(Continued from Chapter 7.6, Letting go of Inhibition; to start book, scroll to Archives) Shirley Berg’s morning routine hasn’t changed in years. She wakes around eight, swallows a handful of vitamins with breakfast, throws on a terry cloth sweat-suit, and heads to the pool club to catch the nine o’clock water aerobics class, thermos of coffee in hand. After a sauna and a shower, she continues to the hairdresser, where, every day, she has her hair washed and blown dry. Next she runs errands, stopping at the grocery store to pick up a salad-bar lunch.
Veronica usually calls her soon after that, chatting about the kids and the weather in Aix while Shirley eats. Dialing now, Veronica checks her watch: quarter past eleven Jersey time. A little early, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
Shirley picks up after nearly a dozen rings. “Are you okay?” she pants. She must have just gotten home and bolted in from the garage.
Veronica swallows hard. Her mother’s familiar voice trumpets like the shofar heralding Yom Kippur’s end: loud and strident, but such a relief. “I’m fine, Mom,” she squeaks, blowing her nose.
“You don’t sound fine. And you’re calling so early. Shouldn’t you be picking up the kids?”
“They’re already here. Luc’s sick. Céleste isn’t. Not yet, that is.”
Veronica can hear Shirley opening a door—a cabinet or the fridge—and puttering with paper bags and plastic take-out cartons, the kind with two snaplike buttons in the front that crunch loudly when they open. She pictures her with the phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear, her head of freshly coiffed, ruby-tinted hair the shape of a wavy cycling helmet bent to the side as she unloads groceries.
“Just a bad cold,” Veronica says. “His nose is like Niagara Falls.”
Something clanks on Shirley’s end of the line. “Maybe it’s an ear infection. Or strep,” Shirley says, mouth full.
Veronica sniffs and then smiles. Her mother has probably just torn off a piece of a bagel or muffin to nosh before lunch. How nice it is to know that some things are predictable and never change.
“If it’s strep or an ear infection, he’ll go on antibiotics for a couple of days and end of story,” she says. After a brief pause, she adds, “Everything should be so easy.”
“I knew it,” Shirley declares. “You’re not fine. Are you taking heat for what’s going on in the Middle East? I’ve heard the French are all bent out of shape that we’ve lined up troops in Kuwait.”
“Oh.” Veronica hasn’t checked the news since yesterday. “Well, nobody’s mentioned it. Don’t worry.”
“So what’s the matter?”
Veronica sits down at the dining table and takes a deep breath. Though she’s carefully scripted her end of this conversation, she feels as clumsy as a kid in a school play who has just stepped out onto the stage and forgotten her lines. She clears her throat, chest bloated with shame. “Nothing major. Just a little glitch in my travel plans for this summer. I never would have thought that there’d be a downside to the twins getting bigger, but get this: now that they’re two, we have to buy them full-fare tickets to Jersey in July. Can you believe it? That means peak-season airline tickets times three. It’s a real stretch, so Didier thinks I should wait until November, around Thanksgiving, and—”
“We’d love to have you home for Thanksgiving!” Shirley exclaims. “Stella will be coming up with the kids, and we can all be together for a change. I’ll order a gigantic bird with your favorite cornbread sausage stuffing, and a pecan pie.”
Veronica blinks back a deluge of tears. She’s not sure whether they’re springing from the idea of Thanksgiving dinner, which she hasn’t had in years, or the emotion of telling her mother about her dilemma. Shirley has a remarkable, yet exasperating, way of seeing only the bright side of any situation, no matter how dismal, and of putting such a positive spin on everything that she could probably sell the Brooklyn Bridge. When Stella, at seventeen, totaled the family’s new BMW, Shirley said, “It’s just a car. We’ll buy another. Thank goodness Stella’s okay.” When Rich split with his dental partner of twenty years while Veronica was in college, Shirley said, “Now we’ll get to keep every cent your father earns.” It never occurred to her that Rich would lose clients and have to work twice as hard. Later, Veronica nearly called off her wedding just a few weeks before the date. She just couldn’t see herself vowing “Oui,” instead of “I do,” in a reception hall in Marseille before three hundred guests from France and Morocco. The idea of tattooing her hands and feet with henna at a noisy bash before the ceremony and of women ululating like wounded hyenas after the rabbi pronounced Didier and her man and wife made her cringe. So did the reality of moving to France. “You have a classic case of cold feet,” Shirley told her. “Every bride gets cold feet. Just think of the honeymoon you’ll be taking to Eilat. I, for one, would die to go to Eilat. And moving to France? The south of France? It’s a dream just about anyone would kill for. Even Stella.” That Veronica would move halfway across the world and only see her parents a couple of times a year seemed to Shirley like a solitary thorn in a vast bed of roses.
“Mom,” Veronica replies slowly, raising her voice a half a notch. “I don’t want to come home for Thanksgiving. I want to come in July.”
“Come at Thanksgiving and in July!”
“What do you mean, you can’t? It’s not like you’d have to take the kids out of school.”
Veronica glances at the television screen in the living room, where the Wiggles are singing “Fruit Salad.” Céleste, getting antsy, climbs the back of the sofa and then slides down. “The airfare for July alone is too much. That’s the whole problem. Coming in July means a lot to me. So I’m wondering if, by any chance … could you and Dad help out with the tickets?”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course we can help. Come on home—it’s our treat.”
“Thank you, thank you,” Veronica gushes, her shame dissipating into a wave of relief. She’s glad her mother didn’t ask, as she often does, why money should be an issue when Veronica is married to a surgeon. With her rose-tinted view of the world, Shirley tends to forget certain facts, and Veronica has had to remind her a thousand times that, due to the universal health care system, most doctors in France earn about as much as college professors in the States.
“We’re always happy to treat you,” Shirley says. “You’re our daughter. And you’re raising twins. Twins! What a handful! You deserve every treat you can get.”
Veronica thanks Shirley a few more times and jots down her parents’ credit card number and expiration date. Forget taking antibiotics for strep: this is how easy everything should be.
For Shirley, everything is. What a gift. Right now she’s probably humming as she sets out her lunch, thinking ahead to installing car seats for the twins’ visit in July and ordering a gigantic bird with cornbread sausage stuffing for Thanksgiving whether Veronica comes or not. That’s the upshot of positive thinking, the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy that comes from presenting everything—everything—sunny side up.
NEXT INSTALLMENT (BEGINNING OF CHAPTER 9) COMING NEXT WEEK. MEANWHILE, MORE BACKSTORY BLOG ON THE WAY!