I do not require life to be neat and orderly. Anyone who doubts that should dig around in my backpack, where you will likely find a half-eaten candy bar that has been there since Iowa—a state we moved from nearly a year ago. I’ve changed schools five times since kindergarten. I spend half of each week with my mom and half with my dad, where I sleep on the sofa and share a ridiculously tiny bathroom. I’m not high-maintenance. I can deal with chaos.
Some things, however, should happen in the correct order. Shoes go on after socks. Peanut butter is applied after the bread comes out of the toaster, not before. And grandchildren are born after their grandparents.
Most people never give much thought to that last point. I certainly hadn’t—at least not until my grandmother showed up last April. Because that one little element was out of order, my entire life changed. And I’m not being melodramatic here. Having your existence completely erased has to qualify as a life-changing event, by anyone’s definition.
Before my grandmother’s sudden reappearance, I hadn’t seen her for more than a decade. There were a few yellowed photographs of the two of us in an old album, but to me she was simply someone who sent money for birthdays and Christmas—and someone my mom doesn’t like.
“This is so typical,” Mom said as we stepped off the subway. “Mother breezes into town and demands an audience. Never mind that we might have other plans.”
I didn’t have other plans and I was pretty sure Mom didn’t either. But I also knew that probably wasn’t the point.
A slightly chilly breeze greeted us as the escalator reached street level and we stepped onto Wisconsin Avenue. Mom raised her arm to hail a taxi, but it pulled over to take another passenger.
“The restaurant is only a few blocks away,” I said. “We could be there by the time—”
“These heels hurt my feet.” She glanced around, but seeing that there were no other cabs in sight, she gave in. “Fine, Kate, we’ll walk.”
“Why did you buy heels in the first place? I thought you didn’t care about her opinion.”
She scowled at me and began down the sidewalk. “Could we move it, please? I don’t want to be late.”
I really wasn’t trying to annoy her. We usually get along very well. But on any issue involving her own mother, Mom is unreasonable. The birthday and Christmas checks I mentioned earlier? They go straight into my college savings, even though Mom usually says I should make my own financial choices and deal with the consequences.
The previous night, she had actually talked to her mother for more than five minutes—a record, at least to my memory. I only heard Mom’s side, but I was able to put the pieces together. My grandmother was back from Europe, she was ill, and she wanted to see us. Mom argued but finally gave in. The negotiations then proceeded to logistics—location (neutral turf), cuisine (vegetarian), time of the meeting (seven thirty), and so forth.
We reached the restaurant a good ten minutes early. It was a trendy, mostly vegetarian spot, with large paintings of vegetables on the exterior walls that reminded me of the illustrations in one of Dad’s well-worn cookbooks. Mom breathed a sigh of relief when we entered and she was able to confirm that we had indeed arrived before my grandmother.
I took the chair facing the bar. The young guy behind the counter making mixed drinks and smoothies was cute, in an artistic, moody sort of way, with long hair pulled back in a ponytail. Even if he was a bit too old for me, at least I’d have a pleasant view while they argued.
When my grandmother arrived a few minutes later, she was not what I expected. For one thing, she was more petite than she’d appeared in photographs—my height or a little shorter. Her gray hair was almost a buzz cut, and she was dressed casually, in a bold print tunic and black knit pants that looked, I thought enviously, a lot more comfortable than what I’d been forced to wear. And she didn’t look ill. A bit tired, maybe. Sick? Not so much.
Mom apparently agreed. “Hello, Mother. You’re looking surprisingly well.”
“Don’t scold me, Deborah. I didn’t say I was going to expire before the end of the week.” Her words were aimed at Mom, but her eyes were on me as she spoke. “I needed to see you and I needed to see my granddaughter—all grown-up and so pretty. School pictures did not do you justice, dear.” She pulled out her chair to sit down. “I’m quite hungry, Kate. Is the food good?”
I had been so certain that she would call me Prudence that it took a few seconds to realize the question was for me. “It’s not bad,” I responded. “They have decent sandwiches, and it’s not all vegetarian. Some okay fish, too. The desserts are good.”
She smiled, placing her purse on the empty chair next to her but keeping her keys out and setting them on the table next to her napkin. Attached to the ring were two very ordinary-looking keys and a very unordinary blue medallion. It was wafer-thin, about three inches in diameter, and emitted a glow that seemed unusually bright in the dim room. It lit up the back of Mom’s menu and I could see tiny blue dots reflected in the silverware. The light reminded me of a glow-tube necklace I’d won at the Montgomery County Fair a few months back, but this was much brighter and more elaborate. In the very center of the circle was an hourglass. The sand still flowed from one side to the other, even though the medallion was lying flat on the table.
Mom either hadn’t noticed the strange item, which seemed impossible, or else she was ignoring it. If Mom was ignoring it, the last thing I wanted to do was stir up a hornet’s nest between the two of them by calling it to her attention. I decided to follow her lead, at least for the time being. As I turned back to my menu, however, I saw my grandmother watching my reaction to the light and smiling softly. The expression in her eyes was hard to place, but I thought she looked… relieved.
Everyone tried to keep the conversation light during the first part of the meal. The weather and food were both safe zones, but we had explored these from every possible angle within the first ten minutes.
“How do you like Briar Hill?” my grandmother asked.
I dove into the new topic eagerly, sensing another safe zone. “I love it. The courses are more challenging than anywhere else I’ve been. I’m glad Dad took the job.”
My new school has a very generous policy that grants free tuition to the children of faculty members. They even offer small cottages for faculty members willing to live on campus, which is why I crash on Dad’s pull-out sofa three or four nights a week. The mattress is lumpy and you can feel the iron bar if you roll too far toward the middle, but I consider it a fair trade for the extra hour of sleep on school mornings.
“It definitely sounds like a good opportunity for you—and Harry tells me that you’re doing very well.”
“I didn’t know you and Dad… spoke much.” I wanted to know, even though I suspected this might lead the conversation into treacherous territory. “That’s why you knew to call me Kate?”
“Yes,” she said. “But you’ve also signed the thank-you cards for your birthday and Christmas presents as Kate for the past several years.”
Duh. I had forgotten about that. “I’m sorry if it hurts your feelings. Really I am, but—”
“Why on earth would my feelings be hurt? Prudence was an awful name forty years ago, but I named your mom, so it only seemed fair to let Jim name the other twin. He named Prudence after his mother. She was a sweet lady, but I still think it was a dreadful handicap to put on a small, defenseless baby.”
Mom, who had of course done the same to me as a small, defenseless baby, took the indirect reproach silently, and my grandmother continued. “I’m pretty sure that Prudence isn’t considered a cool name for a sixteen-year-old. And I have to admit I’m flattered you chose my name instead.”
I was now thoroughly confused. “But I thought… aren’t you a Prudence, too?”
Both of them laughed, and I felt the tension level at the table ease the tiniest bit. “No, she’s a Katherine, too,” Mom said. “Prudence was named after my father’s mother, but her middle name was Katherine, after my mother. So you are Prudence Katherine, as well. I thought you knew that.”
Major sigh of relief. I had worried all day that if I insisted on being called Kate instead of Prudence, it would hurt my grandmother’s feelings. The name was an ongoing point of contention between Mom and me. I’d even asked to legally change it when I started school at Briar Hill the previous January so that there would be no chance that the damaging info would leak out to potential enemies. But Mom’s eyes had watered at the mere suggestion, so I dropped it. When you’re named for an aunt who died much too young, your options are limited.
I pushed a too-mushy piece of zucchini to the side of my plate and glanced pointedly at Mom before replying. “I’ve never heard anyone use her name, so how would I have known? You always say ‘your grandmother.’”
My grandmother wrinkled her nose in distaste.
“Do you prefer Nana?” I teased. “Or maybe Gran-Gran?”
She shuddered. “No, and most definitely no to the last one. How about Katherine? I’ve never been one for formal titles and I’m Katherine to everyone else.”