Natalie laughed. Nancy was still, at sixteen, awake before dawn on Christmas morning; Nancy still said the word "presents" with all the uninhibited glee of a four-year-old—even if the presents weren't for her, and that was one of the nice things about Nancy.
She opened the gifts in the living room at home, and her mother took the ribbons as she unwrapped the packages, one by one, and arranged them on Natalie's head. By the third she was festooned with curled-ended bows, yellow, green, and pink, and felt like the Alice in Wonderland illustration of the Dutchess' baby in its huge ruffled cap. She felt self-indulgent and silly, as if she had been sipping champagne.
From Nancy, there was a fragile silver necklace, a small shining knot caught at the end of a smooth-linked chain. She held it over her hands and remembered how, as a child, she had tried once to capture a small waterfall, in vain. Then she fastened the clasp at the back of her neck and smiled at her sister.
Aunt Helen was on a Mediterranean cruise; she had sent a package. All four of them found themselves glancing inadvertently at the top of the television. The package was too small to be another panther.
"I could save it till last," Natalie suggested.
"No, get it over with," said Nancy practically. "Save Mom and Dad's till last."
"I wonder if it's membership in the exotic-fruit-of-the-month club," said Natalie's mother, remembering a year when they had dutifully unpacked, month after month, unidentifiable squishy, semi-rotted sweet-smelling things that they had pondered and then sent down the disposal.
"Hey!" said Natalie in pleased surprise, holding it up. "Look!" It was a leather-bound medical dictionary.
Her father exhaled in startled relief. "She's mellowed," he said. "At last."
Kay Armstrong chuckled. "Like the mango?" she said. The mango, indeed, had mellowed. It had mellowed all over the inside of the box in which it had been packed, during its month as exotic fruit, and had dripped, as they carried it, noses averted, to the sink.
"No," said Natalie. "Aunt Helen's okay." She opened the cover of the book and read the inscription that her father's sister had written. She grimaced. "Well, she's semi-okay."
"Semi-Horrible Aunt Helen," said Nancy. "What did she write?"
"Just one of her pronouncements," Natalie said. "Are you sure you want to hear it?"
"No," said her father. "But read it anyway."
Natalie stood, faced them, and tried to assume Aunt Helen's pinched-mouth voice. "'It is not a field for a woman,' she read, 'but since you have chose Medicine, you have my wishes for success.'"
They all sighed. "You're right, Nancy," said Dr. Armstrong. "She's my sister, but she's semi-horrible."
"Like a semipermeable membrane," suggested Natalie's mother. "Some things get through. But not enough. Well, it's a nice dictionary."
("Well," she had said once, "it's the nicest green ceramic panther I've ever seen. I'll give it that.")
"Open Tallie's," said Nancy impatiently. "Open Tallie's."
They said it every Christmas, every birthday: open Tallie's, open Tallie's.
Tallie Chandler was Natalie's only living grandparent. The sculptor, her mother's mother, lived in a Boston apartment in the winter, and spent her summers on an island off the coast of Maine. By car and boat, she was only five hours away; but there was nothing, not even a granddaughter's graduation, that would take her from Ox Island. "She came to our wedding," Kay Armstrong had explained once, laughing, "but only because we scheduled it for the weekend before she was leaving Boston, and we had it at her apartment."
The package was heavy. Underneath its outer wrappings, the box was wrapped in off-white tissue paper that had been block-printed with an abstract design in blue and green.
"She's incredible," murmured Dr. Armstrong. "Look at that, Kay. She did that paper by hand. She should have signed it. You could frame it, if it weren't folded and wrinkled."
Kay Armstrong smiled. "When I was a little girl," she mused, remembering, "every meal we had—every meal—looked like a still life that should have a frame around it. I remember once, when I was very small, watching her arranging breakfast on four plates. We were in Italy at the time, and there was a guest at the house; I forget who. And I asked her why she was taking so long. I was hungry. She laughed, and said she was just perfecting the symmetry before she served it."
"Open it," said Nancy.
Natalie set the paper aside carefully and opened the box. She gasped.
It was a small, gleaming, perfectly cast piece of bronze sculpture. It was abstract, but there was all of nature in it. It could have been a gull at sunrise, motionless, with its head caught, bent, in the fold of a wing; it could have been the thick, unopened leaves of a deep-forest wild plant in early spring. Natalie turned it gently in her hands, and it caught the sun. In the base, Tallie had etched her signature.
A small white card had fallen from the box. Natalie picked it up and read aloud, "Natalie dearest. I have titled this piece 'Commencement,' and I created it with my namesake in mind. May it bring you joy. May all Commencements bring you joy. Tallie."
"You know," said Dr. Armstrong after a moment, "that's worth a fortune."
Natalie held the sculpture and stroked its perfect curved lines with her hand. "It would be worth a fortune," she said, "even if it weren't worth a fortune."
She set it on the coffee table so that the sun, coming through the west windows of the room, enlarged its shadow into a curved image on the polished pine.
"Now I'll open yours." She smiled at her parents.
Their gift was a small box. When Natalie removed the paper, she saw the department store label on the cardboard box, and some familiar Scotch-tape marks on the sides. "Mom," she said. "This is the same box that held the necktie I gave Dad on Father's Day!"
"Well," her mother laughed. "Don't knock it. Recycling is environmentally sound."
Inside the box was simply a thin stack of papers tied with a ribbon. On top of the tied packet lay a folded sheet of stationery. She opened it, puzzled, and read the letter that was typed on her father's office letterhead.
Our dearest Natalie,
This gift is from your mother and me, with all our love. And it is from Nancy, who persuaded us that it was what you deserved to have.
We will give you the summer—this summer of your graduation—to make the search you want to make for your own past.
The box contains all the documents we have. They are very few, and your search, I'm afraid, will be a difficult and perhaps a painful one.
Your job at my office begins, as you know, next Monday. I need your help there, and I think you need the experience there to make your choice of a profession a reasoned and meaningful one. But I have scheduled your work this summer to run only through each Thursday at noon. So you will have three and a half days of each weekend to do whatever you must.
I have opened a checking account in your name and placed enough money there to make possible whatever traveling you will find necessary. The checkbook is also in the box.
You will find, also, a set of keys. I have leased a car for your use this summer as well.
You are mature, sensitive, and responsible. We wish you success in whatever journeys you make in these next three months. But we want you to know, also, that what you find is not important to us. You are our daughter, and our friend as well. We love you for being Natalie, and that's all that matters to us.
Both of her parents had signed the letter. Natalie was crying by the time she read their signatures. She folded the paper again, took the bouquet of bright ribbons from her hair, and hugged them.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you."
Then she whispered also, "I'm sorry."
MUCH LATER, in her room alone, Natalie opened the box again. She felt curiously frightened. It was what she had wanted; now, holding the clues to her own past in her hands, she felt uncertain. Paul had said, "Why bother? The present is enough. Today is enough." And perhaps it was, after all. Tallie's sculpture sat on her desk like a symbol of an unopened tomorrow—a commencement—surrounded by the simple, unobstructed lines of today. There seemed none of yesterday's secrets in the bronze.
But she wanted the yesterdays, though she feared them. She felt as she had, years before, on her first day of school, clutching the security of her mother's firm hand, terrified, puzzled, not knowing if she would like what she found in this new world, not knowing if it would like her. Still, she had finally pushed her mother's hand away, then, and whispered, "Go on. I'm okay." As once her father had left her alone in an examining room, with things that had filled her with fear and pain.
She unfolded the first paper. It was, as the letter had been, typed by her father on his office stationery.
To Whom It May Concern:
My adopted daughter, Natalie C. Armstrong (no, thought Natalie. You have always called me "My daughter") is undertaking to investigate her natural parentage. She is doing this with the permission and understanding of myself and of her mother.
I would appreciate your cooperation in providing her with any helpful information that might be available to you.
Alden'T. Armstrong, M.D.
The next paper was obviously older. It was marred at its borders by torn places, and the edges were discolored. It was dated July 10, 1960. Two months before I was born, thought Natalie.
The letterhead was oddly familiar. Harvey, Mac-Pherson, and Lyons, Attorneys at Law, Branford, Maine. Hal MacPherson was her father's lawyer; the MacPhersons were family friends. They lived two blocks away; Natalie had dated their son a couple of times when he was home on college vacations. What had the MacPhersons to do with her birth? It was disquieting, that all these years, perhaps, the MacPhersons had known something of Natalie that she herself had not known. Not fair. Of course, the fact that she had been adopted had never been a secret. But the MacPhersons? She had always called him Uncle Hal, affectionately. And he had known more of her than she had been permitted to know? Why am I angry? Natalie thought. Is this what Dad meant when he said the search would be a painful one? She smoothed the letter with her hands and began to read.
HARVEY, MACPHERSON, AND LYONS,
ATTORNEYS AT LAW
30 Bay Street, Branford, Maine
102 Caldwell Avenue July 10, 1960
Please forgive me if I am intruding in a personal matter. But Pat, my wife, is a friend of Kay's, and she has been aware of the difficulties you and Kay have encountered in dealing with the state adoption agency.
Although you and I don't know each other well, I am certainly familiar with your reputation professionally as well as through the community services that you have contributed to Branford since you have come here. If I can be of service to you in regard to the process of adoption, I would like to offer my availability.
I don't know how familiar you are with the process of so-called private adoptions. This is a term, as you perhaps know, applied to those adoptions arranged without going through the official procedures of an agency. There are very often disadvantages to private adoptions; notably, the lack of extensive screening and matching procedures that agencies provide.