The Children - Ann Leary


One August morning in 1956, Whit Whitman sat down to a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and toast with his grandmother Trudy. They dined outdoors on the wide front porch of Lakeside Cottage. Whit’s father had an early golf game that morning. His mother and sister had gone for a sail on the lake. Although he was only eight at the time, Whit would always remember what he and his grandmother talked about during their breakfast. First, Trudy had described her displeasure at finding the family cat on her bed when she awoke. She had thought it was her sweater and was alarmed when it sprang from her hands. Then they had discussed the weather.

“Isn’t it cold for August?” Trudy asked.

“Not really,” said Whit. He wanted to go sailing and was bitter about being left behind to look after his grandmother.

“Won’t you and your father want to plant bulbs this afternoon? Or is it too soon for bulbs? Didn’t we just plant the tomatoes?”

Whit answered in a dull monotone. It was a bit soon for the bulbs. The tomatoes had been planted in May.

“Oh, didn’t we have the loveliest tomatoes last night?” Trudy asked.

“Yes, Gran.”

“Weren’t they perfectly ripe, dear?”

“Yes, they were.”

“The roses, have they been cut back?”

“I don’t know, Gran,” Whit said, squinting out at the lake in search of his mother’s boat. (Here’s the point in the story where I always see the two white birches, gone now, against a flat blue sky, and the lake spread all around them like a pool of shimmering silver.)

“It’s too soon to cut them back. They’re still blooming,” Trudy scolded, as if it had been Whit who suggested cutting the roses back in the first place.

“Would you like to walk down to the garden, Gran?” Whit asked.

“No, dear, thank you,” Trudy said. “But if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll just go upstairs and die now.”

“Gran, not die,” Whit corrected her. “You mean lie, not die.”

But Trudy had meant die. She walked up the back stairs to her bedroom. She used the servants’ staircase behind the kitchen because she found the carpeted front stairs harder to manage. Then she folded back the quilt on her bed, pressed herself against the cool sheets, and died.

“It was her time. She was eighty-nine years old,” Whit would explain years later, his eyes sparkling and sometimes streaming with tears in the telling. (Whit was unable to laugh properly without crying.) “Still, it was the way she did it—so polite. Well, she was a Farmington girl, after all. One doesn’t just die.”

Whit was my stepfather. My sister, Sally, and I grew up in his house, and we often begged him to repeat this story to us when we were little girls, usually interrupting him with demands for details.

“Did she really try to wear the cat?”

“Was her body stiff when you found it?”

“Did it smell?”

Trudy Whitman wasn’t the first to die at Lakeside. Her mother-in-law, Ruth, died here twenty years prior. According to family legend, Ruth had spent much of her ninety-third summer in bed because she had some kind of heart problem. One night, a rabid raccoon ate its way through the window screen and leaped up on her bed, snarling and spitting blood-tinged foam everywhere, so old Ruth Whitman beat it to death with her book. Ruth didn’t contract rabies from the animal, but instead enjoyed several weeks of renewed vigor, dressing each evening for dinner with very little help from the maid. One night, after tasting her dessert, she said, “That German cook has finally stopped using too much sugar in the rhubarb. It’s quite good.” Then she astonished her family by appearing to forgo utensils and eat her pie from the plate like a dog. In fact, her heart had stopped. She had died, and that’s just where her face had come to rest, there in the German cook’s rhubarb pie.

Whit loved telling family stories, their general theme being that Whitmans are gritty and combative, they live long and then die when they’re good and ready—not a moment sooner. So it must have come as a shock to him to learn that he had cancer at age sixty-five, though it was anybody’s guess how he reacted, as he kept the diagnosis to himself until just a few months before he died. Then he told only our mother, Joan, who neglected to inform any of us kids until after he was gone.

“It’s what Whit wanted,” she had said at the time. It seems that he didn’t think