It’s July 26, 1965, St. Anne’s feast day, so naturally twelve-year-old Claire Malloy and her mother are at Mass, giving praise to St. Anne for single-handedly creating the whole next generation of their family. Claire’s mother, her two sisters, and Claire’s father’s sister all made infinite intercessions to St. Anne as the Patron Saint of Conception since none of them could get pregnant, for years, after they were married. Eventually, St. Anne granted their wishes. In three out of four cases, one child was given. Claire’s parents had to wait the longest—ten long years. Her mother says saints work on their own timetable, not yours, so Claire had better get used to it.
They’re barely home and out of their church clothes when the doorbell rings. Claire’s Aunt Alice appears, in all her splendor and affectation. She and Claire’s father don’t get along. So a visit is unusual.
“Paul and I have made a momentous decision about Christmas and birthday presents for the girls,” Alice announces, bursting into their apartment, french inhaling her cigarette. Alice wears her mink stole, even though it’s too warm for it. Claire thinks she looks beautiful in her turquoise, cap-sleeved silk dress.
They hadn’t expected company. Claire wishes her mother had on her grey-blue suit, the one she made for Easter using the latest Vogue pattern, instead of her faded housedress. The jacket alone had 18 pattern pieces, with inches of lace flowing out from the cuffs.
Alice’s high-heel sandals snap across the kitchen floor, temporarily denting the cushy vinyl squares Claire’s mother finished laying last week. Claire’s mother wears flat, comfortable shoes that tie. Alice gets pedicures. Claire’s mother has bunions. Claire can’t stop staring at Aunt Alice, wishing she were old enough to smoke.
Alice gesticulates, her cigarette ash dangerously long, “The girls should exchange meaningful gifts which will last a lifetime befitting the kind of people we’ve become.”
We’ve become? Claire’s father was the only one in the family with a college degree; but when her Uncle Paul bought telephone stocks, Paul and Alice Cavanaugh became the ultimate in lace-curtain, split-level Irish. While the Malloys, in their three-family Cambridge house—always in need of paint—were made to feel low-class. Especially after Claire’s father married her Italian mother. Claire’s father says even before Uncle Paul and the stocks, even in the Cambridge slums where they grew up, Alice had been a complete phony.
“What did you have in mind?” Claire’s mother hands Alice an ashtray.
Alice puts her cigarette out and rests her hands on Claire’s shoulders. The mink’s eyes stare at her. “You do know, Claire, that you and my Ali are the last Malloys. Even though Ali’s last name is Cavanaugh because I had to take Paul’s name, when we married.” She talks like they don’t understand how marriage names work. That’s typical of Aunt Alice.
Alice sobs a little. “Our line dies out with you and Ali, since there are no Malloy males in your generation. That’s why you must cherish each other. Promise me you always will.” Claire and her mother glance at each other. Her mother shrugs. They hardly associate with the Cavanaughs, and Claire doesn’t really know her cousin Ali. It’s times like these that Claire’s father, though cruel, seems correct when he calls his sister “Alice-in-Wonderland.”
Alice leans toward Claire, “While you can’t pass on the Malloy name, there is something you can give your children.” Alice ushers them into their own living room, lighting another cigarette. “I’ve chosen it.” She removes a small sterling silver knife from her purse and passes it to Claire’s mother who nervously holds it flat in her hands.
“Well, let her see it,” Alice swishes a finger in Claire’s direction.
Ali is closest in age to Claire and her only Irish cousin. Getting to know her would be lovely. But she honestly can’t see how a knife can help them be friends.
“It’s Old Lace,” Alice says, exhaling smoke and gazing at the knife with devotion one usually reserves for the consecrated host raised high at Mass. “Claire, since you and Ali are the last two Malloys, I think you should have the same silver pattern, don’t you?”
Aunt Alice takes Claire’s confused silence as agreement. She points the short knife and a long red fingernail at Claire’s mother. “We can give them silver for Christmas, birthdays and on other important occasions.” Alice aims the knife in Claire’s direction. “Aren’t you involved in a piano recital next month? You could have this very knife as your recital present.”
Claire knows she should look excited though she doesn’t care about getting a present. Then she realizes that Ali will have to attend her recital to give her the knife. They’ve never been to a public function together. Perhaps there might even be a little party afterward. Claire is elated.
“Ali graduated from the eighth grade last month and turned fourteen. We had one big party for her birthday and graduation. Just think, you could go into town and buy her a soup spoon or a dinner fork as a present,” Alice says in one breath.
Claire thinks Aunt Alice sounds like she’s memorized everything she’s saying. But why? It’s not as if she or her mother would ever have the courage to interrupt her. Claire would love to have gone to Ali’s graduation. They did send Ali a card and some handkerchiefs her mother had intricately embroidered, but received no party invitation. There must have been a great do after the ceremony, what with all those Cavanaugh cousins.
“Other occasions will crop up,” Alice persists. “You can buy her pieces then too. I’m sure we’ll exchange three or more a year. Just imagine all the silver they’ll have by the time they graduate from college.”
Claire’s mother agrees they’ll buy Ali a dinner fork within the week. Since Ali’s older than Claire, Alice says she should receive larger pieces. Teaspoons and butter knives are best for Claire. “Oh God,” Claire’s mother sighs, flopping down on the sofa, “your father will kill me for agreeing to this. Do you have any idea what silver costs?”
Monday morning, Claire and her mother dress up in their church (but not Easter) clothes and go to Jordan’s to buy silver. Claire’s mother promises hot fudge sundaes after they buy the fork.
“Old Lace is a very traditional pattern,” says Della, the woman behind the silver counter. “It’s Towle, you know.” She explains, in awed tones that the company has been in existence since 1690. Della sets out an entire Old Lace place setting on the counter. There are six different utensils! When Claire’s mother asks the prices, they discover dinner forks and soup spoons are significantly more expensive than butter knives and teaspoons.
“That sneak!” Claire’s mother murmurs while Della gets a phone call. “Alice still finds a way to have us to spend more on Ali than she’ll spend on you!”
Della obviously heard her because she had a little lecture prepared when she came back. “You mustn’t worry about the price. Towle is the most expensive brand of silver, but its value will only increase with time. And there are three price ranges. Old Lace is Level One, which makes it the least costly.” She hands them a Towle brochure and reads part of the Old Lace description aloud: “It’s ‘delicate and classic,’” Della smiles as she picks up a fork. They are required to examine the “dainty lace border” and the “exquisitely understated design”. Despite the fancy words, Old Lace looks pretty dull to Claire in comparison to the other silver patterns.
Claire’s mother has to pull out her emergency twenty to have enough money to pay for Ali’s Old Lace dinner fork. They don’t even bother with the ice cream sundaes because they’re both so exhausted. Plus, it saves a little money.
Claire and Ali begin exchanging silver, but nothing else happens. They don’t visit or shop together. Ali doesn’t go to Claire’s piano recital or her birthday party. Eventually, Claire’s father explodes at his sister. Claire never knows what their fights are about, but she hears a lot of swearing before her mother ushers her outside.
So rather than dropping off the silver at each other’s houses, pretending to be surprised, and getting to know each other, the last two Malloys send their silver utensils in the mail even though they live a few miles apart. All that changes is they learn to write bizarre thank you notes. Because how much can you really say about a spoon? Especially to a cousin you don’t know well.
Thank you so much for the teaspoon, which you kindly sent me for Christmas. It looks good next to the other teaspoon and the butter knife you’ve given me. Of course, I keep them wrapped most of the time, but sometimes I like to take them all out and line them up.
Happy New Year!
Ali seems more excited about the silver than Claire does. Claire still hopes she may want to visit, sometime, to talk about their silver. A typical thank you note from Ali reads:
It was with such surprise that I opened your lovely present under the tree this morning and discovered that it was a dinner knife. It was exactly what I was hoping for! How did you know?
You’re the best.
Claire wishes Ali really did think she was the best, but realizes that Ali’s writing is just more flowery and not as honest as her own. “With such surprise?” Claire doesn’t think so. Claire’s father laughs at the letters, but more at Ali’s than Claire’s, and says that Ali probably doesn’t even compose her’s, but copies out whatever his BS-artist sister tells her to write.
After a while, Claire becomes quite keen on the Towle pamphlets. They feature Spanish Provincial, Old Master, and the new El Grande, which is said to “feel weighty in the hand.” Soon, she finds herself investigating Level Three silver patterns. At Jordan’s, sometimes Della sets out her current favorite pattern with Royal Albert china and Waterford glasses to create, what she calls, a “full showing” of the silver.
“Look at how elegant Old Master looks with that gold-rimmed Royal Albert,” Claire proclaims one summer morning, almost overcome with the experience. Elegant has become one of Claire’s favorite words. If only Ali would shop with her to share in the fun. Some days, Claire actually feels closer to Ali because of their silver exchange. She wonders if Ali feels the same.
When Claire declares her absolute passion for El Grande, Della admits that it’s probably too much for someone like Claire. Stroking Claire’s cheek, Della looks at her sadly. “My sweet girl, you only use El Grande if you marry a very rich man and live in a mansion. You’d need every public window to be covered in heavy draperies made of raw silk and velvet. Your furniture would have to be solid mahogany, and all of your paintings would be oils—originals, of course. Even then, you could only use this silver on very formal occasions.” Claire reluctantly agrees she’s better off with Old Lace, even though it’s a bit boring and hardly worth being made of silver.
“Showings” are what one has when you’re collecting silver. Aunt Alice will present a showing for Ali on New Year’s. She even sends invitations. Claire revives her hope that the last two Malloys, alone in a room with their silver, could still learn to adore each other.
But when they get to Ali’s house, Claire is disappointed that the Cavanaugh family has been invited. She also wasn’t expecting Ali’s showing to be so elaborate—they’d only given her a few pieces. But Aunt Alice put an entire place setting and four tablespoons—the single most expensive piece next to a cake server—in Ali’s Christmas stocking.
Ali now has two complete place settings that look amazing on the green linen tablecloth with, what Aunt Alice explains, “My Lenox Eternal-Christmas, genuine, gold-rimmed bone china with gold and red holly berries around the edges.” Four tablespoons surround an enormous Eternal-Christmas bowl.
The showing is beautiful, but it makes Claire feel like she’s wearing one of her mother’s old housedresses instead of her maroon velvet dress her mother made her for Christmas. She knows it’s wrong to be jealous. She should be happy they’re finally with Ali at all.
“Your showing is lovely, Ali,” Claire says, trying to sound cheery.
“Thanks.” Ali smiles back, then she looks away.
“I wish you could come silver shopping with us sometime because the woman at Jordan’s can tell you so much about the implications of having different types of silver.”
“Implications?” Ali gazes at Claire oddly.
Claire realizes she should have just complimented Ali’s outfit, even though her plaid kilt reminds Claire of a school uniform.
“Della, at Jordan’s, says, if we collect certain ornate Level Three patterns, we’d have to live in mansions with special drapes and oil paintings when we grow up.” Claire tries to laugh, but Ali stares at her like she doesn’t understand.
“What does it matter, Claire? We’ve already chosen our silver pattern.”
Claire tries to explain that part of the excitement of shopping is looking at the brochures before you go, then having Della show you all the silver you want, but Ali cuts her off. “My mother buys the silver. I don’t want to go shopping with her.” Ali rushes off to answer the door, even though nobody’s there. Claire’s father is watching her and takes this as a cue to get their coats.
* * *
Aunt Alice insists, for months, that Claire must have a showing. It takes some time and a number of exchanges of butter knives and teaspoons for Claire’s mother to get her a full six-piece setting. Finally, by her fifteenth birthday she has one. Her mother asks Alice and the family over for dinner. They don’t send invitations.
Claire and her mother erect a rickety card table in the center of the living room. They cover it with a white cloth Claire thinks is left-over drapery lining. Claire’s mother uses her wedding china, which isn’t name brand, though because it never leaves the china cabinet, it is in perfect condition. She lays out Claire’s painstakingly collected place setting, but the table looks sad with just a dinner plate, bread plate, and cup and saucer, so Claire’s mother adds the matching sugar bowl, creamer, gravy boat, and a glass.
“Oh!” exclaims Aunt Alice, rushing to the table as if she’d never seen the Old Lace pattern, or even a table setting before. “Isn’t it divine?” If she thinks this is divine, Claire muses, Alice would probably faint if she saw El Grande. “It’s so good, Claire, that you finally have a place setting. It’s an accomplishment to be proud of.” She pushes Ali into the living room, whispering to her. Ali gives Claire a little hug. “It’s an accomplishment, don’t you think?” she echoes.
Aunt Alice clutches Ali and Claire, almost pushing them against each other. Her eyes are teary. “You look beautiful, Claire,” she says. Her voice sounds sincere, quite different from the airy tone she usually has. Alice squeezes them hard, then she starts to cry actual tears. “I’ve finally gotten you girls, the last two Malloys, together.”
Alice grasps Ali’s shoulders and looks intently at her. Then she does the same with Claire. She stops to blow her nose with one of the handkerchiefs Claire’s mother embroidered for her. Claire never imagined Alice used them. “Look at you two. You complement each other perfectly. Ali, blonde like me—Claire, mahogany brown hair. Ali, with your tan complexion and Claire, with your pure white Irish skin, like mine. You’d never know your mother was Italian.” Aunt Alice doesn’t miss a chance to note Claire’s mother isn’t Irish. Ali tries to say something, but Alice makes her hold hands with Claire. “Claire is the last person left with the Malloy name, as I’ve told you, Ali, because I had to give mine up when I married your father. Claire will lose hers, when she marries. And that will be it. The end of the line.”
Claire thinks it’s finally going to happen. She and Ali will become friends. It’s worth all the trading up of butter knives for dinner forks. She feels ecstatic but Ali looks like she smells something awful and glares at her mother. Aunt Alice is oblivious. “No name for either of you to pass on to your children, but you’ll both pass on the same silver pattern. Did you know I wanted to get it all monogrammed with an M for Malloy, as if you’d both inherited it? But Paul said I couldn’t since our name doesn’t begin with M.” Ali squirms and tries to pull her hand away, but Aunt Alice has them tightly gripped. “That’s why I chose Old Lace,” she sobs again, “because there’s room for an elaborate monogram. Even though it’s blank, you both know what should be there.”
Claire can’t believe silver could mean this much, especially to Aunt Alice. It’s an entire family tree to her, a recovery of their Malloy heritage. Despite Ali’s expression, Claire throws her arms around her. “We will be the last two Malloys together, for the rest of our lives.” Ali becomes rigid and pushes Claire away. “Really, mother,” Ali runs from the room.
They have dinner in the dining room, an unusual occurrence for Claire’s family. Claire’s parents prefer to eat in the kitchen as the dining room is the hottest room in the house. After Claire’s mother places her delicious stuffed haddock on their plates, Claire serves the vegetables. Uncle Paul is in the middle of a conversation with her father.
“The long and short of it is poor old Alice has been worried sick since we had that silly ‘showing’ for Ali. My nephew laughed at Claire’s comment about how she and Ali have ‘Malloy wrists’.”
“I don’t think this is the right moment, Paul,” Claire’s father whispers.
Alice makes a noise like a muffled scream. “Leave it, Paul. Please!” She gets all teary again. “Can’t you just let me have something that’s mine? You know how I need Claire.”
Funny, Claire never knew this.
They eat for a while in silence. A knock disrupts the tension. It’s their neighbor, Mr. Sullivan, with his daughter, Shirley. Claire and Shirley have just recently become friends, though Shirley lives only a few houses away. “Happy birthday, Claire,” Shirley says. They have tickets for Thriller City, a funky movie theater where the lobby is lit with black lights, which makes the popcorn glow in the dark.
“Thanks, Shirley. Let’s go for the whole afternoon. We can watch like three movies.” At Thriller City the ushers are cool and never kick anyone out when the theaters aren’t full.
Mr. Sullivan sees Claire’s birthday cake. “Hey, are we in time for cake?”
“I’m sorry, we’re having a private party.” Claire knows she shouldn’t brag. Despite Ali pulling away from her, she feels very high-class “My cousin is here. You know we’re the last two Malloys.”
“The last two Malloys to do what?” he asks.
Claire wants to get back to dinner and find out more about how Aunt Alice needs her, but she knows it would be impolite not to explain. “Our family is small, there are no boys on the Malloy side. It’s just my cousin, Ali, and me. We give each other silver, and now I have a full place setting. We’re always going to be close because the Malloy line dies out with us. St. Anne helped both of our mothers to have us. So we have to love and cherish each other.”
Mr. Sullivan chuckles, like he’s laughing at Claire. “Oh, is the snooty one here, and the husband who fires blanks? The daughter too?” Claire closes the screen door, afraid Mr. Sullivan’s been drinking and the others will hear him.
Mr. Sullivan leans over and speaks softly. “Maybe St. Anne sent you, but your cousin? She’s a different story, honey. She appeared one day, like magic. It’s what rich people do. They don’t pray to any saints. Didn’t they tell you that your little blonde cousin was adopted? Bought, like everything else those stuck-up relations of yours have. So rightly speaking, she’s not your cousin at all, let alone one of the last two Malloys. But you go back and enjoy your posh party with your posh relatives and their posh mind games. Maybe later in the week you and Shirley can go to Thriller City. Let my boys know and someone will be happy to buy the birthday girl one of those large, glowing green drinks with sparkles. I’m sure they’d take you out for pizza after.”
Adopted? Bought? No! Claire wants to scream at Mr. Sullivan. But he and Shirley are already halfway to the street. Then she realizes she doesn’t care if it’s true. She’ll love Ali just as much, whether they’re flesh and blood relatives or not. Surely Ali doesn’t know. Claire thinks that maybe Aunt Alice can’t even be aware of it because she’s convinced that Ali and Claire are the last two Malloys.
Then Claire suddenly understands that Aunt Alice would have been the first to know whether or not she had a baby. But why go on about the silver and the monogramming and the end of the Malloy line?
Claire walks slowly into the dining room, back into Wonderland. They’re talking about Ali’s water-skiing lessons. Everyone is too composed. It’s clear they all know about Ali’s adoption. Claire can see Ali won’t become close to her, whether they’re blood relatives or not, even if they both have the same silver. They aren’t the end of the line. She is, just Claire. She’s the last Malloy.
Aunt Alice, Ali, and Uncle Paul leave quickly after Mr. Sullivan’s appearance, not even staying for coffee and Claire’s birthday cake.
“That Sullivan! We have to discuss this now that Claire’s been told.” Claire’s mother insists.
Tears roll down Claire’s face. “Does Ali know?” she asks, just to be sure.
Claire’s father sighs, “Of course she knows. Christ, everyone in the world knows. That damn sister of mine.”
Claire’s mother takes her hand. “I’ve never hidden anything but this from you. Alice asked me to keep Ali’s adoption a secret when I became pregnant with you. She wasn’t bothered if people knew about Ali until then.” Claire’s mother shakes her head. “Poor Alice, she never seems to know what actually matters in life.” Claire’s mother gives her father a look. “Help me.”
He shakes his head.
“Can you imagine how it was for Alice after Paul and the Cavanaugh family got rich? Alice was suddenly part of a world she knew nothing about. She felt alone and kind of lost.”
“Why defend her?” Claire screams. “She treats you like crap. You should hate her, like Dad does.”
Claire’s mother continues. “All I’m saying is Alice is unhappy. Her ‘last two Malloys’ thing is kind of crazy, she was probably trying to stake out a territory for herself, separate from Paul and the Cavanaughs.”
“So, you’ve lied to me for fifteen years? Ali isn’t a Malloy and—”
Her mother interrupts. “You’re right, Ali isn’t. But Alice is. And you are. Yourfather is too, though he won’t give his sister the time of day.” Her mother’s lips tremble. “I can still hear her pleading with me. It got much worse after you were born.”
Claire’s father picks up the newspaper and noisily turns a page.
Even though it’s hot, Claire feels shivery. “Why does it matter so much what I think?”
Claire’s mother looks at her father and takes a deep breath. “Honey, you understand the importance of faith and belief, right?”
“You know I do, even when the saints let me down.”
“That’s often what miracles are, Claire. Maybe it’s believers that make them true, or make them seem true. Beliefs change people, they change the world.” She shreds a birthday napkin in her lap.
“No!” Claire shouts. “A miracle is true. And beliefs are not lies or tricks!”
“I believe St. Anne helped me get pregnant. Your father and I nearly gave up hope. We believe you are a miracle.” She smiles.
Claire’s father’s expression is uncharacteristically gentle. “Even if Ali were your flesh and blood, you must see the two of you aren’t likely to become close. You don’t develop friendships because you want them. If you learn anything tonight from poor old Alice-in-Wonderland, with her silly unmonogrammed silver, I hope that you learn that.”
Claire’s mother goes to the sink and splashes cold water on her face. Her eyes are red and swollen when she brings Claire a cool cloth. Her father puts the kettle on for instant coffee and asks for cake. Claire thinks what used to be unthinkable—perhaps her father is right about his Alice-in-Wonderland sister.
Claire gets up and walks to her room. She comes back with a Towle brochure. Her mother cuts three small slices of cake, decorated with such care, because Alice’s family was going to be there. Claire holds up the brochure. “If I don’t have a cousin who’s my friend, and if I’m going to have silver, then I want a more elegant pattern,” she states with as much composure as she can muster. “One that’s very different from Aunt Alice’s choice.”
“What’s she on about?” her father asks her mother.
Claire grips the Towle booklet hard. “The pattern I want is called Debussy. The accent is on the last syllable—Della told me that.” Her voice grows firm as she reads from the pamphlet. “Debussy combines old world detail with new world lightness. It is elegant enough for the most formal occasions, but inviting enough for casual dining.” She sits down and looks at both of her parents. “Old Lace is plain and dull. I want my choice of silver, not one I share with a deluded aunt and a fake cousin.”
“You know who she’s starting to sound like?” her father asks her mother.
“One more thing,” Claire clears her throat. “Debussy is Level Three. It costs a little more. But when you see the pictures, I think you’ll agree it’s worth it.”
“We’ll discuss your silver pattern over the weekend. But you know, Claire—” Claire’s mother gives her a strange smile. “Your dad’s right. You do sound like your Aunt Alice. And you look like her too.”
Claire’s father shakes his head, “You’re trying too hard, like Alice always does.”
“Well,” Claire holds her head up, “why shouldn’t I look like Alice? Except for you dad, she and I are, after all, the last two Malloys.”