Object Lessons Online - Anna Quindlen


EVER AFTER, WHENEVER SHE SMELLED the peculiar odor of new construction, of pine planking and plastic plumbingpipes, she would think of that summer, think of it as the time of changes. She would never be an imprecise thinker, Maggie Scanlan; she would always see the trees as well as the forest. It would have been most like her to think of that summer as the summer her grandfather had the stroke, or the summer her mother learned to drive, or the summer Helen moved away, or the summer she and Debbie and Bruce and Richard became so beguiled by danger in the broad fields behind Maggie’s down-at-heel old house, or the summer she and Debbie stopped being friends.

All those things would be in her mind when she remembered that time later on. But they always came together, making her think of that summer as a time apart, a time which could never be forgotten but was terrible to remember: the time when her whole life changed, and when she changed, too. When she thought of herself and of her family, and of the town in which they lived, she thought of them torn in two—as they were before and as they were afterward, as though there had been a great rift in the earth of their existence, separating one piece of ground from the other. Her grandfather Scanlan always referred to life on earth and the life to come as here and hereafter: “You’ve got your here, and you’ve got your hereafter, little girl,” he had said to her more than once. “Take care of the first, and the second will take care of itself.” Sometimes Maggie remembered those words when she remembered that summer. Afterward, all the rest of her life would seem to her a hereafter. Here and hereafter, and in between was that summer, the time of changes.

Perhaps she saw it all whole because of so many years of listening to her grandfather create labels, calling everything from bare legs in church to the Mass performed in English “the Vatican follies,” lumping all the bullets and the bombs and the bloodshed in his native Ireland under the heading of “the Troubles.” Or perhaps it was because Maggie needed to find a common thread in the things that happened, all the things that turned that summer into the moat which separated her childhood from what came after, and which began to turn her into the person she would eventually become. “Change comes slowly,” Sister Anastasia, her history teacher, had written on the blackboard when Maggie was in seventh grade. But after that summer, the summer she turned thirteen, Maggie knew that, like so much else the nuns had taught her, this was untrue.

Sometimes change came all at once, with a sound like a fire taking hold of dry wood and paper, with a roar that rose around you so you couldn’t hear yourself think. And then, when the roar died down, even when the fires were damped, everything was different. People came to realize, when they talked about those years, that they were years which set one sort of America apart from another. Twenty years later they would speak of that time as beginning with the war, or the sexual revolution, or Woodstock. But Maggie knew it right away; she believed it began with the sound of a bulldozer moving dirt in her own backyard.

For that was the summer they began building the development behind the Scanlan house. That was the beginning.

On a June morning, a week after school let out, Maggie came down to breakfast and found her father standing at the window over the sink with a cup of coffee in his hand, watching an earth mover the color of a pumpkin heave great scoops of dirt crowned with reeds and grass into the air and onto a pile just beyond the creek. Maggie stood beside him and pushed up on her skinny forearms to look outside, but all she could see was the shovel when it reached its highest point and changed gears with a powerful grinding that seemed to make her bones go cold.

“Son of a bitch,” Tommy Scanlan said with an air of wonder.

“Tom,” said Maggie’s mother, just “Tom,” but what it meant was, don’t swear in front of the children. Maggie’s father didn’t turn around or even seem to hear his wife. He just drank his coffee, making a little sibilant sound, and watched the earth mover lumber back and forth, back and