ERNIE AND ERNESTINA: The Writer, His Wife, and their Afterlife
Book One, Part Two, Chapter 25: Strangers Come, Bearing Gifts
Writing of my parents makes me remember my twenty-fifth birthday, when Ernie and I were living in the stucco cottage . . . and I hear a knock on our yellow Dutch door. Joshua’s napping in the back bedroom, and Ernie’s off on an errand.
I crouch under the front bedroom’s window and peek out to see who’s knocking. It’s my mother, father, and two younger brothers. In my mother’s arms is a big white box.
“Their car’s gone. I don’t think they’re home,” my brother John says. He’s fifteen. He remembers Ernie’s white Fiat convertible. Ernie took both my younger brothers for spins in it.
“What do they do all day? That’s what I’d like to know,” my father says. “Tish says they don’t even have a clock in the house.”
“We didn’t call first,” my mother says. “Perhaps we should have called first, to let them know we were coming.”
They knock again. My mother and father want to see Joshua. He’s their first grandson. Perhaps they want to see the inside of our house. I’ve never invited them here. Again they knock. Finally, they turn to go.
I still have time to dash into the living room and open the door to them. To serve them cups of tea or glasses of ginger ale. To exchange small talk. To open the awkward white box. To awaken Joshua. To see his blue eyes widen in surprise and pleasure at seeing them. To let my mother hold him.
My mother loves babies. And Joshua likes his grandfather, who buys him presents — a bright yellow wagon, a red fire truck, a tan snowsuit. Or maybe it’s my mother who buys the presents. They always tried to buy their seven children what we needed or wanted. That’s not why I don’t love them.
What’s the present my mother is bringing to me now?
They head out the side yard, passing through the chain-link gate and reaching the street, where my father’s car is parked. My mother still has the white box in her arms. It’s not a cake. It must be an article of clothing.
I catch a last glimpse of my brothers before they duck into the back seat of the Ford. They’re both getting so tall. I still have time to run out the door to hail them. But I don’t. They feel like strangers to me.
Ernie comes back from his errand. He’s bought me a birthday present, a book of poems by Edna Saint Vincent Millay. I open it. Inside the cover, Ernie has written: To my true and only love forever.
Is he a stranger to me, too? If he is, I don’t know it. Maybe I thank him and kiss him. Maybe I don’t. I don’t remember.