S now packed the sill of the kitchen window, rounding the rectangle into a porthole. Georgia McAllister thought of going outside to sweep the view clear with a broom, but Bob was out there, clearing the driveway with the snow blower. Good sense would dictate canceling the dinner, but Marianne had been insistent: They had to meet Ian, whom she’d been dating for four months.
When Georgia called her daughter at one o’clock, they had already started out, taking their time on the three-hour drive from the college campus to the house. The plan was they’d stay until nine o’clock or so, and then head back. If the weather was bad, they’d spend the night and return in the morning; neither had classes until Monday afternoon. But five o’clock had come and gone, and with it plans for the early dinner that Georgia had been preparing most of the day—right down to homemade apple crisp for dessert.
Marianne had just been home for Christmas, a three-week break which she spent either talking to or talking about Ian. The intensity of it was more than just a crush or the deep dive of falling in love. Every conversation had gotten mired in Ian, no matter where the topic started. Whenever Georgia had tried to discuss Marianne’s plans after graduation in May, her daughter’s responses never began with the word “I”—always “we” or, more disconcerting, “he.”
Georgia knew the basic details: Both 21, college seniors, friends since freshman orientation, and had even consoled each other through break-ups with other people. Then at the start of this school year, something had changed; they saw each other differently—as if for the first time, Marianne had said. That sounded like being in love with love, and not the real thing, but Georgia couldn’t tell Marianne that. She’d have to find out for herself.
Opening one of the double ovens built into the kitchen wall, Georgia inhaled the aroma of roast beef. Just looking at the meat, she knew it was going to be overdone, because Marianne and Ian were running late. The second oven held the broccoli-and-mushroom casserole that Marianne used to love during her vegetarian days. Over Thanksgiving, when she’d seen Marianne eat turkey for the first time since her daughter was a high school sophomore, Georgia couldn’t believe the change—not after all the health-and morality-infused lectures she and Bob had endured. Ian, it seemed, preached a different gospel, and Marianne happily converted—or was it reverted—to eating meat. Ian thought it was a fad. I wasn’t really committed to it. There’s nothing wrong with eating meat from a farm with humane practices…
It didn’t take a psychology degree to see that Ian’s opinions were quickly becoming Marianne’s. Not that such a thing was all that uncommon. Georgia remembered how, back when she was first dating Bob, she’d developed (or maybe feigned was a better word) a taste for jazz. She’d sit in some tiny club in Chicago drinking red wine because she never could stomach beer, and pretend to like some band fumbling through Miles Davis’ Blue in Green. She had liked it well enough, because Bob liked it, and she liked spending time with him. Now, after 24 years of marriage and two kids, their tastes had changed so much. Bob only listened to talk radio, politics and sports, and she liked the moldy-oldies. He used her shampoo in the shower, and she sometimes borrowed his razor if hers was dull, although she rarely admitted to doing that. That’s what a long marriage was.
Bob came in the back door and stamped his feet twice on the mat. His hair, more gray than dark, stood up in tufts when he pulled off his hat. He ran his hand over his head, but missed a spot toward the crown, where balding that he’d never acknowledge had started to spread. “Smells good,” he said.
“I hope they get here soon. We’ll have to skip appetizers and go right to dinner.”
“She call?” Bob left his boots on the mat by the back door and walked in thick wool socks across the kitchen floor.
“About a half hour ago.” Georgia caught her reflection in the back patio door: a 51-year-old woman with auburn hair cut to a sensible chin length, in soft slacks with an elastic waist and an overtop that did nothing to hide the 15 extra pounds she’d put on since age 35. Where had the girl in the gauze skirt and espadrille sandals gone—the one with the coppery hair past her shoulders and dangling earrings made by an ex-boyfriend who’d been a silversmith at summer Renaissance festivals while they were in college? What happened to the young woman who had graduated cum laude and gone to Europe for six weeks with two girlfriends, with Euro Rail passes in their backpacks and a guidebook that recommended the best hostels? At 22, she thought she could conquer the world, or at least her part of it. Then, at 24, she’d met Bob and married him two-and-a-half years later.
Bob stood beside her now, his arm around her waist, where the roll of softness met the elastic. “I hope the roast doesn’t dry out,” she said.
When the back door opened, Georgia expected Marianne and Ian, but there was Stuart, home from basketball practice. “When are we eating?” he asked.
“We’re waiting for your sister and her guest,” Georgia replied.
Stuart said he was starving and had to go out again; he and a friend were working on a school project that night. He opened the refrigerator and looked inside.
“Grab a plate off the table,” Georgia directed. She sliced some beef and put a little of the broccoli casserole on is plate, along with two scoops of mashed potatoes in a puddle of gravy.
While Stuart ate, Georgia picked up her cell phone twice—once to check to see if she had somehow missed a call and a second time to consider calling Marianne, but didn’t want to appear rude or annoyed in front of Ian. So she waited until Stuart left and the meat thermometer read “well done.”
Marianne’s car finally pulled in the driveway. Georgia got a look at the thin man who opened the passenger side door, watching her daughter lace her arm through his as they walked together in the back door.
Ian Denzi was from South Dakota, raised on a beef cattle ranch and was the youngest of four. He was studying organic chemistry, and had done an internship at the U.S. subsidiary of a European chemical company in the polymer and resin department. Georgia learned all of this in the first five minutes of passing around cheese puffs as Bob poured wine and beer, and made a short “welcome to our home and Happy New Year” toast.
“Sorry we’re late, Mom,” Marianne said. She disengaged herself long enough from Ian’s side to help in the kitchen. “We stopped at Uptown Jewelers.”
“Really?” Georgia tried to discern from Marianne’s smile whether she was hinting at something imminent or just a little romantic window shopping. She turned her attention to the broccoli-mushroom casserole, setting the baking dish into a wicker holder on legs.
Ian kept up the conversation through most of dinner—about the ranch (more like a family farm); about his studies (he’d always been good at science); about the job offer waiting for him after graduation from the company that had given him the internship (such a great opportunity); about how he and Marianne had started dating after a dance marathon in September when both of their partners were no-shows (“dance with someone for 32 hours and you pretty much know all about them”). His confidence was admirable, and Georgia could see why Marianne was taken with him, but she kept looking at her daughter as if to prompt her to say something on her own, instead of only adding a line or two to Ian’s stories, or to tease him when one of his anecdotes went on a little too long.
“So how long have you two been dating, exactly?” Georgia thought her remark sounded casual, although the word “exactly” probably wasn’t the best choice. Still, there was no unsaying any of it.
“Four months.” Marianne clasped Ian’s hand. “And, we decided—” She and Ian exchanged a long glance. “That we’re getting married a month after graduation.”
“Married?” Georgia gasped. She looked down the table at Bob, who seemed to be studying his silverware. “That seems a little…”
“Surprising,” Bob interrupted. “I mean, your generation doesn’t seem to be interested in getting married young.”
Georgia dropped her eyes to her food streaked plate, seeing the tracks of gravy, the telltale tidbits of broccoli.
“Well, we’re not like everyone else.” Marianne gazed at Ian.
“When I met Ginger, I’d been out of college a couple of years,” Bob continued. “Pretty soon I was head over heels, and by six months I was sure she was it.” Bob winked at her. “Most days I still am. But I didn’t get up my nerve to have the ‘marriage talk’ until we were going out nearly a year.”
“Over a year,” Georgia murmured. Fourteen months after their first date, while at a stoplight on their way to the movies, Bob leaned over, kissed her and said, “So, marry me?”
“When you know, you know,” Ian said. Marianne nodded.
Bob picked up a spoon from the table, and turned it around and around in his hand. “Marriage is a permanent thing—well, it’s supposed to be anyway. You can’t just rush in.”
“We’re not rushing,” Ian said hastily. “We know we’re right for each other. We always have, I think.”
Georgia wanted to stand on her chair and scream. Her daughter and her boyfriend had gone crazy, to decide at 21 to get married after dating four months. They were intelligent young people, with college degrees and bright futures ahead of them. There was no reason to jump into anything. “But why don’t you take your time,” she added. “There is so much to see and do in this world when you’re young.”
“We want to do it together,” Ian said.
“Do your parents know?” Georgia asked, wondering if she and Bob would be isolated on this one.
“Yeah, I told them. And yes, they said pretty much the same stuff as you two. We’re too young. We need time to be sure. Except, we don’t.”
Marianne unleashed a cascade of wedding plans—the ceremony at the university chapel and then a reception at a rustic restaurant they loved, which had really beautiful prairie gardens filled with sculptures made from antique farm implements. Her friend, Shelley, would be maid-of-honor, and her friend, Dahlia, and two of Ian’s sisters, whom she hadn’t met yet, would be bridesmaids. Ian’s older brother, Bruce, would be his best man. Stuart would be an usher, along with Ian’s brother, Jack, and his friend, Darryl. And Ian had a little cousin—actually his cousin’s daughter—who was only four and would be adorable as the flower girl…
Bob asked about Ian’s job offer, whether he’d stay local or maybe have a chance to work overseas. If her legs had been long enough, Georgia would have kicked her husband under the table. Hard.
When dinner was over, Georgia suggested that they have dessert in the living room. Marianne jumped up to help clear the table, but Ian was right there, taking her plate first, along with his own, to the kitchen.
“It’s too soon!” Georgia whispered to Bob, grateful that he nodded.
“You push back, though, and she’ll never listen.”
“What if we refuse to pay—or even to go!” Georgia fought to keep her voice down.
“You really wanna do that?” Bob gave her a little pat on the arm as he left the dining table and headed to the living room with the intention of lighting the fireplace.
Georgia grabbed the broccoli-mushroom casserole, disappointed that they’d eaten so little of it, especially since she spent so much time cutting up three heads into individual florets, and then made her own white sauce instead of dumping a can of cream of mushroom soup over it like the rest of the world.
Marianne and Ian stood at the kitchen counter, arms encircling each other. “I think we’re supposed to be helping,” Ian joked.
Her daughter looked so happy, Georgia had to look away. It was new love, fragile as a newborn thing. Real love needed to develop muscles from being stretched and tested, and wounds to make it stronger. It needed challenges and doubts, and, most of all, time.
Marianne put her head on Ian’s shoulder, and he touched her hair lightly with his fingertips. Ginger’s scalp tingled at the memory of Bob holding her in exactly that way—a thousand years ago.
Loosened from each other’s grip, Marianne and Ian helped clear the rest of the table and stack the dishwasher.
“Ian, why don’t you join Bob in the living room? Marianne and I can get the rest.” Georgia watched her daughter’s eyes trail behind Ian as if he were going off to some foreign war and not just to the other room.
“Honey, we need to talk about this,” Georgia said in a low voice.
“No, Mother, we don’t. I’m 21—an adult and capable of making my own decisions. I love Ian and he loves me, and we’re getting married. Period. You can either be happy for me, or not. You can celebrate with me at my wedding, or not. But you can’t stop it.”
Suddenly there wasn’t enough air in the room. Georgia stumbled to the back door and yanked it open. She stood there, watched the snowflakes fall, covering the back windshield of Marianne’s car, until the dark glass wore a white shroud.
“Mom?” Marianne’s touch on her shoulder turned her around.
“It’s too soon. You can’t possibly know each other well enough. And 21 is too young. Your lives are about to change so much when you graduate—”
“Which is why we want to spend that time together,” Marianne pleaded. “Please try to be happy for me.”
Georgia shook her head, and stepped back inside. “We’ll have dessert and then figure if you two are staying here or going back.”
“Going back,” Marianne said with a sniff.
Georgia opened a cupboard and took out four mugs for coffee.
“Everything okay?’ Bob asked, coming into the kitchen, with Ian two steps behind him.
“Just fine,” Georgia said and brewed the first cup.
Marianne retreated across the kitchen to Ian’s embrace.
Georgia turned her head at just the right angle to see a brown thing atop the microwave oven perched on a shelf just above eyelevel. It was the Thanksgiving wishbone, which someone had set aside and then forgotten.
“Oh, we have to wish—we have to wish!” Marianne clapped her hands.
Ian stroked his chin and squinted. “Hmm, I need a really important wish.”
“Marianne, go wish with your mother,” Bob said.
“No, let the kids,” Georgia protested.
“Nope, this is a mother-daughter thing,” Bob insisted.
As she and Marianne each grasped an end of the arched bone, Georgia prayed for a sign, that she’d end up with the bigger piece, which meant her daughter would eventually listen to reason.
Marianne breathed her wish aloud, her voice less than a whisper. “Happily ever after.”
Georgia took her hand away, pretending her fingers were slippery and needed to be wiped on paper towel. Her mind wandered around the question of whoever had thought up this silly practice—something so primal and elemental, like divining the future with bones and stones. But that’s all they had, she thought suddenly. No matter how sophisticated they were, how learned and technologically advanced, the future was neither predictable nor guaranteed.
They each pulled hard, and the bone shattered, the top part landing in the sink, and the legs breaking into smaller pieces.
“I guess nobody gets their wish,” Ian said. Marianne’s eyes filled with tears.
Georgia knew that the conversation over this supposed engagement was not over, and that there would be many discussions and probably an argument or two. The one thing they agreed on was what they both wanted, even though their vision of how to pursue it was different. Happily ever after.
What else could you wish for?
Illustration: Andrew Furgal