The grandmother was a bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person: sweet, but not necessarily what a child wanted. She knew it, too. That sad bicentennial summer, her son in the hospital recovering from surgery, she and her granddaughter looked for comfort all over Des Moines: at the country club, the dinner club, the miniature-golf-course snack bar, the popcorn stand at the shopping mall, the tea room at Younkers, every buffet, every branch of Bishop’s Cafeteria. What the girl liked best: to choose your own food, not just chocolate cream pie but a particular, considered wedge. To stand before the tall, toqued brunch chef, who minted Belgian waffle after Belgian waffle and rendered them unto you. The world of heat-lamped fried chicken and tall glasses of cubed Jell?O and dinner rolls with pats of butter so refrigerated you had to warm them in the palm of your hand before they’d spread. The girl had already split one pair of pants. It hadn’t seemed to bother her. “Oh, well,” she’d said, reaching around to verify the rend. “Never mind.”
Now here was Lisa, aged ten, the morning of the Fourth of July, 1976, zaftig, darling, oblivious, dressed for the occasion as some founding father: navy polyester pants knickerbockerishly tucked into tube socks, a pair of red and white espadrilles that had run in the rain, a thin ruffled lavender shirt borrowed from Sylvia herself. The outfit showed every ounce the girl had put on in the past month. She’d come from Boston to be taken care of while her father was in the hospital. Instead, the two of them had eaten all the things Aaron—sweet Aaron, the grandmother’s oldest—could not.
“Who are you, sweetheart?” Sylvia asked. “George
“Patrick Henry!” said Lisa. “I’m going to perform his Glorious Speech at the block party.”
“You’re going to what?”
The girl began to hunt through the fruit bowl in the middle of the dining-room table. “I have it memorized. I did it for the fourth-grade talent show.”
“Did you win?”
“Did I win?” Lisa thumbed a grape loose from its fellows and chewed it. “It wasn’t a contest,” she said at last. “People clapped.”
“I don’t understand,” said Sylvia. “You want to say the speech at the party? You can’t just start shouting.”
“I won’t shout.”
“You can’t just make everything stop so people will look at you,” said Sylvia.
“Oh,” said Lisa, “you’d be surprised.” She pinched off another grape and ate it.