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The disturbing letter was safely hidden in the pocket of Edith Hargrove's apron. It had arrived along with the rest of her mail in Dry Creek, Montana, early last week, but it had not seemed right to stack a letter like that with the regular mail on the sideboard in her dining room. It wasn't a bill or a reminder for an appointment or even a notice from Social Security. So she kept it close to her, as though this might in some way tell her more about the woman who'd had the astonishing nerve to send it.
Edith had read the letter so many times she could almost feel the texture of the paper against her fingers even when she wasn't holding it. She kept wondering if she'd overlooked some clue.
She was still thinking about it as she sat on a stool on her front porch waiting for her recently married daughter, Doris June, to cut her hair. The morning was overcast and a bit chilly. It was quiet in the small town of Dry Creek. Edith shifted on the stool and heard the faint crinkle of paper in her pocket.
She couldn't tell anyone about the letter, of course. The scented envelope had been hand-addressed to Mr. Harold Hargrove, her deceased husband. At first, Edith thought it was one of those letters that had been lost in the mail for a decade. She'd heard about letters like that and, since Harold had been dead for fifteen years, it seemed like that was the only possible explanation. But this letter had been postmarked in Los Angeles just a few days before she received it.
There was no return address. Edith considered giving the envelope back to the post office without opening it until she remembered the days when she could barely afford to buy a stamp. Anyone who paid to mail aletter deserved to have it read by someone, even if it was just the intended man's widow. After all these years, Edith doubted there was anything in a letter that could disquiet her anyway.
She hadn't counted on unfolding that piece of scented white stationery and seeing the woman's signature at the bottomJasmine Hunter. Edith had felt her breath stop for a moment when she first saw the name. It was causing her to stiffen up even now just remembering it.
"You're sure you're okay with this?" Doris June asked as she wrapped an old dish towel around her mother's shoulders. The towel would keep the trimmed hairs off both of them. "You can change your mind, you know.You've never wanted me to cut your hair in the fall before. You always say you're too busy to do it and that you'll wait until the snow flies."
Dead leaves were scattered all over Edith's front lawn, but snow was weeks, maybe months, away.
Edith forced herself to relax. "I can't run around looking like a scarecrow just because the weather hasn't turned."
Doris June gave her mother a startled look. "Your hair never looks that bad."
Edith glanced up and gave her daughter a reassuring smile. The letter had definitely put her on edge. She thought she could still smell that envelope even though it was tucked away in her apron.
She hadn't recognized the scent at first. But of course it was jasmine, the strong, mysterious scent that seemed to go with a sophisticated woman in a way that Edith's simple rose water never could. She'd avoided the perfume even before she'd heard about Jasmine Hunter, the woman Harold hadwhat could she say? slept with, succumbed to, maybe even loved some forty years ago.
After the first burst of passionate confession, Harold had refused to talk about it for weeks. He said Jasmine was moving away and that was the end of that. Of course, it hadn't been the end of anything. The woman might have gone, but the pain of knowing Harold had betrayed their marriage vows was there to stay.
Edith brought her mind back to the present. "All I'm saying is my hair could look better."
Her daughter was quietly taking the pins out of Edith's hair. The hair itself reminded her of what she'd lost. Harold had always claimed he liked her soft brown hair pulled back in the simple bun that she wore and she'd believed him until the affair. He'd given her the same compliments after it all happened, but she'd stopped hearing them. She'd been too proud to go chasing after a new hairstyle, but she knew something somewhere had been wrong or he wouldn't have turned to another woman.
Edith had never met Jasmine, but she'd always pictured her as having a fancy hairdo and some kind of exotic, sultry eyeliner. Maybe she'd even had a black hat with a sweeping wide brim. Hats were fashionable back then and elegant women were pictured wearing them in glossy magazines that Edith couldn't afford to buy on her farm-wife budget.
Edith had never looked good in a hat; the only ones she'd ever owned were the ones she wore for pulling weeds in her garden. She doubted Jasmine had pulled a weed in her life. She probably wore her hats to tea parties or presidential inaugurations or the Emmys on television. Following Harold's confession, Edith had pictured the other woman as being everything she herself wasn't and those pictures had grown with time until the real Jasmine Hunter couldn't possibly have been as exciting as she was in Edith's mind.
At the time, Edith had searched for the perfect word to name the affair between Harold and the woman. She knew it wouldn't change anything, though she thought it might help. But she'd never found a single word big enough to contain the pain. This thing had broken her heart.
It had taken her a decade to rebuild herself enough to truly forgive Harold. The nameless pain from the affair itself and her resulting insecurity had left a dark hole in their marriage. She didn't know if they would have made it through without the help of God and their elderly pastor. Harold had grown more distant from God in those years, but she'd grown closer. She'd had no choice really. She had to rely on Him for everything.
"Well, you're usually so busy," Doris June said as she paused in her movements. "Your hair can always wait. You don't have time to spend hours in front of the mirror anyway."
At first, Edith had thought that was part of the problem. She had always been able to think of a million things she should be doing instead of fussing with her appearance. Back at the time of the affair, she had been taking care of Doris June who had been little more than a toddler. That hadn't left much time for extras like hairstyling.
Edith had always looked pleasant, but she knew she wasn't beautiful in the way some women were. Her jaw was too square and her green eyes too direct for conventional beauty. She had a face men trusted, not one that inspired them to write poetry. Besides, it had seemed pointless to spend hours in front of a mirror when there were so many things to do for her family and others.
After Harold's affair, she had become keenly aware of the troubles in other people's lives. She knew what it was to be alone and needy. She'd started healing her own heart by helping other people.
Eventually, the questions she'd been asking herself had faded away. She finally realized that Harold hadn't gone to bed with another woman because of her hairstyle or something she had said in a thoughtless moment. His decision to be unfaithful was simply thathis decision. All she could do in her life was be the person God had made her to be. And, if He had made her plain and serviceable, so be it. Her decision to wholeheartedly accept herself was what gradually allowed her marriage to mend.
Even now, Edith had too many things to do to worry overmuch about her hair. Like today, she should be in her kitchen boiling her Mason jars so she'd be ready when Charley Nelson finally brought over the annual bucket of chokecherries he always picked for her. She boiled the jars twice and, ordinarily, those jars would have had their first boil days ago. Charley was late with the berries and she'd just realized it this morning. She needed to make the jelly soon if she was going to be ready for the harvest dinner at church.
Edith wondered if Charley knew about Harold's affair. The Nelson family had always been their closest neighbors when they were on the farm. Charley made some extra money working with the local vet so he managed to stay home on his farm that hard winter when most of the other men around had been forced to take temporary jobs in Billings to keep up with their bank payments. The roads were so bad and the distance to Billings so far that Harold had rented a motel room for several nights each week during the two months. It was then that he'd met Jasmine.
Edith decided Charley couldn't have known about the affair. Harold had sworn to her he hadn't said anything to anyone except the pastor, and he'd only talked to the pastor at her request. Edith had been adamant at the time that she didn't ever want Doris June to find out about the affair. She was a sweet little girl and she adored her daddy. Today, of course, families would talk about something like that, but back then they didn't. Everyone suffered in as much silence as they could manage.
"Getting a haircut is important," Edith said. She had forced herself to call Doris June this morning and ask for her help. "Women need to be well-groomed if they're going to be out and about with people."
Doris June finished taking the pins out of her mother's hair. "I'm always happy to cut your hair for you."
Hair framed Edith's face. It was coarse instead of soft after all the years and much more gray than brown. "I thought this time I'd have you do it shorter. Something over the ears."
Edith had been too stubborn to change her hairstyle for Harold, but she felt a need to update it for this other woman. Jasmine Hunter was coming to Montana and wanted to meet and talk. That, in addition to an address printed on the stationery, was all the letter had said.
"No problem, I'll just" Doris June sputtered to a stop. "Did you say over the ears?"
Edith nodded. "I've worn my hair pulled back in this bun since I married your father. That was fifty years ago. Styles have changed since then."
Edith had sent her answer to the letter in the mail several days ago. She explained that Harold had died, but that she would be willing to meet Jasmine and talk if that would be "an acceptable alternative." Edith had struggled with words and been pleased when she thought of "acceptable alternative." It sounded so businesslike and not at all like the words of a woman who'd been betrayed.