Monterey and Crossville
“So tell me about this Greta. You promised.”
Max glanced sideways at Amanda who was sulked in the passenger seat next to him with her arms crossed over her chest staring out the side window. Her indifferent attitude throughout the morning was complete with lethargic movement when he asked for help loading the car. She had a full repertoire of bored facial expressions that any actress would admire; her attitude did not incline him toward storytelling.
He’d stopped short of sending her packing a couple of times. If she hadn’t been so kind to Lily, he might have done just that, he told himself. No, he admitted, he wouldn’t have, not that she didn’t deserve it, but because something in him wouldn’t let him. So natural inclinations aside, he thought back a few moments about Greta, glanced over the seat to see Lily sleeping soundly and began.
“Greta was Lily’s older sister, five years older…” he began.
“Please! You already told me that!” Amanda groaned as if she were addressing a doddering old idiot.
“Young Lady!” Max snapped keeping his voice quiet but without disguising the annoyance he felt, “If you want to hear about Greta, I suggest you try to avoid interrupting me, because I would be just as comfortable not talking as talking.”
“Ok” she said quietly, eyes still out the window and arms still crossed.
“From now on, I thought we had covered this before, I expect you to show me some respect, if only because you are getting a free ride.” He saw her open her mouth and before he thought, he pointed his finger at her, waggling it like some old fogey. Well tarnation, he was old! And this flibbertigibbet of impertinence tried his patience. She clamped her mouth shut and glared at him.
He sputtered, “Haven’t you learned any manners in your short life?”
“Yes, Mr. Carnes.” Her voice was almost flat but there was a tinge of contriteness in it, he decided. Of course that prospect seemed unlikely in view of her body language. He took a deep breath, said the Lord’s Prayer silently and remained silent for several minutes, taking in the scenery and negotiating the endless curves that marked Highway 70 as they moved forward through Monterey toward Crossville.
Being behind the wheel of a vehicle had always helped Max organize his thoughts. Of course, most of those vehicles had been farm equipment or his pickup truck. He’d really never been a long distance thinker. Too many hours at the wheel of a car dulled his mental resources creating instead a compulsion to get where he was going, then get back as fast as he could.
Fortunately, most family car trips and the two or three Lily and he had taken after the Carnes’ children were grown didn’t require long hours of reverie on his part, because Lily developed a number of ways of breaking up a trip and keeping things interesting. Before cassette players were in cars, she’d pick a book for all of them to share and would read the miles away. For a man who had for the most part read only his Bible, newspaper, and Sunday School lesson, as well as to a lesser degree, an occasional farming periodical, her long readings on the family trips introduced him to literature he never would have picked up to consider. When they did finally own a car with a tape player, she’d sometimes get books on tape from the county library.
It hit him as he remembered those trips that he could get a book on tape for this trip. Of course that might not prove too easy without a library card. Surely, he considered, you could probably get them other places and locked in some memory vault in Lily’s brain was where. Max frankly hadn’t a clue. He shifted his eyes toward Amanda; maybe she’d know. He shook his head, no, probably not. She caught him looking and with a look only slightly a notch above a sneer, muttered disgustedly,
“Nothing.” He said, returning his eyes to the highway. “What would you like to know about Greta?” What did he actually know about Greta, he wondered?
Mostly stories Lily had told him. And, of course, now that he had read the letters, many blanks had filled in, but not without bringing a new load of questions. He’d only been in Greta’s company five or six times throughout his courtship of Lily and only once after their marriage. After she’d run away to England in 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Stanton rarely spoke of her again.
At her funeral in Savannah, her Uncle Ben had eulogized her as a free spirit; an idealist who sought to do something to help the suffering rather than sit idle while evil ravished the world. Max remembered watching his in-laws out of the corner of his eye. They sat stone cold. For them Greta had died over a year before. It had been a strange funeral. Maybe it was the unfamiliar liturgy of the Episcopal Service, but Max sensed the tension between Lily and her parents. To his knowledge the tension never resolved; it remained at every family gathering with like the heavy air before a thunderstorm no matter how joyful the celebration.
Lily and Isadora wept unashamedly at Greta’s funeral, as did Ben, who wiped his eyes often during the eulogy. Max, too, found tears pooling in his eyes, for Lily primarily and because he too had some unresolved issues about Greta.
“I don’t know.” Amanda said, “Where did she live? What kind of person was she?” She paused and then added as an afterthought, “And why on earth do you think Lily thinks I am Greta?”
He thought he would leave the last question until some hint of a reason occurred to him. So far he hadn’t any idea. He started the story carefully, wondering what he should leave out.
“Greta and Lily were born and raised in Brunswick, Georgia. There were only the two sisters, no other siblings. With the five years between them and their remarkably different personalities they easily could have grown up virtually strangers, but as far as I can tell, Greta doted on Lily from the day she was born.”
“Where’s Brunswick, Georgia?” Amanda asked.
“It is on the coast near Jekyll Island, south of Savannah. They spent a lot of their time in Savannah. Their Aunt Isadora and Uncle Ben helped raise them. Mrs. Stanton, Lily and Greta’s mother, had a nervous disorder after Lily was born and Mr. Stanton worked for the Central of Georgia Railroad and was gone a lot.”
“Post Partum Depression.” Amanda declared.
Max glanced her way. Where on earth did a child learn such things, Max wondered. She was undoubtedly right because Mr. Stanton had once in a rare moment confided in him that Margaret took to her bed and could not even look at Lily. In retrospect, Max realized he’d told him this after their first child, her grandmother’s namesake, died at birth. It had been Mr. Stanton’s way of showing concern for his only remaining child’s well being. It had been his way of warning Max to be vigilant.
“I think you are probably right, but they didn’t know much about that in 1918. Anyway, even though Mrs. Stanton recovered, Isadora and Ben became like second parents to both girls. Then when Lily was twelve and Greta seventeen, their mother got polio.”
“I’ve heard of that!” Amanda said proudly. Her voice took on a tone of interest that he had not heard all morning.
“Well, halleluiah, our educational system has not failed!” He laughed and amazingly she did too. The next voice they heard was a drowsy drawl from the backseat.
“You remember, don’t you, Greta? Momma had to stay in a sanitarium and we went to live with Aunt Isadora and Uncle Ben. We never went home again.”
Amanda looked at Max before saying anything. With a shrug of his shoulders and his eyes fixed ahead, he deferred to her. Frankly, he wasn’t sure what to suggest. When Amanda turned to answer after a brief pause, Lily had already slipped back into a deep slumber. She watched her for a moment wondering if she would open her eyes or show some sign of consciousness, but Lily did not.
“She’s sound asleep again.” Amanda said. Max wondered where Lily’s response had come from. It had been so, so out of the blue and on target.
“So go on, they went to live in Savannah then what?” Amanda prodded.
“Well, I met them both on a train from Chattanooga to Savannah in 1934. Lily was sixteen and Greta was twenty one. We managed to spend some time together in Savannah and then for the next four years I courted Lily through letters. At the end of that four years I struck out to Georgia and brought her home as my bride. They had stayed on with Ben and Isadora even after their mother had been released from the sanitarium and other than a slight limp, was fully recovered., By the time that happened both girls were in school and quite happy in Savannah. Greta was in nursing school at a hospital in Savannah when I met Lily and later she worked at the same hospital until,” he paused.
Max wasn’t sure what he should tell Amanda about Greta at this point.
“There were a bunch of things happening all over the world at that time. Greta became passionate about how the Nazi’s were overrunning Europe and targeting Jews. She often quoted Edmund Burke ‘For evil to succeed it only takes good men to do nothing’. Lily and she corresponded constantly. The letters, every one of them were in the box he’d found. I had never read them until after Lily became sick. They were personal and well, you would have had to know about Greta and Lily together to even begin to understand how sacred that privacy seemed to me.”
“But you have read them now?” Amanda asked. Max nodded and continued trying to explain Greta and Lily to a stranger, a child.
“The bond between them was so great that even as adults with thousands of miles separating them they could sense each other’s joys and pains. A long time before fancy gadgets like the web and cell phones, those two sisters were hot wired together. I watched it happen more than once.”
Max forced the next words, “The night Greta died, Lily was washing dishes in the sink. I was drying and kidding around with her. Earlier in the evening, I had carved a jack-o-lantern. From the scoops of pumpkin Lily had made a pie for supper. It was a night to celebrate. We had been married a little over two years and had just found out that we were going to be parents. It had been a wonderful evening. There we were both laughing, hopeful, when suddenly Lily turned as white as a sheet. She literally froze in place. I panicked, started shaking her. She folded like a rag doll burying her face in her apron. It was only minutes but it seemed like hours before she spoke. Finally, she raised her head and said calmly, too calmly, ‘Greta’s with Jesus.’ For two days after that incident in our kitchen, Lily seldom spoke; she moved like a mechanical toy until the telegram arrived. The tragedy became even more personal to me, when Lily lost our baby.
He paused, the long ago loss of Lily’s sister and their baby, washed over him with a freshness that left him near tears, but he continued.
The Nazi Luftwaffe’s air attack on London pounded that city for fifty seven consecutive nights in 1940 from September 7 to November 2. Greta had been walking home from her shift at the hospital when the air raid siren sounded; she never made it to a shelter. It was the fifty fifth night of the blitz, Halloween.” His voice broke with emotions the memory raised in him. He had wrestled with those feelings for all the years since.
Max remembered the helplessness he had felt those two days, how he tried to reach out to his hurting wife, tried to tell her that she was being silly; she couldn’t know Greta was dead. But she had known. Unreasonable as he knew it was, Max had been jealous of the connection Greta and Lily had shared. Jealous that Greta could break into their lives in Kentucky and ruin a perfectly lovely evening. Mostly he was jealous because as much as he loved Lily and she loved him they did not have what she had had with Greta.
His hands tightened on the steering wheel. His resentment, which had reached a crescendo by the time the telegram arrived, crumbled. In the face of his young wife’s grief, he dealt with two other menacing emotions; revulsion at his selfishness and fear that Lily would not be able to forgive him if she ever learned how he felt. And then she lost the baby, so his grief became real, but in a way he still blamed Greta. Lily grieved, but in time recovered enough to move forward. When she recalled Greta, which she did often in the beginning, she told funny stories of their antics and adventures as children. She seldom, if ever, talked at all about Greta running away to London or any of the events that precipitated it. She never spoke of her parent’s refusal to forgive Greta.
After Ryan’s birth in 1945, she dropped all references to Greta. Max suspected it was because of his reaction to his moodiness when she mentioned her sister. The gravity of her anguish hit him hard as he discovered whole story from the letters he had discovered since her illness. All evidence of her search for answers ceased after the war. There were questions left unanswered, but Lily had never spoken a word of it to Max. Likewise, he had never spoken of his own resentment of Greta and had never been able to ask her forgiveness. He wondered now if she had suspected. If so, she never said.
He glanced back at Lily in the rear seat, still sleeping, regretting again that he had failed to ask her forgiveness while she could still forgive him. Returning his eyes to the highway, he noticed Amanda looking at him.
“What?” he asked, more impatiently than he intended.
“Never mind. You just looked kind of, you know, sad. Are you ok?”
“It was a sad time. The war was sad. My younger brother died at Guadalcanal in 1943. Lily lost a sister and I lost a brother.”
“This was World War II, right? Nazis and Japanese?”
“Yes, I guess they still teach you about that in school?”
“Yeah, sort of. Did you go to war?”
“Yes, I enlisted after Pearl Harbor. You have heard of Pearl Harbor?”
“Oh, sure, I saw the movie. It was really good, but long, you know.”
“Not nearly as long as it was for the people who lived through it,” Max replied, not sure what to say next. As it turned out, he didn’t have to come up with something.
“Look out! Stop!” Amanda screamed.
Max fought to find the brake with his right foot, but it slipped. He felt Amanda’s foot over his leg and the Buick swerved to the right and came to rest in a canopy of trees. Mercifully, the vehicle had not hit anything, but Max banged his forehead against the steering wheel and fought the involuntarily trembling that overcame his muscles from head to foot. Lily was screaming, but apparently unharmed. Amanda shoved the gearshift into park and bounded from the car.
What on earth was going on! Max struggled to break loose of his seat belt, but felt nausea rising in his throat. Where was that darn release? He heard a tapping in his left ear, looking up he saw a State Trooper. Max rolled down his window, painfully aware that Lily was still screaming in the back seat. He needed to get to her, to help her. What on earth had happened? Why had Amanda hit the brakes and grabbed the wheel?
“Sir, are you folks ok?”
“My wife, I need to get to my wife. She gets confused.” He struggled again with his seat belt, finally pushing the release button. Fumbling for a moment he managed to get the door open, just as everything went black.