In searching for a gardening essay I'd written a couple years ago, I ran across a piece about family communications that I'd written a long time ago. It was funny then, and it's still funny now.
Donna said she'd heard about The Fainting from her sister, Rose, who'd heard about from their brother, Dan, who'd heard about it from their father, Dominic. News gets around like that in that family. The source of family information is always several people back. No one ever seems to remember exactly who the original source is, and I doubt anyone really cares. The most important thing just seems to be the news.
There was the time their mother, Virginia, moved back into the house on Peters Square with Dominic. I think that news came from Rose, who'd heard it from Virginia, who'd actually been invited by Dominic. Donna was surprised by that one. After all, only twelve years had passed since Virginia and Dominic's divorce--and Dominic holds a grudge. His most recent outburst had been the threat of police action if Virginia ever stepped foot on his property. But, maybe twelve years is, after all, long enough to erase--or at least to dull--the sharpness of bitter memory. Donna said maybe it was loneliness. Or old age. But most probably, it had something to do with eating habits.
Virginia liked to test already-proven formulas, and the Greenway housing coop experience was no exception. She left Omaha in a hurry, speeding back to Minneapolis, her mother's old black Buick crammed full of belongings, the typing table and captain's chair firmly strapped to the top. Rose went with her for the ride. Donna says it was for the money--Virginia paid Rose to miss work at the library.
Rose didn't stay in Minneapolis for long, but Virginia did. She moved into the Greenway coop, into the room where Fran had lived when Rose was there. Actually, Rose moved in after Fran did. Fran had greeted Rose at the front door in her dirty long johns and ill-fitting robe. Fran's mother had given the robe to her at Christmas. Fran wore it out of guilt, or perhaps in the false belief that love had guided her mother's choice.
Shortly after the move, Donna went to visit Virginia in her new room at the Greenway. All the treasures that had been stuffed and wedged into the old black Buick were there, neatly arranged around the room. A few new postcards were tacked up onto the freshly painted walls, and handstitched quilts had been rolled onto wooden dowels to serve as curtains. Donna said Virginia could turn a storm sewer into a home.
Donna and Virginia ate breakfast out near the high school that morning. Virginia picked at an omelette--she always had a nervous stomach--and Donna slammed her thumb in the doorjam of the stall in the women's bathroom. She lost part of her nail, but Virginia still made her pay for the meal.
Donna says that Virginia's parting gesture after breakfast was a finger up the nose. Typical, and mostly in fun, but partly serious. Donna and Dan and Dominic had plans for dinner together that evening, and Virginia--as always--felt left out. Dan said she'd been talking a lot about marriage recently, mostly because she wanted a color television. And a good meal or two, which is how it all started, really.
A few months later, Donna called Dominic, who told her that Dan had told him that Virginia had reported that she'd fainted at work. The doctor attributed the fainting to poor eating habits. Dominic and Dan swore it was the strictly enforced vegetarian menu at the Greenway coop. Donna said it was more like a lifetime of cigarettes, coffee, Coca-Cola, and a five-pound bag of sugar every week. No one could agree on the cause exactly, but four weeks after The Fainting, Virginia showed up at Dominic's door, was invited in, fell asleep on the couch, and hasn't left yet. At least that's what Donna says she heard from Rose, who heard it from Dan, who heard it from Dominic. And he should know.