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A funny, bittersweet, and wonderfully peopled family saga from the acclaimed author of The Hills at Home, and a fitting farewell to the Hill clan. Great-aunt Lily's pile of a house in Towne, Massachusetts, is once again the gathering place for her far-flung grandnieces and grandnephews. As always, their arrival brings a high summer of comedy and drama. While Lily struggles to get her new business venture off the ground, her granddaughter Sally befriends the local math whiz; brothers and software entrepreneurs Brooks and Rollins turn heads with their supermodel dates; Cousin Julie announces her wedding to a man who may or may not be imaginary; and the family faces the possibility of a final leave-taking of Aunt Ginger, who continues to dish up crucial life wisdom-whether it's sought or not-while reclining on a lawn chair in the sun.
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Lily knelt amidst the strawberry vines reaching for the brightest fruit among the stiff crowns of leaves. The ripe ones wanted to be picked; their stems released from the runners and they subsided into her palm, several accumulating there coolly ajuggle before she dropped them into the waiting flat which she was shoving and dragging along as she moved down the lane of bushes (for there came the moment when she reached among the foliage and reached at nothing and so had to move on from the previously prime spot she had just made a nest of). Fixing on a promising new spot speckled with berries like a mother lode of rubies in the rock, she settled into the dusty dirt with a henlike declination, her shoulders rounded above a soft slump of torso and limbs, her head lowered and questing forward nose first, into the foliage as she plucked. Her left hand operated independently of the right, and she was twice productive. Sometimes a berry resisted as her fingers closed round its shoulders, and she tugged at it to no avail. Not yet, Lily would think, her easy rhythm broken, and she would pause to consider just how something knew when it was ready to be taken and how it knew, just as well, when it was not.
She swiped her brow, conveying the rose-and-honey scent that infused the skin of her hands most directly to her nose, and overwhelmed as if by a fermented draught of summer, she toppled over, sitting down hard on her bottom. She recovered herself and looked up and about with the immediate wish of having been left unobserved. Her position was not dignified; then again, she felt more comfortable resting on her haunches in the soft dirt than braced upon her knees with all her weight reliant on her toes, which were no longer quite so reliable as they’d once been.
An entire field of strawberry bushes swelled to surround her, row upon row swerving with the contours of the land. At present, there was no moderating breeze, no intervening frill of clouds, and the full strength of the midmorning sun had sapped any early freshness from the air. The edge of the woods, which bounded the field, was melting away, half-obliterated by a haze of overheated ozone. The particulars of branches and trunks, so various in their shades and shapes, looked still-wet, as if the scene was still flowing from from the brush of a watercolorist who lingered and retouched and would not be hurried that sultry morning.
Lily turned toward her house then as if to make certain that it, too, was not dissolving beneath the scorching day. The peaks and chimneys of the roofline were just visible from her present position, and she peered harder as if trying to determine whether her visiting niece, Ginger, was as yet awake and stirring within. Deciding to call her (having been debating all along when best to call and not being able to decide between catching her too soon or too late—for she felt there was no chance of getting Ginger at a good moment), Lily snapped open her cell phone and tapped a button.
“Ginger? It’s ten o’clock. I want to remind you; it’s time for your medicine.” Lily listened. “You’ve taken it all?” Lily listened. “I’m delighted if you say you’re feeling better, but don’t overdo it because you’ll want to be in good form this evening when Betsy and Sally are here. And tomorrow too, when the rest of them get there at Alden’s, and then there’ll be the parade, and after the parade, remember, we have a picnic.” Lily listened to Ginger’s reassurances about her fitness to withstand the demands of the following day. Indeed, Ginger wanted to know whether it was too late to enter a float in the parade. She had just been lying in bed thinking of how amusing it would be to make a giant gypsy moth caterpillar out of a long tube of duct-taped black plastic garbage bags supported by a dozen pair of black-tights-covered legs (everyone in the family would get to take part in this). She would give the creature its characteristic bristle by securing scrub brushes along the spine and attach big yellow eyes made from balls of yarn (she had spotted skeins of just the right shade in Lily’s knitting bag). Harvey, whom she could not quite picture being coaxed into wearing a pair of tights and consenting to huddle beneath a a sheath of garbage bags, would walk in front of the caterpillar waving a big green leafy branch beneath its nose, which would be cleverly fashioned out of a paper towel tube, like a snout. Ginger was certain they would win some sort of prize if only all of this could be organized at the last minute.
“They’ve never given out parade prizes,” Lily told Ginger. One could only imagine the arguments and hurt feelings and machinations.
“Perhaps we shall inspire them to create one,” Ginger said.
Lily turned toward the woods, noting, above the shimmer of tree tops, the thrusting pinnacle of the very cell tower which was making this conversation with her niece possible. Lily wasn’t quite sure how that business all worked, but she understood satellites were involved, and even as Ginger lay upon her bed just a few hundred feet away from the strawberry patch, the words passing between them were being sent bouncing off into the deepest reaches of space only to come bounding back again, or something like that. Last winter, when the argument had taken place over the optimum siting of a very necessary new cell tower in Towne (which had been erected in Lily’s own High Field), opponents had spoken disparagingly of raising another Babel Tower, but in Lily’s opinion, the structure radiated pure intelligibility. Since its appearance, at last bringing reliable cell service to the area, she had fallen into the habit of calling herself when she was out and about during these long summer days to leave messages and reminders on her own answering machine; Lily, it’s Lily (she called herself Lily). Order more wooden pint boxes; Lily, pick up the dry cleaning or they’ll start charging you storage; Lily, ask Mr. DeSouza what he thinks of Silver Queen corn instead of Platinum Lady. I myself am conflicted in this matter. Lily had discovered that she very much approved of any and all of these new methods of keeping in touch, whenever, with whomever, wherever, whether or not they were even there, and in recent years, almost everyone she cared about had been very much elsewhere. Words could be planted on a spool of tape or left embedded in pixels upon a screen in a way which struck Lily as being almost organic; they would sprout into speech or text in due time. Well, here she belabored the point but she knew what she meant in terms she could appreciate, and furthermore, the much-derided cell tower (which was going to be such an eyesore, its opponents charged) made her think of the Eiffel Tower; the local edifice seemed quite as intricately assembled and loftily ascendant as the original, if lacking a certain panache. But then again, the Eiffel Tower only served to let one know one’s whereabouts in a tourist’s Paris; if one kept that exclaiming silhouette always in sight above the rooftops, one could get back to one’s hotel without having to ask a native (for even if successful at framing the question, one found oneself at a further loss after attempting to act upon the ungrasped answer). The High Field Tower performed multiple marvels of function and usefulness, and not only that, the communications company had to compensate Lily for the use of her land. Another check had arrived in the mail just the other day. She had torn open the envelope bearing GlobaLink’s imprint, frowning with annoyance because she had sent them last month’s phone bill, only to discover, written below a perforated line, Pay to the Order of Lily Hill. She and Ginger had had a conversation about whether there was any nicer surprise than that of money arriving out of the blue, and aside from the unexpected appearance of a loved one upon the doorstep, they gave a monetary windfall second place, although depending upon the particular loved one who had resurfaced, in certain instances, Ginger said she would prefer the cash.
“Besides, they don’t allow last-minute parade entries,” Lily told Ginger now. “You had to have applied and submitted your idea to the design committee, so don’t run around collecting scrub brushes and balls of yarn and pairs of black tights. Besides, it’s too hot for you to be exerting yourself. Find a shady spot on the terrace and just sit out there and read your library book.” This suggestion was met without protest, and Lily rang off, reassured, or as reassured as one could ever be with Ginger, who would do as she pleased. Ginger had always done as she pleased, but these days she was being more pleasant when ignoring sensible suggestions.
Lily resumed her strawberry picking. She propped herself on her knees and toes and readdressed the thicket before her, methodically making her way down the long row, filling one flat and a second and a third, which she left where they were, too heavy and mounded with berries to be lifted by her; she could haul them along just so far and no farther before abandoning them below the entangling vines. She snapped open her cell phone and tapped a button.
“Thanh? I’m finished up here. I need you to swing by with the tractor. What are Om and Tru up to? They’re in the barn? Well, in that case, who’s looking after the farm stand? Who? Oh. Oh dear. Whose idea was that? Yes, well I’m sure she wanted to. I’m sure she said she could manage. I’m sure it was her idea. I’m just not sure it was a very good idea.”
The farm stand was known to all as the Farm Stand. Lily had tried to come up with a better name but she had not succeeded, Vegetable Kingdom being the sort of thing she and her immediate circle had thought of; also Salad Days, Lettuce Berry U, and Faith in a Seed, which last suggestion her brother Harvey had said sounded just plain odd, but he was getting back at Lily for snorting at his Lettuce-Berry idea, which he had liked well enough to filch from his wife’s list of possibilities, although Penny had only been amusing herself at Lily’s expense—for Penny admitted that she had initially felt rather blindsided when Lily suddenly upped and announced her ambitious plans to start a new business. Penny would have said that she was supposed to be the lively and enterprising old lady, whereas Lily had always been the reliable and constant presence by whom one set one’s watch and moderated one’s opinions and calculated one’s contributions. Penny had more seriously proposed The Busy Bee as a name, saying she would be confident of any commercial establishment that chose to call itself that, and certainly bees were agricultural. Nothing could flourish in nature without the timely interference of a busy bee, although she’d read somewhere that busy was a corruption of buzz, and wasn’t it funny how words and the way we speak them could change even in the course of one’s own lifetime; take a word like special, which used to signify something other than its current use. Nowadays, upon being notified something or someone was going to be special, one knew to brace oneself to be especially kind and patient and uncritical. Harvey would have to be reminded beforehand to be nice and again be spoken to about it, once they got there.
In the end, the length of barn board set aside to serve as the sign, and the size of the letter cutouts included in the commercial-grade stencil kit she had purchased, had decided matters for Lily. There was not even space for a The (The Farm Stand). However, she had regarded the venture as more of an a (a farm stand), for she had not been convinced that any of this was going to amount to anything anyway, and then, even when things had taken off, she continued to hold to that first modest line. She was, at the time, approaching her seventy-fifth year and had not felt the need to prove anything to anyone, although there were those who seemed set upon viewing her as an elderly prodigy. People did not mean to but nevertheless they managed to come across as being quite condescending, Lily thought. They had exclaimed over her as if she had just learned to tie her shoes and spell her name—or perhaps they had exclaimed because she could still reach down to tie her shoes and was, as yet, deemed capable of affixing her signature to binding legal documents. For she was now an “Inc.” Harris DesMaris, her lawyer, seemed to believe that this Inc. status would stand between Lily and the rest of the world should she ever be sued, and he had described circumstances in which others in her position had lost everything. A person who slipped on a pea pod (say) could end up owning her house. Lily might once have objected that anyone who had a problem remaining upright in the vicinity of a fallen pea pod would find all the steep staircases and uneven floorboards in her house even more troublesome, but early on in the process of setting herself up in business, she had learned not to protest that human beings, when massed into that entity known as the general public, could possibly be so stupid or grasping or wicked as the law anticipated. Harris, whose business this was, knew better than Lily—or, perhaps in this matter, he could be said to have known worse.
The stand, located down on the River Road at the end of Lily’s long driveway, was built of rough boards with an original gravel floor long since trampled away to hard-pack dirt eight years on, by this the 1999 season, which had commenced over the Memorial Day weekend, when kale and early peas and bouquets of lilac were just ready for sale. A pair of big maples loomed over the roof shading the shingles, which had weathered silver and mossy and porous in places. The outside front-corner post of the structure bore splintery dents at rear-bumper height; parking could be a problem on the weekends, in part because everyone drove around Towne in those big, oblivious vans and Jeeps. There was a notice saying Please Do Not Block the Driveway, which was often ignored or reasoned away (We’ll only be a minute). This would make Harvey roar, should he be denied free passage driving in or out (for Lily had agreed to let them share her driveway when he and Penny, just lately wed nine years earlier, had built their new house up on the ridge behind her house). Whether or not he was in a hurry to get someplace, Harvey didn’t think he needed to assess the urgency of his errands and appointments while some bounder lingered over a purchase. But the more considerate people stopped on the road when the parking lot was full and they walked the extra distance alongside the river, which ran darkly and fluently through this stretch of country, overhung by a line of moody hemlocks and larches.
The front of the stand was comprised of shutters which lifted up and were secured by hook-and-eye latches. The produce was arranged, or heaped in the case of peas and shell beans, on a single level of broad shelving set at the height of a tall person’s waist. This shelf sloped forward in an offering manner, although the incline could also be treacherous. Rounded produce, the tomatoes and apples and acorn squashes, would tumble and roll when a balance was disturbed, and their fur- ther tumble was not necessarily contained by an edging lip of ogee molding. “That always happens,” Lily would say, when this happened. There was space beneath the shelving for bushel baskets and crates that held more of whatever was presented above. Often, customers rooted through these reserve baskets and crates, motivated by some personal maggot of human nature that Lily did not fully understand. How had they come to believe something better was being deliberately kept from them? She found their suspicions aggravating, and sad as well, although on the whole, she had to say she found these people more aggravating than sad.
Everything was clearly labelled as to specimen and price per pound or unit, written with a black marking pen on the backs of cedar roof shingles of which Lily possessed the lesser, and lessening, part of a bale, up in the barn. The shingles were affixed to the walls with banged-in nails. A claw hammer and the bag of nails were kept handy at the counter for this and other purposes; bits and pieces of the rough stand structure sometimes sprang loose and needed to be pounded back into place.