October 2, 1936
“Your mother is coming.”
Despite the infinite number of ways in which I could have responded to that statement, the one that flew into my mind and shot out of my mouth was, “Why?”
Auntie Nell bit her lip and I could tell she was trying not to laugh. She opened a cupboard and reached in for a tea cup with her right hand while her left hand absent-mindedly stroked her belly. “Because she misses you, of course.”
I wrinkled my nose as if someone had just made a bad smell. I knew it was rude, but since my eleventh birthday in August, I seemed to have lost the ability to edit either my facial expressions or what came out of my mouth. Nell chuckled. “Don’t let your face get stuck like that.” She took out a second cup and two saucers.
“When will she be here? Is she taking me back with her?” I tried to hide the panic I felt growing inside, but I’m sure the tremble in my voice betrayed me.
Nell filled the tea kettle and placed it on the burner. “No. As I understand it, she’s found a position in New Jersey and wants to visit you before she begins, seeing as she won’t be able to travel for a long while after that.”
My shoulders, which had crept up toward my my ears, relaxed. “Governess?
“Yes. A widower with two young children.”
I clasped my hands in my lap and twirled my thumbs, watching them circle with as much fascination as if they were as the Great Wallendas. Mother called it “twiddling my thumbs,” and would slap my hands and say, “For heaven’s sake, stop it, Gwen! People will think you’re defective!” Perhaps I was. Defective, that is. Maybe that was why Mother seemed to prefer raising other people’s children to raising the one that God had given her. So much so, that she’d sent me across the sea to England to let her family raise me instead of doing it herself.
I had long ago realized that I was an embarrassment to my mother, with my thick brown hair that managed to be neither wavy nor straight, my myopic, slightly crossed-eyes that required thick-lensed glasses to correct and my sturdy peasant legs that lacked well-defined ankles. Mother always said, “Slender ankles are a sign of good breeding.” Of course, her ankles were slim. I often wanted to ask whose fault she thought it was that my ankles were thick. But I knew what her answer would be. “You’ve got Simm legs,” she’d say in a tone that made it clear that anything “Simm” was synonymous with being a peasant.
My father, Arthur Simm, disappeared when I was eight. Mother claimed he died in an earthquake in San Francisco, but no one seemed able to verify that there had even been an earthquake. Not long after Father left, Mother brought me to England to live with her mother and then returned to the states to look for work.Given the lack of convincing evidence of my father’s death, I believed him to still be alive. But if he was, why had he never come to see me? Why had he not rescued me from being sloughed between one reluctant aunt and uncle and another after Grandmother passed? I had a recurring fantasy in which there was a knock on the door, and when I opened it, he was standing there, tall and handsome, wearing his disarmingly lopsided grin and saying, “I’ve come for you Gwen.”
Now I pictured Mother back in New Jersey, governing two small children who had lost their mum. Why did they merit a replacement mother, when I had not only lost my father, but had been almost immediately abandoned by my mother as well? Still, I pitied them, not just for being motherless, but also for having it be my mother who was stepping in. They knew not what they were in for.
“Boys or girls?” I asked.
“One of each, if I’m not mistaken.” Nell reached for my hands and held them in hers. I had been living with Uncle Alf and Auntie Nell for six months, having bounced between mother’s other siblings for two years after Grandma’s death. My grandmother had been the one person in the world whom I knew for certain loved me. When she died, I was inconsolable. My father was gone, my mother was, for all intents and purposes, gone; and now the only person who made me feel cherished was gone too.
Things got better when Alf and Nell took me in. They were kind and didn’t make me feel like a sack of dirty laundry that had been left on their stoop. They fixed up the small second bedroom just for me. Nell painted the walls a soft minty-green and sewed curtains with a rose chintz pattern. I felt sure Mother would find it quite gauche, but I loved it.
“She hasn’t had it easy, you know. Work has been hard to come by and this sounds like a good position. Anyway, she’s due to arrive before the end of the month. The twenty-sixth, I think. But I suppose it depends on what kind of weather they have on the crossing.” The kettle whistled, loud and shrill. Nell rose and turned off the gas. “Earl Grey or Chamomille?”
“Chamomille, please,” I said, heaving a dramatic sigh. “I need to be soothed, like Peter Rabbit after he’s been chased out of Mr. MacGregor’s garden.”
Nell laughed in that way that adults do when a child says something unexpectedly insightful. As she turned to pour the tea, I glimpsed a strange expression on her face. Sadness? Or worry, perhaps? No, not worry. More like guilt. And I wondered what on earth dear Auntie Nell had to feel guilty about.