Read an Excerpt
The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love
By Joan Medlicott
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Joan Medlicott
All rights reserved.
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 monstrous invasion 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 Balance walking 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 counted — and Grace did not — the 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 now realized 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.
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 enthusiasm and 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 eye — a cable dated June 19, 1996.
WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU OF THE DEATH OF
ARTHUR A. FURRIOR ON JUNE 16, 1996. J. B.
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's chronicle 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 of her 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.
Excerpted from The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love by Joan Medlicott. Copyright © 2000 Joan Medlicott. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.