I had to move all the way from Michigan to Tennessee before I got to live in a state park and purchase a large A-frame-style house for our family of seven. I was thirty-four. My husband was transferred, the fourth time in five years. I was ready as always for adventure, I thought. My parents had taken my siblings and me through Tennessee during summer vacations on our way to other places. History was something my family studied in person–or remnants of it. Tennessee has plenty of that. I even thought of myself as a bit Southern since I was born and lived in Missouri for one and a half years. I was quite mistaken. That was clear the day we arrived at Pin Oak Lodge, where we would stay while we located a suitable house. The lodge was in Natchez Trace State Park, under ten miles from Lexington, our new city of five thousand. It looked like an old town out of a movie, replete with a small library, three small schools and a town square with courthouse front and center. It boasted an attractive lake within city limits. We were about to dive into a mega adventure in the classic South. Detroit suburbs were very far away-I wasn’t very sad about that–as soon as the lodge receptionist emitted words cloaked in vowels that had been stretched, transformed. “Wayaacom yaal. Aahm Jaaayean.” Her smile dazzled. That is what I heard when I first met Jane. I was embarrassed to have to ask for a repeat. I felt quite unsure about the territory we had just entered. It was late summer, a month before the new school worries. Our children, ages eleven down to four, initially considered it a well-deserved vacation. The rooms were pleasing; the pool had cheery aqua water with a diving board to execute daredevil dives from, day and night. I joined in though my husband watched from a shady spot or, preferably, an air conditioned window seat. The sun hunted us down, mistaking us for prey. Sweat was a constant accessory. We turned pink or bronze in no time. The daily buffet offered surprises like fried okra and catfish, which we loved. I didn’t tell the kids what the fish looked like alive or where it had lived. For errands in town, we tooled around in a fancy Lincoln Town Car my husband’s company had leased for us–it was a tight fit–until we moved everything, cars included, to a new house. In the meantime, we were to adapt and enjoy the amenities as we continued searching for our own habitation. It was true that clamorous cicadas rivaled those in Missouri and the cottony heat eventually drove us indoors if not in the water. But those realities seemed minor for the moment. Who could complain, right? Hotel living gets old fast, despite the expense account, the services, the “easy does it” attitude. Ever try to keep track of five kids who have their own room, even one by your own? They felt freed of old constraints, the general rules of family that develop and nurture a civilized communal lifestyle. I empathized with their responses, but I was the ruling parent while my husband worked. The responsibility felt heavier outside of a house and neighborhood. We lived in the forest. Anyone could get lost. But we couldn’t find a home big and decent enough yet affordable. I watched as other families came, played, and left–they were on vacations–and we remained two, then three weeks and into the fourth. We made a decision to move on. To the cabins. We were in two, side by side. Rustic but with running water and usable kitchens. Secluded. Because it was nearly September and everyone else was home buying fresh pencils and notebooks, trendy clothes and backpacks, we were alone. Excepting the wildlife. Not that we weren’t preparing for the new school. But ten miles from school meant only a couple trips. The children lamented the few choices of commodities. I wondered where a good music and bookstore were. We worked at tuning into the language cadence so we understood what was said. Some found us less than appealing, with our big family, luxury car and our own accent that branded us as foreigners at best, enemies at worst. Confederate flags whipped in the breeze while people sipped iced tea for hours. Our kids danced and sang to Motor City soul music and liked to get right to the point. Most of the time we were in the thickets, hiking, observing an array of insects, avoiding unknown snakes and getting full choral concerts from bountiful birds. Bears we didn’t worry about. I heard larger creatures, sensed them nearby but rarely saw them. I’ve always liked bugs. I grew up with a mother who took etymology and geology in college and a father who was a scientist at heart. We’d gone camping, hiked many trails. I had once lived in Texas, where fire ants, spiders and cockroaches did not win their battles with me. So I didn’t shrink from unique flora and fauna that might elicit shrieks from others. That was before we took showers in cabins in a Tennessee state park. The first time my dripping wet foot landed on a hard, round object that was not a pen or bottle I was startled. When I moved so that my shadow stepped aside as well and the truth was revealed, I said things rather crass. Then I jumped on the toilet seat and shrieked for my spouse like a wimp. A millipede! And many more to follow during our stay. The sort with well over one hundred legs, I am certain. Not poisonous, not a biting sort, but nonetheless. They have hard shelled segments to protect their soft undersides. We had towels. After that we wore our sandals and inspected the bathroom and shower first. Considering they are thought to be the first creature to move from water to land, I owed them some respect. Like the place we were to make a home within. There were good times shared while we lived in the forest of Natchez Trace State Park. Nature provided peace and pleasures unlike any city life offered. I embraced myriad wonders. We lounged outside, sat at picnic tables for meals. The scents of earth and abundant plant life clung to us. Wildflowers greeted us in secret places. We followed butterflies by day and moths’ curious dances around porch lights in evening. There were fires to tend in the fireplaces as the air grew chill. Storytelling and making our own music were second nature without television or fancy phones. We created things out of nature’s bits and pieces, compared found rocks and studied trees and flowers, nature guides in hand. The children grew braver, more sure-footed. Resilience is readiness of spirit, a skill of adaptability. All five gained more daily. They cared for each other and squabbled as before but they couldn’t escape each other easily. They learned things about one another that they did not know before. Just as my spouse and I did. Like how to cultivate patience, faith and love when alone in a strange, if beautiful, land. We found our house after the kids had been in school for a month. I might have moved into anything with enough beds for all at that point. But the moment I laid eyes on it I thought, It looks like a northern Michigan house. The beauty of that anomaly choked me up. The bonus was getting some land with it. My husband agreed. It was built into a hill. The front looked like one story whereas the back revealed it was two. It had four bedrooms, two baths, two living areas and a wood stove that warmed up the whole house in the winter (yes, it got cold). A porch spanned the front, the better to ogle the countryside. There was a rolling acre of yard that opened onto woods, a murky pond (fit for nothing much but snakes although the kids tried fishing) and a nice garden spot. We swore we could see the kudzu, monster vine, creep across the road, it grew so fast. It fascinated and frightened me a little, like southern thunder or ice storms we’d watch roil the skies far off, then shake up everything on the way in. As with so much of Tennessee, I came to appreciate the power and wiles of the geography. I loved helping split wood, then tending the fire in our wood stove, making the two stories warm and fragrant. Was mesmerized by the harsh music of cicadas among unseen critters. Grew to appreciate heat that left us languorous. I made a dear friend of Jane. I was the only woman in the one AA meeting where older men made up a club, exceedingly slow to set out a chair for me. Poetry came to me unimpeded while walking our acre. But my cello had arrived cracked, splintered. My father repaired it back home, then hand delivered it, lest my heart stay broken, too. It played differently after that. It seemed an omen that much was to change, one way or another. Our children learned about kindness, tolerance, and prejudice in equal measure; we were a multicultural family in actuality and viewpoint–not always understood or welcomed. It was a place where a molasses-like accent charmed and lulled us, and the closeness of air hung on our shoulders like invisible cloaks. Where we could roam at length in our own back yard. I fell in love with many of western Tennessee’s characteristics about the time we followed a moving van back over the Mason-Dixon Line. It had not even been two years, but it had changed me. Deepened and challenged me. It had been a journey worth taking for the family. But it was very good indeed to be heading north to yet another spot.
Poppi was hosting Thanksgiving this year. Carter’s birthday was two days before Thanksgiving and he was happy to have it there. Although it wasn’t as spectacular as a birthday right before Christmas, it brought a bonanza of attention and a few goodies. He looked forward to the family traditions. Carter was turning nine; he thought that was a decent age. It was closer to being less a little kid, yet not so close to being grown up that he had to act it all the time. And between the spread on the table and his very own lemon zest cake (they also had the usual apple, pumpkin and pecan pies), his belly would grow at least two inches in a matter of an hour. He’d measured it once.
He got gifts, of course.The real important ones came on Christmas morning so he’d keep smiling when he got another pair of wild socks from Aunt Rosa and a used book he wouldn’t read from Uncle Phil. They flew all the way up from Texas so were forgiven. He usually got a little money. This year he’d asked his parents for a black ski hat, a half pound bag of gummy sharks, a Polartec hoodie (pine green) and gift card for the movie theater so he and his best friend Lou could go see a new movie during school vacation. And a pillow. The pillow was important; his was squashed to the point of no return and smelled of popcorn and dirty hair.
It was likely he would get most things or a surprise or two. But first: the feast.
It usually alternated between Carter’s house and Grandfather’s house. Every one called him Poppi. Grandmother had died when Carter was six but he still remembered her like she was a regular visitor. His mother said maybe she was, but also knew Carter had an exceptional memory. He was the only one who noticed she had moved the cactus garden from the middle of the buffet to left after dusting. He knew what the meals had been the last umpteen months if not years so his mother consulted with him on menu ideas. Everything he’d read–Presidents’ names, major world events and their dates and so n on–all the people he’d ever met and music he’d heard with full lyrics: right there when called on. There was no end to it, he was afraid.
In school, of course, this made him a sore thumb. Schoolmates called him a show off and worse. They also liked to pump his memory right before tests. It wasn’t that he was so smart; he just didn’t forget. It could be annoying. Like the day Carter had skidded into someone on the ice rink when he was five. He couldn’t get up until they lifted off a short, round woman. Carter’s stomach flip-flopped even now at the thought of how she’d smelled, spicy mixed with damp wool and bad breath. He could still recall her plumpness pinning him to the freezing ice and her soft curls tickling his face. She had pretty angel earrings.
He remembered Grandmother’s hands, the veins like little vines under white skin, her long fingers gentle on his face. The rattle of pans and squeak of drawers when she was in the kitchen, like a cooking band. He remembered how she walked with long strides, shoulders just so. She read him stories and sang him songs, Carter sitting on her lap.
Poppi had a good house. It was brick, two stories, not overly large, but with enough rooms to play a long game of hide and seek with the four cousins after dinner. It smelled like pine and burning wood because Poppi lit big candles on the dining table and kept a fire going in the family room. Carter’s house didn’t have a fireplace, just a big back yard with a homemade fire pit.
When it got cold in November, he went over to play play a game of checkers with Poppi. Grandmother brought tea in a big white pot. Carter thought sipping tea from small cups was good if funny but never let on. And ginger cookies came with tea. Carter knew she was pretty, with white hair so bright it lit up a dull room, her grey eyes smiling. When she talked it was as though birds entered the room; her words were like soft cooing sounds that seemed to float above chaos and noise, then land like snowflakes or feathers on Carter’s shoulders. That was why Poppi called her “Little Dove” sometimes. Carter felt good when he repeated the nickname.
(Voortman House and Park in Snow, 1900 -Albert Baertsoen, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent)
They all missed her. She had been a music teacher, and made music seem a biological need. She would play on the old grand piano after meals and she and Poppi would sing, then get everyone else to join in. No one minded. It’s how their family did things. Carter liked being there most after home, even though it was hard when Grandmother didn’t wake up one morning.
Poppi now had a certain way of making sure she was with them each Thanksgiving and Christmas. He always left her chair empty at the table; he put a place setting there. The grown ups accepted it. Carter didn’t think about it until Lance, his fourteen year old cousin, mentioned it.
“Do you think Poppi will still keep the chair at the other end of the table empty? I mean, Grandmother has been gone for three years now. It’s weird, right? It spooks me. He needs to move on.”
Carter shook his head. “It’s what he does. I don’t know who else would sit there.”
“How about one of our moms or dads?”
“That would be weird. It’s Grandmother’s seat.”
Lance flicked him with an index finger. “You’re weird, Einstein!”
So Carter had been thinking about Poppi. He wondered how it was to turn in without Little Dove on Christmas Eve. How he felt when he started to talk to her and she wasn’t there. Carter recalled odd things about her, like her shoes. She always wore real leather high heels until she was done for the day. Then she put on loose pants and sloppy blue slippers that had tiny white flowers on them. She said they were edelweiss and once sang a song from a very old musical, “The Sound of Music.” She’d sung on stage, he knew, and wondered if she’d wanted to be a star. In college she’d met Poppi and they’d “fallen so deep they couldn’t get out” she’d said with a chuckle.
Carter anticipated his ninth birthday but this year he had a surprise for Poppi. He’d had a half-brilliant idea that the family traditions might be tweaked a little and still be great. He had thought it out a long week before making his decision. He worried Poppi might be shocked at first. Cater didn’t want to cause trouble, but he wanted to add something of his own.
All of them were seated at the table and Poppi was in the kitchen getting the turkey, carving knife and fork. Carter got up and slipped over to Grandmother’s empty chair. Then he felt under the hanging flap of the yellow tablecloth and pulled up something. He set it on the seat and adjusted it just so. He heard gasps from his mother and Aunt Rosa and Lance snickering. Poppi was coming into the dining room. Carter sat in his seat just in time.
It was a good thing his grandfather had set the turkey platter down in front of his plate or there would have been a mess. Poppi’s hands went right to his heart. Hi eyes widened and his face paled. Uncle Phil and Carter’s dad rose to catch him in case he fainted. Cater felt his throat constrict. He was light-headed. What stupid thing had he gone and done?
His mother stood up, too. “Poppi, I’m so sorry–Carter didn’t tell me what he was up to! Carter…” She gave him a hurt look.
“Shush.” Poppi said and stood still a moment. Then he carefully walked over to the chair where Grandmother had reigned over meals for decades. He stood before the grey and white stuffed husky that sat at her place. It was over three feet tall. Its blue eyes gazed out over the table and a pink tongue was glimpsed at its mouth. One paw was atop the tablecloth. Poppi touched its back, then finally patted its head. He blinked back tears, then started to laugh.
“Good heavens, boy, you invited Oscar!” Poppi smiled so all his teeth showed, a rare thing since he was a more serious type. “She’d love this; he’s right where he belongs.”
The dining room started to fill with sounds of people talking and then clapping, and Lance came over and mussed Carter’s hair. Every one shared memories of Grandmother and Oscar, the real husky Poppi and she had loved for ten years before a truck got him. Carter had decided to give her this stuffed dog the Christmas before she passed. She’d kept it on the trunk at the end of their bed or near her chair in the living room.
When she’d passed Poppi had given it back to Carter; it had been a reminder he didn’t need. Oscar slept each night with Carter but now he was nine. He could share.
Carter went to his grandfather and hugged him tight around the middle. He felt a little shy about it but he felt great that everything was going to be alright. Poppi hugged right back. Carter had missed her so, but maybe they would gather by the fire and sing after dinner again, Oscar warming by the hearth, Little Dove humming along from afar.
Happy Thanksgiving, kind readers, and thank you for reading my blog! Best regards, Cynthia
Jonlyn’s bleary eyes rested on the last bright spots of color in her yard, then narrowed at the three crows–“the three cads”, she called them–that liked to aggravate her mornings with their carrying on. But no newspaper anywhere. She rubbed her cold hands together, then went inside and pushed the heavy door shut. What was the point of printing papers if they ended up in recycling before they even got read at her table?
She cast a resigned glance over the comfortable living room, pausing at the picture atop a side table. There was her granddaughter grinning, snuggled between her parents like a jewel in velvet. Long dark ponytail, cheeks bright as berries, burnished hazel eyes looking right at her. A smile that reached into Jonlyn’s world. But Iris was living in Brisbane, Australia with her mother, Fran, Jonlyn’s daughter. And her son-in-law. Dennis. The one who took them there, and also watched over them, she admitted.
She’d been there once. Clots of palm trees, traffic aplenty and some good shops, restaurants. Lively enough. The family lived in a small chic apartment then; now they had a house on the outskirts, close to the beach. Jonlyn wasn’t a beach person; all that sand got into places she would rather not have it. She liked forests around her. It was quite exhausting and expensive to fly there. Fran said they didn’t have time to come to the States. Well, years passed. Iris was six now. Fran was forty-seven. That made Jonlyn older than she ever imagined ending up. A trick had been played on her.
As if in assent, the antique grandfather clock chimed. Jonlyn patted it in passing, then got her jacket and gloves. It was Monday; it was nine o’clock on another grey day. With the colder weather fewer people romped about the park across her street, and Jonlyn enjoyed it just as much if not more. She’d experienced scads of seasonal changes on the paths and benches.
Hammerlin Park was like an extension of their yard, her late husband Ralph had remarked once as he was raking leaves. Only much better since they didn’t have to bother with upkeep. It had been their motivation to settle there, raise Fran. A park was a comfort.
By the time Jonlyn arrived, the dog owners, so possessive of their strip of torn up grass, had about left; the kids were in school. Excepting the ones who got kicked out or would rather skip class to smoke pot. Jonlyn walked by them at a good pace; they barely saw her so didn’t worry about being seen. She had reached that point in life. Somewhere before sixty you start to lose color apparently, finally fading into a surprising ghost. An advantage was that if she didn’t feel like dressing properly or doing up her straggly hair, she didn’t. Another perk was if she wanted to linger and eavesdrop by group, she could; no one expected she could hear much. She’d learned a surprising amount about people this way, though Ralph had cautioned about becoming a voyeur. Big word for being nosey, she’d laughed.
The ducks were quieter than she was. Jonlyn was about to take a seat and watch them glide like plump feathery ballerinas but she’d stepped on something. It was a rag doll with requisite red yarn hair, arms outstretched, a gay smile fixed on its pale face. The dress was a cheerful Christmassy mix of red and green and lit up with some yellow. A bit rumpled but in good repair. In fact, the doll was unscathed, not rumpled at all, as if its owner had just been there and Raggedy had slipped away without a fuss. Jonlyn surveyed the park: no mother and child, no errant strollers or forgotten diaper bags or backpacks. Jonlyn sat, then bent over and picked it up.
Raggedy remained at ease in her hands, unperturbed by the damp breezes that ruffled her hair and stirred the leaves. The two black polka dot eyes stared back. Jonlyn lifted the arms up and pulled them down, then tried the legs. Sensible black shoes, she noted.
“Silly doll, forgetful mothers”, she said. “If Fran had been given this doll she wouldn’t have let go of it.”
The ducks make a gabbled sound at Jonlyn and headed toward the little island, their rumps bouncing.
“Well, that’s not true, really. Fran never liked dolls much. Planes and blocks. I guess she was meant to be a pilot.” She shuddered. “Those little private planes…fancy and dangerous.”
The doll lay there, either agreeable or held captive by happiness with a red-stitched smile. A bit crooked, appealingly so. The person who had made this toy would be disgruntled it was so easily lost. Jonlyn mused awhile about sewing she used to enjoy, then got up, hesitant as the doll gazed up at her. Should she take it somewhere, the closed clubhouse, the restrooms were there was a wood railing upon which to lay it? She determined it was best to leave it, so she sat her up and left. But she looked back once, twice, and something about that doll pulled at her, made her feel old and sad but tender, too.
“Ridiculous,” she muttered. “I will not be undone by a silly rag doll. It’s just the holiday season creeping up on me. I can’t abide nostalgia!”
A teen-aged girl who was smoking by the edge of the pond shot her a look, then shook her head. The old woman was a sad case talking to herself like that. Jonlyn felt her dignity pinched.
The next two days she was busy with errands and an appointment but her thoughts kept retuning to the doll. The following morning she hurried across the street and along pathways. It needed to be gone, safely back in the keeping of the one who missed the doll. She saw a hulking man just leaving her spot so approached the bench. Someone, perhaps the man, had picked up Raggedy and abandoned her again with an offhand toss so she’d landed backwards and askew on the bench.
“Ah,” Jonlyn said and took the doll in her hands, setting it on her lap as she observed the ducks and a lone heron. “A bit messy, though. Not as bad as I expected, however.” She brushed leaf detritus off Raggedy’s feet and noted a smudge on her knee. It gave rise to the disorienting thought that maybe Raggedy had tried to get up and head home on her own.
“I used to bring Fran here every day. She chased the squirrels and wanted to fish the pond.” She chuckled. “But not Iris. She’s never had the pleasure. Maybe next year. There’s always hope, of course.”
The two of them sat there fifteen minutes, watching a couple amble by, a young man execute amazing tricks on a skateboard. A homeless woman, the one Jonlyn often saw, pushed her full cart down the walkway. A child younger than Iris came by with her father, chattering and kicking up leaves. She stopped and pointed to the doll and Jonlyn, heartened, held out Raggedy.
“Oh, here–did you lose this?”
The man shook his head. “She has a baby doll that cries watery tears and does other things we wish she couldn’t!” He laughed. “I haven’t seen one of those for a long time, though.”
The child got a closer look, then took her father’s hand as they moved on, but she looked back.
“You can keep her,” the child called out and skipped away.
Jonlyn set Raggedy on the bench and nodded at her.
“Well, you’re a popular sort. I can see why, despite your maddeningly unchanged expression. You’re soft and quite pleasant company. Wonder if you have more of a name. Tell me it’s not Ann, but something more curious like mine.”
The ducks paddled away and the wind picked up. Jonlyn left Raggedy seated on the bench and returned to the three cads and a bowl of leftover ham and bean soup for lunch. Two days of papers had come and she looked forward to reading.
The next day Jonlyn told herself she wasn’t going to check on the doll, and certainly wasn’t going to talk to it if she happened upon it. Parks attracted people like her, a bit aimless, lonelier than she wanted to admit. They were pretty microcosms of the city. Well, she was going dotty from increasing solitude–and the rains and cold were just beginning. It was not attractive to reminisce about “good ole days” that weren’t all that spectacular. Now her daughter was gone and Iris growing up so fast she might have to remind her who her grandmother was before long.
The clock chimed; greyness deepened and spread as the afternoon came to a close. She grabbed her jacket. Rain threatened; wind whipped her coat open. Dogs were running about and people were heading toward their cars. Her long stride hastened her to the favored bench but before she even got there she felt the doll was gone. She edged up to the back of the bench and took a look.
Empty. Raggedy had been picked up by a child who needed a playmate, or some creature, heaven forbid. Or maybe that homeless lady she often saw on her walks. That would be just fine, although she wished the young owner had found her. Who knew? She felt a huge raindrop splat on her forehead and then on her cheeks so pulled her jacket close and headed back. The lamps came on and lit the way around the park. Jonlyn felt relief come upon her and with it, a stirring of pleasure. The air was thick with a damp and leafy perfume, and a sharpness hinted at wintry days and nights. She needed to buy a ticket to Australia. And she knew just what she was making Iris for Christmas.
(Photo by Helen Levitt)
I remember the library was shadowy and spacious, with books towering above us that could only be reached by a ladder. We had gone there with my parents. It was soon to be Halloween, and Aunt Iris told them the streets of Detroit were more unsafe than most in the world. Devils’ Night was an occurrence we must avoid, she told us with a warning frown. Mother was convinced after only two days in the city, having heard and seen things she didn’t relay to us.
Father had to fly there for work, mother said, a most important trip, so he’d brought her and us two kids. Everything he did was important, I thought, but the trip was a surprise, an exciting event for Mallory, barely five and me, six-going-on-seven. I liked planes and she didn’t, but we both loved Aunt Iris and Uncle Henry, our cousin Susan, a baby at four, and the big brick house they lived in. It was a whole other world. The thing I didn’t like was that we wouldn’t be trick or treating out in our small town neighborhood. I had planned on being a monster, a hairy one.
The lace curtains in their library intrigued me. Our living room had heavy green curtains; we didn’t have a real library. When I touched the white material it felt frail; I was afraid it might crush or crumble in my hands. I had been waiting for Susan and Mal. They were playing dress up and called to me a few times from the stairway but I wanted to touch the leather spines of the books and twirl the big globe by Uncle Henry’s desk. The world was so big I couldn’t believe it all fit on that smooth, glossy ball. Glass and brass objects–a small tray, a swan, a horse and a fancy box–sat on stacks of magazines and letters. There were plants bigger than me in the deep corners. I thought they would be happier outdoors with the huge old trees.
“Lucas, come on! Upstairs!” Mal yelled again, then laughed with our cousin.
I heard my mother tell her to keep it down. I left the library with a backward glance, seeing dust spin in streams of light and each book waiting for me to be a better reader. A lot better.
Aunt Iris met me in the hallway. “Go on, Lucas. They’re trying on costumes. You won’t go trick or treating but you can have fun playing. We’ll have candies and a roaring fire and spooky stories later.”
I was disappointed as it was the first I’d heard that we had to stay in all night. But she was my favorite aunt and I knew she told good stories at bedtime. Mother said she had been an actress on stage.
Up the many stairs–I quit counting at twenty–and down the narrow hall and around the corner, to the third large bedroom where the door was open. There they were. They had Aunt Iris’ scarves out, using them like skirts or long hair. But they also had hats, ties, vests, feathers, dresses, capes and jackets, jewelry and more. Some things were fancy, probably from my aunt’s plays. There were animal heads made of cloth, a donkey, raccoon and pig. The raccoon was especially good so I put it on and liked how it looked. I could see pretty well, and scampered around a bit.
Susan had gone into the adjoining bathroom to try on make up. My sister watched me, eyebrows raised, as she refashioned a silky gold and blue scarf into a dress. She was happy, humming to herself; she knew what I was about to do. I hid behind the free-standing, full-length mirror. When Susan came out and admired her reflection I jumped out with hands raised high, fingers crooked like claws, and roared my best. I didn’t know what sounds raccoons made but it was effective, anyway. She screamed long enough that my eardrums hurt and mother and Aunt Iris came up. I had to take it off and remind her who I was while our mothers stood laughing in the hallway. Mal looked a mess with ruby-red color smeared on her lips and cheeks but I gave her a hug so she’d stop sniffling.
We had dinner in the long, chilly dining room, father back again and happy, everyone chatting except for us bored kids. The rolls and roast beef were good. Afterwards as the adults left for the living room, we asked to go out on the porch, or stoop as they called it there. Since they would be close by it was decided we could for ten minutes if the door was left open a crack.
It was a lot longer than ten minutes and it was good to be in open air, pollution and all. Good ole Mal had stuffed little masks in her coast pocket, so we put them on and stood watching passersby and cars. Some people waved at us or smiled. We weren’t very impressive, I’m sure. A few called out a “Happy Halloween” which made me miss my best friend and costumes left at home. I leaned against the bannister while the girls fidgeted with their masks and chattered about who knows what. The sun was going down a little, the blue sky brushed soft pink and orange above the skyline. Detroit was enormous, big enough to make its own wall map. It made me a little nervous thinking about that but going inside did not seem interesting yet.
I was just staring out at the city’s lights like specks in the landscape, when I thought I saw a sudden brightness, a flare above a bunch of buildings. I called the girls over and pointed to the area I had seen it. They hung on to me. Something brilliant flashed again and then, a few buildings over, again. And then the brightness grew and grew, and another area brightened and pulsed. Gradually I figured out what it was, dread creeping up inside me.
The city was catching fire, just as the sun–a huge ball of exploding, flammable stuff, hotter than heck, I knew that much–was putting itself away for the night. The sky glowed fierce orange.
We stood riveted, waiting for grown ups to notice, too. A man running past stopped and stared in the same direction, then told us we should get inside and where were our parents, anyway? Susan whimpered a little as Mal and I wondered where all the firemen were and what might happen next. Mal took my hand.
Father and Uncle Henry flung the door wide and my uncle shepherded us in, but Dad hung back a few seconds surveying the city. His face looked stern. I swear there was firelight on his skin.
W gathered in the living room where a fireplace harbored another fire, a cheery glow that danced and threw off warmth. I went to a big window and looked out, absorbed by the twilight being slashed by red, orange and yellow, a terrible and beautiful light show taking over parts of the city. I could hear the adults talk about Devils’ Night, damage done, craziness stirred up. Who would do such things? What did those fires really mean? I wondered who was out there right then, on the streets with danger on their minds and was grateful for the big door with all the locks, our grown ups sipping coffee and eating cookies nearby.
But it was still a sight to remember, a wild night like none other even from the window of my aunt’s and uncle’s house by one of the Great Lakes. I had something fantastic to tell my friends. And that was before treats and ghost stories Aunt Iris told us, making the hairs stand up on the backs of our necks. After I finally fell asleep my dreams were haunted by little beasties slinking from the library walls and fire eating up the fancy curtains. It was a relief to wake up to fresh cinnamon buns and eggs, my cousin and sister ready for more mischief of a minor sort.
I found out years later that during that trip our father was given the opportunity for a great job in Detroit and he’d decided against it. I was caught off guard; it wasn’t often he talked so openly.
He leaned forward and spoke confidentially. “That night it all changed, seeing things from the stoop with you kids. I had been offered a big job in a big town, Lucas. But I realized what I wanted for us in the end was something more steady and quiet, something that wouldn’t burst into flames so easily. Life would throw enough surprises and shocks at you. I wanted to buy a little more time.”
I thought about how much he loved us and what I would have done if it had been me. I might have taken the job; I’m a risk taker. But I had to tell him it was the most peculiar and memorable Halloween of my childhood. I thanked him for that, and our safe return home.
(The photo prompt is from Patricia Ann McNair’s blog. Thanks as always, Patricia.)
(Photo credit: Tony Bock, London 1970s)
My dearest Harriet,
At the start, forgive me for using your first given name. I know you use your middle name, Eleanor, now that you are an adult. A graduate music student in New York! But this is the name I know.
I have been thinking of the spat we had when you came for tea. It seems a useless thing now that a few days have passed. I said little of what I meant. Surely we can find a way around this small disaster and acknowledge the fact that we have missed each other and hoped for more.
Who would have thought you would find me? I left your father’s employ long ago, when you were ten, and you recall it differently. Not surprising as you were a child. But if things weren’t fully settled, it was a clear denouement. As I mentioned, after that I worked at the Dennington School with preschoolers another ten years and that was on account of your father’s excellent reference. Now I am between things. But even though it was time for me to leave that work and try my hand at something else, being a nanny, your nanny, isn’t something one leaves easily, without a backward glance.
It was not my career of choice. Teaching was, if that was not apparent. But since I didn’t quite manage my degree and money was scarce for my family, being a nanny made good sense. I am a practical sort as you can well attest to, but I also had dreams. Chasing after willful babes and cleaning up the wreckage of their tantrums–then pacifying parents with a suitably humble glance so that they would not think me insubordinate–well, it ought to have netted me better compensation, perhaps.
Then your father, the Mr. Arthur Llewellyn, interviewed me and suddenly I felt the tide would turn.
I was right. Working for your family was the least trying time I spent in the business, overall. In fact, caring for you children was notably the best challenge, a happy time for me, and it was primarily due to you, Harriet. And your brother, Earnest, when he decided to be the shining, smart boy he truly was. We already knew you had musical talent. How I later missed your childish but crystalline voice.
You said little of Earnest; that’s another reason I would look forward to another visit. But if that is not immediately a possibility, perhaps this letter may serve as a small bridge. I’ve made many of those over the years and some have held well.
The photo you brought, the one Earnest took that day we were shopping, brought a flood of memories. It was warm, too warm for the sweater I had on, and we had been out for over two hours, to the zoo and then the department store. You never found a jacket you would wear but Earnest found a pair of shoes forthwith and put them on right in the store. How you both longed for ice cream sundaes and how hard to deny them! Dinner was soon and I knew your mother would have returned from New York. You knew it, too, but there was that cat. My, she was a sublime creature, posing in the window of J. Kelly’s accounting firm. I always wondered if his employees were more contented with her pretty face and gentle commentary.
You wanted that cat in your arms more than you wanted your mother. But mother didn’t allow animals in your home. They had their place outdoors and she stayed a great distance from them even then. You know by now she had allergies; she wasn’t being cruel. It was just her way, her coolness seeming hard when you were at your most tender. That is the way of parents and children, I think, destined to know little of the other’s truth. Perhaps that’s why nannies are around. We see what there is little inclination or time to see, being viewed as outsiders.
But that day changed things, didn’t it. I recall bribing you with a sweet to get you to unlatch your hand from the smudged glass. Earnest was snapping away, excitedly interviewing passerby, so I had to snatch the camera to reorient him. By the time I delivered you at the front door, you both were hot and irritated, ready to burst.
When Mrs. Llewellyn, your mother, floated down the staircase with her graceful arms wide open to you, she was shocked when you didn’t run to her. Earnest slumped against the wall, camera back in his possession but his fun delayed further. For your part, well, you took one look at her newly red hair and scurried back outdoors, a shriek barely stifled. I expect your brother, being three years older, was more accustomed to her stylistic alterations.
Well, of course she blamed me. Although she’d been gone for nearly six months that time, her antiques and antiquities book making money, her tours more successful, she wanted things to be the same at home. But everything changes when parents become scarce, your father on his own business, it seemed, when she was around and vice versa. I was there altogether, daily, too conspicuously present in your lives like cook Addie or maid Vera. But I was the root of the problem, Mrs. Llewellyn thought. She never actually knew us.
That day I did round you both up. Earnest sneaked off after her hug. You warmed to her as you did adore her, if inconsistently. I remained a few more years despite her misgivings, as your father thought well of my character and good intentions. You’d be right in saying he had grown appreciative of me. He knew you children cared and that I was attached to your small follies and victories. She, on the other hand, became less convinced of my value each day and more taken with the notion that I was meddlesome if not a clear impediment to her serenity.
Three years later on a sunny March day I left when you were in school. The daffodils were blooming along the sidewalk and it hurt to see them so cheerful. I’d called a cab after being dismissed by your mother. A large check was pressed into my hand as she shepherded me to my room, then out the door. I packed two bags and was gone within the hour. I wanted to call or write you and Earnest so many times. I worried you would believe it a complete betrayal of your trust but what was left to do? It would not have been wise. Certainly my letters would have been tossed in the bin.
When you called me I was so happy. Never did I imagine, now that you are a young woman, that you would care enough, even recall enough, to seek me out. But I wasn’t prepared for your stinging words at the end of the hour. Did you carry this anger for so long?
I knew she would tell you much later it was because I was in love with your father. I was not. I cannot say what he thought. He was fond of me, yes, as employers can become. Did I admire him? Yes. Appreciate his winning manner and his kindnesses? There can be no doubt of that. But she sent me away because she could not manage to be the mother she wanted to be and I was there, reminding her every day with my presence.
Surely you know better than to believe I would jeopardize my position or upset your young lives. I don’t think for a moment you believed her. Your words after tea disturb me: How could you leave us to a string of strangers who taught us only useless rules of proper decorum? Why could you not have fought for yourself and remained? It was a boring, sad time after you left us.
It breaks my heart to take this in. But if I’d stayed, there would have been a different ending for us all. I would have soon lashed out, dear Harriet. Her coldness made me burn. I might have told her she was right, I could have cared more generously for her husband than she. I would have suffered while enduring her deepening suspicion and disregard, to see you children caught between two women who wanted what they could not have. Besides, I’d been at the center of your and Earnest’s lives for ten years. I knew enough to protect the love we three had cultivated. Better to leave and let the caring linger.
I have said too much but it has come to this. I’m not young anymore. You will go your way. Why not be honest and true to what I feel? If you cannot find your way back, I can accept what is. Would that I could have watched you two grow up, and kept my place secured in your happiest thoughts.
Please ring me again. I’ll serve you fresh tea and biscuits and we will pick up our story from here. I’m so curious about whom you have become! I know by seeing you that you are strong and will make your mark.
Quinton, my loyal tabby, and I shall await word.
I remain your loving friend,
Miss Madeline Markle
(Photo prompt from www.patriciaannmcnair.wordpress.com)