The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love (Ladies of Covington Series #1)by Joan Medlicott
Cautious Grace Singleton, uncertain of her place in an intimidating world. Outspoken Hannah Parrish, harboring a private fear that may change her life. Fragile Amelia Declose, shattered by devastating grief. Circumstance has brought these disparate women of "a certain age" to a Pennsylvania boardinghouse where three square meals and a sagging bed is the most any of… See more details below
Cautious Grace Singleton, uncertain of her place in an intimidating world. Outspoken Hannah Parrish, harboring a private fear that may change her life. Fragile Amelia Declose, shattered by devastating grief. Circumstance has brought these disparate women of "a certain age" to a Pennsylvania boardinghouse where three square meals and a sagging bed is the most any of them can look forward to. But friendship will take them on a startling journey to a rundown North Carolina farmhouse where the unexpected suddenly seems not only welcome, but delightfully promising. And with nothing more than a bit of adventure in mind, each woman will be surprised to find that the years they've reclaimed from the shadow of twilight will offer something far more rare: confidence, competence, and even another chance at love...
Author Biography: JOAN MEDLICOTT lives in Barnardsville, North Carolina. She is a grandmother and now at work on her second novel.\
"Charming, refreshing...satisfying."Nancy Thayer, author of An Act of Love
Read an Excerpt
The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love
A Gift of Love
Grace Singleton grasped the oak railing firmly and forced another step up the narrow wooden stairs. Beneath her palm the railing was smooth and cool and indifferent, a sharp contrast to her heated and agitated state. The fourth step creaked, but today the creak sounded less like the mere scurrying of a mouse than it did like the roar of a lion. Grace's legs trembled. She wanted to stop, to yell, "No, I won't do this," but after much discussion and argument, she had agreed that it must be done.
At the top, in the dimly lit hallway leading to the bedrooms, Grace paused and looked back down the stairs into the foyer with its faded floral wallpaper, its standing coatrack, and its long, narrow, wall mirror over a walnut table that had seen better days and now played host to three straw baskets that served as receptacles for their mail, and past all this to the doorway of the kitchen. Two women stood in that doorway, one tall, her face determined, one short, twisting her hands. The tall woman nodded encouragingly and waved Grace on.
Grace drew a deep breath, lifted her head, and started down the hallway feeling like a common thief as she slid the key into the door of Amelia's bedroom. Perspiration beaded her forehead, her upper lip. She tugged at the checkered bandanna tucked at her waist, wiped her face, and slipped one end back under her belt. The house, usually filled with kitchen clatter or chattering voices, was quiet now.
"How did I allow Hannah and Olive to badger me into sleuthing?" she muttered. Her mind raced. I'm about to commit a monstrousinvasion of Amelia Declose's privacy, opening her drawers, riffling through her closet, I, who detest prying, snooping, meddling in someone else's business. This overriding sense of guilt left her nearly breathless.
"Someone has to do it and you know her best," Hannah Parrish, her strong-willed fellow boarder had insisted.
True, Grace was closer to Amelia than either Hannah or their meddlesome landlady, Olive Pruitt, but how close was that really? Anticipating entering Amelia's room, even under these circumstances, made Grace tremble.
But if I don't do it, Grace reasoned silently, that pushy Olive will, and she'll shove and yank and dump things from drawers without any respect for Amelia. I'll handle Amelia's belongings with care. Resolutely, Grace squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and turned the knob.
Amelia's room was impeccable with white walls, white lace bedspread, lace-edged pillow shams, and no magazines strewn casually about as they were in Grace's room. Pink satin slippers were tucked neatly under the bed, and books were carefully stacked on the night table. Grace walked over and read the titles: Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, a slim volume of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and a copy of The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. As she turned, the mirror over the bureau caught her eye. Why was it draped with a towel? Was it cracked or clouded? She peeked. The mirror was intact. Grace scrutinized the bureau, a model of fine handcrafting with its turned mahogany legs and trim. It bore the marks of time: a zigzag scratch on one side, a water stain on its surface, and behind the brass pulls were tiny nicks where fingernails had gouged the finish.
It seemed least intrusive to begin with the closet. Amelia's dozen or so white dresses and several white pantsuits filled the small space. The floor was bare. The round flowered box that Grace removed from the shelf above the clothes rod revealed no letters, no diary, no address book, no photographs. Nestled inside the box, wrapped in sheaves of white tissue paper, lay a wide-brimmed, white straw hat with a cluster of cherries securely fastened on one side. Grace smiled. The jaunty hat reminded her of those worn by women strolling the Boardwalk in Atlantic City in old 1920s photographs.
Standing on tiptoe, Grace shoved the hatbox back onto the shelf alongside several pairs of sturdy SAS shoes, a pair of New Balancewalking shoes with the heels worn down on the inside edges, and a slim pair of white Capezios.
She could still hear Olive Pruitt's voice informing them about the new boarder just before Amelia arrived a few months ago. "I think Amelia Declose used to have money. She's been lots of places, like Europe. Fancy lady she is, you can tell to look at her. Prissy too, always wears white. Uses funny foreign words, too. I hope she don't put on airs." Olive had gibbered away in her usual magpie fashion as she dished up their dinner of corned beef and cabbage. "I run a simple clean establishment." She set a blue crockery platter on the table. "Nothing fancy, and I don't take kindly to snooty folk."
Grace had tuned out her landlady's cigarette-strained voice, and when Amelia arrived, wearing a tailored white linen suit with a pale blue scarf tucked about her neck, Grace found her a pleasant, though rather reserved person, but not the least bit haughty, unless you countedand Grace did notthe sprinkling of French expressions that slipped into her speech, especially when she was excited or pleased. Amelia's tentative smile, her soft voice, her unassuming ways, reminded Grace of friends back home in Dentry, Ohio, and Grace had gone out of her way to make Amelia feel welcome.
The bureau drawer was open. Had she opened it? No. Yes. She must have. Silk scarves of varying shades of blue, neatly folded and stacked one atop the other, lay alongside lacy white handkerchiefs, lace collars, and a striped gray-and-white stocking case. The second drawer held white cotton underwear, silk vests, full slips, and long silk bloomers and under the vests a small, unlocked, sandalwood case containing several fine pieces of sterling silver jewelry.
Increasingly uncomfortable, her hand shaking, Grace shut the drawer and took refuge in the upholstered rocking chair by the window. The rocking chair, the mahogany bureau, a Tiffany lamp, a battered steamer trunk, a watercolor of two girls sitting on a beach watching a sailboat race at sea, and two suitcases were all that Amelia Declose had brought.
How much did she really know about Amelia? Amelia spoke longingly of the latest Broadway production in New York, enjoyed the music of Mozart and Vivaldi, and worried about cars driving above the speed limit on Sugar Maple Road. She volunteered little information about her past, and Grace had never asked. Yet it puzzled her that Amelia received no phone calls or visitors, and Grace nowrealized that there were no photographs in Amelia's room, not on her walls, not on her bedside table, not on her bureau. What quirk of fate had brought this lovely, well-traveled woman to Olive Pruitt's drab boarding house at Number 16 Sugar Maple Road in Branston, Pennsylvania?
Grace raked her teeth across her lower lip. Her mind drummed a constant reprimand. This is wrong. This is dishonest. I'm betraying Amelia's trust. How will I ever face her? Outside the window she could see all the way down Sugar Maple Road. Straight as a ruler's edge, the solid, redbrick houses with their squat, second-story roofs, redbrick steps, and square, stubby front porches lined the street. A dark-haired boy rode by on a shiny blue bicycle tooting its horn.
"What's taking you so long? Did you find anything?" Olive's deep, raspy voice coming from the stairwell jarred Grace.
"Not yet. Be down soon."
A moment of silence. Then the voice again, crackling with impatience. "Hurry up, it's almost lunchtime."
Grace shivered. The idea of food sickened her. Her head ached.
"Almost finished." Grace roused herself and hastened back to the bureau where she had found the Capezio shoe box in the bottom drawer. She carried the box with her to the rocker, for it would be disrespectful to sit on Amelia's fine lace bedspread. Under a linen handkerchief and a tan leather-covered address book with blank pages were three letters with a North Carolina post office box return address. Grace wiped the perspiration from her upper lip. Her reading glasses hung about her neck on a grosgrain ribbon. Grace slipped them on and one by one, according to their dates, opened and read the letters.
November 29, 1995
Dear Mrs. Declose,
I hope this letter finds you well and that you will forgive my intrusion into your life. For the past year I have been researching my family's genealogy, searching not only for roots but for relatives. I myself am the last of my line, the Furrior line that is, an old man, bereft of children, who has outlived his family.
I enclose a genealogical tree to illustrate the connection between us. You will see that we had a great-great-grandfather,William Austin Furrior, in common. Apparently our great-grandfathers went their separate ways and rarely communicated with one another after emigrating from France to America in the 1800s.
I am taking the liberty of enclosing a snapshot of myself that was taken recently. I look forward to hearing from you, to sharing our family histories. It would be good to reconnect our two families through a friendship. I would appreciate having a photograph of you.
Sincerely, Arthur Austin Furrior
The distinguished white-bearded man in the photo reminded Grace of pictures she had seen of General Robert E. Lee, only this man sat, not tall and proud on a horse as the general was often depicted, but tall and somber in a wheelchair.
The second letter was dated January 8, 1996.
It is my hope that your holiday season was joyful and healthy. Receiving your letter blessed my Christmas and the New Year.
Amelia is a lovely name. Thank you for writing and thank you for the picture. Your lovely smile reminds me of my dear wife, Eleanor, whom I lost eight years ago to cancer, a dreadful end for a kind and gentle lady. I sigh and agree with you that when we are young freedom is everything and time moves too slowly. Growing old is another matter; it is then that time dashes by and old friends and family matter most.
I regret that my health makes it impossible for me to travel to see you and that you are unable to visit me in North Carolina. But it will be a pleasure to correspond with you, perhaps chat on the phone, and catch up on each other's lives.
His letter went on for several pages and included a story of a big game hunting expedition to Africa in the 1940s on which he had accompanied his father. He wrote of their guide's vigor and enthusiasmand how the man, a retired veterinarian, had inspired and later encouraged him to become a veterinarian.
Grace studied the photo of Arthur Furrior. Amelia, she knew, was sixty-seven. This man looked many years her senior. She picked up the third letter, dated February 2, 1996, five months ago, just after Amelia had come to live with them.
It was a pleasure to receive your letter. Thank you for telling me about your life. I admire the good and important work you and your husband did with the Red Cross. You have seen more of the world than I have, and I've had a wanderlust all my life. Not only do we share a love of travel, but we share a love of music as well. I envy you hearing Maria Callas sing at La Scala Opera House in Milan. Music has been my solace in troubled times. Having been raised in Iowa, I have always longed to live near water, to go to sleep listening to the sound of the surf. How fortunate you were to be able to spend summers on the Rhode Island coast.
My health is deteriorating rapidly and soon I may be confined to bed. Not a happy prospect. Like my father, I am a man who thrives out-of-doors, and in my chair I can at least sit under my oak trees and feed the squirrels and birds. But confined to my bed? I don't know, cousin. I don't know.
But for this I am grateful, that my research led me to you, my own flesh and blood, my cousin. Your letters have brightened my life and made me happy. Thank you. You have given me, in my advanced years, a family. I remain faithfully,
Grace felt a tug at her heart. The handwriting had changed with each letter, becoming more shaky, reflecting Arthur Furrior's failing health. A small rectangle of paper folded and tucked into the envelope caught her eyea cable dated June 19, 1996.
WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU OF THE DEATH OF ARTHUR A. FURRIOR ON JUNE 16, 1996. J. B. PENNYSON, ATTORNEY-AT-LAW.
Saddened, Grace folded the cable and tucked it back into the envelope.
"You dead up there? I'm coming up." Olive's voice unsettled Grace.
"Nothing here, be right down," she called, playing for time to calm herself.
Grace slipped the letters and Arthur's picture into a deep pocket in her shirtwaist dress just as the doorknob turned.
"Nothing at all," Grace said, clutching the box. She willed her trembling hands to be still. The letters were so personal that she could not bear to think of Olive snickering over them. "Just more scarves. This is the last box. I've looked everywhere." Carrying the Capezio box to the bureau, Grace knelt and slipped it back into the bottom drawer. Then she pulled herself up, turned, and combed the room with her eyes, seeking telltale signs of her intrusion. Satisfied that there were none, she tucked her arm through Olive's, who guided her into the hallway and closed Amelia's bedroom door behind them.
Hannah, waiting at the bottom of the stairs, raised her eyebrows as her eyes met Grace's.
"Absolutely nothing," Grace called down. "I'll be right down." Needing time alone now to compose herself, she headed for her own room.
Grace's room was the largest of the three upstairs bedrooms, close to the bathroom she shared with Amelia. A bright room with a southern exposure, it had been painted a drab beige with faded, rust-colored curtains. Grace had transformed the room: painted the walls a pale shell-pink and placed a six-by-nine emerald-colored rug alongside her bed. Revitalizing an old chaise longue had been accomplished with a soft rose-and-white-striped cover, and she had hung new bright flowered chintz curtains. Olive had helped her shove the chaise longue to the low wide window that, like Amelia's window, overlooked Sugar Maple Road. And books, books everywhere, including treasured volumes that had nourished her imagination, her soul as a young woman: Homer's Odyssey, an account of Schliemann's unearthing of ancient Troy, Lord Carnarvon's and Howard Carter'schronicle of their discovery and excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Bringing her hand to her chest, Grace moved it slowly around and around as one might rub a baby's tummy. Reaching the chaise, she eased herself down, pulled a small bottle of nitroglycerin pills from her pocket, and slipped two of the tiny tablets beneath her tongue.
It was a relief when the pressure in her chest eased. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and reminded herself that Olive and Hannah were waiting downstairs. "Get up, go down," she muttered, then shook her head. Just another minute. A car horn sounded below, jolting her, and she stared about as if surprised to find herself in this room in this house. Below her window on Sugar Maple Road, two young women strolled by chatting, toting shopping bags. Across the street Mr. Spooner, a retired Barnum and Bailey clown, sat dejectedly on his front porch. Alongside him on another chair were bright red-and-blue hoops, a bulbous clown nose, and a carrot-colored wig. She sensed Mr. Spooner's loneliness, perhaps, the same that she felt, a loneliness endemic to the loss of home and loved ones and, most virulent, the loss of meaning in one's life. But Sugar Maple Road was a street of primarily older folks with the occasional sprinkling of grandchildren, and only the seven-year-old twin grandsons of Mrs. Oglesby, two doors down, showed any interest in him. Grace watched the twins turn the corner and hasten toward Mr. Spooner, who smiled, perked up, jammed on his circus nose and hair, and began to juggle the hoops.
Grace eased herself out of the rocking chair and crossed the room. Stopping at her dresser, she picked up a recent photo of her son, her only child, Roger, and his English companion of ten years, Charles, in flowing Saudi garb, their arms about each other's shoulders, smiling self-consciously. Roger had visited his father, Ted, once in the six months of her husband's battle with cancer and of course he and Charles had come for Ted's funeral. A year later, she had been well on her way to full recovery from her little heart attack when Roger flew in again from Saudi Arabia. He had rushed about like one possessed, had refused to acknowledge that she was fine and content where she was, and had suggested, urged, then insisted that she sell her things and move. In so doing, he had turned her world topsyturvy.
Grace sighed, set the picture back among the assemblage of family photographs, and tried to push the memories of those days out ofher mind. What was done was done. Reliving them only depressed her. Taking a moment, she ran a brush through her still ash-brown hair, then straightened her shoulders and pulled open the door.
Olive scowled, shook her head, and wiped her hands on her apron. "Seems like Amelia's got no next of kin. How could I have taken her in my house without finding that out?" Still muttering, she busied herself at the kitchen sink, then turned as Grace came through the doorway. "The hospital called while you were upstairs, Grace. Amelia's one lucky woman. A tumor it was and not malignant."
"Thank heavens. That's wonderful news." Grace's heart lightened.
"Still, if Amelia comes back and can't climb stairs, she's got to go. I'm not serving food to no one in their room. In my house you take care of yourself or out you go."
"We'll help her, Olive. She won't be a trouble to you." Hannah's voice was firm yet unusually conciliatory as she pulled out her chair at the round kitchen table. Her salt and pepper hair was cut short and swept back from her face. Sporty dark gray cotton slacks and a black-and-white-checked long-sleeved shirt ordered from a catalog suited her casual yet efficient manner.
Hannah always sat facing the door. "It makes me nervous," she had told Grace, "to sit with my back to an entrance. I'm paranoid that someone will catch me off guard, come up behind me and grab my neck." Hannah had tossed the words into the air casually like snowflakes, but they had struck Grace's soul like hard-edged flints camouflaged in a snowball.
All meals at Olive Pruitt's were served in the cool, dim kitchen where the strong odors of beans simmering, fish frying, onions browning, and cabbage steaming often permeated the room. The houses were no more than fifteen feet apart and from the window one could peer into the kitchen of the house next door. Olive picked up a glass and dried it vigorously. "I know about old people. Surgery's the beginning of the end. Amelia's frail. She'll never really recover. Come back for a couple of weeks, and just like that"setting down the glass, Olive snapped her fingers"she'll pop off."
"Heaven's sake, Olive," Hannah said, "Amelia's not old. Old is eighty or ninety. Amelia's sixty-seven. Her tumor wasn't malignant. She'll be fine."
Dinner at Olive's table reminded Grace of the dining room tableof her childhood, dominated as it had been by her humorless inflexible father, primed to admonish or criticize. Now, Grace reached for the bowl heaped high with tuna pasta salad that Olive plunked on the table. "We'll take her food up to her if she can't come down."
Olive's eye narrowed. "No family, eh? Real secretive that Amelia. Now I'm responsible for her final arrangements? Not my job." She shook her head again and grimaced. "How'd I let that get by me when I interviewed her?"
Hannah focused on the pasta salad, separating the ingredients into small piles, pasta, green beans, tuna, celery. It was her habit to eat each item of food separately.
"Hate Chinese food," she had informed them. "Stuff jumbled together. Can't tell the taste of a celery slice from a bamboo shoot."
Grace watched as Hannah heaped a bowl with salad. Incongruous, Grace thought, since Hannah didn't mind a mix when it was part of a fresh green salad.
"Greens," Hannah insisted, "are essential for good digestion and elimination. A meal without greens is lopsided," and Olive, who hated to chop vegetables, had grudgingly acceded to Hannah's demand and now served them fresh salad three times a week. Olive never served soup. Grace missed a bowl of thick, hot soup, but mostly she missed not being mistress of her own kitchen.
Hannah's room was the smallest of the three upstairs bedrooms. A two-year resident, Hannah, had chosen it purposely. She enjoyed resting on her bed, from where she was eye-to-eye with the mature red maple tree that shaded the rear of the house and the pocket-sized backyard. Hannah had gardened actively, had owned a plant nursery. Her daughter Miranda, an intense reticent woman, now owned the business and had expanded the nursery to include a flower shop. Every week, regular as clockwork, fresh flowers came and potted plants for the holidays: vibrant orange lilies at Easter, cheerful yellow chrysanthemums on Labor Day, flaming red poinsettias before Christmas. Today a lovely arrangement of bright white and yellow daisies mixed with blue ageratum sat on the night table beside Hannah's bed.
After kicking off her sturdy Naturalizer shoes, Hannah threw herself, fully clothed, on the bed and stuffed a firm pillow under her knees. That usually offered some relief from the nagging pain in herhip and back. At Grace's quiet knock, Hannah propped herself up on her elbows.
"Hannah, Olive's gone off on some errand."
"Good. So, tell me what you found, Grace."
"What makes you think I found something?"
"Your face is an open book. I'm surprised Olive didn't realize there was more to this than met the eye."
Grace set a large envelope on a chair, then hesitantly drew the letters from her pocket and handed them to Hannah, who reached for her reading glasses on the nearby table. While Hannah read, the silence was broken only by her intermittent comments. "Arthur must have been a fine-looking gentleman in his day. Husband with the International Red Cross, so that's why Amelia traveled so much."
Then Hannah read the cable. "This is sad. No one for Amelia now, is there?" She glanced at Grace, looked away, dangled her glasses between her fingers.
"Amelia deserves better than Olive Pruitt looking after her, after her ... you know what ..." Grace said.
"Her final disposition?" Hannah raised her hand. "Yes. We'd have to do it."
Grace sank into the chair near the bed. Her fingers trifled with the ends of the bandanna tucked into the belt of her dress. "I feel guilty enough invading her privacy." Her eyes sought Hannah's. "Imagine having to make those kinds of decisions for someone."
"She's alone, no children."
"Are we luckier for having children, Hannah?"
Hannah's eyes clouded. "I'm not sure. Can't recall when I last had a meaningful conversation with my Laura. Since she moved to Maine three years ago with what's his name, the boat fellow, it's as if she's fallen off the planet." A wistful smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, then a sense of satisfaction crept into her voice. "Laura's a computer programmer, you know. I saw to that. Why would she go off to live on a boat when she could get a good job anywhere? Miranda? The last time we sat down to really talk was when I signed the nursery over to her two years ago, after my knee surgery."
"But all the flowers? And she calls fairly regularly."
"It's easier to send flowers than to touch or talk. Her calls are always short and specifically about my health, nothing beyond that." Her face grew sober. "My knee surgery. With the boys away at prep school, Miranda and Philip had the extra room. They insisted I staywith them after my week at the convalescent center, then they pretty much left me on my own to fend for myself." She tossed her hands in the air. "Well, with taking over the business, Miranda was busy, but Laura ... Laura didn't even call."
"I've given up trying to understand how my Roger got to be so distant. We used to be so close."
Hannah shook her head, as if to put away her thoughts, and gave Grace her full attention. "I thought gay men were sensitive, cried at the drop of a hat."
"They're like anyone. Some do, I guess, some don't." Grace rolled the edge of the bandanna between two fingers and looked intently at Hannah. "It seems to me as we grow older it's women friends our own age we really need." She sighed. "What do our children know about how it feels to tire more easily, or that our heels ache because they've lost a lot of their natural padding ...? "
"Dry, blotchy skin." Hannah rubbed her arm. "Spare me. I'm not that old." She scowled.
"I'm serious. I've been thinking. We need seasoned women in our lives, women who've coped with love and loss and survived life's disappointments and ironies. It's the support, the empathy of our peers we need more than we need our children. They're another generation with hectic lives. They see us from their childhood perspectives. They can't imagine that we might still have hopes or dreams or longings." Her voice trailed off.
Hannah waved one of the letters. "Having said all that, surely you agree that we needed to check Amelia's room?" She looked into Grace's serious, wide-set, doe-brown eyes. Grace's eyes and face never failed to amaze Hannaha pretty face, very pretty if not beautiful, with a peaches-and-cream complexion that was smooth and unlined. And her voice, well, her voice was soft and soothing. Sometimes when Grace talked, Hannah closed her eyes and wished that she would read to her from one of those books she so often carried. And Grace was, how to put it? Grace was a good woman, honest and generous of spirit. Hannah's heart skipped a beat because this short, chunky, sweet-faced woman from a small town in Ohiowhose shirtwaist dresses, socks, and oxfords were old-fashioned, and whose checkered bandanna, dangling from her waist, was ludicrous until you fell down the front porch steps and needed something with which to bandage your bruised and bloodied handlived at Olive Pruitt's boardinghouse and was her friend.
"Have you any idea how ashamed I am for doing this, and now showing you the letters?" Grace rose and paced from one end of the narrow room to the other. The room was crammed with Hannah's furnishings: a double bed, one bedside table, a wing chair with an ottoman, a goosenecked reading lamp with a tassel shade, a coatrack draped in sweaters and jackets, a stuffed-full umbrella stand, a tired old maple desk and chair, and a tall, narrow, cluttered dresser. Pictures, mostly nature scenes and florals, covered the walls, and a small bookcase packed with books about plants and gardening stood within reach of the desk. "I'm going to put those letters back," she said, "and I'm going to tell Amelia."
"Stop pacing, will you, you're making me dizzy. Be sure to tell Amelia you weren't snooping, just trying to locate her family." She shifted her body to relieve the pressure on her hip. "Damn. I can't stay in one position more than ten minutes," she muttered. Then she turned determined eyes to Grace. "We all need someone to take charge of things for us now and then. Didn't your son come from Saudi Arabia when you were ill and help you close up your home and move?"
Before Hannah's resolute blue eyes, Grace's resolve wavered, but only momentarily. "Yes, he did, but ..."
"Would you have wanted to do it alone?"
Grace walked to the window, leaned on the sill, and peered down over the fence into the neighbor's yard, where a small dog circled, chasing its tail. She sighed, then turned and walked slowly back to Hannah. "I'd never have given up my home," she said, taking the chair she had vacated. "Roger wouldn't let up, he kept insisting that I sell everything and move here, closer to an airport, he kept saying." Grace could not hide the irritation in her voice or the pain it caused her to think about it. Looking down at her hands, she fingered the plain gold band she still wore. "I can't tell you how I felt watching strangers walk into my home and cart away what had been my life and Ted's. I loved our Ethan Allen dining room set. It took us two years to save up to buy it." Her eyes met Hannah's. Her shoulders drooped. "Roger deposited me here a year ago, on my sixty-seventh birthday. I took one look at this house and thought, it's so frayed-looking, and you know, that's just how I felt." She sighed deeply. "I never imagined life would reduce me to living in one room in someone else's house."
"Couldn't you have refused to move?"
"It was all so fast, so unexpected." She hesitated, looked away. "I've never been good at saying no." Then Grace came and stood at the side of the bed above Hannah. "No one likes a complainer, my mother always said. But, Hannah, sometimes, I feel so downhearted, don't you?" The room fell silent as Grace looked expectantly at her friend.
"Course I do. Times I wonder what it's all been for, working sixty-hour weeks struggling to raise, to educate my girls, to end up so unconnected to them, especially Laura, and in a place like this. Inside of me"she tapped her chest with two fingers"in here, in my heart, in my spirit, I feel young, forty years old. Do they care? Do they know?" She brought a fist down on the side of the bed. "And your Roger's not much better. That's why we have to help Amelia. Who else will?"
"Still, Roger's my son. We're not Amelia's family. We have no rights in this case."
"You just said we needed one another. Act on those words. Amelia's got no family. We have a moral as well as a personal obligation to help her."
Hannah had a point, yet Grace was troubled by the method. Still she knew one way or the other, arguing with Hannah was useless. Hannah would say and do whatever she wanted. Then Grace remembered why she had come upstairs, and she held up the Federal Express envelope that had arrived just after lunch. "This just came. I thought I'd go and take it to Amelia in a bit. If I may borrow your car? I thought you might like to come."
"Sure, I'll go. Give me a minute to freshen up."
With Grace gone, Hannah reached down, groaned, then eased first one leg and then the other over the side of the bed. "Damned hip," she muttered, "where's my cane?" It was ludicrous that a woman, five feet ten inches tall, taller than her husband had been, taller than many men, and as active as she had always been, should need a cane. Other than her hip she was a healthy, strong, and proud seventy-three-year-old with all her faculties and totally chagrined that a bad hip could so harness her independence.
It took several steps to, as she called it, "oil her joints," before Hannah reached the window and eased herself into the chair at her desk. She straightened her wide shoulders and picked up a pencil. By this age and stage of their lives they'd all had more than their share of success and failure, joy and pain, love and loss. On a padHannah doodled her daughter's names, Miranda, Laura. Did they blame her for their father's death? It was so long ago. Leaning her elbows on the desk, she rocked slowly back and forth for several moments.
What Grace had said about needing each other more than they needed their children had touched her. Amelia had no children to worry about, or be hurt by. Hannah doodled the word right. Searching Amelia's room had been the right thing to do. Sometimes others had to take charge of things, and this was one of those times. For a moment Hannah indulged in daydreaming, imagining herself in her lush and lovely garden fragrant with roses and brilliant blue hydrangeas and the area she had set aside for cut flowers, zinnias, cone-flowers, daisies, gladiolas, alive with color. Knee surgery had gotten her walking again, but with the caveat, don't kneel, don't squat, bad news for a gardener. What caveats would come with hip replacement surgery? She hated this enforced retirement. If she had one wish, it was to be as physically fit as she had been before her knee and hip had betrayed her, and to once again be in charge of her own plant business.
The leaves on the red maple shimmered in a quicksilver breeze. Hannah studied the tree. "Love you best in spring when the birds come back and your sticky little leaves unfold." She had always talked to flowers, plants, trees. They brought her more comfort than most people; they never betrayed her. She could love them, talk to them, feed them, water them, and they rewarded her with stunning flowers that gave only pleasure. She loved trees with their strong limbs that supported tree houses and children's swings and offered wonderful cooling shade in summer. Hannah ran her fingers through her thick short hair, then using both hands, shoved herself up from her desk and moved toward the door.
Grace drove Hannah's clunky old station wagon at twenty miles an hour down Sugar Maple Road. As a driver she felt inadequate and self-conscious. "I didn't learn to drive until Ted died, you know," she told Hannah.
"After Ted died, I had to depend on friends for transportation to the market, church, drugstore, even the cemetery. I took driver's education three times before I felt confident enough to take the drivingtest. Dentry's a small town, population five thousand, three hundred and two, according to the chamber of commerce, five stoplights, and almost all streets marked twenty-five miles an hour."
"You only drove in that town?"
"Yep. I've never driven on an interstate or a four-lane." She shivered. "The thought gives me the willies." Grace did not tell Hannah that sometimes she dreamed of speeding along a highway singing at the top of her lungs.
"Did you talk to her?" Hannah asked, changing the subject.
"Amelia? Yes, I called the hospital. She's feeling better, wants company." Grace eased the car around a curve and crept down a tree-lined street. Ahead of them loomed the Isaac Branston General Hospital, all glass and brick and named, as the town had been, for a Union captain, a local hero of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Grace found a place as close to the entrance as possible, and moving at a snail's pace, in deference to Hannah, proceeded across the parking lot toward the hospital entrance. "Dammit." Hannah stopped for a moment. "I used to be as swift and agile as a deer."
And stubborn as a mule, Grace thought, and sometimes a bit overbearing, my friend.
Amelia opened her eyes and for a moment wondered where she was. The cream-colored walls, the floral-patterned curtains, an oil painting of a waterfall on the wall across from her bed were not what she expected in a hospital room. Then she remembered doubling over in excruciating pain in Olive's kitchen, a sense of speed and crush and noise, and later a tall doctor with horn-rimmed glasses and a brush cut who called her by name.
"Mrs. Declose, Amelia," he'd said, "you're a very lucky lady. We've removed a benign growth from your colon. You're going to be just fine." And he had patted her hand.
She would recover. She had before, even when she would have preferred not to. Life then, and even now, seemed more of an effort than it was worth. Her hand moved to her neck and throat. The Pain. Dr. Spencer had said she would forget, in time. But in all these years, she never had. Relax, Amelia said to herself. This is Branston, not New York, and I'll be out of here soon.
Outside her window puffball clouds scooted by, a sure sign of a brisk wind. She tried to sit up straight, but the pull of stitchesstopped her. Holding her stomach, she sank back onto the pillows. I've slept well here, she thought. With the help of pain pills and sleeping pills of course. Before being discharged she must wangle as many sleeping pills as she could from the doctor. Without them, she sighed, more endless, sleepless nights.
"When do I go home?" she asked the nurse entering the room.
"When the catheter comes out, Mrs. Declose." The nurse plugged a thermometer in Amelia's mouth and began pumping up the blood pressure cuff.
Amelia was in no hurry to leave. She would have another good night's sleep tonight. "Ouch, my arm feels as if it's going to explode, young lady."
"Sorry about that. Please keep the thermometer in your mouth."
Amelia Declose seemed a gossamer creature. Startlingly blue eyes looked at the world from a pale oval face, unlined except for a crisscross of fine winkles near her eyes, which leaped into action when she smiled. Her hair, pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck, was white, not the white of melting snow in city streets, not white tinged with yellow, but pure silver white that accentuated her remarkable eyes. All her life people had remarked on her eyes: magnificent, amazing, such eyes, blue as heaven, like sapphires. Thomas, her late husband, who had been raised in Montana and who, therefore, ought to have known, called them Montana sky blue, which had a romantic aura, and pleased her most of all. Slender and of average height, she had been a perfect fit with Thomas when they danced.
Then Amelia saw Grace and Hannah standing in the doorway. "Ah, mes amies," and with her free hand beckoned them to enter. As a companion Amelia preferred Grace, but she had developed great respect for Hannah, a single parent before it was acceptable, a woman who had owned and operated her own business. She's tough, doesn't let life beat her down; Amelia had thought it about Hannah before and she thought it about her now. Cane or not, Hannah had plenty of starch in her.
Amelia knew things about Grace's life, about Hannah's life, but they knew nothing of hers. It was still, after four long years, too painful to talk about.
The nurse folded the blood pressure cuff, accepted the thermometer Amelia handed her, wrote some notes on a chart, and left the room.
Grace stood at Amelia's bedside. "How are you, my friend?"
From their initial meeting Amelia had been drawn by Grace's warm smile and trusting eyes. There was about Grace a serenity, a sense of slow and quiet deliberation. Grace considered things before voicing an opinion. Where she, Amelia, though she appeared friendly, was cautious of people, Grace had a welcoming, optimistic attitude toward all comers. Amelia liked Grace, and oddly, having had a mere smattering of female friends and having known Grace for only a short time, she trusted her. One evening, Grace had made a batch of her special sugar cookies, and the three of them settled on Olive's front porch to indulge themselves while the sweet sound of someone playing Gershwin on a piano drifted from somewhere down the street. That evening Grace had talked about her little heart attack, her one arterial angioplasty, and about her weight.
"First I had indigestion, but it got worse and then my arm went numb. I called my doctorI'd known him all my life. He rode with me in the ambulance to the hospital in Dayton, a good hour's drive away, stayed right by my side all during the angiogram and the angioplasty. Talk about scared. I was so terrified I almost stopped breathing. They had to give me oxygen. Humiliating, but the nurses were wonderful. Dr. Frank said I was lucky, just one artery blocked, but he wanted me to take off weight. 'Add years to your life,' he said." Grace had crossed her hands over her chest. "Well, all my life I've gained and lost weight. I was fed up with it. One day I just stood in front of my full-length mirror and said, so my behind juts out, my hips sprawl, and that's how they're going to stay." Then in a burst of levity she waved her hands in the air. "I had the mirror taken down."
Now, reaching out both hands, Amelia clasped one each of theirs. "How good to see you both."
"We miss you at Number Sixteen. When do you come home?"
"Tomorrow. Day after tomorrow."
Amelia thought Grace's winsome face looked strained, her eyes anxious as she placed the envelope on the bed.
"Don't know. It came today."
Amelia passed the Federal Express envelope back to Grace. "Do the honors, please."
Slipping her finger under the flap, Grace extracted three items and handed them to Amelia.
Amelia read the letter to herself, exclaimed, "Oh, my," and then read it aloud.
Dear Mrs. Declose,
Your cousin, the late Arthur A. Furrior, has made you a gift of love. You are the beneficiary of a property near Asheville, North Carolina, in a town called Covington. The property is comprised of a farmhouse, twenty-eight acres of land, a year-round spring, and a stream. As Mr. Furrior was unable to visit this property in the last several years, it may need refurbishing. With this consideration in mind, Mr. Furrior has provided a sum of fifty-thousand dollars ($50,000), enclosed herewith, for repairs should they be necessary, or you are free to dispose of this money and the property in whatever manner you wish. A local farmer, Harold Tate, looks after the property and can be reached at 555-859-2567. If I can be of any further service, please let me know.
Sincerely, J. B. Pennyson, Attorney-at-Law
Amelia stared at the check. "Unbelievable. Incredible. Fifty thousand dollars. It's been forever since I've seen this much money."
Wide-eyed, Grace gawked at the check. "I never have."
Amelia's eyes filled with tears. She held a slim blue-veined hand over her heart. "How generous, how kind and dear of Arthur." She looked at Grace, then at Hannah. "He was my cousin. I'll miss him. He found me, and now he's gone."
Grace nodded, feeling guilty and unable to stand the strain of her snooping. "I know about Arthur, Amelia."
"How? I never told anyone. I hope you don't feel offended, Grace, Hannah. His first letter was so unexpected, so special. I didn't want to share him with anyone for a little while, and now it's too late to share him with anyone." Her eyes brimmed with tears.
Hannah found herself explaining. "We felt if you had family, we had to let them know you were in the hospital. Grace didn't want to. Olive and I insisted that she go into your room to see if she could find an address book, a letter, someone we could contact on your behalf."
"I found Arthur's letters, picture." Grace sunk to her knees alongside Amelia's bed. "Forgive me. I've betrayed your trust. I feel so guilty."
"Get up, Grace, please. I can't see you down there. I understand. It's natural you'd want to contact my family, if I had any." She fingered the check. "If I'd told you about Arthur, you wouldn't need to feel guilty. I'm the guilty one for keeping him from you. Understand? There's nothing to forgive."
Grace exhaled a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Amelia, thank you." It was then that Grace noticed the patchy discoloration of burn scars on the side of Amelia's neck and down onto her shoulder.
Amelia felt Grace's eyes on her neck and her hand flew to cover the scar. "It's so ugly, an awful reminder." She flushed. "That's why I wear a scarf."
"How did that happen to you?" Instantly Hannah regretted the words that had flown out of her mouth.
Amelia turned to Grace. The sheet she pulled to her shoulders did not quite cover the crumpled white scars. "Hand me my scarf, please, Grace." She pointed to a hook on the wall near the door. "I meant to ask the nurse for it. Thanks." Amelia took the silky, blue scarf and wound it about her neck. "I feel quite naked without a scarf. It's not something I can talk about easily. At least not now."
THE LADIES OF COVINGTON SEND THEIR LOVE. Copyright © 2000 by Joan Medlicott. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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