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Cara had begun this long journey home many times in her mind over the years, but always there was some project, some appointment, some emotional obstacle of her own construction that stopped her.
Road weary and life tired, Cara was traveling the path of least resistance as she headed south across the flat expanse of the old cotton country known as the coastal plains. It had been over twenty years since she'd driven this long stretch of South Carolina highway toward the sea. Growing up, she'd always considered it someplace to drive through on her way to somewhere else. Anywhere else.
She passed vanishing woodlands and acres of farmland for sale, huge, flat-roofed warehouses and sun-faded billboards heralding exits for boiled peanuts, tree-ripened peaches, stock-car racing and fireworks. It was late May. Spring was already giving way to sizzling summer in the South. Elderberry bushes rambled along the roadsides, and beyond in the pinewoods, Cara knew the coral beans were aflame and swamp roses decorated the banks like some wild hothouse garden.
The thought that the sea turtles were returning home to nest sprang to mind. She laughed out loud at the irony.
If someone had told her a year ago that the following May she would be driving to Charleston for an extended visit with her mother, Cara would have tossed back her head and laughed in that throaty manner of hers. "Impossible," she would have told them, the smile slipping from her face and a flash sparking in her eyes. First of all, her schedule would never have allowed it. Every minute of her day was double booked. At best, in an emergency, she might fly in for an overnight stop, as she had for her father's funeral. Secondly, there was nowhere on earth she'd least want to visit than Charleston. And no person less than her mother. The current status of a polite truce had worked well for them both over the past years of her self-imposed exile.
But, as always, Mama's timing was impeccable. Where else would one go but home when there was nowhere else to go?
Cara tightened her grip on the steering wheel. How could her orderly life have careened so far out of control? How did it happen that, after twenty-two years of living independently, after a successful career, after complete and utter self-sufficiency, she found herself back on this damnable stretch of road limping back home?
It was her mother's letter that had lured her. The day before, Lovie had sent the customary flowers for Cara's birthday. As Cara gingerly unwrapped the purple florist tissue, the heady scent of the gardenias permeated her apartment.
Instantly, Cara was back in her mother's walled garden in Charleston where an ancient magnolia spread its broad glossy leaves and the white, heavily scented flowers of the gardenias competed with the climbing jasmine. She'd opened the letter from her mother and read her familiar, feathery script.
Happy Birthday Dear Caretta!
I never smell gardenias without thinking of you.
Things have been in a state of flux since your father's death. Now it is time for me to, shall we say, put my house in order. Come home, Cara, just for a while. Not to the house on Tradd Street. Come to the beach house. We've always had the best times there, haven't we?
Please don't say that you are too busy or that you can't get away. Remember how we used to say "Take charge of your birthday"? Can't you grant yourself this one gift of time and spend a few days with your ancient mother? Please come home, Cara dear. Soon. Your father is gone and we need to sort through years of accumulation.
Perhaps it was the scent of the gardenias that prompted the sudden loneliness, or simply that someone had remembered her birthday. Or perhaps it was her desolation at having just lost her job. But for the first time since leaving her embrace at eighteen, Cara felt a sudden, desperate longing for her mother.
She wanted to go home. Home to the Lowcountry, where once she had been happy.
Cara crossed the Ashley and the Wando rivers, took a final turn off the highway, then sped over a new, graceful arch of roadway that connected the mainland to the small barrier island called Isle of Palms. The vista yawned open before her, revealing a breathtaking view of endless blue sky and watery, greening marsh stretched out as far as she could see. She felt her mind ease as she took in the wide-open space. The hustle and honking of the crowded roads felt a world behind her. Ahead, cutting a wide, blue path through the waving grasses, was the sparkling Intracoastal Waterway and parallel to it, the smaller Hamlin Creek lined with docks, one after another, most with a boat at moor. She reached the peak of the arch.
Suddenly, looming straight ahead, like a magnificent yet serene beast, lay the vast, glistening expanse of blue that was the Atlantic Ocean. It was a living thing, pulsating power beneath the quiescent surface. Her breath caught, her body shivered and in that soul-striking instant, Cara knew that saltwater still ran thick in her veins.
She was back on the Isle of Palms. Even the name was soft on the tongue and evoked images of waving palm trees and tranquil, sunny afternoons by the rolling surf. For a hundred years, the Isle of Palms was a place the folks of Charleston and Columbia escaped to when the summers got too beastly hot. They took the ferryboat over to camp in the pine and oak forests or dance at the pavilion to big-name bands. Years later, bridges and roads were built and each summer the island's population swelled along with the heat. Growing up, Cara had spent summer after summer here with her mother and her older brother, Palmer. Her happiest memories were of the three of them living without paying mind to a clock, letting the sultry light of the Carolina sun dictate their days.
She'd heard that back in 1989 Hurricane Hugo had turned the island upside down. But she hadn't imagined the extent that time could alter a landscape. This used to be a sleepy island town with a grocer, liquor and hardware store clustered together beside a small stretch of postcardish, islandy restaurants. Ocean Boulevard was but a line of modest beach cottages across from a wide stretch of sand dunes that rolled lazily along the ocean.
So it was all the more shocking to see that the dunes she'd played on were gone, paved flat for a row of mansions that formed a wall of pastel-colored wood blocking the view of the sea and dwarfing the once oceanfront cottages across the street. These beautiful new post-Hugo houses stood even closer to the water's edge, as though arrogantly daring the heavens to strike again. Cara could turn her head left, then right as she drove and see, in turn, an eerie picture of pre-and post-Hugo worlds.
Still, some things never changed, she thought as she spied a line of pelicans flying overhead looking like a squadron of bombardiers on patrol. She opened her window to the balmy island air and breathed deeply. Dusk was setting in, and with each moist breeze she felt a page of her history flutter back, recalling the days when she was young and pedaled this road on her bicycle, feeling the wind toss her hair like streamers behind her. She drove another two blocks south, scanning. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw it.
Primrose Cottage. As pale a yellow as the delicate evening primroses that surrounded it, the 1930s beach cottage sat back from the road perched on a small dune. In contrast to all the meticulously landscaped properties of the newer mansions, her mother's house appeared as a wispy memory of the past glowing in the twilight among waves of tall grasses, brilliant pink phlox and yellow primroses for which it had been named. Although a bit wind worn, the old frame house with the low spreading roof and the wide, welcoming verandas seemed as indigenous here as the palmetto trees.
It had been twenty years since she'd laid eyes on this house. So many years since embarking on the journey from little girl to middle-aged woman. Pulling up to the curb to stare, it occurred to her that while she'd been busy with her life in Chicago, oblivious to the goings-on of the island, this charming little house was here, patiently waiting for her.
She shifted into gear and slowly drove around the block to the back of the house, pulling into the winding gravel driveway, careful when the wheels dug past the thin layer of gravel to hit sand. She released a short laugh to see the old, shiny gold VW convertible parked beneath the porch. Mama was still driving The Gold Bug? That old ragtop was like a flag. Everyone knew if The Gold Bug was in the driveway, Olivia Rutledge was in residence and ready for visitors.
Coming to a stop, Cara could feel the miles still moving in her veins. She stared out the windshield at what had always been home and wondered if she was now a visitor at Primrose Cottage, too. Did blood alone earn her the right to call it home? Did hours of pulling weeds from the flower beds and boarding up windows against storms, or years of swinging on the front porch count for anything? She sighed and pulled up the parking brake. Probably not. Besides, she remembered how, in a fit of youthful passion, she'd made a point of shouting to her mother that she wanted nothing at all to do with her, her damn father or anything connected to them.
Yet the connection tugged, pulling her out from the stale confines of the car into the cool offshore breezes spiked with the heady scent of honeysuckle. She stood, one foot on the sand, the other perched on the car, feeling the undertow sweep her back, back from the shoreline of the world she'd left behind.
Her memories were crowding her now and she anxiously eyed the remaining feet to her mother's door. She wanted to go in but years of anger rooted her to the spot. So she leaned against the car, formulating what she would say that could break the ice yet still allow her to keep a modicum of self-respect. She'd stay one week, she told herself, gathering courage. Maybe ten days. Any more than that and her mother would drive her crazy and they'd fall back into that pattern of bickering and harsh words followed by long, sulking silences. Oh, God, she thought, rubbing her forehead. Was it a mistake to come back at all?
All around her the sky darkened to dusky purples and blues and the birds called out their final warnings to go home. A dog howled somewhere in the distance. Then, from around the house, she heard the high melodic hum of a woman's voice.
Cara moved to peek around the corner. Ambling up the sandy ocean path she saw a diminutive woman in a big, floppy straw hat, a long, faded denim skirt and bright red Keds. Bits of the tune she was humming carried in the breeze, nothing recognizable. In one arm she lugged a red plastic bucket, a telltale sign of one of the island's Turtle Ladies. Cara's heart beat wildly but she remained silent, watching. From this distance she might have mistaken the woman for a young girl. She seemed utterly carefree and oblivious to anything save for the field of wildflowers she passed. She paused en route to stoop and snip a flower, then, resuming her hum, she continued up the path toward Primrose Cottage.
A million things that Cara had meant to say, a thousand postures she'd meant to strike, evaporated as quickly as sea foam once it hits the shore.
"Mama!" she called out.
Her mother stopped short and swung her head in her direction. Bright blue eyes sparkled from under the broad rim of the hat and her mouth opened in a gasp of genuine pleasure. Dropping her bucket, she held out her arms in a joyous welcome. "Caretta!"
Cara cringed at hearing the name she despised, but closed the distance quickly, following the age-old path of a child to her mother's embrace. Taller by a head, she bent her knees and felt like she always did beside Olivia Rutledgelike a clambering bull next to a porcelain doll. Yet when her mother's arms flung around her and squeezed tightly, Cara felt a sweeping flush of childlike pleasure.
"I've missed you," her mother said softly against her cheek. "You're home again. At last."
Cara squeezed back but too many years of silence choked all words. She released her hold and, stepping back, it struck her like a fist's blow how much her mother had changed. Olivia Rutledge had become an old woman. Beneath the cheery straw hat her skin was pale and seemed to hang from her prominent cheekbones. The brightness of her blue eyes had dimmed, and though always small and trim, she was now painfully thin.
How could it have happened so quickly, Cara wondered? Only eighteen months ago at her father's funeral Olivia still retained that timeless quality to her beauty and grace. At sixty-nine she wasn't young, of course, but Cara couldn't think of her mother as old. She was one of those lucky women born with a girlish, slender body and a face that was as scrubbed fresh and naturally pretty as the wildflowers she adored. Her father used to say that he married Olivia because she was as sweet as she lookedand it was true. Everyone loved Olivia Rutledge, "Lovie" to those who knew her well.
But her daughter knew the price that ready smile had cost her mother over the years.