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By Kate Lloyd
David C. CookCopyright © 2012 Kate Lloyd
All rights reserved.
"Holly Samantha Fisher," Mom called from down in the shop. "Come talk to me."
When she summoned me by my whole name, it spelled trouble, so I grabbed my half-empty coffee mug and trotted down to the first floor like a good little girl, when in truth I was thirty-seven years old.
Clad in my bathrobe over pj's, my feet snuggled in suede moccasins, I stepped across the wooden floor into my mother's pride and joy, the Amish Shoppe. I found her in the living room—used as a showroom—on the easy chair, her knitting basket and handbag at her feet.
"Hey," I said. "Where've you been? When I got up, the house was empty."
"On an errand." She wore a charcoal-colored cardigan over a matching calf-length skirt that didn't flatter her figure. Three inches taller than me, she was plumpish in all the right places.
I perched on the straight-back bench near the gas fireplace and glanced out the front window to the buggy—minus the horse—glistening on the porch from a recent shower. Mom's customers' kids loved playing in the covered box- shaped carriage pulled by a make-believe spirited mare, as I had many times as a girl. If I closed my eyes, I could still imagine the clip-clopping sound.
The clock on the mantel chimed eight times. "I'd better get showered," I said, wishing I could tunnel back into bed. "I need to be out the door in thirty minutes."
Mom let out a breathy sigh. "First, we need to talk."
I didn't bite into her dangling carrot like I usually did, but let the words drift around the showroom. Every square inch of the house's first floor, except the kitchen, was crammed with handmade Amish products from Indiana and Ohio, all for sale: chairs and tables displaying jars of jams, apple butter, the best pickled beets, and chowchow. The walls were adorned with men's straw hats and women's bonnets of the plainest sort, aprons, and several patchwork quilts Mom had sewn herself.
The scent of baking raisins and molasses beckoned me to the kitchen. "Something smells yummy. You cooking bran muffins?"
"Yes, but they're not done."
I held up my mug. "I'll get us coffee."
"Hold still, girl of mine." Mom's mousy hair, graying at the temples, was tucked into its usual bun, but flyaway strands wisped loosely around her ears. "I need to tell you—I've got big trouble."
"To do with money?" I felt a throb at the bottom of my throat. "I apologize, I haven't chipped in enough on groceries and owe you three months' rent." Last year, I'd given up my apartment and was now camping out in my childhood room. "If only the stock market would turn around and our clients flock back." I felt like a botched NASA rocket launch, toppled on its side. Five, four, three, two, one—"I've been putting off telling you. Last week my boss gave me notice."
"I'm so very sorry, dear heart."
"After all the work I've put into building a new career, I could scream."
Her lips clamped together like clothespins. She looked pale. Washed out.
"Mom, did I miss something? You're in some kind of trouble?" My spine straightened. "Are you going out of business? Is the bank repossessing the house?"
"I wish it were that simple." Her hand wrapped the back of her neck. "There's an illness in the family."
"What family?" Then it hit me; she was describing herself. "Are you all right? Please tell me it's not cancer."
"My health is perfect."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine, darling."
"Is it Aunt Dori?" I was referring to Dorothy Mowan. Mom's best friend and her husband, Jim, were the closest we had to family.
Mom picked up her knitting needles and struggled with the olive-green yarn that echoed her eyes. "No, someone else. A blood relative."
"What are you talking about?"
With shaking hands, she yanked out several stitches—it wasn't like her to make a mistake. "My mother wrote me a letter."
"Grandma Anna?" I coughed a laugh, because Mom had to be pulling my leg. This early in the morning I didn't find her humor entertaining. "Did I hear you right? Grandma Anna's back from the grave?" I tilted my head and expected my mother to smile. But her stony expression remained fixed.
Her words sounded strangled. "I, I—don't know where to begin. You're going to hate me."
"Why would I do that? But I need to hustle. I'm running late for work."
"Promise to forgive me if I tell the truth?" Mom was big on the word forgiveness, even when the neighbor kid dented my car's fender and refused to pay for the damage.
"Yes, okay, I promise." I set my mug on a coaster on a side table. "I won't get mad."
Mom's eyes turned glassy, like she was holding back tears. I'd rarely seen her cry, only when she was chopping onions.
"I let you believe my mother passed on," she said. "I know it was wrong."
"You're kidding me, right?" Before I could demand more information, I saw a UPS truck swerve to a halt at the curb and a man jump out. Moments later, his knuckles rapped on the front door, then he jabbed the bell and turned the knob, but Mom didn't let the deliveryman in, nor did I rush upstairs to get dressed. My mother and I sat frozen in this surreal scene as we listened to his footsteps descend to the street and the truck depart.
"I should have told you years ago," she said. "My mother still lives on the family farm."
"I don't understand." My mind was doing somersaults. Nothing made sense.
As I scrutinized Mom's face—she never wore makeup—she lifted her chin and read the framed needlepoint of Romans 12:2 hanging on the wall, words cautioning believers not to conform to the world. Black thread on a white background, surrounded by a black frame. Black and white, like Mom. No cloudy areas, I'd always thought. Until now.
"Let me get this straight." I stroked my jawline as my mind explored the convoluted avenues. "The woman who gave birth to you—Grandma Anna Gingerich—is alive. But you told me she was dead, even though you knew I always wanted a grandmother?"
"Why on earth?"
"I was so young, I didn't know what to do. I thought it best."
"Well, neither of us is young anymore." My lungs gasped for air, as if I were sinking chin-deep in quicksand. Was our whole life a sham? If Grandma Anna were living, that meant my mother—the righteous woman who'd hammered the importance of integrity into me—was a liar. And she'd deprived me of what I wanted most in life: family.
A startling thought bombarded me. "How about my dad?" My voice turned shrill. "Is he still alive too?"
"No, darling. Samuel lost his life in Vietnam."
"If you have to be mixed up about something, couldn't it be about my father? I've secretly prayed he was a prisoner of war with amnesia who'll someday wander out of the jungle." A dream I'd never admitted before, even to Mom, because I was embarrassed to harbor such naive fantasies.
"I've had the same thought." She bundled her knitting project and tossed it into the basket like a dishrag. "But you know as well as I do, the army and Veterans Affairs swear there are no more POWs."
A familiar cloak of sadness as heavy as a lead apron draped itself across my narrow shoulders, making them slump forward, right when I should be marching off to work, even if my lofty dreams of becoming a financial advisor were crumbling.
With all the strength I could muster, I scuffled into the kitchen and poured myself fresh coffee. The muffins were in the oven and the clicking timer read five minutes. My appetite had vanished anyway. Who cared about food at a time like this? I'd always longed for siblings—a humongous family—but my father had died before I was born and my mother never remarried, so Mom and I were a twosome. All those years I'd asked about her parents—she could have told me the truth.
Returning to sit near her, I put my mug on the coaster. My stomach gurgled with a mixture of longing and confusion, like oil and water boiling on a stove top.
"How do you know Grandma Anna's alive?" I asked. There had to be a logical answer.
"She's contacted me many times."
"This is crazy. What are you talking about?" My hand swung out, colliding with my mug, splashing brown liquid onto the floor. I grabbed a Kleenex from my pocket to mop up the puddle, then decided to leave it. The mess was the least of my worries. "Mom, what are you trying to say? That your mother put you up for adoption and now she's tracked you down and wants to see you?"
"I wish it were that simple." Mom placed her handbag in her lap and opened it.CHAPTER 2
With trembling hands, Esther exhumed the envelope from her purse.
Last night, Dori had called to tell her a letter had arrived. "Thanks, I'll come by first thing in the morning," Esther had said. No further discussion was necessary. Only Esther's mother, Anna, sent Esther's mail to Dori's address, where Esther had first lived after moving to Seattle. Dori and her husband never asked questions; they could probably tell by the feminine cursive writing and the postmark that the correspondence came from a woman in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Under a drizzling sky, Esther had risen early to catch the Metro bus up the hill to Phinney Ridge. She'd found Dori lounging in a jogging suit, her short salt-and-pepper hair in need of a perm. Dori had invited Esther into her Victorian-style house, but on letter days—three or four times a year—Esther always refused.
Tucking the white envelope into her purse, Esther had wanted to savor the shape and texture of the paper before reading its contents. It was mid-October—too early for a Christmas card. And Esther's birthday was six months away.
Now, sitting in the living room, she told Holly, "This arrived from your grandmother yesterday." Esther had rehearsed the conversation with Holly for over thirty years, but the words came out clumsily, like peanut butter clogging her throat, her tongue swollen.
Holly gave her a quizzical look. Her petite frame barely filled her terry bathrobe; the legs of her pj's bagged at her ankles. "It's some kind of scam. You haven't sent this woman any money, have you?"
"My mother would never ask for money." Esther feared losing her nerve as she had every time before. If she didn't fess up now, the moment would be gone, like when the breeze blows away dried-up dandelion seeds—off they fly.
"I was ashamed to tell you. I meant to." She raised the envelope's flap, released the letter from its prison, and unfolded the stiff paper, bringing with it a trace scent of smoke from a wood fireplace and a memory of her mother's homemade biscuits.
Holly said, "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I don't have time to play twenty questions." She dropped another square of Kleenex atop the spilled coffee and jolted to her feet.
"Yes, okay, but hold on." Esther studied her daughter's sleep-creased face, her mussed shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair, her hazel-brown eyes with flecks of amber that always made Esther think of the Pennsylvania sky at dusk—and Holly's father. How much should she tell her? The whole secret, like ripping off a bandage? Excruciating, but temporary pain.
"My mother—your Grandma Anna—says she desperately needs me." Esther felt a slam of guilt—more like a skewer straight into her chest. Her mother had probably needed her thousands of times, but Esther had ignored her pleas. "Someone made an offer on the farm that my mamm can't afford to refuse. My brothers—I've got five of them, all younger than I am—are planning to move to Montana where farmland is more plentiful. But Mamm says she's sick and doesn't want to leave her home and neighbors."
Esther could see apprehension darkening Holly's face, arching an eyebrow and creasing her smooth forehead.
"Mom, you're talking gibberish. First a mother. Now five brothers? Are you sure you're not becoming—how shall I put it?—absentminded? Remember how you misplaced your keys last week?"
"Alzheimer's doesn't run in my family." Esther forced a chuckle, although she felt not a shred of happiness.
"You said you used drugs when you were a hippie in Haight-Ashbury."
Esther shook her head; her neck was stiff, her shoulders rigid. "I'm sorry I ever told you about my stupidity. I promise, by the time I was pregnant with you and then moved up here with Dori and Jim, I'd stopped using pot and alcohol altogether."
The corners of Holly's mouth angled down. "Wait a minute. You've never worn a wedding band. Were you and Dad even married?" Her voice flared out harshly, like when she was a rebellious teenager.
"Yes, in a chapel in San Francisco."
Holly slitted her eyes. "I've never seen pictures of the ceremony."
"That was our way. We didn't take photographs."
"Give me a break. Dori and Jim's house is full of family photos. And you have a snapshot of Dad upstairs on your bureau. But suddenly you have parents and a carload of brothers?"
"One parent. My father died a few months after I left home. But my mother is alive. When you were a wee baby, I considered bringing you home, back to the farm to be raised by her with my younger brothers." In the depths of postpartum depression and grief, Esther had planned to end her life, but she knew the Lord Almighty would never pardon her for abandoning Samuel's child.
Holly snapped her fingers. "You would have given me up, just like that?"
"No, no, I never would." Why had she mentioned her thoughts? Now she'd hurt Holly's feelings. "With Dori and Jim's help, I moved to Seattle and lived with them until you were born, and then several more years." Esther unbuttoned her cardigan to relieve the heat accumulating across her chest. She fanned her face with the envelope. "I thought when you were old enough to ask questions, it would be time to reveal the truth. But you never inquired about my past."
Pacing, Holly's hands moved to her hips. "Are you insinuating your secret life—if it exists—is my fault?"
"No, I'm to blame. For everything."
The timer binged. "I'll check the muffins." Holly cinched her bathrobe's belt and strode into the kitchen with her mug. Esther listened to the oven door open and close, and the muffin tin settling on the cooling rack.
Holly returned with a couple of paper towels and swabbed the remaining coffee off the floor.
"I should have told you years ago," Esther said, but Holly didn't answer. She tossed the soggy paper towels and Kleenex into a wastepaper basket and loped up the stairs.
Esther heard the shower running. She couldn't fault her daughter for being incensed. What young woman wouldn't be? Over the years, Dori had encouraged Esther to unveil the truth, but this was a mistake. She felt like unraveling her half- finished sweater and pulling the crinkled yarn out stitch by stitch in an attempt to untangle her past and start over.
One thing was for sure: She wouldn't admit her part in Samuel's death. Ever.
Esther pushed the back of her head against the velour-covered La-Z-Boy, closed her eyes, and summoned up Samuel's youthful face in vivid detail. On the day of his induction into the army, she'd run her fingers through his shaggy hair—the same color as Holly's—kissed his lips, and said good-bye to him for the last time. She'd never embraced another man since.
If she and Samuel had only returned home, as Esther's and Samuel's parents had demanded, Samuel would have been exempt from the draft. As a conscientious objector of the truest order, his nonviolent nature had been taught and nurtured since birth, imbedded in his DNA.
Her memories scrolling back to age fifteen, Esther recalled the resentment she'd harbored toward the non-Amish town kids. She'd rashly struck out when one of the boys knocked Samuel off his feet, his elbow gashed by the rubble at the side of the road. The boy knew Samuel wouldn't defend himself. At the sight of Samuel's blood, Esther's fist clobbered the kid's shoulder as if she'd been wrestling with her brothers all her life, though nothing could have been further from the truth. She'd also been instructed to turn the other cheek.
Hearing Holly's footsteps creaking overhead, Esther opened her eyes and scanned her mother's letter again. The last sentence reached out and seized her breath.
I'm begging you, come home.
* * *
Ten minutes later, Holly ambled down the stairs wearing a streamlined pantsuit and white blouse. She dug through her purse in what Esther figured was a ploy to get out the door without continuing their discussion.
"Please take a moment to read this." Esther rose to her feet and brandished the opened letter like a flag, but Holly made no move to take it.
Excerpted from Leaving Lancaster by Kate Lloyd. Copyright © 2012 Kate Lloyd. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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