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Leaves of Hope
By Catherine Palmer
Center Point Large PrintCopyright © 2006 Catherine Palmer
All right reserved.
Lake Palestine, Texas
Being home again felt better than she had expected. With her mother living in a new house by the lake and her father gone, Beth Lowell had feared things might seem strange. But there in the pink armchair sat her mom reading a magazine. By the door stood the familiar brass coatrack. On the table sat a bouquet of fresh roses, as always. As much as she wished her mother would wake up and do something exciting with her life, Beth couldn't deny the pleasure in the familiar aroma of Jan Lowell's warm cherry cobbler. The taste of her famous chicken salad. The tang of fresh, homemade lemonade.
"Do you realize how many times your phone has tweedled, sweetie?" Jan lifted her head from the magazine. "I bet you've had fifteen calls since you got here this afternoon."
"Is that bothering you?" Beth asked as she set the phone beside her on the old beige sofa.
"It does make conversation difficult. I haven't seen you in almost a year, but we can hardly finish a sentence. Before this last call, you were telling me about your boss."
"I don't want to talk about Joe anymore." Beth crossed her legs and rubbed her toes, determined to avoid the subject of the man she had been dating for two months. "He's a good guy, but he doesn't understand my job.They bought us out because they knew they needed us, but Joe hasn't found time to learn what we do."
Her mom's eyebrows lifted. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Beth. Who's they, and who's us? And what do you really do?"
"My division of the company used to be an independent consulting firm. We assisted various corporations with international transitions. Last year, Global Relocation Services acquired the firm and moved us to New York. Now we help their clients."
As Jan shook her head in confusion, Beth wondered why her mother suddenly looked so old. Why did she wear a faded pink chenille bathrobe and that ancient flannel nightgown? And why did she still have those awful fake-fur slippers she'd gotten for Christmas a jillion years ago?
"What is an international transition, honey?" Jan asked.
"I'm sorry, but I can't picture what that means."
She adjusted herself in the chair, Beth noticed, as though her back were hurting. Could she have osteoporosis at age forty-five?
"You're the English teacher, Mom," Beth reminded her. "International refers to the world. Transition means moving and changing. I help people move around the world. Industry executives. Diplomats. Oil field managers."
"You pack boxes for them?" Jan glanced at the stacks of cartons still lining the edge of her living room. Though she had been living at the lake for more than a month now, she had yet to sort through all her possessions. The guest room where Beth would sleep was a maze of lamps, side tables, artificial flower arrangements and boxes.
"The moving company takes care of people's furniture and possessions — the packing and unpacking," Beth explained.
"My division handles the rest."
"What else is there?"
"Everything. Families are uprooting their lives and settling into a new community. That's where I come in."
Jan flipped a page in her magazine without looking down at it. "Like helping them find a good school?"
"That and a hundred other things. For example, I just spent three months working with the family of a plastics company executive moving from Chicago to Colombia."
"Colombia? South America? Where they have the drugs and cartels and kidnappings? You didn't go down there, did you?"
"Sure, I went. This family — Dad, Mom and three children — were moving to the city of Cali. I interviewed each person to learn what they needed in order to be happy. Then I went to work. I helped them find a great house — five bedrooms, swimming pool, wonderful yard. There's a wall with Spanish lace on top — that's broken glass and barbed wire. And I set them up with a reputable security company, so they've got armed guards and watchdogs 24/7."
"No, it's great. It's safe, too — that's the main thing. Their car has an armed chauffeur, and the house features a state-of-theart alarm system. I found the kids an international school where classes are taught in English. Fully accredited — kindergarten through twelfth grade. Ninety-five percent of the students go on to university, most of them in the United States."
"Well, that's impressive. But what a scary place to live. Armed guards?"
Beth shrugged. "Families like that are prey for kidnappers. They're wealthy, they're American and they work for Fortune 500 companies. Unfortunately, Colombia has a number of guerrilla organizations. Ransom money helps pay for their activities. So does drug money."
"Beth, what kind of parents would move their children to such a place? It's so risky, so irresponsible! And how could you go there without telling me? If I'd known, I would have been frantic!"
"That's why I didn't tell you. I loved every minute of it, and I was perfectly safe. Cali is an enchanting city — flowers, a perfect climate, wonderful people."
"Except for the drug lords and guerrillas," Jan said drily.
"What country doesn't have a criminal element?" Beth countered, trying to squelch her resentment that her mother was putting her on the defensive about her work...her life. "The family was thrilled with my work. Before the move, our transition team briefed them on what to expect — not just the change in lifestyle but the emotional impact of the move. I heard from the mother the other day. They're enjoying their new life, the kids are excited about school and everyone is taking Spanish classes."
Jan leaned back and set her magazine on the table. "I don't know how you became this person, Beth," she said softly. "You grew up in Tyler."
"Everyone grows up somewhere. I've always wanted to travel, Mom. You make it sound like a bad thing."
"Not really. And the adventure is more than worth the risk. I'm going to Botswana in a couple of weeks!"
"Africa? Oh, my."
"Are you really worried, Mom? Or is it that you don't like change, so you can't believe someone else would?"
"Probably a little of both. Frankly, even hearing about it wears me out. I wouldn't know where to begin doing what you do. And those poor wives. If my husband had moved me around like that..."
She paused, her eyes drifting to the corner of the living room as if she were looking at something far away. Then she shook herself and focused on her daughter again. "I'd be scared to death, and I would probably hate it. I'm glad you're happy, though, honey. That's all I want for you."
Beth rearranged herself on the couch. "I wish you'd come to New York for a visit, Mom. I'd show you my apartment, my job...my life. We could go to some of my favorite restaurants. And see a play. When was the last time you saw a Broadway production?"
"I've never been to New York." Jan admitted.
"Mom, that's awful! You've never been to a Broadway show? You were an English major. You directed plays at John Tyler High School for the past twenty years. Didn't you have a chance to go when you were young — on a band trip or during college?"
"New York City is a long way from Tyler. Besides, I've never wanted to leave Texas. I'm sorry to disappoint you, honey, but I like my quiet life out here by the lake."
Beth gazed out the window at the mown green lawn, the strip of gray road, the yard across the street and the lake beyond. The sunset reflecting on the water flashed periwinkle and pink sparkles as snatches of foamy white scattered across the surface. Birds wheeled and screeched overhead — seagulls and pelicans — dipping to pluck fish from the water.
Jan followed her daughter's gaze. "I don't know how those seagulls dare to wander so far from the ocean."
"Maybe they're the adventurous ones."
"Or lost." Her mother returned her focus to Beth. "You can come to the lake any time you want. I'll always be happy for a visit."
"Is that the only way I can have you in my life? You and Dad helped me become who I am. I want you to know me now, Mom...as an adult."
"I do know you, sweetie," Jan said. "Better than you think. I'm just not one to go places — I never have been. Now I'm forty-five and a widow and an empty-nester, and my life isn't going to change drastically. It's like the quote I love so much, remember? "That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is that not it? It is." I painted it on the wall of my screened porch. I used brown to contrast with the white clapboard. It's the theme for my new life here at the lake."
Beth reflected a moment. "Mom, that's the theme you've always had. Que sera sera. What will be, will be. Or Shakespeare's 'I scorn to change my state with kings."
"Sonnet Twenty-Nine," her mother clarified. "For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings." It's better when you say the whole thing. You know I taught English for twenty years, Beth. These quotes crop up in conversation now and then."
"But they're always the same, Mom, like memos to your-self — reminding you to shrug off any possibility of change." Beth's eyes widened and she sat up. "I just thought of another one. "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can —"
"And the wisdom to know the difference," they finished together.
"What's wrong with that?" Jan asked. "Your daddy grew up in a houseful of reformed alcoholics, and they lived by that saying."
"They weren't reformed alcoholics when Dad was growing up." Beth tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear. "Dad was the only stable one of the whole bunch. I'm surprised they didn't all fall to pieces after he died."
"I'm surprised none of us did." Jan swallowed, and looked down.
Beth felt again the huge hole her father's death had left in his family's world. Two years had gone by, but it seemed like yesterday. And forever.
"The point I'm making, Mom," she continued gently, "is that you took a big step — retiring from your teaching job, selling the house you and Dad lived in your whole married life, leaving good ol' Tyler, Texas, and moving to a new house fifteen miles away. But then you painted the same old motto on your porch."
Jan's blue eyes narrowed. "Young lady, "what is, is." I will accept it and try to be happy."
"So, you're just going to roll up like a little pill bug and bury your head?"
"Of course not! I have plans. Things I'm doing. But I won't spend my life longing for what was. Or wishing for what might have been. It's called acceptance."
"It's called boring."
"Well, that's your opinion."
Beth's heart grew softer as she heard the pain in her mother's voice. "When I heard you were moving, I was thrilled. I thought, now. Now, she'll do something with herself. You taught school to earn a living, but inside, you had art, poetry, imagination bubbling up and seeping out. I thought I might come to the lake and find a bohemian mom with candles burning and red velvet couches and books of poetry lying around. But you have another tidy little house with the same curtains, beige furniture and throw rugs, just like in Tyler. You're still making chicken salad sandwiches and lemonade. And you've painted a saying that means 'Accept life and do nothing different."
"First of all, I loved teaching," Jan told her daughter. "It was never just a job. Second...well, I am doing things differently. My art, for example."
"Pastel chalks, as a matter of fact." Jan lifted her chin as though she had just reported recently climbing Mount Everest. "So you see? It's not the same. I took a class years ago. A woman taught us how to create portraits of Native Americans."
Excerpted from Leaves of Hope by Catherine Palmer Copyright © 2006 by Catherine Palmer. Excerpted by permission.
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