In April, the remote northern California coastal town of Mercy is in an uproar because Tom Holsinger died in a car accident before he could finalize the transfer of his spectacular Fall Creek Ranch to the state to be added to contiguous Egret Estuary State Park, just a mile south of Mercy. And now Tom’s heirs, two sons who were notoriously unhappy in Mercy and moved to Los Angeles thirty years ago to make porno films, have given the town and the state thirty days to buy the 2200 acres of pristine coastline and meadowlands and redwood forest or they’ll sell it to a developer who will log the redwoods and put in a golf course and two hundred condominiums.
Half the town’s twelve hundred residents attend the hastily convened meeting at the Mercy Rec Center, and Ralph Bingham, the unofficial mayor of the town that has no government, runs the meeting.
The first thing Ralph says is, “So… the delightful Holsinger boys want fifty-seven million for the ranch. As of right now we, and by we I mean the town and our local nature conservancy, have four million and the state says they’ll match that, but unless we can come up with another forty-nine million by May 15, we can say goodbye to paradise.”
“What about the county?” someone shouts.
“The county is six hundred million in debt,” says Ralph, shaking his head. “They send best wishes.”
As expected, Cal Fleischman gets up and says, “I golf,” and whatever else he says is drowned out by booing.
Now Morgan Sullivan, a retired hydrologist who moved to Mercy from Iowa four years ago, stands up and says, “Where can they possibly get enough water to sustain a golf course and twenty condos, let alone two hundred? Most of us around here barely have enough water by late summer to flush our toilets every couple days.”
“You’re new here,” says Maggie Fetherston, seventy-seven, a Mercy native who’s been fighting rapacious lumber companies and developers her whole life. “Fall Creek Ranch has miles-deep artesian wells and an aquifer that never goes dry. During the worst droughts you could always buy water from Tom.”
After another hour of collective handwringing, a fundraising committee is formed and the meeting adjourns.
The next morning, Delilah, a lovely young woman who has lived with longtime Mercy residents Nathan and Celia Grayson for eight years now, walks through the town to Maggie Fetherston’s little house overlooking Mercy Bay—Maggie head of the fundraising committee—and tells Maggie she has forty-nine million dollars for them to buy Fall Creek Ranch.
“I’d prefer you say the money is from an anonymous donor,” says Delilah, who is twenty-one, the money all but a million of her inheritance from her recently deceased mother.
“Oh my God,” says Maggie, hugging Delilah. “Oh my loving God.”
So Fall Creek Ranch becomes part of Egret Estuary State Park and life goes on.
In mid-May, Delilah and Lisa and Hilda and Andrea are luxuriating in the big soaking tub in the new bathhouse at Ziggurat Farm, the sliding glass doors open to the cool afternoon, supper an hour away, Lisa and Hilda and Andrea residents of the farm, Delilah a frequent visitor.
The women are speaking about money, their discussion inspired by Delilah giving away most of her inheritance to buy Fall Creek Ranch and save the wild coast from destruction.
“When I was four-years-old in Buenos Aires,” says Lisa, fifty, her antecedents Brazilian Indio, African, and Ashkenazi Jew, “my mother would send me out to beg, and when someone gave me money, I would calculate as the coins fell into my hands how many more pennies I needed to buy a loaf of bread. Then I would close my eyes and wait for an image of someone to come into my mind, and when I saw who they were, I would go beg from them.”
“I thought you grew up in Beverly Hills,” says Delilah, shocked by Lisa’s story.
“I didn’t come to America until I was ten,” says Lisa, who rarely talks about her past. “I was born in the slums of Buenos Aires. I didn’t have shoes until after my mother died and my grandmother, my father’s mother, sent money from America to my aunt, my mother’s sister, and she bought me a pair of sandals to wear on the jet to Los Angeles where my grandparents picked me up at the airport in a big silver Mercedes and took me to their mansion in Beverly Hills where I lived until I was twenty. And every day my grandmother would put money in my purse, two twenty-dollar bills when I was ten and eleven, three twenties when I was twelve, and more and more as I grew older. But no matter how much money she gave me, I always measured the value of everything by the cost of a loaf of bread in Buenos Aires.” She gazes to the north where she can see part of the big vegetable and flower garden where she works every morning before giving her first massage of the day—two ninety-minute massages or three sixty-minute massages her daily limit. “And even now when I’m in the grocery store I’ll look at the price of something and calculate how many loaves of bread I could buy for that much in Buenos Aires when I was a girl.”
Andrea, fifty-one, waits a moment before saying, “My younger brother and I were raised by my grandmother, my mother’s mother, and when I was four my grandmother said, ‘It’s time you had a job, Andrea. I’ll pay you a penny every day if you feed the cat and sweep the kitchen after breakfast and supper.’ I’m sure I didn’t do a very good job sweeping, not at first, but she was teaching me to work if I wanted money, and I did want money for candy.”
“Did you live in a house or an apartment?” asks Hilda, who was born in Switzerland eighty-three years ago.
“A one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a seven-story building in a working-class suburb of Hamburg,” says Andrea, ever amazed to think of where she spent the first twenty years of her life. “My grandmother slept in the living room and my brother and I shared the bedroom until I was thirteen, and then my brother slept in the living room and I shared the bedroom with my grandmother until we moved to a two-bedroom apartment in the same building when I was seventeen.”
“Tell us more,” says Delilah, who loves hearing the details of her friends’ lives.
“Well…” says Andrea, slightly embarrassed but enjoying the attention, “when I was six my grandmother arranged for me to go to our elderly neighbor Mrs. Schlesinger for two hours after school every day and fetch things for her while she sat in her living room watching television. Mrs. Schlesinger was in a wheelchair and lived on the first floor of the building and had a little patio with potted plants. I would do my homework at her kitchen table and every now and then she would say, ‘Andrea, a glass of water please,” or ‘Dear could you bring my heating pad from the bedroom.’ And every day I would boil four eggs for her and peel them and salt them and bring them to her in a bowl, and she would gobble them and say, ‘What a good cook you are. Just like your grandmother.’ I would make her instant coffee, too. And for those two hours, Mrs. Schlesinger paid my grandmother the equivalent of sixty cents, until one day she asked me to rub her feet, which I knew how to do because my grandmother, who was on her feet ten hours a day in a hotel kitchen, taught me how to rub her feet, and Mrs. Schlesinger would fall asleep while I rubbed her feet, and sometimes I would fall asleep, too. And then the timer would go off and my two hours were up and I could go home. For the foot rub, she gave me another forty cents, which made a dollar for my two hours. I did that every day after school until I was nine and Mrs. Schlesinger died and my grandmother found another invalid, Mrs. Wagner, for me to help. She lived in a house with a garden and paid me two dollars for those two hours and had me water her plants and make her simple food. And I never kept a penny because my grandmother needed what I earned to help pay the rent.”
“By contrast,” says Hilda, who lives in the new cottage adjacent to the bathhouse, “I’ve always had plenty of money. My father was a successful architect, my mother a professor of Economics. I had an older brother, and whenever he or I wanted money for any reason our parents would give us however much we needed. I knew there were many poor people in the world, but my own experience was of endless plenty. I was a good student, went to university, travelled for a year after completing my undergraduate studies, went to graduate school in Psychology, and made a good salary even as an intern. I married when I was twenty-seven, my husband a decade older than I. He was a structural engineer and a wonderful person. We moved to Berkeley when I was thirty, bought our lovely home, converted the garage into my consulting chamber, as my husband called my office, and my practice was full in no time. Not for a day in my life have I worried about money, nor has Tamara. She was a star student from kindergarten through college and graduate school, became a professor and had the first play she ever wrote produced. And now she has seven plays in the contemporary repertoire being produced all the time, so I’ve never worried about her regarding money. I know we are the beneficiaries of good luck, but nevertheless our experience formed our relationship to money, which is that there is always enough for what we need.”
Andrea looks at Delilah. “How are you feeling now that you’ve given away your fortune?”
“I feel fine,” says Delilah, growing serious. “I still have a million dollars in the bank, which I’m saving for anything Nathan and Celia might need before they die. I have twelve piano students now and my drawings are selling quite well at the Fletcher Gallery, and I still get residuals now and then for incidental music I composed for three of my mother’s movies, so I’m not worried, though until I moved in with Nathan and Celia, I worried about money all the time, as did my mother, though she was incredibly wealthy.”
“Don’t you want to buy a house?” asks Andrea, for whom owning a house is most important.
“Not until Nathan and Celia are gone,” says Delilah, shaking her head. “I’m very happy living with them.”
“Why do you think your mother was so insecure about money when she had so much?” asks Andrea, who barely knew her own mother.
“My mother grew up in a series of foster homes and most of her foster families were very poor,” says Delilah, recalling her beautiful mother. “I don’t think she ever recovered from that, and no amount of money could heal her.”
“Money isn’t love,” says Lisa, shaking her head. “Only love heals us.”
“Yes,” says Andrea, nodding solemnly, “but I hope you won’t give all your money away, Delilah, because even though money can’t heal us, it’s very hard to love anyone, including yourself, when you don’t have a place to live and you’re cold and hungry.”
“I know,” says Delilah, smiling at Andrea. “I’ll do my best to save the rest. I promise.”
The discussion about money continues in the farmhouse after supper and the dishes are done and the kids have gone to bed.
“My father was a waiter in small restaurant and my mother worked in a bakery,” says Marcel, Andrea’s husband, fifty-four, his French accent still pronounced.
“In Lyon?” asks Hilda, sharing the largest sofa in the living room with Lisa and Delilah.
“Oui,” says Marcel, putting a log on the fire and looking to see if anyone needs more wine or tea. “We lived on the second floor of a five-story apartment building and my older brother and I attended a nearby school that was solid working class kids. Both of us expected to get jobs similar to our parents, but my father had other plans. He was obsessed with soccer and worshiped our home team Olympique Lyonnais, known simply as Lyon, a great team. He decided my brother and I should be professional soccer players and started training us as soon as we started school. He told us many times that playing soccer was our job, and he had no sense of humor about this. None.”
“And you became a great soccer player,” says Andrea, gazing fondly at her husband.
“Well, I did,” says Marcel, going to fetch more wine. “My brother was not fast enough, but I was quick to the ball, you know, and when I was sixteen I signed a contract with Lyon to play for their junior team and did so well Barcelona took me in a trade involving several players, but before I could go to Barcelona I tore my Achilles and that ended my career. So I became a waiter like my father.” He returns with a bottle of wine and refreshes a few glasses. “And the way things are going, I may soon be a waiter again, though I have very much enjoyed my hiatus from the tables.”
“Do you worry about money?” asks Delilah, who often fantasizes about moving to the farm after Nathan and Celia are no longer alive.
“No,” says Marcel, shaking his head. “My parents taught me if you are willing to work hard, enough money can be made, so that is my view of life. My father worked until he was eighty, my mother until she was seventy-two. Life is work. Work is life.”
Philip, fifty-seven, slender and handsome, his black hair just now turning gray, nods in agreement. “Yes, work is life and life is work, and for the last two years I’ve been working in the garden, doing farm chores, cooking, writing the cookbook with Andrea, and taking care of the children. Barring a huge success with the cookbook, I will soon be a waiter again, and I’m okay with that, though I would rather not.” He smiles at Delilah. “My mother used to say, ‘We always find ways to survive or we die,’ and I have always found that helpful when I worry about running out of money, which I never have, though I’ve come close a few times.”
“I think your cookbook will be a great success,” says Lisa, getting up from the sofa. “And now I must go to bed so I can give two massages in the morning so we don’t run out of money.”
“My bedtime, too,” says Andrea, looking at Marcel. “We have a long walk home.”
“An arduous five minutes,” says Marcel, giving Andrea a hand up from the comfortable armchair.
In the morning, Philip drives the kids to Mercy Montessori, Arturo in the front seat, Vivienne and Henri in the back seat—Arturo in Third Grade, Vivienne and Henri in Second.
“After school today,” says Philip, driving slowly down the winding road through the forest to the coast, “Nathan will come get you and walk with you to his house for snacks and your piano lessons. I’ll come get you at four.”
“I’d like to start taking guitar lessons, Papa,” says Arturo, pursing his lips as he does when discussing serious matters. “So we can have a band.”
“To play at weddings and birthday parties,” says Henri, who is learning to play the accordion from his father. “Papa says wedding gigs are quite lucrative.”
“I’m torn between violin and guitar,” says Vivienne, her brow knitted. “Too bad pianos weigh so much or I could play piano in the band.”
Philip ponders this new development and says, “Or maybe you could all learn accordion from Marcel and have an accordion band.”
“No,” says Arturo, shaking his head. “One accordion is enough.”
“I love violins,” says Vivienne, plaintively, “but with a guitar I’ll be more free to sing.”
“Have you told Delilah you’re giving up the piano?” asks Philip as they arrive at the school where many other kids are arriving in cars driven by grownups.
“Oh we’re not giving up the piano,” says Arturo, making a don’t-be-ridiculous face and shaking his head. “Piano gives us an excellent musical foundation.”
“I’ll never give up the piano,” says Vivienne, dramatically. “I love taking lessons from Delilah. I live to take lessons from her.”
“And you Henri?” asks Philip, getting out to walk with the kds into the schoolyard. “Will you keep taking piano lessons?”
“Of course,” says Henri, sounding just like his father. “It’s all about the keyboard.”
That night, climbing into bed, Philip asks Lisa, “Where did our children learn to speak as they do? They’ve never seen television or gone to the movies, never been on a computer, and we only recently took them to their first play. Nor do they speak as we do. They sound like sophisticated adults.”
“Have you ever listened to Delilah telling them a story?” asks Lisa, laughing. “And acting out all the parts? Or watched them hanging on every word of the very British Richardsons? Or heard them discussing the poems they write with Nathan? Or seen them entranced by Hilda and Tamara and Celine talking about anything?”
“I have,” says Philip, wrapping his arms around her. “You think that’s it? Our verbose and dramatic friends?”
“And you reading them Wind in the Willows and The Prince and the Pauper, and doing all the voices and accents.” Lisa closes her eyes and breathes deeply of his scent. “And lately you’ve been a marvelous Sherlock Holmes.”
“I don’t ever want them to leave us,” he says, the thought of life without the children unbearable to him.
“Don’t worry,” she whispers. “Just love them.”