Editor’s Note: this is the second chapter in a working novel. Click here to read Chapter 1. All material belongs to the author and may not be republished or copied without written consent. Should you want to publish this story, well please let us know by emailing editor(at)prettysouthern.com
In our large family home, the intercom was the preferred method of communication. Our house possessed six bedrooms, with the master suite on the main floor and five bedrooms upstairs. Kate, Macy, and I each had our own room, with another bedroom for guests, and the fifth bedroom (once serving as our playroom) recently turned into a staging area for everything we needed to take down to St. Simons for the wedding weekend. All five hundred programs, favors, yards of yellow ribbon matching our “daffodil” bridesmaids dresses, votive candles and their holders – stacks of wedding stuff was piled high into the corners of our former playroom before being loaded onto trucks and couriered to our beach house. When we were little, we’d play for hours in that room, flipping our mattresses into forts to hide out from Mama and Daddy. Of course, they’d always find us, and often Daddy would help us build our fort. He was in construction after all. Mamma would always bring us back from our hideouts and into reality. While the intercom served to help Mama reach us from her bedroom or the kitchen on the first floor, the lady of the house still hollered when she deemed it necessary.
“Vivienne Grace!” Mama shouted from the kitchen. “Don’t make me come up there. We are going to be late and hit traffic!”
“I’m comin’!” I yelled back. Lord have mercy! Everyone was so uptight that morning. And we still had the road trip, welcome barbecue, bridal luncheon, rehearsal and all that jazz to get through before the darn wedding. I stomped down the flight of stairs in our grand foyer. I reached the bottom of the staircase and dropped Kate’s bag next to our front double doors. Marble floors took over from the plush carpet of the upstairs bedrooms. I passed the formal living room boasting luxurious silk couches and mahogany end tables. Mama’s collection of Swarovski crystal figurines accented the polished surfaces. Our dining room was to the left, which was used only for special occasions. Mama’s grandmother, the late great Grand Mere Vivienne Baptiste, gave my parents the cherry dining room furniture, her elegant collection of fine china, and a matching hutch as their wedding present.
“One can always tell the quality of cherry by the pits.” my grandmother, Grand Mere, explained to me when I was a little girl. She laid her hand atop of mine to run it along the smooth wood surface. “The pits: they’re recognizable but finished over. Never, ever buy cheap furniture mon petite. This is the stuff that’s built to last.”
I smiled at the memories of all the gatherings in these formal rooms. All of my family would soon be together for the start of Macy and Campbell’s wedding weekend. Grand Mere would be in St. Simons Island tomorrow, and Uncle Charlie and my cousin Autumn would be there tonight. It was only a few weeks since I saw them, since they all came up for my graduation from Magnolia Academy. Still, I was already looking forward to us all being together for Macy’s wedding and the party. I heard about that giant white tent that would be staged next to the beach for dinner, and dancing, and oh, I would get to see Wesley! Goodness it had been so long since I’d seen him, and now I was finally old enough to actually make something happen! My mind flashed his handsome face but then my happy thought ended abruptly when I heard Mama’s heels clicking across the marble floor. I would have plenty of time to think about Wesley later on the road trip, and scampered into the kitchen to face my mother.
“Vivienne Grace!” Mama called stamping into the hallway. She was immaculate with her hair curled and full makeup applied even for a road trip, just as any well-bred former New Orleans debutante should be. Her white linen shorts were pressed into pleats, a pink sweater wrapped around her toned shoulders over a white camisole. Chanel sunglasses perched on her short, white-blonde hair curled into a neat coif. Her emerald eyes darted towards me looking anxious. If it wasn’t for the thirty years she had on her children, Mama could have been Macy’s twin. She was a true Buckhead Betty. In our neighborhood known as Buckhead, from Paces Mill all the way to Peachtree Street and lower Roswell Road, women who always dressed to the nines, carried themselves like ladies, and presented an attitude of sophistication were coined “Buckhead Betties”. These were the women who could afford to spend hundreds of dollars on highlights every six weeks, who had the time to maintain and sculpt their lean bodies, plus manage their households and children without ever breaking a nail. There was even a hair salon with the same moniker “Buckhead Betties”. It didn’t matter Mama was born and raised in New Orleans. Mrs. Caroline Bissett Cunningham knew everyone in Buckhead, and she’d graced the pages of every good magazine in Atlanta, especially now that Macy was marrying Campbell.
“Darlin’!” Mama declared. “Did you just roll out of bed?”
“Maybe,” I said moving past her into the kitchen. I knew Mama wouldn’t be happy at my unkempt appearance. Macy may not have cared what I looked like, but Mama always did.
“Lord almighty, Grace. Are you even packed?”
“Yes. I’ve got my stuff ready besides my toothbrush. I wanted to eat first.”
“Honey, don’t you know there might be photographers outside?”
“Pish posh, Mama! That’s the same thing Macy said. There’s no one out there.”
“How would you know? You certainly don’t look like Miss Magnolia this morning.”
“Ma-mah!” I stomped my foot. “Just because I won our school’s beauty pageant doesn’t mean I always have to look perfect.”
She gave me an icy look with her piercing green eyes. Her left eyebrow arched high into her forehead. Whenever Caroline Cunningham raised that one eyebrow of hers, we all knew we were in trouble. I gulped hard, backing my way slowly into the kitchen. For a girl heading off to college, I was reduced to childlike fear at the sight of Mama’s stare down.
“Let me tell you somethin’, Vivienne Grace. I wasn’t expecting perfection this morning, but you have a closet full of pretty dresses and you couldn’t even put on one of ‘em. It’s such a big weekend for our family. Heaven forbid someone from the press saw you looking like you’d just rolled out of bed, when your sister is about to marry Governor Brayden’s son. Why, I can’t imagine the reprimand we might face from his staff, or even worse from Mrs. Brayden.”
“Okay, Lordy, I’ll change. Can’t I at least eat and have some coffee first?”
“If you’d like, but your breakfast is cold though, and so is the coffee.”
“Fine, I’ll just put it over ice and in a cup for the road.”
“Well do be quick about it. We have got to go, so eat up, and then we can move out.”
She spun on her heels with her blonde curls and pink sweater flinging like a queen’s cape behind her. I followed her into the kitchen. It was bright, way too bright for an under-caffeinated person. Sunlight reflected off the custom-built glass cabinetry giving the whole room an unworldly glow. Through the bay windows I could see our swimming pool in the backyard. Now that I was on the first floor I could tell it really hadn’t been cleaned at all in the past week. I’d been so busy with all the wedding craziness there wasn’t time to go swimming, not like I could have anyways. If I was going to continue to face this day with a smile I needed coffee – and stat. Mama took the cold coffee pot and poured the remnants into a Tervis tumbler. She splashed in a heavy pour of soy milk and a packet of Splenda and passed it to me across the counter, along with a plate of runny scrambled eggs and toast.
“Thank you, Mama.” I grimaced. She didn’t notice my sarcasm and dumped the remaining breakfast dishes into the dishwasher. I’d seen Mama stressed before, and she usually took it out by cleaning. At least there wasn’t a speck of dust in the house. That week she’d been a hot mess from stress and taking it out on all of us, including her kitchen. Between my graduation and heading off to college, plus Kate graduating and heading to Yale, that would leave any mother stressed. Add on the fact she was planning a wedding for five hundred people, where the governor is the father of the groom, and it’s a wonder the woman didn’t have an aneurysm. That’s where Daddy came in. He was always there to help Mama, even just to hug her when she reached her breaking point.
“Good mornin’, Grace.” I heard a warm, loving voice call from the kitchen table. There was Daddy. He smiled at me from behind his graying beard. Finally, my ally! Daddy was a saint given all the arguing between my sisters and Mama. I beamed back and took my breakfast to his side of the kitchen. I perched on the chair next to her father, who was finishing up his breakfast while working on his laptop.
“How’s my Angel Baby doing this morning?” he asked, as he tilted up his cheek for me to give him a kiss.
“Peachy keen,” I smiled as I gave him a peck, wrapping my arms around his shoulders. He returned my hug with a smile before turning back to his work on a laptop. I took a cue from him to try and be as pleasant as possible.
Mama shouted across the kitchen, “Baby, tell Grace she needs to go change.”
“Now, now Caro, leave the girl alone,” Daddy called back. “Angel Baby, you look beautiful as always. There’s no way in heaven you could possibly ever look bad.”
Randolph Cunningham was fifty-seven years old and his age was starting to show. His once auburn hair faded into shades of grays and whites; yet, his tan face and shining blue eyes carried a youthful vigor. He was wearing his usual uniform of khaki shorts, Topsiders, and a mint green Polo shirt. The lines around his cheeks and jaw were covered with a full beard. I thought the facial hair made Daddy look even more like a gentleman, especially when he cast a warm smile of approval in my direction.
“Aw, thanks Daddy. It’s nice to know someone else isn’t worried about what they look like for a car ride. But I thought you were going to shave?”
“If I had my way he never would have grown that beard.” Mama fussed as she finished cleaning the kitchen.
“I plan on shaving before the rehearsal dinner,” Daddy replied.
“Good.” Mama replied. “Grace, is your iced coffee too sweet?”
“Oh gosh, Mama, it’s perfect. Thank you.” I tried butterin’ her up to see if sweet talk may smooth over her general dislike for our appearances.
“I know you still like that kiddie coffee with lots of milk and sugar.”
“You know it.”
Daddy smiled at us, looking back to his laptop. My eggs and toast were gross from getting cold but I wasn’t really hungry anyway. The coffee was what I was really after, and good Lord, Mama learned how to make great coffee, hot or iced, from Grand Mere’s housekeeper Tara. Unlike my grandmother, Mama didn’t have full-time help except for the lawn care team and a housekeeper who came twice a week to clean. Earlier that week she said she didn’t need the housekeeper, but watching her slam dishes around I thought she might break something. Thankfully she didn’t. After putting the breakfast pans in the dishwasher, her attention focused on getting us on the road. Mama was in the zone.
“Honey, should we leave the A/C on?”
“No, leave it off to save the money?”
“But the house will smell musty. And since when have we been concerned about penny pinching?”
“My wife, I’m paying for this wedding and two college tuitions. We could do a little saving this summer.”
Mama ignored him and began counting up the number of wine bottles in an open cooler. “Do you think we packed enough Chardonnay?”
“Six bottles should be enough.” Daddy replied not looking up from his laptop.
“Well how much are you planning on drinkin’ tonight and tomorrow before the parties?”
“Are you even listenin’ to me?” she asked leaning down in front of his screen. Her light locks fell across the laptop causing her husband to focus his attention on her.
“Caro, I am sorry, but I’m trying to wrap up some business before we leave. If you don’t think six bottles will be enough for the house we can certainly buy more down at St. Simons.”
“That local island market doesn’t come close to a proper grocery. The only wine they ever seem to have in stock is terrible. Perhaps the only thing close to wine that I know they carry is Boone’s Farm! I once asked the girl working there if they had Chardonnay, and she said no. Besides Boone’s Farm, they only carry ‘chab-less” and when I asked her ‘do you mean Chablis?’ she looked at me and drawled out, ‘oh, so that’s how you say it!’ like I was a genius.”
Daddy stared at her the same way he looked at Macy when she was throwing a fit about the wedding plans. “Then just pack some more bottles of our good stuff.”
“Can you please run down to the wine cellar for me?”
Daddy looked at his wife, who was now casting a stormy look. All Mama had to do was raise that one eyebrow of hers at her husband, who then sighed, and grew a stern expression at first but then immediately softened his face.
“Tell you what honey, I’m almost done so let me help you. If you go get the wine, then I’ll start loading up the car and round up the girls.”
“Thank you.” she replied walking away. “Grace, were your sisters ready when you were upstairs?”
“Macy still had her hair in rollers. Kate was reading.”
“Lord those girls.” Mama huffed moving to the intercom. “Georgia Katherine! Macy Bissett! Both of y’all! Let’s go!” She turned away to take my half-full cup of coffee.
“Hey! I wasn’t finished.”
“You’re done. We gotta go.” Mama replied heading downstairs to our wine cellar in the basement.
I gave Daddy a pitiful look, who chuckled softly in reply.
“Now, Angel Baby, your mama is just worried with all the wedding business. You know she and Macy have got a lot to do before Saturday. I think she’s just ready to get down to the beach to make sure the house is all set. It’ll be better once we’re all there.”
“I don’t understand why Mama is the one freakin’ out.” I pouted. “It’s Macy’s big day. And she was in a mood too. Did you hear her upstairs?”
“Indeed. But you know I never pay much attention to Macy’s tantrums since she grew out of diapers. We just have to keep them both cool. Everything will settle down once we can get on the road. Do you need help with your bags?”
“No, I got them.”
“Good girl,” he patted my head softly. “Go on and brush your teeth.”
I looked once more back to our swimming pool, and thought maybe Daddy had been busy too and hadn’t noticed the bevy of bugs littering the water’s surface. I heeded Kate’s words to not say anything to Mama, but Daddy was the one who usually took such pride in his yard that I figured he might want to know.
“Hey Daddy, just curious, did you happen to see the pool? It’s kind of nasty out there.”
“Hm…” he was fixated again on his laptop.
“The pool – there’s dead bugs and pine needles floating in the top. Did your guys not come to clean it this week?”
“Oh,” his head popped up as he looked outside. “Guess they didn’t. We’ll have to say something to the crew when we get back from the beach.”
“That’s not normal for them.” I remarked. “They always seem to come once a week, even when it’s in the winter.”
“Well, Angel Baby, there’s been a lot going on over the past few weeks. Your mama didn’t seem to notice either, and she’d certainly be the one to holler at ‘em that the pool is dirty.”
I playfully slapped his shoulder. He smiled then turned back to his computer screen to shut it down. “Well, I guess we’ve had enough of that. I better start packing up the truck before your mama gets back from the wine cellar.”
Through the other side of the kitchen windows, I could see the family cars lined up out in the driveway. Daddy’s toys – his White Diamond Cadillac Escalade, a big Ford F-250, a Harley, Canam, and a pair of jet skis – occupied the four-car garage therefore the entire family was resigned to park their own cars out front. All of us Cunningham girls had our own rides. My red Jeep, with its Georgia “G” emblazoned on the back windshield flanked Kate’s old Jetta. Macy drove Mama’s Land Rover (covered with Magnolia Academy Honor Roll stickers) as Daddy had sold her Mustang when she moved to New York a few years ago. Macy had only returned to the South after she and Campbell got engaged. Mama didn’t mind, because this afforded her the opportunity to purchase the BMW convertible she’d had her eye on for years.
“Daddy are you sure Kate and I shouldn’t drive our own car?”
“What would you need it for? Once we’re down at the beach, everywhere we go we’ll be together. Besides, we need to save on gas money.”
“So in the midst of all the wedding hoopla you’re concerned about saving money?” Kate asked coming into the kitchen.
“Now that I’ve got your tuition to Yale to cover,” Daddy replied, “unless you don’t want to go to an Ivy League school.”
“Oh no,” Kate rushed to Daddy’s side to give him a big hug. “Let’s all take one car. Please just don’t make me sit next to Macy.”
“You can sit in the back with Grace.” Mama stated as she came up from the basement with multiple bottles of Chardonnay. “By the way, Kate, I do like that new blue dress on you. It brings out the color of your eyes. You look much better than your sister does this morning.”
“Aw come on!” I slammed my fists on the kitchen table. “Can’t a girl get away with wearing a t-shirt and shorts for a freakin’ car trip?”
Mama’s one eyebrow started to rise again. Kate gave me a knowing glance, and she started to open her mouth in protest until Macy came downstairs. Her long blonde hair curled into perfect coils at the ends cascading down the front of a white Polo shirt and pressed pink Lilly Pulitzer skirt. Macy had on full makeup with her lipstick in the same shade of pink as her skirt’s fabric. She looked like she was about to walk down the aisle with her perfect blonde hair and glowing green eyes.
“Look at you!” Mama gasped. “You’re practically ready to slip on a wedding gown. Can’t you take a style tip from your sister this morning?” She shot up that eyebrow of hers at me again.
“Gracie is so cute she can get away with wearing anythin’,” Macy cooed. “Mama, it’s fine, really.”
“Hmph.” Mama miffed.
“Oh my God, y’all! I’ll put on a freakin’ skirt or something!” I screamed and stomped out of the kitchen, leaving behind my family who I know was shooting each other looks like “what the heck is Grace’s problem this morning?”
My mama was already driving me crazy, and was really fixin’ to set me off. I went back upstairs and flung open my closet door. I’d already sorted through my entire wardrobe this week trying to pick out what to wear for this weekend, so I just grabbed the first Lilly Pulitzer printed skirt that my eyes landed on and one of my many white linen tank tops. If Mama had thought Macy looked so good then I’d just try to match her. I slipped on my trusty Rainbow flip flops, gave my teeth a good brushing, then tossed my toothbrush in its traveling case before zipping up my final pink Vera Bradley bag. My Kate Spade sunglasses, a graduation present from Macy, were resting next to my first real Louis Vuitton bag, another graduation present from Grand Mere. With my sunglasses perched atop of my brown curls, my Louis purse balanced on my shoulder, and my Vera Bradley hanging bag resting between my arms, I started down the hallway to the foyer. I checked my reflection one last time in the hall mirror and looked somewhat presentable, or wheat at least I hoped would pass Mama’s inspection.
The front door was ajar letting in the heat and humidity from a steamy Southern morning. Outside Daddy had pulled up the Escalade to the front circular drive. Its trunk was open and already packed to the brim with luggage for the wedding weekend.
“Angel Baby,” Daddy called from the car. “Let’s boogie.”
I trotted down our porch steps to face my family waiting by our SUV. My father nodded at approval for my changing into a skirt, then stuffed my bags atop the rest of the load.
Mama was already waiting in the car with Macy and Kate. All three of the Cunningham women were glowing in blonde perfection.
“Thank you for changing, Grace. Now you look like a girl whose sister is going to marry into the governor’s family.”
“Funny a skirt could have that much power,” I thought to myself but didn’t dare say it aloud. I simply smiled as I climbed past
Macy in the middle seat and took a seat beside Kate tucked in the back row. She smiled at me and then turned back to her book. Macy was equally preoccupied with scrolling through her iPad to review the seating chart for the wedding.
Macy had been growing her hair out for her big day and her long mane of straight gold glimmered in the July sun. Like Mama, Macy would be a Buckhead Betty in her own right. She and Campbell just bought a house in Peachtree Hills and were set to move in after they came home from their honeymoon in Bermuda. Next to me in the back seat, even with her nose buried in a book, Kate looked similar to Macy with the same blonde hair (sans highlights). Other than that, my sisters had little else in common. Macy also had our Mama’s piercing green eyes, and Kate and I shared Daddy’s deep blues. I was so proud of Kate. She was heading off to New England only two weeks after the wedding. I knew how hard she studied for the LSAT and the entire family was honored by her accomplishment. Although secretly, I knew Mama and Macy wished she would meet a guy at law school…hopefully not a Yankee.
Daddy plopped down in the driver’s seat and fired up the engine to his Escalade with a loud roar. The Doobie Brothers “Old Black Water” came crooning over the radio. Our car started down our driveway. Outside, our expansive front porch with its white rockers swayed to-and-fro in the summer breeze. Magnolia trees with their bright white flowers lined the driveway leading up to the stone columns. The whitewashed bricks of our house were hugged by vines of wisteria and morning glories. Beds of azaleas, roses, daffodils, and hydrangea bushes dotted the front acre of green grass which swept down the lawn to our front porch. I noticed the grass was much taller than our usual closely-clipped and manicured greens. Daddy’s guys definitely hadn’t come to mow the lawn, or clean the pool. But I wasn’t about to say anything because no one else in my family seemed to notice. Daddy clicked a button and the wrought iron gate swung open.
“Next stop, St. Simons!” Mama called from the front seat.
Macy cheered, “Wedding of the Century, here we come!”