We are sitting in Margie’s small living room that looks over the morning shadows across the lawn, through the cedar trees to the wild place that gives the residence’s its name, The Meadows; another cursed dry, beautifully warm sunny day in Napa. It’s around 9:30 and nothing much is going on except drinking coffee, reading the news, the busy birds outside a counterpoint to the room’s quiet comfort.
I don’t know why but my aunt mentions Stewart, their best friend and one of the reasons they settled in California. She first met him in Berlin when he was dating her roommate and she introduced him to Frank. The photo she gives me is of a military man in his mid-twenties with a long masculine face—high cheekbones, sharply cut chin, sensuous lower lip, almond-shaped eyes. Margie adds that he was six-three in his stocking feet. I’m pretty sure both men and women raised their heads when he walked in.
The romance ended with her roommate but his friendship with Margie and Frank deepened. Stewart served as the procurement officer for the American sector of Berlin until he was called back to Washington. Margie and Frank began their Far East postings but, in-between their assignments, the three conspired to hook up for various adventures.
Margie brings down from a shelf a book of Stewart’s many casual, Ogden Nash-like, poems (upon Eisenhower becoming ill: Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord Ike’s soul to keep./If Ike should die before I wake,/I pray he also Nixon take). In addition to the poems he composed every day, he wrote letters to Margie and Frank. Three, four times a week, they received one and she answered back wherever they might be living at the time—necessary witty news, both trivial and profound, about everyday life.
“He signed, ‘Love Stewart’, and I would sign back ‘Love Peg…and Frank’,” she says.
I ask to see the letters and she says “Of course,” but doesn’t move to find them. It’s early in the day and I bide my time.
My social life has tripled since coming to the Meadows. I gather dinner and lunch dates, invitations to art shows and brunch. It’s an enormous advantage, of course, to be the youngest person in the dining room. But that wouldn’t count for much if I wasn’t connected to Margie whose gracious good humor is honey. Tonight we have a date with a very charming man who just returned from a boating trip, starting in Normandy and ending in Aix-en-Provence. In celebration and because Margie hasn’t had a good pate in some time, we make a reservation for a tiny French restaurant in one of the few old buildings not destroyed in the earthquake last fall. He orders a bottle of wine from an unsung vineyard for our dinner and, from then on through dessert, gives a fine lesson on the region’s wines. He’s not a snob. He has his favorites (Powderkeg wine where they are in the habit of taking him downstairs to a private tasting room). He’s horrified when I ask him what vineyard Margie and I should drive to tomorrow. On a Saturday?! With all the tourists?! We won’t survive the murderous tour buses and despicable limousines disgorging drunks in every parking lot. Instead, he offers a small sampling of his own in his apartment.
“We may scandalize the lot,” he says, clearly relishing the possibilities and, yes, it’s near ten when we emerge from his apartment after finishing a bottle a 2012 Scuppernong—a sweet thick golden dessert wine–from Spiriterra Vineyards. I startle him in the hall with a long hug and then we totter back to my aunt’s apartment. She settles into her Danish wing chair, I lounge across from her in the curved Victorian rocking chair. Our shoes are on the floor and our pretty dinner outfits are loose and wrinkled.
“Stewart asked me why I stopped writing him,” she says.
It’s the same as the morning—Stewart’s name mentioned from nowhere. When did the letters stop, though?
“He reminded me: ‘For two years, I didn’t hear anything from you.’”
“What about Frank? He didn’t write, either?”
“Not him, either.”
“I couldn’t tell him what the matter was. I didn’t know myself.”
“What was the matter?”
“I don’t know,” she says and, while I believe she means it, I’m pretty sure she does know.
“Something happened,” she says.
She studies a point on the carpet for a while. “Some things are too private.”
“But you mentioned it,” I point out.
“I don’t know why. But I couldn’t even tell Stewart about me, about that time. I needed the years. And it was traumatic and could be damaging, you understand, to people around you, people you love.”
“But if you want me to write this story, you need to trust me about these kind of things.”
I’m slightly astounded at how hard my words sound. If this was a usual interview I would press on even harder. But it’s not, so I lean forward to explain why she must tell me about those two years.
“Things maybe like this shape you. Events lead up to them and you go through them with what you have until then, and afterwards you’re different because of them.” I hold my arms out, the palms of my hands parallel, as a crude illustration of time, with the space in the middle standing in for the event (or series of events) that create the whole of a life.
What could my aunt have done? What atrocity could she have committed that wouldn’t be understandable to anyone but her?
“I can’t say,” she insists.
“I won’t be able to write about you, then. No one will really care, or understand, about you and Frank.”
I settle back into the rocking chair, sure I’m going to hell for the defeated sadness on my aunt’s face and the way she is now slumped against one side of the wing chair.
Then it comes to me. “You were in Indonesia, weren’t you?”
She sits up straight and smiles, no more exhaustion or defeat. “How did you know?”
I don’t, really, but I remember a scene she told me in another talk when she and Frank were walking into a ball at the Embassy and, in a blue silk gown and with her red hair piled high into a French twist, she suddenly sank wordlessly down on the step. She didn’t hear Frank’s pleads to stand up, nor the concern of their friends, or even the Marine guards coming down behind her. She didn’t move until she was carried to a car. Afterwards, as she told me then, Frank arranged for her to stay a few months at a coastal resort being waited on hand and foot. Back when she told me this, it was with the decided implication that it was a lovely way to receive a vacation. Now I know it was not.
I remind her of the Embassy’s steps and the blue silk gown.
“So what happened, Aunt Margie?”
She doesn’t say. The wine and the charming company, this roundelay song about her past, has worn us both out: It’s late and I’m not cruel.
I gather my things and go over to kiss her.
“Let’s think about going to Paris in the fall,” I say, immediately astounded at the idea, like Stewart to her, popping suddenly into my mind. Then again, wouldn’t it be a wonderful kind of ‘before and after’, a change in both our lives? And it would be a gift for her to be in Paris once more.
“Oh yes, let’s talk about that tomorrow.” She finds her memo pad and a pencil on the table beside her. “I’ll need to renew my passport.”
I leave her planning Paris, but I walk down the empty hallway back to the guest room thinking only of Stewart and the two years of silence.
We will go on a long drive tomorrow taking the back road of the Silverado Trail where there’ll be few tourists but pretty fields and, somewhere along there, without a thought, the secret may be revealed.