The night before her parents' memorial service, after the flowers had been ordered and the hymns chosen and the funeral directors paid, Jennifer gathered her sisters together in their half-empty childhood home to tell them the truth about Mom and Dad. "Can we try to make this quick?" Kate asked apologetically as she stood in the entryway shaking the spring rain from her umbrella. "Noah was really wound up when I left the hotel. I think he's teething. I should get back to help Liz with him as soon as I can."
"I'll do my best," said Jennifer, pacing in front of the dark sooty maw of the unlit fireplace. "We're just waiting on Amy now."
Emily lay sprawled out across the sagging cushions of the yellow flowered couch, a piece of furniture older than any of the Fletcher daughters. She scoffed loudly. "What else is new?"
"She has four kids to take care of," said Kate, ever the peacemaker. "I'm sure it's tough for her to get out the door. Goodness knows Noah has made me late to more than one meeting."
Emily hadn't stopped scrolling through her phone. "Amy's kids are basically grownups now. I mean, Cody's in college. You and Jen have way younger kids than her, and you both got here on time. Amy just likes to make excuses."
"Hmm," said Kate. She tugged at her clerical collar in a gesture that typically meant, I kind of agree with what you're saying but I'm not going to tell you so because it's probably inappropriate for a Lutheran minister to trash-talk people.
"And I don't get why she has to come over here anyhow," continued Emily, emboldened. "Or why any of us did. Why couldn't you just explain whatever this is on our group text?"
"You'll understand why when I tell you," said Jennifer.
Emily rolled her eyes. "Jesus, Jen, could you be any more dramatic?"
A firm knock on the door cut the conversation short. Amy burst in with her coat unbuttoned and her hair unbrushed just as Kate reached for the knob. In one hand she held a steaming paper cup from the coffee shop at the nearest highway off-ramp. "I am so sorry I'm late," she said breathlessly. She lobbed her overstuffed purse onto a nearby endtable, where it tipped over to disgorge receipts and cell phone accessories and lip balm everywhere. "Our hotel room was filthy when we checked into it and I had to make them move us to another one. And then Colin wouldn't fall asleep no matter what I did."
"Doesn't Colin have a driver's license now?" Emily said under her breath. "I bet he can put himself to bed."
Of course, Amy heard her. She turned toward Emily and said frostily, "Colin is fourteen, and mourning the death of his grandparents. When you have children of your own, Emmy, perhaps you'll understand."
"Not going to happen," said Emily. "And don't call me Emmy like I'm still your baby sister."
"Amy has a point," said Kate firmly. "We're all grieving. Today was a hard day, and tomorrow at the memorial will be even harder. Let's try to be kind to each other."
The sisters all fell silent. None of them could meet the other's gaze. Jennifer suspected they all shared her sense of mingled sadness and shame. The events of the past year had sometimes brought out the worst in all of them. First there had been Mom's worsening dementia, and the ensuing family disagreements about whether she'd be safest and happiest in her own house or in a nursing home. As difficult as those conversations were, they suddenly became moot the night Mom slipped and fell in the bathroom. Her injuries weren't serious, but in the course of treating her for bruises and cracked ribs, the doctors found a tumor in her lung. Apparently, it had been growing for a while. In the following months, her decline was swift and severe. Jennifer could at least be grateful that, after everyone agreed there was nothing more to be done, Mom had died at home in her own bed surrounded by her loving family.
Jennifer's parents had been married for more than fifty years. They went together like an old and well-loved pair of slippers, each one purposeless without the other. So although it came as a surprise when Dad collapsed a few days later, in the middle of trying to plan Mom's funeral, somehow Jennifer had been expecting it all along. She'd seen it before with friends' parents and other elderly relatives - how old men rarely stuck around for long once their wives were gone. Dad hung on for a few weeks more, bouncing in and out of the hospital thanks to various vague maladies, until finally one morning he didn't wake up. Mom and Dad would surely both have been relieved not to have needed to go on too long without the other, but it didn't make their deaths any easier on the family they left behind. In just over two months, we all became orphans, thought Jennifer, glancing around the room at her sisters. None of us are okay, no matter how we act. This won't be easy for my sisters to hear. I owe it to them to be as compassionate as I can.
Emily seemed to have reached the same decision. She set her phone screen-down on the arm of the sofa, brushed her fading blue and pink hair away from her face, and peered over the tops of her large glasses at Amy. "Sorry. I'm being an asshole. It's just...This is really hard."
"I know," Amy whispered. She plucked a crumpled Kleenex out of her pile of spilled purse contents and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. Then she took a deep breath, straightened her back, and asked, "Why did you bring us here, Jen?"
There was no sense in delaying the inevitable. "I found something weird while I was looking for old photos to put in the memorial slideshow." Jennifer picked up a battered manila folder from the same coffee table that had held the sisters' cereal bowls during countless Saturday morning cartoon sessions and handed it over. Kate opened it up, and Amy and Emily crowded around her to read the handwritten letter it contained. Jennifer didn't bother reading it again. She already knew all too well what it said:
September 29, 1992
When will I see you again? The days simply crawl by when I cannot spend them by your side. How I long to be in your arms once more, to smell your sweet perfume and to feel your lips on mine. When the nights are long and cold and all the world has turned to tedium and despair, my thoughts are filled with nothing but you. With great fondness I remember our last meeting, when you tied my wrists to the bedpost and…
By the looks on her sisters' faces, Jennifer could identify the exact moment they reached the explicit bits. Amy seemed scandalized, Kate was puzzled, and Emily smirked as if holding back inappropriate laughter. "I still don't understand why you showed this to us," Amy said after she had skimmed ahead to the end to find her father's neat signature on the bottom line. "I wish I'd never read it."
"I know. I wish I hadn't, either. But it's obvious Dad had some secrets, and I didn't want you to learn about them from someone outside the family. I mean, we can't be sure of who's coming to the memorial tomorrow. And I've heard stories about strangers showing up at funerals and causing a scene."
"What kind of strangers?"
Jennifer swallowed hard. This is difficult to contemplate, let alone to say. "The person Dad wrote this letter to. A mistress. Or whatever."
Emily continued to study the letter. "You sure you're not just editing too many bad thrillers at work, Jen? Dad never struck me as the kind of guy to be unfaithful."
"I asked myself the same thing. But then I remember this conversation I had with Mom once. It was right before my divorce, when Rich and I were in counseling and we didn't know if we'd stay together. I called Mom to talk about it. And she said something like, there was a time when she and Dad went through a rough patch in their marriage. She said they both made mistakes they had to deal with, but in the end they worked it out and she was glad they did."
"I never knew that," said Amy.
"Me neither, until Mom told me. So when you combine that with this, it makes me think there was...You know. An affair. And you all deserve to know the truth about it."
"But are we sure it is the truth?" asked Kate. "Even with what Mom said, this is only one letter. We're missing a lot of context. There are a lot of possible explanations for why Dad might have written this."
"Yeah, that's fair. I might be jumping to conclusions." Jennifer's face flushed with embarrassment. "You're right, Kate. Sorry I dragged you all out here for nothing."
"No," said Emily, "now I'm curious." She snatched the letter eagerly out of Kate's hands. "Dad left us a mystery. Don't you want to solve it?"
Amy's mouth twisted in disgust. "Not especially."
"Even if we could prove Dad never had a mistress? Come on, Amy. This house is full of Mom and Dad's junk. Maybe they left something lying around that can tell us more."
"I'm curious, too," said Jennifer. "Everything's been so chaotic, I didn't have much time to snoop around. I'm up for a scavenger hunt if you all are. I mean, Kate, as long as I'm not keeping you away from the baby?"
Kate was peeking at her phone, which had just buzzed in her pocket. "Actually, Liz just texted me to say Noah's finally asleep. She understands this is important. I can stay."
Amy had turned her attention back to the letter. "1992. I was away at college then."
"Me too," said Jennifer. "Freshman year."
"Kate, Emily, what was life like around home then? Did Mom and Dad seem more stressed out than usual?"
"How should I know?" Emily said. "I was, like, six. All I cared about back then were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
"Oh, wow," said Kate, clearly remembering something. "So I would've been thirteen. I had my first girlfriend then. Sarah Donahue. No wonder I don't remember much else from that year."
"Wait, Sarah Donahue was your girlfriend?" said Jennifer. "I thought the two of you were just really good friends."
"In fairness, so did we, at first."
"You had sleepovers at her house all the time! I can't believe I had to spend all of high school sneaking out of the house to see Rich, and then as soon as I leave for college you're having sleepovers with Sarah Donahue whenever you please."
"Well, I mean, Mom and Dad caught on. Eventually."
Emily cleared her throat. "Are we doing this or not?"
The sisters spread out to various corners of the house. Amy began with her parents' bedroom, while Emily and Kate descended into the basement together. Jennifer returned to the big wooden desk in the corner of the living room where she'd first found the letter and resumed her search of its myriad drawers. She already knew she wouldn't find anything. The desk had always stood in the busiest room in the house; many times she'd sat at it to do math problems, write a check, fill out a college application, or just scrawl a note telling her parents she wouldn't be home for dinner. There was no chance Dad would store love letters from a mistress where anyone might come across them. The one she'd found there had clearly slipped out the back of a drawer by mistake. In all honesty, she still wasn't sure if she really wanted to solve this mystery. Losing them had been hard enough even without finding out their shameful secrets. What if the truth is somehow even worse? Do I really want to know, or would I rather make it easier to pretend Mom and Dad never made mistakes and never doubted each other?
Heavy footfalls on the basement stairs startled Jennifer out of her reverie. "It's a disaster down there," Kate said as she and Emily returned to the living room. "Cleaning it out is really going to suck. We could dig through that stuff all night and hardly scratch the surface."
"I don't think what we want is there anyway," said Emily. "We all used to play downstairs all the time. Not a good hiding place for sensitive documents."
You were barely even down there for ten minutes, thought Jennifer. Are you having second thoughts, too? But before she could ask them if they wanted to quit, Amy called out from the bedroom, "I found something."
The sisters hurried down the hall to find Amy sitting on the edge of their parents' neatly made bed. "It was in Dad's bedside table." She pointed to another letter lying on the quilted bedspread. This one was neatly typewritten on pale purple paper. It lacked a date, but was addressed to "My beloved Robert." The first few sentences were outright filthy, and Jennifer decided to skim the rest. The writer had signed the bottom of the page in a strange, swirling hand:
"What the hell kind of name is Babooshka?" asked Emily, who must have also decided to skip to the end.
"Not one I've ever heard," said Amy.
"A pseudonym, maybe?" suggested Kate.
Emily wrinkled her nose. "Does anyone else smell that?"
"I do." Jennifer picked up the letter and inhaled. "It's perfumed."
"And really familiar," said Amy.
"I can't remember."
"Is this the only one you found in here?" asked Kate.
"Yeah," said Amy. "I went through all the drawers and the closet. I'm trying to think of other places Dad might have kept things he didn't want us to find."
Jennifer knew the answer immediately. "The attic," she said, almost at the same time as Kate. "It has to be."
The sisters left the second letter on the bed and moved back into the hall. Amy opened the door to the linen closet where the access hatch hid, yanked the chain to ignite the bare bulb within, and reached up to push aside the panel. Dad had always declared the attic as permanently off-limits to kids - probably because they were concerned for our safety, but also because I think they liked to hide the Christmas presents up there, thought Jennifer. Even now, the heavy creak and thud of the wooden ladder as Amy pulled it down felt as mystical and forbidden as if she were unsealing an ancient tomb. The few times Jennifer had seen the ladder exposed during her childhood, it had always seemed insurmountably steep and impossibly tall, a height she wouldn't dream of scaling. She wasn't prepared for how ordinary it looked to her adult eyes. All along, it had been just a few worn rungs vanishing into a dark hole in the ceiling. Amy took hold of the ladder and began to climb. The others followed, one by one.
Even on a cool spring night, the humid air of the attic was sweltering. No wonder Mom and Dad didn't want us up here, thought Jennifer. In the summer we would have suffocated. She groped around on the wall near the hatch until her hand found a light switch. The incandescent lights hanging down from the ceiling flickered to life with an odor of sizzling dust. It was less cluttered up here than she remembered, but much dustier - probably because for the past few years, it would have been all but impossible for either parent to climb the narrow ladder safely, with how unsteady on their feet they'd become.
"Let's get to work," said Kate, and the sisters spread out to continue their search. They were surrounded by battered suitcases, broken furniture, jigsaw puzzles with half their pieces missing, plastic crates filled with holiday decorations, long-unworn baby clothes, winter coats and prom dresses decades out of fashion. None of it seemed relevant until Jennifer spotted the shoeboxes. They were tucked in an out-of-the-way spot beneath the eaves, easy to overlook yet close enough to the hatch that someone could easily reach in and retrieve them. When she lifted their lids, she found them full to the brim with handwritten letters.
Cautiously, almost reverently, Jennifer picked up the two boxes and held them out for her sisters to see. "We should read these downstairs," said Amy. Everyone nodded and followed her back down the ladder.
They went into the dining room and spread the letters out on the big wooden table, protected as always by its thick clear plastic tablecloth. One box contained dozens of letters in their father's handwriting, each one addressed to the mysterious Babooshka. The dates in their headings spanned more than two decades. Some were racy, others simply sweet and heartfelt, but all of them displayed a depth of affection that made Jennifer wonder, How didn't we know this about Dad? How could he have kept this secret his whole life? "This doesn't make sense," she said.
"Yeah," said Emily. "If Dad was sending all these letters to Babooshka, how did they end up back in his house?"
"Open the other one," said Kate. "Maybe it will help."
The second box held letters like the one from the bedside drawer - typewritten, perfumed, addressed to Robert from Babooshka, and every bit as passionate as the others. When Amy took the lid off the box and released the letters' rich and heavy scent into the air, she said again, "Why is that smell so familiar?"
"I think I know," said Emily. "Hang on." She darted down the hall to the house's only bathroom and emerged moments later with something in her hands. Although the sisters were all responsible adults who could be trusted with expensive and fragile objects, Jennifer still cringed automatically to see Emily holding the tiny, fluted glass bottle half-full of perfume. Mom had always kept her preferred fragrance safe on a high shelf and had worn it only on special occasions. Jennifer still remembered how special she had felt when, on the night of her junior prom, Mom had gently and lovingly dabbed a few drops of the precious substance on the insides of Jennifer's wrists.
Emily uncorked the bottle and passed it around. "You're right," said Kate after she sniffed it.
"Shalimar was always Mom's favorite," said Amy. "She could make a bottle last forever."
For Jennifer, things were starting to fit together. "Judging by what's in these boxes, Dad and Babooshka wrote letters back and forth for years. So it doesn't make sense for Dad's letters and Babooshka's letters to be in the same place. Unless…"
"...Dad and Babooshka actually lived in the same place," finished Kate.
Emily's mouth hung open. "You think Babooshka was Mom?"
Amy smirked. "I knew it all along." You absolutely did not, thought Jennifer with amusement.
Kate teased one last letter out of the shoebox of Babooshka's letters. "Look at this one. It's in Mom's handwriting." The sisters leaned their heads together and began to read:
October 13, 1989
My therapist said this might be easier to do in a letter, so I'm writing you to say I accept your apology. However, I find I need to apologize to you as well.
I was wrong about so many things, but I was most wrong not to trust in your faithfulness to me. Your new job kept you away from home so often, and you always seemed so distracted when you returned, and in my paranoia and loneliness I invented a story that simply wasn't true. If I had never taken it upon myself to test your fidelity, none of this would have happened. I know you feel guilty for responding to the advances of another woman. Even so, I feel it makes a difference that the other woman was always me.
We've been through so much together these past years - the loss of your job, my mother's illness and your father's death, the miscarriages, all the difficulties of my pregnancy with Emily and her birth, the older girls' usual problems of adolescence, the bills piling up and the house falling down. I was so focused on everything else that I forgot to focus on you and me. When I felt a distance growing between us, I overreacted and created a foolish fantasy that consumed us both, instead of talking to you about how I really felt. It was a terrible mistake, and I'm sorry.
But do you know what's funny? When I was writing Babooshka's letters to you, I felt closer to you than I have in a long time. I could be playful, teasing, romantic, silly - all the things I thought I'd forgotten how to do. It brought me back to when we were young and still learning each other's ways, when everything about us was exciting and new. When did we lose those feelings - or perhaps I should say, when did I?
You told me you want to be a better husband to me. I want to be a better wife to you, too. There's no one in the world I want except you. So if you want me to keep writing you these letters - to keep on being Babooshka for you, without either of us needing to hide - all you have to do is ask.
The sisters stared at each other in disbelief, not knowing what to say. "I guess we don't have to worry about Babooshka showing up at the memorial service," Kate finally managed.
"We certainly do not," said Amy.
"I say we make copies of these and put them out on the lunch tables so everyone else has to read them too," said Emily, deadpan. Jennifer burst out laughing, and the others soon followed.
When their mirth had finally subsided, Jennifer said, "I'm still really sorry I jumped to conclusions, guys. Mom always did say I was good at making mountains out of molehills."
"I'm glad we know," said Kate. "I didn't know about half of what Mom talked about in the letter. She and Dad went through a lot together. They really did love each other."
"They loved us, too," said Amy.
Emily stood up from the table. "I'll drink to that." She crossed to the china hutch in the corner of the dining room and took down one of Dad's old ceramic whisky decanters from the top shelf. This one was shaped like a toy soldier. Then she rummaged around in the lower cabinet until she came out with four shot glasses, purchased as souvenirs on long-ago family vacations and adorned with the logos of various tourist traps. Jennifer took the decanter and filled them up.
"To Mom and Dad," said Amy as they all raised their glasses.
"And Babooshka," added Kate.
"And Babooshka," echoed Jennifer.
"Cheers!" said Emily. They all drank. The whisky had never been top-notch to begin with, and years spent on a neglected shelf had done it no favors. It burned and stung on the way down. But as Jennifer looked around the dining room at her sisters, who were laughing and grimacing at the aftertaste, the warmth she felt had nothing to do with the quality of the liquor. Her parents had kept so many secrets, some of which they had surely taken to their graves - but the love they felt for each other and for their family had always been completely obvious. No matter what else the future might hold, Jennifer knew that their daughters would always carry their love on.