Rich ~ Being a Vonderhaven
Short story and art by Mo Conlan
Ruth Vonderhaven sat on the deck overlooking Lake Michigan. A gap in the sooty clouds shone silver. There might be a sunset after all. It was what she was waiting for, to see the sky painted pink and red, to imagine her big sister Maryann up there – perhaps going into a business partnership with God.
Maryann Vonderhaven-Smythe had died suddenly of heart failure a month earlier. Behind Ruth, in Maryann’s beach house, three generations of Vonderhavens gathered for a memorial to celebrate her extraordinary life. Under Maryann’s reign, the Vonderhaven Company that began as a slaughterhouse and segued into soaps became a major player in software. Maryann had been a captain of industry. Time magazine cover. But to Ruth, she’d been a rock, a sister, best friend.
Ruth thought about her portrait of Maryann that would be unveiled at the memorial. Maryann had the classic Vonderhaven looks – tall, blond hair streaked with silver, penetrating blues eyes. Ruth ran fingers through her dark brown hair, cut short to keep paint out of it. It was this dark hair that singled her out among the blonds as not a born Vonderhaven.
Ruth’s mother had been a secretary raising Ruth on her own when Rankin Vonderhaven asked her to become his third wife. Rankin gave Ruth his name and she joined the brood of children in the Vonderhaven household.
Maryann, the oldest, had taken Ruth her under wing. Still, Ruth was not a true Vonderhaven – she’d always understood that. She did not have the hair, the height, the cheekbones. She didn’t have the trust fund. Ruth made her living teaching art and selling paintings, on lucky days.
Donald, the oldest of Maryann’s sons and now head of the family business, stepped onto the deck.
“Aunt Ruth, what are you doing out here by yourself? Do you want a glass of wine or something?”
“No. Come sit. We may get a sunset.”
Donald took a chair beside Ruth. His long face, marked by loss and the weight of the Vonderhaven empire, was beginning to edge into middle age. His fine blond hair was thinning.
“This is the kind of party Mom loved,” he said. “Steaks on the grill. Little kids jumping around like grasshoppers.”
“And storm clouds breaking up over the lake,” Ruth added. “Maryann loved to watch the sky over the lake.”
They sat staring out at the big lake and sky.
“Do you remember that year dad died when we spent all summer here at the beach?” Donald asked.
Ruth nodded. “All you wanted to do was blow up balloons with little messages stuck in them and let them fly off.”
He laughed. “I thought Dad might somehow get one.”
“We must have blown up, oh, at least a hundred. I can still see them – red, green and yellow – floating out over the lake.”
“I’m too old to send Mom balloons,” he said.
Ruth felt her heart lurch with the sadness she’d tried to closet. She reached and gently squeezed Donald’s hand.
“Love does not go away because someone dies,” she said, her voice hoarse.
They sat gazing at the sky turn from soot to salmon.
“I’m going to head back in,” Donald said. “They’re about to serve dinner.”
The wind off the lake grew colder. Ruth put on the sweatshirt she’d grabbed off the stack by the door. It smelled of Maryann. She was hit with a jolt. Maryann. Gone. She could only absorb it in small chunks. And the beach house, this sprawling, outdated place they’d both loved, she would lose that, too. Maryann’s children were too busy to use it. There were newer vacation homes in the family. It would be sold, and this added to Ruth’s sorrow.
This was the place where as a girl she began making sketches of birds and lake and sky.
It was on the beach below this deck she’d spent the night saying goodbye to a boy she loved before he left for Vietnam.
It was here she had mothered children of other Vonderhavens – having given up the child of her own and of that soldier who never came home, a son born secretly and whisked away by the nun with a pointed black headdress. Only Maryann knew. They never spoke of it.
Ruth sat back in her deck chair and closed her eyes remembering the months she’d spent here after that awful year of loss. “Stay as long as you like,” Maryann told her. “Take the time you need.” Then, more sternly, “You will survive. Vonderhavens do.”
Ruth had slept each night with windows open to the shush-shush of waves. She walked the beach for hours, her sorrow as hard as the beach rocks she lugged home.
She began painting the rooms of the house – rhythmically rolling coats the color of a beach sunrise onto the walls of the living room, a soft green like dune grasses for Maryann’s bedroom, lake blue for hers. That rock of sorrow began to wear down to a stone Ruth had learned to live with.
She was interrupted from her memories by shrieks of the youngest Vonderhavens being herded to table. She had no appetite for dinner. And she was missing Max, Maryann’s youngest child. He was teaching art to children in a remote mountain village in India.
Max was the Vonderhaven offspring to whom Ruth had most given her heart. Toddling around her art studio, he’d picked up a paintbrush at 4. By the time he was 13, he was exhibiting his mystical paintings. Tonight, she missed Max’s exuberance that lighted up the room, his heart that spilled over to fill the empty ones. But Ruth had advised him not to make the arduous trip home.
“Your mother loved the work you’re doing. Your best tribute to her is teaching those children,” Ruth advised.
Now she wished she hadn’t. It was Max who felt, as she did, the soul of this beach house in the dunes where deer came nightly to drink at the lake. Its special light. Its gentle nurture and history. You could open a drawer and find a beach rock painted by some Vonderhaven child dated 1962, or 1942.
“Oh, there you are. We’re putting the food out,” called a young woman approaching the deck. Melanie, Maryann’s only daughter, was almost a clone of her mother. She had that easy manner that comes after many generations of privilege. And even with weariness and grief in her face, she was beautiful, Ruth thought. A newly minted doctor, Melanie would soon be going to South America with a team bringing eyeglasses and inoculations.
“I thought you had to work at the hospital tonight,” Ruth said.
Melanie dropped to sit on the deck planking. “I switched with another doctor.”
“I’m glad you could be here. Your mom was – all of us – are so proud of you,” Ruth said.
“Especially since I used to be such a slutty little screw-up, you mean.”
Ruth laughed. “Once, we all were slutty little screw-ups.”
“All I know is I was headed wild and crazy those years after dad died.”
“What changed you, Doctor Vonderhaven?”
“Time,” Melanie said. “And I remember an evening on this deck when I was puking my guts out from mixing beer and vodka at a beach party where I’d done disgusting things with some boy and you said something to me.”
“Drink a Coke and take two aspirins?”
Melanie laughed. “You said, ‘Mother Nature is a tyrant. Don’t let her beat you up.’ ”
“I’d forgotten that.”
“It was how you said it. No judgment. I guess it penetrated my crazy, teenage brain.”
“You mean you never drank or fooled around again?” Ruth said with a slight laugh.
“Oh, I did. But I took care of myself. Thanks, Aunt Ruth, if I never said it before.”
Melanie rose, kissed Ruth lightly on the cheek and headed back toward the house.
Ruth looked up and became lost in rosy cloud formations like neon cities in the sky. Finally, reluctantly, she got up to go inside and face the toasts and jokes and tributes to a woman who had lived a life larger than most. She felt the smallness of her own life.
Remnants of dinner littered the kitchen and dining room tables. About a dozen and half Vonderhavens of various ages sprawled on couches and chintz-covered chairs in the long living room – its wall of windows looking out to the lake and darkening sky.
There was excited chatter, jokes and tears, that odd hum of a wake – euphoria at being alive and sorrow at death, fueled by alcohol. Family members stood and told funny stories and made toasts to Maryann.
Ruth half listened, numb. What could she say that would express the strength and grace of Maryann’s life, how her loss felt like a hole the size of the lake outside. But the rest of the family was waiting to hear from her. Simple is best, she decided. She stood and said, “Maryann, we love you and miss you and will live more fully because of you. And carry on. Vonderhavens survive.”
The portrait of Maryann was unveiled. Ruth thought that she had gotten it right – the command in Maryann’s eyes. She could hardly bear to look at it.
Finally, Mason Barrett, Maryann’s lawyer, rose and began speaking. In late middle age, he had nearly black hair and a round, boyishly sweet face. Mason practiced an old-fashioned, trusted-counselor law and the Vonderhaven family made up most of his clientele.
“As you know, Maryann’s money and homes are in trusts – the provisions worked out long ago,” he began, giving a smile of acknowledgment to each family member. “However, she instructed me to read to you her personal bequests.” His voice quavered. He was a widower, and after the death of both their spouses had been Maryann’s friend and party escort as well as her lawyer.
“I leave my boat, Wind Dancer, to my nephew Kevin,” Mason read, “in hopes that he can break my race record in the yacht club regatta.
“To my granddaughter Sarah, who loved to watch me put on jewelry before I went to a party, I leave my sapphire necklace.
“To my grandson Jason, the grandfather clock in the hall whose chiming makes him laugh. To my cousin Angela, my garden tools for her green thumb.”
The litany continued. Nobody in the large family had been forgotten. Ruth realized that Maryann must have had a premonition of death or doctor’s warning she hadn’t shared. It was typical of her to be so prepared. But, Ruth thought, she did not prepare me to live without her.
Mason continued to read. “I leave to Ruth, my sister, my best friend who helped me raise my children, the painting by Matisse in my bedroom. I know everyone thinks it’s a print. It’s not.”
Ruth snapped to alertness. Mason was smiling at her, and she smiled back, dazed. Apart from the sentiment, Ruth knew the painting must be worth millions of dollars.
Late that night, Ruth returned to sit on the deck. The rest of the family had packed into their Jeeps, SUVs and BMW convertibles and gone back to their homes. She was staying over until the next day to do some sketches. And to say her goodbyes to the beach house.
The night sky had cleared and the stars of the Big Dipper shone brightly over head as if about to pour something onto the roof. After awhile, Ruth went inside to make a cup of tea. She was surprised to find Mason in the kitchen, his round face looking too young for his years. She couldn’t help wondering if he touched up his nearly jet black hair.
“I couldn’t leave just yet,” he said.
Ruth nodded, too drained to respond.
“I had to give you this … privately.” He handed her two envelopes. “Read the top one first.”
Ruth opened the top envelope and pulled out a letter on Maryann’s monogrammed stationary.
“Dear Ruth. If you are reading this, I have gone on to whatever comes next. I hope it is more relaxing than being CEO of Vonderhaven Industries. And I hope grandfather thought to buy up a wing of heaven.”
Tears fell from Ruth’s eyes as she read.
“I could never thank you adequately for what you did for me and the children after Walter died. I wanted to leave the beach house to you. Only, Mason tells me, I do not own it directly. Instead, I left you the artwork, which is worth more than the house. Mason has it worked out – a buyer for the art and then a quick sale to you of the house – with enough extra for an upkeep fund. (You can buy a print of the Matisse, but there is only one beach house.) I want you to play here with the grandchildren, to have beach fires, all-night star-watching and orgies of rock-painting.”
It was signed, “With love and thanks, Maryann.”
Ruth sat down at the kitchen table. Mason handed her his clean white handkerchief and she wiped the tears from her face.
“I have it all worked out,” he said gently. “You will buy the house from the trust. I have the papers drawn up, the appraisals and a buyer for the Matisse, if you wish.”
Ruth sat in stunned silence for several minutes, and then asked, “What is in the second letter?”
“It’s been a long night, Ruth. Maybe you should wait until morning.”
“It is morning.”
He handed her the envelope. Ruth opened it and read: “Dear Ruth, below is the address of your son. Forgive me for keeping this from you. Secrecy was a condition of his adoption into a family I know. They have loved him well. But he is grown now and married. And I think that death must end my obligation of secrecy. Maybe you can play with your own grandchildren at the beach house.”
Ruth’s hands were shaking. Tears wet the page as she continued to read: “One last piece of advice from a big sister. You could do worse than Mason as a best friend and maybe more. He is a dear and he likes you. Thank you, Ruth. You are the heart of the Vonderhaven family. MA.
“PS. I know you will wonder… I think his hair color is real.”Mason put his hand gently on Ruth’s shoulder.
“Are you OK?”
She nodded, looked up into his kind face and smiled. She thought maybe Maryann was right about his hair.
After "Rich," read another of Mo's short stories.
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