Read an Excerpt
The auditorium was crowded and stifling on an unseason-ably warm May evening. The band tuned their instruments in hushed dissonance, and soon the strains of Pomp and Circumstance filled the air. Accompanied by the squeaking and grating of chairs, the audience rose to their feet and turned to watch the capped-and-gowned students file to the stage and mount the steps.
Kyle Brighton's family took up nearly one whole row of seats in the old Calypso High School auditorium. His grandparents, Howard and MaryEllen Randolph, sat in the center of this contingent. They were flanked by Kyle's sister, Jana, and her husband on one side, and his brother, Brant, on the other.
John and Ellen Brighton were at the end of the row on the aisle, where Ellen had insisted they sit, so they could snap a quick picture of their son as he entered.
The music rose and the first graduates filed sober-faced through the doors, their gowns swaying in time with the tassels on their caps as they did an awkward hesitation step down the carpeted aisle.
Ellen spotted Kyle first and tugged on her husband's sleeve. "John...John, what did you do with the camera?"
He looked on the seat behind him, then turned to Ellen with a shrug, shaking his head.
She knew the camera had been there just moments before. She swept aside his jacket and her purse, searching. "Hurry up, honey," she whispered, elbowing him. "We've got to find it. You'll miss him!"
John's gaze moved to her hand. His eyes widened and his shoulders shook with silent laughter as he pointed to the camera-in Ellen's hand.
She looked down and gave a little gasp. Rolling her eyes in self-deprecation, she shoved the camera at him. He took it from her and quickly knelt in the aisle, waiting for Kyle to reach them. Kyle spotted his father and hammed a goofy grin just as the flash went off.
That kid! Ellen shot him an exaggerated scowl, and his smile turned genuine.
As the last crescendo peaked and receded, and the graduates took their seats on the dais, John reached for Ellen's hand. She squeezed his fingers and turned to give him a wobbly smile. Kyle was their "baby," so they'd been through this twice already. Ellen thought she was immune to the sentiment of the ceremony, but the music set off a rush of memories. She gulped back tears. She couldn't cry. Kyle would be mortified if he looked out over the crowd and caught his mom blubbering like a baby.
In truth, she wasn't being maudlin. She always cried on happy occasions, and she was truly delighted that they had reached this milestone in their lives. Their last child had made his way safely through the labyrinth of adolescence, and this was undeniably a celebration of that fact. But she'd always felt bittersweet about any transition in her life, and this one would certainly be significant.
In two weeks, Kyle would pack his bags and head to New Mexico for a hard-won summer job at a resort. He'd come home in August, just in time to pack and leave for Urbana where he would start classes at the University of Illinois.
Ellen gave a little sigh. By the middle of June, 245 West Oaklawn would officially be an empty nest. While some of her friends had found the empty-nest stage a difficult passage, she looked forward to it.
Perhaps some of her optimism was due to the fact that her family still surrounded her. Jana and her husband lived nearby in Chicago and visited often. Brant was only two hours away, also at the university in Urbana. He wasn't quite as faithful about getting home-especially now that they were hearing more and more about someone named Cynthia-but they talked with him on the phone nearly every weekend.
It would be a comfort to her and John to have the boys at school together. Kyle would be staying in the dorm for the first year at least, but Brant lived near the campus, and she knew he would keep an eye out for his little brother.
The commencement speaker stepped to the podium, and a hush descended over the auditorium. Her hand warm in John's, Ellen allowed her thoughts to drift. Soon, the local dignitary's voice faded into a pleasant murmur. Time rolled back as the lifetime of events that had brought them to this moment paraded through her mind.
Ellen Randolph's childhood had been idyllic. Howard and MaryEllen Randolph worked their farm six days a week from sunup to sundown, and by the time their four daughters left home, the Randolphs owned their five hundred acres free and clear.
Having four daughters in succession had not disappointed Howard Randolph in the least, but neither had he made any concessions to their femininity. His girls could drive any tractor or truck on the place, and the miles of fence that surrounded their land had been mended by the Randolph sisters-Ellen, Kathy, Carol and Diana. The Four Musketeers was what their dad had called them-still called them.
The pleasures of Ellen's childhood on the Illinois farm came mostly from simple things-working side by side with her father in the fields, or gardening and then canning in the steamy kitchen with her mother. Money was scarce, and though there had been occasional vacations-camping in the mountains or visiting relatives in California-these were not the substance of Ellen's memories. The delight lay in the everyday things: Sunday-night popcorn, catching fireflies behind the barn, snowball fights and sledding till midnight on the frozen pond in the pasture.
Her memories were full of grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles and cousins who seemed almost a part of her immediate family. She had a rich heritage of love and a legacy of faith that she had made her own at an early age.
Ellen graduated from college in her small hometown, packed her bags six weeks later and moved to Chicago, where she had accepted a position teaching kindergarten in North Lawndale, a rough inner-city neighborhood.
Ellen was a true farmer's daughter whose sole experience in the city up to that time had consisted of a field trip with her high school civics class. There, from the window of the chartered bus, she and a friend had witnessed a mugging in a dark alley of the Loop. They had shouted for the bus driver's attention and pleaded with him to stop and help, but no one else had actually seen it happen, and the driver dismissed it, saying, "Get used to it, honey. These things happen every day in the city."
That incident made a deep impression on Ellen, and it defined Chicago for her the day her parents kissed her goodbye and left her alone in the city. Though she tried to act sophisticated and worldly-wise as she watched her parents' car disappear from sight, in truth she was trembling like the leaves on the elm trees that lined the Windy City's streets.
Ellen had rented a small apartment, and though it was only eight blocks from the school, she took the bus to and from work. North Lawndale was not a safe place for a young woman to walk alone, even in the daytime. In those first weeks, she often longed for the refuge of the farm, but she soon settled into her teaching job, and it, at least, was a comfortable fit.
And then John Brighton came along.
From the time Ellen was a little girl wanting to grow up and marry a farmer like her daddy, she'd had a romanticized picture of marriage. Her parents had always been openly affectionate, and the Randolph girls had a rosy model of marriage to follow. But in her wildest dreams, Ellen couldn't have imagined how truly lovely being married would be.
In the semidarkness of the auditorium, Ellen turned and looked up at her husband's strong profile. He seemed absorbed in the speaker's message, unmindful of her gaze. At fifty, his hair was graying at the temples, his eyes crinkled with lines, but he was still handsome, and Ellen didn't miss the appreciative lingering glances he often got from other women. She wasn't jealous, but proud she could lay claim to this fascinating man. If anything riled her about John's good looks, it was the fact that men in general seemed to become more dignified looking as they aged, while women-herself included-had to fight the lines, the bulges and the gray every inch of the way.
At forty-six, Ellen had managed to keep her trim figure, and people were always surprised to hear she had grown children. Oh, she found a thread of gray in her auburn curls from time to time, and the brightly lit mirror on her dressing table was ruthless in pointing out the lines that had begun to crease the corners of her eyes and her mouth. But Ellen had never been vain, and she was thankful John was diplomatic in overlooking these presages of middle age. He often borrowed the line from an ancient television commercial: "You're not getting older, you're getting better."
Their marriage wasn't perfect. She and John had their share of disagreements and misunderstandings. John could be incredibly stubborn, and he had an irritating tendency toward perfectionism. But after twenty-four years, their conversations still sparkled, and her heart still did a little flutter when he walked in the back door each evening after work. She could think of no one she would rather be marooned on a desert island with than this man who sat beside her now, waiting to watch their youngest son take his diploma in hand. Ellen squeezed John's hand-her husband, her friend, her lover...
He turned and gave her a knowing smile.
John recognized the faraway look in Ellen's eyes and knew that she was walking through the corridors of their shared history. He looked down the row at his family, now grown and writing their own histories.
He'd had such a different childhood than his own children, growing up in the city, an only child. His father had been a lawyer who lived for his thriving firm on the city's West Side. More accurately, Robert Brighton had lived at the firm. He'd kept a foldaway cot in a closet of his large office, and to the young John it seemed the man slept there more nights than he slept at home. Not until John was older did he discover that his father's long nights at the office were not always spent alone.
His parents divorced when he was twelve and John didn't hear of his father again until his mother mailed the obituary to him his first year at university. Robert Brighton had suffered a heart attack in the early morning hours on the cot in his office. Alone. He was forty-eight years old.
After that, John had rarely seen his mother smile. He knew that she'd lived all those years hoping for reconciliation. He vowed that whatever he chose to do with his life, he would never allow it to become an obsession. Above all, if he were lucky enough to have a family, he would be a devoted husband and a loving father. He'd spoken his intentions aloud in the privacy of his cramped college dorm room, before crumpling his father's obituary into a ball and throwing it ceremoniously into the trash.
It had taken years, but the closeness he and Ellen shared with each other and with their children had finally banished his fears that he might be incapable of being a better man than his father had been.
John shifted in his seat and looked over at Ellen. A quiet smile softened her pretty face, reminding him that the years since had been happier than he could have imagined-full of joy and great hope for the future.
How quickly that future had melded into the past. And now their nest was all but empty. But oh, how they'd treasured their little family through the years! It was not so long ago that he had come home each evening to the happy sounds of laughter filling their home. He would watch Ellen playing with the children when she was unaware of his gaze. It had filled him with deep contentment to see his wife's smile-a demonstration of her happiness. Her days as a young mother at home were full and busy, and she declared her own contentment often to John.
When Kyle started first grade, Ellen had gone back to work, teaching second grade. Teaching had allowed her to be home with her own children, and John knew that it, too, brought her deep fulfillment. Even after a dozen years, she remained enthusiastic about her role as a teacher.
John served as principal of Calypso Elementary for almost ten years, working his way through graduate school, taking night classes and summer school. It was a challenge, trying to juggle a demanding career, grad classes and a young family, but when he'd been promoted to the position of high school principal, and seven years later was offered the position of superintendent of schools, it all seemed worthwhile.
Yes, their life had been full of blessings. And as he sat at this crossroad in his life, John Brighton took stock, numbering the gifts the Lord had bestowed on him.
Their children were all happy and healthy and finding their places in life. Kyle already knew that he wanted to teach-a decision that thrilled John and Ellen. And Brant was content at the university.
Jana had married her college sweetheart, Mark McFarlane, and they both had good jobs in the city.
Ellen's parents still lived on the family farmstead, and though their age was beginning to slow them down a bit, they remained healthy and active.
John's mother had died suddenly last summer, but Margaret Brighton's last decade had been almost a redemption of the years John's father had taken from her. She had doted on her three grandchildren, and when she was with them, John had often caught a glimpse of the lighthearted woman he'd almost forgotten existed.
It seemed strange that he and Ellen were quickly becoming the older generation; neither of them was quite comfortable in the role yet. Time had flown so quickly. How was it possible that their last tiny baby was all grown up and nearly on his own? Today's commencement marked a new begin-ning-not just for Kyle, but for him and Ellen, as well.
The bright lights of the auditorium came up and he squinted against their sudden glare. The swell of the recessional signaled the end of the ceremony, and John brought Ellen's hand to his mouth, pressed his lips against the back of her hand before he released her.
Kyle winked at them as he came up the aisle with a bounce in his step.
And with that, the last little bird was pushed from the nest.
Ellen kicked off her shoes with a weary but satisfied sigh and slouched into a plump, overstuffed chair in the living room. From her perch, she could see through to the brightly lit kitchen. The sink overflowed with dirty dishes, the countertops were littered with half-empty glasses and crumpled napkins, and the floor was a collage of sticky spills and crumbs.
The last of the guests had just left Kyle's graduation party, and the rest of the family had retreated to the deck in the backyard, leaving Ellen in the quiet but messy house. It had been a wonderful party, and Ellen didn't begrudge the work she had ahead of her. But she was exhausted.
The back door swung open and Jana appeared in the doorway. Boisterous male voices drifted in on the night air. The men of the family were in a heated discussion about the predicted outcome of a postseason tournament.
Jana caught her mother's eye and rolled her own eyes toward the ceiling. "There's way too much testosterone out there," she declared. A burst of raucous laughter from the deck was cut off abruptly as she closed the door behind her.
Ellen laughed. "Well, you'd better decide which is worse. Testosterone out there, or a sink full of dirty dishes in here."
Jana looked the kitchen over. "Ugh! Tough choice." But she pushed up her sleeves and came over to where Ellen sat. "Okay..." She took her mother by both hands and playfully hauled her out of the chair. "Let's get this over with." They walked into the kitchen arm in arm.
Together they cleared off the counters; then Ellen rinsed the dishes while Jana loaded the dishwasher.
"I'm glad you and Mark decided to stay overnight," Ellen said, handing Jana an oval platter that had held sandwiches an hour earlier.
"Oh sure," Jana teased. "You're just happy to have help with the dishes."
Ellen smiled. "Well, that, too. But seriously, I know it means a lot to Kyle to have you and Mark here tonight."
"I'm glad we stayed, too, Mom. It's been a fun evening. We would have been too tired to drive back tonight anyway."
The two worked in comfortable silence for a while. Then Jana turned to Ellen. "Didn't Kyle look cute up there tonight? I just can't believe my baby brother has graduated!"
"I know. I can't believe my baby boy is headed to college." Just then Kyle popped in through the back door.
Ellen winked at Jana. "And speaking of my baby, here he is, just in time to help with the dishes."
Kyle did an abrupt about-face and tried to escape through the still-open door. But his sister grabbed him by the arm and dragged him, kicking and howling, back into the house. Ellen watched their lighthearted exchange wistfully. It was so good to have everyone home together-just like old times.
The rest of the men straggled in from outdoors. John came up behind Ellen at the sink and rubbed her aching shoulders.
Her hands still in dishwater, she closed her eyes, relishing the massage. "Mmm... Don't stop...that feels great. But you guys picked a bad time to come in." She lifted a hand from the warm water and tossed a damp dishrag over her shoulder in Brant's direction. "Here... Wipe that counter off, will you?"