On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Reprising "Celebration and Sorrow" from my novel, SNUSVILLE.

 This short piece describes the typical Norwegian celebratory (and mourning) style of the 1950s in Iowa. It's part of the larger picture of this family as seen through the eyes of a girl growing up in that environment.

 The Lilleys always ate dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas at Alma’s parents' farm with her brothers and sisters.  Joanie wouldn't have called her mother’s clan a particularly merry group, except for the rare times when Aunt Louise played the piano and a few voices joined in. 
    The winter holidays when Joanie was twelve were memorable.  The Lilleys arrived for Thanksgiving dinner with Alma's four pies--two coconut creams and two pumpkins.  All the women brought their specialties to the dinner.  Uncle Roy's wife, Lillith, always made the dressing, a mild concoction to suit Scandinavian tastes with a hint of the exotic in her addition of chopped black olives.  Louise, being single and somehow exempt from more rigorous cooking, brought relish trays and rolls, while Aunt Rose's husband, Helmar, furnished the giant bird which he baked with loving attention to a crisp, golden brown.
    Just as Joanie began to take her place at the kitchen table to eat with her younger cousins, Louise grabbed her arm and marched her into the dining room.  "You're too old to eat out there with the kiddies.  It's time you sat with the grown-ups."  Well!  Joanie’s face burned with pleasure though no one seemed to notice this big change.  The meal didn’t begin until her grandfather gave the blessing, ending it in some Norwegian phrase, and after her plate of food was handed to her, Joanie ate her dinner quietly listening to the adults talk.
    "Can't make a nickle with hog prices so low."  This from Roy, who always complained loudly about his farming.
    Uncle Ralph nodded his agreement to his brother's concerns but as usual didn't say anything.  Grandpa ate with quiet appreciation.  Joanie’s cousin Geraldine and her boyfriend Tony Marello sat together, while the others were segregated--the men sitting near Grandpa and the women around Grandma.  Geraldine's voice occasionally rang out, competing with Roy's.
    Joanie felt free to look around the table and observe how nice everything looked.  The good china had been taken out of the built-in china cabinet with the leaded glass panes.  Haviland, her mother said, ordered by her grandfather when he built this place in 1915.  No decorations, however.  Such things were considered frivolous by her grandmother.  After dinner the women cleared the table and washed dishes.  Grandma had left immediately following the meal to take her nap, while Grandpa sat in his rocker and dozed, his face lightly touched by the lengthening rays of the sun.
    Christmas ordinarily would have been a repeat of the Thanksgiving celebration with the added excitement of gift-giving, but this year was different.  Grandpa Ekdahl died ten days before Christmas of a massive coronary thrombosis that killed him instantly.  It happened on a Saturday night just as the Lilleys were beginning dinner.  Joanie answered the phone and heard her uncle Ralph asking for her mother in such a strange, hollow voice she felt frightened.
    She went to her grandfather's funeral, her first, with her parents the following Saturday at the Lutheran church in Bethany.  She didn't hear a word the minister said, but at one point Ralph, silent Ralph, bent his head into his hands and shook with sobs.  Nothing could have impressed her more.  But the others, as far as she could tell, were as dry in the eye as the stiff old body with the dry browned skin that had been Nels Ekdahl.
    After the funeral and the trip in the painful cold to the burial site on a windy hill, everyone hurried back to the farmhouse for refreshments and subdued conversation about matters that Joanie decided were not quite fitting.  Shouldn't they have talked about her grandfather?  She continued to think about him the following week and how he had passed out of their lives so easily, so completely, his passing hardly noticed except for the slight, tearful convulsion of Uncle Ralph the day of the funeral. 
    Christmas plans proceeded.  By the time the Lilleys arrived for the occasion at the farm, packages were clumped around the base of the tree and the table was set for dinner.  A large ham was being carefully whittled into slices by Helmar and placed on the huge platter around kumla, grated potatoes cooked in ham broth.
    After dinner, the men congregated in the living room while the women cleaned up the dishes.  Joanie wandered into the dining room and saw Geraldine, sitting in grandpa's big wicker rocker by the low window overlooking the side garden.  Joanie remembered Grandpa dozing there Thanksgiving, caught by a pale November sun as in a distant floodlight that exposed his weathered face.  No sunlight streamed in today.
    "Hi, Geraldine.  I wonder when we can open the presents."
    Her cousin turned.  No smile, but her voice was pleasant.  "You know this bunch.  They can't let themselves have any fun until all the work is done.  Heaven forbid they leave a dirty dish or do anything out of order."
    Joanie knew in some deep, hidden place what Geraldine meant.  She wanted to know more.  "Why are they like that?"
    "Mainly because of the old man.  At least, he was the worst.  Rigid as a post, no give in him that anyone could see."
    "Didn't you like Grandpa?"
    "Sure, I did, kid; you don't get it.  He was a softie inside, but these Norwegians can't let anything get out.  It has to explode from them.” She cocked her head at Joanie.  "Ever hear the word love mentioned around here?"
    "No."  It was true!  Geraldine had said something marvelous and true.  She knew about emotions exploding, too.  Sometimes her feelings ran so strongly in her she would have to cry or give her mother a hug.  Alma would chide her.  "Get control of yourself.  Do you want to end up like poor Paul, raving?"  Her father’s brother had had a “breakdown.”
    "Oh, yeah, I know about these Norwegians," Geraldine nodded sagely.   “They used to have prayer meetings here, and I witnessed one of them.  My God, did they ever howl then!  They'd fall all over themselves confessing their sins."
    "Grandpa did all that, too?"  Impossible to imagine the man in the throes of such fervor.
    "He was the most emotional of them all.  Didn't you ever see him cry sometimes?"
    "I've heard Mom say that Grandpa was tender-hearted and cried, but I never saw him do that."  Her own eyes filled with tears that overflowed as she thought of her grandfather, his whole life bound into uncomfortable silence by something.  What?   
    Christmas proved to be exciting, even this year.  Aunt Rose had drawn Joanie’s name and gave her a bottle of Tigris perfume, a grown-up scent that thrilled her.  Grandpa, though not mentioned by anyone, seemed to be present in spirit, quietly approving the sedate celebration that marked all their big occasions.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Grace: An Excerpt from the Foxhill Series

 Chapter 1

            As spring settled into the Nashville area, Grace Madison felt a stab of joy in seeing the bright colors in jonquils and tulips, massing in unexpected places; the pale green buds on the trees; and the bravely sprouting blades of grass in the neighborhood lawns.  Spring had always been her favorite season.  She was still hanging in there, as she explained to well-meaning friends like Tessa Wenger and her boss Rob Hendrickson, who were concerned with her well-being, no doubt fearing another suicide attempt.  But even though Grace had refused to see a therapist, saying she would be too bored talking about herself at length, she met frequently with her regular doctor, a kindly man, who seemed to have his own methods of determining her mental health.  And because he seemed optimistic, Grace was beginning to feel the same.  Yet she still harbored a darkness that she couldn’t quite understand.  She could only hope it might fade away in time.
            The move to her new house six months earlier had been difficult, coming so soon after her hospitalization.  But her mother, who stayed with her a number of weeks, had declared keeping busy was the best thing for overcoming depression.  She had no faith in designer drugs, thinking they masked the problem.  Grace had only recently discontinued the medicine provided by her doctor; they both believed she was now over any suicidal impulses.   She also ascribed, somewhat, to her mother’s view and had thrown herself into the move to the miniature half-timbered and stucco house in historic Foxhill.  It was an uncanny reminder of England and the
17th century manor house where she’d grown up.  Her own place was built in the 1980s.  It met the neighborhood’s requirement to reproduce or at least compliment the original structures, in this case the 1920s houses still standing.  Even those were considered late for Foxhill, which had been in development since the early 1800s.  Grace, however, was pleased to have found her own niche in this historic neighborhood.
            Grace had agreed to go with Tessa this Thursday evening to a meeting of the Foxhill Association, a gathering she’d avoided by saying she’d been busy getting settled in her house as well as getting her momentum back up at the library.  Yet she was aware of her need to restore her confidence by reaching out beyond her comfort zone.  As she considered this plunge into a new group, it reminded her of going each year to the English seaside as a child.  She remembered the roar of the waves, the ponderous lift and subsiding of the swell, the piquant odors of the sea, and above all, facing the unknown.  She’d always felt a little anxiety at first sight of the vastness, coupled with excitement and anticipation.  For Tessa’s sake and her own, she would not funk this outing.
            But Tessa, understanding Grace’s qualms, promised she could slip into the room and remain virtually unnoticed if she wished.  Before first Tessa and then Grace moved to Nashville, they had become friends while working together at the library in Tarryton, Tennessee, Tessa’s home town.  So now at Tessa’s behest, Grace would be inserting herself into this new group.  She watched for her friend’s car from the living room window, feeling silly at the apprehension that she couldn’t quite tamp down.  It was a silly fear since there was no reason for anyone in the neighborhood to know her history, and that was the real problem that dogged her–a residual embarrassment.  She’d been fortunate in having friends like Tessa and Frank, her boss Rob, and even good old Hal, whom she had treated abominably, none of them capable of gossiping about that unfortunate episode in her recent past. 
            Grace sighed, remembering almost against her will her misbegotten relations with Hal–and his famous Scandinavian reserve.  If she had to be indiscreet with anyone, better him than anyone else. Well, that episode was over, and over quickly without any repercussions except shame–at least on her part.  Hal was now married most happily to his Mihaela, for whom he’d been carrying a torch even while dating Grace.
            In thinking of Hal, she was reminded of an untranslatable Norwegian word describing desirable qualities she’d come across when reading a biography of a Norwegian writer.  The word exemplified Hal and seemed typically Scandinavian: not wishing to put oneself above others; in control of one’s emotions; and most importantly, being a kind and thoughtful person.  That was Hal Stensson, all right, and she wished him well with his young and spunky wife.   For herself, she thought she would prefer a man that engendered a bit more excitement.  No wonder she and Hal hadn’t really hit it off, both being–what?–too northern European in emotional expression?  Perhaps.
            Tessa’s car was waiting at the curb, and thoughts of a past that Grace hoped had really passed went on the back burner as she exited the house.  Under a globe spruce near the steps she spotted again the large grey cat curled up and sound asleep.  She wondered again whose it was and why it had been roaming the neighborhood these last few weeks.  As Grace slipped into Tessa’s car, the two friends greeted each other casually.  Tessa was undoubtedly as aware of Grace’s appearance as she was of her friend’s, Grace knew from experience.  Yet neither had any sense of competition.  Although Grace in her early thirties was a little older, she wasn’t bothered by that, particularly since her ordeal hadn’t seemed to have noticeably aged her.  In fact, she was happy enough with her honey blonde looks, enhanced by careful makeup and clothes, but she thought Tessa a natural beauty with her rarer auburn hair and those luminous grey eyes.
            “I like your hair that shorter length,” she said to Tessa.  “Does Frank?”  Some men, she knew, had a fondness for long hair and objected to their wife’s cutting it.
            “Frank?” Tessa laughed.  “Now, Grace, you know he never objects to anything I do with my hair.  I’m lucky that way.”
            “That’s for sure,” Grace said, giving a little sigh.  “That’s what I’d like, an adoring man who isn’t a Milquetoast.”
            “It goes both ways for us,” Tessa said. “We’re pretty much free to follow our own little personal stars if we believe they’re important.  Not that we don’t consider each other’s wishes, of course, but we do enjoy a kind of marital autonomy.”
            “Now, Tessa, you must have some disagreements, some differences of opinions.”
            Tessa shook her head.  “No, not really.  We talk things out, and if Frank makes more sense, I go along with him.  If I do, according to his lights, then he sides with me.  I can’t quite explain it, but it works.”
            “You really are lucky, I guess.  I’m still working on finding the right man and using the right formula so we could get along together when I do find him.”
            “Don’t give up hope.  But I will say this,” Tessa said, looking at Grace with a smile, “most of us, I fear, have something of the child about us and want our own way on certain matters.  A good partner has to sense what they are and not object.  And I give Frank the reins if there’s a real dispute.  I maintain he’s the head of our household, but he wants me to be happy, and that mix seems to work fine.”  She pulled into the driveway of the Foxhill estate, built in the early part of the 19th century, once a large plantation but now reduced to only a few acres.  They turned toward a broad, graveled area for parking to one side of the house.  “Looks like a nice crowd even this early, maybe because we have a fine president.”
            “I recognized his name.” Grace had only skimmed over the newsletter that she occasionally read on-line.  She knew the organization had events to raise money to help any needy owners to renovate or do necessary yard work.  When she had taken up residence in Foxhill, someone named Martha Metcalf had called on her with a packet, including the rules of the Foxhill Association, which Grace did read carefully, deeming them reasonable and important.
            “Yes, Alejandro Arenas,” Tessa said.  “As a state representative, he’s gotten a reputation as a real dynamo, uncovering dirt in state government.  Now I understand he’s throwing his hat in the ring and will be running for governor.”
            “I’ve read about that scandal he exposed last year.  I don’t know all the details.”
            “That was quite a coup,” Tessa explained, as they walked toward the front of the mansion. “He ferreted out under-the-table payoffs to lure certain businesses to the state as well as other monetary schemes for the governor’s political benefit.  It’s fine to make deals for businesses interested in coming here, like tax write-offs or property bargains, that sort of thing, but it has to be above board, not favoring any one seller or buyer, for that matter.  Abuses in those areas are what Arenas uncovered, which got the governor thrown out of office.  I hear Alex is onto something new that he’s going to reveal shortly.”
            “How to be very, very unpopular,” Grace said dryly.  “But then, he’s a lawyer, isn’t he?  So he’s probably used to rancor from certain quarters anyway.”  She looked up at the tall facade of the house and exclaimed, “This is lovely, isn’t it!  I do admire that neoclassical design.”
            Tessa agreed it had a timeless beauty as they climbed several steps to the front door where she gave a sharp tug to a bell pull.
            An elderly woman admitted them, Tessa introducing Grace to the owner of Foxhill, Mrs. Walker; Tessa went on to explain that from the founding of the Homeowners Association, the Walkers had offered the house for meetings.  They stepped into a wide hall with a broad staircase on the right and a double doorway to the left that led to a large parlor where people had begun to gather.  Grace saw the room at first as a blur of furniture, the walls with large, framed portraits, and people dotted about.  Farther to the back, huge pocket doors had been opened to nearly their full extent, providing additional seating space in the back parlor.  As Grace and Tessa stood for a moment in the doorway, a woman gestured to them from a Chippendale-style sofa across the room.  Tessa murmured to Grace in an aside, “Martha will insist on us joining her.  Sorry.”
            “I remember her,” Grace said, following her friend.  “She stopped by to give me the information packet when I moved in.”  She gave a bright smile to the dark haired, attractive woman, who had moved to one end of the sofa.
            “You’re Grace Madison,” Martha said, after introducing herself.  She greeted Tessa, who sat down beside her, with a pat on the hand and a smile as well.  “I’m glad you two are here early.  It’s getting to be quite a crowd at these meetings.”
            “I think everyone wants to listen to our local celebrity,” Tessa said, indicating to Tessa a group of three people at the front end of the room, conferring with one another.  Two women with a man between them were seated behind a table and were obviously the officers of the organization.
            Grace, sitting at the end of the sofa, looked at the man of the hour, as she was beginning to think of him.  He was darkly handsome, probably in his mid-thirties, she guessed, wearing a pale blue dress shirt with an open collar–Alex Arenas, as he was referred to on television news stories.   She shrugged to herself, wondering what could be so mesmerizing about him that would get people to leave the comfort of their homes at night for a boring meeting.  She couldn’t help but be deeply suspicious of that type of man–powerful and attractive to both men and women–especially women.  She had to admit that probably her own history had affected her judgment of men.  After her engagement ended when she discovered her fiancé had been stepping out on her, she had moved to Nashville to start a new life.  And even though it had been almost two years since their breakup, her bitterness still remained.  She wondered if Arenas was married and if he was faithful to his poor wife.     
            “Is his wife here?” she asked Tessa in a whisper, gesturing with a nod to the front.
            “No wife,” Tessa whispered back.  “He supposedly has been devoting himself to his various interests.”
            “Oh, that is sad, with only groupies to keep him company,” Grace said in a low, ironic tone.  Yet she knew it was possible for people to keep their minds and energies engaged to the exclusion of emotional commitments.  And he was obviously an extremely dedicated and disciplined fellow.  Then Grace’s attention was captured by a couple that stood for a moment in the doorway; she recognized Hal Stensson and his Romanian-born wife, Mihaela, who was obviously pregnant.
            The couple gazed around the room, looking for seats, until Hal saw the group of three, all looking at him and Mihaela.  He gave them a friendly wave.  Martha called out, “Hello, you two,” and Grace smiled and nodded at him.  There, she thought with relief, that wasn’t so bad.  Giving them another glance, she watched the couple find chairs farther on down the room.  She and Hal hadn’t seen each other since his visit to the hospital had cleared the air between them.
            “Do you ever see Hal and his bride?” she asked Tessa.
            “Not much.  I hear they’ve gotten involved with an arty crowd, mainly through the Tremaine Gallery people.  The owners are good friends of Hal’s.  And then Mihaela’s an artist, too, and takes part in various exhibits at the gallery.”
            More people were arriving with the front room filling up.  An attractive black couple approached Tessa, who introduced them as Robert and Rita Shepherd.  “These are my neighbors who adopted my protégé,” Tessa said to Grace.  She’d heard the story of the rescue of the boy from the projects and his new home and school. 
            “How’s Louis getting along?” Grace asked politely. 
            “He’s loving the school,” Rita said with a smile at her husband, “isn’t he, Bob?”
            “This year is much better, now that he’s acquainted with more students,” Bob Shepherd said.  “And he’s turned into a great little soccer player, too.  Top scorer.”
            Tessa expressed her pleasure at the boy’s success, after which the couple moved on to the back room to take their seats, for it was close to meeting time. 
            Grace’s attention became riveted on the president as he called the meeting to order and asked first the secretary and then the treasurer for their reports.  His voice was deep and strong and easily carried to the back parlor.  He moved efficiently through various items on a rather limited agenda.  She thought she knew why he had become so popular wherever he went.  His style was easy but organized, friendly but serious, and he also had a nice smile.  No contentious remarks slowed down the presentation, which included a discussion about the neighborhood garden party event the end of May with tickets to be sold to the public.
            “Whose gardens?” Grace said in a low voice to Tessa.
            “Some beautiful ones, I’m sure.  Not mine, I can tell you that.”
            After the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, Tessa steered Grace, who had started to make her way to the door, toward the front of the room where a little crowd had gathered around the officers.  “I’d like to introduce you to our president,” she said.
            But Grace took hold of Tessa’s arm and stopped her.  “No, no, please, Tessa, I’d rather not.  Maybe some other time.”  She hated to disappoint her more gregarious friend, but seeing those hovering around Arenas, Grace felt a repulsion to join them.  Groupies, in fact.
            “All right,” Tessa said.  “Let’s go.” 
            But then the cluster blocking Arenas from view opened up suddenly and Grace heard the president say, “Tessa, have you brought a guest?  We should have introduced her.”
            “Hi, Alex,” Tessa said.  “This is my friend Grace, who’s pretty recently moved to Foxhill.”  She drew Grace forward, “And this is Alex Arenas, Grace.  You have something in common.  Both of you have parents that immigrated to America.”
            “Really?” Arenas said, shaking Grace’s hand. “And were you born here like I was?”
            “No,” Grace said with a smile, “I came over after my early schooling and attended university here.”
            Although no more was mentioned about native countries, Arenas asked a few more questions about Grace’s house before she and Tessa moved off, leaving the field for others seeming to be silently devouring Arenas’s words and who were now clamoring for his attention.
            “Well!” Grace said, laughing once they were outside.  “The great man speaks to the little people, and so pleasantly, too.   I can tell he is quite practiced.”
            “Now don’t be cynical about him, Miss Suspicious,” Tessa chided. “He’s all that he seems, as far as I can tell.  I hear he’s seeking the nomination of his party for governor.”  She greeted people along their walk to the car, and then she asked Grace, “Aren’t you glad you went to the meeting?”
            “I am, actually,” Grace admitted, opening the car door.  “It was an agreeable group of people, and maybe I can do something to help out at the garden party.  I’ll call the chairwoman.”
            “And your opinion of Alex?  Be honest, now,” Tessa said, steering the car out of the parking area.
            “Oh, I can see the appeal,  ” Grace said.  “He’ll be the next governor with those looks, his intelligence, and that natural authority.  Seems too good to be true.”
            “I think he’s true enough.  Type A personality, of course.  So he’s always moving upward and onward.  He can’t help himself.”  They both chuckled at Tessa’s characterization.
            “He said he was born here, though he didn’t say where his parents came from.”
            “They’re Cubans, who arrived as children with their parents after the Castro takeover, according to a little bio I read in the paper.  They met in Florida and married and had two kids, the oldest being Alex.”         
            When they reached Grace’s house, she invited Tessa in for coffee or a glass of wine, but Tessa declined, saying she needed to get home.  “I’m so glad you came with me to the meeting, Grace.  I hope you’ll consider going to the next one, too.”
            “Yes, it actually was a pleasant evening.  Thanks for pushing me.  I needed that.”
            It wasn’t bad at all, she thought to herself.  As she went toward the front door, a slight movement alerted her to the silvery figure in the moonlight that emerged from beneath the shrubbery.  The cat again.  She wondered why had it been hanging around so much lately.  It was skittish, probably from being chased off, though it was healthy looking as if it was well fed.
            Then Saturday morning, she had occasion to find out more about the cat from her next door neighbor, Marcia Lassiter, who was emerging from her house at the same time as Grace went to fetch the morning paper.  The cat in question was in front of the vacant house across the street, down a couple of doors.  A For Sale sign was posted on the front lawn.
            The women greeted each other and then Grace, after retrieving her paper, had noticed the animal looking at her.  She called to Marcia, “Do you have any idea whose cat that is?  It keeps sleeping in my shrubbery.  I don’t remember seeing it around my house before.”
            “I do,” Marcia said, turning to look at the cat, which continued to sit like the sphinx and stare at them from across the street.  “It belonged to those people who moved out.  They just left the poor thing to fend for itself.  I’ve given it some fish and chicken scraps now and then, but I can’t take it in because of my dog, of course.  He wouldn’t go for that!”
            “Oh, what a sad thing,” Grace said, rather shocked.  “I hate to hear of that kind of animal neglect.  It does look pretty well fed.”
            “I’ve seen it go down into the sewer for rats or lizards or something,” Marcia said, going to her front door.  “She’s getting protein, anyway.”
            Grace stood for a moment looking at the cat, a lonely female then, who looked back at Grace and then rose to its feet in a hopeful movement.  Relenting suddenly, Grace, her throat tightening with emotion, indicated assent with a wave of her hand and softly called, “Come on, Miss Kitty.”  As if it had been given a reprieve, the cat bounded across the street toward Grace, arriving at her feet and gazed at her for instructions.  Tears sprang to Grace’s eyes.  It wanted a friend, to belong again. 
            “We’re a pair, aren’t we,” she said, opening the door and inviting the sleek animal inside.  Grace locked the door behind her and then looked down at the cat.  “I can find a can of tuna fish for you today, at any rate.  Are you going to be Miss Kitty?  Is that all right?”  The cat looked up at Grace and then purred, rubbing against her leg.  Grace laughed.  “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Chapter 2
            Growing up, Grace had not had a pet, no animals to love.  A border collie worked with the hired man who attended her father’s small herd of cattle and other farm matters on the small estate.  The dog slept in a doghouse on the back porch.  But Bounder hadn’t been a real pet for the girls, more attached to the man who had trained him to work cows.  Her father had been a busy executive and her mother a determined worker among the local charities.  Both Grace and her older sister had been sent off to boarding school or as it was called, “public” school, at what Grace considered the too young ages of seven and nine.  A thoroughly ridiculous English custom, she had thought many times, which hardly fostered intimacy with home and hearth.
            Now with Miss Kitty to care for, Grace felt her basically affectionate nature surge toward the animal.  She wondered if she’d had a different, a more American upbringing would she have been so self-contained around people, so closed in that it took an animal to bring out her emotions.  Much of her early life in England had centered around the rigid schooling and magical “vacs” at their lovely old home, where she and Bettina had enjoyed romping around the small holding, experiencing village life, trips to London, and visiting the seaside.  She couldn’t say that it was a dreadful upbringing–of course not.  It was privileged, and she knew it.
            While the girls were completing their prep school education, their parents had moved to the United States, her father having made useful contacts at a conference which encouraged him to bring his skills to a venue with more opportunities.  Eventually, Grace and her sister, moving to the U.S. and getting their university degrees, began their respective careers, Bettina as a nurse, Grace as an analyst, specializing in languages, who took a job with the State Department, and  in her late twenties fell deeply in love for the first time.  She had left D.C. and followed her fiancé, whom she had thought of as a miraculous healer, to Tarryton, Tennessee, where he’d been appointed chief surgeon of a county hospital system.  But the romance went south for reasons connected to John’s ego when she’d discovered he wasn’t faithful to her.  He’d tried to convince her it was a momentary aberration, a madness fostered by selfishness, and he begged her forgiveness.  She couldn’t or wouldn’t do it.
            Grace had re-educated herself by additional schooling in library science while living in Tarryton and had become head librarian there after Tessa vacated the position to move to Nashville.  The work suited her, so when she rejected John and any rehabilitation on his part, she sought similar work elsewhere.  Keeping in touch with her friend, who encouraged her to try Nashville, she obtained a heavily competitive position at Vanderbilt University and began making friends ever so slowly, as was her style.  Yet, depression had haunted her and she spiraled downward until she hit bottom.
            Now feeling more confident and comfortable after meeting a few more people at the Homeowners Association, she was a good as her word, checking the website for the garden party chairwoman’s number.  She then called her to volunteer her services.  It surely wouldn’t be particularly onerous or needing a horticultural expert, she hoped.  Much to her surprise, Nancy Woodruff, who had taken on the responsibility for the event, jumped on Grace’s offer to help by saying, “You are a life saver, Grace.  I just had someone very reliable opt out of helping that day due to out of town guests she’s expecting, so I definitely can put you to work at Alex’s.”
            “Alex’s?” Grace asked, a little startled.  “You mean Arenas, the president’s house?  His garden is on the tour?”
            “Oh, yes, he’s a fabulous gardener, and actually, it was his idea to have this garden party as a fund raiser, which we hope will become a tradition for Foxhill.”
            “I’m surprised the women aren’t lining up to help out at his place,” Grace said, trying to keep her tone good humored.  She couldn’t help, though, wondering about the vacant position.
            “Yes, if I put out the word,” Nancy said, laughing, “I expect I’d get a few hands raised.  This just happened to me, not five minutes ago.  So your call is well-timed and wonderful.  You’ll be working the afternoon hours if that’s all right.”
            “Yes, that’s fine.  Just give me the details as to my responsibilities, and I’ll be very happy to do what I can.”  And she was.  It seemed an omen that she would learn more about her neighborhood, and maybe she’d even get to know the wonder boy better.
            “Mainly you’ll be punching the guests’ tickets for admission.  Eight gardens are on the tour with refreshments served on the Foxhill estate grounds.  I’ve prepared a sheet with historic information so you can inform anyone who’s interested about the Foxhill neighborhood and encourage membership.  I’ll send you everything you’ll need.”
            Grace asked, “Who will answer questions, if they arise, about the flowers?  I’m afraid that’s not my strength.”
            “Oh, no, we wouldn’t ask that of you.  The owners have agreed to be on hand to explain to visitors, and in Alex’s case, he’ll be assisted by Stephanie Morrison. You may remember her from the meeting.  She’s our Association secretary.”
            Grace recalled a youngish woman next to the president at the front of the room with long dark hair, leaning in toward Arenas to occasionally confer.  After reading the minutes in a high, childish voice, she remained quiet for the rest of the meeting as she took notes.  Grace thanked the chairwoman amid a return of thanks, and after relinquishing the phone, she congratulated herself on stepping up to the plate and getting herself involved.  It shouldn’t be bad at all, particularly with her duties.  The visitors would be strangers, needing reassurance as they entered the garden.  That should be an interesting afternoon.  She felt unaccountably cheered by her decision to get involved, and she thought it was a hopeful sign.
            Following the meeting, for several weeks Grace began noticing articles in the Tennessean and on-line sources about Arenas’s latest work in illegal adoptions, centered around, according to the stories, Mexican and Central American countries.  More and more had appeared to have nefarious connections, and the adoptions were hidden under layers of bureaucracy.  Were at least some of the babies stolen?  Had they been purchased for a pittance from poor families and sold at exorbitant prices to desperate families in Nashville and elsewhere?  These were the questions being investigated by Arenas and his staff.  They were ostensibly working for families who had become suspicious of the enterprises.
            But in the meantime, Grace had practical matters involving Miss Kitty to attend to.  The afternoon she had taken her in, Grace went shopping for a litter box and kitty litter as well as a variety of cat food.  She had no idea which food would be preferred by her new friend, but she would give her options.  And friend she was, almost instantly.  Miss Kitty hadn’t yet begun sitting on Grace’s lap, but she found a chair she liked and took up residence there while Grace watched TV, staring intermittently at her new mistress with bright, amber eyes.  She purred while she ate, which amused Grace, and after an evening outing of fifteen or twenty minutes, the cat was ready to come in for the night.  It was all very satisfactory for them both, Grace thought.  She sought information about a vet from her neighbor and took the cat in for shots and a check up.
            The next month rolled by quickly for Grace, who found herself looking forward to the Foxhill Garden Party, even as a toiler in the field, she thought laughingly to herself.  She felt some anticipation at the thought of perhaps getting better acquainted with Arenas.  She wanted to see if he really was what he was cracked up to be.  Was he indeed gubernatorial material or just a show boater who loved attention?  She hoped he wouldn’t be taking the afternoon off while the other person, the Association secretary, who might, just might, have a crush on him, took over. 
            Grace found herself thoroughly engaged at work in ordering books, including electronic material, for Fall Semester.  Then it was Thursday evening before the Foxhill Garden Party, and she had gotten out her folder of material to memorize.  It wouldn’t look good, she’d decided, to have to read off the historical information like a tyro.  She wanted to have a professional demeanor, which in this case meant knowing what to tell guests and how to answer any questions they might have.  This was her first real outside interest since moving to Nashville, which seemed impossible when she thought about it.  Time, time, time, how it surprised her by its movement forward like a train carrying her from and maybe toward romance and adventure.
One of the stanzas to a hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past” sung regularly at her school in England suddenly arose as if embedded in her brain, providing another image:
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
            She had had a life of sorts prior to moving here, but it had shriveled up behind her as if it hadn’t mattered after all.   What had she really accomplished?  Whom had she affected to the good?  Had she not chosen the “better part”?  But wasn’t that the message in the hymn, that one’s former life shouldn’t be looked at with longing or regret?  Pray God more was to be her destiny.  Unlike those who dreaded receiving the so-called Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times,” Grace hoped she was ready for something different.  But what it was to be, she couldn’t imagine.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ever After: An Excerpt from the Foxhill Series

            “Don’t you think I’m a trifle old to be ‘fixed up’ with some woman?  Besides, I’m used to being alone.”  Hal Stensson gave his mother an aggrieved look.  Ever since he’d been widowed he’d been treated to periodic attempts on her part to see him ‘settled’ as she called it.  Never mind that he’d lived quite happily–well, with a minimum of angst, since his wife died, fifteen years now, he recalled.   The real disappointment was that Josh was working for a large IT company in Portland, much to his regret.  It was painful to have him so far away, especially as he and his son had always been close.  But, as Josh and Hal agreed, he had to go where the job took him.
             At the same time these thoughts occurred, he was trying to deflect his mother’s genteel wangling of a date for him.  Someone she called Marian, which had an ominous, dull sound in itself, Marian the Librarian.  That was pretty much his mother’s speed, and what she might plan for him.  The woman would have to be a knockout to overcome that name, he told himself irrationally.
            “I’m not exactly fixing you up,” his mother continued.  “She’s new to town, and the last time I played bridge with her mother, she mentioned that Marian was interested in getting acquainted since moving here after her divorce.”  Hal’s mother lowered her voice to a near whisper as if someone might be listening at her front door.  “He was a drinker and a rounder, you know, and Marian stayed with him until her two girls graduated from high school.  They’re in college now.  Apparently, there’s money somewhere so she’s not in dire straits, or anything.”
            Hal sighed.  He knew his mother.  She’d not let up until he complied with her wishes.  “When is this little outing?”
            “Saturday night.  We’ll meet for early dinner at Merchants and then go on to the ballet.  Jane has already gotten the tickets.  I think with your sister and Don there, it won’t seem so much like a date.  A kind of family party.  You like her mother, I know.”
            He nodded.  “Yes, as old gals go, Nancy is rather a charmer.  Let’s hope her daughter takes after her rather than her father.  A captain of industry with the jaw to prove it.”
            Hal’s mother took the jibe well and merely laughed.   Adele looked like aging royalty as she sat in the gold bergère chair in her living room, petting her little dog, the papillon Louie, who was happily squashed beside her.  Adele Stensson’s blue cashmere sweater exactly matched her eyes, and her hair was still mainly light brown with only a sprinkling of silver.  Of medium height with a only few tell-tale signs of arthritis in her fingers, she looked younger than her years.  She was Norwegian while Hal’s father had been Norwegian with one Swedish grandsire, who provided their surname.  Hal’s parents were originally from Minnesota and had arrived in Nashville soon after their marriage. 
            Although Hal favored his mother in his looks, he had his father’s coloring, commonly called “black Norwegian” with very dark hair and blue eyes.  His father, deceased for six years, had had a printing company that he’d bought into when an army buddy had made the offer.  Hal had grown up immersed in the sound of presses and the smell of ink but chose the writing side of the business until his employer, the Nashville Banner, went out of business.  It was, he occasionally reflected, a sign of the times that even now with his own city magazine that he published monthly, he rarely saw those things that were part and parcel of his father’s business.
            So with a few more details to arrange at what was to be a date, no matter what his mother called it, Hal left for his own house, a few blocks away in the historically important neighborhood of Foxhill.  His place was an early  20th century but still significant design called a Craftsman bungalow, while his mother’s house was a two-story 1850s Italianate with mansard roof, bracketed window heads, and high ceilings. 
            On the way home, he had to admit that his few independent forays into that strange world of dates and relationships had definitely bombed, the only word for it.  Never considering himself a lady’s man, he’d gotten less and less interested in the pursuits and the necessary repartee when nothing seemed to click.  He and his wife, Chrissy, had met in college and like so many romances in that rarified atmosphere permeated by hormones and set in a cloistered environment, they married shortly after graduation.  They’d had a strong attachment that Hal believed could never again be duplicated.  It was that sense of belonging wholly to one another, almost from the first encounter, that he had not found again, even with seemingly suitable women. 
            His last date was over a year ago with Paige Crowell, now Geitner, and should have worked.  They were of the right age; they had fairly common interests; and she was a lovely woman.  Yet he knew on that first date that it was falling flat.  And then he heard from Tessa Wenger that the woman had married less than six weeks after he’d taken her out! 
            A couple of years before that, he had even dated Tessa when she’d first started working for him.  She, too, had married shortly after that.  There’d been other abortive attempts in other years.  Maybe he had turned into a misogynist without noticing, and women were telling him so.  That was all right, as far as he was concerned.  It set up fewer expectations–for himself and for the women who crossed his path.  He would patiently suffer this setup by his family, for he knew it would be a fleeting encounter.  The chances of him and Marian hitting it off were quite slim.
            There were compensations in living alone, he reflected, letting himself into his neat and spare bungalow. He’d always liked the neighborhood, and though he and Chrissy had raised Josh in an outlying area of Nashville, after her death he decided Foxhill would be the place where he might live out his remaining years.   For one thing, the houses were interesting and varied, not only in design, but also in age and size, so there seemed to be something for everyone.  Further, the restoration atmosphere and the homeowners association engendered a community spirit not found in most neighborhoods.  He appreciated that.
            On the negative side, it was close to the projects and occasional gang members might wander into the area, but with a vigilant Neighborhood Watch on the lookout, no ruffians would stay long.  Large families seldom lived here, he reflected.  It seemed one- or two-child families sent their youngsters to a boarding school or maybe a day school if they were able to transport them.  The nearby public schools had little to recommend them, unfortunately.  Friends had to be imported for play times and parties.  But once ensconced in Foxhill, almost no one wanted to leave.  Its historic houses and mellow brick sidewalks with tree-lined streets lent a homey, old world ambiance and made the place unique.
            The next morning Hal was having breakfast at a restaurant near his magazine office.  He was soon joined by his second in command, Juliet Norman, who handled every detail he forgot, with tasks assigned to her that he usually avoided, such as those of an office manager.  Reporters he had, along with a circulation manager and an advertising assistant who helped him with his own advertising efforts, but he detested the day-to-day arrangements about staff problems and bills, which Juliet managed very well.
            “I think I’ve got someone to do both jobs that we’re needing done,” Juliet said, cutting her french toast into a messy plateful of bite-sized pieces.
            “Both jobs?  I thought we just needed a typist.?”
            “True, that’s what I was after initially,” Juliet nodded in agreement.  She was a brusque woman in her forties, squarely built.  She and her husband had both retired from the army after twenty years and had a boy and girl in high school.  Her name, Hal often thought, seemed a kind of reproach to her parents, for she was hardly the delicate romantic. 
            “She applied for the typing post,” Juliet continued, “and her test was remarkably good.  But when she was filling out some forms, she pointed to the corner of my office, which was its usual filthy mess, thanks to Daniel’s frequent absences, and said, ‘I can clean for you, too, if you’ll let me stay a couple of hours later two or three times a week, and I’ll do a better job than that!’  Well, I agreed, and she’ll do it for the same money as our errant college boy.  I texted him and gave him the bad news.”
            “Does this woman know anything about publishing?”  Hal wasn’t questioning his lieutenant’s judgment, but he was curious.
            “She is new to the field, but she’s very keen.  Took a couple of English classes, as a matter of fact, to sharpen her writing skills.  But in Romania, she was close to getting a degree when she immigrated.”
            “Romania!  Who is this paragon?”
            Juliet gave her hearty laugh and said, “I don’t say she’s a paragon.  She’s something of a character, but as I say, she’s eager and a good typist as well.  She’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.”
            “I don’t, not for a minute.  What’s her name?”
            “Mihaela Forenscu.  She’ll start work on Monday.”
            “Fine.”  But he finished his breakfast in a kind of dread at meeting someone who saw dirt in corners and offered to clean it up.

Chapter 2

            Early November evenings in Nashville could be chilly, so it wasn’t surprising to see both Nancy Lankford and a woman who was obviously her daughter wearing light furs over their shoulders.  Nancy wore an old fashioned ermine stole, while the younger woman had on over her dress a mink vest that exactly matched her thick chestnut hair, worn in a bob.  They arrived at the front of the restaurant at the same time as Hal and his mother but came from a different direction.
            “Perfect timing,” Nancy exclaimed, greeting her friend Adele with a hug.  “I want you two to meet my daughter, Marian Keeler.” 
            Marian held out her hand, first to Hal’s mother and then to Hal, who tried not to register surprise.  She may not have been termed a knockout, but staid and insipid in looks Marian definitely was not.  She was a little taller than her mother, about five-foot six or seven with a slender but curvy figure, wearing a long, green wool sheath slit at the knee.  Hal noticed a diamond bracelet when they shook hands.  In the light of the marquee, Hal saw that Marian had beautiful topaz-colored eyes and a creamy oval face that just missed being beautiful.  She didn’t look forty, but he suspected she was actually older than that.
            Amenities were exchanged, and then Hal opened the door for the women to enter the restaurant foyer where the light was considerably dimmer, more intimate.  The group was immediately shown to a table upstairs where Hal’s sister Jane and her husband Don were already seated.  For a few minutes there was a flurry of introductions and people moving here and there as they settled into their seats around a rectangular table for six.  Hal sat at one end, and his brother-in-law at the other.  Sitting to Hal’s left was his sister and to his right Marian.  She was looking around at the historic setting with interest.
            “I’ve heard of this place, but as many times as I’ve visited Nashville, this is a first for me, so it’s a real treat.” The hostess handed out large menus to them.
            Promptly, the beverage server arrived and took their orders, and amid general conversation about the history of the hotel, they were all served wine with the exception of Hal’s mother who always had iced water with lemon.
            “I’m afraid I don’t know where you moved from,” Hal said to Marian, after ordering Steak Frites as his entrée.  Hal’s sister asked for a baked chicken dish, while Marian ordered Mushroom Papparello, which was, according to the waiter, a Merchants’ specialty.
            “Atlanta, for most of my married life.  I have two daughters, one of whom is going to William and Mary while the other is at Davidson.  It seemed the perfect time to make a real break with my former life.”
            “I hope you’ll enjoy Nashville.  It’s always been our home,” he gestured to his sister, who now joined in the conversation.
            “Yes, if there’s anything I can do to help you get acquainted, Marian,” Jane offered, “any clubs I might introduce you to, for instance, I’d be more than happy to do so.  Are you in Woman’s Club?”
            “I have been, but several years ago, and for now, I’m going to take my time and see what I might like to be involved in, but thank you for the offer.  I’ve been a professional volunteer for years,” she said with a laugh. “I was the wife of a member of the U.S. Polo team and playboy extrordinaire.  I had few options for doing anything other than managing a household and taking care of social obligations.” 
            “So were you college trained for a career?”  Hal said, in between sips of tomato bisque.
            “Yes, sort of. I graduated from Sweet Briar with a degree in, of all things, Sociology.  I had some thought about helping the displaced, the homeless.  But after I married, my life took a different turn, and I sort of settled, you might say.  I became as much of a dilettante as my husband.  I’ve been quite useless, except for taking care of my girls.  I am a good mom,” she said with definite nod of her head.  Then she looked at Hal with an amused expression and said, “But I can’t cook or iron or sew or do anything very practical.”
            “Like the lilies of the field–they toil not neither do they spin.  You’re quite nicely arrayed yourself,” he said with a polite little bow of his head.
            “I really don’t think that passage was referring to the likes of me,” Marian laughed.  “That eye of the needle thing is probably more applicable.”
            “And now,” Hal said, with an appreciative smile, “you want to do something significant with your life?”
             “I’d like to continue my work with the homeless, only professionally.  To that end, I’ve applied for a job at the Nashville Mission.”
            As if the words carried an electric charge, everyone’s attention suddenly was focused on Marian, and her mother cried, “I’ve told her that’s not a proper thing for a woman to be doing.  Dreadful things go on there, I’ve heard.”
            “Oh, Mother,” Marian said, shaking her head, “I think it’s perfectly safe.  I’ve looked it up on-line and visited it when I was here prior to my move, and I think it would be a very interesting place to work.”  Then she turned to Hal and said, “But enough about me.  I know you’re a publisher of Cityscape magazine, and I’ve seen copies of it at Mother’s.  How did that come about?”
            And for the remainder of the meal, the conversation centered around Hal’s venture, the stories he’d covered, and his personnel, until the few who had succumbed to a sherbet and ice cream dessert were finished.  He felt he hadn’t talked about himself that much in years.  In order to simplify matters, Hal picked up the bill for the party, which was fine.  He had few expenses in his bachelor life, and this was an unusual occasion.  He felt strangely happy and full of well being this evening.
            “We’d better hurry to TPAC,” Hal’s brother-in-law said, snapping shut his cell phone,“since it’s nearly time for the curtain.   I’ve ordered a taxi to drop us off there and pick us up after the ballet, so we won’t have to either walk or move our cars around.  I just checked with the cab company, and it’s out front as we speak.  How does that sound?”
            Everyone congratulated him on his forethought, and the group moved to the sidewalk where one of the roomier cabs awaited them.  Hal and Marian were the first to get in, which required crawling into the far back seat.  He went ahead and helped her to get situated, both of them laughing at the awkwardness of SUVs.  Hal was very pleased the way the evening was progressing.  He couldn’t fault his mother for her manipulating this occasion.  So much for Marian the Librarian.
            After Swan Lake, a nice but familiar performance for most of the company, they exited the taxi at the various places where their cars were parked.  Hal and his mother were the first to reach their parking garage.  He’d had little opportunity to be alone with Marian to set up some further meeting, but he had found out she had purchased a condo somewhere on West End, and believing they’d gotten along well, he planned to find her number and give her a call.  He couldn’t claim sparks, exactly, but she was a lovely woman as well as intelligent and interesting.  Going against his habitual lack of momentum when it came to such things, he decided she was worth pursuing to get better acquainted.
            “So what did you think?” Hal’s mother queried as they drove home.  “It wasn’t a bad evening, was it?”
            “No, Mom, you did good.  Actually, Marian’s something of a puzzle, a pretty one, for sure, and you know I’ve always liked a mystery, so I may have to check her out further.”
            Adele clapped her hands together.  “I knew it!  I just had a feeling about this.  So you’ll be asking her out then?”
            “I think I will.  Of course, I don’t know if she’ll be interested in going out with me.”
            “What girl wouldn’t?  Of course, she’d be pleased as punch.”  She got out of the car in her own driveway and leaned in before closing the door.  “Let me know what happens.  Promise?”
            “Yes, my dear, I’ll keep you informed.  Now scoot.  It’s past your bedtime.”
            But what surprised him the most was that he couldn’t wait until the next day, but called information and got her number as soon as he was inside his house.  He hesitated a moment before ringing her, wondering if she stopped at her mother’s or had he even given her enough time to reach her place.  He punched in the number resolutely and was gratified to hear her low voice answer, “Hello?”
            He knew he sounded a bit gruff when he asked her if she enjoyed the evening, but that was him, and she surely knew that by now.  In fact, she made it easy, saying she was glad he called since she wanted to know if he’d like to go with her to an exhibition of medieval religious icons and objects from the Metropolitan Museum Cloisters collection--if he hadn’t already been.
            She explained further as if having to tempt him.  “Mother’s seen it, and I’ve read up on these items, which are supposed to be fabulous.  Does that interest you?”  She laughed then, rather self-consciously, he thought, which was rather endearing.
            “Sure, I’d like to go, and no, I haven’t yet been.  Good idea.”  They agreed on the following Saturday afternoon at 2:30.  After wishing her a good night, he rang off and sat for a moment, wondering about her–she went straight to the point, that was for sure.   He normally gave a wide berth to socialites, particularly wealthy ones since their lives had little in common with his own.  But Marian seemed different, iconoclastic, he thought, despite the fur and diamonds.  That business about wanting to work at the Nashville Mission, for instance, was what?  A genuine interest in helping the underclass?  Or was she merely getting off on playing Lady Bountiful?  Time would tell, and for now he was willing to take that time.