TANNER, OR (Aug, 2010)
Erin Woodman Conners nodded her thanks and took the coffee the waitress set before her. Across the table her daughter, twelve year old Susanne, used a straw to poke at ice cubes in her soda glass as she wondered why her mother had insisted that they stop for dinner in the nondescript family restaurant before driving on to the Woodman home in Tanner Heights.
Now, while the girl waited for what would hopefully be the right moment to ask her questions, she watched her mother survey the surrounding South End Shopping Mall through the restaurant’s front window.
By the time she looked back to her daughter Erin was smiling a remembering smile. “It was quite a place back then,” she nodded. “All the stores and shops were still new and shiny. At least that’s how they seemed to us. Don’t forget, that was 1992. Goodness, that was eighteen years ago. No wonder it looks different now.”
“Seems kind of junky to me,” Susanne observed. “And here we are back in Tanner to spend Christmas with Grandma. That seems like kind of a letdown.”
“That’s because you’ve been used to Christmas in Cancun, or Cabo San Lucas.........”
“Or Vienna,” the girl interrupted. “That was best of all. Remember?”
“Oh yes. That was special. And you can be sure that a Tanner Christmas will be very different than that. But it will also be special, in it’s own way.”
‘Different indeed,’ Erin reminded herself. Truth to tell, the extravagant good times her daughter spoke of so fondly had been the product of what seemed like another lifetime, a time before recent troubles had swallowed their satisfying family life.
She had met Thomas in college, and married him during their senior year....because that was what young couples did in those days. By then Thomas Conners was already displaying the cyber-brilliance that would propel him to Silicone Valley prominence....as a computer prodigy with a head for business.
Those had been heady times, Erin remembered.... when the couple’s infrequent visits to her Tanner roots were an occasion for her late father to parade his son-in-law around the Tanner Heights Country Club like a prize pony....the entrepreneurial wizard who had chosen his daughter.
Yet even as she rode the coattails of Thomas‘ impressive ascent, Erin had never quite escaped the nagging doubts, the uneasy wondering if she really belonged in that rarified role. In those moments she sometimes recalled a brief, but welcome 2004 conversation with her own mother, not long after her father’s passing.
“I remember how proud Daddy was,” she had told her mother that morning over coffee in the Woodman kitchen. “When he first learned that I had hitched my wagon to someone like Thomas. He saw how we were living the good life, and how his son-in-law was making a name for himself. By then Dad probably assumed it couldn’t be any better.”
She paused for a sip of coffee and a cryptic, “But it could have been better. And even then I wished it was.”
“What does that mean, dear,” Elaine Woodman had asked. “You’re surely happy with Thomas, aren’t you? Goodness, it seems like you have everything you could ever want....the big house, the cutest daughter ever, and all the travel and vacations. It must be wonderful.”
How could she explain, Erin asked herself again. Was there any way to help her mother understand? Should she even try?
There had been a time, little more than a decade before, right there in Tanner, when it felt like life had turned against her....taking with it George Casey, her first love, then the son she never knew, and finally the future she hoped they might have together. All that had vanished in a matter of weeks, leaving only a pain she had never outgrown.
It had taken years to move beyond her loss, learning to carry on. Looking back, she understood that Thomas Conners....the man he was and the future he seemed to represent....had been the catalyst that turned her dark life bright again.
Yet how could she have known how success would reshape her husband into a new and different person? When had that new truth set in, the realization that his bright new prospects would turn Erin’s future dark again?
Now, seventeen years after George Casey had walked out of her life, Erin was sitting in the South End Mall restaurant wondering what her mother would make of her latest trauma, and how she and daughter Susanne would carry on. It was time to drive up the hill to the Heights and find out.
Not surprisingly, Erin Connors’ unexpected arrival at her mother’s Tanner Heights front door, with twelve year old Susanne in tow, had Elaine Woodman in a bit of a dither. The house was in no shape to receive company. The weekly cleaning lady was still two days away. Still, the surprising sight of her daughter and grand-daughter standing there before her was pleasing enough to overcome those complaints.
“Come in, please,” she urged them. “This is the nicest surprise I’ve had in ages. What brings you all the way to Tanner Heights? And why didn’t you let me know your were coming? I could have straightened things up a bit.”
Once in the living room, beyond her mother’s smothering hugs, Erin patted the sofa, nodding for Susanne to come sit beside her. By then Elaine was struggling to decipher the signals, wondering why her effusive welcome had been met with only strained silence.
”What is it, dear,” Eileen finally asked. “I know that look. Surely you can tell me. What is it?”
Reaching for Susanne’s hand, Erin gave it a squeeze, wanting to reassure the girl. Then, sinking deeper into the sofa she closed her eyes and spoke the words she had come so far to speak.
“Thomas is gone. He left. That’s why we’re in Tanner, sitting here with you.”
“He’s gone? What does that mean?”
“Exactly that. He’s gone. He’s left us, Susanne and me, for good.” With those few words behind her, she finally opened her eyes and looked at her mother.
“Right now I suppose he’s somewhere in Europe....with his ‘associate,’ doing whatever one does with a pretty young associate.
“He told me that our marriage was over....that he had ‘outgrown’ our relationship. He’s famous now, with all that money, and all those fancy friends. He said that his tastes have changed.”
Her mother could scarcely believe what she was hearing. “But why didn’t you tell me before? I always thought you were so happy, both of you.”
“I’m afraid that was a game we played, both of us. Besides, I didn’t realize that he intended for it to be so final, until it actually happened. By then all I could do was hire a good attorney to see that I was treated right.
“The thing is, Thomas had changed so much. I guess success, at least that kind of success, does that to some folks. In the end he didn’t like the people we used to be, and I didn’t much like the people we had become.”
“And now he’s gone?” Elaine asked. “For good?”
“And what are you going to do....you and Susanne?”
“I’m going to come home. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Erin was a bit surprised at how natural it felt to say that, and how much she liked hearing her own words. “I’m a Tanner girl, you know. I always have been, and that’s what I want to be again. I want that for both of us. Susanne needs to learn how good that can be.”
“The two of you could stay here with me. Heaven knows I have more room than I’ll ever use.”
Her own cautious confession seemed to have lightened Erin’s load. For the first time in a very long while her smile felt altogether natural.
“That won’t be necessary,” she explained. “What Thomas called his ‘exit fee’ turned out to be a very generous settlement. Susanne and I will have our own home, probably some place here in Tanner Heights.’