Thursday's Child

by Beth MacMillan

Sometimes comic and occasionally tragic, Thursday's Child by Beth MacMillan is about finding your home, the weirdness of families, the ups and downs of marriage, the joy of dog ownership, life in a foreign country, and feeling estranged from all of the above.

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At a Glance

Title
Thursday's Child
Author
Beth MacMillan

Publisher

6750 SW Franklin St, Ste. A
Portland, OR 97223-2542
Phone: (503) 968-6777
Fax: (503) 968-6779

Formats

Paperback

ISBN
978-1-62901-517-0
Price
$17.95
Page Count
312
Trim Size
6″ × 9″

Kindle

ISBN
978-1-62901-518-7
Price
$2.99
Buy Kindle on Amazon

About the Book

Sometimes comic and occasionally tragic, Thursday's Child by Beth MacMillan is about finding your home, the weirdness of families, the ups and downs of marriage, the joy of dog ownership, life in a foreign country, and feeling estranged from all of the above.

Thursday’s Child follows the lives of a mother and daughter who, despite their similarities, often find communication to be an extremely awkward endeavor. Tess is an aimless wanderer, trying on different jobs and cultures to see which fits but still feeling like an outsider. Mother, Della, is chronically worried, listens to NPR when her Republican friends are not around, and is the lone skeptic in her religious southern family.

When Della’s beloved elder sister is dying and Tess leaves her husband in Denmark after he confesses to cheating, they find themselves in the grip of Della’s peculiar close-mouthed southern family. Della is about to learn a secret that her sister never shared, while Tess is torn between starting over at home in America and going back to Denmark and the man she has loved since high school.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Della turned on NPR immediately after getting up in the morning, just as she had nearly every day since moving into her own home after the divorce ten years prior. It was comforting to listen to the calm voices of Melissa Block and Robert Siegel reading the news in the morning, no matter how distressing that news might be. Today it was more of the same – terrorism threats, global warming, the faltering economy – all presented with a deliberate liberal bias that she found refreshing after spending nearly three months in Florida with her sister and brother-in-law being subjected to the bombastic coverage of the same events on Fox News.

After a cursory glance at her emails and determining there was nothing again from her eldest daughter who was living in Denmark, she went about her usual task of tidying up the house. A neat and tidy house had been her obsession, her unrealized dream, during all the years of her married life. Her ex-husband Richard had all but rendered it impossible for her to invite people over for cocktails and to host the dinner parties that women’s magazines had assured her were her married destiny. This unwilling deviation from the role promised her was due to Richard’s rapacious desire to collect and fill the marital home with rubbish purchased at flea markets, as well as his refusal to allow her to purchase new furniture or to decorate because of the expense. Thus, the house became a messy, overcrowded monument to the 1970s, complete with harvest gold curtains and a garish living room suite to match. It was Richard’s house now. She had, at long last, the neat little house she had always dreamed of, but no one to share it with.

Her days were often long and lonely. To alleviate this persistent feeling of isolation, she had been talked into joining a “Red Hats” club by a passing acquaintance who was clearly concerned by her lack of a social life. Since then, she had been bombarded by mostly unwelcome invitations to play cards at various venues, to see lots of romantic comedies at the local movie theater and had been at the receiving end of more than her fair share of chain emails featuring adorable kittens and schmaltzy patriotic sayings. The Red Hats was not her cup of tea at all (hers, she imagined, was a far more bitter brew), but it was all she had, now that the girls were both married and firmly moved out.

Her eldest daughter, Tess, she reflected, had been very much like herself as a little girl; so intensely shy that she had been mistaken as backwards in her early days at school. She refused to speak to anyone, or even lift her head and make eye contact with her fellow students. They thought her strange and immediately singled her out for bullying and psychological torment. Tess had once confided to Della that she, in all seriousness, believed her early days at school to be bad dream from which she would one day wake, whereupon she could resume her inner life in peace. An awkward skinny little girl as a child and preteen, Tess had never quite blossomed in high school where she had remained dateless and unkissed after the age of sixteen. She made good, if not great, grades in school despite her social shortcomings, but seemed to lack ambition for doing anything with her life, other than spinning elaborate fantasies of romance and travel abroad. She loved reading novels and watching foreign films. Her schoolgirl crushes were on much older British rock stars and actors. It was only in her second year of college when she had started going out with Ben Darby, a fellow graduate of Frostburg High School, that she seemed to come into her own. Then she had glowed with happiness. She and Ben moved in together and subsequently got married after graduation. They had since spent their time moving around from job to job, city to city. Ben was an engineering graduate and a bright young man, also quite shy and self-effacing. He, however, did seem to be progressing in life, while Tess seemed to just drift along, never knowing what she wanted to do. She was the least career-minded woman Della had ever known. She, of course, had never been particularly career-minded herself as a young woman, but she had grown up in a different time and had been presented with fewer opportunities. Besides, she had had a strong maternal streak which Tess definitely lacked. Della had wanted to marry and have children. Tess seemed to have fallen into marriage purely by accident and she wanted nothing to do with what she derisively referred to as “breeding.” She seemed to be content to live in her neglected house with her adoring husband trying different jobs as soon as she became bored with her current one – she would be a legal secretary one week and a trainee teacher’s assistant the next.

Her younger daughter Sylvie, on the other hand, was much more like her father Richard and, because of that Della was always a little bit intimidated by her. Sylvie was a strong-willed girl who, like her father, had certain blind spots when it came to the wants and needs of others, particularly those of her mother. Sylvie had moved in with Della for a while after graduating from college, shortly after she had left Richard, and had no qualms about claiming the largest and most desirable bedroom for herself in Della’s new house, leaving her mother to sleep in what Tess uncharitably called the “closet,” an afterthought of a bedroom in which a double bed barely fit. But, as she was with Richard, Della found herself weak-willed and swept up in Sylvie’s forceful personality; she allowed her to have her way in order to avoid an argument or feel guilty. Sylvie had been a tomboy as a girl, running around with the local boys climbing trees, riding bikes and teetering on skateboards. She seemed to have all the energy that Tess lacked, whereas Tess had all the capacity for guilt that Sylvie lacked. It wasn’t until Sylvie started high school at a special private girls’ academy that she blossomed academically, excelling especially in science and business preparation courses. The books she had been forced to read, The Bell Jar, Ethan Fromme, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, were eagerly picked up and devoured by Tess, who was languishing in the lowly – but her choice – realm of the local public school.

Sylvie graduated from college with honors with a degree in political science, which she followed up with a Masters degree and law school. She met her future husband, Brad, while at grad school (he was studying accounting) and, after a lengthy courtship half-heartedly attended to by Sylvie, agreed to marry him after he had badgered her, cried and threatened self-harm. Brad was a nice, easygoing kind of man who was happy to allow Sylvie to dominate their domestic life together. After years of despairing of ever having grandchildren – a main topic of conversation among the Red Hat ladies – Sylvie had finally taken a break from her career as a zealous environmental lawyer to give birth to twin sons. Tess, she knew, breathed a sigh of relief – the burden was no longer on her to provide grandchildren. She never wavered from her girlhood declaration that she wanted nothing to do with children.

Sylvie had returned to her job shortly after the meticulously planned Caesarean birth and Brad found himself in the position of being the boys’ main caregiver, even though he too was working full-time in an accountancy firm. Sylvie was happy to take her boys for portraits at J.C. Penney and excursions to see Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny at the mall but was far less enamored with the mundane duties of childcare, like changing diapers, feeding them or taking them to day care. With alarming speed, the boys took second place to Sylvie’s tree-hugging clients and her oft-stated goal of changing the world. Brad, the last time Della had seen him, had developed a nervous tic on the side of his face and was looking quite pale. His eyes drooped in exhaustion. When Sylvie yelled at him to watch the kids, he could only groan assent before drifting back to sleep on the living room sofa. Della could hardly believe what Sylvie could get away with, but at least it seemed that Brad was too tired to even consider leaving his family to begin a new life free of henpecking.

In contrast to Sylvie’s single-minded zeal to succeed, Tess had been a mediocre student at college who was constantly being admonished to live up to her potential. After graduating, she had been eager to embark on a life outside of school. It wasn’t that she was unintelligent; she was just sneaky, acquiring what knowledge she needed outside of school, through her own reading and experiences. As soon as she was expected to study and be tested on a subject, she lost interest. Her first two years at Oxford State University, from the best Della could tell, were filled with parties and heavy drinking, a significant departure for her normally shy and retiring daughter, who had never participated in the underage sex and wild parties that young people were said to partake as a rite of passage in high school. It was only at the end of her junior year in college that, confronted with a less-than-stellar grade point average, Tess began to study in earnest, bringing her final GPA to a respectable 3.0. She had started dating Ben in the midst of her partying years and surprised her parents by announcing her intention to move in with him right after graduation. Richard was astonished – he had been expecting her to pack her belongings into the family suburban and be driven home as she had been for the past three years, where she would spend her summers at whatever low paying job she could find that allowed her to sleep in and watch soap operas during the day.

Her ex-husband Richard, heretofore unencumbered by conventional morality or much interested in the virginity of his unmarried daughters, surprised them both by objecting strenuously to Tess “living in sin,” as Della’s pious family would have called it. Nonetheless, they lived in this ungodly state for two years before they made their union official at Ben’s church. They were now, ten years after the wedding, childless and had embarked on an adventure, moving to Denmark where Ben had found a job, and traveling around Europe. By all accounts, they were very happy there, but lately Tess had been reticent about what was happening in her life; her normally fulsome emails chronicling their various escapades in foreign lands had become fewer. It had been over a month since Della had heard from her.

The early April day was now brightening somewhat to reveal the snow patches in the backyard that refused to melt despite it being officially spring. It was still cold for this time of year, and after experiencing nearly three months of unremitting sun and warmth, Della shivered. She put on an additional sweater and considered microwaving herself another cup of tea. Her time in Florida had been less than cheerful, but it was nice to get away during the worst part of winter, which in the Northeast Ohio town of Frostburg – named not for the cold weather for which it was legendary, as was generally assumed, but for its founder, the Maple Sugar Baron Cornelius Frost. His statue adorned the town square where it was regularly pelted with snowballs during the lengthy winter season, a harsh time of unrelenting blizzards, snow squalls, flurries, and all other varieties of snow and ice imaginable. Della had icicles as wide a man’s arm blocking her windows for months. She could never understand why she, a child of the warm and forgiving south, continued to reside in this icebox now that there was no one to keep her here. She often thought of selling the house and moving down to Dayton to be closer to Sylvie and her family, but then the thought of actually putting the house up for sale, packing up her things and leaving the place she had lived for all of her adult life overwhelmed her and she dismissed the idea.

Sylvie and Brad lived in a new development just outside of Dayton now. Sylvie went back to work shortly after the twins were born and, with both of them working, Della rarely saw them, unless she made the trip to Dayton herself. There Sylvie was more than happy to relinquish control of them to their grandmother. Della, making up for all the lost time she spent without grandchildren to dote upon, loved to see them, but she always felt tense in the busy household. Sylvie and Brad seemed to communicate solely through shouting and snide comments these days and Della worried for the mental health of the two little boys growing up in such a volatile atmosphere, conveniently forgetting that her own daughters had grown up in a household where she and Richard were either in a state of active combat or conducting days’ worth of stony silent treatments towards each other.

Besides, thought Della, eternally the optimist, Tess and Ben would have to move back sometime and perhaps they would settle again in the Cleveland area.

Della had recently returned from visiting with one of her two remaining sisters, Shirley and her husband Bob, who were now retired and living in a small ranch house outside of Fort Lauderdale. She had been spending time with them from January to late March for nearly five years now, at first to keep company with her elderly mother who was living with them. Her mother, after years of alternating between snoozing and rocking in a vintage La-Z-y Boy positioned in front of the television, finally passed on two years ago, screaming at the gods for mercy in a fit of dementia while lying in a urine-soaked hospice bed. For someone who seemed to dislike life so much, it seemed a cruel irony that she lived to the age of 103. After her mother’s final move to the hospice, Della had been cleaning her room. There she had found, stashed in the drawers of her doily-covered dresser, what must have been at least a decade’s worth of unopened authentic Frostburg maple candies which had been her traditional Mother’s Day gift to her. Other unopened items, which were obviously also gifts from family members, intermingled with the candy so she did not feel especially singled out in her mother’s disregard. It seemed to Della that her mother had been hiding the gifts out of spite; if she hadn’t wanted them herself she could have easily shared them with the family, but instead she insisted on tucking them away, out of sight. Della collected the expansive hoard and deposited the lot into the bin without mentioning it to anyone. Even as a grown woman, it seemed that there was no pleasing her mother.

Her subsequent trips to Florida were mainly to escape the harsh northeast Ohio winters. They didn’t know what real cold was like down there. The native Floridians huddled in heavy parkas and sported jaunty little tartan hats in fifty-degree weather; they encased their poor little dogs in sweaters, as Della basked, coatless, in the sunshine. She loved Shirley, of course, but there were times that she wondered how they could possibly be from the same family. Shirley had been pious as a girl and had since reached the high limits of ostentatious religious fervor with her similarly-minded husband Bob. All five siblings had been exposed to the typical Southern childhood threats of fire and brimstone by various red-faced evangelists while growing up and were religious to some degree, although Della was the least religious of all. After her divorce, in an attempt to improve her mind and further her education, she had taken several classes at the local community college. She always felt that she had a spiritual element lying dormant within her, so she took courses on comparative religions, with a special focus on the Jewish faith. Richard had worked with a Jewish man who was one of his few friends and they often visited him and his family (they had a daughter the same age as Tess) at their home in Cleveland Heights. It was through Ruth that Della became interested in the Jewish faith and traditions. She shocked the evangelical Florida community with her books entitled God: A Biography and To Be a Jew. Trips to Florida involved endless rounds of churchgoing and church-related activities, prayers before each meal and watching heavily sanitized “family” oriented programs on television when it wasn’t stuck on Fox News. Holographic pictures of a doe-eyed Jesus gazed down at her with compassionate disapproval. The only books available were flamboyant leather embossed, gilt edged bibles and old copies of Reader’s Digest. Della felt stifled and bored by it all but was unable to assert herself in any way against the barrage. She felt that she should be able to stand up for herself but could never quite articulate what she felt so deeply inside her about the wrongness of it all. She sat back and let them take her to church. Probably their entire circle of church friends thought she felt the same as they did about “the rapture” and their other, frankly ludicrous, evangelical Christian beliefs. The most she was ever able to get away with was mild criticism of George W. Bush, which was met with such scandalized reaction that she never mentioned her liberal politics again and she certainly never informed them about her membership in the Democratic Party.

Della would have much preferred visiting her sister Marie in Tennessee, but Marie was now living in a small single-wide trailer and always insisted that she just didn’t have the space. Occasionally she would come down to Florida as well and Della was always so grateful to see her. Marie was much more relaxed and kinder than Shirley. Everyone loved her, Della in particular. Della worried about her being all alone sometimes, but she seemed happy in Tennessee where she had spent her entire life and she did have her children, such as they were with their crystal meth and Nascar habits. She shouldn’t look down on people just because they were rednecks, Della told herself sternly, but it was just so ingrained in her that she couldn’t stop.

The phone rang, and Della suddenly remembered, with consternation, that there was a new romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts opening that week at the Atlas Cinema. The Red Hat girls had been all abuzz about it at their last get-together and tentative plans had been made to meet up for dinner at Applebee’s and to see the movie afterwards. Della thought about ignoring the phone and letting the answering machine pick it up but then, resigned, she answered.

“Della?” a strange male voice with a strong southern accent inquired. “Della is that you honey?”

“Yes, this is she,” Della answered with foreboding, automatically reverting to the proper telephone answering etiquette she had learned while working as a secretary. “May I ask who’s calling, please?” she inquired primly.

“Della, darlin’, it’s me, Cumberland, callin’ from Tennessee.”

Of all the people she expected to call her, she would never have imagined Cumberland. She hadn’t seen or heard from her brother in years. He never attended the yearly family reunions where they all gathered to eat fried chicken and coleslaw, never sent Christmas or birthday cards and he never phoned. She didn’t even think he had a phone. All she knew was that after he retired from his job at the Ford plant in Dayton, he had divorced his wife of over forty years after catching her in bed with the union foreman at the plant, a man twenty years younger than Leanne. He had since had a sort of breakdown, moved back to Tennessee and was apparently living in a shack somewhere in the mountains, hunting for food and stocking up for the upcoming apocalypse (it had been called off or postponed several times and was now set for two years hence from what she understood). Why on earth was he calling her now?

“Hello Cumberland,” she answered uncertainly. “How are things?”

“Well, Della, the reason I’m callin’ is, well, I got some bad news.”

Della instantly froze. What had happened? Had there been an accident? Was Marie dead? Horrible thoughts ran through her head. She sat down heavily on a kitchen chair.

“It’s Marie… She ain’t been herself recently and now she’s, well she’s sick… like in the head. Don’t know how it started but Bev was noticin’ that she was actin’ strange, seein’ things like. Things that wasn’t there. Just thought it was her medication or somethin’. You know how she’s startin’ to git the Parkinson’s. But it got worse, she just started screamin’ and tearin’ around. Had to get her to the hospital. She’s there now. Doctors still not sure what it is, but I thought I ought to call you, let you know.”

Della was not sure she had ever heard her brother speak so many words at one time. She breathed in sharply, trying to take it all in. Marie had always been in frail health and had lately been suffering from what doctors said were the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, the illness her father had eventually died of, along with the black lung. But last she heard, Marie was doing well, responding to treatment.

“Oh, Cumberland, poor Marie. Thank you so much for calling…” She felt her voice catch. “What should I do? Should I come down? Does she need me?”

“Well, she’s been askin’ for you, but then she’s been talkin’ ‘bout all sorts. Goin’ on about Margaret a lot, callin’ out for her. Well … it’s pitiful. If you can come down, I know she wants to see you. Maybe it’ll help. She was always lookin’ out for you, you know, her baby sister. So, if you can come out… I just wanted you to know.”

“Does Shirley know? I just got back from her place you know. I was there for a while, getting away from this awful winter.” Della prattled.

“I’m callin’ her next.”

“What hospital is she at? I would like to call them, at least send some flowers or a card or something. I need to make plans and I’ll let you know. Can I have your phone number?”

“I’m at her place now, you can reach me here. Or you could try callin’ Bev. Don’t have a phone at my place.” Della had suspected as much. She wrote down the name, address and phone number of the Knoxville Hospital carefully and told him she would call as soon as she could make plans. She then rang off, drooping in her chair and feeling somewhat ill.

She didn’t know how long she had been sitting there numbly staring at the wall, when the phone suddenly rang again, startling her out of her reverie. Without thinking, she picked it up.

“Della? It’s Pat. Just calling to see if you are on for the movie tonight, seven at the restaurant, movie at eight. Sounds like such a good one too!”

Della had momentarily forgotten who Pat was and had no idea what she was talking about. Then it came back to her, Julia Roberts, a meal, wearing a stupid red hat with a group of women who worshiped at the feet of George W. Bush.

Feeling elated for having a valid excuse not to go and at the same time guilty about the reason for her elation, she replied, “Sorry, not tonight Pat. I just got a call and my sister is in the hospital. I just don’t think I’m up for it.”

Review

Thursday’s Child is a bright, thought-provoking novel that particularly wins in its ability to pick apart the female psyche, á la Meg Wolitzer, and shows, paradoxically, how we’re often much stronger than we think we are—and much more susceptible to moral failures in places of our souls we hadn’t thought to look.

Red City Review Read the Full Review

About the Author

Author Beth MacMillan

Beth MacMillan has held many jobs, including some weird ones, throughout her life and likes to write snarky stories for her family and husband's amusement, while she is not attending to the many needs and desires of her beloved dogs. She and her husband have recently returned to the United States after spending 15 years in Europe, where they lived in Denmark and the UK. Between working jobs as a second-hand bookshop assistant in England and a marketing assistant in Denmark, she used her experience of living in both an eccentric family and in foreign counties to write her first novel, Thursday's Child. She lives her husband and two small dogs in Portland, Oregon.

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