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Winona Farmington opened one eye and saw through the window the white wonderland she woke up to for most of the winter in Beecher, Michigan. It was a small town, almost two hours north of Detroit, with a population of ten thousand. Beecher’s main claim to fame was that it had been hit by the tenth deadliest tornado in U.S. history in the 1950s, long before Winnie was born. Nothing much had happened there since.
The other side of her double bed was cold, which meant that Rob had gotten up at least an hour before, and left for the meat processing plant where he worked. She guessed even before she glanced out the window that he hadn’t bothered to shovel after last night’s snow. The house she lived in had been her mother’s, and she owned it with her sister, Marje. Marje was already married with kids when their mother died, and she and Erik owned their own house, so Winnie stayed in the family house and they agreed that if they ever sold it, they’d split the proceeds equally. But for now at least, Marje didn’t need the money. Her husband owned a busy plumbing company, and the house was a good investment and likely to increase in value, so she’d never asked Winnie to sell it.
Rob stayed with her almost every night. He had his own apartment, but rarely went there except when they had a fight, or if he stayed out too late and got too drunk when he went out with the boys and didn’t want to hear Winnie complain about it the next morning. The rest of the time he slept at Winnie’s, did no repairs, felt no great attachment to the place, and only helped her with something minor when she asked him. He kept some clothes in her closet, but nothing too personal, and none of his favorite items to wear.
Winnie had once escaped Beecher to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and had loved it for the three years she’d been there. She had big dreams then, and wanted to work in publishing in New York after she graduated. She’d even visited the city a couple of times with her roommates and loved it, but then her mother got sick at the end of junior year, and by the end of the summer, it looked as if she only had a few months to live. Winnie didn’t want to miss being with her mother for her final days. They’d always been close, particularly after Marje moved out after she graduated from high school when Winnie was eight. She had her mother to herself from then on, and their time together was precious. Her mother had shared with her her passion for books, the delight of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, her favorite authors, biographies of famous people, history, and current authors.
Winnie took the first semester of senior year off to be with her. But she was no better by Christmas, and Winnie took spring semester off as well to nurse her. It had been hard to come home to a small, quiet town, where nothing ever happened, after the excitement of the university. Coming back to Beecher was like returning to her childhood, and her whole focus was on her mother. She had no life of her own. Her friends had married right out of high school, or gone to Detroit to find better jobs than they could find in Beecher. A few had gone to college, but not many. Some even had babies by then, and Winnie suddenly had nothing in common with them. She was busy with her mother’s care.
It was never spoken, but Marje simply assumed that Winnie would be there for their mother. She had a husband and a child by then and made it clear she had no time. Winnie was single, still in college, and Marje saw no reason why Winnie’s plans couldn’t be deferred, and her dreams put on the back burner. Winnie was the obvious choice of caretaker, and she didn’t want to let her mother down. She had always given up so much for them. And Winnie didn’t want to abandon her mother in her final months. She loved her and wanted to spend as much time with her as she could.
Miraculously, and despite the doctors’ dire predictions, her mother had hung on for seven years, and even rallied several times, but never long enough for Winnie to leave again. She fought a noble battle, and finally died when Winnie was twenty-seven. By then it seemed too late to go back to college. She had a job, a house, a life, and New York and her dreams seemed as if they were on another planet. She was working as a cashier at a restaurant, and got a better job at the local printing company after that. She met Rob four months after her mother died, and the time had drifted by like a river from then on, carrying her along with it. She didn’t need a college degree for the job she had. Her own natural organizational skills and common sense were enough.
It was hard to believe she and Rob had been dating for eleven years. She wasn’t madly in love with him, but he was familiar and comfortable. They never talked about marriage or the future, they lived in the present, had dinner together on most nights, went to the movies, bowling with friends sometimes. It wasn’t what she really wanted, but there was no one else more interesting around, and suddenly she slipped from twenty-seven to twenty-nine, then turned thirty at dinner one evening with Marje, Erik, and Rob. Then just as quickly she was thirty-two and then thirty-five. They’d been together for ten years when she turned thirty-seven. And now she was thirty-eight and couldn’t figure out where the years had gone. Eleven of them, with Marje reminding her constantly that she needed to get married and start having kids before it was too late. She conveniently forgot that Winnie had spent seven years, crucial years, were spent taking care of their mother, while Marje claimed she was too busy to help. Winnie wasn’t angry about it, but it was a fact of her life. She had sacrificed a big chunk of time, which she’d never get back.
She couldn’t see herself having kids with Rob either, and he wasn’t eager for kids or marriage. He was thirty-nine, and most of his friends were getting divorced after fifteen and twenty years of marriage. Marje and Erik had a good marriage and seemed happy enough. She knew her sister had had at least one affair, maybe two, which Marje had never admitted to, but Beecher was small, people talked, and Winnie had guessed. She didn’t know if Erik knew or not. He was a good breadwinner and a terrific father who coached Little League for their two boys. Winnie couldn’t imagine Rob doing that. He had nieces and nephews of his own who didn’t interest him much, and he referred to all of them as the “rug rats.”
Winnie had read in Cosmopolitan magazine once that women couldn’t afford dead-end relationships after the age of twenty-eight, or they ran the risk of getting stuck in them for years, and mising opportunities for marriage and children, possibly until too late to have them. The magazine had warned that you turn forty before you know it. Her mom had always cautioned her to try to find the right man and settle down before the bloom was off the rose. She wasn’t there yet, but she was getting close, with a man who didn’t set her heart on fire, took her for granted most of the time, and never told her he loved her. It wasn’t exactly a dead-end relationship, it was more of an open-ended one that just kept limping forward through the years without arriving anywhere. She wondered if he would marry her if she made a fuss about it, but she didn’t because she wasn’t sure how she felt about it herself. It was a no-frills relationship: a box of candy on Valentine’s Day if he remembered, and he almost always forgot her birthday but would take her out to dinner a few days later, if he had time. She couldn’t see the point of getting married, unless they wanted kids, and they didn’t. She wasn’t ready to have babies, she wanted to figure out what she envisioned for her future first.
“Well, you’d better figure it out pretty damn soon,” her sister scolded her. “Or you’ll wake up one day and be forty-five or fifty, and it’ll be too late, for kids anyway. It happens faster than you think.” Marje was ten years older than Winnie.
“I’m only thirty-eight,” Winnie reminded her.
“Yeah, and it seems like just last week you were twenty-eight. You won’t be young forever, Win.” Marje always liked reminding Winnie that she was getting older, it made her feel more comfortable about being middle-aged herself. It had taken Marje and Erik a long time to get pregnant, and their boys were now fourteen and seventeen. They were good kids, who had no ambition to leave Beecher. Erik expected both of them to come to work with him at his plumbing company someday, and neither of them objected. They already helped out after school. The company was a good moneymaker, and neither boy was planning to go to college since their parents hadn’t. Winnie’s three years at Michigan, as an English major with a creative writing minor, were considered an aberration for her family. She’d gone to college before her nephews were even born, so she wasn’t an example they could relate to, and she had done nothing special with her life.
She kept herself busy with the things she loved to do. She still read voraciously and was first on the list at the library for every bestseller that came out. Her mother had been a volunteer at the town library on the weekends and instilled in her a love of books. Winnie wrote short stories from time to time, and had done well in her writing classes in college. And when her mother had gotten too sick to continue working, Winnie had taken over one of her favorite duties. She read stories to children every Saturday morning. It was also a volunteer job and she loved it. Her mother had been “The Story Lady” to the local children, and Winnie happily stepped into her shoes. She had done it at first to help her mother, who didn’t want to disappoint the children who expected her to be there on Saturdays. It gave Winnie a chance to share the gifts her mother had given her with the children. She introduced them to “The Red Shoes,” Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Little Prince, The Secret Garden, Little Women, and Nancy Drew for the slightly older girls. The children loved her and Winnie got to read her favorite childhood books again. She had a gift with the children, like her mother had, although she didn’t think so. Marje always said the books their mother read to her had bored her, while Winnie devoured them, much to their mother’s delight. Every Saturday morning, Winnie spent two hours at the library, and was “The Story Lady,” carrying on her mother’s tradition and following in her footsteps. It was Winnie’s only contact with kids, other than her two nephews, who were as uninterested in books as their mother.
Winnie’s other passion had always been horses, ever since she was a little girl. She’d had a chance to ride at a friend’s father’s farm, and had had a few lessons. She was a decent rider and her friend’s father said she was a natural. She liked to ride, but what she liked best was watching them. She had an instinctive sense for what a horse seemed to be thinking or feeling. She had walked into the corral once where they were keeping a horse that had been mistreated before they bought him. No one had been able to ride him, he was wild-eyed and terrified, bucked off anyone who rode him, and kicked anyone who came near. The men at the stable said he was hopeless and they were planning to sell him again, or worse. Winnie felt so sorry for the horse that she let herself into the corral where he stood alone. She spoke softly to him, as he eyed her in terror but didn’t move. He let her stroke him, and pawed the ground next to her, as one of the men watched, afraid to call out to her to stand back, stunned by what she was doing.