It is late-summer, 1965, and Sarah Rosales is going to Atlanta. She’s eighteen, recently graduated high school, and on a Greyhound bus to Agnes Scott College in the suburbs of town, where she’s enrolled as a freshman. Sarah, the second of four daughters of Benjamin and Esther Rosales of Charleston, South Carolina, is the first of her family to live away from Charleston, and she’s traveling to Atlanta to study and start her adult life. Her dream is to be a teacher, working with young children. She always got along well with her teachers and envied the influence they had on each successive class as they came and went. Now it’s her turn to strike out and make a difference. The last thing for her to do, she thinks, as she’s preparing for arrival, is to adopt her middle, secular name, so that when she sets foot in Atlanta for the first time, she’ll be Melinda.
Once Melinda has gotten set up at school, she somehow finds herself pulled into the sphere of influence of Margaret Blaine, an older, upper class woman with a reputation for being wild. Margaret is a very formidable woman from Hancock County in Georgia, the oldest daughter of Moreland Walker, owner of a chain of groceries throughout Georgia and the Carolinas. At age eighteen, against her family’s wishes, Margaret married a produce salesman nearly twice her age and came with him to Atlanta, where five years into a hostile relationship, she divorced him and set out on her own. Now in her third year of studies at Agnes Scott, she’s considered the Queen Bee, and is surrounded by numerous followers who emulate her clothing, speech, and mannerisms. One of Melinda’s friends is a devotee and brings Melinda along to some outings, where Melinda can’t figure out what the fascination is with Margaret. Melinda’s total lack of interest catches Margaret’s attention and she sets out to learn more about this disinterested newcomer.
One afternoon, Melinda hails a cab, so she can go shopping at Rich’s downtown, when Margaret suddenly appears and insists they share the ride. As soon as they’re on their way, Margaret seems to want to chat, but Melinda is wary. Margaret is surprised to learn Melinda’s a Jew, and quizzes her about the basics of the religion. Against her better judgment, Melinda spends the entire afternoon with Margaret, who shows her all the places young, single women in Atlanta can enjoy themselves, with or without men present. By the time they return to campus, it’s late, and just as Margaret predicted, Melinda now considers her a friend. Once she’s friends with Margaret, Melinda’s social life improves considerably. She evolves from the quiet and studious Jewish girl to the noisy life of the party with a dry wit, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Despite her late nights and occasional migraines, Melinda never misses a class nor fails to turn in an assignment on time, and still manages to keep up with her older compatriot, sometimes matching Margaret drink for drink, and turning away almost as many amorous suitors as her far more experienced friend. When Margaret’s roommate graduates and moves back to Florida, Melinda gets first refusal on the room and moves in with Margaret. One afternoon, Margaret tells Melinda that Lee, her younger brother, is moving to town to get a job and continue his education. Margaret cautions Melinda, however, that only close family can call him “Lee” and that to the rest of the world, he’s Paxton.
Paxton Walker turns out to be very little like his older sister, a man of quiet intensity, thoughtful, and ambitious. Between him and Margaret, Melinda learns Margaret is the only girl in the family, followed two years later by Paxton. Two other sons followed at three, then four-year intervals, Duane Willard, and Alexander Boyd. Paxton was expected to one day take over the family business, but instead studied architecture at UGA then headed to Atlanta to find an apartment and land a job with a development firm, while pursuing an advanced degree in civil engineering. His father still hasn’t forgiven him. Paxton’s goal is to one day start his own development firm. Melinda has a lovely time out with the brother and sister, and two days later is informed by Margaret that Paxton was quite taken with her. Melinda thinks nothing will come of it, due to their religious differences, and after two dates with Paxton, she lets him know that she doesn’t wish to convert. To her relief, he tells her he wouldn’t expect her to convert just so she’s not practicing the religion he’s not practicing.
While this reassures Melinda, she knows her family won’t be happy. The more time she spends with Paxton, however, she begins to believe she could make a life with him. She decides to take the chance, and when her family comes to town for a visit, she introduces them to him. He hits it off with her father right away, and her sisters, Ruth, Debby, and Tamar, find him very attractive, but her mother says nothing, and betrays little of how she feels about this Gentile who’s stolen her daughter’s heart. At last, as they’re saying their goodbyes several days later, her mother proves to be her usual pragmatic self, stating, “If he lets you raise the children in Temple, what’s the harm?”
Paxton has another concern, having received notice from the draft board to report for a physical. He and Melinda worry over it, until the physical reveals a congenital heart murmur Paxton hadn’t thought about since it was noted by a doctor when he was a child. To his relief, he’s rated 4F and the couple can begin planning their wedding. Her mother and sisters head back to Atlanta to help plan the interfaith ceremony, scheduled to take place in June of 1968.
After her marriage, Melinda starts attending classes again at Agnes Scott in the Fall, but as September wears on, she starts to feel a bit out of sorts and a visit to her doctor gives her the news that she’s pregnant. Since she’s attending classes, she resolves to see the semester through, then conclude her college career, with an eye toward one day resuming it once her children are older. Paxton, certain their first child will be a boy, sets about putting together his own development firm, and schedules several meetings for late-May, but on May 23, the day he’s meeting with investors, Melinda goes into labor, and Margaret drives her to Crawford Long Hospital. If it’s a boy, they plan to name him Moreland Benjamin, after his two grandfathers. A few hours later, however, Margaret manages to get a message to her brother that he’s the father of a bouncing baby girl. Though she regards herself a descendant of Rachel, Melinda names her daughter Leah, then Joanna, after Paxton’s mother. Melinda knows she’ll have to curtail her dreams of being a teacher, but no matter. There will be time to teach other people’s children, she thinks, now I must teach mine.
This proves to be easy, for Leah is an inquisitive child with many interests, who learns quickly. Melinda tries to accommodate her daughter as much as possible, taking her to the High Museum, and Fernbank, and enrolling her in Pace Academy when she starts school. Leah is also very active, a bit of a tomboy, always out exploring, in shorts and oversized jerseys or rugby shirts, her favored attire, and only wears skirts to Temple or school, or whenever else Melinda makes her. Melinda takes a scattershot approach to educating Leah, buying her books on every topic, and enrolling her in extracurricular programs to supplement whatever she’s learning in school. The family takes frequent trips to Europe, and Leah exhibits an aptitude for languages, quickly picking up most of the European dialects. The one aspect Melinda is not able to control, however, is Leah’s relationship with her father. Paxton desperately wanted a son, and barely concealed his regret at the news he had a daughter. His business takes up much of his time, and it’s painfully clear where his priorities lie when it comes to working or being with his family. When he is home, he’s not much more attentive to his daughter.
Melinda always sees so much hope in Leah’s eyes when she tells her father about an accomplishment, and much disappointment when he dismisses her with a quick smile, or pat on the shoulder, or a half-hearted word of encouragement, before returning to his crossword, or putting practice, or any of the other, trivial activities he deems more important than spending time with his only child. Most of Leah’s scorn, however, is directed at his company. Leah has taken to referring to the business as her father’s favored child and resents every moment he spends with it and not her. Margaret tries to fill the void, being the naughty aunt who lets Leah smoke around her — Melinda objects but can hardly criticize her daughter for a vice she practices — and giving Leah her first taste of wine before she’s had her Bat Mitzvah or teaching Leah how to drive a stick shift in Margaret’s Karmann Ghia. Yet, despite Leah’s uneasy relationship with her father, each day, Melinda sees more of Paxton in how Leah relates to the world. He fails to see how much she truly is his daughter.
On the afternoon of April 20, 1981, with Margaret waiting at the family home to pick up Leah and give her the news, Paxton drives Melinda to Northside Hospital, where she delivers another healthy baby girl. For reasons known only to him, Paxton has chosen the name Alyssa, which no one in his family has, so Melinda honors the baby with her sister Ruth’s name as well. Unlike Leah’s birth, Paxton is there to witness this daughter’s arrival, and Melinda can tell he’s already invested in every aspect of Alyssa’s life. This makes sense to Melinda. The thought comes to her, I raised my husband’s daughter, now he shall raise mine. She’s troubled by the implications of this thought, but lets it pass.
Melinda is pleased to see that Leah harbors no resentment for Alyssa, despite all the attention she receives from Paxton. In fact, Leah dotes on her sister almost as much as their father. Following her Bat Mitzvah, Leah takes on much more responsibility around the house, and looks for opportunities to spend time with her little sister, looking after her when Paxton and Melinda go out, becoming almost a second mother to Alyssa. Some years earlier, while Melinda’s younger sister, Tamar, was visiting during a break in her first year of studies at the University of South Carolina, she revealed she was studying the Kabbalah. One evening, out of the blue, while she, Melinda and Leah were sitting on the front porch, Tamar predicted that Leah would one day have many children to bring her happiness in her old age, a suggestion to which Leah responded with very little enthusiasm. Melinda takes Leah’s new-found concern for Alyssa as an encouraging sign that Leah might one day make a good mother to her own children.
When the family moves to Lawrenceville, just prior to Alyssa starting school, Leah insists she be allowed to remain in the family’s home in Buckhead, so she won’t have a long commute to Pace for her senior year. Paxton and Melinda agree Leah’s exhibited enough responsibility to be able to live on her on, and the independence she’ll gain may serve her well when she goes away to college the following year. A few nights a week, Paxton also stays at the home when he needs to be at work early. While Melinda holds out hope this will bring Leah and her father closer together, Leah’s comments to Melinda when she’s visiting Lawrenceville suggest this isn’t the case. The following year, after Leah drives off to Wellesley in Margaret’s Karmann Ghia — a graduation present from her aunt — she manages to make it home for the holidays, but otherwise remains in Boston in an apartment she rents with another girl. When it comes time for Leah to graduate, Melinda happily anticipates watching her oldest daughter receive her diploma as Melinda had never done. As Leah’s graduation date nears, for some reason, Melinda finds herself obsessing over Jacob and the twelve tribes, twelve sons of four mothers. She’s aware that there was also a daughter, Dinah, who makes thirteen. For several days, the words, “Lucky thirteen” get stuck in her head, and Melinda can’t say why. The cliché holds no special meaning for her. She’s also aggravated when her migraines return with increased severity.
One evening, a few days before Leah is to graduate, Melinda’s in the kitchen, preparing supper when she starts to feel tension behind her eyes. She knows what that means, what it always means. Soon, she starts seeing wavy lines, and she feels slightly nauseous, the unmistakable harbinger of another migraine. This one feels more intense, more unrelenting, and she hopes she can head it off before it really takes hold. She lowers the heat on the pot she’s stirring and goes into the living room, where ten-year-old Alyssa is sitting on the floor, watching her afternoon television shows.
Melinda asks Alyssa to look after dinner, goes upstairs, takes three extra strength pain killers, and prepares herself a cold compress for her head. She lays on the bed and tries to get comfortable, but no matter how she lays, the pain and throbbing increases. Suddenly, she feels light-headed, and worries she’ll be sick to her stomach, but then, the pain subsides completely, and she feels nothing. The light starts to fade, and darkness falls at the edge of her field of vision. She feels a presence in the room and looks to see Paxton, sitting on a chair near the bed, his head down. Without speaking, or acknowledging her, he dials a number, but she can’t hear him — the scene seems like it’s from a silent movie.
Paxton rises and goes to her. He leans in, kisses her, then places his hand over her eyes and closes them, and with that, she knows it’s over. She feels the darkness close in on her, but she’s not afraid. She left fear behind with her earthly remains. Instead, she waits to see what comes next. She does not know how long she’s there, before a single thought crosses her mind, not a word, but a name, “Genevieve”. In her mind, Melinda answers, I accept. Then all goes dark. When she sees the light again, she will remember none of this.