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The Great Transformation

In March, with the completion of the five-room cottage and bathhouse, Lisa and Philip and their children Arturo and Vivienne, move all their furniture and possessions from the farmhouse into the new cottage so the Ramirez brothers and their crew can begin what Philip calls The Great Transformation of the farmhouse

The south-facing walls are removed and the entire house is made sixteen feet wider, thereby doubling the size of the living room and kitchen, with a big bedroom and second bathroom being added to the east end of the house, a big deck to grace the south side, and a new roof for the entirety when the interior work is completed.

*

In April, with The Great Transformation well underway, Grandma Hilda moves from Berkeley to a small house in the village of Mercy where she will live until Philip and Lisa and kids move back into the farmhouse, after which she will move into their cottage.

Hilda’s daughter Tamara and Tamara’s partner Celine are planning a July move to a beach house a mile south of Mercy with the intention of buying the Richardson’s place a year or so from now when Joseph and Constance return to England for what Joseph frequently refers to as Our Final Chapter, to which Constance routinely responds, “Now don’t be morbid, dear.”

*

On a Wednesday afternoon in May, twenty-year-old Delilah, tall and beautiful, her long brown hair in a ponytail, is giving Vivienne, five-and-a-half and cute as a button, a piano lesson on the new upright in the cottage living room, Arturo having had the first piano lesson today, Henri’s lesson to follow.

Henri, six-and-a-half, and Arturo, “not quite eight” as he tells people when asked his age, though he is exactly seven-and-a-half, are kicking the soccer ball around in front of the barn, and inside the barn, Marcel, Henri’s father, is tasting the eight-month-old pinot noir from Barrel #7 and thinking in French This needs at least another six months, but my God it could be excellent.

In the large terraced vegetable and flower garden, Andrea, Henri’s mother, and Lisa, Vivienne and Arturo’s mother, are planting out lettuce starts from the greenhouse, both wearing wide-brimmed sunhats though the day is overcast and cool.

Philip, Vivienne and Arturo’s father, is in the farmhouse consulting with Oscar and Mario Ramirez about the long counter that will separate the kitchen from the dining area and living room, while five carpenters take a break on the half-finished deck and enjoy delicious oat bran and raisin muffins Philip made for them—muffins from one of the recipes in Philip’s nearly completed cookbook, working title Good Eats from Ziggurat Farm, working subtitle, more recipes for the somewhat ambitious cook.

And en route to the farm from their house a couple miles down the road, their old pickup laboring on the grade, are Nathan, who just celebrated his eightieth birthday, and Celia, seventy-four, and their little old dog Tennyson, bringing news they didn’t want to give Delilah on the phone.

“Can you tell her,” says Nathan as he parks near the cottage—the farm dogs coming to greet them. “I don’t think I can.”

“Si,” says Celia, nodding.

They get out of the old truck and Nathan sets Tennyson down on the ground so he can exchange sniffs with Jung the giant hound, Mimi the Golden Retriever, Alexandra the fast-growing Golden Retriever pup, and Goliath, who is not much bigger than Tennyson.

Hearing Henri and Arturo shout Hello to Nathan and Celia, Delilah concludes her duet with Vivienne and goes out on the front porch to greet Nathan and Celia, and seeing them upset, she hurries down the stairs asking, “What happened?”

Celia nods and cannot speak, and Delilah knows her mother is dead.

*

Delilah does not attend the lavish memorial service in Los Angeles for her famous movie star mother Margot Cunningham, and in June, Margot’s longtime personal assistant Joan and two of Margot’s lawyers come to Mercy and meet with Delilah and Nathan and Philip and Constance in a small meeting room at Mercy Savings, the only bank in town.

The lawyers inform Delilah that her mother’s trust leaves ten million dollars to Joan, two hundred million dollars to Planned Parenthood, and fifty million dollars to Delilah, with any remaining monies and future residuals from Margot’s many movies to go to Planned Parenthood.

When Joan and the lawyers offer to invest Delilah’s inheritance for her, Delilah says, “No thank you. I would like the money deposited in my account here at Mercy Savings.”

Delilah then signs a few documents that Constance and Philip first look over to make sure all is well, and Joan says, “I’m so sorry for your loss, Delilah. Your mother was a great person. If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.”

“Should anyone inquire of my whereabouts,” says Delilah, eager to be done with the meeting, “please tell them I’m living abroad.”

*

Delilah is sitting on the floor with her back against the sofa in the living room of the little house Hilda is renting on a quiet street in Mercy, and Hilda, eighty-three, her long silvery hair in a braid, is sitting in a cushioned rocking chair a few feet from Delilah, the town cloaked in fog as is often the case on mornings in July.

“The truth is,” says Delilah, pausing mid-sentence. “Well… who knows what the truth is, but the thing is, I stopped caring about her except in a mythic way after just a few weeks of knowing Nathan and Celia.”

“Can you explain what you mean by mythic?” asks Hilda, who was a psychotherapist for fifty years and still occasionally offers sessions to friends.

“Yes, but first I need to tell you who I was at thirteen when my mother brought me here,” says Delilah, remembering virtually every detail of her life these last seven years. “I was terrified of other people, yet desperate to know other people. I was especially afraid of men, though they fascinated me. I stuttered constantly and thought I might want to be male instead of female. My mother was almost never home and I had no one I could talk to about anything that really mattered to me. And until we escaped from our townhouse in New York, I wanted to kill myself because I was so lonely and miserable.”

“But your mother was not yet mythic to you.”

“I haven’t forgotten your question,” says Delilah, smiling at Hilda. “I just want you to know from whence I came.”

“Of course,” says Hilda, smiling at Delilah’s choice of words. “Take your time.”

“So we flew to San Francisco, my mother and Wanda and I, Wanda my caretaker who didn’t really like me and certainly didn’t understand me, and then we made that crazy long drive here in the dark to the house my mother bought over the phone, the Richardson’s place, and after two cold rainy days of feeling completely lost, my mother and I went to Nathan and Celia’s house because the realtor said Nathan could help us learn how to live in the country, and I’ll never forget their front door opening and Nathan looking out at us with his welcoming smile and the fire going behind him and Celia coming to see who we were, and Tennyson coming to me, and my heart just broke open, and I don’t mean metaphorically broke open, I mean I actually felt the cage of muscles and sinews around my heart give way and I took the deepest breath I had ever taken and looked into Tennyson’s eyes and heard a voice I thought must be God saying Welcome home, Delilah. You found your people. And when I experienced love from Nathan and Celia, real love for the first time in my life, my mother ceased to be important to me except as a mythic figure, or maybe I should say historic, and after that I rarely thought about her because I had real parents now, real love, and not just a bunch of people I hardly knew being paid to be nice to me in my luxurious prisons where my mother came to visit me a few times a year and was wholly incapable of loving me or even liking me.”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“My eighteenth birthday. She always made a point of seeing me in-person on my birthday. Not on Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter, but always on my birthday. When I was still a prisoner, she’d come home to Malibu or Manhattan and spend a few days there and give me piles of presents, and once, when I was eight, she flew me to Paris where she was filming. Then she skipped my fourteenth birthday, and for my fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth she got a suite at the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, and Celia and Nathan and I went there for lunch and I’d play the piano for her.”

“But not for your nineteenth or twentieth?”

“No,” says Delilah, feeling some anger about that.

“Why did she stop, I wonder.”

“I think because after I turned eighteen she was no longer legally responsible for me, so why bother? And maybe because I reminded her too much of what she looked like when she was young. She hated not being young anymore.”

“Do you know your father?”

“Don’t even know who he is. Or was. When I was a child, my mother and her people told me he was a certain movie star, but the day she left here and never came back, when I was thirteen, she told Nathan she had no idea who my father was.”

“So Nathan told you. When was that?”

“On my eighteenth birthday when I got back from seeing my mother. I’d gone with my friends Josh and Beverly because they wanted to meet my famous mother, and when I was alone with her I asked her to please tell me who my father was and she said, ‘I told Nathan. I’d rather he tell you.’ So I asked him and he told me.”

“Your mother was closed emotionally.”

“I don’t think she had access to her emotions.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I never saw her express delight or fear or sorrow, never heard emotion in her voice. She was monotone. And when she pretended to be enthusiastic about my music and drawings, it was painfully obvious how little she cared, and not because she didn’t want to care but because she was incapable of caring about anyone but herself.”

“You never saw her angry?”

“Peevish a few times, and always muted. I would have loved to see her angry. I did see her cry one time when I was fifteen and Celia and Nathan came with me to the Mark Hopkins for the first time. Celia hugged her when we got there and she burst into tears and then immediately stifled them and left the room to redo her makeup. And she never let Celia hug her again.”

“Do you know much about her childhood?”

“I know she was put up for adoption at birth, lived in several foster homes, and ran away from the last one when she was fifteen.” Delilah grimaces. “I think she must have been sexually abused.”

Hilda waits a moment and asks, “And your sexual confusion? Would you like to talk about that?”

“Not really. I ceased to be confused when Celia and Nathan became my parents.”

“Immediately?”

“Within a month. And my stuttering vanished, too, after seven years and hundreds of hours working with speech therapists to no avail. I woke one morning in my wonderful bedroom at Nathan and Celia’s, gorgeous purple fuchsias dangling outside my window—this was a month after I’d moved in—and I got up and went into the kitchen where Celia was making coffee and she embraced me as she does every morning, and I said without stuttering, ‘I’m a woman like you. I love how it feels to be a woman.’ In fact, my confusion about everything disappeared once I was living with them. Like waking from a horrible murky dream into spectacular clarity and joy.”

“I believe you, dear. But please say a little more about thinking you might be male. I’m curious how this may relate to your mother.”

“The only males in my life before I moved here,” says Delilah, recalling her strange cloistered life in Manhattan and Malibu, “were bodyguards and chauffeurs. Men in uniforms. And only a few of them were even a little friendly with me. So I lived in a world exclusively populated by women. My nannies, the cooks, the maids, mother’s assistants, most of my tutors and music teachers, and I was never left alone with any of the few male tutors I had. My few acquaintances were other daughters of celebrities, and they were all obsessed with their sexual identities and everybody else’s sexual identities, so when I started to develop breasts and got my period, I didn’t know what I should feel. I felt female, but wasn’t sure I should. And my mother kept saying, ‘Whatever you choose to be,’ wink wink, ‘is fine with me,’ which made things even more confusing because I wanted to be like her, a strong athletic feminine woman, but she didn’t seem to want me to be like her. And then I said something to someone, I don’t remember who, about wondering if I might be trans, and the next day it was all over the media that I was trans, and my mother called from Paris and said ‘Whatever you choose to be is fine with me’ and ‘Do you want to see a therapist?’ And that’s when I told her if she didn’t find another place for me to live faraway from the insanity I would choose to kill myself. And she flew home the next day.”

“And brought you here.”

Delilah nods. “We chose Mercy together with some input from Joan, her personal assistant, and then we came here absolutely desperate, she to find a solution to my unhappiness, I to experience life outside my prisons.”

“She acted out of love for you.”

“I want that to be true, but I think it was more she didn’t want me to kill myself or otherwise embarrass her in the media.”

“I think she acted out of love for you,” says Hilda, gazing at Delilah. “And though her love didn’t look or feel like Celia and Nathan’s love for you, or my love for you, or anyone else’s love for you, she loved you and wanted you to be free of those terrible confines. And I’ll tell you something else. Regardless of how you feel about her, she must have provided you with nannies who gave you ample love, or else you wouldn’t be the healthy happy person you are today.”

“My first nanny,” says Delilah, surprising herself with tears. “Portia. I thought she was my mother until I was three, though she was Nigerian and I was a little white princess. She was sweet and funny and strong and wonderful, and I cried for weeks and weeks after she left when I was six.”

“Your mother chose her for you. Chose for you a good loving mother.”

“Oh I’d like to mourn my mother, Hilda, but she was so cold to me. Dismissive really. I know it sounds crass, but her being gone is more a relief than a loss.”

“Do you believe her death was an accident?”

“An accidental overdose? My meticulous mother?” Delilah shakes her head. “One of the last things she said to me was, ‘I see in you how beautiful I used to be. It’s all done with smoke and mirrors now, and even that won’t help in another year or two.’ And two years later she turned fifty-one and ended things.”

“And you would like some closure.”

“In lieu of mourning, something, yes. We did a farewell ceremony at the beach for her, Nathan and Celia and I, but it felt false to me.”

“Why false?”

“I felt no sorrow, no joy, just the same painful emptiness I always felt with her, even when she would hug me, which she only did in greeting or parting. I never felt any warmth or energy from her. Nothing.”

“Let’s close our eyes and imagine something together,” says Hilda, closing her eyes. “Shall we?”

“Okay,” says Delilah, closing her eyes.

“We are walking, you and I and Lisa and Vivienne, on a path in the forest on a lovely day, the sun shining down through the trees. Are you with me?”

“I am,” says Delilah, relaxing into the vision.

“Now the forest ends and we cross a meadow full of wild iris and our path ends at a wide deep fast-flowing river with no apparent way to get across. But now a boat comes from the far shore, and rowing the boat is your mother, strong and skillful at her task. When she reaches our side of the river, we get in the boat with her, and with her marvelous strength and skill, she rows us across the river. When we reach the other side and get out of the boat, she raises her hand to you and says, “Farewell, my child. Farewell.”

*

In early November, The Great Transformation complete, Philip and Lisa and Vivienne and Arturo move from the cottage back into the farmhouse, and a few days later Hilda moves into the cottage and engages Delilah to help her arrange her furniture and put her things away.

On the evening of Hilda’s second day of living on the farm, no longer a visitor but a resident, she walks with Delilah from the cottage to the farmhouse where Philip and Andrea have prepared a feast in Hilda’s honor, the farmhouse feeling almost too spacious now until the kids and dogs come in from playing outside, and Marcel rushes in and says, “We are close. Very close. Another few days, I think, for the pinot noir, perhaps another month for the cabernet,” and now Nathan and Celia and Tennyson arrive, and Constance and Joseph and Tamara and Celine; and the house and kitchen feel just the right size.

Vivienne, who turned six in October, insists on sitting next to Delilah, and Delilah, who turned twenty-one in October, is in heaven with Vivienne on her right and Lisa on her left.

Mid-feast, Joseph, for whom Ziggurat Farm is a favorite place to make his paintings, announces in his loud British way, “I visited your orchard when we arrived today and had a vision of a very large painting, perhaps my biggest ever, six-feet-high and eight-feet-wide, in which all of you are in the orchard, the branches barren as they are now, and all of you in fancy dress playing croquet.” He raises his glass of good red wine. “What say you?”

“I wondered why we all incarnated together,” says Nathan, raising his glass. “Now I know it was to pose in the orchard for you.”

“There’s only one problem,” says Henri, who is seven and nearly as practical as his very practical mother. “We don’t have even one croquet set, and if all of us are playing in the painting, we will need four sets because each set only has four mallets and four colors of balls. I know because we have a set at school.”

“Another problem is Mimi and Alexandra will chase the balls when we hit them,” says Vivienne, her mouth full of mashed potatoes. “So they’ll have to be on leashes and they’ll make quite a fuss.”

“The dogs could be playing croquet, too,” says Arturo, laughing. “Like the dogs drinking wine in Delilah’s picture for Papa’s cookbook.”

“No,” says Joseph, shaking his head. “In my vision the dogs are not playing croquet, but they are among you, watching the game with great interest.”

fin

Broke My Heart

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