• robinstratton23

1. In Love With Spring: My Novel Online

Updated: Jan 7

Welcome to the blog in which I post chapters from my novel In Love With Spring. Since I was a kid, I've loved the quintessential coming-of-age story Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. One day I got thinking, What if the sisters had lived in the 1980s instead of the 1880s? What would be the same, and what would be different? The theme of young women learning about life and love is timeless, but instead of a Civil War, ball gowns, and matching gloves, there'd be divorce, big hair, and MTV. At first I thought I would stick pretty tightly to the original plot, but to my surprise, the girls started making their own decisions (as teenagers will) and after a while. I had no choice but to just sit back and watch them grow up...


DAD LEFT THE SAME DAY that John Lennon was assassinated, and for the rest of her life, Jules would connect the two events in her mind, where they lived as a single moment that changed everything; made life harsh, sad, lonely. In the two weeks since, Mom had maintained a steadfast position of grace and composure that Jules admired but could not rise to. And didn’t even try.

Now, looking up from her book, a ponderous biography of Dostoyevsky, she announced irritably to her three sisters, “I can’t concentrate with the TV so loud.”

Mandy blew on newly-polished nails, and then admired them from a distance, her fingers fanned like the plumage of a peacock. “Turn it off, if you want.”

“No, wait,” Allie said. It was an old episode of The Brady Bunch, the one where Bobby kisses a neighborhood girl, only to discover that she may have infected him with the mumps, jeopardizing plans for a swell Brady camping trip. “Let’s see if they get to go.”

“They do,” Lisbeth told her. “Turns out to be a false alarm.” Seated at the piano, she absently picked out the melody of the Brady Bunch theme: It’s the story…of a lovely lady…then said, “If Mom gets married again, to a man who has four sons, we can be the April Bunch.”

Ten-year old Allie put down her sketch pad and scrunched up close to Mandy. “He should’ve at least waited until after Christmas.”

“What difference would that make?” Jules closed her book. “He’d still go, and then you’d whine about how he left before New Years…or Valentine’s Day…or Groundhog Day.”

“Shut up.”

“You shut up.”

“Cut it out, you guys,” Mandy said.

“Just because you’re the oldest doesn’t mean you get to boss us around,” Jules grumbled, but Mandy was right—she and Allie could say Shut up a zillion times and it wouldn’t bring Dad back. Mrs. Brady, in bed with Mr. Brady, teasingly rated his goodnight kiss a 6. A shampoo commercial came on, and Jules tried to go back to her book.

“You think he misses us?” Allie asked.

“I’m sure he does.” Lisbeth sounded wiser than her fourteen years. “You don’t have a family and then just walk out and not miss them.”

“You do if you’re an asshole.”

Shut up,” Mandy said.

“I have an idea,” Lisbeth turned to face them. “Let’s go shopping tomorrow. We’ll spend the money he sent us.”

Allie brightened. “I already know what I’m getting—a new paint set, one of those great big ones with every color in the universe.”

“I’m getting the latest edition of The Writer’s Market,” Jules said. “I need it to look up names and addresses of publishers to send my stories to.” For a moment, she indulged in her favorite fantasy, the one that featured her as the youngest writer ever to win a Pulitzer. Since the summer, she’d been working on Elliot, the story of a brilliant little boy who grows up to become a socially-inept adult—loosely based on the life of William James Sidis, the Boston prodigy who was first lionized by the media, then destroyed by their scorn.

Mandy said, “After I graduate, I’ll be going out on job interviews, and I’ll need some new clothes.”

“And I’m going to buy some new records,” Lisbeth said. “Genesis has a new one—Duke. I heard some of it on the radio. It sounded great! I might like Phil Collins’ voice even better than Peter Gabriel’s.”

“Really?” Jules was surprised by her sister’s change of allegiance. When Peter Gabriel left Genesis, she’d reacted as if there’d been a death in the family. “I thought you said they’d never be good again.”

“I was wrong.” Movement outside the window caught her eye, and from her post at the piano, she was first to see the 1975 moss-green Chevy Nova pull into the driveway. “Mom’s home!”

Mandy stood and dispatched orders: “Lissie, put on water for tea, she’ll be cold. Jules, help her with the groceries. Allie, turn off the TV,” and when Mom arrived at the door, Jules took both bags from her, and Mandy hung her coat in the closet. The baby of the family, Allie tucked her head into Mom’s embrace.

“Tea, Mom?”

“Yes, Lissie, please.” Mom kissed Allie’s hair—blonde, like Dad’s, while she and the other girls were varying shades of brunette—and asked what they’d been doing all day. Accustomed to their clamoring, she listened to all four accounts at once while shedding her boots, then went into her room to change.

DINNER WAS ALWAYS a hectic endeavor. Jules, a strict vegetarian, wouldn’t even look at fish. Mandy’s rebellion was directed at fat, and she never ate anything that required butter except on special occasions. Exorbitantly-fussy Allie maintained that everything besides chicken, French fries, hamburgers, spaghetti, and corn, was gross. Only easy-going Lisbeth was content to have whatever was most convenient.

“Dad called today,” Mom said, sipping her one calorie Tab.

“He did? What did he say? Is he coming home?” Reluctantly, Jules allowed herself to hope along with her sisters, as they all stopped eating and regarded Mom with urgent eyes.

“Girls, no…of course not.”

Jules looked away. She knew what had happened that morning, because she was coming out of the bathroom when she heard their voices, and she’d posted herself outside their door: “I can’t live here anymore,” Dad said. It isn’t that I don’t love you and the girls. I just…I’m not happy.” No response from Mom, and Jules could picture her lying in bed, trying to make sense of it. Not wanting to listen, but unable to move or even breathe, Jules wondered what had become of the perfect marriage. When had the affection between them been replaced with squabbling, sarcasm, hurtful remarks? His drinking…beer bottles hidden in the trash bin in the garage, god, so many beer bottles. And the pot smoking. How many times had she and her sisters come home from school and found him sitting on the couch, stoned? She heard Dad say, “I was hoping that leaving my job was the answer, but it wasn’t. And all the interviews I’ve gone on feel like the same shit, all the same shit. I can’t piss my life away doing something I hate.” In other words, Jules thought, he hates living here. With us. She heard Mom ask, “What do you want to do?” and when he said, “That’s the problem, I have no idea,” she didn’t feel sorry for him. Why was he so unhappy? Why was he so obsessed with what he didn’t have, instead of being grateful for what he did?

“He sent his love,” Mom went on. “He said he’ll miss you all on Christmas day.”

“Yeah, right,” Jules said. “What about every other day?”

Lisbeth asked, “Where is he?”

“San Francisco. He said he couldn’t take another New England winter.”

“Is he going to live there?”

“He’s not sure.”

With her fork, Allie pushed her string beans away from the rest of her meal. String beans were gross. “What’s he doing?”

“Going through a mid-life crisis,” Jules said. “Probably grew a beard and bought a motorcycle. A total cliché.”

“Looking for work,” Mom said. “He’s gotten a couple of job offers, but he hasn’t accepted anything yet. He wants to be sure he likes it out there before he commits to anything. Everyone is looking for engineers, so the job market is great. He’s been looking in a place called, um…Silicon Valley?”

Jules thought it sounded like a place full of women with silicone breast implants. Am I the only one who’s mad? Allie looked like she was about to cry, and Mandy’s face was listless as she picked at her meatloaf with obvious disinterest.

But Lisbeth nodded charitably. “Dad’ll never have trouble getting a job. He’s got charisma.”

“Charisma,” Mom affirmed ruefully.

“Lot of good that does us,” Jules said.

“Don’t talk about him like that,” Allie objected.

“Like what?”

“Like how you’re talking about him.”

“All I said was—”

“Girls.” Mom sounded weary. “Dad wasn’t happy here. He’ll always love us. But he—”

“We know, Mom,” Lisbeth said. “We just miss him. And we want what’s best for him. Remember the day he left his job? How psyched he was?”

“He came home shouting I quit! I quit!” Jules knew the reminder was unnecessary; she knew they all remembered the scene—Dad’s glowing face, his wild gestures, the light in his eyes which, in retrospect, had been a little unnerving.

“I remember how shocked I was that he took the company’s paper shredder.” Mom’s laugh was almost real. “I said, ‘What are we going to do with a paper shredder?’ and he said he didn’t know, he just grabbed it.” It still sat where he’d put it, taking up space on her sewing table.

Jules peeled a hard-boiled egg; her source of protein since she didn’t eat meat. “It’s like, the last thing we need.”

Mom shot her an impatient glance. “Anyway. My boss’s son stopped by the office today. He had this thing called a Sony Walkman. They’re the latest craze—a cassette player the size of a wallet, with headphones. I’d love to have one for work. I could listen to music as loud as I want and not bother anyone.” Now her laugh was genuine; rueful. “And not have anyone bother me. Those busybodies keep trying to set me up. With their son, their brother, their veterinarian.”

Jules shook her head. As if she’s ready to date again! As if she’ll ever love anyone but Dad.

AFTER DINNER, MANDY STARTED filling up the sink while her sisters brought dishes into the kitchen. Jules stood by wielding a towel, and Mom lingered, watching them with an air of sadness that Jules found unbearable. “Mom, go into the living room and relax. Put on the TV. We’ll finish up in here.”


As soon as she heard the TV come on, Jules said, “I was thinking,” and at the same time Lisbeth said, “We should buy Mom a Sony Walkman for Christmas!”

“She’ll love it!” Mandy pulled on rubber gloves so she wouldn’t get dishwater hands. “I already have a couple of dresses that will be okay for job interviews.”

“The library has The Writer’s Market,” Jules said. “I can look at it there.”

“And I can tape record the songs when they come on the radio,” Lisbeth said. “I can even call WBCN and request them.”

“Or rent the records from the library.”

“Oh yes, I can do that.”

Allie sighed; too young to be unselfish like her sisters, too young to be able to do anything but mutter, “Being poor sucks!”

ON CHRISTMAS MORNING, Jules spent a few minutes luxuriating in the peace of her mute alarm clock. She allowed herself the poignant memory of Christmases past: of the family gathered around the tree, tearing open presents, trying on new clothes, playing with new games, flipping through new books. If only they’d known last Christmas that it would never be like that again! Unwillingly, she recalled the look on Mom’s face as Dad set his suitcase near the door. Allie’s tears. Her own unrestrained anger. Running out of the house, she’d missed the final Goodbye.

“Merry Christmas, Jules,” came Mandy’s voice from the other bed.

“Merry Christmas.”

They lay on their backs without moving. Jules knew that she would think of this moment every single Christmas for the rest of her life; that every single Christmas from now on would be tainted.

“We have to be okay,” Mandy said, “for Mom and the girls.”

“I know.”

“It’ll get a lot easier after this.”

“I know.”

“Just give it time.”

“I know, I know!” Irritated by the unexpected lecture, Jules snapped back the covers and sat up. Mandy watched solemnly, her dark thick hair framing her face on the pillow.

“Merry Christmas.” Allie, in her favorite flannel nightie with the pink roses around the neck, stood in the doorway gazing forlornly at Mandy.

“Merry Christmas, Sweetie, come here.” Mandy lifted her covers and Allie dove in, giggling.

“Ho ho ho!” Lisbeth joined them. Jules felt some of her pain slide away at the sight of her sisters. She got out of bed and hugged Lissie. “Ho ho ho, yourself!”

After quick stops in the bathroom, they all went into the living room. Mom’s present and card had been placed at the base of the tree the night before, and while the girls slept, a few more packages had appeared. Jules stooped to inspect one that looked like a book, fingering the tag that said To Jules! with a pleasure that was still childlike. Allie asked if she could open hers right away, but Mandy suggested she go wake Mom. Lisbeth went to make coffee. Jules plugged in the tree lights.

“Merry Christmas!” Mom was led out by a beaming Allie.

“Merry Christmas, Mom!” Mandy handed her the package. “From all of us.”

“We pooled our money,” Allie explained with a slight tinge of boastfulness.

Mom dropped into the chair that used to be Dad’s. “Girls, you shouldn’t have! That money was supposed to be for—”

“Open it,” Jules said.

“Okay.” When Mom tore away the wrapping paper, her eyes opened wide. “A Walkman!”

Sensible Mandy had thought to buy batteries, which were promptly installed, and Lisbeth was standing by with Rubber Soul. Mom put on the headphones, inserted the tape, and pressed Play, and the girls laughed as she sang “Mee-shell, ma bell, these are words that go together well” with off-key gusto.

LATER THAT AFTERNOON, Mom called Dad to tell him what their thoughtful daughters had done, and then one by one she put the girls on, Mandy first. Jules, standing by, listened with sympathy to Mandy’s polite responses—Same to you…good…yes, she loved it…how are you? Uh huh…uh huh—and wondered if he’d have the same conversation with all of them. She was looking forward to fulfilling her obligation then getting off quickly; the book Mom had given her was Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind by Donald Johanson, and she couldn’t wait to start it.

But to her dismay, when Mandy handed her the phone and she grudgingly inquired how he was, his reply was brutally honest: “I’m sitting here all alone. It’s Christmas and it’s hot and…I’m lonely and I’m drinking…and I’m getting drunk and…and I miss being there with everyone. I miss you…I miss us, I miss my family.”

Jules looked at her watch: 4:15. That meant it was 1:15 where he was. For the first time since he left, she felt sorry for him. She wanted to say, Dad, I hope you find what you’re looking for. But the truth was, she didn’t hope that; she didn’t want his new life to be happier than his old life. So what she said was, “We miss you too, Dad. It’s weird that you’re not here. But were okay, and you’ll be okay too.” Handing the phone to an eager Lisbeth, she hoped the pity would fade soon. Being mad at him was so much easier.

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