Available Sep 4, 2017
About Women Within
With themes of reproductive rights and feminism, this multi-generational novel presents three women whose paths cross at the Lindell Retirement Home. Constance Maynard, fierce, independent and proud, reflects on her long life promoting women’s rights through her career as a professor of history. Eunice Fitch, the perfect caregiver, is often unlucky in love, yet even in middle age refuses to give up searching for the perfect man. Sam Clark is a young aide with a passion for poetry and, small beautiful things, but at war with her own large, ungainly physique. All together they weave a tapestry as rich and complex as the female experience itself.
The Lindell Retirement Home was lovely. Wide lawns could be reached through automatic glass doors at the end of every hall. Secluded patios with benches and flowering plants made for pleasant sitting in the warm months. The common areas were full of natural light and good quality art, often by a resident’s own hand. Some wings had an aquarium or well-populated birdcage, and one, Skilled Nursing, offered a very large stuffed dog that on occasion brought a smile to the faces of the dementia patients. The overall impression was one of calm, poise, and comfort.
Within the rooms themselves, there was less comfort. Aging wasn’t easy. Memory was unsure, especially with the help of certain frequently prescribed drugs. Physical discomfort was quite prevalent, for which, ironically, fewer drugs were prescribed.
That was her sleep aid talking. The young doctor who came around told her rest was essential. Who was he kidding? Any moment now she would enter the realm of eternal rest. She should have the luxury of lying awake all night if she wanted to. Night was the traveling time. The time of seeing women within.
Eunice, the little one, knelt and lifted one gnarled foot out of the water, ran a scratchy washcloth between the toes, and lowered the foot back into the tub. The same was done to the other foot. Constance observed her feet with dismay. They certainly weren’t anything to brag about.. . .
. . .
They had been once, small and shapely, so pretty in heels, worn out by years of walking back and forth before a blackboard, teaching morons the lessons history had to offer. Years of dull faces; years of dull minds. Engineering students needing to fulfill their liberal arts credits; fools who had no idea what to study and who got assigned to her lecture by that toad, Harriet, in Registration.
“Miss Maynard’s class is too hard for me,” whispered more than one curly-haired girl. Just there to get a husband and start cranking out imbecile children. The so-called research papers they wrote were scandalous. No matter how many times she went over proper footnoting procedure, their sources (if they were actual sources) went uncited. Her remarks were harsh and often caused tears. The Dean scolded her. She could be hard on the men, that was fine; they were serious, hoping for a bright future. The women, well, what could you expect? Constance fumed. And then, she was blessed when Angela Lowry signed up for her class. Angela had a first-rate mind and was eager to learn. She’d read everything on the War of the Roses. Her final paper was good enough to be published. When Constance checked one of her beautifully cited reference materials, she discovered that Angela had plagiarized a man writing two decades earlier, Dr. Harold Moss, at Harvard. She invited her to come to her office.
“I think you know why you’re here,” Constance said. She had brewed a cup of tea, hoping it would soothe.
“You caught me.” Just like that.
Angela didn’t even blink. What color was her hair? Like the inside of a yam, a pale orange. Her blouse was white with small red buttons, and embroidered roses on the collar. She had big hands that looked raw, as if she washed them a lot in harsh soap. Angela had wanted to test her professor, to see how good she really was. Hence the intentional plagiarism. Constance knew that was nonsense. The girl got stuck for time and panicked. Then she tried to talk her way out of it. Constance admired her moxie.
Was that a word anyone used anymore, moxie?. . .
. . .
They were still fussing with her feet. Sam trimmed her nails. Eunice was talking.
“He says I’m kind,” she said. Her hair was bushy, copper-streaked with gray.
“Aren’t you?” Sam asked. She had a pleasant voice for such a big girl.
“Never thought of myself that way before. Gullible, yes.”
And then to Constance, “You’re all done, dear.”
“Can’t you see I’ve still got the other one to do?” Sam asked.
Snip, snip, snip. Constance jerked her foot back.
“You need to hold still,” Sam said.
Sam clipped the last nail, on the little toe of Constance’s right foot, then wheeled her from her bathroom back into her bedroom. Eunice spread a blanket across her lap. The blanket didn’t quite cover her feet, which were now slippered, yet distinctly cold. She could never be comfortable when her feet were cold.
. . .
“You are, I can tell.”
“I am what?”
“Getting cold feet.”
Constance held her cocktail and looked down. A smell of lilac came in on the breeze lifting the gauze curtains in the study. Lilac was her favorite flower. They might have made a pretty wedding bouquet. She could feel William watching her. She smoothed one sleeve of her dress with her free hand. She brought the glass to her lips, then lowered it.
What had she told him on that long-ago afternoon? What reason did she give?
There were too many to count. They rolled through her mind, as her gin and tonic warmed in her hand. The breeze was a comfort, then it died, the curtains stilled, and she found her voice.
Nothing more was ever said between them. Not even when she returned the ring. She thought he might remark on that, at least. Choosing it was probably their most intimate moment. What he had first presented her with was a thin band that had belonged to his mother. The look on her face— shock that he would take such a step at all—was misinterpreted. He chided himself for not understanding how badly she would want her own ring, not one someone else had worn, however happily, for over forty years. At the jeweler’s he talked her into a larger diamond than she thought appropriate, or which looked good on her hand.
“Isn’t it rather … ?”
“Tasteful and grand?” he’d asked.
“Vulgar,” she wanted to say, but didn’t.
Of course, it was beautiful. Diamonds always are, and this was quite a good one. E color, very, very small inclusions, round cut. Two point three carats.
“It suits you, darling,” he whispered, under the jeweler’s approving gaze.
They met at Brown. Her field was history, his, philosophy. He was impressed by her academic ambitions, that she’d attended Smith College, that she was petite and self-possessed. He was no doubt used to women who swooned over his attention and the prospect of marrying his money. William was rich in that quiet, understated way people tend to find so attractive. He never called attention to his wealth. He dressed modestly. It was the family home that gave it all away. Abundant opulence. The silent, invisible servants. His aunt’s cool assessment of Constance, and then her grudging acceptance. Since his mother’s death, his Aunt Helen had run the show. William’s father made himself scarce. Like Constance, William was an only child.
He didn’t seem entirely surprised by her refusal. Her letters to him the summer before, written from London, had been cool and objective, unlike his, which were warm and intimate. In one, he’d even begged her to return early so they could be together. She said she couldn’t just yet because she still hadn’t found a good topic for her doctoral thesis. In truth, she’d already settled on the fifteenth century English queen, Anne Neville.
That era’s military campaigns and shifting factions were interesting enough, she supposed, but they were the stuff of men. She wanted to study the women. Marriages were political and strategic. Love, if it came, was after the fact. Anne Neville was a perfect example. She was married off at fourteen to a French prince who was killed trying to invade England. Then the widow of a dead traitor, she threw herself on the English king’s mercy. For her trouble, she was placed under the king’s guardianship, shut away, and urged to join a convent so the king could retain control of her fortune. Her only recourse was to marry the king’s brother. Such a rotten deal, Constance always thought. Trading one prison for another.
. . .
Eunice straightened the sheets on Constance’s bed while Sam removed dirty clothes from the basket in the closet. She put the clothes in a bag marked with Constance’s name and pulled the drawstring tight.
“Plans for the weekend?” Eunice asked her.
“Going through old stuff in the attic with my mother.”
Sam’s tone said it was really the last thing she wanted to do.
“Hm. You could tell her you’re sick or helping out a friend. Use me as an excuse, if you want to.”
“I can’t do that. She depends on seeing me. She’s—you know, needy.”
Constance nodded. Sam noticed.
“But you’ve never met her, Constance. You must be thinking of someone else,” Sam said.
. . .
Constance’s family fell apart when she was nine. They lived in Los Angeles. Her mother had dreams of stardom that never came true. Her father worked as a bookkeeper for a number of small businesses—a plumbing company, which Constance remembered him praising for paying their bills on time, also a small theater troupe where Constance’s mother had had several auditions, then one modest part, then poor reviews and a gentle invitation to leave the cast. It sat badly with her. She stayed home, a cigarette in her hand, circles below her eyes, stains on her bathrobe.
Constance was in awe of her mother because she had attempted something brave that other mothers didn’t, which made her failure more acute. When her mother made a new career out of disappointment and sloth, she lost interest in Constance. Constance escaped the pain of her rejection through books, into the world of knights and ladies fair. All those lovelorn women left to worry and wait while the men had their fun fighting. What did they do to pass the time? They reveled in the quiet and calm, no doubt, and kept busy with embroidery and weaving. The noble women would have held fine linens and lace; the servants sat at looms crafting tapestries to soften and warm stone walls.
Constance learned the art of needlework from her downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Pauline Lester. Her hands were gnarled terrors, yet quick and precise when wielding a needle. She sewed the most beautiful things! Fields of ornate flowers and birds, a young girl with flowing blond hair that made Constance despise her own raven curls, a small white dog sleeping on the threshold of a charming cottage in the woods. Constance began with a simple patterned canvas, following the outlines faithfully, crying when she erred and had to pull the tender thread from where it didn’t belong. The world of her imagination, populated with dreams and the fabric in her own hands kept her going, far from the sour mood of her mother and the stony silence of her father.
It was decided that Constance’s mother suffered from a nervous condition and needed to be in the company of people better able to help her. Constance waited with Pauline while her father put her mother and her one suitcase into the car and drove away. He was gone a long time. When he returned, he stood visibly straighter. His voice had a lighter tone. Soon, though, the task of caring for his young daughter weighed him down again. Constance’s father had been raised by his stepmother, then widowed and living in upstate New York. The stepmother was notified of the change in circumstance, and Constance was packed off on a train across country, alone, with her name and destination typed on a piece of paper and attached to the lapel of her coat with a safety pin. Her shock at the upheaval of her world was deep. What occupied a still deeper space within her was the splendor of the passing landscape. The desert seemed a glorious and terrifying place! She’d seen it before, of course, in little excursions with her parents before her mother cracked up. Pauline used those very words to a neighbor in her kitchen when she thought Constance was still embroidering in the living room, out of earshot.
It was as apt a term as any, Constance thought.
The woman who received Constance into her Dunston home on a still spring night was as solid as a rock. Lois Maynard would brook no nonsense, she informed Constance as she led the way up the dim stairway. But she would reward good behavior. Constance could be sure of that. In the years that followed, Constance was seldom punished and seldom praised. She was surprised to find how little she minded it. She adored school and excelled in all her subjects.
“A natural scholar,” more than one teacher said. When she wasn’t at her books, she embroidered. The owner of the yarn shop in town, Mrs. Lapp, smiled when she came in.
“It’s not the same shade of red,” Constance said. Mrs. Lapp stared at her sympathetically. To her, Constance was an unfortunate case. The grandmother—stepgrandmother—was well known. Her house, a mansion, really, was clearly visible on its high hill, particularly in winter when the trees bared. Not much of a life for a child, living in a cold place like that, Mrs. Lapp thought, though Constance was nearly thirteen at that point. She was small for her age, and had given up hoping she would be taller.
Mrs. Lapp checked the skein Constance had taken from the peg on the wall, then consulted her inventory book and assured Constance that the lot number was the same. Constance gave her what remained of the skein she’d used to embroider a row of roses. Mrs. Lapp took both skeins to the glasstopped door where the sunlight poured through.
“How right you are! The new is slightly more brown, isn’t it?” Mrs. Lapp asked.
Even so, there was nothing to be done. Mrs. Lapp suggested that Constance use the new wool in a corner, somewhere the eye wasn’t instantly drawn. Constance had already thought of that.
. . .
“It’s nice to see you smile,” Eunice said. Constance was not aware that she was smiling. She wanted a skein of that red wool—the proper color. She needed to finish her embroidery. She loved it so. She pointed to the table by her bed. The lower shelf had her rolled-up canvas. Eunice brought it to her, set it in her lap, and then she and Sam went on their way.