Lately, I have been collecting pictures of sunsets as I juggle a tub full of conflicting thoughts and emotions. After completing my last small book of poems, remembrances, and thoughts, Storytellers and Dreamers, I flew into hyperdrive to complete and mail two small quilts to my grandson Joshua and granddaughter Gabby as well as pack and move us to our Florida abode. I also piddled around writing the sequel to Braking Points, as yet unnamed. But collecting photos, some I have taken, others pulled from others’ posts, trying to tag them so I remember who to give the credit to, a new book undulates in my head like a swirling flock of birds, a book about those last whispers of light in the evening sky of life.
Hard as it is to write it, this past several months has been a summer/autumn of good-byes. Many of these are still too raw to put the words on paper, so that will come later. Each one, even the more distant ones, challenged me yet again to face with courage, but not rush toward the last sparkles of flaming light on the horizon. So the swirling flock of thoughts in my head carries me forward even as it baffles me. Every sunrise should fill me with hope and thanksgiving in anticipation of a new day—the day the Lord has made—and most days it does. There are things to do, people to see, daily challenges, and the anticipation of the unexpected, of adventure. Most days I want to cram as much as I can into every hour. Some days I want to fade into the background and hibernate. With each day’s passing, after the sunset, late at night before I fall asleep, I pray like I did as a child. “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
For each time I close my eyes to sleep brings me closer to that reality. No twenty one year old or even fifty year old in good health thinks like that. There are dreams I have yet to complete. I have so much more love I want to give. Adventures I never would have considered in my youth capture my attention. I told Terry recently after friends of ours here in Florida went parachuting that I wanted to do that. He looked at me and said, “Where is my wife and what have you done with her?” If I cannot go out with bang not a whimper, I at least want to make some noise and accomplish some goals before I go.
But it really isn’t up to me nor should it be.
Sunsets fascinate me. The western sky broadcasts each day’s good-bye. For every glorious ending there are hundreds of days that end in lackluster gloom. Dark comes quickly without any fanfare. Who takes pictures of dreary sundowns? I am thinking maybe there should be a few in my collection. Certainly my life like most others consists of flares of wonder, uneventful seasons, flashes of terror, and dark tunnels so it is reasonable to expect the ends of the days to follow the pattern.
Did I mention, there have been way too many good-byes this past summer? I am grieving and what is worse, my child and his children are grieving, my friends are grieving loss of soulmates, and even the more distant losses add to my grief. God has me and those I love, but still I see the writing in the sky with every sunset and don’t want to waste a moment.
“Give me my freedom for as long as I be.
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me.
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me,
and all I ask of dying is to go naturally, only want to go naturally.
Don’t want to go by the devil, don’t want to go by the demon,
don’t want to go by Satan, don’t want to die uneasy,
just let me go naturally.
And when I die and when I’m gone,
there’ll be one child born, there’ll be one child
born in the world to carry on.” Music and Lyrics by Laura Nyro
Nancy’s head replayed the telephone conversation from Delia. Saved from searching through Ellie’s address book, her cell phone destroyed in the accident, by Delia’s initiative. She hadn’t known Ellie’s father and step-mother well, having only visited with them a few times over the years during one of their rare visits or inspections as Ellie referred to them.
She did know Ellie had visited them at least twice a year since her Dad’s retirement from the Air Force. At least she did not have to get the house ready for their arrival, Delia had already made reservations. They were flying into Wichita Falls and a driver would ferry them to and from and about town during their visit.
She remembered them as stiff, aloof people, but Delia had sounded, well, not chatty, but soft, friendly with a warmth in her voice that Nancy did not recall at all. There had even been a moment when the line went silent and Nancy could have sworn Delia was crying.
She pulled into Ellie’s driveway, noticing a strange blue Camry with a Hertz rental sticker on the back window. Clara? But, wasn’t Brian picking her up at the airport in Oklahoma City? She sighed, given the history between the two, maybe Clara had opted at the last minute to drive herself. Climbing out of the car into the afternoon heat sweat immediately poured from her pores.
She dug in her bag to extract her key to Ellie’s house, but reaching the kitchen door she noticed it was ajar. Her heart quickened, even here, that was odd. Ellie locked her doors when she was away. First, a strange rental car in the driveway and now this? She shook her head and murmured to herself, “Clara.”
Pushing it open cautiously, she first noticed take out food wrappers and drink cups littering the table. Odd, Ellie seldom let such debris pile up, but then she had had some awful news. Moving through the kitchen and into the expansive living room she spied a familiar figure sitting in the midst of scattered journals and papers, shoulders heaving with sobs.
Without thinking she lowered herself to the floor and took her weeping daughter, her prodigal into her arms and rocked her, trying to understand what she was saying between her sobs.
“Mom, Mom, did (sob) did (sob) you know?”
“Know what, Cupcake?” Nancy found herself still trying to absorb the fact that she had found her daughter in Ellie’s house.
“Ellie (sob) had a (sob) brain tumor. She only (sob) had a (sob) a few months to live.” Mandy’s voice gained strength, turning accusatory. She shoved several sheets of paper directly into her mother’s chest pushing her away, as she scrambled out of the embrace. Backing up like a frightened animal, Nancy thought with a pang. Words failed her, her emotions too raw. Obviously, Nancy concluded, Mandy had come to Ellie’s bypassing even the courtesy of a call to her mother. The sheet and pillow on the couch, the mess in the kitchen and on the floor before both of them evidence that she had been here at least since yesterday. As a mother it was hard not to be offended by Mandy’s actions, but she pulled the blast of recriminations back from the tip of her tongue, swallowed them and looked down at the papers Mandy had thrust into her lap.
A still small voice in her head reminded her there is a “time to be silent” and so she perused the papers with their diagnosis ( Grade IV, Glioblastoma), prognosis (poor), treatment options (palliative). She looked at the list of medications, Ellie had been taking recognizing only one or two, pain medication, anti-seizure medication. Then as if she could grasp the content better, or maybe to avoid engaging her daughter, she read them again.
Mandy spoke first, her voice tiny, child-like, “We could have said ‘good-by’ if we had just known. But NO she had to go and die first! That is just so mean!” Her voice broke into a sob that convulsed into laughter. Nancy snorted and then laughed with her daughter until they both were crying again.
“Just like her to go and die before we could say good-by. What kind of friend was she?” Nancy remarked through gulps of laughter and sobs, tears streaming down her face.
Then in unison, eyes meeting, “THE BEST.” So true, so true.
Sally Burton produced tuna sandwiches for the group around the table with not a single turned up nose. Since Les preferred peanut butter and jelly, she expected him to complain, but he simply pulled a sandwich from the plate and gobbled it down with his friends. They were intent on a project of their own making, having requested drawing and painting materials, which Sally produced. Macy had run home and returned with poster board. Even Jessie’s two younger sisters were busy coloring in letters, with Jessie’s warning that they had better stay within the lines.
Retreating Sally bumped into her husband as he came out of his office or “man cave” as she had dubbed it. Paul’s face betrayed his frustration and concern. Uprooting his family, laying off men and women, he thought of as friends weighed heavily on him. He tried desperately to hide his raw emotions and laugh as he and Sally collided.
“Oops! Sorry, Sal. Wasn’t watching where I was going.”
Sally caressed his forearm, wishing he’d quit trying to hide his emotions to spare her. Good grief after all the years they had been together did he think his stiff upper lip, fake jollying would fool her. They needed to talk. She knew it. He knew it. Moving to Mexico wasn’t either of them’s choice, but job hunting wasn’t either. They had been so sure when he became Plant Manager that they would be set, not wealthy, but not poor either.
“I just fixed some tuna sandwiches for the kids, Les’s Sunday School class, would you like one?”
“Sure. What are those kids doing over here?” Paul frowned.
“Oh, you know Ellie gave them all saplings on Sunday morning. They were going to plant them together with her on Monday with some sort of ceremony…Of course, that didn’t happen.”
Sally’s voice trailed off and she was silent for a few moments.
“Well, I think Les has his in his room in water, but a couple of the kids threw theirs out. Jessie Adams was the one who wanted to carry on with the whole idea, but with two of the trees gone, and Ellie gone…” again her voice faltered, “They are working on something else together maybe like a memorial to Ellie. I have kinda tried to let them do their own thing.” She stopped then added, “It is the most animated Les has been in the last couple of weeks.”
Paul grimaced, snatched the sandwich from her and started back to his study. “Well, it is not my fault, Sally. I am just doing what I have to do for my own family.”
Sally followed his back with her eyes, but did not respond or hurry after him. She knew he was hurting. She knew he was not responsible for MarVal closing up shop and heading across the border, but at that moment she had exhausted her reserve of comfort giving.
Their hysterical scene calmed, Nancy began clearing take out clutter from the kitchen, with Mandy following behind wiping surfaces clean. Together they folded the sheets on the couch with Nancy putting them in a sack to take home and laundry. They worked silently. The laughing, crying frenzy had pretty much quelled conversation.
Other than the notebooks, journals, and loose paper on the floor, the place was in order. They both sat down on the floor at the same time. Mandy had already begun the task, Ellie’s letter had asked Nancy and Clara to do, so Nancy saw no reason to move the piles. Just as she was thinking Brian and Clara should be there soon, she heard car doors open and close in the driveway. Mandy looked up, startled.
“Brian and Clara,” Nancy reminded Mandy. “He picked her up at the airport.”
Mandy nodded. Mother and daughter rose off the floor just as Clara followed by Brian entered by the kitchen door. Clara immediately ran into Nancy’s arms, struggling not to completely break down. Brian glared at his sister and mimed ‘why don’t you answer your phone?’
“Well, I learned today from Miss Ann that their house started out as a couple of rooms and grew up and out as the family grew. Sometime in the 1940’s I think she said, Mom and Pop Stewart pulled the whole octopus together by connecting the porches, but they still called the section at the front, the front porch and the section off the kitchen, the kitchen porch and so on. Every section has its own name, personality and history. Mom and Pop Stewart, Miss Ann and Mr. Henry, Nancy, Pete and Dewayne all live together there. I expect when Nancy marries and she will, even though she says she won’t, that they will raise their family there also. I feel safe and loved with Granny, but I feel alive at the Stewart’s.” From Ellie Brown’s Diary, 1976
Jessie panted, having to stop and brace her hands on her knees to rest before crossing through the hedge to Les’s house the second time that day. She waited there a moment for her two sisters to catch up. Both of her parents had gone out to the unemployment office, leaving her with babysitting duties. Megan and Cindy arrived, winded and hot but ok. She would have to trust them with her secret plan.
Into Les’s yard she saw the others gathered under the large oak that provided some reprieve from the sun and heat. Their faces all appeared glum, which did not surprise Jessie, but she thought Macy and Richard looked mad. They watched her approach with her sisters, not one of the group speaking or even waving until she drew up close to them when Les spoke.
“It’s not going to work, Jessie. Whatever your idea for the trees just isn’t…well..” he looked pointedly at Macy, who groaned out loud.
“Richard and I threw ours away.” The bite in her voice seemed to say ‘don’t give me any trouble about this.’ But Jessie couldn’t hold her tongue.
“You threw them away! Why? Miss Ellie gave us those trees to plant…together. How could you?” Her pitch rose, her feet stomped, almost before she knew what she was doing her hands were on Macy’s shoulders and then both girls were on the ground, screaming. Almost as quickly as they hit the ground wrestling, Sally Burton’s arms dove between them, pulling them to their feet, scowling at both girls, but leveling her eyes with Jessie’s, she asked,
“What is going on? Jessie, you asked your Sunday School class to get together and then you pick a fight? Do you think that is what Ellie would have wanted? I know about the discarded trees and that’s a shame, but, Good Lord, girl, punching it out won’t recover the trees and it won’t bring back Ellie either.”
Sally’s voice trembled, tears filled her eyes threatening to spill over. And then, they did, joined by the tears of the gathered ten year olds, who sobbed unabashedly. She reached out and gathered them in around her and each other, held them tightly together, while praying silently for each one of them by name, including herself.
After the tears and the hugging, Sally fixed lemonade while the children mended their own fences the way children often did in Sally’s experience. These children had been close friends since kindergarten except for the two younger Adams girls. They had survived rivalries and hurt feelings before. Sitting them all at her circular table in the enclosed porch, which was sun room in the winter and air conditioned retreat in the summer, she suggested they talk about Miss Ellie and decide what they might do in her memory since some of the trees were gone.
Sally did not fancy herself a child counselor, especially not a grief counselor, but she knew keeping feelings inside did nothing but create a pit of despair. Lately, she knew she had been doing way too much of cramming her fears, anger and grief under the surface, trying so hard to be positive for any on lookers as well as for Paul and Les. And well, God had been no help at all, just leading her to that passage in I Thessalonians 5 about being ‘thankful in all circumstances’. She just could not do that, not yet, maybe never.
Nancy sat on the porch off her bedroom, the shadiest porch with the ceiling fan running at full tilt, her laptop perched on her lap, her Bible next to her, writing nothing. She’d read some, thought some, even placed her fingertips on the keys, nothing. So hoping for divine intervention, she was playing Spider Solitaire, even that mindless activity rendered tangled combinations that she could not unravel, the losses in everything were mounting. The ice in her tea had melted and the liquid warmed. What she wanted was to call Ellie.
Perhaps she could begin with that. Her fingers typed, ‘If I could only call you, Ellie, we could figure out together what I want to say about a friendship lasted more than forty years.” Sighing deeply, glad she had finally started, inspiration evaporated and she again sat, not playing Spider, just sat and stared across the yard to the fields beyond. She reached down to her Bible, extracting Ellie’s letter from it. Again she studied it, hoping for answers, her eyes falling on the words ‘I really need both of you to go with me to visit my Dad and Delia.’ Clara would not arrive for a couple of hours and they had not discussed this portion of the letter. She knew the Colonel and Delia had been notified, but that was not very personal.
Her experience with them in the past had been, well, awkward, both of them so cool toward Ellie and Clara. How long had it been since she had seen them? Surely, they had been around since Gladys Brown’s funeral in 1995. Yes, she vaguely remembered two or maybe three visits since then and Ellie had gone to visit with Clara at least twice a year. Nancy did not have their address and phone number, but she knew they lived in San Antonio, Texas. Were they coming for Ellie’s Celebration of Life service? Were they going to stay at Ellie’s house? Rising with new purpose, she headed back inside.
After she fed Pete and Dewayne their lunch, she would head over to Ellie’s, find their phone number and try to contact them. She could also get the house in order for Clara and perhaps her grandparents. Besides that it would give her an opportunity to ferret out some of Ellie’s journals. Darn it, she still had a eulogy to write.
“Bound together by a scarlet thread
An unbroken ribbon flowing bright red
From the foot of the Cross, where Jesus bled.
Basing my life on the strength of that thread”–From Eleanor Brown’s Journal
Finished with loading her luggage into her car, Clara poured her coffee go cup full. She had consumed two glasses of wine during her long conversation with Nancy the previous evening. Predictably, because she had a low tolerance level for fermented beverages, she had slept poorly and risen grumpy. Emptying the remaining coffee in the pot down the drain, the grounds into the trash, she unplugged the pot. No telling how long she would be gone, although she hoped only a few days, she wanted to leave things in order. Lastly, she shoved her mother’s last letter into the side pocket of her carry-on/purse. Unsure whether she would want to read it again on her flight to Oklahoma City, she didn’t want it too hard to reach.
She felt her cell phone vibrate in her pocket. Checking the ID, she answered.
“What time does your plane land in OKC?”
“Elevenish, your time. Why?”
“That’s do-able. How about I pick you up and you ride home with me?”
“I don’t know, Brian. I was going to rent a car. I may be stuck down there for a while and I need a vehicle. Mom only had the one car.” She felt the choke in her voice and wished she could hang up.
“We can work that out. Let me do this, Clar.”
All Clara could think was, I have got to get off this phone now. “Ok, Brian. I will text you when I land.”
“Bye.” She pressed END before he could reply. Pressing the phone to her chest, she let the tears come. So much kindness, I do not know if I can handle that.
The letter bothered her, not just the contents, the whole concept. It was as if Ellie had a premonition. Or, more disturbing, was it a suicide note left open ended, in case she changed her mind? Why had she not realized Ellie was ill? She hated thoughts like that, hated that she would even give them space in her mind, hated that Ellie had driven in front of a train, and God help her, hated the part of her that groaned under tasks assigned by others. Had she always been that way? A quick inventory assured her she had. Balking at bossiness, people demanding she perform, ‘buck up’, ‘be a lady’, ‘stand up straight’, she could get her back up as Ellie often informed her over the least little thing.
First, Nancy reminded herself, Ellie would never contemplate suicide, even with the grim prognosis she laid out in her letter, Ellie would not go merrily into that dark night. While Nancy had always been grounded in faith, her disposition bordered on morose at times. She had always considered the possible consequences in all their gory details, a glass half empty girl. While she had always maintained she was merely being realistic by seeing the worse case scenerio, Ellie would chide her with that ever present edge of mirth in her voice, “Come on, Nan. You know none of those things are going to happen. Jesus said, ‘don’t worry’. So I am thinking worry is flat out a sin.”
“Ellie, I am not worrying. I am simply looking at the possibilities..”
“Well, I am not going to sit here and let you be a spoil sport. Let’s…” and off they would go, she in the wake of Ellie’s bright ideas and optimism. Then when Gavin came along, another powerhouse of optimism, the two of them served as bookends in her life keeping her from sliding off the bookshelf of into self doubt or despair.
Only after Ellie returned with Clara to raise alone, did Nancy spot a mild dimming of the light within Ellie, but even that did not tamp down the sheer love of living that Ellie imparted to everyone she knew, especially Nancy. And now, both her bookends were gone, both to places she could go. At least she could visit Gavin, watch the rise and fall of his chest, look at his face and thank God she had that much of him at least. She could pretend he heard her and imagine his responses. Ellie, well, Ellie was gone.
A flash of sunlight fell across the table reminding Nancy that time was moving and she had better get moving. She still had that eulogy to write, plus getting lunch for Pete and Dewayne. Lifting her head she caught sight of a heart shaped plaque Ellie had given her. Two little houses next to each other with the inscription, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions. I hope yours is next to mine.” She smiled, the first real smile since the news on Sunday as she remembered when she had unwrapped that gift.
“Nan, if I get to heaven before you, I am going to ask God to let me decorate your mansion, because I will know exactly what you want…and yes, there will be a porch.”
Thanks, Ellie, she thought, I will use that in your eulogy.
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.