Thursday, April 23, 2009

Futures present

“So, Hannah, have you decided where you’re going to be going to college yet?” Granna Nellis asked.

Hannah’s shoulders slumped a bit. “No Granna.”

“Mother, she’s still got another year of high school to go yet.”

“Well, it’s never to late to have a goal. You knew what you wanted to do by the time you were Jack’s age. So, what are your thoughts, Hannah?”

“Maybe nursing. Maybe veterinary medicine. I can’t decide.”

“Nursing. Well, that’s good. Though you should just go all the way, to medical school, become a doctor like your mother should have.”

“Mother, we’ve had this discussion before.”

“Another tradition?” Beth whispered in Jack’s ear.

He smiled.

“What’s so funny over there? This is a serious discussion,” Granna sniffed. “Do you find something amusing, Elizabeth?”

Beth just stared at the older woman.

“Well? I asked you a question.”

“You asked ‘Elizabeth,’ whoever she is,” Beth said.

“Don’t play games with me, young lady.”

“My name is not ‘Elizabeth.’”

“Nonsense. Of course ‘Beth’ is short for ‘Elizabeth.’”

“Winifred,” Jack’s father said, “are you honestly going to spend Thanksgiving dinner, with your family, arguing over something like this?”

“Bill, the point is—”

“The point is, that’s not her name,” Jack said, with a shrug.

“Well, then, what is it?” Granna asked him.

“We told you, it’s ‘Beth.’”

Granna turned again to Jack’s mom and dad. “Surely, you know.”

“Yes, we do,” Jack’s father told her. “But that is between us, and her. If she wants to tell you, she will.”

Granna turned to Charlotte.

“Don’t look at me, I’ve only heard them call her ‘Beth.’ That’s plenty for me,” she said. “Could you pass the rolls?”

With that, Granna dropped the subject, but not without scowling in the girl’s direction.

* * * * *

“Charlotte, dear, what are your plans for college?”

She chewed even slower, but the roll would only go so far.

“Don’t know about school, but I thought maybe I’d like to teach.”

Beth stifled a giggle.

Granna’s scowl deepened. “Could I have a serious conversation with my granddaughters without the rude interruptions? Do you think Charlotte incapable of teaching?”

“No offense, Charlotte, but I hope you don’t plan on teaching kindergarten,” Beth said. “Those poor kids. And poor you. I’ve seen what happens when you try to help Ellie with her homework.”

“Charlotte ‘splains things funny,” Ellie said. “I like how Jack does it better.”

Charlotte screwed up her face. “I’d never teach elementary schoolers. Maybe… middle school age, when they’re more reasonable.”

Her face grew thoughtful again. “Or maybe… books.”

“Books? Writing?” Granna’s lip curled a bit at the word.

“No, like proof reading. Editing. Helping writers be better writers.”

Beth sat up a bit straighter, then leaned towards Charlotte. “Do you think… if it’s not too much trouble…”

“Spit it out, Goldilocks,” Charlotte said.

“Well, I have this thing. It’s a hobby, really. Maybe you could read it and… tell me what you think. Help me clean it up.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Charlotte said, then devoted her attention to buttering the other half of her roll.

Granna’s attention focused on Jack. He felt it like a lead weight, pressing in on his guts.

“I suppose you’re still cooping yourself up with those sketchbooks,” she said, a frown creasing her forehead.

“No, I’m getting out a lot more. Beth and I do a lot of exploring, and when she found out I could draw, she suggested I bring my sketchbook along. So I’m doing a lot more nature sketching.”

Granna’s initial disappointment seemed about to lift at Jack’s deinal, but then the frown simply grew deeper as he continued.

“His work really has gotten so much better,” Jack’s mother said. “And having access to the supplies at school lets Jack try methods we just can’t afford.”

“Mrs. Nellis, you should see what Jack can do with paint,” Beth said, her green eyes wide. “We’ll be bringing three or four of his paintings to the exhibit. He just started, and already he is so good!”

Jack blushed at her praise.

Granna scowled. “I’ve said it’s not a very practical use of his time and energy. He could be doing so much more with himself.”

Beth stared, open-mouthed. “‘So much more’…. What more could he be doing?”

“He could be devoting his time to learning something more useful. Something that will help him when he reaches college. So he’ll be able to learn a proper trade, be responsible.”

“What, like being a doctor?”

Granna’s eyes widened, her red lips pursing as she sucked in a sharp breath. “You watch your tone, young lady!”

“Beth,” Jack said, laying a hand on her arm. She jerked her arm away.

“You didn’t answer my question,” the girl said, her eyes locked with those of the older woman across the table.

Granna looked over at Jack’s parents. “You let him spend all his time with his ‘art.’ When is he supposed to learn something useful, practical, that will—”

“Now, Winifred, we’ve been through this—”

“Jack’s art gets better the more time he spends on it,” Beth said. “He’s already good, and getting better.”

“Well, he could—”

“He could be great, instead of just ‘good.’” Beth said. “But you want him to just drop that for something ‘practical.’”

“He has no future as an artist,” Granna Nellis insisted.

“No, not if you insist on squashing his potential,” Beth said. “Have you ever watched Jack work? I have, and what I see is amazing. His hands are so steady. His face — it’s like all his cares just disappear. Jack’s art is his strength. It’s his love, his peace. It’s his solace, and you want him to throw that all away. For what? Why would you take that from him?”

“I just want what’s best for my grandchildren. Sometimes what is best isn’t always what they want. Sometimes, we have to make sacrifices. Sometimes, we have to do things we don’t want so that others can be happy. But what could you— sitting here, sponging off my daughter’s generosity, filling my grandson’s head with your delusions of making a living with his hobby— possibly know about sacrifice?”

Silence fell across the table.

Jack set down his fork.

“You see, Beth? This is what a normal Thanksgiving is like for us. Granna comes and shoves her nose into things she doesn’t know anything about, tries pushing us around to do things she thinks are best for us. Next, she’s going to make it all look like our fault that the holiday mood is ruined. And then there’s pumpkin pie.”

“The punkin’ pie is the best part!” Ellie said.

“John Henry, don’t you dare speak to me like that!” Granna gasped.

Beth stood up so quickly, she nearly knocked over her chair.

“Don’t you dare invoke his name,” Beth spat. Her finger shook as she pointed it at the older woman. Her breath came in quick, short gasps. “If all you’re going to do is strip away all the progress he’s made this far by layering on the doubt and guilt, you don’t deserve to even speak one syllable of his name!”

Every eye locked on Beth. Granna’s eyes got widest of all.

Beth’s hair was beginning to shine in a way that had nothing to do with the sunlight streaming through the front door.

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