In 1957 jobs are scarce in rural Ashland, Alabama. Bobby Higgins is facing life decisions; his family’s farm struggles and threat of the draft hangs over 18-year-old males as the Cold War rumbles in the distance. Bobby heads off to boot camp, vowing to provide for his family from his pay. Between shore and sea duty, Bobby leaves broken hearts in every port. When his own heart is stolen by Rose, he’s shocked to learn that she comes with four daughters, a package deal he’s unsure he wants. But when Rose disappears, Bobby finds her and persuades her to marry him. Somehow they navigate their way through the trials of marriage and parenting as he fulfills his patriotic career and his promise to raise four willful daughters. In the spring of 2004, his daughters are brought together by grief. They forge new bonds, sharing their joys, losses, regrets, and ultimately family secrets that will seal all their fates…if they can summon the courage to report for duty.
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Charleston, South Carolina – 2004
Hey, Daddy," Elizabeth said softly. "You okay?"
He opened his eyes from the back- porch swing and smiled weakly. His binoculars sat in his lap. It was Purple Martin season. For years, he'd been luring them to a homemade gourd contraption. Every season as the Martin population increased, he'd altered and refined it. He'd even used one of his deep-sea fishing reels to raise and lower the houses from the twelve-foot steel pole.
"Good, everything's good," Bobby said. He patted the swing seat, inviting his daughter to join him. "Are you done for the day?"
"Yes, I only had a few clients today," she answered. "I heard Mallory popped in last weekend to help get the garden going. Guess she drove up from Beaufort?"
She picked up the glasses and looked for Martins peeping from the gourds. The pole was in the corner of the garden that she and her three sisters had enjoyed since her mom had married her stepfather thirty-four years ago. The soil was a rich organic mixture perfected and renourished each season. The irrigation system delivered deep well water during the hot Charleston summers. Depending on the crop rotation, he would adjust the PVC pipes, joints and sprinkler heads to accommodate the tilled rows.
Every summer, family, friends and neighbors coveted his tomato harvest. Each winter, he scoured the seed catalog for his next crop to be started in his hot house. The greenhouse was another personal project; it resembled a small transparent barn. It stayed littered with open bags of soil, fertilizer, plastic flower buckets, gloves, and little cardboard cartons to start the spring seedlings. Elizabeth was leery to go inside and help start the seedlings because the wasps also felt they were entitled to reside with the gentle farmer. Ever since she'd stepped on a honeybee and had an adverse reaction, she was a reluctant volunteer.
"Yea, we picked out the strongest plants. Mallory tilled and reset the sprinklers," he said. "She's coming back this weekend and we're going to set them in the ground. We ran out of time."
"Mallory said you've been sleeping a lot," Elizabeth said, while she tried to see if his ankles were swollen. She was the only daughter in town to help when her mom called and asked her to check on him, or when any medical intervention was needed. She'd watched his feet harden, turn blue and swell from his heart failure. At least it didn't look like there was a lot of fluid retention today. The last time he struggled with his congestive heart disease, his kidneys failed and allowed his lungs to fill with fluid. The helplessness in the ICU as they almost lost him was over- whelming. His recovery was miraculous, but deceptive.
She knew and always remembered — he still clung to his deeply instilled male pride in protecting the women in his life and resisting any dependency. In spite of their pleas to seek medical attention, he pushed against the inevitable. Daily routines and errands were smoke screens to the reality that his heart was failing. He hadn't revealed the conversation at his last doctor's appointment. If it were good news he'd have shared. When he didn't, Elizabeth knew there were no more options.
His home and garden were his final sanctuary. His southern roots were in the dirt. Flush or bust, his life and career taught him resilience. He'd learned his share of mortality lessons throughout his childhood and on into a career in the military.
"I'm just fighting a cold," he said. He put his arm around his daughter and changed the subject. "So, have you heard from any of your other sisters?"
Elizabeth got the message. "Got a beer?" she asked. "I'll fill you in."
He slowly leaned into the cooler next to the swing and handed her a well-chilled beer. As she cracked it open, a soft breeze carried the scent of the nearby gardenia bush. What had been a gangly overlooked mess of a shrub when he'd first started cultivating his backyard was thriving and bloom heavy. Gardenias had always held a special place in his heart. Many a photo had been taken in front of that bush. Petals had been pressed into scrapbooks along- side childhood memories. Fragrant bouquets often found their way to a Mason jar on the kitchen table. The Martins twittered as they dove in and out of the gourds. She smiled at him and began with, "Audrey called. I think everyone is planning to head this way for Mother's Day ..."CHAPTER 2
Ashland, Alabama – 1957
It was his turn, and young Bobby had tossed and turned all night in anticipation. A clean shirt and pants lay folded on the chair beside his bed, along with a pair of polished Buster Browns. He could still recall when he was just five years old and his oldest brother had returned from boot camp in his uniform, creased and impeccably clean. World War II had no meaning in his young life. Instead, what he saw when Jonathan walked into their house, decked out in white Crackerjacks and shiny patent leather shoes, was that there was no dirt or dust clinging to him. Working on the family farm made that a requisite for each family member, but not Jonathan, not then.
That Navy uniform had marked Bobby deep. When he ran to hug his brother, Jonathan kneeled and placed the Navy flat hat on his blonde towhead. The seed of adventures at sea had been sown in his little boy heart. Throughout his childhood, Mama would read the letters from the South Pacific. In spite of his family's country simplicity, Bobby had cut his teeth on tales of islands and ocean, exotic food and foreign people. He wanted to trade plowing with Pop's horse, Old Paint, to race on the deck of a destroyer — the Greyhound of the sea.
But now he was eighteen years old. He understood the impact of war on his small southern community. Families had been forced to support their farms with secondary jobs. His big brother had made it back from the war but not everyone's family welcomed a returning warrior. For over a decade, the government had been requiring males to register with Selective Services. Bobby knew he would be on the top of the draft list. He was a high school graduate and belonged to the Alabama National Guard. The idea of being summoned to join the Army moved him to follow in his brothers' footsteps. He'd seen the newsreels at the local theatre and knew he wanted to see the world.
His father never flinched when Bobby had to register, but now Pop was approaching his seventies and the farm was getting harder to maintain and produce a living for his family. There were only two more of his brothers left to tend the fields. The soil was poor and rocky and the idea of his seventy-year-old father behind the plow plagued him. But Bobby never wanted to be a farmer and there weren't many other options. The graphite mine had closed years ago. The cabinet factory would probably hire him. He was a good carpenter thanks to his brother, Glen. Glen couldn't join the military because he'd had polio. Before Glen married, Bobby would follow him around like a puppy.
He heard his mom in the kitchen and ran to beat his brothers to the bathroom. The sunlight peeked through the window mullions. His sister's rooster, Foghorn, announced the arrival of Navy recruitment day. He combed his hair with a little Brylcreem, hoping it would make him look older. Maybe he would impress Clara Hall and she'd write him while he was in boot camp.
"Hey, Bobby. I gotta go," Vernon called from the other side of the bathroom door. Vernon wasn't old enough to go to high school yet, and his walk to school was less pressing than Bobby's need to catch the school bus. "Hold your horses," Bobby said. He tucked in his plaid shirt, took one last look and opened the door. Vernon shoved past him and slammed the door.
Bobby headed to the kitchen to meet the welcoming aroma of biscuits. "Morning, mama," he said, grinning as his mother stirred the milk gravy. There were always flaky, buttery biscuits for the grab in mom's kitchen.
She looked over her shoulder at him with a smile but he saw the sadness in her eyes. Bobby was one of the last to leave her nest. He knew he was leaving a home that his parents built through wars, the Great Depression and so many economic challenges. But Bobby kept reminding himself that at least he was leaving the nest and not a victim of one of the childhood diseases the family had battled against. Diphtheria, whooping cough and polio had left their dark marks on his brothers and sisters. Not all of them had survived.
"Good morning, Bobby," his mother said. "You look like a fine young man in his Sunday meeting clothes. Is House going to the recruiter with you today?"
"Supposed to," Bobby answered, sitting at his place at the long, wooden kitchen table. "Last time the recruiter came to the high school, he said the Navy was letting buddies sign up together."
She placed two open-faced biscuits slathered in gravy with sausage in front of him and patted his back. She usually rumpled his hair and he was grateful she didn't today after he'd combed it special.
Vernon and Harvey plopped down at the table. Their striped tee shirts and casual long pants contrasted with Bobby's finer outfit. It also accentuated their age difference. They weren't yet aware of perfume and car fumes. For his younger brothers, childhood was still a pick-up game of baseball and fishing down in Farmer Mackey's pond.
"Hey, you gonna help me with math tonight?" Harvey asked Bobby. "This ciphering is hard. My teacher said you were good at it when she taught you."
"Sure, Harvey," Bobby said, wiping his mouth and scooting his chair back from the table. "But right now I gotta run and catch the bus." He looked at his mom, kissed her on the cheek and said, "Told House I'd meet him on the front steps this morning." He popped back into the bathroom, brushed his teeth and made sure his hair was still in place.
"Don't forget your lunch," his mom called.
* * *
Bobby got off the bus and saw his buddy House pulling up on their family's single bicycle, wearing his chick magnet senior letterman's jacket. His real name was Richard, but all his life because of his size, he carried the nickname, as in, big as a House. Bobby also noticed his penny loafers, surely his brother's; the thought confirmed when his friend carefully nudged the bike's kickstand, no doubt afraid of scuff marks. Ever since his brother had signed up, House had literally stepped into his brother's shoes, left behind when he signed up during the Korean War.
Bobby knew House wasn't as excited about enlisting as him. But House's future was as uncertain as his own, and the draft had clouded his hopes of a football scholarship. They'd turned eighteen a few weeks apart in January. Elvis Presley had been drafted in December and was headed to join the Army. He and Bobby couldn't compete with him in uniform but they were eager to wear their sailor caps. Serving did have its advantages. "I'm going to throw mine at my girlfriend," House had bragged to Bobby. "Just like in the movies."
Bobby wanted his very own Dixie cap just like the sailor on the Cracker Jacks box and the recruiting poster at the high school.
House and Bobby had grown up together in Ashland. Before high school, their older brothers took them to the theatre to see From Here to Eternity. The ships, high seas, planes and ports stirred a restlessness in them. In spite of the generations of woodworking and farming blood, their eyes had feasted together on the silver screen of unknown lands. They wanted to belong to a fraternity of American boys not afraid of hard work and sweat. Besides that, there was a paycheck, enough to share with their families. The wars, Depression and farming weren't going to provide the bacon.
"Hey, House," Bobby shouted from the steps of the high school. As they headed to their morning hangout, the bell rang and they both jumped just a little. He and House had official business today. Men's business.
* * *
Homeroom was in Room 307. Mrs. Campbell taught Senior English and Drama. House had been recruited by the thespians in their annual play. They loved to put the athletes on stage dressed in skirts and cardigans pretending to be cheerleaders or swooning at the feet of a soloist. Sometimes he could get out of it because he was too big for the girls' borrowed outfits. But, Bobby grinned to himself, his buddy was a good sport, especially if Pearl Miller was involved. Mrs. Campbell went through roll call and reminders. Something about the PTA meeting and graduation ranks. "... and for those young men that are meeting with the recruiters, they will be at their respective tables in the school cafeteria after 4th period. If you run over the bell, please have them provide an excuse for your next class. ..."
The bell rang and classmates spilled into the hallway. Chatter and banging lockers reminded Bobby there were only a few more weeks before graduation as he headed to his first class.
* * *
Bobby tapped the desk with his pencil eraser. He'd had enough of oral book reports. Mary loved to show off. She read Gone with the Wind. Why read it when all you had to do was go to the movies? What was all the fuss over Rhett Butler anyway? Bobby looked over the teacher's head at the clock. Two more minutes and he'd be meeting House in the cafeteria.
"It sounds like you really enjoyed Gone with the Wind, Mary." Mr. Duckworth said, wrapping up her spotlight moment. "Tomorrow we'll hear from Pete, Doris and Vivian. That'll wrap up the last of your senior reading list. Please remember to return all borrowed books to the library before graduation."
Bobby had returned his book a week ago. He'd put off reading Red Badge of Courage for as long as he could. He'd rather make furniture for his mom. She didn't know he was secretly working on a going away present. He'd been saving the money he'd earned working in the chicken houses for Mr. Horn. It wasn't hard, but boy those chickens sure did stink. Pop helped him find the lumber to make Ma's new porch chair.
The bell rang and Bobby's heart leapt. It was time to meet the recruiter. I'm going to see the world, he said to himself. All that was left was to fill out his Application for Enlistment. He hoped he had done his homework. Hopefully he'd be reporting for boot camp before the end of summer.CHAPTER 3
From beneath her pillow, Elizabeth heard the phone ringing. She peeked at the alarm clock's angry red digital numbers — 7:24. Her husband was already up so she ignored the ring and turned over. Last night, she'd promised her mom that she'd go back and check on her stepdad, even if she had to call out of the office. Maybe she could catch a couple more hours before she needed to be at work. The bedroom door opened softly.
"Dear, it's your mother," Dan said, holding the phone over her pillow. She sat up and covered the phone with her hand.
"Does she sound okay?" Elizabeth asked.
"She sounds fine," he answered. He remained beside her as she took a breath.
"Hey, mom. Everything —"
"HE'S GONE, Elizabeth. HE'S GONE. HE'S DEAD!" her mother screamed. "YOU'VE GOT TO COME OVER. HE'S DEAD."
"Is everything okay?" Dan asked softly. She stared into his eyes and shook her head no.
"Mom, I'll be right over," she said. "I'll be right over."
The phones simultaneously disconnected. A numbing chill shuddered through her. She knew this call would come but she felt stunned. If I'd only stayed longer last night. He said it was just a cold.
"Daddy's ... dead," she said, staring at Dan. "She sounds lost. I've got to get over there." Her feet slid off the bed like lead with her mother's words swirling in her head. Dan's eyes teared and he hugged her, but she couldn't succumb to his sympathy, not yet. "I've got to get over there," she repeated and pulled away, heading to their closet.
"I'm going to make you a protein shake. You need something in you," Dan said, heading towards the kitchen. "I'll call Frank at the funeral home. You just get to your mom."
Dan knew funeral business well. He'd lost two sisters and a nephew too soon.
Jeans, sweater and boots on, Elizabeth grabbed the shake her husband held out to her and descended the garage stairs. Her body was on autopilot and adrenaline masked the grief that she suspected was going to hit her like a wrecking ball. She'd never lost a parent or sibling. She'd never been around a dead body, especially not one in her parent's home that would look like her dad.
"Be careful, drive safe. I'll be over soon," Dan said, shutting the door.
As she drove up Savannah Highway, the usual five-minute drive felt like a slow motion bad dream. Did mom call my sisters? Daddy's family? Daddy didn't belong to a church. Where are we going to hold the funeral? At least he'd purchased the cemetery lot. She scratched that off the to-do list. The last light was ahead and she took a deep breath as she turned left. You're good at thinking fast on your feet, Elizabeth. You've pulled lots of things out of the air at work. You can do this. But I'm supposed to be crying and weeping and I feel no tears, she thought. No, first stage of grief is denial, she reminded herself in her psychologist persona. Call the office and start rescheduling appointments — check. As she pulled up to the house, she saw the EMS truck parked in front. It had become a common sight the past few years. A police cruiser was parked in front of it. He stopped her before she could get up the driveway.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gardenia Duty"
Copyright © 2019 Kathleen Varn.
Excerpted by permission of Gatekeeper Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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