Mamma in Moonlight
Mamma has always had a love for possessions. That, unfortunately, included other women’s men. In all fairness, I think it should be understood that it wasn’t entirely Mamma’s fault. From the time she was a child, she’d been allowed to believe she was no ordinary girl – not with magnificent ebony hair, porcelain skin, and eyes of summer sky blue. Not as the youngest child and only daughter of Beauford Thomas Caldwell and his wife Margaret Susan Marshall Caldwell. Yes, Marshall of the once Chief Justice Marshall, as anyone who knew anything could tell you in an instant.
Mind you, the Caldwell family was equally distinguished, having documented roots to not only the Daughters of the Confederacy, but also firm links to the Daughters of the American Revolution. The order of precedence of the two organizations was, of course, a matter of perspective.
Since the family wealth that was still spoken of fondly had diminished over the generations, emotional indulgences for Mamma had often substituted for coveted items. Her prom dress might have been re-cut from an antique satin and lace ball gown, but it had been cut into the latest Parisian style. If she could not be granted a white Thunderbird convertible, she could daintily fluff soft, naturally wavy tresses and drawl of their aged sedan, “We think a classic car has soooo much more character.”
I don’t know when my mother realized that collecting men’s hearts could be doubly rewarding – she could take what other girls, and later women, prized as their own and prettily, breathlessly accept generous presents in her youth, and lucrative divorce settlements in the following years. Marriages dissolved in her hands like perfumed bath salts.
While fabled fortunes could not be totally recovered, Mamma did her part. Somewhere in the string of awed suitors and husbands was Zachary James Buckley – Buck. He managed to look past Mamma’s charms to recognize her habit of flitting from love to love as a butterfly does from flower to flower. He determined that love from afar was monetarily safer, and he could fill a role no other man was able to. Buck became friend and financial advisor, navigating Mamma through practical matters she correctly presumed others would manage for her. I learned of his unique position while shamelessly eavesdropping during my mother’s second divorce.
My father, and that of my sister, Lillie, had been husband number two in Mamma’s world, and the only one to have left her a widow. It was a label she’d tearfully accepted, perhaps even believing that he would have been the love of her life she seemed to be constantly seeking. As a six-year-old, I did not know the term workaholic. I merely knew that Daddy was a handsome man, although older than that of my schoolmates, who rarely said no to our beautiful mother, and who seemed to always be at the office or on the telephone. When the house was crowded with people after the funeral, I solemnly accepted repetition of, “Oh you poor dears”. Mamma had given Lillie a new doll clad in a blue velvet ball gown to distract her, but as the oldest, I was expected to make a proper showing.
I toyed with these memories as I observed people laughingly press congratulations on my mother and her fifth husband. My latest stepfather, Conrad Phillip Fletcher, resembled the previous one in appearance, bearing and of course, financial standing. Mamma was at least consistent in her taste. Although he might not last longer than her fourth husband, it would have been ungracious to express my opinion. The various women in attendance likely shared such thoughts, yet having Mamma married again no doubt eased concerns for their own husbands.
“Isn’t she simply amazing? If I didn’t know better, I would swear she must drink daily from the fountain of youth.”
“Accurate if you’re talking about maturity,” was what I thought. “She does know how to take care of herself,” I said instead, ever the mindful daughter.
“And even though I thought her last dress was to die for, I do believe this one is lovelier,” Sharon Puller continued, a glass of what was probably club soda in hand. She couldn’t really relax until the cake was cut. “You girls look wonderful, too. I was a little worried about lavender with your auburn hair, but it just couldn’t be better.”
“Yes ma’am, you did a wonderful job.”
I knew my lines, plus I was grateful to Sharon. As Atlanta’s premiere wedding coordinator, she’d adroitly steered Mamma from her initial plan for antebellum theme into more decorous, traditional fashion. Her ivory silk, ankle-length gown was tastefully decorated with seed pearls along a scalloped hem and a flattering neckline. Fluid fabric draped a body she maintained through a discipline lacking in most of her other actions.
Cousin Martha, a well-practiced matron of honor, was presentable in deep purple and our complementing lavender sheaths were thankfully devoid of flounces and absurd bows. The entire affair was properly done, would incite adequate envy among many female guests who would, no doubt, purr double-edged comments. The reception carried forward colors of purple and ivory with masses of iris and roses, an array of delectable, heavy hors d’oeuvres instead of a dreary sit down meal, and bartenders who had been instructed to pour liberally.
“Linda, here you are all alone. What on earth did you do with Conrad’s nephew?”, Sharon asked when she realized I had no companion. “He’s got a very fine form, and I was told he’s been placed quite well in Conrad’s company.”
“His good looks are better suited to someone else’s taste,” I said and nodded to a nearby table, where it appeared the groomsmen were ensuring two giggling young ladies had full glasses of champagne. “Lillie brought her own crowd,” I continued, pointing to my younger sister. In the finest traditions of our mother, she was at the center of attention of high school males. From the sound of them, the bar tenders had perhaps also been instructed to not be overly aggressive in checking ages; although at seventeen, they weren’t likely to be total strangers to alcohol.
Sharon pulled back the sleeve of her moss green linen jacket to check her wristwatch. “Well, there must be some suitable, unattached male around for the evening. Let’s see who….”
“Oh look, it’s the Holloways. I haven’t said hello to them yet. Please excuse me,” I said with enough of a smile to cover my departure. I suspected I was the only woman in the room who was perfectly comfortable in attending a wedding without a date. I had nothing against dating when it fit into my priorities. I’d taken another ambitious course load for spring semester, and I’d come straight home from final exams. I was little inclined to seek out previous high school boyfriends, and I’d been too busy to become entangled with anyone at college. Predictably, Mamma’s response to my steadfast 4.0 had been, “That’s nice, dear. Now don’t forget we have your final fitting on Tuesday.”
I dutifully paused to chat with Mr. and Mrs. Holloway, friends of my grandparents, snagged fresh champagne from a passing waiter, and escaped to the wide terrace.
I moved far enough from clustered guests to avoid being hailed and watched moonlight glisten off a sculpted pond in the azalea garden below. Large, thick stands of the locally famous blooms and other groomed shrubs decoratively blocked errant golf balls that could be sliced from the adjoining 17th hole.
“The aroma of honeysuckle on a moonlit June night, and an excellent selection of bourbon. Your Mamma does know how to throw a wedding.”
The scent of Buck’s cigar was as distinctive as his voice. I kept one hand on the stone railing and turned my head. “You tend to do well at those things you practice.”
“Do I hear disapproval wrapped around that statement?” He stepped alongside me, his jacket unbuttoned and tie loosened. Not classically handsome, but attractive with a gently receding hairline, a healthy tan from golf and tennis, and brown eyes that crinkled when he smiled. Beau had no use for straightened teeth or artificial whiteners – he held to the school that men should not be overly concerned with minor physical flaws.
I sighed. “Continued mystification is probably more accurate,” I said after a pause. The thoughts had bubbled through me most of the day; simmering in a quiet way, flickering in and out of irritation.
“You do have a large streak of your Daddy in you. Aside from being smart as a whip, I mean. And focused.”
“And not skilled in arcane Southern Belleness.”
He removed his cigar, his strong chin quivering with suppressed laughter. “You learn that phrase at school?”
“There are certain phrases that should exist.” I breathed in slowly, the mellow air of the made-to-order night nudging me toward amused exasperation. I shifted to face him, tilting my head back slightly to look into deep set eyes that I’d known since I was a child. How was it that the only constant male in our lives beyond blood relatives was Buck?
Buck sneaked another puff and blew a stream of smoke toward his shoes. “Any special reason you’re not feeling festive?”
I listened for a moment to the music change tempo. Someone must have requested a Big Band number.
“Not really,” I admitted, searching for a word that would fit. “It’s just that it’s so….,” Not hypocritical; despite Mamma’s flightiness, she was sincere in her admiration for her new husband.
“Deja vu?” Buck supplied.
I shrugged. “That, for sure and I don’t know; transient, I guess. Another man she’s madly in love with and as far as I can tell, nothing about Conrad is so very different from the others. You don’t think this is it for her, do you?”
Buck tapped ash over the balcony. “It’s possible, but I wouldn’t put money on it. You do know it’s being in love that your Mamma enjoys? Staying in love has always been hard for her. You girls, sorry, I guess you’re more a young lady now, but anyway, you two are the real loves of her life. Your Mamma enjoys romance, and not many of us can keep that going at full throttle for long. If I believed in that talk show nonsense, I suppose I’d say she’s in love with the idea of love.”
His perception startled me. “When did you figure that out?”
His swirled ice cubes in the heavy whiskey glass. “Early on. We grew up down the block, and maybe it was easier for me because we were friends first. I was kind of a skinny squirt in those days with a head for numbers – comes from being third generation of bankers, I imagine – and your Mamma was the prettiest girl around even then. I’d watch boys going crazy over her and the thing that beat all, was that when she was tired of one and went on to another, she did it in a way so there were never any hard feelings. Well, not among the boys, I mean. Even when some girl got mad at her though, she usually charmed her way out of it.”
He puffed the cigar to re-energize the glow. “No, I had sense to marry a woman who accepted I would always be a little in love with your Mamma, and understood that I knew better than to fall too far under her spell,” he said with a low chuckle.
“Why there you are, Darling.” Mamma’s honeyed lilt preceded her like petals thrown by a flower girl. Her scent came next, a subtle fragrance you registered with an involuntary smile. Her hallmark was using the perfect amount in precisely the correct spots rather than embracing a single kind of perfume.
She held two full glasses of champagne. “Oh dear, and me without a fresh bourbon for you, Buck.”
“That’s alright, Sugar, I’m going back in,” he said with a wink to me. “If I forgot to tell you earlier, you look gorgeous.”
“I’m assuming that compliment was for both of us,” she said while proffering her cheek for a kiss.
“Absolutely,” he agreed, delivered the kiss, and disappeared through open French doors. The music had shifted again. God help me, they were playing We’ve Only Just Begun. Who would have asked for that?
I set my empty glass on the stone railing, careful to keep from knocking it over, and took the one from Mamma.
“Are you not having a good time?” Her question was uncharacteristically to the point.
“It’s not really my crowd any longer,” I said, lingering on my conversation with Buck.
“That’s why you should stay for the summer,” she said quickly. “Conrad and I will only be gone for two weeks. You could look up all your old friends, and then we could do girl things.”
“This internship is important for me,” I said.
“And they usually take juniors and hardly ever sophomores,” she repeated to my surprise. “You see, I was paying attention when you told me. You’ve been carrying so many extra classes that I worry you’re not having any fun. I suppose I understand not joining a sorority, but you haven’t said one word about meeting young men either.”
“Mamma, I’m not one of those women who go to college to find a husband.” I hadn’t intended my response to come out sharply.
She hesitated, her face neutral of the carefree smile she’d been wearing. She leaned into the railing and brushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I came of age in between, you know,” she said softly.
“In between what?”
“Times. Culture. Expectations. I’m not sure what we called it then. Women in the northeast were so intense and strident about everything – women out in California were throwing away their bras; women were being told it was a whole new world where we didn’t need men any more. All of a sudden we were supposed to be fulfilled – rip away shackles; I don’t recall all the slogans.” She moved her champagne glass in an arc. “Oh, we had a suffragette in the family lineup, and Grandmother Marshall had to take in boarders and teach piano lessons to get past the Depression, but for the most part, what we Marshall women did was learn to marry well, and perform all the associated social duties. Being oppressed is not how we defined ourselves.”
This was the first time I could recall hearing wistfulness in Mamma’s voice. “Mamma, I didn’t mean…”
“Sssh, child,” she said. “I don’t feel like I was oppressed, or didn’t have a choice. School always bored me, and I’ve never had the faintest desire to set the corporate world on fire, or fly off in some space shuttle thing.” She swept her free hand down the length of her dress, the huge diamond from Conrad catching the moonlight. “I shop, I lunch with the ladies, I do charity, I have my personal trainer, and I adore being married. I lead a privileged life that I know is not what you want for yourself, but I do want you to be happy, Linda. What I don’t know is what that means to you.”
My God, were we having a conversation of substance? Here? Now?
“Mamma, I’m barely twenty-one. Yes, I work hard, take college seriously, and have every reason to believe I’ll land a good job when I graduate, but it’s not as if I don’t enjoy myself. I have friends, I do things, and I don’t require a man to be a part of that. At least, not right now.”
She sipped her drink and nodded once. “So I’ve not driven you into confirmed spinsterhood?”
The laugh escaped before I could choke it down. “Mamma, no one uses that word anymore and no, you haven’t.”
“Good, that would be simply too ironic. If I promise not to try and fix you up with another of Conrad’s nephews, will you join us for Christmas? Conrad wants to invest in property in Idaho or Montana – one of those cold, thinly populated states where everyone loves to ski, and he wants to rent a lodge for a couple of weeks. The trip should certainly be worth a suitcase full of new outfits. It’s a wonderful excuse for a shopping day.”
“No absolute promises, but I will put it on my calendar,” I said, knowing Christmas could just as likely wind up being in Hawaii, assuming the marriage made it six months.
“My gracious, I’ve been looking all over for you,” Sharon Puller called as she glided across the terrace. “It’s almost time to cut the cake.”
Mamma twirled on her toes and flung her arms wide. “Then let’s not keep people waiting,” she cooed. “Go along and I will be there in two little bitty minutes.”
She turned and touched my cheek, giving me a moment longer before she submerged into her comfortable indulgence. “Escort me in, my dear?”
I offered my arm. “As long as you don’t throw the bouquet in my direction later.”
She squeezed affectionately and lifted her glass to the full moon with her other hand. “Don’t be silly. What would a young career woman like you need with such a thing?”
Copyright © 2001-2018, Charlie Hudson. All rights reserved.