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Pat Conroy called Dorothea Benton Frank’s debut, Sullivan’s Island, “hilarious and wise,” while Anne Rivers Siddons declared that it “roars with life.” Now Frank evokes a lush plantation in the heart of modern-day South Carolina—where family ties and hidden truths run as deep and dark as the mighty Edisto River...
Caroline Wimbley Levine always swore she’d never go home again. But now, at her brother’s behest, she has returned to South Carolina to see about Mother—only to find that the years have not changed the Queen of Tall Pines Plantation. Miss Lavinia is as maddeningly eccentric as ever—and absolutely will not suffer the questionable advice of her children. This does not surprise Caroline. Nor does the fact that Tall Pines is still brimming with scandals and secrets, betrayals and lies. But she soon discovers that something is different this time around. It lies somewhere in the distance between her and her mother—and in her understanding of what it means to come home...
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Dorothea Benton Frank is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous novels, including Sullivan's Island, Plantation, Pawleys Island, Shem Creek, and Isle of Palms. Born and raised on Sullivan's Island in South Carolina, she now resides in the New York area with her husband.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Prologue: Don't Leave Me Now!
This story I have to tell you has to be true because even I couldn't make up this whopper. And Mother's wake—packed to the rafters with the well-dressed curious and the well-heeled sorrowful—may seem an insensitive place to begin, but here we are and it's all I can think about—that is, the progression of events that led up to this moment. I'm obsessing and entitled to it too. So would you.
Think about this. You know those pivotal moments in your life that you don't see coming? The ones you wished arrived with a timer going off so you'd know this is it! Well, when the phone rang in February, you couldn't have convinced me that six months later, Mother would be in “the box” and I'd be wearing her pearls, twisting them around my finger exactly like she used to do.
Oh, God, here comes Raoul. Excuse me for a moment.
“Mees Caroline, I want to express my deep sympathy to you in thees torrible time of you troubles.”
He took my hands in his. His hands were callused but manicured.
“Thank you, Raoul, thank you for coming,” I said, thinking that he was actually rather handsome. He exuded something, I don't know, some masculine whatever.
“She was very beautiful, your mother, and I will hold her een my heart forever.”
“Thank you,” I said, “I know she was very fond of you.”
“Sí” he said, a smile spreading across his face, “ees true.”
He released my hands and walked away, back into the crowd. Mother slept with him? Well, why not?
Where were we? Ah! Pivotal moment! Pivotal moment, indeed. You see, Trip—he's my only brother—called me in New York, in the middle of a cocktail party my husband, Richard, and I were giving, to announce that Mother had flipped her wig and tried to kill him with her daddy's Parker Old Reliable. (That's a shotgun.) He said she was crazy and that he had her power of attorney and was putting her away somewhere where she couldn't hurt anyone.
I knew that was some bodacious bull because my brother was generally accepted as the Second Coming, that is, if Mother's lifelong drooling all over him was an indication of her religious devotion. I guess that sounds like a classic sibling rivalry remark, but you have to know certain things and then you would agree.
First, Trip was the spitting image of Daddy and Daddy was dead—dead and canonized by Mother decades ago. Mother, bereft with her loss, then did a textbook transference of her enormous love for Daddy and heaped it on Trip. Yes, my husband, Richard, is a psychologist and a psychiatrist. We, Richard and I, are...well, we'll get to that.
Second, Trip, dweeb that he is, returned her blind-eyed affection with boundless ingratitude. My brother has always been the archetypal rationalization of why I had declined the possibilities of marriage with southern men. It was their relationships with their mothers that always did me in. That, and the archaic sexism. But of course, with the birth of my own son, I quickly realized, and then denied, that I was wrong about that too.
Poor Trip! Mother would say over and over, sighing with the weight of all the problems of the world.
Well, I didn't completely disagree there. Trip was carrying a cross the size of the Brooklyn Bridge with that tacky, low-rent wife of his. Frances Mae and her horrible children! Dear God! What a disaster she was! Gives new definition to the old ball and chain! We'll dissect Frances Mae later, don't you worry about that for a minute.
So, back to Mother and Trip and their Freudian Oedipus thaing. I wonder how much Mother would have seen of Trip if our plantation didn't have a dock and a landing so Trip could spend half his life on the Edisto River.
Trip was your basic southern good old boy. Lawyer, fisherman, hunter. Clean-shaven, a good dancer, manly, and with flawless manners. He never came to the supper table without a tiny cloud of aftershave in his aura. He always held Mother's chair for her and found a compliment for her as well. Mother was smug in her reign as the matriarch and that she was well in control of her son's attention.
They shared many things in common. Great regard of weekly family dinners, love of land, sense of place, and the importance of a stiff drink or two at the end of the day. Frances Mae was never going to get in the way of Mother's love for Trip. She didn't stand a chance. Sometimes I would think that he had married Frances Mae just to show Mother that she was irreplaceable. That Frances Mae was some kind of a surrogate who could have his body but would never know his heart.
Unfortunately for Mother, as Trip's family grew, his attentions became less frequent and more disingenuous. When he began to drink a lot, Mother began to whip it on the masses. The gardener, Raoul. The UPS man. Mother spread it around, to say the least. She had a ball—no pun intended. I used to think she did these things to make Trip jealous, but later I decided she was just determined to enjoy every minute of her life.
Mother's affairs pretty well horrified Trip and Frances Mae and helped them build their case that Mother had a loose screw. Well, in the amour sense, she was a loose screw—hell, she left a string of bodies behind her too numerous to count. But crazy? Not even for a second. Our mother, Lavinia Boswell Wimbley, finally laid out in lavender (and blue paisley), was as sane as they came. She offered no apologies.
My heart was completely broken. You see, six months ago I was living in New York and I thought I was very happily married. Richard and I had a great apartment on Park Avenue, our son, Eric, was growing up beautifully, I had a small but successful decorating business, and life was pretty darn good. Sure, we had our issues now and then, but there was no pressing reason for complaints.
No, I never dreamed this could happen. I had spent the last fifteen, sixteen years, or maybe more, building a case for living in New York and against anything remotely connected with the ACE Basin of South Carolina and plantation life. It was horrible to me! Boring! The unending repetition of tradition, day after year after generation after generation! Suffocating! The ACE was my demon to reckon with and mine alone. And anyone would have thought that at this stage in my life, I was old and wise enough to take it on. So I came home to see about Mother for a short visit. I wanted to assess things with my own eyes.
My relationship with Mother and with Trip had been strained for years. The geographic distance between us didn't help things either. But I wasn't going to let Trip move Mother out of Tall Pines and into a retirement community without knowing if it was truly necessary. And that Mother wanted to go. I remember thinking, shoot, even though Mother and I had zero in common, she was my mother and I owed her at least that much.
What I found on arrival was exactly what I expected. Mother was playing cards with her girlfriends and talking about men. Millie, Mother's estate manager and friend of a zillion years, was still up to her same old voodoo. Trip was drunk as usual, Frances Mae was pregnant as usual and still turning over the silver looking for hallmarks with her green eyes. And their girls were still full of all the antics of every devil in hell. Everything seemed normal. It was.
I thought it was my mission to open Mother's eyes to Trip's intentions. To make her see that she needed to take it down a notch or two. Surprise, surprise. I was the one, not Mother, who was about to have her eyes opened. It was my cage that would be rattled until the fillings in my teeth vibrated. It was my complete sense of who I thought I was that would be wrung out to dry. Most importantly, I was to discover who we all truly were.
Over the years, as much as I would vehemently deny my passion for the ACE Basin of South Carolina, its pull on me was an all-powerful force. The ACE is Eden. It's where the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers join at St. Helena's Sound. The ACE is home to more species of birds, fish, flowers, and shrubs than you could name. Every inch of it wiggles in song; its beauty is stupefying.
No, once the ACE has you under its spell, you are hers for life. You could turn me around, blindfolded, in the handbag department of Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue and I could point my finger to the Edisto River the same way a compass needle always points north. I was nothing more than an extension of her waters. A displaced tributary.
So tonight we were all here in the Bagnal Funeral Home in Walterboro with Mother's body. There must have been three hundred people who came and went over the hours that I sat with Trip, Frances Mae, Millie, and Mother's closest friends.
People told stories of Mother's crazy theme parties that celebrated Cleopatra's birthday or some little-known Aztec holiday. There was the time she dressed herself as a goddess and floated down the Edisto on our pontoon—decorated with billowing white bunting—to celebrate The Birth of Venus. Trip and I were youngsters at the time and humiliated beyond words. I hated her then.
After Daddy died, Trip and I were parceled off to boarding schools; then came the parade of her lovers. She was quiet about her relationships at first, but once she was comfortable with her new way of living, the tempo quickened and the fireworks began. It was then Mother discovered Rod McKuen poetry and found her G-spot in an article in Cosmopolitan magazine. There was no stopping her. Back then I despised her flamboyance with every part of me.
Lately, I had completely changed my mind. If Mother was shockingly indiscreet, so what? Everyone adored her. You had to admit that she enjoyed her liberation. She was Miss Lavinia, the ACE Basin version of Auntie Mame. What a gal!
I looked among the crowd for Rev. Charles Moore and spotted him talking to Richard. At least she'd had the good judgment not to sleep with the minister, even though he probably would have gladly hopped in the sack with her. Endowment campaigns did strange things to people. Well, I thought, maybe she's left him something in her will. God knows, he lobbied hard enough for a bequest.
So many people came for Mother, to offer their love and sympathy. It was remarkable. But even though they were all courtesy and protocol on the outside, I knew there was a strong undercurrent. The unspoken gossip was nearly tangible—the wanting to know, Who would inherit the plantation? What of her renowned fortunes? How much was there? Would Frances Mae be the new queen of Tall Pines? Would I, the errant daughter who'd married that odious Brit, a Jewish man, and a shrink, come to my senses and renounce him? It was a situation I was sure was driving the Lowcountry gentry nearly mad from not knowing.
Situations were what my family called times of indecisiveness and trouble that led to sullied reputations. Situations were best dealt with quickly and as quietly as possible. Between Mother's legendary soirees and love affairs, Frances Mae's greed, and my reappearance on the scene, we had enough jaws working overtime to keep the ears of Charleston, Colleton, and Dorchester Counties burning indefinitely.
All the while I shook hands and thanked people for coming, I fantasized that even there, in the funeral home, money was changing hands. Bets were being placed. Until the rumors became facts, gallons of mint juleps would be consumed all over the Lowcountry. The practiced and polished sweet tongues of prediction would wag! The social wizards would convene and foretell our future from imagined signs, fabricated reports, and supposed hints from someone inside the bosom of the Wimbley family.
Well, it wouldn't be me. I had come home to see about Mother and I had every intention of executing a dignified farewell for her. So did Trip. In Mother's memory, he and Frances Mae were hosting a fabulous reception—with Millie's oversight—to take place when we left the funeral home. They had truly pushed all the buttons they could find to make it something people would remember. And they would.
“Let us pray,” Reverend Moore said.
People became quiet and stood by respectfully. Trip and I had discussed this prayer service with the minister beforehand. All of us were grateful that Reverend Moore had agreed to stick to the standards and not to make a fuss about Mother's character. Her obituary in the Post and Courier had caused us some very unnecessary embarrassment. I suppose that there are some people who read them for entertainment—certainly the journalist who wrote Mother's needed to be reassigned to the Used Automobile pages.
At the same moment we bowed our heads in prayer with Reverend Moore, one hundred tuxedoed waiters from Atlanta were over on Lynnwood Drive, popping corks from cases of Veuve Cliquot and arranging seafood and sushi on a sprawling bed of crushed ice. Silver platters were being filled with delicious finger food and a fifteen-piece band with a horn section was going through a sound check. There would be a tasting bar for Mother's favorite bourbons and many pounds of Sonny's barbecue would be hot and waiting in silver buffet dishes to be dolloped on tiny hamburger buns. In my head I could see the hustle and bustle of preparations. Trip and Frances Mae had absolutely done everything they could to give Miss Lavinia the send-off of the century. For once, I didn't have anything ugly to say about Frances Mae.
Millie and I had planned a more toned-down and traditional reception for tomorrow afternoon, after we spread Mother's ashes. But it too would be lovely. All these plans were spelled out in Miss Lavinia's final wishes. We had done our best to comply.
The prayer service ended and people began milling around again, offering condolences to us. Many of them were misty; Mother's best friends had wept openly, holding on to each other. They broke my heart all over again. I had known them all my life and to see them so upset was just awful.
I got up and walked over to Mother's casket. I was out of tears for the moment. Besides, Mother would have wanted me to keep my wits about me at her wake.
Reconciling finding Mother's heart and then losing her so quickly was going to be my ultimate challenge. I prayed she would haunt me forever. Just because she was dead, she had no right to desert me.
I looked down at her in her casket and thought about how peaceful she looked. I was going to need her grit and wisdom to survive, every ounce of it. I wasn't even one-
third the woman she was in her weakest moment. I had been a coward for far too long, hiding my emotions behind my Manhattan wardrobe of all black. I brushed back a lock of her hair, thinking how I loved her so desperately and how many years I had wasted mired in anger and resentment. Trip appeared at my side.
“You okay, Caroline?” His eyes were moist.
“Yeah, I'm fine. Lavinia would have loved this, don't you think?”
“Definitely,” he said. “She got enough flowers for a senator!”
It was true. The room overflowed with baskets of gorgeous arra...
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