Though he couldn't have known, nor ever guessed, Peyton Cabot had just witnessed a bittersweet kiss goodbye. There they stood, a man and a woman, in the center of his grandfather's library, a mahogany-paneled sanctuary that always smelled of polished wood and old leather, parchment and pipe tobacco. It was empty now, with all the family outside for their annual picnic—empty but for these two.
As Peyton looked on, the couple shared an embrace so passionate that he knew he should turn away, for he realized in that moment that he had become the worst kind of intruder, spying on his own parents. Right now they didn't look like parents—she a blonde all-American beauty, he a larger-than-life movie idol. They looked like two strangers whose past he didn't share, whose present he couldn't comprehend. More than the embrace itself, that's what he found so arresting—the realization that his parents were more than a mother and father, that they did, in fact, have a life before him, apart from him entirely, one they would've shared even if he had never been born.
The revelation took him by surprise, and he fled to the cover of his grandparents' front porch, sinking into their boisterous Georgia clan as he longed to sink into a pool of water that could wash away his transgression, for he knew good and well that he was guilty of theft. He had stolen a private moment that his mother and father never meant to share.
Peyton would spend this afternoon like so many others—swapping jokes with his boy cousins and listening to the uncles tell their stories (the same ones they told at every family picnic, but everybody laughed just the same). Still, the image of that kiss would be etched on his memory, not just for the rest of this sunny afternoon but for the rest of his life.
For years, the Cabots had been gathering for a spring picnic at the family estate on the Isle of Hope. It was a show of togetherness mandated by Peyton's grandmother and held religiously, regardless of weather, on the Saturday before Easter. Attending the picnic was like performing a role in a play or a movie, the men costumed in their linen and seersucker, the ladies in tea-party dresses and wide-brimmed hats. All the children wore croquet whites, swinging their mallets in an orderly fashion until they got bored and started chasing each other all over the place, like a band of well-dressed jackrabbits.
Picnic tables were covered in starched white linens and dotted with crystal pitchers filled with fresh flowers. Even the ice cream would be served on china with sterling silver spoons. Servants ferried food out of the kitchen and dirty dishes back in. Over the course of an afternoon, the Cabots would consume platters mounded with fried chicken, country ham, and homemade biscuits slathered with fresh-churned butter; sweet potato casserole, corn on the cob, green beans, and black-eyed peas; ambrosia, Grandmother Cabot's coconut cake, Doxie's chocolate cake (she had to make three to satisfy all the family), homemade ice cream with Georgia peaches; and enough sweet tea and lemonade to float a barge—this in addition to the steady flow of cocktails mixed by the uncles.
For all appearances, the annual picnic was a grand gathering of one of the richest clans in Georgia. But the truth, Peyton knew, was that none of his aunts and uncles particularly liked each other. Moreover, they were all jealous of his father, the eldest—and reluctant favorite—son. Peyton's grandmother—instigator of the whole thing—never appeared to enjoy the picnic. In fact, it would eventually give her "a case of nerves," and she would retire well before sunset.
The center of activity was the lower front porch of his grandparents' Greek Revival house, which crowned a gently sloping, half-acre front lawn, parted down the center by a hundred-year-old live oak allée and bordered with deep pink azaleas almost as tall as Peyton. Lacy white spirea and more azaleas framed the house with its eight soaring columns. The white wicker porch furniture had been in the family for years, and while his grandmother frequently complained that it was old and needed replacing, his grandfather had it painstakingly repaired and restored every year. For whatever reason, he could not let it go.
Right now the porch was full to overflowing with relatives. Peyton leaned against one of the columns, watching a flock of his little cousins chase each other across the pristine carpet of zoysia grass that was his grandfather's pride and joy. Though he had two gardeners, George Cabot still surveyed the zoysia daily, bending down to pull an offending weed here or dig up a wild violet there. The aunts fretted over his weeding. He was not as spry as he used to be and was starting to repeat himself more than usual. Now, Daddy, if you fall and break a hip you're gonna be in a mess. Still, he weeded.