudge. Reprinted with permission by Vanguard Press. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 224 pages
- Publisher: Vanguard Press
- ISBN-10: 1593155433
- ISBN-13: 9781593155438