At first Ernestine was completely overwhelmed with the wonder of the nieces and nephews. As she remembered it, she had been like a dancer, moving gracefully from one side of the stage to the other, turning her well-shaped head, as if in search, trying to decide on which of the children to kneel beside. But honestly, and it was very important to be honest now that everything had turned out as happily as a fairy story, honestly she had not known that Lucy would be one.
Three years ago, at the Christmas family dining, one of Martha Nell’s awkward little girls had twisted up her skinny face and asked, “Aunt Tina, why you be old maid?” Everyone around the table, even Lucy, had laughed as if the child were really clever.
Ernestine allowed the laughter to settle before she answered quite clearly, “I need to take care of my nieces and nephews—you’re all my children.” Some of the family had laughed again, but Lucy touched her arm and smiled. The candlelight caught the ugly class ring on the child’s hand, the ring was wrapped with a bulge of adhesive: “Of course, Auntie,” Lucy said. Ernestine touched the ring, twisting it a little so that the dirty adhesive showed more plainly. Lucy giggled and batted her eyes and whispered that the ring belonged to Mister Joseph Botts. “Not Mrs. Botts’s son—at the Bakery?” Ernestine asked, and Lucy nodded and twisted her shoulders. “Nice,” Ernestine said, for it was all she could do to keep from crying.
She should have known then that Lucy was the one, but she had not known.
Ernestine Graham was willing to admit when she was wrong: Pappa always said it was a sign of wisdom. She had admitted, oh, time and again she had admitted to herself how wrong she had been about this person or that: the young men who used to call, for instance, with their weak mouths and common backgrounds; the nieces and nephews who wrote curt little notes at Easter and Memorial Day and Thanksgiving to explain their absence from the family gatherings. For a long time, just to show how mistaken a person could be, she had suspected that Martha Nell would be the other part of herself. It would have been real pleasure to possess Martha Nell, what with the child’s mother glaring at everyone and insisting that she wanted to live in a house of her own. “You’re welcome here, Pappa would want you here,” Ernestine said. When they finally moved away, Martha Nell had leaned against her auntie and cried as if her little heart would break. Ernestine kissed the child until they were both out of breath. “Any time you’re welcome,” she called to the broad back of her sister-in-law; above Martha Nell’s weeping her voice, kind and charming, rang so clear that even the neighbors heard.
She had known that morning, with a quiet infinite wisdom, that they would have to send Martha Nell’s mother away. It had been a mistake, perhaps, for in no time at all Martha Nell was married to the little farmer up the road who smelled of the stable. Martha Nell was no better than the others: she fondled her awkward children and she missed a family dining whenever her little husband wanted to visit his folks in some god forsaken part of the state. It was all one could do to keep on being gracious and charming, for there was only Brother Albert’s Lucy left, and Lucy had seemed the silliest of them all.