“We are worldly and awesome youth,” said Johnny, “so you’ve come to the right end of the table.”
“You know,” said Granddad, “I’m not getting any younger, despite my good looks.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said.
“Thatcher and I are sorting through my affairs. I’m considering leaving a good portion of my estate to my alma mater.”
“To Harvard? For what, Dad?” asked Mummy, who had walked over to stand behind Mirren.
Granddad smiled. “Probably to fund a student center. They’d put my name on it, out front.” He nudged Gat. “What should they call it, young man, eh? What do you think?”
“Harris Sinclair Hall?” Gat ventured.
“Pah.” Granddad shook his head. “We can do better. Johnny?”
“The Sinclair Center for Socialization,” Johnny said, shoving zucchini into his mouth.
“And snacks,” put in Mirren. “The Sinclair Center for Socialization and Snacks.”
Granddad banged his hand on the table. “I like the ring of it. Not educational, but appreciated by everyone. I’m convinced. I’ll call Thatcher tomorrow. My name will be on every student’s favorite building.”
“You’ll have to die before they build it,” I said.
“True. But won’t you be proud to see my name up there when you’re a student?”
“You’re not dying before we go to college,” said Mirren. “We won’t allow it.”
“Oh, if you insist.” Granddad speared a bit of lobster tail off her plate and ate it.
We were caught up easily, Mirren, Johnny, and I—feeling the power he conferred in picturing us at Harvard, the specialness of asking our opinions and laughing at our jokes. That was how Granddad had always treated us.
“You’re not being funny, Dad,” Mummy snapped. “Drawing the children into it.”
“We’re not children,” I told her. “We understand the conversation.”
“No, you don’t,” she said, “or you wouldn’t be humoring him that way.”
A chill went around the table. Even the littles quieted.
Carrie lived with Ed. The two of them bought art that might or might not be valuable later. Johnny and Will went to private school. Carrie had started a jewelry boutique with her trust and ran it for a number of years until it failed. Ed earned money, and he supported her, but Carrie didn’t have an income of her own. And they weren’t married. He owned their apartment and she didn’t.
Bess was raising four kids on her own. She had some money from her trust, like Mummy and Carrie did, but when she got divorced Brody kept the house. She hadn’t worked since she got married, and before that she’d only been an assistant in the offices of a magazine. Bess was living off the trust money and spending through it.
And Mummy. The dog breeding business doesn’t pay much, and Dad wanted us to sell the Burlington house so he could take half. I knew Mummy was living off her trust.
We were living off her trust.
It wouldn’t last forever.
So when Granddad said he might leave his money to build Harvard a student center and asked our advice, he wasn’t involving the family in his financial plans.
He was making a threat.
A FEW EVENINGS later. Clairmont cocktail hour. It began at six or six-thirty, depending on when people wandered up the hill to the big house. The cook was fixing supper and had set out salmon mousse with little floury crackers. I went past her and pulled a bottle of white wine from the fridge for the aunties.
The littles, having been down at the big beach all afternoon, were being forced into showers and fresh clothes by Gat, Johnny, and Mirren at Red Gate, where there was an outdoor shower. Mummy, Bess, and Carrie sat around the Clairmont coffee table.
I brought wineglasses for the aunts as Granddad entered. “So, Penny,” he said, pouring himself bourbon from the decanter on the sideboard, “how are you and Cady doing at Windemere this year, with the change of circumstances? Bess is worried you’re lonely.”
“I didn’t say that,” said Bess.
Carrie narrowed her eyes.
“Yes, you did,” Granddad said to Bess. He motioned for me to sit down. “You talked about the five bedrooms. The renovated kitchen, and how Penny’s alone now and won’t need it.”
“Did you, Bess?” Mummy drew breath.
Bess didn’t reply. She bit her lip and looked out at the view.
“We’re not lonely,” Mummy told Granddad. “We adore Windemere, don’t we, Cady?”
Granddad beamed at me. “You okay there, Cadence?”
I knew what I was supposed to say. “I’m more than okay there, I’m fantastic. I love Windemere because you built it specially for Mummy. I want to raise my own children there and my children’s children. You are so excellent, Granddad. You are the patriarch and I revere you. I am so glad I am a Sinclair. This is the best family in America.”
Not in those words. But I was meant to help Mummy keep the house by telling my grandfather that he was the big man, that he was the cause of all our happiness, and by reminding him that I was the future of the family. The all-American Sinclairs would perpetuate ourselves, tall and white and beautiful and rich, if only he let Mummy and me stay in Windemere.
I was supposed to make Granddad feel in control when his world was spinning because Gran had died. I was to beg him by praising him—never acknowledging the aggression behind his question.
My mother and her sisters were dependent on Granddad and his money. They had the best educations, a thousand chances, a thousand connections, and still they’d ended up unable to support themselves. None of them did anything useful in the world. Nothing necessary. Nothing brave. They were still little girls, trying to get in good with Daddy. He was their bread and butter, their cream and honey, too.
“It’s too big for us,” I told Granddad.
No one spoke as I left the room.
MUMMY AND I were silent on the walk back to Windemere after supper. Once the door shut behind us, she turned on me. “Why didn’t you back me with your grandfather? Do you want us to lose this house?”
“We don’t need it.”
“I picked the paint, the tiles. I hung the flag from the porch.”
“It’s five bedrooms.”
“We thought we’d have a bigger family.” Mummy’s face got tight. “But it didn’t work out that way. That doesn’t mean I don’t deserve the house.”