فصل 25کتاب: پیش از آنکه مال شما باشیم / فصل 26
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“And that is where my story ends.” May’s blue eyes, clouded and moist, study me across the lamp table in an alcove of the nursing home. “Are you happy that you know? Or is it only a burden? I’ve always wondered how you young ones would feel. I expected that I’d never find out.”
“I think…it’s a little of both.” Even after taking a week to think about it since our visit to the river cottage and Hootsie’s farm, I’m still struggling to assimilate this history with my family history.
Over and over, I’ve weighed Elliot’s admonitions that I’m playing with fire—that the past should be left in the past. Even the startling revelations from my visit to the Savannah River cottage haven’t changed his opinion. Think about the repercussions, Avery. There are people who wouldn’t…see your family the same way anymore.
By people, I have a sense that he means Bitsy.
The sad thing is, Bitsy’s not the only one. If all of this became public, there’s no telling what would happen to political futures, reputations, the Stafford name.
Times have changed, but the old doctrines still apply. If the world were to find out that the Staffords aren’t really what we’ve claimed to be, the fallout would be…
I can’t even imagine.
That scares me in a way I don’t want to contemplate, but the truth is that I can’t bear the thought of my grandmother and her sister spending the last of their lives separated from each other. Ultimately, I have to know I did what was right for Grandma Judy.
“A time or two, I’ve considered telling my grandchildren,” May offers. “But they are settled in their lives. Their mother remarried to a man with children after my son passed away. They’re wonderful young people raising their own broods among gaggles of aunts, and uncles, and cousins. It’s much the same with my sisters’ families. Lark married a businessman who built a department store empire. Fern married a prominent doctor in Atlanta. Between them, there were eight children and two dozen grandchildren and of course great-grandchildren. They are all successful and happy…and busy. What can ancient history give them that they don’t already have?”
May looks at me deeply, watches me teeter on the dividing line that has shifted from her generation to mine. “Will you share the story with your family?” she asks.
I swallow hard, at war with myself. “I’ll tell my father. It’s his decision more than mine. Grandma Judy is his mother.” I have no notion of how my father will respond to the information or what he’ll do with it. “Part of me thinks Hootsie is right. The truth is still the truth. It has value.”
“Hootsie,” she grumbles. “This is the thanks I get for selling her that piece of land next to my grandmother’s old place so she and Ted could have their farm on it. After all these years, she tells my secrets.”
“I really think she felt it was in your best interest. She wanted me to understand the connection between you and my grandmother. She was thinking of the two of you.”
May swats at the idea like it’s a fly buzzing around her face. “Pppfff! Hootsie just likes to stir the pot. She has always been that way. You know, she was the reason I ended up staying with the Seviers at all. By the time we reached their home, Silas almost had me talked into taking to the river with him. He stood on the shore and grabbed me by the shoulders and kissed me. The first time I’d ever been kissed by a boy.” She giggles, her cheeks reddening and her eyes taking on a childlike glitter. For a moment, I see that twelve-year-old girl on the banks of the oxbow lake. “?‘I love you, Rill Foss,’ he said to me. ‘I’ll wait here an hour. I’ll wait for you to come back. I can take care of you, Rill. I can.’
“I knew he was making promises he couldn’t keep. Only a few months before, he’d been hoboing trains, trying to survive. If there was one thing I’d learned from watching Briny and Queenie, it was that love doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t keep a family safe.”
She nods at her own conclusion, frowning. “Wanting to and doing are two different things. I guess in a way, I knew it wasn’t meant to be for Silas and me. Not while we were so young, anyway. But when I started up the path with Fern, all I wanted to do was run back to that dark-haired boy and back to the river. I might’ve done it if it hadn’t been for Hootsie. She made the choice for me before I could choose for myself. My plan was to sneak to the edge of the trees, hide there, and watch to be certain the Seviers would take Fern in again. I was scared to death that if they caught me, they’d send me back to the children’s home or off to some sort of workhouse for bad girls or even to jail. But Hootsie was out digging roots for her mama, and she spotted us there near the yard, and she went to hollering. Next thing I knew, there was Zuma, and Hoy, and Mr. and Mrs. Sevier rushing down the hill, and the dogs bounding ahead. I had no place to run, so I just stood there and waited for the worst to happen.”
She pauses, and I feel myself dangling on the precipice where she’s left me. “What did happen?”
“I learned that you need not be born into a family to be loved by one.”
“So they welcomed you back?”
A smile teases the corners of her mouth. “Yes, they did. Papa Sevier, and Hoy, and the other men had been out searching the swamps for us for weeks. They knew we must have left in the jon boat with Arney. By the time we came back, they’d given up hope that we would ever be found.” She laughs softly. “Even Zuma and Hootsie hugged us that day, they were so relieved to see us alive.”
“You were happy with the Seviers after that?”
“They were understanding of what we had done, after they knew the truth about the Arcadia, that is. Or what I could bring myself to reveal of the truth. I’d made up my mind never to tell them that there were other siblings beyond just Fern and me. I suppose in my twelve-year-old heart, I was still ashamed that I’d failed to protect Camellia, and Lark, and Gabion. I feared that the Seviers wouldn’t love me if they knew. The Seviers were good people––patient and kind. They taught me to find the music.”
She reaches across the table. “Yes, the music, darling. You see, there is one thing I learned from following in Papa Sevier’s footsteps as I grew up. Life is not unlike cinema. Each scene has its own music, and the music is created for the scene, woven to it in ways we do not understand. No matter how much we may love the melody of a bygone day or imagine the song of a future one, we must dance within the music of today, or we will always be out of step, stumbling around in something that doesn’t suit the moment. I let go of the river’s song and found the music of that big house. I found room for a new life, a new mother who cared for me, and a new father who patiently taught me not only how to play music, but how to trust. He was as good a man as ever I’ve known. Oh, it was never like the Arcadia, but it was a good life. We were loved and cherished and protected.”
A sigh lifts her shoulders, then releases her. “To look at me now, you would think I’d never understood the secret. This music of old age…it isn’t made for dancing. It’s so…lonely. You’re a burden to everyone.”
I think of my grandmother, of her empty house, of her room in the nursing home, of her inability to recognize me most days. Tears well up in my eyes. The music of old age is difficult to hear when it’s playing for someone you love. I wonder if my grandmother will recognize May when they’re finally together again. Will May even consent to coming with me? I haven’t asked her yet. Trent is waiting down the hall. He’s driven up from Edisto. After discussing the possibilities, we decided it might be better if I talked to May alone at first.
“Did you ever see Silas again?” The question pops out, and at first it seems random. Then I realize I’ve asked it because I was thinking of Trent…and of May’s tale of first love. Strangely enough, that’s been on my mind lately. Trent’s smile, his silly jokes, his nearness, even just his voice on the phone stirs something in me. The fact that it matters not a whit to him what my family history may be or what decisions I make about it touches me in a way I’m not prepared for. I don’t know how to categorize it or fit it into my life.
I only know that I can’t ignore it.
May’s countenance bores through me. It’s as if she’s digging in and following the veins of ore all the way to my soul. “I wished for it, but some wishes don’t come true. Papa Sevier moved us over to Augusta to protect us from Georgia Tann. Our family was quite well known there, so I imagine he felt that she wouldn’t dare trifle with him across state lines. Silas and Old Zede wouldn’t have known where to find us. I never learned what became of them. My last sight of Silas was through the tangles of my new mother’s hair as she hugged me close. He stood at the edge of the trees where I had been only moments before, and then he turned and went back to the water. I never saw him again.”
She shakes her head slowly. “I always wondered what he might’ve become. Perhaps it was for the best that I never knew. I was growing into a different life, a different world, a different name. I did hear from Arney again years later. A letter came just out of the blue. My mother had it waiting for me when I arrived home from the college term. I’d always imagined that perhaps Arney and Silas had married, but they hadn’t. Zede had found a place for Arney on a dairy farm soon after I left them. Arney was made to work hard, but the people were fair with her. She eventually took a job in a bomber plant and married a soldier. They were living overseas when she wrote to me, and she was quite happy to be seeing the world. She never thought she’d have that sort of opportunity.” Even now, the story brings a smile.
“I’m glad things turned out well for her after such a rough start in life.” Given that May is ninety and Arney was older than her, it’s unlikely that Arney would still be alive now, but I feel a warm sense of relief. May’s story has made Arney and Silas and all the people of the river real to me.
“Yes.” May nods in agreement. “She gave me a fire in my belly for all those young, dewy-eyed women who found themselves taken advantage of by the playboys in Hollywood. I met so many during my years there, and I made it my business to help them—to provide a place to sleep or a shoulder to lean on. It happened very often, girls ending up in terrible situations. I always thought of Arney’s words to me at the end of her letter.”
“What did she say?”
“She said that I saved her.” May dabs at a sheen of moisture near her eye. “But of course, it wasn’t true. We saved each other. If not for Arney taking me back to the river, if not for what happened on the Arcadia, I could never have released Briny, and Queenie, and the river. I would’ve reached for that music all of my life. By taking me back, Arney brought me forward. I told her that in my reply.”
“I imagine that meant a lot to her.”
“People don’t come into our lives by accident.”
“No, they don’t.” Again, I think of Trent. Again, I feel the tug-of-war between my own feelings and the hopes and plans my family has always held for me. The plans I always thought I held for myself.
“Arney and I kept in touch over the years,” May continues, and I try to slip into her story again, to leave behind the worry over how the rest of this day will go. “She was a very inspiring woman. She and her husband started their own construction company when they came home. She worked right alongside him, right alongside the men, and she held her own. I imagine those homes were as solidly built as can be. They’ll outlast us all.”
“No doubt they will.”
May turns to me with purpose, stretches intimately close as if she plans to impart a secret. “A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear the tune, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We’re always trying to persuade ourselves of things.”
I’m struck by the profoundness of what she’s saying. Can she sense that, since visiting the cottage on the river, since learning about my grandmother, I’ve questioned everything about my life?
I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I want to find my own music. May makes me believe it is possible. Which brings me to my real purpose for visiting her today. “I’m wondering if you’ll come somewhere with me this afternoon,” I say finally.
“Might I inquire where?” But she’s already pressing out of her chair, her hands gripping the armrests.
“Are you willing to go if I don’t tell you ahead of time?”
“Is it outside these dastardly drab walls?”
She’s surprisingly spry getting to her feet. “Then I suppose I don’t care where we’re going. I am all yours. As long as you’re not bringing me to some political event, that is. I despise politics.”
I laugh. “It’s not a political event.”
“Excellent.” We start down the hall together, May pushing her walker with surprising speed. I half expect her to throw it aside and start sprinting toward the door.
“Trent’s waiting outside to drive us.”
“The handsome one with the blue eyes?”
“Yes, that one.”
“Oh, now I really am looking forward to this.” She frowns down at her pajama-like cotton shirt and pants. “I’m not dressed very nicely. Perhaps I should change?”
“I think you’ll be fine in that.”
She doesn’t protest when we reach her room. In fact, she stops only long enough to grab her purse.
Trent rises from his chair when we reach the front entrance. He smiles and gives me a thumbs-up behind May’s back as she informs the attendant that we’ll be taking her out for the afternoon. She turns the walker over to me and opts for Trent’s arm as we pass through the door. I’m left to fold the apparatus and put it in the trunk while Trent gets May settled. Fortunately, I’ve had some experience with this sort of thing.
May tells Trent her story while we drive—all of it, not just the parts she shared with us after our first foray through the workshop behind Trent’s house on Edisto. Trent catches my gaze in the rearview mirror repeatedly, shakes his head with a sad sort of awe. It’s hard to believe that, not so many years ago, orphaned children were little more than chattel.
May is so lost in the tale or so smitten with Trent that she doesn’t notice where we’re going. It’s not until we’re drawing closer to Augusta that she bends toward the window and sighs. “You’re taking me home. You should’ve told me. I would have worn my sneakers.”
Trent glances at May’s flat slipper shoes. “It’ll be all right. Your neighbor mowed the grass.”
“Hootsie did raise the sweetest children. Hard to believe. She was such a rotter herself. I tangled with her more than I ever did my sisters.”
Trent grins. “After getting to know her a little, I don’t find that hard to believe.” He’s spoken with Hootsie about today’s trip. She and Bart have moved heaven and earth to help make it possible.
May notices the difference when we drive past Hootsie’s house on the farm lane and the road is cleared all the way through the woods to the cottage. We park on new gravel near the gate.
“Who did all of this?” May looks around at the freshly mown grass, the newly trimmed gardens, the porch with chairs waiting behind the screen.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to make the trek down here,” I tell her. “This seemed like the best way. I hope you don’t mind.”
She only wipes her eyes, her lips pressing together hard, trembling.
“I thought you might want to visit more often, after this. My grandmother had a standing appointment with the cab company. They know the way here.”
“I’m not sure if they’ll…let me.” A whisper is all she can manage. “The nursing home. I don’t want them calling my grandchildren and bothering them either.”
“I’ve been talking about that with a friend, a man who runs a group that advocates for senior citizens. I think we can get some help for you with some of those issues. You’re not a prisoner at the care facility, May. They’re just trying to make sure you’re safe.” I’ll let that sink in for now. Later we can talk more about the suggestions from Andrew Moore, including his idea that May might gain a sense of purpose by doing some volunteer work for the PAC. Andrew is an amazing person, filled with ideas. I think May would like him.
Right now, she is too mesmerized by the scenery to talk about anything else. She leans close to the front window, tears spilling forth. “Oh…oh, I’m home. I never thought I’d see it again.”
“Hootsie and her granddaughter have been keeping it clean for you.”
“But…I haven’t been able to pay her…since…” Tears interrupt the words. “Since they took me away.”
“She says she doesn’t mind.” I reach for my door as Trent walks around the car. “She really does love you, you know.”
“She didn’t say that?”
“Well, no, but it’s obvious.”
May puffs out a skeptical breath, and once again I see the precociousness of a river gypsy. “You had me worried that Hootsie might be losing her marbles.” She smirks at me, allowing Trent to help her from the car. “Hootsie and I have always kept one another sharp. It’d be a shame to ruin it by going sentimental now.”
I look through the trees toward the ruins of the plantation house as I stand up and stretch. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the complexities of the relationships between these two women over the years. “You can tell that to Hootsie in person if you want. She’ll be over later. I asked her to give us some time to ourselves first.”
May casts a suspicious look my way as she moves through the gate, her hand crooked in Trent’s elbow. “What was it that you were planning to do here? I’ve told you everything this time. There is no more to the story.”
In the distance, I can already hear another car grinding along the farm lane. May hasn’t noticed it yet, which is probably for the best. I’d intended to get her to the cottage and settle her there first. But the timing may not work out as I’d planned. Leave it to my mother to show up early, even though she has no idea where she’s going or what she’s arriving for.
“I’ve asked my parents to come.” I can’t think of a way to make them believe all of this that would be better than just showing them. Otherwise, I’m afraid they might think I’ve completely lost my mind.
“The senator?” May’s face widens with horror, and she immediately starts patting her hair.
Trent tries to move May through the gate, but she catches the post and holds on like a grade-school kid being hauled to the doctor for a shot.
“Good heavens!” she says. “I asked you if I needed to change clothes. I can’t meet them like this.”
I sense my best intentions bumping up against the barriers of propriety, and those walls crumble for no one. Getting my parents to cooperate with my mysterious plans for this Sunday afternoon has been nearly impossible. I’ve told them it has to do with a favor for a friend, but my mother can smell a fib a mile away. She’ll be on full alert when she gets here, particularly considering the strangeness of the request and the remote location.
This thing is happening, whether any of the parties involved want it to or not, and deep down, I know I’ve arranged it this way on purpose. I was afraid if I didn’t roll it like a downhill snowball, I’d lose my nerve.
“Well, hurry!” May starts toward the house, yanking Trent off balance. “The rest of my clothes are still in the closets. I can find something decent in there.”
Through the trees, I can see the cab company’s white limo. “There isn’t time. They’re coming up the road.”
May’s nostrils flare. “Did Hootsie know about this?”
“Yes and no, but it was my idea. Please. Just trust me. I really do think this is for the best.” After today, we’ll either be bonded, or May will never speak to me again.
“I believe I’m going to faint.” May sags against Trent. I’m not sure whether it’s a performance or not.
Trent slips an arm around her, prepared to hold her up. “How about I take you to the house?”
She moves along, too stunned to protest.
I wait at the gate. When the limo pulls up, my mother exits on her side without even waiting for Oz to get out and open the door. Honeybee is hopping mad. “Avery Judith Stafford, what on earth is going on here? I thought for certain the driver was lost or we’d been kidnapped.” It’s evident in her red, slightly shiny face that she’s been working up to a dither for miles, probably complaining to my father and harassing poor Oz, who’s only been drafted into this operation because he knows the route. “I’ve called your cellphone at least fifteen times. Why didn’t you answer?”
“I don’t think there’s any reception down here.” I have no idea if that’s true. I’ve had my phone turned off all morning. If Honeybee couldn’t get in touch with me to cancel or alter the plans we’d agreed upon, she would have no choice but to come. Honeybee never falters on a commitment.
“Now, girls.” My father is in a much more accommodating mood. Unlike Mama, he enjoys the rugged outdoors. Now that the intestinal bleeding has been stopped by the laparoscopic surgery, his blood counts are better, and his strength is returning. Functioning at almost full capacity, he’s a match for his attackers on the nursing home issue. He’s begun to systematically put it to rest. He’s also building support for legislation that will prevent care facility owners from using shell corporations to avoid lawsuit payouts.
He gives the river an interested look. “It was a lovely Sunday drive. We haven’t been over toward Augusta in a while. I wish I’d brought along a fishing pole and some tackle.” He smiles at me, and instantly our life together flashes through my mind, from little-girl visits to his office, to ill-fated fishing trips, to proms and cotillions and graduations…and more recently briefings and strategy sessions and public events. “It’s not often that she asks anything of us, Honeybee.” He adds an indulgent wink that’s just for me. “Not this one.”
He means to reassure me that, whatever I have planned today, he’s up for it, but it only reminds me of how much I have to lose here—my father’s favor being chief among those things. I’m his favorite. I’ve always been his golden girl.
How will he handle the fact that, for weeks, I’ve been sneaking around, digging up information that my grandmother had kept hidden to protect the Stafford legacy?
What will happen later, when I tell him how this journey has changed me? I don’t want to live the life my grandmother lived. I want to be who I am at the core. That may or may not mean that the Stafford political dynasty ends with my father. Chances are, he’ll be well enough to continue in office for some time. In full health, he’ll master this nursing home controversy, and some good will come of it; I’m convinced of that.
I’ll be here to help him in whatever way I can, but the truth is that I’m not ready for a political run. I’m not experienced enough. I haven’t paid my dues. The office shouldn’t be handed to me just because of who I am. I want to earn it the old-fashioned way. I want to gain an understanding of the issues—all of them, not just a limited few—and decide where I stand. If it is ever my turn, I will run the race on my own merits, not as my father’s little girl. In the meantime, Andrew Moore mentioned that his seniors’ rights PAC needs a good lawyer. The pay is undoubtedly low, but that isn’t the point. If I want to dip my toe in the murky world of politics, that is the sort of place an average person wades in, and I am a good lawyer.
Will my father understand?
Will he still love me?
Of course. Of course he will. He’s always been a dad first. I know it’s true. Yes, there will be disappointment when I inform my parents of my plans. Yes, there will be some fallout, but we’ll make it through. We always do.
“Avery, I am not letting your grandmother out of the car here.” Honeybee surveys the little cottage, the river down the hill, the overgrown trees hanging low over the porch roof. She hugs herself and rubs her hands up and down her arms.
“Honeybee,” Dad attempts to placate my mother, smiling at me indulgently. “Avery wouldn’t have brought us all this way without a good reason.” He leans close, slips an arm around Honeybee’s waist, and squeezes the ticklish spot only he knows. It’s his secret weapon.
She struggles against a smile. “Stop that.” The look she turns my way isn’t nearly as cheerful. “Avery, for goodness’ sake, was all of this really necessary? Why so cloak and dagger? Why are we coming here in a limousine, of all things? And why in the world did we need to drag your grandmother along? Taking her out of Magnolia Manor is so confusing for her. It’s hard to settle her into the routines again afterward.”
“I wanted to see if she’d remember something,” I say.
Honeybee’s lips smack apart. “I doubt she’d remember this.”
“She wouldn’t know anyone who lives here, Avery. I think it’s best that—”
“Just come inside with me, Mama. Grandma Judy has been here before. I have a feeling she might realize that.”
“Is anyone going to get me out?” My grandmother beckons from the car.
Oz looks to us for approval. My father nods. He’s afraid that if he lets go of Honeybee right now, she’ll bolt.
I take charge of my grandmother at the gate, and we move along the path together. Despite her mental decline, Grandma Judy is only seventy-eight and still gets around quite well. That makes the dementia all the more unfair.
I watch her as we walk. With each step, she brightens. Her gaze darts about, landing on the climbing roses and azaleas, the bench by the river, the old picket fence, a trellis of wisteria, a trumpet vine, a bronze birdbath featuring statues of two little girls playing in the water.
“Oh,” she whispers. “Oh, I do love this place. Has it been a while?”
“I think so,” I answer.
“I’ve missed it,” she whispers. “I’ve missed it so.”
My mother and father hesitate at the top of the porch steps, blink at my grandmother and at me, agog. Honeybee is in a situation she can’t control, and because of that, she hates it already, no matter what it is. “Avery Judith, you had better start explaining all of this.”
“Mama!” I snap, and Honeybee draws back. I’ve never spoken to my mother that way. Not in thirty years. “Just let Grandma Judy see what she remembers.”
Laying a hand on my grandmother’s shoulder, I guide her across the threshold into the cottage. She stands for a moment, her eyes adjusting to the change of light.
I watch as she takes in the room, the photographs, the painting over the old stone fireplace.
It’s a moment before she notices that the space is occupied. “Oh, oh…May!” she says as naturally as if they had just seen one another yesterday.
“Judy.” May tries to get off the sofa, but it’s saggy, and she can’t push to her feet, so she stretches out her arms instead. Trent, who was about to help her up, backs away.
My grandmother crosses the room. I let her make the journey alone. May’s eyes fill, and she lifts her arms, her fingers opening and closing, beckoning her sister to her. Grandma Judy, who is so often unsure of people now, shows no hesitation. As if it is the most natural thing in the world, she leans over the sofa and into May’s arms. They share the shaky embrace of old age, May’s eyes closing as she nestles her chin on her sister’s shoulder. They cling to one another until, finally, my grandmother sinks exhausted into the armchair beside the sofa. She and her sister hold hands across the end table. They gaze at one another as if there’s no one else in the room.
“I thought I’d never see you again,” May admits.
My grandmother’s buoyant smile seems innocent of all the obstacles that have kept them apart. “You know I’ll always come. On Thursdays. Sisters’ Day.” She motions to the rocker by the window. “Where is Fern this afternoon?”
May lifts their joined hands, shakes them a bit. “Fern is gone, sweetheart. She passed in her sleep.”
“Fern?” My grandmother’s shoulders slump, and her eyes grow watery. A tear squeezes out and trickles alongside her nose. “Oh…Fern.”
“It’s just the two of us now.”
“We have Lark.”
“Lark died five years ago. The cancer, remember?”
Grandma Judy sags a little more, wipes another tear. “Goodness, I’d forgotten. I only have a little of my mind left.”
“It doesn’t matter.” May stretches to cover their joined hands with her other one. “Remember when we spent that first week on Edisto?” She nods toward the painting over the fireplace. “Wasn’t that a fine time? All four of us together? Fern loved it there.”
“Yes, it was,” Grandma Judy agrees. I can’t tell if she really remembers or is just trying to be polite, but she smiles at the painting, and suddenly there’s a look of clarity. “You gave us the dragonfly bracelets. Three dragonflies to remember the three we never saw again. Camellia, Gabion, and my twin brother. We were celebrating Camellia’s birthday the afternoon you gave them to us, weren’t we? Camellia was the dragonfly with the onyx.” The light of memory shines in my grandmother’s eyes. The love of sisters warms her smile. “My, but we were lookers back then, weren’t we?”
“Yes, we were. All of us with Mama’s lovely hair, but you were always the only one who had her sweet face. If I didn’t know that was you in the painting, I’d think it was our mama standing there with us.”
Behind me, my mother whispers through her teeth, “What is going on here?” I feel the heat radiating off her body. She’s sweating, and Honeybee never sweats.
“Maybe we should step outside.” I try to gather my parents and move them back to the porch. My father seems almost reluctant to leave the room. He’s busy staring at the photos, trying to make some sense of all this. Is there a part of him that remembers his mother’s unexplained absences? Does he recall being in the background of that photograph taken on Edisto? Has he always suspected that his mother is more than just the woman he knew?
Trent nods across the room at me just before I close the door between the porch and the cottage. His encouragement makes me feel strong, capable, confident. He’s a believer in letting the truth be what it is. He and Hootsie have that in common.
“You’d better sit down for this,” I say to my parents.
Honeybee reluctantly balances on the edge of a rocker. My father takes the two-seat glider and assumes a posture that lets me know he’s expecting something grave and unpleasant. He leans forward with his feet firmly planted, elbows resting on his knees, fingers steepled together. Whatever the situation is, he’s ready to analyze it and do damage control.
“Just let me tell you all of it,” I plead. “Don’t ask me anything until I’m finished, okay?” Without waiting for an answer, I gather a deep breath and begin the story.
My father listens from behind the usual stoic mask. My mother eventually sinks against the rocker with a wrist braced against her forehead.
When I’m done, the air hangs silent. No one knows what to say. It’s obvious that even my father had not an inkling of this, although there’s also something in his expression that tells me a few details about his mother’s behavior have begun to make sense now.
“How…how do you know all of this is true? Maybe…maybe this woman…” My mother trails off, looks toward the cottage window. She’s thinking of what she heard in there, of the photos on the walls. “I just don’t see how it’s possible.”
My father breathes over his joined fingertips, graying eyebrows gathering together. He knows it’s possible; he just doesn’t want it to be. But I’ve told him what Trent and I have learned about the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and I can see that most of it wasn’t new information to him or my mother. No doubt, they’ve heard of the scandal, perhaps seen the TV shows that have reenacted events at Georgia’s notorious children’s home.
“I can’t…My mother?” Dad mutters. “Did my father know?”
“I don’t think anyone knew. Grandma Judy and her sisters were grown women by the time they were reunited. May told me they didn’t want to interfere with each other’s lives. Considering that the paper trail was set up to keep birth families from finding one another, it’s a miracle that even four of the siblings were brought back together.”
“My God.” He shakes his head as if he’s trying to rearrange the thoughts there, to put them in some workable order. “My mother has a twin?”
“She was born a twin. She did search over the years, but she was never able to find out what happened after that—whether her twin died or survived and was adopted.”
My father rests his chin on his hands. He looks upward through the trees. “My dear God in heaven.”
I know what he’s thinking. I’ve been turning the same things over in my mind since the day I learned the truth. All week long, I’ve gone back and forth between taking the secret to the grave with me…and setting the truth free, come what may. In the end, it boils down to this: My father deserves to know who he is. My grandmother deserves whatever time she has left to spend with her sister.
The five little river gypsies who suffered at the hands of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society deserve to have their stories carried forward into the future. But for a strange twist of fate, my father’s mother would have grown up on a riverboat, among common folk, surrounded by the poverty of the Great Depression.
She wouldn’t have been of the class to have met my grandfather, much less married him.
We wouldn’t be Staffords.
My mother regains herself a bit, lifts her chin, and reaches across to unfasten my father’s hands and hold one of them. “It’s ancient history. There’s no sense in agonizing over it now, Wells. There’s no reason to be bringing it up at all.” A glance slides my way—a warning.
I resist the urge to wilt. For me, there’s no turning back. “Dad, what you decide to do from here is your choice. All I ask is that Grandma Judy be able to have time with her sister…for however long they have left. They’ve spent their whole lives hiding away from the world, for our benefit. They deserve to be at peace now.”
My father kisses my mother’s fingers, folds them between his, and nods. Silently, he’s telling both of us he’ll mull this over and make his own decisions.
Honeybee leans closer to me. “What about this…the man in there? Can he be trusted not to…well…to use this information? With the Senate run coming up next year, there’s nothing Cal Fortner would like more than a personal scandal to distract from the issues.”
I’m relieved when she automatically looks to my father, not me, in regard to the next Senate race. I feel life shifting toward its old balance, and I’m glad. It’ll be easier to tell them there won’t be a politically advantageous wedding in our garden during azalea season. I’m not ready to broach the subject yet, but I will.
Being here, seeing May and my grandmother together, makes me all the more certain of it. All the more certain of myself. “You don’t have to worry about Trent. He wouldn’t do that. He’s a friend. If it weren’t for his grandfather, Grandma Judy’s sisters never would have found her. She wouldn’t have learned the truth about her past.”
My mother’s expression indicates that she’s unconvinced it wouldn’t have been better that way.
My father’s face says otherwise. “I’d like to talk to Mrs. Crandall a bit.”
Honeybee’s mouth falls open a little. Then she pops it shut, straightens herself, and nods in acquiescence. Whatever path my father chooses, she will walk it right beside him. This is how my parents have always been.
“I think May would welcome that. We can leave the four of you alone so she can tell you her story.” Hearing it from May, in her own words, will bring it home to my father, I hope. This is our family history.
“You can stay,” my mother says uncertainly.
“I’d rather just let you have a bit of time.” Really, I want to be alone with Trent. I know he’s dying to ask how my parents took the news about Grandma Judy. He keeps looking at me through the cottage window.
He’s obviously relieved when we stand and cross to the door. Inside, my grandmother is talking about a boating trip down the river. She speaks of it as if it happened yesterday. Apparently, May bought a jon boat at one time. Grandma Judy is laughing about the four of them floating off down the Savannah River when the motor wouldn’t start.
My father moves tentatively to a chair, looks at his mother as if he’s never seen her before. In a way, he hasn’t. The woman he remembers was an actress playing a role, at least partially. For all the years since her sisters found her, there have been two people inside the body of Judy Stafford. One of them is a senator’s wife. The other carries the blood of river gypsies.
In this little cottage, on yet another Sisters’ Day, the two meld into one.
Trent is more than happy to vacate the premises with me.
“Let’s walk up the hill,” I suggest. “I wanted to grab a few pictures of the plantation house ruins…just in case this whole thing falls apart and we never come back here again.”
Trent smiles as we pass through the gate and leave the cottage gardens behind. “I don’t think it will.”
We walk the path to the edge of the trees. I think of Rill Foss becoming May Weathers all those years ago.
Could she ever have imagined the life she would live?
The sunlight warms me as we cross into the open field and start up the hill. It’s a beautiful day—one that hints at the upcoming change of the seasons. The shadow of the mansion’s ancient remains falls on the grass, making the towering structure seem solid again. My hands shake as I take out my phone and snap photos. This isn’t really why I wanted to come here. There was a reason I felt the need to move out of sight of the cottage…and out of earshot.
Now I can’t find the words…or the courage. Instead, I take a ridiculous number of pictures. Eventually, my ruse runs out.
I swallow a sudden onslaught of butterflies, try to muster up the necessary fortitude.
Trent beats me to it. “You’re not wearing the ring,” he observes, his eyes filling with questions when I turn to him.
I look down at my hand, think about all that I’ve learned since I accepted Elliot’s proposal, then moved back to South Carolina to do what was expected. That feels like a different life, the music of a different woman. “Elliot and I talked. He doesn’t agree with my decisions about Grandma Judy and May, and he probably never will, but it’s more than that. I think we’ve both known for a while now that we’re better as friends than as a couple. We have years of history between us, a lot of fond memories, but there’s just something…missing. I think that’s why we’ve avoided setting a date or making firm plans. The wedding was more about our families than it was about us. Maybe in some way, we’ve known that all along.”
I watch Trent as he studies our shadows on the grass, frowning contemplatively.
My heart flutters, then pounds. The seconds seem like taffy, sticky and slow-moving. Does Trent feel the way I do? What if he doesn’t?
He has a young son to consider, for one thing.
I don’t know exactly where I’m going in life, for another. Working with the PAC will give me time to find out who I want to be. I like setting things right that were wrong. I think that’s why I’ve dug so deeply into May’s story, why I’ve brought my grandmother and May here this afternoon.
An old wrong has been set right today, inasmuch as is possible all these years later.
There’s a sense of satisfaction in that, but now the questions about Trent eclipse it. How does he fit into the future I’ve only begun to imagine? His family and mine are so different.
His eyes catch the light when he looks back at me. They’re the blue of deep water, and for the first time I realize that perhaps we’re not as different as we seem. We share a rich heritage. We’re both descended from the river.
“Does this mean I can hold your hand?” He smiles along with the words, raises an eyebrow, and waits.
“Yes. I think it does.”
He turns his palm up, and I put my hand in it.
His fingers close over mine, a warm, strong circle, and we walk up the hill away from the ruins of a life that was.
And into a life that can be.
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