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American Wife(8)
Curtis Sittenfeld

As if she, too, were hearing this offer for the first time, my mother exclaimed, “Isn’t that generous of Daddy!” In a normal voice, she added, “Alice, pass the creamed broccoli to your grandmother.”

“My colleague Mr. Erle used to live in Chicago,” my father said. “According to him, the Pelham is a very fine place, and it’s in a safe neighborhood.”

“You’re aware that Gladys has an enormous apartment with several spare bedrooms?” It was hard to tell whether my grandmother was irritated or amused.

“Granny, we just don’t know Mrs. Wycomb the way you do,” my mother said. “We’d feel forward presuming on her.”

“Doctor,” my grandmother said. “Dr. Wycomb. Not Mrs. And Phillip, you know her well enough to realize she’ll still insist on having us over.”

“Gladys Wycomb is a doctor?” I said.

Once again, my parents exchanged a look. “I don’t see that having dinner with her once or twice would be a problem,” my father said.

“What’s she a doctor of?” I asked.

All three of them turned toward me. “Female problems,” my mother said, and my father said, “This isn’t appropriate conversation for the dinner table.”

“She was the eighth woman in the state of Wisconsin to earn her medical degree,” my grandmother said. “I don’t know about you, but as someone who can hardly read a thermometer, I take my hat off to that.”

I HAD GROWN up hearing Gladys Wycomb’s name—given my grandmother’s biannual journeys, Gladys Wycomb was, in my mind, less a person than a destination, faraway yet not entirely unfamiliar—but it was only with the introduction of my own trip to Chicago that I realized how little I knew about her. A few hours later, my mother came to say good night while I was reading an Agatha Christie novel in bed, and I asked, “Why doesn’t Dad like Dr. Wycomb?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say he doesn’t like her.” My mother had been standing over me and had already kissed my forehead, but now she sat on the edge of the bed, setting her hand where my knees were beneath the covers. “Dr. Wycomb has known Daddy since he was a little boy, and she can be a bit bossy. She thinks everyone should share her opinions. I guess you wouldn’t remember her visits here because the first was when you were just a baby, and the next one might have been when you were four or five, but there was something that happened on the second visit, a discussion about Negroes—should they have rights, and that sort of thing. Dr. Wycomb was very keen on the subject, as if she wanted us to disagree with her, and we just thought, for heaven’s sakes, there aren’t any Negroes in Riley.” This was literally true, that not one black person lived in our entire town. I’d seen black people—as a child, I’d once been captivated as we drove by a restaurant outside which stood a mother, father, and two little girls my age in pink dresses—but that had been in Milwaukee.

“Do you dislike her?” I asked.

“Oh, no. No. She’s a formidable woman, but I don’t dislike her, and I don’t think Daddy does, either. It’s more that we all realized it might be simpler for Granny to go there than for Dr. Wycomb to come here.” My mother patted my knee. “But I’m glad they’re friends, because I know Dr. Wycomb was a real comfort to your granny after your grandfather died.” This had happened when my father was two years old; his own father, a pharmacist, had had a heart attack one afternoon at work and dropped dead at the age of thirty-three. Just the idea of my father as a two-year-old pinched at my heart, but the idea of him as a two-year-old with a dead father was devastating.

My mother stood then and kissed my forehead a second time. “Don’t stay up too late,” she said.

THOUGH MY CULTURAL enrichment had been the justification for our trip, the train had scarcely left the Riley station when it emerged that my grandmother’s overriding goal in Chicago was to buy a sable stole from Marshall Field’s. She’d seen an advertisement for it in Vogue, she confided, and she’d written a letter to the store asking them to save one in size small.

“If I’d been clever, I’d have ordered it a month ago and worn it to church on Christmas Eve,” she said.

“Does Dad know you’re buying it?”

“He’ll know when he sees me in it, won’t he? And I’ll look so ravishing that I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.” We were sitting side by side, and she winked. “I have some savings, Alice, and it’s not a crime to treat yourself. Now, let me put some lipstick on you.”

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