I am so deathly afraid of those women.

Strawberry pie again, Eleanor, how nice. Pity it didn’t set.

Every Fourth of July I vow not to, but sooner or later I sit down and cry. I used to cry the minute Philo came in the kitchen with the strawberries; he would start to hull them, thinking it was the work I was crying about, having to make seven pies. For the life of me I couldn’t make him understand. “Come on, honey,” he would say to me. “It’s only my family.”

No matter how early we start for the camp on the island we always get there late and they are all down on the dock waiting, his brothers and sisters and their families, all those blunt Maine faces in one place at one time, all those watery Goodman eyes, those huge Goodman women watching: Philo’s sisters Marge and Edna, standing foursquare with Ralph’s broad wife, Benjy’s bride.

Oh Eleanor, strawberry pie.

When they all know his sisters won’t let my bread on the picnic table, and only blood relatives get to make the beans. I begged them to let me bring potato salad but Benjy’s wife Lane gets to do it, that hasn’t been in the family half as long as me. Everybody else does such a good job that there are never any leftovers, but the pie comes last, and there’s no telling with pies. Either something goes wrong with-the crust or the filling or else I get them almost perfect and something happens, people rush out or get too full to eat them and I have all those leftovers reminding me there is something the matter with the way I do things and all the way home Philo grumbling; I hate the pies.

They look lovely, Eleanor. Too bad Randolph couldn’t be here, but I suppose in his business . . . Well Randolph is in New York and it’s hard for him to get away, you know these actors; they don’t. How come we never see him on TV? Then one of those big old girls sighs and says, “Pity Evvie can’t be here.”

What they mean is, Poor Eleanor, all those years and nothing to show, when our own sons bring their wives and all their children. They would come a thousand miles to be with us. Every Fourth of July there is another grandbaby when all you have is poor Evelyn that Philo won’t even let us mention in his hearing, and that fancy boy.

Last year Marge was scraping leftovers into the garbage; she stopped what she was doing for a minute, so dreamy I don’t even know if she heard what was coming out of her mouth. “You know, your girl Evelyn’s been gone for so long I don’t know if I remember what she looks like.—Oh Eleanor, my boys ate so much they didn’t have room for your lovely pie.”

Well I remember what she looks like. They sent for me from that terrible place in Augusta when she had the operation after her secret baby died. I had to tell Philo I was having my insides photographed, and then I had to go have it done, so it wouldn’t be a lie. He said, “My sisters never get sick,” but he didn’t mean to criticize. He was only wondering why bad things come to some but not to others, as if you could prevent all kinds of trouble if you only put your mind to it.

Strawberry pie again, Eleanor, how nice. I can hear them this very minute. I help Philo up on the dock and then I have to get the hamper. Wish I could drop the filthy thing into the water and jump in after it. Oh look everybody, it’s Eleanor, and she’s brought the strawberry pie.

“Poor Philo, if he hadn’t married Eleanor.” They think I don’t hear them. They think it’s my fault Philo is so feeble. They think he should have married somebody big and strong, that knew how to take care of things—as if failure crippled, not age or disease. Two of Marge’s boys help him onto the dock and I know that for the day at least he will be taken care of Then I bend down for the hamper and my dress rides up in the back so they can all see clear up to where my stockings roll. When I pop up with the basket one of those big boys will be gawking; I see Edna’s Milt looking snide as I hand up the pies.

Forty-two years of crying on the Fourth of July. That’s six weeks of crying on that day alone, never mind the other times when I’m safe at home. I have to go off somewhere so they won’t see I’m down; otherwise his sisters will be all over me, all fleshy farmers’ hands and watery brown eyes.

Why Eleanor, what’s the matter?

What on earth’s the matter, Eleanor?

I know they mean well but there are so many of them with those same eyes, and after all these years I am still scared of them. I have to walk softly among them so they won’t smell the fear on me and strike.

When I met Philo we were a thousand miles from here and I thought he was what I thought he was. How was I supposed to know he was only the tip of something larger, that big family with their big frames and the big hearts that he keeps throwing up to me. How could I know I was going to shrivel in their presence, when I was supposed to measure up? Only little Benjy came down for the wedding; the rest of them were planning a great big wedding party at the camp when Philo brought me home.

They were already on the island when we got there. The Goodmans are scattered over three counties and they might even seem ordinary when taken separately, but when they come together on that island they are enormous, like a bunch of bones that have snapped in place to make a dinosaur. They all come with hampers and casseroles and baskets of fruit and early vegetables and homemade pickles and preserves; they come loaded down with food nobody could ever finish eating, not even the whole state of Maine, because overflow has always been part of it, which is one of the reasons I always cry. I don’t have much of anything to spare.

We sat down at trestle tables in the cabin Philo and his father and brothers made, everybody laughing and elbowing on the long benches, muttering over their food. They had gangs of kids pushing each other off benches at the children’s table and smearing wedding cake. I could see the Goodmans were caught up in their own plenty and at the same time they were watching, judging me; the next thing I knew tears were running down my nose into the macaroni salad and I ran away. Philo flew up and followed me down to the dock; he was scared to death something was wrong. Then when I tried to tell him he pulled back and said, “Is that all?”

I said, “I can’t.”

He put his arms around me. “It’s only my family.”

And didn’t I bellow then; “I know.”

He was all There there. “You’ll feel better about it next year. Next year you’ll have something to bring.”

He meant the pies of course, somebody at the top of the world had decided what I was going to bring.

And I sobbed harder because I will always hate making pies, but all those strong women will go to the grave without knowing it. And even after he hugged me and went “Sh sh, there there,” I kept on crying because I already knew without knowing that no matter what I brought, it would never be enough because I am only the one person and together the Goodmans are that huge living thing.

When Evelyn was born I thought: Maybe this will make the difference. Philo took care of her for two days that summer while I dragged myself around the kitchen making those hateful pies, I’ll never forget all the paper plates with the leftovers still on them, going into the trash. Evvie was only four weeks old and I wasn’t quite myself; Philo’s brothers Ralph and Benjy had to help me out of the boat and then his big sister Marge looked into the blanket and I could just see what she was thinking when she said, “Oh look everybody, it’s a girl.” Then she put the blanket back because Goodman women only ever had boys, and I cried for embarrassment, for my baby Evelyn. They all brought presents, pink this and ruffled that. They said, “It’s so nice to buy something pretty for a change,” but I knew what they meant. Philo’s Pop was still alive and he held Evvie in his two hands, weighing her against all those Goodman boys; she was next to nothing in his hands. Philo, he didn’t see it; he idolized Evvie, he always did, which is why when she got to high school and went so bad, he took it so hard. He was tickled and dizzy that summer, rattling around the camp like one of them, but I could see their eyes when they thought I wasn’t looking, and I knew.

One year Benjy’s wife Lane took me aside. She’d been in the family for a while by then; all those Goodmans took right to her, good big girl, gave them lots of little boys. I remember my sweet boy Randolph was hiding up in the woods where they all chased them, them savage cousins with their big shoulders and their tufted heads; he just hid and he wouldn’t come down until night when all the other boats had left. My Evelyn was leading the pack that badgered him, filthy and loud as any of the boys, so it wasn’t our poor Randolph I was crying for but Evvie, because she thought she was just as good as all the rest of them, the Goodmans with their shaggy heads and their big klunky feet.

At the end Benjy’s wife came up to me, her voice was low and kind of There there, “These picnics are hard. Everybody feels the strain.”

I looked at her and I thought: Potato salad, practically foolproof; they all made a big fuss over it even though she and Benjy hadn’t been married half as long as Philo and me. “Your salad was real good this year.”

“Don’t cry Eleanor.” She was looking up into the dark pines, where Randolph had disappeared to, and I thought I heard her muttering, “I hate it,” so we almost talked, but then one of the big boys jumped Evvie and by the time I pulled her out of the fight and got back to her, Benjy’s wife was saying, “I’m always scared to death it will turn out to be mushy,” and her boys were bouncing on her, she was surrounded by big strong sons, so I couldn’t be sure what she’d really tried to say.

The next year we went to my family for the Fourth of July. I saw to it; I made Philo explain to his folks, he was sweet about it but the kids had fits when they found out; they whined the entire way. When we got there the house seemed too small and there wasn’t enough food because my mother wasn’t used to fixing for armies and there weren’t any cousins so the children fussed the whole time. In the middle of it we had to call the camp and Philo and the kids had to talk to all the Goodman aunts and uncles and cousins while my mother and I sat at the empty table and tapped our fingers because we’d worked so hard and it had gone so fast and there was nothing to do but sit and listen to them phoning and look out the window at the rain.

Philo was sweet about it, he said we could go there every Fourth as far as he was concerned, but I could see his whole body twitching; it was like watching the shad fighting their way upriver to spawn; when his family gets together he has to be part of it, no matter who cries or what goes wrong they all have to come together at certain times.

We had wedding parties at the camp, first Marge’s oldest, then Edna’s, then Ralph’s; Evvie was big enough to flirt with all the groomsmen and later on I guess she went up in the woods with more than one; I was ready to let it go by because I didn’t want to know for sure, but the others wouldn’t just let us be, they were watching like vultures on a branch, and they found out at the party we had when it was Ralph Junior’s turn and we gave him and the girl a big to-do at the camp, Goodmans always say Waste Not Want Not so naturally we had it on the Fourth.

I brought the pies that year, there are two dozen different ways a person can spoil them, but that time they came out fine, wouldn’t you know we had cake too, Marge made it along with the beans even though I said she didn’t need to, we had plenty of pies. It was a big sheet cake with a bride and groom on top and Ralph Junior Plus Betsy in beautiful green script with so much butter cream frosting on top and so many yellow-and-green butter cream rosebuds that nobody had much room for my pies.

Even so the first part of the day was sweet; Philo’s parents were gone by that time but one of the nephews and his wife Teeny had brought a brand new baby, and that poor mother spent the afternoon running back and forth with baby bottles and heated jars of baby food while all the aunts snuggled the thing with big smiles on their big faces and the young people just drifted off, some of them this way and some that. We all said all the usual things, how big all the kids had gotten, how well everybody looked, it was a little like the opening responses that we go through on Sundays at church, a pleasure and a comfort when everything else is sliding and it’s hard to tell who’s who and what’s what. When suppertime came and the light changed Marge and Edna and Benjy’s wife and I all fussed over the trestle tables, setting places and laying out serving dishes; I remember thinking we were murmuring together like real kinfolks, even though I probably knew the big boys were up there in the woods torturing my poor Randolph; he used to come back to camp panting and bruised or bleeding from unexpected scratches: It’s nothing. Ma, but pretty soon he’d skulk into some corner and hide behind a book until the day was over and we could get in the boat and go. My Evvie was off God knows where with the young people — Ralph’s son the bridegroom and his friends, that girl he was marrying tried to pretend she was busy with Teeny’s baby but I knew. When Evvie came back she looked drunk but the young men were showing off and making fools of themselves over her so I didn’t say anything about her blouse popping and her bra straps slipping; I thought: For once we are all in the middle of things.

Then dinner came, music and noise and firelight on the rafters; we ate inside because it was cold on the Fourth that year. One of the boys said something to Big Ralph and he whispered to Philo. Then I saw Philo get up from the table, shaking, and I can’t tell you now if it was anger or if God had struck in that instant and this was my first warning: maybe I was supposed to be expecting the stroke he had in September, and the palsy that followed the stroke. He got up before we even had the cake, trembling Philo in the wake of his oldest brother, stumbling toward the woods. They brought her back down along with the young man, who was he, some friend of Ralph Junior’s that his wife was sitting right there; I could hear Philo yelling and hitting and her shouting while we all sat and ate that wedding cake and pretended not to hear anything, and everybody got so full on cake that I had to take home all my pies, but I can tell you I waited until we got halfway back to the mainland and dropped them over the stem; Philo was so mad at her he was still shaking and I cannot begin to tell you what I was thinking when I said, into the sound of the motor churning. It serves you right.

My Evvie was gone before the Fourth came around again. She used to send me postcards care of Marge, Philo’s own sister, imagine, and I would slip off to see her whenever she was in Augusta, even Boston, I always got there but I always had to lie because nothing is that simple but I know Philo blames her for the stroke.

When the family gets together now somebody always gets me aside and asks, but off somewhere, so Philo won’t know. I tell them she is working in a restaurant when it’s a bar or worse, and that she is engaged when there are too many men; I told them it was pneumonia when whatever she had wasted her tubes so she can never have babies; they don’t pry. I don’t know why, but when we talk about Evvie, his sisters and his brothers’ wives and I are almost close, whispering because Philo says she’s as good as dead to him, he doesn’t even want to hear her name. They always ask and I really want to tell because for once I can say my girl’s name out loud and that brings her into the room with us, for a minute at least. I will say this for them, they have none of them ever blamed me for Evelyn, although I know they blame me for a lot of other things.

They probably think it’s my fault Randolph turned out the way he did, something about the way I am that made him choose what he chose; between Evvie and Randolph my Philo is never going to have any grandchildren and in that family this is a big thing. They probably think it’s my fault poor Philo is failing so; he shakes so bad he can’t go to his job at the post office, they’ve cut him off and pensioned him out so that part of his life is over, like so many things. He sits around home all the time now, in front of the TV; sometimes he shakes in my arms at night and I know what he’s thinking: What did I do that brought this down on us; what was my big mistake? Then I start shaking too and gnaw the insides of my mouth to keep from telling him: You never should have married me, with my small bones and my skinny face, I can’t even make a proper strawberry pie. Sometimes at night he bites my shoulder to keep from crying and he says, Eleanor, take care of me. Even if I can’t do anything else, Philo Goodman, I’ll always take care of you.

The pies didn’t set this year either, but something new came along with us in the boat, nothing I could see but I knew it was there, round and real as an egg. It was not exactly hope but more of an expectation, because Evvie called this morning while Philo was in the bathtub, she said not to ask how but sooner or later today I was going to see her, we would hug and say hello before tonight. So I carried that in the boat with us like an extra passenger, I was thinking she might walk in on the hot dog roast at noon, married to some nice farmer and happy at last, or else she’d come with a pot of beans in time for the big supper, she’d have her handsome husband with her and in spite of what the doctors said she’d have a baby in her arms.

Oh Eleanor. They were all on the docks, waiting. I thought I could read something new in their faces but all they said was, “Look everybody, it’s Eleanor. She’s brought her strawberry pies.”

I don’t know why but this time I bent down for the basket and I came up fighting, saying. “They’re not my pies. Marge, they’re your strawberry pies. If it wasn’t for your family, I would never make another strawberry pie.”

She pulled back with a look but she didn’t say anything, she just handed the basket to one of her big boys, I guess it’s grandsons by this time, and then Philo’s big sister stepped over close and murmured, “Did you get a phone call?” But I was holding my secret call from Evelyn close to my heart; I would show them all, and in the next second so fast that I couldn’t tell if the two things were linked she said, “Benjy’s in the hospital. He won’t be coming out.”

“That’s terrible.”

But Philo came up complaining, where was Ben when he was needed on the Fourth, tests are one thing, but this is family; Benjy never cared for us he just . . . she threw me a look; Shall I tell him? I shrugged: he doesn’t want to understand. He just kept on, so bent on it that she gave me another look: he would wait a long time before she’d be the one to tell him; he could rot in hell. And in that funny minute it crossed my mind that maybe it wasn’t the family that expected so much from us at these gatherings, but only Philo, and at the same time I heard Marge’s voice like a rosebud trailing down my arm: “You always did try too hard.'”

I was afraid I was going to cry or flare up because she’d found me out but the rest of them were waiting, all those stout Goodmans waiting to bow their heads over the food; I had to pull myself together for Benjy’s wife Lane if for no other reason so I told that poor girl the only thing I could think of: “Your potato salad looks just wonderful.”

Lane hugged me and we both managed to keep from crying. “So do your pies.”

It was different at dinner, not just because Benjy was sick and I was watching the door every living minute, wondering was Evvie going to walk in or would she beckon me outside? Everybody was restless; the grandchildren were fighting and spilling milk, and Marge and Edna couldn’t seem to keep still; they kept running over to the window, and I could tell they were distracted—something had gone wrong with the beans. Even Ralph’s good old wife, who is fat and getting stiff, got up and went out in the middle of dinner: “I just can’t get enough of the moon.” She looked over her shoulder like a girl. Then she called Marge out to look at it and Marge came back in while we were clearing the table for dessert, she said, “Eleanor, you’ve got to come out and look at this moon.”

“My pies!”

“The moon, Eleanor.”

This year my pies were perfect, perfect, and she wanted me to . . . How could I go outside? But Edna had me by the other hand and they were tugging me along, “Come on, it’s important,” big old Goodman women nudging me along like woolly mammoths bumping or two kindly old mother bears when all the time I was jangling like a wire and my voice kept on going up, I couldn’t help it, “You just don’t want to have to eat my pies.”

I don’t know what I wanted: for them to agree or for them to fight, us women to have it all out in the open, whatever it is: why I come here year after year and in all these mortal years of human sufferings at picnic after picnic, their beans, our children, my poor pies, I’m still not one of them, I could hardly stand it but here they were, pulling me along. They just pulled me out the doorway, pointing to Philo and shushing because they didn’t want me to know, they were moist and sweet as big old girls with a party secret. They took me down on the dock and pointed across to the water to this spot in the dark that was a flashlight on the landing blinking: off and on, of and on.

Marge said, “It’s Evelyn.”

Everything in me fell out. “Oh Marge.”

“Come on,” she said. “We can’t let Philo know.”

So now I am in the boat, again but we’re going in together, me and Philo’s two sisters and his brothers’ wives who have arranged this and kept it a secret from Philo because they know what he is like and they know what he would do, my poor grudging Philo who’s never forgiven a hurt and never will. It’s the Fourth of July again and of course I am crying but this time it’s at our meeting, my girl Evvie’s and mine, and after my Evelyn gets back in her car and goes away the rest of us will get in the boat together and go on back out to the island, and if I cry again it will be because we were always together, these women and me, only I didn’t know. “