My mother was a pretty woman, with auburn hair, hazel eyes and ivory skin. Perhaps not fine looking enough to support a claim of real beauty, Olive was surely pretty enough in her youth to turn some heads. Olive’s mother-in-law, Elizabeth Baxter (nee Lyden), was a frowning stick of a woman, with coarse grainy skin like driftwood, wiry hair prematurely gray, neither breasts nor hips nor much of anything in the way of femininity to her figure, nor much gentleness in the way of personality. She’d been nice enough as a lass; it was life with Elgin Baxter, model of the American dreamer, liar, philanderer and increasingly frequent drunkard, that aged and angered and defaced my paternal grandmother. Elizabeth carried herself as one who’d been wounded repeatedly but had borne up against her wounds, not proud so much as simply unable to yield to it, not hard so much as worn down to that final core which couldn’t be abraded away by anything but death. She had been ground into a sharp edge, my grandmother, a weapon against her husband and against women who, in her opinion, had it too easy. My mother was a woman who seemed to have it too easy, and so Elizabeth Baxter cut my mother as often and as deeply as she could, which was frustratingly not much, for my mother knew her own mind and while Elizabeth could anger and beshrew Olive, she couldn’t reduce her to either tears or humility. The women became enemies is all, trapped together in the humid dark of that immense house with all those rooms but no place for Olive to be alone. Don’t let her get under your skin, my grandfather said to my mother. That was how it started: he caught Olive on the wide front porch after Elizabeth had belittled her for not combing her sons’ hair properly, and my grandfather smiled his charming Irish smile and tilted his head in the direction of the house and offered himself suddenly to Olive as an ally against Elizabeth. Maybe Elgin had drunk a glass too many that afternoon on the way home from the office, or maybe my mother had brushed out her hair and my grandfather had noticed that there was a pretty young woman living in his rambling house. In any event, Elgin looked at his young daughter-in-law and he liked what he saw, or liked it well enough. My mother saw an older man who drank before dinner, didn’t know how to make conversation and read the paper at the supper table, which Olive knew was rude. He ignored her sons. He ignored his own wife. He sat by the radio evenings and read Shakespeare or old medical textbooks he’d bought God knew where. He’d wanted to be a physician once upon a time, and I remember looking through a heavy old volume of physiological deformities—freaks, that is—over Conrad’s shoulder in about 1968. I have carried in my memory, for nearly half a century, the sepia-toned image of a skinny naked man suffering elephantitis of the scrotum. I can only assume that exposure to this gallery of the grotesque at such a young age scarred me in some invisible but very real way. That old book, along with Elgin’s many other leather bound volumes of medical science from the turn of the century, was likely trucked to a landfill long ago.Just because.