I picked up the phone and said hello really quietly, assuming it would be some giggly friend of The Girls, but was surprised to hear a somewhat familiar-sounding voice on the other end: deep, rich, and male.
Sunday, September 2, 2012
“Oh, my God,” the voice said. “Is this my Ashley Ellen?” The call was for me.
“This is Ashley,” I said cautiously. No one had called me by my full name since—well, since Dad died. “Who’s calling?”
“It’s me, Harry.”
“Your Uncle Harry. You know, Harry, your Godfather.”
Now, a bell was ringing. One of those gigantic church bells, like the Liberty Bell, like a gong going off in my head. I called him uncle, but he wasn’t really my uncle. He was my mom and dad’s best friend, when I was a little girl. I hadn’t realized, at the time, that he was also my godfather. I just remembered him as part of the scenery. I started stuttering like an idiot.
“Harry...um…Godfather...I—I remember you...I wondered what happened to you...I haven’t seen you since my mom....” Suddenly, I was flooded with memories. Playing “Alley-Oop” with him when I was little, being tossed through the air upside down. Walking holding hands between him and my dad, shouting “ONETWOFREESWING!” Sitting with him at my mother’s funeral. Being mad at my dad when he didn’t invite Harry to his and Sylvia’s wedding. Missing him, barely glimpsing him at my dad’s funeral. I said, “What happened to you?”
“You poor doll,” Harry said, his voice sounding like he was remembering, too. “Well, a couple of things happened to me. One: your stepmom kind of took a dislike to me. I think because of two: well, let’s just say you could call me Harry Godmother as well.”
“Ummm,” I said as he laughed heartily. “Okay,” I mean, what are you supposed to say to something like that, when you’re seventeen and talking to a grownup (who’s practically a stranger now) and raised to be polite? But Harry did all the talking, fortunately. He started telling me about my mom, and how great she was, and how my voice sounded just like hers. It felt so good to be able to talk with someone about something that felt normal! I had never really even been allowed to even mention my mom in this house. It will just upset your father, Sylvia had insisted at first; then it became simply another rule to follow. “Harry…,” I just had to ask, “Why haven’t you called me before?”
“Honey, I call maybe once a month,” he said, “and I have been for years. They keep saying they’ll give you the message. I thought it was you not wanting to talk to me.” This news stunned me. I had no idea. How many other friends were out there, trying to connect with me? I pulled a pair of skinny jeans out of the dryer. Their name: Guess?
Just then, the line clicked and I heard an extra-breathy version of Debra’s voice. “Is it for me?”
I clipped my voice to sound like Donna’s, hoping like heck she’d buy it, so I could continue my conversation. “No.”
“Well, I’m expecting a call,” Debra said, knowing it was me, and dropping her sexy voice and changing to her big-sister show-off voice. “From my prom date.” She clicked off.
“Prom date?” Harry said. “Oh, please. Are you going?”
I couldn’t help but snort. Not that I hadn’t thought about going, but for God’s sake, what would I wear? It’s not like Sylvia would ever take me shopping. I was thinking about sewing two or three of Debra and Donna’s old gowns from the Goodwill box together, but when would I find the time for that? Harry listened while I said all this stuff. Of course, I said it like I don’t care. Totally a defense mechanism. Then he asked me how I got on with The Girls. I held back a snort, this time, and then took a breath, and rather than going into the scene with the underwear, just told him there was a little sibling rivalry. But now it was his turn to snort.
“OH, you are TOO KIND!”
“Well, I try to be understanding,” I said, a little defensively; I really wanted to make a good impression on him. The truth is, I always try to make a good impression on everyone. I had never, ever, told anyone, at that time, what really went on at home or how I felt about my stepfamily. On the outside, it looked like we all got along just fine. So I said, very philosophically, “They both have some serious self-esteem issues, and tend to work them out on me.” But Harry would have none of it.
“You can’t be serious. Are you defending them?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I knew what he meant.
“I mean, they are awful to you. I know that. I hear what goes on when I call. Sometimes they put the phone down and walk away, and I’m hanging there, helpless to do anything while they pick at you. Doesn’t that get to you?”
I was not comfortable with the way this conversation was going. I would have much prefered to talk about my mom. “Well, I try and stay above it,” I explained. Turns out, that’s not the kind of person Harry is.