Signed Elizabeth Berg Home Safe: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781400065110

Home Safe: A Novel

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9781400065110: Home Safe: A Novel

In this new novel, beloved bestselling author Elizabeth Berg weaves a beautifully written and richly resonant story of a mother and daughter in emotional transit. Helen Ames–recently widowed, coping with loss and grief, unable to do the work that has always sustained her–is beginning to depend far too much on her twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Tessa, and is meddling in her life, offering unsolicited and unwelcome advice. Helen’s problems are compounded by her shocking discovery that her mild-mannered and loyal husband was apparently leading a double life. The Ameses had painstakingly saved for a happy retirement, but that money disappeared in several large withdrawals made by Helen’s husband before he died. In order to support herself and garner a measure of much needed independence, Helen takes an unusual job that ends up offering far more than she had anticipated. And then a phone call from a stranger sets Helen on a surprising path of discovery that causes both mother and daughter to reassess what they thought they knew about each other, themselves, and what really makes a home and a family.

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About the Author:

Elizabeth Berg is the author of many bestselling novels as well as two works of nonfiction. Open House was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as ALA Best Books of the Year, and Talk Before Sleep was short-listed for an Abby Award. Her bestsellers also include The Year of Pleasures, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted, and Dream When You’re Feeling Blue. Berg has been honored by both the Boston Public Library and the Chicago Public Library and is a popular speaker at various venues around the country. She lives near Chicago.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One



“Mom,” Helen’s daughter says. “Mom. Mom. Mom. Don’t.”

Helen leans into the mirror to pick a clot of mascara off her lashes. This mascara is too old. She’ll buy a new tube today, now that she intends to be a regular working woman, someone who, rather than making a thirty-foot commute from bedroom to study and working in her pajamas, actually dresses up and goes out of her house to be among other human beings. She’ll buy some antiaging mascara, surely they’ve come up with that by now. What she really needs is an antiaging mirror.

“It’s not cute, what you’re doing,” Tessa says. “It’s not funky or cool or fun. You’ll hate it.”

Helen turns to face her. “How do you know? You’re talking about yourself. Just because you didn’t like working there doesn’t mean I won’t.”

“Mom. Imagine yourself folding the same sweater one hundred times a day. Imagine saying, ‘Welcome to Anthropologie!’ to hostile customers who only want to be left alone.”

“I hardly think they’ll be hostile.”

Tessa waves her hand as though flicking away the blackfly of her mother’s ignorance. “You’ve never worked retail. You have no idea how rude people can be. Or how weird.”

Helen refrains from answering, Expect the worst, and you’ll get it! She applies a thin coat of coral-colored lipstick.

“Too yellow for your complexion,” Tessa says. She is the beauty editor at an online magazine; she makes pronouncements like this with some regularity.

“You gave it to me!”

“I know, but it’s too yellow for your complexion. Throw it out. I’ll get you more red tones.”

Helen looks at the tube. “I don’t want to throw it out. I’ll donate it somewhere.”

“Mom. Mom. It’s used.”

“Well, then, I’ll give it to Grandma.” Helen regards herself in the mirrror. She sees that Tessa is right about the color of the lipstick on her. She wipes it off and puts on a pinkish shade. Then she walks to the front hall closet to get her coat.

“This is going to be a complete waste of your time,” Tessa says. One eyebrow is arched, and her head is tilted in the “I can’t wait to say I told you so” position.

“The operative word being ‘your.’ ”

“What?”

“It’s my time. I can waste it if I want to. And anyway, it won’t be a waste. I need a change of pace.”

Tessa puts on her coat. She does not button it, and Helen does not tell her to. As she is frequently reminded, her daughter is twenty-seven years old. Still, it’s November and cold outside, an insinuating dampness in the air. Tessa does wrap her muffler securely around her throat, Helen is happy to see.

“You aren’t going to listen to me no matter what I say,” Tessa says. “You’re going to go down there and apply and they’ll hire you because they’re desperate and then you’ll see how disgusting it is to work with spoiled brats and then you’ll quit.”

“Well,” Helen says. “It will be something to do. Won’t it. Do you want a ride back downtown?”

Tessa wordlessly exits the house, letting the storm door fall shut instead of holding it open for her mother, who is close behind her. Helen figures the whole way downtown, Tessa will continue to punish her, and she considers for a moment telling her daughter to take the el home, but she won’t. It’s her daughter. She wonders how many times in her life she’s told herself that.

There is silence until they are out of Oak Park and onto the Eisenhower, and then Helen looks over at Tessa, who is pointedly staring straight ahead.

“Who’s spoiled?” she asks, and is gratified to see Tessa smile, then reach over and turn on the CD player. It’s over.

Tessa selects Nicole Atkins’s Neptune City and turns the volume up. Helen boosts the volume a bit more. On music she and her daughter agree completely. They have even gone to concerts together, and Tessa never seems to be embarrassed by the fact that she is there with her mother. Oftentimes, they will both hear something in a song, and turn to smile at each other like girlfriends. They feel music in the same way; it is a source of pride for Helen. Helen’s best friend, Midge, has a daughter Tessa’s age, and Amanda plays music that Midge says makes her feel like shooting herself, twice. But Tessa custom-mixes a CD for her mother every Christmas, selecting her own favorite songs of the moment, and it is always Helen’s favorite gift.

Helen’s husband, Dan, died suddenly eleven months and three days ago, dropping his coffee cup and sliding almost noiselessly out of his kitchen chair and onto the floor. Helen, who’d been standing at the sink, still feels guilty about yelling at him for breaking his cup before she turned to see him sprawled on his back, his eyes wide open and startled-looking. She believes the last thing Dan felt was surprise, and to her way of thinking, it wasn’t a bad way to go. The bad part is he left her here without him, ignorant of . . . oh, everything.

People used to accuse her of being overly dependent on Dan, and it was true. “You give away your power,” one friend told Helen. “You infantilize yourself.” On that occasion, Helen looked down at her salad plate as though acknowledging culpability and feeling bad about it, but what she was thinking was, Oh, shut up. It feels good to infantilize myself. You ought to try it. Might take an edge off.

On that awful day when Helen realized her husband was dead, it nonetheless occurred to her to ask him what to do about the fact that he had just died. She had called the paramedics; she had tried CPR, now what should she do? When it came to her—slowly at first, then in a breath-snatching rush of feeling—that she could not ask him this or any other thing ever again, Helen ran to the bathroom to vomit. Then she ran back to kneel beside Dan, and called his name over and over again. And then she called Tessa, to ask her what to do.

As soon as Tessa heard her mother say her name, her voice dropped to a flat and foreboding pitch to ask, “What happened?” But she knew, she later told Helen, she knew right away that her dad had died. After Helen hung up the phone, she swept up the shards of broken china, including one that had cut Dan’s hand. Then she put a Band-Aid over the wound on his little finger because although he was now clearly beyond needing her care, she was not beyond needing to care for him. She sat staring at the cuff of his sleeve, trying not to think, until the paramedics finally arrived and pronounced Dan dead. Helen thought, Those words don’t even go together, “your husband” and “dead.” And then she experienced the oddest sensation. It was of feeling herself ascend—her, not Dan. She felt as though she were leaving the planet and her own life, never to return. Because she was herself, but she was also Dan: they had merged their two personalities to create a shared one, that was what their marriage was, and she lived inside the marriage more than she lived inside herself. For her to lose Dan—especially so suddenly—was to step off a cliff where the falling seemed never to stop.

In addition to her greatest love, Helen has lost the person who handled the practical side of their life together. All this time later, Helen is still shaky on managing the simplest aspects of her finances, despite the fact that she has an accountant to ask questions of. She trusted Dan to take care of his own income and hers; she didn’t want to know anything about what he was doing. Numbers had made her nervous since early on in elementary school, when her teacher had announced ominously that tomorrow they were going to start learning fractions, and the whole class had groaned. Helen remembers sitting in her plaid dress with the little bow at the neckline, laying her pencil down carefully in the desk trough and thinking, Okay, that’s it for me. She’d been having trouble enough with what they were doing; long division made her jiggle her leg and yank at her bangs; she was not interested in being challenged further. Later she would learn about math anxiety and the things one might do to help oneself, but by that time it was irrelevant. She and Dan both were used to her making astonishing mistakes in the world of numbers: “It was four hundred and fifty dollars,” she once told Dan about a refrigerator she had looked at and wanted to buy after theirs had broken. “Are you sure?” Dan asked. “Yes!” she said. “I remember exactly! Four hundred and fifty dollars.” It was, in fact, four thousand, five hundred. “Oh,” Helen said, when Dan came with her to the appliance store and showed her the price tag.

She didn’t see her shortcomings as serious problems. What she believed was that each person brought to a marriage certain strengths and weaknesses; so each became naturally responsible for certain things. She rolled out the piecrusts and scheduled doctors appointments; Dan balanced the checkbook and managed their holdings at Morgan Stanley.

After her husband’s death, Helen had left the investment firm’s monthly statements sitting unopened on Dan’s desk until a few days ago, when she mailed them to the accountant. She’ll get around to looking at them when she’s ready, if she needs to. She knows that whatever is there has been both wisely and conservatively invested and is earning a fair amount of interest; that much of what Dan told her she retained.

Mechan...

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