Wings of Change
Sir Richard Wellesley was a strict disciplinarian. Ready to use his razor strop for serious infractions; especially, he made it well known, if anyone dared to touch his prized mantle clock. An artifact he guarded with keen security. His overly protective care of the timepiece kept all seven of the Wellesley grandchildren from going anywhere near the clock. As the eldest of the brood, I knew well the peril of the paddle variety strop. Being on the receiving end of the sting was a punishment one didn't soon forget. My one and only sentence happened after a foray into Grandfather's tobacco pouch when I was nine. My backside was tender for days.
Sir Richard and Lady Constance Wellesley of Hampshire, were my father's parents, and every bit the patriarch and matriarch of our family. Grander, as we affectionately called him, had been an Admiral in Her Majesty, Queen Victoria's, Royal Navy and his retirement from service had not diminished his executive approach to overseeing the activity of the Wellesley children. Because my father had followed in his footsteps and spent every summer employed in peaceful voyages to lands far and wide, we were assigned temporary duty at their Hampshire country house for the duration of his obligation. Mother willingly agreed to spend the summers with Grander and Grommy, taking full advantage of a disciplined hand.
It mattered not how stern he was, Grander was a man we all respected and adored. Winning his attention was a triumph to be flaunted. Being not only the oldest, but also the namesake of his only daughter, who had died of Yellow Fever long before I was born, gave me a distinct advantage. Although he didn't readily show favoritism, he and I had a special bond that was the envy of my brothers and sisters.
On Sunday evenings, the treat we looked forward to all week was his story time. Like little ducklings corralled in a line, we would follow him into the parlor after supper to enjoy his animated tales of intrigue and adventure. He would saunter in past the grand piano, knowing we were all in tow, and settle in his favorite over-stuffed Campaign chair. He loved that perch; it sat low to the ground and put him close to all of us while still maintaining the decorum of being seated. He was an exceedingly handsome man, with a strong, towering frame that appeared to be at attention, even sitting in the chair. He ceremoniously loaded his pipe and tamped down the moist tobacco, with his audience patiently gathered at his feet on the thick, black and red oriental rug. After lighting the bowl, he would draw heavily before saying a word. I loved that pungent smell, it meant a fanciful anecdote would soon follow. Most of the exotic treasures that decorated the house had a story to accompany them. Like the Katana Samurai sword hanging in the entrance hall, whose owner, Grander told us, drew it from his belt and killed a man in a single motion. The Samurai offered the sword as a gift to the visiting English Admiral, who towered over him by a foot, because he said he showed no fear of the weapon. Then there was the favorite story of the intricately carved ivory elephant tusk that found its way to the Hampshire library as the result of self-defense. We hung on every word as Grander explained the terror of the stampeding giant careening toward him and the keen eye and steady hand it took to fell the beast before it trampled him to death.
The only item he wouldn't talk about was the clock, which consequently made it all the more interesting, especially to the three oldest children. Richard Wellesley III, my younger brother, came along the year after I was born. At the time of this story, we were the only two children residing in our teens. My sister, Emily was close on our heels, although at twelve years old, she seemed more like twenty. The three of us were a pack removed from the younger siblings. When we were little, Mother and Father were separated for several years by a voyage gone bad and it created a bit of a chasm between us children, producing two separate sets. The four youngest, ranging in age from 4 to 8, were thick as thieves and occupied themselves with childish games. Richard, Emily and I, on the other hand, had grown-up adventures to accomplish. Rolling hills, painted with heather and poppies, surrounded the grounds of the country house, and we enjoyed nothing more than exploring distant corners of our coastal retreat. But the most interesting place to explore was Grander's office, which brings me back to the clock. The mystery of the cherry wood and golden artifact was the topic of many a conversation between the elder children. Especially considering the suspicious restrictions; no one could touch it, not the maids, not mother, not even the lady of the house, Grommy. Grander would clean it once a week with a linen hanky from his pocket. For the rest of us, it was only for gazing. And gaze we did, it was a beautiful thing to behold, with it's exposed gold and silver mechanisms vigorously ticking off the day through the crystal face. But without a doubt, the most notable feature was a curious set of golden wings that arched up the back of each side of the clock. It appeared as though it would soar into flight at any minute.
When possible, the itinerary for our travels included an expedition past the clock. Which wasn't easy, it resided in Grander's office, perched on the fireplace mantel beside his desk. The majority of his free hours were spent at that desk, attending to administrative duties, perusing nautical charts and reading old logbooks. Our only window was an occasional afternoon nap. When the word was passed down to play quietly or go outside, the three of us would wait fifteen minutes, then, without a peep, sneak into his office and crouch behind his desk to gaze at the clock. We surmised our newfound interest had come with age, because in our younger days we never gave it second thought. But understanding it was off limits brought a curiosity that bordered on whimsy. We’d each conjured our own theory about why it was untouchable. Richard believed if we touched the wings, they would disappear. Emily was convinced it would fly away and I, well, I didn't share what I thought about the clock. I was afraid if I said it out loud, it wouldn't come true; I wanted desperately for my revelation to be the one that held the secret.
I am truly my father's daughter, alike him in looks and temperament. The one trait I was sorry to inherit was his propensity for insomnia. Being the only person awake in the wee hours of the night can be a curse. There's something about the black of night that makes everything seem desperate. My mind would wheel through all my worst memories and the accompanying angst would perpetuate even more sleeplessness, a vicious cycle that plagued me. To try and avert the negative thoughts that dominated my sleepless hours, I would create scenarios involving the clock. Each afflicted night, I would picture myself treading softly down the hall into Grander's office, walking up to the clock and gently touching the wings on either side. The desire to do so became a fixation, I was convinced my intuition regarding its power was accurate and wanted the release it would offer. After a particularly difficult bout of three nights in a row with no sleep, the desperation of my situation got the better of me; I embarked on a mission to make my vision a reality. Not normally a child given to rule breaking, I was driven by the insanity that accompanies sleeplessness; to this day I credit my lapse in judgment to that altered state. The house was still and larger than life. As I walked into Grander's office, I was certain he could hear my heart beating from his bedroom. The light of the moon shone through the double window behind his desk and illuminated the entire wall of the fireplace. Fate lit a torch to carry out my task. Walking tentatively toward the linen-adorned mantel, my fingers trembled as I reached out for the clock. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my desired result, my hands settled on the golden wings.
Daydreaming about time travel and actually experiencing it are two wholly different things. In my mind, my journey back to the scene of my one and only offense, the day I regretted the most, was romanticized. I would float back to my ninth year and leisurely stroll into my Grandfather's office, see his pipe and tobacco on the desk and have the wisdom of my age to change the outcome of that awful day. But the experience was nothing like that. My body felt too big for the space I was moving in, a claustrophobic kind of constriction made me feel unnatural and disconnected. Everything moved in slow motion. I wanted it to be over, I couldn't get it accomplished fast enough. But each step was met with a hidden obstacle of space. The one thing that still moved at an elevated pace was the rate of my heart. The fear I felt was compounded by the horror of the experience. My chest felt as though it was being crushed and each breath wasn't enough. I wished I had never gotten out of bed. I finally made my way to the office door and saw his pipe on the desk. I hesitated, something inside me wanted to go in and experience the sweet scent first hand. But then I remembered why I was there and turned and walked away. As soon as I passed the doorframe, I was back in the present, standing next to the mantel gulping great breathes of air. In addition to being starved for oxygen, the episode had left me feeling sick to my stomach. I limped back to bed, not at all satisfied I’d accomplished my goal. The only positive outcome was the resulting exhaustion that led to a deep and dreamless sleep.
The morning light brought a yoke of anxiety that draped my chest. Every time I saw my Grandfather I was sure he knew. The guilt of my new transgression far outweighed the shame of my original offense. And until I found out if my undertaking had worked, I was being tortured by remorse for my actions. Being overly tired didn't help matters, and served to only intensify my paranoia. Halfway through the day I realized I could test my theory on Richard, who remembered the day of my shame as well as I did. He too had been on the receiving end of corporal punishment and knew not only the sting of the strop but the ache of having disappointed Grander so much that he felt compelled to take such action. As Emily, Richard and I sat on the rocks of the shore, flipping stones into the water, I causally mentioned something about the time I smoked Grander's pipe. They both fairly jumped to turn in my direction and said at the same time, "You smoked Grander's pipe!" That was it, all the proof I needed, I had changed the course of time. "Of course not, but I want to." I tried to be nonchalant, but inside I was a veritable whirl of emotions. Beyond the fact that I had wiped away my misbehavior, more importantly, I had discovered a secret that only my Grandfather knew, he had a clock that offered repentance; an instrument that could right wrongs, correct mistakes. I found it hard to concentrate the rest of the day and wished with all my heart I could talk to Grander about his miraculous machine. What trips had he taken on the wings of change?
Being on the verge of young womanhood, can cover a multitude of sins. My current need for solitude was blamed on hormonal changes. In reality, it was the endless desire to go back and change the world, to shift the course of horrible outcomes. My mind was totally preoccupied with the clock.
On the occasion of my fifteenth birthday, following a delightful celebration set up by Mother and Grommy, Grander offered me his arm to walk in the garden. It was the first time he’d ever done that and it made me feel like a princess. I waited for him to speak, figuring he had offered his arm for a reason. When we were some distance from the back parlor, he respectfully announced, "Elizabeth Ann Wellesley, you embody the qualities of an exemplary young lady. You have never caused me a moment of grief and I just wanted to tell you that I couldn't be more proud of the woman you're becoming." I couldn't have spoken if I wanted to, the lump in my throat would have choked any attempt. Aware of the awkward lack of the response, he stopped walking, turned to me and handed me his linen hanky, "I didn't mean to upset you." I had no choice but to let the tears flow, there was no stopping them. I quickly wiped my face and asked if we could sit down and talk. There was a gray stone bench a few feet down the path, he lead me there and sat next to me, patiently waiting for my response. The pain in my chest had welled to a storm of regret and I couldn't go on living the lie. I needed to be honest with the man I most admired in the world. But how was I to tell him I hadn't only broken the rules once but twice. How could I admit I had smoked his pipe without admitting I had touched the clock. The clock, the object of my obsession; he needed to know. His hanky didn't have a dry spot left when I finally remembered I was becoming an adult and needed to act like one. But before I could say a word, it was as if he read my mind.
"Elizabeth, does this have something to do with the clock?"
Relief and dread flooded in the doors of my mind simultaneously. I swallowed hard and looked him in the eyes, "Yes, Grander, it does."
He let a slight smile escape before he settled on a grave expression and waited for my full explanation. The gesture gave me the courage I needed to be completely honest. I told him the whole story, how I had broken the rules as a young girl, wanting to know what the aromatic tobacco leaves tasted like myself. How he caught me and gave me a substantial whack with his strop. How I had cried for a full day from embarrassment and, even worse, knowing I had disappointed him. How I found myself in his office only weeks earlier, desperate to undo my transgression from over five years earlier. How I had committed a cardinal sin and touched the clock. He sat for what seemed like an eternity before he finally spoke.
"And what was your experience?"
"I've been so anxious to talk with you about it. It was just as I suspected, I went back and changed the outcome. At least, I believe I did. Do you remember me smoking your pipe?"
"I'm so sorry I disobeyed your wishes about the clock, if I could undo the wrong I’ve done, I would."
His words were somber, "Now that you know, it is a burden you will have to carry."
"It's fantastic, it consumes my every thought. I want to go back and change all the wrongs of the world. Have you done that, Grander, have you changed history?"
He took a deep breath and an audible sigh before he spoke, choosing his words carefully, "I have changed two things. The first lead me to the second, the second back to the first." I was confused but listening intently. "Your namesake, your Aunt Elizabeth, died when she was just a year younger than you are now. As you know, she was afflicted with Yellow Fever. I had acquired the clock on the same voyage that brought the fever here. Although I was told about the powers of the clock, I didn't give it much credence, until Elizabeth passed. I was frantic to undo the loss, your Grandmother was inconsolable and I would have done anything to bring her back. As you have discovered, the power of the timepiece is unleashed when you touch both wings at the same time while concentrating on where you need to go. I was unsure of how far back I should transport myself to make certain she would be safe. But I had deduced the fever came upon her because she, along with your father and your grandmother, met me at the docks when we landed. So I went back to the period of time before we landed and put anchor down outside the port and sent a small boat in with a message that the docks would be closed to all but the crew."
"It didn't work?"
"It worked perfectly. When I came back to my office, while my hands were still on the clock, I could hear her playing the piano in the parlor. They had waited for me at home, she never got the fever."
"What happened? She did die of Yellow Fever."
"That was the second time she died. I thought I had cheated fate, she was healthy and safe, a precious child to behold." He paused as if the memory was too much to bear, and dropped his head with another deep sigh. After a moment he continued, "One month to the day after she would have died the first time, she was climbing on the rocks by the shore, with your father. Like you, she was as physically capable as any boy, and willing to follow him anywhere. Your father attempted to scale a wall of rock that led to an over-hanging cliff, your aunt stood below on the shoreline, waiting her turn. During his assent, the rocks started to crumble and a landslide of stone came down. Your father road the tumbling rocks to the bottom, but your aunt was knocked to the sand and covered by the avalanche. Her upper body was still exposed but from the waist down she was crushed and pinned to the shore. Your father attempted to clear the stones, but he was no match for the massive boulders. Digging her out only sank her body deeper in the sand; time was against them, the tide was coming in. Richard panicked and came to find me. By the time we returned, the water had reached her head and was rising rapidly. We tried to move the stones together, but it was futile, it would have taken double our number to roll the stones off her body. As we worked, the water continued to rise and had encased her head. Each time a wave came in, she was submerged until it receded. Choking and terrified, she pleaded for help. It was hopeless and she faced a hideous death. I told her I could save her, that I needed to get a tool, and would be back directly. I ran to the clock and took myself back to the moment before I sent word to close the port. When I found myself back in the office, it was a month past the date she had died of Yellow Fever. Your grandmother was grieving her death, but had the image of her daughter passing in her sleep, in the comfort of her bed."
Tears rolled down my cheeks at this point for Grander's mistake, not mine. And I realized fate had a design that would be followed regardless of our meddling. My heart ached for his burden and I understood his protection of the clock. Although, it wasn't really the clock he was protecting all along, it was his family.
In this my seventy-seventh year, I remember that conversation with my Grandfather as if it was yesterday. Gratified to have shared in his decision to destroy the clock. We walked to that fateful cliff, where the rocks had long before fallen to a heap on the shore, and dismantled the object of my obsession. Then, we hurled the pieces into the pounding waves below. I never felt closer to my Grandfather than on that fateful day, standing on the cliff, looking out over the vast and powerful ocean. We had both learned the priceless lesson of living each day as it comes.
The door was hard to open, Trina had to lean her entire weight into the old oak monster to push it far enough over to slip into the cabin. Weather had warped the ingress, transforming it into more of a blockade than a front door. The throw rug just inside wasn’t helping, the wooden brute couldn’t make a clear swing anymore. The rug bunched and locked the door in a textile grip. She left it there in the carpet’s clutches to allow fresh air to follow her in. As soon as she crossed the threshold the musty smell of five years of a vacant, sealed space hit her like the wall of mist coming off Niagara Falls. She lifted the bottom half of her turtleneck up over her nose, pinching her nostrils until she could make her way to the nearest window. That too was stubbornly sealed off from the outside world. Trina had the fleeting thought, and was half tempted, to pick up the nearest heavy object and hurl it through the encrusted glass. Reason prevailed, she abandoned her makeshift face-mask long enough to push the pane up with both hands until it was completely open, ushering in a refreshing blast of cold air.
The ladder-back chair by the window offered a temporary reprieve to assess the space and systematize the laborious task at hand. Plopping with a little too much force, even her petite, athletic frame made the chair groan with the chore of supporting unexpected weight. Trina dug in her satchel bag until her hands detected a comb for her hair. She slipped her purse to the floor and stashed the comb in her mouth, freeing her hands to wind her long, brunette locks into a twisted bun, securing it out of the way. As much as she hated the idea of getting started, she needed to prepare herself for the Herculean job. Sitting there looking over the mess the cabin was left in, Trina heaved a sigh and spoke to the dead, “Dad, didn’t it ever occur to you that I was going to be left to clean this up?” She shook her head, “Just add it to the list.” The room was gloomy, everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. There were books and magazines stacked on every available surface, hundreds of them.
“I’m half temped to take a match to this place, if it wasn’t illegal...” Before she could finish the thought the front door, she thought was securely wedged, blew shut with such force it made Trina jump in her seat and clutch her breast. Her heart pounded and she had an eerie sense the cabin was responding to her condemnation. Then her analytical mind seized the fantasy; clearly, the wind coming in from the window had created a vacuum that sucked the door shut. Still, she had to fight back the guilt that somehow she had indicted this old family eyesore unjustly, that she was doing what her parents constantly accused her of while they were alive, being overly critical. But who would blame her? The place was an absolute mess. Like every other place they had inhabited.
When Trina’s mother passed away in 1977, five years earlier, she helped her dad pack up their family home, a modest three-bedroom Cape Cod. She moved him to a condo in her complex, freeing him from the responsibility of yard work. At sixty-two, a pair-shaped man, and in pour health himself, he wasn’t really capable anymore. And, truth be told, he never took care of the yard. Trina’s mother, a slight but strong woman, four years his junior, loved being outside. She claimed digging her hands in the dirt was therapeutic. No matter what the condition of the inside of their house, the outside was always pristine and had a constant array of seasonal flowers. Their living space was quite another story. Forty years of two pack rats living together had manufactured a monumental mess. As she anticipated, it had been a fight to get her father to agree to let go of anything. In addition to too much furniture for one small house, (they had five rocking chairs,) there were old radios, cameras and models, numerous kitschy figurines with moveable parts, trinkets they acquired from every place they travelled, stacks of fabric her mother collected for projects she never got to, beer steins and martini glasses, magazines and books, paperwork — mountains of paperwork. Her father’s work as a technical writer for a company that dealt mostly with government contracts had spawned rafts of manila folders and random volumes of procedural tomes. It had taken a month to sift through everything and figure out what had value and what was just taking up space. The move was the source of endless battles between she and her father and neither of them was very good at conceding. Her relationship with him had always been strained, they were like oil and water and without her mother there to shield them from each other, they were always at blows.
Trina conducted her affairs in quite a different manner than her parents. Her townhouse was decorated minimally and she banned clutter from her reality. She rarely kept anything that wasn’t of value; in her mind, keeping mementos was silly. She liked an ordered life that was predictable. From the time she was a teenager she assured her parents she would not live the way they chose to exist. She would have a tidy home, a place anyone would be proud to own. Her folks always humored her parental tones and her mother reminded her it took all kinds of people to make the world go around. She wondered why their world had spun out of control.
And here she was again, cleaning out yet another residence marred by a lackadaisical and lazy existence. The year her mom got sick with the breast cancer that eventually took her from them, her parents decided they would sell the small lake house they had purchased down in South Carolina. Her father abandoned the idea of being a snowbird, saying he couldn’t do it alone. They had only owned it for three years but the familiar chaos Trina detested greeted her when she arrived to help them move. Thank goodness the furniture was staying. But the personal paraphernalia that peppered the little rancher took an entire day and two trips to the local incinerator to clear away. The newspapers and magazines alone had filled her car for one round. And now the cabin in the mountains of Western Maryland, the secret get-a-way that had been in her family for three generations, was another victim of her father. In honesty, she blamed all the abhorrent hoarding behavior on him. His parents, grandparents she had never met, were hoarders themselves, on top of being hopeless alcoholics. The stories of the row home they owned in Dundalk, Maryland were legendary. Her mother had fascinated her with tales of a small path that lead from the entrance through the house to the kitchen. Walls of newspapers and books and boxes, lined with random junk, incarcerated the inhabitants and kept their freedom limited to a space barely big enough to move from one room to the next. She told of a kitchen that had a perpetual sink full of dirty dishes and counters that were buried somewhere beneath mounds of abandoned cookware, empty food boxes and grocery bags. Roaches would scatter in all directions when any bit of the mess was shifted. Their table had only two empty chairs, of the four that saddled up to the square Formica dumping grounds. And there was only enough space on the table in front of the two chairs to set out a bowl and cup. Trina’s mother painted a grim picture of her father’s life growing up, she wanted her to understand the damage his parents had inflicted on him, to be patient with his propensity for hoarding and clutter. But instead of cultivating the sympathy her mother wanted her to embrace, Trina hardened to the empathy her mother exhibited by letting her father get away with his dysfunction, no matter how much smaller in scale it was in their lives. In her mind, the problems of his past should have been left there. He had a family of his own now and a responsibility to protect them and give them a comfortable life. Her mother never seemed to mind that the kitchen table was always stacked with papers and mail. She wasn’t troubled by the avalanche of books her father had on the end table next to his chair in the living room, or the shelves in the den being overloaded with knickknacks that amused him. He would get angry if anyone tried to organize his books or move anything. He said he had a system and that was the way he liked it. So her mother finally acquiesced to his way of living and seemed to personify it herself. A development that irked Trina beyond reason, making her promise herself she would never let a man dictate how she lived and compromise what she wanted out of life. Consequently, at thirty-seven years old, she was still a single woman and didn’t have any real prospects of marriage on the horizon. She told herself that was the way she liked it. At least she didn’t dislike it.
Looking around the cabin, Trina was transported to the Christmas she was ten years old. Her mother and grandmother had filled the earthy home with the comforting scent of a roasting turkey, that delicious aroma that permeates the entire house and builds unbearable anticipation for the holiday feast. While the women cooked, she and her father and grandfather were engrossed in a game of Monopoly. It was a time before she recognized her father’s folly, which seemed to get worse with age, and she was warm and protected in the cradle of familial love. The memory fell on her like a granite stone dropping on her chest. Trina did what she rarely allowed, she welled and let emotion rule the moment. That had been an ordered time, a time when her heart was full and the world was right. Now things felt broken and incongruent, her father’s death had her off kilter. She looked around in defeat. It was her intention to keep the once enchanting mountain retreat, but she realized she didn’t have the heart for it anymore. Before she’d even gotten started, she gave up. As much as she didn’t want to let it go, she would sell the cabin “as is” and let someone else worry about cleaning it up. What would she, a single professional woman, do with it anyway? Her caseload at work kept her in the office late almost every night and necessitated working several weekends a month; as a successful defense attorney, she didn’t really have the time to use the cabin anyway. Hidden under layers of guilt, Trina felt a sense of relief. There would be no arguing over this decision with her father, it was her choice, the cabin and its contents belonged solely to her. Although she was glad things weren’t complicated by anyone else being involved, when she was growing up, she lamented not having any siblings. She always thought having a sister to commiserate with would ease the pain of the furtive life she protected. As she grew into the awkward teenage years she didn’t invite friends over, it would have been too embarrassing for them to see the way she lived. After not reciprocating with her friends, by the time she got to high school, the girlfriends fell away. She was a serious student, always pouring herself into her schoolwork, so it didn’t much matter. She was more interested in getting into an impressive school for her undergraduate degree, one that would open the doors to a prestigious law school. Her life had followed the path she envisioned and was proof enough to her that she had done all the right things. Girlfriends had definitely not been necessary. And she reasoned, as a new partner in the firm where she worked, there wasn’t any time for friends.
But what about her relationship with her mother and father, could she say they had done right by her? It was a judgmental verdict but her immediate answer was, no. As harsh as that sounded, they allowed themselves to be swallowed by dysfunction and it ruled their lives. For that matter, it ruled hers, at least until she broke free and went to college. But now, for the first time in her life, she could make decisions on what she thought was best. She didn’t have to worry about her parent’s wishes. And, as heartless as it may seem to disregard a family treasure, she didn’t want to deal with the headache the cabin represented. Her mind was made up. The task had just become a lot easier. She would survey the retreat for anything she could carry out, and walk away without regret.
The last space she scanned was the master bedroom. Walking into the room her parents slept in reintroduced that unfamiliar urge to well up. It was so unlike Trina, she was uncomfortable with emotion and chalked it up to the stress that was fostered by having to deal with closing out her father’s estate. The cabin was the last item on her list and she resolved to leave the anxiety that surrounded the transition there when she walked out the door. She would turn it over to a real estate agent and put it out of her mind. With the renewed conviction, each step seemed lighter, the burden of a life-time of contempt toward her father would be over. She noted that the bedroom was surprisingly well organized. There was so little in it, the bed, two nightstands, a dresser, and the ever-present rocking chair. Not a lot of surfaces to strew. The nightstand next to her father’s side of the bed wasn’t completely covered, but was well on its way. There were several locks with keys, coins, vitamins, handkerchiefs, a few small tools and, of course, several paperback books. She avoided his side of the bed and headed to her mother’s. Her nightstand had only three things on it, a box of tissues and two framed pictures. The first one she picked up was an image of Trina when she was twelve, holding a rather large trophy. She remembered the weekend the photo was taken like it was yesterday. It was the regional spelling bee competition. She locked herself in her room and studied for weeks before the event and it paid off. Her mother and father were beaming when she won and took her to a restaurant in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to celebrate. She always loved that her mother kept the photograph next to her bed. She slipped it into her bag and picked up the second frame. It was a picture of her parents shortly after they had gotten married. They looked so young and content. Her mother was sitting on a stone wall with her legs crossed and her father was standing next to her, leaning against the wall, with his arm around her waste. They looked stylish, her mother in strapped pumps, a straight navy blue skirt with a kick pleat that hung back against the wall, and a crisp white fitted blouse with the collar turned up. Her father wore a tweed suit with a knit shirt and no tie. It looked like her mother had been laughing at something her father had just said. He had his faced turned toward her and she was looking at the camera. It was a sweet moment and Trina had to concede, they had been happy together. No matter what she thought of their lifestyle, they did always seem to love each other. On the bottom of the frame was a small brass plate, engraved with the words, “Marie and Dwight ~ together forever”, Trina ran her finger back and forth over the plate, then set the photo back on the stand. She turned to leave the room and stopped at the doorway. She thought better of leaving the personal effect behind and went back and put the frame in her bag.
“Time has a way of slipping past you, unnoticed.”
“Yes, Miss Trina, you are right.” The female aid talked a little louder than normal to compensate for the running water in the shower. She put liquid soap on a washcloth and worked it up and down Trina’s back, “I blinked and my daughter was in kindergarten. Once she started school, it all went so fast, now she’s learning to drive. That’s why I took this second job, I want to help her get a car and be able to pay for the insurance.”
Trina enjoyed the back massage that came with this phase of her shower, “How old is your daughter?”
“Oh, yes, that makes sense, she’s driving.”
“She’s a good girl, always helping out, she’s earned a car. She agreed to give me payments until she’s paid it off, but I just want to be able to buy it for her.”
“You two have a close relationship?”
“Yes, she’s my girl.”
“Good, you keep it that way.”
Phyllis, a medium height and stocky woman with bottle blonde hair, finished Trina’s bathing routine by helping her stand up and hold onto the shower bars. She gently washed her delicate parts then rinsed her with the handheld spout, turned the water off and put a towel over her shoulders. Getting Trina from inside the shower stall to the seat against the wall was a tricky prospect. Her advanced Arthritis had crippled her years ago and relegated her to spending the majority of her day in a wheel chair. Her knuckles were bent and misshapen, her knees were swollen to an unnatural size and her feet turned out at an awkward angle. Phyllis took Trina by both hands and slowly walked backwards with her as she carefully guided her to the shower room bench, “Miss, Trina, you can use the roll-in shower chair to make this easier.”
“I don’t need that yet.”
“Well, it would make it a lot easier on you.” Phyllis dried Trina and helped her into her pajamas. She needed help with every movement, her body had failed her and independence had gone by the wayside. After she got her dressed, she filled a basin with water and put toothpaste on her brush. She held the basin under her chin and handed the brush to Trina. Proud at 80 years old she still had all her own teeth, Trina painstakingly brushed each tooth thoroughly. When she was done, Phyllis brought her wheel chair over and locked it in place to the side of the bench. She took Trina’s hands, helped her to her feet and shifted her in a half turn to make the transfer to the chair. With the nighttime routine accomplished, Phyllis rolled her into her room and made the final transfer for the day into her bed. “Alright, Miss Trina, you have a good night. I won’t be with you tomorrow, Alice is scheduled for this wing of the second floor, I’m down on one. I’ll see you next week.”
Phyllis, who was fairly new at the facility, admired Trina’s cozy room as she walked out. She had a recliner situated next to her bed and across from the television that was perched on her chest of drawers. A small wooden bistro table with two chairs sat on the same wall as the chest, and across the room from the table was a nightstand next to her bed. On the nightstand were two frames. The frames she had rescued from the cabin over forty years earlier. Next to the frames were a stack of paperback books, Trina took the book on the top of the pile and opened it. She settled in to read until her eyes got too heavy to stay open, with the book on her chest, she drifted off to sleep and the lamp next to her bed would bath her in light all night.
With the bedtime routines for the residents on the east wing of the second floor caught up, and all the sanitation duties completed, Phyllis found her way to the community room to snag a much-needed cup of coffee. Two of the other floor aids were already there, doing the same thing. She hadn’t quite gotten the routine down as fast as some of them, especially the women who had worked there for some time. Twelve-hour shifts made it easier to be a working mom, Phyllis only had to work three days a week at the facility to make the extra money she needed. Only a few people stayed to work through the night, in the wee hours they were charged with getting all the resident’s laundry done. It made for a long night but it gave Phyllis the freedom to have an extra job and still be able to attend her daughter’s volleyball games after school. But the odd hours were tiring and by midnight, a coffee break was a necessity. She poured a cup and joined the two women who were already seated at one of the round craft tables. As it always did, conversation about the residents and what was going on with their families proceeded. After listening to the tale of poor Mr. Bill’s bout with the stomach flu and the need to change his sheets twice in one night, Phyllis asked the women about Trina. She was curious about her family. The aids all rated the families of the clients. A “one” was the best rating, those were people who went above and beyond to help with daily routines, things like changing sheets, showers and moving their family member to and from the dining hall. Those were the same family members who visited often and took their aging relatives for home visits and outings. The worst rating was a “five,” those were the visitors who never did anything to help, rarely came and never bothered with taking them anywhere.
Nancy, an older English woman with a long, thin face, the aid who had been working in the Edgecombe Retirement Community the longest, filled her in, “Miss Trina doesn’t have any family. She’s been here three years and in all that time not a single person has come to visit her.”
Phyllis was aghast, “Oh my God, that’s awful.”
“She keeps pretty much to herself, doesn’t even have any friends in the building. She’ll take her meals in her room as often as we’ll let her get away with it.”
“Not a single visitor?”
Nancy shook her head, “Nope.”
“What’s her story? Does anyone know?”
April, a young woman with red hair and a face full of freckles, piped in, “She’s an old maid. Never married. She was some kind of judge or something.”
“That’s too sad, to be so alone.” Phyllis sat quietly for the next ten minutes of their break, obsessing about Trina’s life, or lack of one.
Wednesday’s dinner was just finishing up when Phyllis clocked in. She had missed being Miss Trina’s aid on Monday and Tuesday, so she went straight to the dining hall and scanned the room. At the table in the far right corner, she noticed Trina finishing the last bite of her chocolate cake and covering the small china dessert plate with her napkin. The other three people at her table were finished and patiently waiting to be taken back to their rooms. Trina was the only really verbal person of the group.
Mrs. O’Reilly was almost completely deaf and didn’t do much but nod and smile. Mr. Thomas was a large man, confined to a wheel chair. He was never pleasant and most of the aids did anything to avoid being his caretaker. The women, in particular, waited for the male aids to tackle his needs. Mrs. Crone was a bit off her rocker, her family was in denial but it wouldn’t be long before the director of the facility would have to force a move to the Alzheimer’s unit. Her discussions went round in circles if they made any sense at all. Poor Miss Trina had to be saddled with the worst table assignment in the place. Phyllis quickly made her way to their table, slid behind Trina and leaned down to her right ear, “Miss Trina, are you ready to go back to your room?”
“Yes, Phyllis, thank you.”
A group of regulars gathered in the community room on the first floor to watch an old movie, and Phyllis noticed that Miss Trina didn’t even turn to look their direction as she wheeled her past the beautifully decorated living room on the way to the elevator. They were a nice group of people and she wondered why Miss Trina didn’t plug herself into that clique. Miss Trina was a curiosity and Phyllis couldn’t help wanting to know her story.
They got to her room and it was only 7:15, but Phyllis wanted to find a way to stay with her, “I know it’s early, but do you want your shower now, Miss Trina?”
“No, thanks, I don’t think I’m going to shower tonight. I’m really tired today and that’s always a workout. I’ll get one tomorrow.” Phyllis helped Trina transfer from her wheel chair to her favorite spot, her recliner. She pushed her wheelchair out of the way and brought her walker next to the chair in case she needed to get up for any reason.
“Alright, is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Actually, there is.” Phyllis thought Miss Trina must be reading her mind, those were the exact words she wanted to hear.
“There’s a photo book and a journal on the top shelf of my closet, they’re stacked together, I’d be grateful if you’d get them down for me.”
“Sure.” Phyllis opened Trina’s closet door and scanned the top shelf. There were several pricey handbags, two shoeboxes and a blue leather album with a small brown cloth journal sitting on top of it. She grabbed the books and noticed the cover of the photo album was coming apart. The front and back were barely held together and the leather was worn and peeled on the bottom edge.
“This looks like it’s been with you for a while.”
“It was my mother’s, they both were, she was fond of pictures. I haven’t looked at them for quite a while.”
“Is there a picture of your mother? Would you mind?” Phyllis carefully handed the album to Trina.
“No, of course. Sit down.” Trina motioned for Phyllis to grab one of the antique Winsor chairs from her small round table and bring it over. She slipped the journal down between her leg and the arm of the recliner and cautiously opened the front cover of the album to reveal a page of four black and white photographs that looked like they might be from the 30s or 40s.
“Oh my goodness, is that your Mom, she’s so pretty.”
“Yes, that’s she and my Dad shortly after they were married.”
Phyllis and Trina sat looking through the album for the next fifteen minutes, with Phyllis asking a raft of questions about the places and people in the photos. She learned that Trina was an only child and saw her progression from birth to college. Trina talked lovingly about her parents and she wondered how a woman who was so lovely herself, had gone a lifetime without ever meeting someone special. She wanted to ask her about it, but didn’t want to dredge up any bad feelings, so she just let Trina tell what stories came naturally. When they got to the end of the book, Trina carefully closed it and traded places with the weathered looking journal.
“This book is a treasure and I almost missed out on having it.”
“What do you mean?”
“We had a family cabin I inherited many years ago. I was a foolish young woman, well, not even so young, I can’t much blame it on youth. When I went through the cabin I decided it wasn’t worth keeping so I put it on the market. Because I didn’t empty it out first, it never sold. After about a year, I took it off the market and basically just forgot about it. I had, what I deemed at the time, an important job and didn’t make time for leisure.” Here Trina paused her story, looked at Phyllis with her lips pulled tight in thought and after a moment, in a sadly resigned sort of way, said, “You can imagine, I wasted a lot of time.”
“Well, no, it wasn’t wasted, if you had an important job. Someone told me you were a judge, is that right?”
“Yes. That’s right. I was appointed my judgeship in 1985, I was forty-five. That same year a real-estate agent came to me and said there was a family who had seen my cabin several times when they hiked through the woods and they wanted to know if I would consider selling it. I was glad to finally be rid of it, the place had been sitting empty for over ten years, so I told the agent they could have it for whatever they could afford. I couldn’t have been luckier to have those people stumble on my cabin.”
Phyllis smiled, “Why, what happened?”
“About two months after the sale I got a package in the mail with this journal in it. There was a note from the mother, she had found the journal in one of my mother’s dresser drawers. She asked my forgiveness for reading it but said she couldn’t stop once she got started. She said she knew I would want to have such a treasure, and she was right.”
“So, it was a journal your mother kept and you never knew about it?”
“It was a ‘Cabin Journal’, or so my Mother called it, and no, I never even knew she kept a journal. Would you like to hear the first page?”
Phyllis felt lucky to be in on such a private and special moment with Miss Trina, she figured correctly that Trina had never shared this information with another living soul, and she felt the significance of the moment.
Trina opened the journal and began to read, “This book is dedicated to you, Catrina, and it will be our secret. Before I forget all the joy you’ve brought to our lives, I want to write it down. Time at the cabin is always peaceful and reflective and it seems the perfect place to write, so today begins the ‘Cabin Journal’, the story of our time as a family. I hope you will one day read these thoughts and remember how immensely you were loved.” Trina started to well and let the tears roll down her cheeks.
“Oh, Miss Trina, I’m sorry if this makes you upset, you don’t have to keep reading.”
“No, child, it doesn’t make me sad, these are tears of joy. To know one was loved so completely is a pleasure that goes beyond words.” Phyllis reached over to Miss Trina’s side table and snatched a Kleenex out of the pretty wicker-covered box that dominated the small surface and handed it to her. Trina dabbed her face dry and kept the tissue in her right hand as she continued, “We’re going to try to come out to the cabin as often as possible, because Dad agrees the fresh air will be good for you and Grandpa wants to teach you to fish. That’s probably his favorite pastime, and I love that he wants to share it with you. He used to take me when I was a little girl, but he says it’s your turn now.”
“Dad brought up a present today, a beautiful wooden rocker with an over-sized seat so you and I can snuggle it in for a long time to come. He bought it unfinished, from a carpenter friend, and painted it a warm brown color to match the headboard in our bedroom. The rocking chair in my hospital room was the only thing that would calm you down, so Dad said he would make sure you had one in every room to keep you comfortable. Your Dad adores you, Muffin. And so do I.” At this, Miss Trina welled again and closed the book. She dabbed her eyes once more and said, “We’ll read more later. All of a sudden, I’m so tired, I can’t hold my head up.” Phyllis helped Trina into bed, held her in a firm and extended hug, kissed her on the cheek and turned off the lamp on her side table. As she walked out of her room, Phyllis couldn’t help but feel a sadness that this lovely woman, who was so gentle and appreciative, had no one to share the last part of her life with. She resolved to spend time with Miss Trina as often as she could. She was at the end of her three-days for the week, but would pick up where they left off when she was back again next week.
The rest of the week at home turned into a contentious time between Phyllis and her daughter. She had found a cigarette in the bottom of Shelby’s purse and the two of them had nothing but harsh words for days. As much as she loved her daughter and wanted to be home with her, she was glad when the beginning of her shifts for the week rolled around because she wanted to talk to Miss Trina about Shelby. She needed some motherly advice and she figured Miss Trina was the best person for the job. Her mother had run off with a man who rented the spare room in their apartment. She never had a father that she knew of, from the time she was seventeen, she was on her own. She promised herself she would be a better mother to Shelby, that she would give her the kind of guidance she needed to be a good girl. But never having a decent roll model made her question her mothering all the time. Shelby was the result of a one-night-stand when she was in her early twenties, but that didn’t mean she loved her any less. Her daughter meant the world to her and she wanted to make sure she was a good mom. She came into work early on Monday so she could visit with Miss Trina before she clocked in. It was a beautiful day and there were a line of residents filling the rocking chairs on the front porch. Phyllis quickly scanned the people as she walked into the building, looking for Trina. She stopped to chat with Eileen, the front desk receptionist. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked if Eileen had seen Miss Trina.
“Yes, as a matter of a fact, she’s sitting in the sun on the back patio.”
Of course Trina would be by herself on the back patio while the rest of the residents enjoyed socializing on the front porch.
“She had some visitors today, they left not too long ago.”
Phyllis was in a state of shock, “She had visitors? Who?” Eileen turned the visitor’s log around so it faced her and scanned down the names, “It was a young couple,” she ran her finger down the page to the third to last people to sign in, “Hmmm, they only signed their first names, ‘Dwight and Marie’.”
“That’s wonderful, I’m so glad Miss Trina had visitors. Thanks.” Phyllis headed out the double French doors leading from a sitting room to the back patio. The space was inviting, with it’s hedgerow of rose bushes and raised vegetable beds lining the back fence. She often wondered why more people didn’t sit out there instead of the front porch that overlooked the asphalt parking lot. This seemed to be the forgotten space where the residents were concerned. Of course Miss Trina would appreciate it. And there she was, at the end of the hedgerow, sitting in her wheelchair with her head dipped to the side, sound asleep. Phyllis walked up slowly so she wouldn’t startle her, but when she rounded in front of the chair she realized Trina was washed of color, she had that grey translucent look of death. She reached for her hand and felt the cold stiff skin that no longer protected the spirit of Catrina Walker. Her soul was gone and the perishable and broken container that shielded her was no longer needed. It was a peaceful scene and the look on Trina’s face was one that Phyllis would never forget. There were no words to describe it, but it was the moment she stopped fearing death.
After the ambulance pulled away and the uproar that surrounded the passing of a resident had calmed, Phyllis offered to go to Trina’s room to box her things. With no family to speak of, without a written directive, her belongings would end up being donated to the local thrift store. She walked into her room and set a cardboard box on her bed. Starting with her nightstand, she found the thing she most wanted to retrieve, Trina’s journal. There was a small piece of paper torn from an envelope sticking out of the top of the book, in a scratchy cursive it had two words, “For Phyllis.” Phyllis caught her breath and clutched the book to her chest. She finished the task as fast as she could and put the journal with her personal belongings before anyone told her it wasn’t allowed. Her twelve hours dragged on longer than any night she had spent there since she started. She usually went home, took a hot shower, kissed Shelby goodbye as she headed out for school and climbed into bed. But today sleep could wait, she would sit at the kitchen table so she could read the journal. At least start it, she wanted to savor it as long as possible.
With Shelby out the door and a cup of Chamomile tea steaming in front of her, Phyllis opened the journal. She wasn’t much of a reader, she spent more time in front of the television than a book. But a couple times over the years, she had read books that made her dread getting to the last page. She was familiar with that disappointing feeling of knowing there were only a few pages left and she never wanted the story to end, the journey through the journal had been the same; it went too fast. Holding the last few pages between her index finger and thumb, she closed the book over to rest on her hand and thought for a moment. Was she ready for it to end or should she wait? The Kleenex box that made its way to the kitchen table had been the catch-all for the emotions that slipped off the pages and puddled in Phyllis’ heart. Being the kind of person who cried at television commercials, she was an easy mark for the tug that came from the images of Trina as a child. Her family’s time at the cabin was the stuff dreams were made of. She wished she could have been friends with Trina’s mother, and hoped a little of the love that spilled out on the pages she so carefully documented would rub off on her. Trina was currently 10 years old and there were only a few pages left. In honesty, there was no way she was going to walk away from the story without knowing where it ended. She took a break to make a fresh cup of tea and her thoughts drifted to Shelby. She was a sweet girl who always got good grades and pitched in to help around the house without being asked. To find a cigarette in her purse was so disappointing, but she wasn’t going to let the idea of smoking come between them. She would do everything in her power to convince her not to smoke, but she would also treat her with respect in the process, something she hadn’t been doing the last couple of days. After reading the journal she felt terrible for over-reacting and would make it up to her when she got home. She tilted the saucepan of boiling water over her cup and immediately caught the earthy scent of the fresh chamomile tea bag as the steam curled up from the counter. The warmth of the mug felt good on her hands, she made her way back to the table. As tired as she was, she had a calm and peacefulness that was rare in her life. Seemed like she was always exhausted and worried about something, but at this moment she was only focused on the gift Trina had given her; it was a panacea.
She lifted the journal she had placed face down on the table, turned it over and carefully ran her hand along the binding to smooth the page back enough to see all the text. She had stopped at the beginning of the entry on this page, the date was September 23rd, 1945, and her family had gathered at the cabin for Trina’s birthday. Phyllis thought it was interesting that Trina had passed away the day after her birthday.
“Today is your birthday, my beautiful girl! It’s been a fun celebration weekend at the cabin. Mom Mom and Pappy came up today to join us, so all your biggest fans were here to celebrate your actual birthday, (so glad it fell on a Sunday!) It was a special birthday with the recent news of the war finally being over. Even at your tender age of ten, you seemed to grasp the awful reality of war. You’ve been jumping around all weekend, excited that it’s your ‘first birthday without the war!’ Well, not quite, but almost. Certainly the first you would remember without the war. No matter what, it feels good. And you have been a constant reminder for Dad and I to continually be grateful.” The entry went on to talk about the special cake her grandparents brought up with them, a cake that was ordered at a bakery, not homemade. And a list of all the gifts they spoiled her with, not one but two Barbie dolls, clothes for the dolls, (some handmade by her grandmother,) a Slinky, an Etch A Sketch, four Little Lulu comic books and the board game, Monopoly. It was the last gift and was opened immediately to start a game. Picture perfect. It was no wonder Miss Trina was such a kind old soul, she had a lot of love growing up.
Phyllis knew she was coming to the last two pages and she lamented the end to this journey. Having the stories of Trina as a child brought her back to life again. When the book was done, she would be gone for good. She turned the page.
The final entry was not in her mother’s handwriting, but in Trina’s challenged scrawl. It was dated, 9/23/15. The same date as the last entry her mother had written 70 years earlier. It was a letter to Phyllis.
I thought I was going to leave this world without ever having the gift of another human being’s embrace, it’s been since my youth that someone last took me into their arms. You have no idea the significance of your kindness. For a life poorly lived, I’ve had much to atone for and your gestures of affection suggested a penance fulfilled. Were you to only read this journal without an explanation, you would have imagined me a precious child and a decent person. But, sadly, the opposite is true. I grew up to be a thoughtless woman who made it her job to pass judgment on people and none so harshly as my parents.
When I received this journal in the mail, an unknown layer of my life opened to me, a parallel existence I hadn’t even realized had unfolded. It was a rich and satisfying life that was carelessly disregarded. I am the perfect example of a person who missed the forest for the trees. Receiving the journal was a saving grace, especially considering it came the year I was appointed to the bench. The judicial system has no place for self-righteousness and I was the worst of it. The journal was my judge and jury, and I was guilty with no justification for my actions. I am eternally grateful to my mother for keeping this journal and teaching me in her gentle and patient way, long past our time together. She made me a better judge.
I’ve never gotten close to anyone before, I didn’t want to live a lie and I was too ashamed of the person I was to be honest about my life. So I devoted myself to my work and nothing else. Then, you came along. You hugged me and kissed my cheek. There are no words to express my gratitude. I have come full circle, my friend. You brought back my mother and father and, by your embrace, I now know they have forgiven me.
I put in a call to my lawyer, you will be getting a little something in the mail. (I called the Edgecombe business offices and cleared it, no worries.) It’s more than enough to help you quit your second job and spend more time with your daughter. I’m grateful to be able to pass something on to a mother and daughter who love each other.
Make sure you continue to give her those embraces of yours, they are life changing.
In eternal gratitude,