"All unpacked? Do you need anything?" Maggie said.
"No, everything is fine. Lola is zonked out. What are y'all doing?"
"Planning your momma's bon voyage soiree. Want to help?"
"Sure," she said and sat at the table. "What can I do?" "Here," Maggie said, "stamp these napkins. Ink pad is in there."
She handed Beth a small shopping bag with several packages of white paper cocktail napkins, an Eiffel Tower stamp and a flat tin of black ink on a blotter pad. She opened everything, lined it up in front of her and stared at it.
"Now what?" she asked. "When's the party?"
"Next Saturday. Okay, let's try one on an angle and one straight, in the corner there and then we can decide which one we like best. What do you think?"
"Sure," she said and stamped two napkins, holding them up for judgment. "And the verdict is?"
"On an angle," Mom said.
"I agree," Maggie said
"On an angle it is then," Beth said and proceeded to stamp away, thinking this was the most ridiculous job in the world. "So, who's coming to the party?"
"Our whole clan," Susan said. "Kids too."
"Excuse my groan," Beth said.
"Who makes you groan, darlin'?" Maggie said. "Doesn't this look so good?" She held out a wineglass for us to observe her creation and what could you say? She was right.
Beth had to give the devil her due. Maggie was one of those people who could duplicate the colors inside an abalone shell in bedroom paint and it would make you feel like a goddess when you woke up in the morning. She could spot a piece of driftwood on the beach, bring it home, redesign the living room around it and have it featured in Charleston Magazine. She was the family wizard in all things artistic and culinary while Beth and her mother were, well, not.
"Looks amazing." Beth said and continued to stretch her creative muscle by stamping napkins. "Uncle Henry's boys are a pain in the neck. They're coming too?"
"Yep. But it's Uncle Henry who's the colossal pain in the neck of all times," Susan said, "not to mention our sister-in-law, Teensy, right Maggie?"
"It is poor taste to speak badly of one's own family," Maggie said. "And Henry is our patriarch, so he says."
Beth giggled to herself. "Who doesn't talk about their relatives?"
"You're both right, of course," Susan said, looking at them in false innocence. "I just think it's a shame Henry can't think of anything to talk about besides his wallet."
"And too bad that Teensy can't find clothes to fit her size zero cadaver," Maggie said. "But maybe if she didn't spend so much time in the loo?"
"She wouldn't be so skinny," Susan said, finishing Maggie's sentence.
"Yeah, and it's a pity Uncle Timmy's charming boys got kicked out of Sewanee for plagiarizing term papers from the Internet," Beth said. "If they hadn't been caught with that case of liquor and all those files, they'd still be in college."
"Now, now," Aunt Maggie said. "Let's be charitable. Phil's going to finish up at Athens this fall and Blake is going to be a sophomore at Georgia State. They've learned their lessons."
Beth and Susan just looked at each other and shook their heads.
"Yeah, sure," Beth said. "And what about the rest of Uncle Timmy's crew?"
"Uncle Timmy and his slightly less exciting family will be here Friday morning." Susan said. "Crazy or not, I can't wait to see every last one of them. I mean it, y'all."
"Me too but you have to say that Aunt Mary Jo is a little bit of a mouse," Beth said. "At least their daughters are somewhere in the range of normal. Boring but normal."
"Hush now," Maggie said. "They cannot wait to see you! They told me so three times. Timmy said his girls said the only way they were coming was if you were here."
"See?" Susan said, smiling like they had all just won the state lottery.
"See what?" Beth said. "If they are all staying here, this place is gonna be a crazy house! Where's everyone gonna sleep? Do we have help to clean up and all?"
"What for?" Maggie said with her quiet smile. "We don't need help. Why, we're all healthy and you're all young...if everyone pitches in, it won't be a burden to anyone."
Beth began to stamp napkins with a vengeance. She had been brought home in shackles to watch a house that would be watching her and to cook and clean for a bunch of ingrates. Her cheeks and neck were scarlet and she knew it.
"Have you heard from the twins?" Susan asked Maggie.
"Sophie's coming for sure. I think. But Allison? Who knows about Miss Hoity Toity? She's too important to return phone calls." Maggie said.
"She's a pain in the A." Susan said.
"Aunt Sophie's coming?" Beth perked up then because Aunt Sophie was her favorite and she rarely saw her.
"As far as I know," Maggie said. "She's got a new cell number if you want it."
"Definitely," Beth said.
"Yeah, so big house party next weekend and then I'm off to Paris," Susan said. "Incredible."
"It's what you always wanted," Maggie said. "Remember when you used to say you were going to run away to Paris and live in a garret and smoke French cigarettes?"
"I was thirteen."
"Well, now you're post menopausal and isn't Simon good to let you go?"
"Thanks for reminding me not to pack tampons..."
"Hush! Your! Mouth!" Maggie said, in horror. "We're in the kitchen!"
"Whatever. You think the milk will go sour? Anyway, I did not need his permission. Like he asked me if he could go to California for a year to work with Grant?"
"Like he could do anything about it anyway?" Beth said, trying to catch her breath from laughing so hard. "When my mom wants something that badly, I wouldn't want to tangle with her!"
"Seriously, Maggie. I didn't need my husband's permission. That's ridiculous!"
"Well, I'll keep an eye on him," Maggie said. "All those cute young nurses! Whoo hoo!"
"Oh, thanks a lot," Susan said.
Maggie took some measure of delight in making her sister insecure but Susan knew it and after all these years, she had learned to take it in stride.
Beth had finished all the napkins and suddenly couldn't hold her eyes open.
"I'm going to catch a nap for a few minutes," Beth said.
"You go on, darlin'," Maggie said, "thanks for all your help."
Susan followed her to the foot of the steps and then gave her a hug.
"I'm glad you're home, baby," she said. "I always miss you."
"Me too, Momma. Call me if I sleep more than an hour, okay?"
"Sure," she said and kissed her on her forehead.
Beth climbed the stairs envisioning the laughing faces of her relatives. Her mind had time traveled to the next week and she could already feel them there. She became giddy thinking of the endless teasing that would go on, the advice that would be freely dispensed from their generation to hers. She knew how it would be. Their voices would be a continuous hum like a swarm of honeybees around a hive. White breezes from the Atlantic would drench the rooms in something sweet and delicious. Thousands of memories would be whispered to them from inside the weathered boards of pine. And they would move around each other like tiny planets in their own elliptically shaped orbits, revolving and revolving.
She was so tired. Her legs seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. She reached her room and could barely open the door. Beth did not remember having turned down her bed or that she had put Lola in her crate where she snored in tiny puffs. But there were the facts. She could not recall lowering the blinds and positioning the slats just so, so that the air could sweep in and around the room cooling everything off, with the rising tide playing its age-old lullaby. It was all a welcome mystery, typical of the things that happened there. She pulled off her jeans, dropped them to the floor and slipped between the crisp white sheets. Pale fragrances of mint and jasmine escaped from the pillows, lulling her into dreams of what? She did not know. Someone was there; she could feel them, there in the room with her. A faint presence. She was too tired to open her eyes or to ask who it was. It did not matter. She did not care. She smiled to herself knowing she had already been sized up, the rules of engagement were being laid forth and the games were about to begin.
For more on Dorthea Benton Frank and her novels visit dotfrank.com.