time it was and what a time it was
It was the summer of 1974 when Mr. Robinson died of a sudden heart attack, when Mrs. Robinson saw her daughter for the first time in seven years. The last time it had been in a church, too. This time, nobody felt the need to disrupt the ceremony, although by the time the funeral was halfway through, Mrs. Robinson had started to wish someone would. It was tedious – very – to listen to Mr. Braddock eulogize the deceased as a model lawyer, father, and husband – in that order. In fact, he had been at best indifferent on the first two fronts and disastrous on the last, as they all knew very well. But one had to keep up appearances.
“Screw appearances,” muttered Mrs. Robinson, knowing that she wouldn’t say it out loud. She’d tried saying it once, and did not feel inclined to repeat the experiment.
It was sweltering in the church. The hothouse lilies were wilting. She amused herself for a few minutes by speculating about whether anybody would faint. Elaine, possibly. The sidelong glance she’d caught as her daughter and son-in-law entered the church – a quarter of an hour late, as always – had been enough to assure her that she was about to be a grandmother.
Would Elaine have told her? Had she told him, before he died? Mrs. Robinson had never inquired what her husband and her daughter spoke about in their weekly phone calls. Elaine’s communications with her had been limited to Is Dad there? Could you put him on?
Mr. Braddock finished his eulogy and the company filed out to the cemetery. She stood at the graveside, accepting condolences from the Loomises and the McQuires. Then, too soon and much too late, she found herself face to face with them.
“Hello, Elaine ... Benjamin.”
“We’re having a baby,” said Elaine unnecessarily.
Mrs. Robinson toyed briefly with the idea of shocking them both – oh, talking of babies, Elaine, did you know you have a little brother? He’ll be seven next spring – but decided that procuring a suitable six-year-old would present insurmountable practical difficulties. Besides, the rest of the funeral guests would know she was lying.
“It seemed like the right time,” said Benjamin. “We’ve just bought a house. And a new car.”
“Congratulations,” said Mrs. Robinson again, not knowing what else to say. Congratulations on what? she wondered. On becoming just like us, after all?
“I’m very sorry to hear about Mr. Robinson.”
“Thank you, Benjamin.”
“Well! I’m certainly glad you didn’t get a divorce after all.”
He was talking louder than necessary. Several heads turned. She found that she was maliciously pleased that Benjamin hadn’t lost his gift for saying the wrong thing in the wrong tone of voice.
“Thank you so much for coming,” said Mrs. Robinson, putting on a mask she had hoped she would never have to wear again. “Come and have a drink after the funeral. Why, Mrs. Carlson, how lovely to see you again!”
long ago it must be
Much to her surprise, they did come and have a drink after the funeral. She wasn’t sure whether it had been Benjamin’s decision or Elaine’s. Which of them, she wondered, hated her less? Maybe it was the older Braddocks’ doing. Yes, that had to be it.
She watched them as they walked up the driveway. They were nearly thirty and already had the look of the long-married; they were not holding hands. She wondered whether they had no need to or no desire.
It had been so long since they were inside this house, so very long. “Oh, it hasn’t changed at all!” said Elaine the minute she stepped into the front hall.
It had changed, to Mrs. Robinson’s eyes. They had redecorated three times, and more to the point, something had gone out of the house the minute that Elaine – the first and last person who had been happy here – had left on the morning of her wedding. But when she looked at the hall again, trying to see it through Elaine’s eyes, she understood what her daughter meant. The chill green marble and white walls gave the impression of a house frozen in time. Frozen. That was the word. Perhaps nothing had changed very much.
“What will you drink, Benjamin? Bourbon?”
He started, then nodded. She could see that he did not like being reminded how well she knew him, and made a mental note to remind him again.
The Carlsons arrived, and the McQuires. Mechanically, she poured drinks and offered cigarettes and accepted sympathy for what they called her loss. Mr. Robinson’s death had been, on the whole, a relief; but Benjamin was the only person in the room who knew that. Well, maybe Elaine knew. She found herself hoping that Benjamin hadn’t told her too much. Better that she think one parent a liar and a cheat than know that they both were.
Through it all she was aware of a girl – a woman, now – in a shapeless brown dress and no makeup. It was not the time of place to ask her daughter the questions she wondered about: Was it worth it? Are you happy? Did you find all that you were looking for? Will your lives be so very different from ours, in the end?
In two hours she could find not a word to say to Elaine; but she was aware of every gesture, every movement. She noticed when Elaine left the room, although her daughter seemed to be doing her utmost to avoid attention. She gulped down the rest of her drink, poured herself another, and drifted unobtrusively toward the stairway.
I have a photograph
She found Elaine in her old room. None of the decorators had been allowed to touch it. It was still white with accents of pink, and filled with the cheerful clutter of girlhood: a bulletin board with high school photographs, a few stuffed animals, a shelf of college textbooks.
“Oh, hi, Mom. I thought I’d have a look around.”
“I see. Is there anything you’d like me to send you?”
“No. I only wanted to look.” Elaine picked up a Polaroid photograph of her younger self and examined it, perhaps to avoid looking her mother in the eye. She was about fifteen in the picture, wearing a sweater that had belonged to a forgotten boyfriend.
“I think you should take the teddy bear. For the baby.”
“That would be nice. Thank you.” Elaine’s voice was flat, artificial – a voice that Mrs. Robinson recognized because she had often used it herself.
“Do you want any of the books?”
“You might want to finish your degree someday.” That was the reason the Robinsons hadn’t divorced; with no degree, and no marketable skills, she had thought it best to say nothing when her husband had announced, with a show of magnanimity, that he forgave her.
“I did finish it. I transferred to San Francisco State and graduated three years ago.”
“Oh.” She groped about for something else to say.
So much for private conversations, not that it had been much of a conversation. Benjamin could be very tiresomely insistent.
“Elaine! Oh – Mrs. Robinson. I, ah, was just checking to see if Elaine was all right. Excuse me.”
“You may stay, if you like.”
“No, I – I think I’d better be going, Mrs. Robinson.”
“Gwen, please. We’ve known each other long enough to be on first-name terms, don’t you think?”
Benjamin looked discomfited.
“And you’ve no need to leave, Benjamin. Do you mind if I smoke? No? Well, I think we are all old enough to sit down and have an adult conversation.”
“I didn’t know you wanted that,” said Elaine unexpectedly, bitterly. “I thought you were trying to pretend it didn’t happen.”
“That what didn’t happen? That I didn’t try to steal your husband?”
“Mother, please –”
“To be more precise, I believe it was you who stole him from me, but I shall let that pass.”
Young people were always so easy to shock. Evidently, Benjamin and Elaine were still young.
“It’s been the elephant in the room for long enough, hasn’t it?”
“I really think I should go, Mrs. Rob-... uh, Gwen. I’ll let you and Elaine catch up.”
“I’m not sure exactly what we have to catch up about,” said Elaine after Ben had beaten a hasty retreat.
“No more am I.” After a moment, she added, “I will make it easier for you. I am sorry.”
preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you
Elaine looked at her for a long moment, as if she were unsure what to make of this. At last she said, “Thank you” in the same flat voice.
“I did think I was acting for your good.”
“You picked a strange way of doing that.”
“You don’t believe me. Listen. Your father and I didn’t have the happiest marriage.”
“No kidding, Mom. I never would have guessed.”
“It was an empty marriage. Hollow from the start. I was trying to save you from that.”
“By pushing me into another empty marriage with someone I didn’t love.”
“You said you wanted to marry him.”
“I was wrong.”
“So was I. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” She had always found telling the truth harder than lying, less convincing; and it was suddenly very important to her that Elaine know she was telling the truth. “I looked at you and Benjamin and I thought, they’re running into each other’s arms. Running from me. And you were running, you can’t deny that. You hardly knew each other.”
“We knew enough.”
“Maybe you did. I am telling you what I saw at the time. I thought he was looking at you and seeing me, and I thought you were looking at him and seeing – escape.”
“Is that what you saw in him? Escape?”
“Something like that, yes. But not really. Not for long.”
“He told me you never really talked, except once when he tried to have a conversation. He said it didn’t end well.”
“Did he say what it was about?”
Maybe Benjamin could be trusted. “He started to pity me that night. If you want to keep a man, you must take care that he never pities you.”
Fortunately, Elaine decided not to comment on the supreme irony of her mother’s giving advice on this particular subject. “Were you very unhappy?”
“Always. Don’t tell any of the people downstairs. Are you happy?”
“Do you need anything? Money?”
“You can’t fix things with money.”
“Sometimes you can. A lot of things are easier with it than without it.” Marriage, in Mrs. Robinson’s experience, was one of those things. Divorce, oddly, wasn’t.
“We’re all right.”
“Do you need anything?”
“Time.” She looked around the room that had been unchanged for seven years, and was aware of the weight of lost time. She was nearly fifty. There would be no getting those years back.
Elaine misunderstood – or, perhaps, understood more than her mother had asked. “I’ll give it to you. I wish I had, before, but I didn’t think you wanted to see me.”
There was a great deal Mrs. Robinson wanted to say to this, but she left it at, “It would be a pleasure. I’m glad we had this talk, Elaine.”
“I am, too.”
“And I hope you’ll come again. But you don’t have to.” She forced herself to admit what she had been trying not to admit, even to herself. “Maybe all of this is coming too late.”
“Not for us,” said Elaine. She picked up the stuffed bear and smiled.