The morning of their departure presented more complications than Max had expected. To start with Peggy dropped by at breakfast time. She hadn’t been by in two weeks, but that girl could sniff trouble (her word, not Max’s) clear from Russellville.
Max had Lily dressed and sitting at the kitchen table eating oatmeal when Peggy drove up. She parked smack dab in front of the Buick. So much for sneaking out and barreling away, Max thought, as he tossed the afghan off the sofa and over the open Samsonite luggage on the floor.
Humph! A look at Lily, who began to tremble at the sound of the car door and then ignoring the tug of his hip he moved to meet Peggy at the door. With an upward grimace, he murmured, “thanks for the reminder, Lord” as the tug in his hip erased any real chance reminded of barreling away. Where Peggy parked didn’t make a bit of difference even if it was a mile down the road. Max broadened his smile in welcome, hoping she would not see through his facade. He took Peggy’s arm and steered her past the nearly covered suitcases into the kitchen. His fast getaway days might be over but he could still pull a fast one or two when necessary.
“Lily,” he announced, “You have a visitor.” He watched Lily carefully as he spoke, keeping his voice even. Sometimes she recognized Peggy, but more often she called her “Mama”. Max saw the resemblance; Peggy did in fact resemble the now departed Margaret Stanton of 40 years ago. If it upset Peggy, God bless her, she never let on. Lily and he had four fine children.
Today Peggy was “Mama”. He noticed a little dampness in the corner of Peggy’s eyes as he set a cup of coffee in front of her. She too had learned to let Lily, her Momma, lead the conversation or lack of it. They sat quietly for a while. Peggy patted her mother’s hand and sipped her coffee. Lily’s trembling eased and a tiny smile graced her face.
She leaned closer to Peggy and in an audible voice intended to be a whisper said, “Know what, Mama? We’re going to the ocean.” Max both grimaced and delighted at what she said.
“Oh,” Peggy smiled, patting Lily’s hand some more and winking slightly at her Dad, who attempted a baffled expression with a shrug of his shoulders for effect. “How are you going to get there?”
Lily looked up at Max and then started to whisper to Peggy again. Max prayed but did nothing to stop her. He had no idea what would come out of her mouth. He’d stopped trying to guess. And God forgive him, this morning he hoped she sounded delusional. She’d always been the spontaneous one in their marriage but this spontaneity took the case.
“That man”, she inclined her head conspiratorially toward Max.” “He reminds me of someone”, she paused, screwed her mouth while scanning him from the top of his head to his feet as if trying to place him. With a sigh of non-recognition she continued, “he is going to drive us there. I’m quite sure he’s a gentleman and honorable, Mama. ” Lily smiled broader than he’d seen her smile in a while. Peggy looked baffled and unbelieving. This was certainly a new twist of her mother’s disease.
“Know what, else?” Lily went on. “I think Greta is going to meet us there. Greta and I always have so much fun at the ocean, don’t we?” Max lowered his head. Lily’s sister Greta, a nurse, had died in London during the Nazi bombings. She had been five years older than Lily, leaving home for England in 1938. Lily was 18 years old when she left.
Peggy dabbed at her eyes with the napkin before looking across at her father.
“Where’s this coming from, Dad?” She mouthed the words, trying not to upset her mother.
Max shook his head then regretted it. He had tried never to lie to his children, to anyone really. He hadn’t always lived up to that mark, but he had tried. Today, he knew if he opened his mouth with any explanation, he’d likely succumb to temptation. His headshake was just another form of lying. They’d all know soon anyway, so he signaled her to wait while he escorted Lily to the bedroom. A nap after breakfast always seemed to help.
Back at the kitchen table, Max spilled the beans. He confessed his plans to Peggy over two more cups of coffee.
Peggy true to form sat with her mouth agape. The frown creases between her eyes deepened as Max tried desperately to present his plan as nonchalantly as if he were saying he was taking Lily to the grocery store. These days even that would have been a challenge. Peggy was silent except for a few guttural sounds of terror. When she finally found her voice, she had Andrew on the phone, off the combine and in Max’s living room with his wife Millie in less than 20 minutes. Barry lived in Greenville, South Carolina and Ryan in New Jersey or she would have had the whole kit and caboodle of them there.
Max did his best to ignore her impassioned pleas to her brother and sister-in-law on the phone. He began to hum “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, one of his mother’s favorite hymns to drown out some of Peggy’s words, such as crazy, ludicrous, and idiotic. He busied himself with making another pot of coffee and said little to Peggy as they waited for Andrew and Millie. Peggy, now pacing the floor, was saying enough for both of them. Let her say what she would, Max decided. The plan hadn’t changed. He and Lily were going to the ocean.
“Dad, what in tarnation are you thinking? You can barely get Mom off the porch, let alone take her to Ocean Isle Beach. You’re too, too…” Andrew’s voice trailed off.
“Old,” Max supplied the missing word, adding some of his own, “Too old, too banged up and too crazy,” he nodded to Peggy who grimaced. Good, he thought, a little guilt never hurts. Immediately, he felt a little ashamed. Works both ways, he guessed.
“Nobody is more aware of that than me. And not one of you is more aware of ‘Your Mother’s Condition’ than I am” He laid heavy emphasis on the last words. He motioned them all to the kitchen, waiting patiently as they all sat.
Max let them stew a bit while he poured them each a cup of coffee. Then he started to repeat exactly what he’d already told Peggy, but at the last moment he stopped. He pulled out the photograph Lily had been picking at yesterday afternoon and laid it on the table in front of them all. Millie, his sweet daughter-in-law, picked it up first. She smiled up at him.
Millie and Andrew had been married almost thirty years; she was like another daughter. Andrew came by daily, but Millie dropped in sometimes three or four times a day, bringing a meal or groceries. She never came empty handed. Sometimes she’d say she dropped by to chat, but while she chatted, she also gathered the dirty laundry and started the washing. She tried so hard to pretend her visits were happenstance, but Max knew they were carefully planned.
Millie was taking care of the old folks, trying not to let on that she knew they were old. She didn’t fool Max, but he hadn’t the heart to tell her he was onto her schemes. Frankly, he loved their chats and didn’t want to mess up a good thing. Millie had a way of brightening the worst of Lily’s days with her stories about family, friends and church. Millie’s stories brought chuckles from everyone and for Max, at times, hearty laughter. He watched her face as she looked at the picture, passing it to Andrew who passed it then to Peggy.
Once each of them had looked at the photograph, Max began telling them about the previous afternoon. He told it simply, leaving out his own conflicting emotions. His plan was to retrace steps once taken in hope of bringing some joy, if only momentary, toLily. He didn’t need their approval. His driver’s license was valid. He held up his hand when both Andrew and Peggy started to interrupt, probably to remind him he only drove into town and back, not across the country. He continued.
His eyesight, hearing and most of his brain still worked.
He winked at Millie who almost chuckled. Well, he thought, I may have one ally. He tried not to look at Andrew and Peggy. If he had he might have been surprised. Peggy’s frown lines had softened. Andrew was attentive. They were listening, too, taking in what he said, and thinking. When he finished, he rose from the table and began gathering their coffee cups.
“Well,” he said carrying them to the sink, where Millie intercepted him and started running a sink full of soapy water, “Now I have a lot to do, if Lily and I are going to get on the road today.”
In unison to Max’s astonishment, Andrew and Peggy both rose from the table and embraced him. Millie watched from the sink, her gloved hands dripping with soapy water. They started talking at once, laughed and then tried it again with more success. They had their concerns (long trip, adequate finances, and innumerable bad outcomes) but they understood what he wanted to do.
Andrew headed out to his truck and brought in recent maps of Tennessee, North and South Carolina. He took the highlighter that Millie handed him from her purse and marked the old highways 41, then 70, into North Carolina heading south from there to Greenville.
“Barry and Sharon will be delighted to have you. We’ll call them. They will love to visit with you for a few days. It will give you both a chance to relax, before going on,” Andrew suggested.
While Andrew studied the maps and planned the course, a task Max hadn’t really considered, Millie lifted the afghan off the suitcases and began straightening the heap of clothing Max had dropped into each. She then proceeded to finish the task, leaving the top of each suitcase slightly jumbled, as if Max wouldn’t notice as she folded everything else neatly and checked for obvious items he might have forgotten to pack. Max dropped a aged cardboard shoe box into his bag just before she snapped the latches closed.
Andrew carried the maps to the Buick, pulled it out of the barn, and checked the fluid levels and tires. He announced to Max that the old car seemed ready to go. Max nodded. He hadn’t really entertained the idea that it would be anything other than ready.
Peggy breezed out of the house the way she had entered earlier, always a woman on a mission. Practical to the bone, she’d headed into Hopkinsville, returning an hour and a half later with cash, travel checks and a brand new cell phone.
Her entrance brought another flurry of activity as they all converged on Max once more. He chose to wait out the whirlwind in his lounge chair.
Peggy instructed him on the use of the cell phone, a device he knew nothing about and therefore distrusted. Politely, he watched and listened as Peggy went on nonstop about the menus and other features of the phone. She even showed him how to use the “message” feature, so this was texting. She ran through the menu again this time with his hands on the phone.
“You mean I can order food? That is convenient!”
Peggy’s head popped up at that and he winked at her.
“Oh, DAD! This is no time to be joking!”
Frankly, he couldn’t think of a better time. Peggy was much too serious. Where had she come by that? She continued programming the important numbers into the phone. Individually, they each asked him to call nightly, or if anything went wrong, Or if he just wanted to… “Call anytime, Dad. One of us will be available.”
Andrew took part of the money and checks Peggy brought back and hid it in a corner pocket of one of the suitcases. Max hoped he’d at least be able to find it. Andrew, as a kid, being the youngest of the brothers, stashed his own cash in the most unlikely places. Years later Max and Lily were still finding odds and ends of his reserves. His plan was to prevent Ryan and Barry from becoming thieves, but his hiding places were so good, frequently he lost his own money.
Max craned his neck to see if he could see all Andrew’s squirrel holes. He noticed he put a hundred dollar bill in his Bible at Matthew 6. Good choice, Max thought, “Lay not up for yourselves treasure on earth.” Andrew caught him watching and flushed pink.
“You can’t be too careful, Dad.” Max nodded at the words and patted his son on the shoulder.
“Sure glad I have a credit card,” Max muttered under his breath, relatively sure he’d never find most of the cash Andrew had stashed.
In the midst of all of this activity with no one paying attention, Lily awoke and wandered into the arena. Their first indication of her presence was a piercing “Whoop”. They all turned in unison to see Lily standing center stage in a faded swimsuit they remembered her wearing when they were children. She had pulled an ancient yellowed swim cap onto her head sideways with one strap dangling over her nose. Her eyes widened. There was a unified babbling sound from the group, but Max shushed them, rose slowly and crossed over to Lily.
“Why, Lily, don’t you look beautiful?” Max murmured, pulling the strap out of her face, but leaving the cap in place. “But we haven’t reached the ocean yet.”
He gently turned her around and walked her into the bedroom. “Let’s pick out something pretty for you to wear in the car.”
“Something pretty? Oh, that would be nice. But, I don’t believe I know your name, Sir.”
“It’s Max. I’ll be your driver, young lady” Max motioned to Millie, who joined him. “This lady will assist you with your dress.” Max heard a collective sigh of relief from his children as Lily grasped Millie’s hand and retreated to the bedroom.