The Coleman family
The Colemans at the family dinner table, Maine, 1973.
Charismatic and principled, Melissa Coleman's parents created an idyllic, nonconformist life in rural Maine. And then they paid the price.
We must have asked our neighbor Helen to read our hands that day. Her own hands were the color of onion skins, darkened with liver spots, and ever in motion. Writing, digging, picking, chopping. Opening kitchen cabinets painted with Dutch children in bright embroidered dresses and pointed shoes. Taking out wooden bowls and handing them to my mother, Sue, to put on the patio for lunch. As Mama whooshed out the screen door with hair flowing and baby Heidi on her back, the kitchen breathed chopped parsley and vegetable soup simmered on the stove. The light glowed through the kitchen windows onto the crooked pine floors of the old farmhouse where I stood waiting.

It was a charmed summer, that summer of 1975, even more so because we didn't know how peaceful it was in comparison with the one that would follow.

"Ring the lunch bell for Scott-o," Helen called out the window to Mama. She liked to add an o to everyone's name. Eli-o, Suz-o, kiddos for the kids, Puss-o the cat. We were the closest she had to children.

As the bell chimed, Helen took my small hand and turned it upward in hers. The kitchen was warm, but her skin cool and leathery. Mama returned with Heidi as I stood long-hair-braided and 6-years-brave, holding my breath. We knew about Helen that when she didn't have something interesting to say, she'd change the subject. She smoothed my palm with her thumbs and looked down at it, her cropped granite hair holding the dusty smell of old books.

"Tsch, what's this?" she asked of the marks I'd made with Papa's red Magic Marker.

"A map," I told her, proud of the artistry on my fingers. "A map of our farm."

"Pshaw." She tossed my hand aside like an old turnip from the root cellar.

So she read Heidi's palm instead. Heidi was a blue-eyed 2-year-old, "an uncontainable spirit," everyone said. Even she held still, mouth open, breathing heavily, snug in the sling on Mama's back as Helen smoothed out her little fingers.

"Short life line," Helen muttered, bending toward the light from the window, then paused as if catching herself too late.

"What do you mean by short?" Mama asked, brown eyes alert, mother-bird-like. "Thirty, 40 years?"

"Oh, it doesn't mean a thing," Helen said, and began to mutter about the overabundance of tomatoes in the garden.


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