I got to choose our first ‘Third Thursday’ meeting place, so I picked Mom’s favorite restaurant. The Smokehouse, across the street from Warner Studios in Burbank, appeals more to the older crowd, but the food is excellent. Especially the warm toasted cheese bread! Yum.
I got there a few minutes late, as usual, and slid into the dark red upholstered booth seat. I bumped the table in the process and nearly tipped over a water goblet.
Celeste was just settling in – slipping the straps of her purse discreetly over one knee – so I knew she’d arrived right at 11:30 on the dot.
Helena looked as if she’d been there awhile. She had an order of cheese bread half eaten, and her tea cup was empty. She wiped orange, cheese-stained fingers on a linen napkin and sipped at her glass of ice water.
“Evangeline, you’re always late!” she teased.
“Yes, but aren’t I worth the wait?” I countered, giving the expected answer.
Celeste looked indulgently down her nose at her two younger siblings and shook her head. She picked up a menu and said, “Let’s order”.
She ordered the Cobb salad with dressing on the side. Helena wanted fried chicken with milk gravy on mashed potatoes. I decided on the cubed steak with onion rings, until Celeste said it was just a glorified hamburger. I sat up straighter and changed my order to filet of sole with rice pilaf.
Helena added another order of cheese bread for us to share.
“You don’t really have to eat for two, Helena,” said Celeste when the waitress had gone. “It’s healthier for you and the baby to keep your weight down.”
Helena opened her mouth to respond, but I slipped in a question. “When’s Jordan due to make his appearance?”
“Soon,” she said. “The doctor’s worried about hypothermia or something like that. He may have to induce labor.”
“Hypothermia?” Celeste and I asked together.
“Oh, you know. It’s when the baby and the mother have different blood types or whatever.”
“You mean toxemia?” asked Celeste, appalled. “That’s a serious condition, Helena. The baby could be in trouble.”
“I know. Patrick’s already given me the scary details and insisted I see my doctor immediately. But I told him I couldn’t miss our very first Thursday lunch together.” She reached for the last cheese bread slice in the basket. “I wish Patrick could be my doctor; then I could stay at home and be examined.”
“It may be practical, but it’s not legal or ethical,” began our lawyer sister. “He could be compromised by….”
“I know, I know! Don’t lecture me, Celeste. I’m going to see my doctor tomorrow. He’ll decide what to do then. Oh, good! Here are our lunches. Doesn’t this chicken look absolutely lovely? And this gravy…”
Helena dipped the tip of her spoon into the well of white gravy on her mashed potatoes and tasted it. Ecstasy beamed from her face.”
I never saw a person enjoy food as much as Helena. It was a wonder to watch. And her husband didn’t seem to mind the extra pounds she wore even when she wasn’t pregnant. Celeste shuddered and stabbed a piece of lettuce with her fork. She looked my way and asked, “So tell us about your book project, Van. You’ve been dying to talk about it ever since you got here.”
“Oh, he is so wonderful and not bad looking either. He…”
“He?” asked my oldest sister. Helena held a drumstick between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, and lovingly bit off tender meat. She watched me over her work.
“Yes, his name is Dennis North and he’s the author. It’s his idea, his project. And it’s fabulous. I feel privileged just to be a part of it.”
“Is that what HE said?” There was sarcasm in Celeste’s voice. It turned cold as she said, “He sounds like an egotistical, money hungry….”
“He is not! He’s a sensitive, caring man who wants to do something meaningful for the forgotten children of this country. I’d call that unselfish and altruistic.”
I cut through my filet of sole with such force it nearly slid off the plate.
“Oh, I see. He’s donating all his earnings to charity, is he?” Celeste whipped back.
“Yes, he is! Well, some of them anyway. We both are.”
“How noble! And I suppose your photos are just a minor addition to this great project of his. Has he promised you or your studio any photo credits? I guarantee if he has, it will be in the tiniest print available on the very last page of the credits. Evangeline, how could you be taken in by such a charlatan? Don’t you know that men like that will prey on women wherever and whenever they get a chance? Especially young, idealistic, naïve women.”
She poured cream into her coffee cup and stirred vigorously. She sipped it and made a face. “This coffee is cold.”
“We have a contract, Celeste. E.T.C. Photography is going to make out like bandits. You’ll see.”
She scowled at me as she handed her coffee cup to the waitress. “It’s the contract that I’d like to see, little sister. It should be very entertaining.”
“You guys…” Helena said meekly, leaning back and rubbing her belly. “I don’t think this is what Momma would’ve wanted. How can she rest in peace if we keep on arguing and fighting with each other like we always do? I think she wanted us to become friends and love each other and care about each other. There’s even a verse in the Bible that says we’re supposed to ‘be kind to one another and tenderhearted and forgiving’.”
Celeste and I studied our plates.
“I know we’re as different as sisters can be,” Helena continued, “but that’s a good thing. If one of us is uninformed or vulnerable – or bull-headed – in one area, another of us can help her, give her direction, show her the way out. We each have our strong points and weak areas. Please, can we just be nice to each other – for Momma?”
We sat silently until the waitress brought fresh coffee for Celeste.
“This is piping hot now, Ma’am. Be careful you don’t burn your mouth, okay?”
Celeste reached for the cup and smiled at her. “Thank you.” Then she turned to me. “I’m sorry, Evangeline. Helena’s right. I’m happy for your new business venture, but please let me see that contract. I do know about those things, and Mother would want me to look out for my baby sister.”
“Okay.” I smiled at her and then reached for the manila envelope I’d brought. “These are for you guys.”
I passed around the photo’s I’d taken at Easter – candid shots showing us with our families, smiling and relaxed. I’d taken a particularly good one of Catherine sitting on the hearth by the fire, a steaming mug in her hands.
“Cat will like this one, Van. I’ll give it to her as an appeasement for being gone today. She was a little bent out of shape at my having lunch with you two.” She smiled and looked up. “We usually go to Alfred’s on Thursdays if I’m not in court.”
“Tell her to get a life!” I said under my breath.
Celeste looked at me, her eyes narrowed.
“Here,” I said quickly. “I saved the best for last.” I handed each of them a framed five by seven portrait. It was my favorite one. Dad had taken it on Valentine’s Day, and it showed the three of us leaning close in around our mother, who sat at a table with a gigantic heart box of chocolates in front of her. We’d all pitched in to buy it for her – Lady Godiva Chocolates being her weakness – but it was her love for us that radiated from the photo.
“Oh, Evangeline…” Helena said, her eyes brimming. “I love it! Momma looks so loved and happy!”
“Thanks, little Sister,” murmured Celeste and leaned back in the seat. She sighed heavily. “I remember the first box of Godiva chocolates she ever got. And I mean I remember the first BOX. The candy was all gone by the time I was old enough to ask about it. It was much smaller than this one, of course, and Mother kept it on the highest shelf of the book case in our living room. It was propped against the back, next to the framed picture of her and my father’s wedding. When I asked about it – I wanted to used it for some Valentine’s project I was making for school – she took it down and held it against her chest.”
“‘No, Honey, this one is special,’ she’d said. ‘It’s the first really nice thing I ever got. Your father gave it to me before we were married. It was so expensive I scolded him and didn’t want to open it at first. But he was used to having things that cost a lot of money and he insisted. So I opened it, and the chocolates, oh those lovely chocolates!’ ” S
Celeste sighed and smiled wryly. “It was probably because of all the expensive gifts and attention he lavished on her that she ended up pregnant. He was a handsome rich boy, and she was an innocent, naive girl from the wrong side of the tracks. When she discovered that I was on the way, she expected him to dump her.”
“But he didn’t! He loved her and married her. He gave you his name, Celeste,” cooed Helena, her hands over her hearty. “It’s so romantic!”
“It’s called coercion, Helena. My grandparents were staunch Catholics, so abortion was out of the picture. They demanded that he marry Mother so their grandchild would be legitimate.” She sat up and slid the photo back into the envelope. “They made important decisions concerning me all through my childhood, and when my parents finally divorced a few years later, I practically moved in with them. Mother had to go to work, and they were paying for that posh private school, so….”
“But you were living with Momma when I was born,” said Helena.
“Yes. My grandparents died in an auto accident when I was nine. They’d set up a generous trust fund for me, so I could attend to the college of my choice after I graduated. But for right then, I had to go back and live with Mother. And then later – as you know – I came out here to live with Father.”
“But why did you do that, Celeste? Momma was gone all the time after Papa….you know, after Papa… died.” Helena paused and bit her lip. Celeste patted her hand and she continued. “I just missed you so much Celeste! Why did you leave?” She pulled out a soft, flowered hankie and dabbed at her brimming eyes. “Sorry! I’m always very emotional when I’m pregnant.”
“Girls, you look like you’re in need of dessert,” said the waitress, proffering a large tray covered with delectables. “Can I tempt you ladies for one of these today?”
“None for me,” I said. Celeste shook her head too.
“You guys aren’t having dessert?” wailed Helena. “Oh, c’mon, please!”
“I could bring one plate and three spoons,” suggested the wily waitress.
“Yes,” cried Helena, “we can share. Bring the Double Chocolate Brownie Supreme.”
Celeste and I looked at each other, sighed, and then ordered more hot coffee.
“Celeste, I’m curious,” I said after taking an itsy bitsy bite of Brownie Supreme. It was so rich I had to take a sip of my coffee before I could speak. The coffee was too hot and I burned my tongue. Then I needed a drink of ice water. Finally I put down my fork, pushed the dessert plate closer to Helena, and continued. “Why DID you move out here with your father? Did he sue for custody or something after his parents died?”
“No, my parents already had an arrangement in place, where I’d live with Mother and visit him on holidays and over summers. My father had a marvelous housekeeper at the time – Mrs. Becker, if I remember right – so I was well looked after when he went to work. His law practice was just getting off the ground back then, and he worked terribly long hours.”
“Like you?” Helena asked innocently.
“More than me. And Mrs. Becker was always there to answer questions about my many Aunties.”
“I didn’t know your dad had a lot of sisters,” I said.
“He didn’t. He was an only child. These were not ‘flesh and blood’ Aunties, Evangeline, although they always seemed to reveal a lot of their flesh around my Father. After he and Mother divorced, he had a constant flow of flashy girlfriends in his life, which he introduced as Auntie Deloris, or Auntie Susan, or Auntie Lillian, etc. After a while I caught on to the charade, but I still called them ‘Aunties’ to please him.”
“But he never remarried, did he?” I asked.
“No, and from the summer I was fifteen, the year he promised to teach me to drive, and the year I– well, the year I also got sick, there were no more Aunties in his life.”
“And that’s when you stayed out here for your whole school year, and deserted me forever,” whined Helena.
She leaned back and covered her belly with her hands. “Oh, you guys, I ate too much! I’m stuffed! I can’t move.”
The waitress finally brought the bill and we haggled over what we each owed. Celeste left a generous tip – I think she felt guilty about being so sharp with the waitress.
We helped Helena out of the booth and made our way outside. She gave the valet her ticket first saying she had to get back before Julianna came home from kindergarten. I looked at my watch.
“Wow! We were in there for three hours!”
Helena managed to get behind the wheel of the BMW and fasten the seatbelt low under her belly.
“Remember, Helena,” I called. “I’m taking Julianna to the zoo on Saturday. I’ll pick her up about nine, okay?
“Blessings on you Evangeline! I’ll have her ready.” Then she rolled up the window, waved and eased out of the parking lot.
Celeste gave two tickets to another valet and watched him go off around the corner. First he returned with her sleek, silver-fawn Weimaraner. Jewel walked politely beside him, but I could tell she was eager to reach her mistress.
“She was a perfect lady, ma’am” he said and handed her the leash.
“She’s used to it. She goes everywhere with me.” Celeste handed him a folded bill. While he ran off to get her car another valet approached me.
“No, thanks, I’m parked on the street,” I apologized, sweetly I thought, but I still got a sour look in return. I shrugged. I keep a lot of camera equipment in the trunk of my car, and I don’t like to hand over the keys to people I don’t know. Call me paranoid. (Call me cheap.)
Celeste’s pearl white Lexus arrived next and the valet opened two doors. Jewel hopped in the back, and Celeste slid behind the wheel, handing the fellow another folded bill. I waved at her and trotted down the driveway.
Don’t ask me why my sister has to have a big dog with her wherever she goes. I’ve tried to find out and all she’ll say is “Jewel is my companion and protector. Leave it at that.” So I do.
Except I can’t help wondering and speculating about why my ‘forty something’ year old sister – an uncompromising, no nonsense, women’s advocate lawyer – needs ‘protection’. It’s not like she’s prosecuting murder cases or anything. Is it?