Corona Chronicles Story Edition
Stories from “The Story of Story” class
A six-week Winterim class drew to its conclusion on February 12th. Brenda Smith had seven eager participants who joined her on a journey of writing exploration. Together they learned how the brain processes sensory and emotional content through a complex neural network. Through the use of neural triggers in their writing they learned how to write stories that will remain memorable to their readers either by recreating a shared experience or by simulating new experiences described by the writer.
Each participant wrote and delivered a short story in the final class. As a group we laughed, cried and learned from each other’s stories. We zipped ourselves into the skins of both real and invented characters and stared into their souls, shared their hopes and worries and each of us emerged a changed person. Several of the class participants have agreed to share their stories with the Corona Chronicle readers and we hope you enjoy them as much as we did. Look for this class to be repeated in the future.
Ida boarded the train in Richmond with the letter in her pocket. With her small suitcase, and a few dollars in her purse, she was determined to discover a secret that she had never known about until she had read the letter.
She had found the letter in her mother’s dresser among a stack of letters tied with a faded ribbon as she packed up her parent’s belongings following their sudden deaths in a car crash. The letter, addressed to her mother, was postmarked Big Island, Virginia, December, 1918. As she opened the letter and began reading a chill came over her, she felt weak, light headed and as if the world was crashing around her. The letter was written by a woman thanking her mother for adopting her infant girl to raise as her own. Ida had never known that her mother and father were in fact not her real parents. The letter was signed by a woman named Mary Jane and dated not long after Ida’s birthdate. She carefully folded the pale blue paper and returned it to the envelope.
As the conductor called “Lynchburg” Ida knew it was not much longer until they reached her destination. It was beginning to get dark as the train pulled out of the station. The tracks followed the river towards the mountains on the horizon. Out the window Ida could see the dark river and in the distance she spotted what appeared to be a huge riverboat. As the train moved closer she realized she was looking at the paper mill in the distance. Ida knew a bit about the small community of Big Island in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. She had spent a day in the library reading about this small dot on the map of western Virginia. She learned that less than 200 people lived there and that many of them worked for the Pulp and Paper Company.
When the conductor announced “Big Island” Ida jumped up, put on her coat, and grabbed her suitcase from the overhead. As the conductor helped her down she thanked him turning to the lights of the small depot. Across the road she saw a large white frame structure, Cox’s Hotel.
As she crossed the road and walked up the Hotel steps she entered the small lobby. A small, elderly woman behind the desk welcomed her.
“My name is Ida Tunstall from Richmond and I wrote about a room.”
“Good evening, Ida, my you are a lot younger than I thought. I am Miss Jimmy Cox and this is my hotel. You are just in time for dinner. Here is your room key.
Ida found the small room warm and cozy. She checked her face in the mirror, quickly ran a comb through her auburn hair and washed the grime of the train off her hands at the small corner basin.
There were but three other people in the dining room, one couple and a single older man. A waitress greeted her, showed her to a table, took her order, and advised that her meal would be right out. Ida had never eaten alone in a restaurant. Her parents could barely afford to keep food on the table in 1937. Ida luckily had gotten a job at a department store shortly after graduating from high school but within two years she had been laid off.
Next morning over breakfast she asked the waitress if she knew of a Mary Jane living in Big Island. The waitress replied “Honey, I have only been here two years and I don’t know any Mary Jane. You need to ask Miss Jimmy. She knows everyone who ever lived here, lives here now, and probably anyone planning on moving here!”
Ida finished her breakfast and returned to the front desk.
“Miss Jimmy, I am looking for a woman named Mary Jane whom I believe was from Big Island.”
“Oh my goodness, Miss Tunstall, there have been several Mary Janes in Big Island. How old is the one you are looking for and why do you want to find her?”
“She was a friend of my mother’s years ago before the war. She would be about 45 or so today. My mother and father were killed this year and I just wanted to look her up.”
“You poor child, replied Miss Jimmy. “I am sure you will find your Mary Jane. Mary Jane Sadler married an engineer and they moved to Greensboro, NC 25 years ago. Mary Jane Goff still lives at home with her family but she is younger than you. Then there was Mary Jane Oliver whose father owned the mill, not the paper mill, the old grist mill down the road a quarter of a mile or so. The big white house on the hill across from there was the Oliver place. Mr. Oliver and his wife were lovely people but they both have passed on. They are buried up on Sunset Hill along with most everyone who ever lived in this place. You don’t want to miss going up there. It is close by and is the most magnificent view in all of this county. I have a plot right next to Mr. Cox and I will be happy to rest there for eternity. Now let’s see, Mr. Oliver’s daughter, Mary Jane was a beautiful girl. I know she moved to Richmond right after the war but came back when her parents passed away. You ought to talk to Will Buchanon who owns a little store right past the grist mill across the highway. He’ll be in the shop all day. He knew Mary Jane right well. Before he went off to France they were courting but nothing ever came of it. That’s what you should do, go up and see Mr. Buck, that’s what we call him round here. Just tell him I sent you.”
The October morning was cool in the mountains and walking out of the hotel Ida was glad she had worn her coat and hat. The early morning mist was beginning to burn off. The leaves had changed and the vista of the river and mountains looked as if posed for a postcard photo. Ida looked up the hill to the house at the top thinking that may be where her real mother grew up.
The road to the store was winding with no sidewalks. Leaves had fallen and formed a colorful path. Ahead she could see the historic grist mill that had been operated by the Oliver family for nearly 50 years. The mill race ran across the rocky field where Ida saw several brown cows. She passed a few houses and then ahead she saw the small shop located next to a stream that had gurgled by the side of the road as she walked from the hotel.
As she entered the small shop she was greeted by “May I help you?” A tall, middle-aged man, dressed neatly in a grey sweater with bow tie and suspenders adjusted his wire spectacles.
Ida was suddenly overcome with shyness and managed to say, “Yes, I would like one of those Hershey bars, the small ones.” As he handed her the candy she gave him her nickel. “Thank you,” she murmured, then turned and left the store.
Walking along the road that led to the cemetery Ida turned into the cemetery gates and realized she had been walking uphill since leaving the shop. Suddenly she felt worn out. Looking for a place to sit she saw a bench and headed right for it. Sitting down she looked toward the river down below her and across to a vista of mountains spreading toward the horizon. After a while Ida rose and walked around the small cemetery. She found the Oliver plot and the graves of Johnny and his parents. Nearby was a section of Buchanons as well as a number of Cox graves. Surprisingly, Ida couldn’t help feeling that she belonged with these people, these were her kinfolk, this was her home. But she quickly realized this was wishful thinking for she wanted so terribly to know she belonged somewhere.
Her walk back to the hotel took only a short while. Since leaving earlier she had circled the small village from the hotel to the shop, to the cemetery then back past the huge paper mill and on to the hotel. Ida returned to her room and lay down. She fell into a deep sleep and awakened to a dark room. The evening meal was quiet and uneventful.
The next morning Miss Jimmy called to her after breakfast.
“Well, Miss Tunstal, did you have any luck with Mr. Buck?”
“No, But I am going back today to talk to him.”
Ida, more determined than ever to learn if Mary Jane Oliver was the mother she was seeking, set off with shoulders squared to talk to Mr. Buck.
Arriving at the store, Mr. Buck greeted her with “Did you eat all of that chocolate bar, Miss?”
“I sure did and I want another one. But I also want to ask you about a woman I am looking for.” Suddenly Ida felt less reticent and the words came pouring out.
“I am visiting Big Island for a few days, staying down at Cox’s. Miss Jimmy mentioned that you might be able to help me. I am looking for a woman, who lived in Big Island during the war, named Mary Jane. She and my mama were close friends in Richmond. Both my parents were killed in an awful car wreck on the Washington Highway several months ago. I don’t recall having met Mary Jane but I want to meet her now that Mama and Daddy are gone. But I don’t know her full name. I think it is Mary Jane Oliver who grew up here in Big Island. But I am not sure.”
Mr. Buck looked at Ida and said “Why are you trying to find her?”
Ida, stared directly into his deep blue eyes and decided now was the time to be honest, “Because I think she may be my real mother! I was adopted, but when my adopted parents were killed I found out that I wasn’t their real child, I mean their flesh and blood child. Then I found a letter from Mary Jane written to my adopted mother from Big Island thanking her for taking me into her home and raising me as her own.”
Mr. Buck, surprised at Ida’s revelation, felt confused and managed to say “Oh, no, Miss, Mary Jane Oliver never had a child. She couldn’t be your mother. I have known Mary Jane since she was a little girl. Her older brother Johnny and I were the very best of friends until he was killed in the war. Mary Jane was two years younger than we were. Johnny and I did everything together usually with Mary Jane and my little sister tagging along. Soon after I finished school and was working in the Bank, Mary Jane and I found we were more than just friends. I realized I had loved her since we were children. We courted for nearly a year, talked of getting married, building a house but then the country entered the war overseas. Johnny and I were 21 and we were among the first registered to go in the army. In May 1918 we arrived in France. Leaving home was hard but it was so much harder wondering if I would see Mary Jane again.
Johnny was the first of our boys to die. We were together and fought together at Belleau Woods and then he was gone. I fought on but ended up being gassed at the Marne but by then it was nearly over. I was sent to a hospital in Nice where I spent a month recuperating in the Mediterranean sun. I couldn’t walk a block without having to sit down. My lungs were permanently damaged but the thought of seeing Mary Jane again kept me going,
The return home was bittersweet. Mama, Daddy, and Mary Jane met me at the station right here in Big Island on a warm day in March. I wanted to tell them then what I couldn’t tell them in my letters, that I was not whole and never would be. But they all were so happy to see me. I started working back at the bank and Mary Jane and I picked up where we left off. But I knew this was not going to work out and our dream would not come true. Every day the short walk to the bank became harder and harder. I accepted the fact that I couldn’t physically keep on. I felt that the only decent thing to do would be tell Mary Jane we couldn’t marry. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. We were sitting on the front porch at her house up on the hill when I told her we couldn’t be married. Mary Jane looked at me and said “Buck that doesn’t matter we will be fine right here in Big Island.” But my pride wouldn’t let me accept being less than a whole man. I left her there on the porch and walked home knowing that my life would never be the same.
Afterwards I heard Mary Jane had left Big Island and moved to Richmond. I never heard from her but her mama told me she had become a piano teacher and was doing well. I used to hear about her often from my sister who lived in Richmond but the only time I ever saw her was when she came back to Big Island for her mother’s and father’s funerals. I have always loved her and always will but I would have been a pretty poor excuse of a husband for a beautiful girl like Mary Jane.”
“Did she ever marry, Mr. Buchanan?” Ida asked.
“No, I don’t think she did,” his voice wavered and he felt confused and uncertain but said “Sometimes I think about what our lives would have been like if only we had married and had a family. I can’t believe what you are telling me for I know someone in Big Island would have told me if she had a baby. I have never heard this before. This is a small place and word would have gotten out. Don’t you see, Miss? This just isn’t right. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Buck knew that the minute this girl left the shop he would have to call his sister in Richmond to try and find out the truth about this story. If anybody knew it would be his sister Nellie. She would know the truth,
Ida thanked him and as she turned to leave Mr. Buchanan said “You never told me your name.”
“It’s Ida. Ida Tunstall.“
After scribbling it on a scrap of paper he thanked her and said “Ida, I have something for you.” He handed her a small brown bag. “A little something for your trip back home.”
Ida left the little shop confused and disappointed because she had hoped Mr. Buchanan would have at least given her Mary Jane’s address. But to think she lived in Richmond! Maybe I can find her when I get home. Ida refused to believe that this woman wasn’t her real mother. But who was her father? Listening to Mr. Buchanan’s story Ida wasn’t totally convinced he knew the truth or was telling the truth. Somehow or other she thought he just didn’t know what the real story was. Could Mary Jane have been pregnant when he and her brother shipped out for France? The only person who could answer that question was back in Richmond.
She opened the little bag Mr. Buchanon had handed her. It was filled with an assortment of penny candies. Smiling, she picked an orange slice and thought what a nice man he was as she bit down on the sugary sweet. Stopping at the depot on the way back to the hotel the station master told her she could get a train back to Richmond in about an hour arriving in the capital city at 7 pm.
Ida rushed back to the hotel, packed her bag, and stopped at the desk to thank Miss Jimmy and say goodbye.
“Good bye, dear,” Miss Jimmy called as she left, “sure hope you find what you are looking for.”
Ida’s mind raced the entire ride back. She just couldn’t get herself to admit she was wrong. She had to find Mary Jane. She just had to hear the truth from the woman herself, the woman who had written the letter. I will find her, she vowed.
Back in her tiny apartment Ida dropped her bag and was asleep in her bed in no time. The next morning she ate a quick breakfast, dressed, and caught the streetcar to the library. In the library she sat down with a city directory and turned to Oliver. There were 17 listed but no M.J. Oliver. With no solid leads she turned to the Yellow Pages and under Piano Lessons she found a listing for M.J. Oliver Private Piano & Music Lessons with an address and phone number. She quickly tried calling but there was no answer. She knew exactly where the house was located right close to the famous concert hall where her parents had taken her years ago. It was just a short streetcar ride from the Library.
Ida got off the streetcar and quickly walked two blocks to the address. On the black wrought iron gate was a small sign M. J. Oliver, Piano Lessons. She was trembling as she walked up the porch stairs of the white frame row house. Taking a deep breath she rang the bell and stepped back. The door opened and there stood a tall woman whose light auburn hair was peppered with gray. To Ida the woman’s deep blue eyes peering at her and her strong well-defined jawline were the image she saw of herself when she looked into her own mirror. Standing behind her in the hallway was a smiling, familiar face with wire-rimmed spectacles. Before Ida could speak the woman gazed at her with a slight smile and said “Come right in, we have been waiting for you!”
Bill was starting to worry. Well, not worry-worry. Just a little concerned.
We’ve been here….we were here. This clearing. That dead tree, that hill.
He stood still a moment. But not too long. He didn’t want to convey uncertainty to the kids — and definitely not lost.
Which he wasn’t.
Ollie looked over his shoulder at him, “This way?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Bill said and was tempted to trust his 8-year-old son the way you follow pickups that look like they know where they’re going down country roads.
“But just a sec. Let’s chill a minute.” He rested his boot on a rock, turning. Moriah, bringing up the rear, had her head in the bag of grapes. He didn’t know how she didn’t trip on a root and fall flat on her face.
“Let’s go, Mo!” She was going to finish those grapes. Which he knew when he gave them to her — but she was starting to whine, what could he do.
He heard an ancient echo, his own arrogant voice when Barb had told him to pack more food. “They’ll be fine fine fine fine….” He’d said it every time.
And they will be. It’s alright. He’ll carry someone if he has to.
Ollie was still going strong. He watched his son whack his stick against the rock, break it, and start looking for a new one.
“I thought you said we were going to look at a tempest?” Moriah whined.
Tempest? A wave swept over Bill for a split second, confusion, reeling. Let us not burden … He waited until it passed. …and she was saying “Dad, navigation!”
“The compass!” Bill said. Right. He took his phone out of his pocket, hit the app and handed it over, trading it for what was left of the grapes.
They’ll get Burger King. If they ever get out of here. He wouldn’t be cracking open his O’Douls until ten at this rate.
A screen on the scene drew Ollie. The kids started to argue. And then he snatched the phone. Fighting. Always fighting.
Did he hear his little girl just call her brother a dick? Definitely got that from Barb. And The Tempest? What was that?
“Check it out,” he said, squatting. Among roots, rock, a carpet of moss and pine needles, a hole, what, a chipmunk hole or something. The kids draw in. He reads Ollie’s mind and stops him from jamming his stick into the hole.
“Maybe it’s Shrew Bettina’s.” He looks at Moriah, her mother’s eyes, nose, those cheekbones.
“Dad!” she says. It’s one of their favorite books. His favorite book. A shrew in her snug underground home. She has a party, with cake, and dancing….
He’d tell Barb that she was right about the food. He’d give her that. But he wasn’t wrong.
The west sun slants down through the tall pines and he recognizes them now. Yes, these are them. They’ve been here.
“Ollie, give it back to your sister.” Onward! Let’s go!
Slowly, she bent to pull the offending weed. Careful not to lose her balance, Roz stood then sank back onto one of the many benches her son had thoughtfully placed among her flower gardens. Resting briefly to regain her breath, she weakly tossed the weed aside. Frustration and anger at her offending body alternated with the peace of being among the once meticulously tended flowers. Roz, lulled by the sweetness of the Madonna lilies and the warmth of the late August sun, let her eyes close — just for a moment, she told herself. The orange tabby, sensing the stillness, jumped gently into the welcoming lap.
The cat just arrived one day a couple of years back, bony thin, its fur matted. He strode right up to her and seemed to listen intently when she questioned who he might be and to whom he belonged. He followed her straight into the kitchen and demanded food. Roz called the neighbors, asked around, but no one knew of a missing orange cat. She gave over the guest bedroom to give him space and a chance to acclimate to her and to the old cat she lived with. He took to the bed, the litter box, the frequent offerings of food, and the kind words. He demanded more territory, soon leaping onto the kitchen counters and Roz’s desk.
Roz made an appointment at her vet. She’d had dozens of animals. Horses when she had still owned the farm next door. Even now on her good days she walked up to the pasture with carrots or an apple for the new owners’ horses. And dogs – she’d had a series of Gordon setters, but the last one was a bit too much and when he was gone, she resisted the regular calls from the breeder. She really did not want another pet that might outlive her. But this cat, for some unknown reason, seemed to have given her little choice.
Cleaned and patched, minus the burdock and fur mats, he was quite beautiful. She’d taken to calling him “Lucky,” but the vet said she’d never treated a lucky “Lucky” so, Roz now addressed him as “Charlie-cat.” She made a sign for her door: DON’T LET THE CAT OUT, because her many friends were used to walking in with only a shout of hello. She tried to sort out her feelings. Should she let him out and be happy if he left for some unknown home? Should she take him to a shelter so a young person could adopt him? In the end, Charlie made his own decision.
He followed her around all day and seemed to pout if she shooed him when she went outside. He trailed her to the bathroom and sat by the shower, waiting. He lay sprawled on her desk, back to her computer, as she wrote emails. He was clearly, her cat. Roz bought him toys, a cat bed (which he seldom used), special treats, nutritious food. The vet was astonished when, weeks later, he weighed in at twenty pounds. “He needs exercise,” she said, “and fewer treats. He may think he is still starving, but clearly, he is not.”
Apprehensively, Roz left the door ajar and quietly slipped out into her early spring garden. Charlie knew immediately that she’d gone outside and with no hesitation, even after months of captivity, marched out to join her. They developed a new routine. She’d weed for a while, empty the weed bucket, survey the progress of the Daphne buds, or fill the bird feeders. Charlie’d lie down right in the garden and she’d often have to physically move him to get at a weed. He’d lumbered along at her heels, more doglike than cat, never letting Roz out of his sight. Increasingly, she trusted that he would stay. He even let one or two of her friends pet him.
Not Anne though. She stopped by often with Ollie, her golden retriever puppy. For years, Roz and Anne’s respective dogs had romped and played while their caretakers chatted. Charlie-cat bristled and trembled at first yip and Roz banned Ollie from the house. Charlie was clearly terrified. The vet surmised that his arrival at Roz’s had been the end of a chase and his instinct for survival outweighed any puppy’s friendliness. Anne could visit, but Ollie must stay in the car.
Roz’s old cat died that winter though she hadn’t seemed unhappy to have a housemate. She was just very old and tired and really wanted only to sleep. Neither Roz nor Charlie missed her much, yet Roz often thought “she was supposed to be my last pet.” Roz’s stomachaches were unending these days and she knew, before her doctor confirmed it, that the cancer was back. At ninety-two, she’d been anticipating her mortality for years: selling the farm, building a small one-story house in the lower field, plowing under the huge gardens and building manageable raised beds; but that was twenty-five years ago; and the magnolia, she planted in the southwest corner, was now thirty feet tall.
The years raced by. Roz had kept working into her nineties, done T’ai Chi each week, organized charity events, written mysteries that folks actually bought and read, driven-alone five hours every month to oversee the care and then the will of her former sister-in-law. She’d lunched and taken day trips with friends, hosted dinner parties for twelve. This summer, however, Roz was tired. Reluctantly, she let her routine slip, allowed herself a nap after lunch, accepted occasional help or a meal from a friend. She’d always been the one offering support, not receiving it.
Like many, I stopped in more often, stayed a few minutes longer than usual. I took her fresh asparagus from my garden, the Swiss chard seedlings she’d craved. Anne organized an afternoon of weeding. My husband, Charlie (no coincidence – Roz always the flirt, adored him), brought equipment to mow and trim. Roz watched for a while then went in to nap. Later, as Roz served us lemonade, Charlie cat jumped into my lap. Observing, Roz wondered aloud what would happen if she could not care for him. We reassured her, should he ever need a different home, he would have one with us. Over the next few weeks, she began that same conversation at least a dozen times.
The August days grew shorter; her daughter came to visit “for a while.” I called less often with Kate there. Then one early evening Kate called us. Could we come down immediately? Roz was demanding to see us. Her mother, she said, had had a stroke but refused to be hospitalized. Hospice had arranged palliative care.
Terrified of what to expect, we drove in silence. Roz, her once beautiful face drooping a bit, lay in her bed, propped or protected by pillows with the cat snuggled close. We had to lean in to make out what she struggled to say. “I have to be sure that you will take Charlie-cat.” “Of course,” we reassured her, “but not tonight. You need to be together.” She tried to say more, but sank back onto the pillows. We stayed a while, talking with Kate and the others gathered around the bed, knowing Roz could hear us, but not really including her in the conversation. I remember telling her “You’re still beautiful,” and seeing a smile in her eyes. When we were pretty sure she was sleeping, we quietly edged our way out.
Anxious to wrap things up quickly, Kate, direct as always, called again the day Roz died. “If you want the cat, you’ll need to come this afternoon.” Perhaps she did not trust that we were sincere in our offer or maybe she was just anxious to take care of the chores that follow a death. I couldn’t decide. I drove slowly, my vision clouded with tears. The long driveway looked the same; the house looked the same: but everything felt wrong: out of place. Somehow, I kept thinking Roz would pop out the door, but it was only Kate who matter-of-factly handed me a bag with cat toys, cat dishes, cat blankets, cat magnets, and Charlie’s vet records, followed by an oversized cat carrier occupied by a vocally displeased, twenty pound, orange cat. We talked the whole ride home – or I talked reassuringly and Charlie cat yowled, both of us in mourning.
Out of his cage, though, Charlie marched around the house, sniffing and alert, then, somehow assured, settled into my lap. We sat together as the day grew dusky, each beginning to relax and accept our loss and each other. In the coming days, Charlie-cat followed me around, sat by the shower, leaned on my computer. After a while, when I felt it safe to allow him outside, he trailed me into my gardens and sprawled out as I weeded.
Charlie-cat stayed with us for two years. One late summer afternoon, we left him outside, asleep in the sun on the deck, while we were away for a few hours. He had never roamed. That bear hunters were training their dogs nearby did not occur to us. Later, we surmised that, terrified and possibly chased by the baying hounds, Charlie-cat ran. We scoured the nearby woods, alerted the neighbors, asked around as far away as Roz’s old neighborhood. We called his name dozens of times a day, but Charlie-cat did not return. It was months before we gave up hope.
I envision him, bony and matted, arriving at yet another house where a kindly human asks, “Who might you be and to whom do you belong?”
Hedda knew that she would eventually go blind. It was hereditary. She has been preparing her life for the inevitable. Once that happened, she would have to adapt in ways she was still unsure of. Her story starts in Maine but then moves to San Francisco.
She and her husband had a good life in Portland. He was a successful professor and they often traveled together when he lectured around the world. She had been a pediatric social worker. Now that their son was grown and out of the house, she pursued her interests of gardening and sewing. She designed and constructed her own clothes which her friends considered quite fashionable.
She could tell her eyes were changing when she hit sixty. Images were less crisp, and her glasses seemed to get thicker and heavier every year. She constantly thought of what the future would be for her and how she would need to adjust, adapting to a world that she could not see. The impending loss of sight and natural aging would sometimes send her into deep depression until some simple event – her husband’s hug, reading something that touched her or seeing a plant bursting with color – would shake her out of her low state back to her often-cheery self.
Her sixty-third year was exceptionally difficult. Her husband of thirty-two years was tragically killed in an automobile accident. He was travelling at normal speed through a busy Boston intersection when he was T-boned by another car. The driver stupidly, tragically and fatally ran a red light.
Hedda was devastated.
Despite having many friends in Portland, Maine she still felt alone. She and her husband shared so much, appreciating jazz and classical music, fine art and theater. They hiked all over New England – Mount Katahdin, sections of the AT trail and walkways along the Maine shore. All of that evaporated with his death. Her vitality escaped her.
All she could see were the many challenges ahead – no partner in her life, her total loss of vision, no one to help her with all the changes. Fortunately, money was not an issue due to the car tragedy settlement, her husband’s life insurance and what he had left her. But none of that mattered to her. She wanted the life she had, not the life she was now facing. She would have to practically invent a new life. A life without a partner, without sight and other unanticipated challenges.
She continued to live in their house, but she knew she would have to move to a safer environment. As her eyesight became worse and she could not drive she heard less and less from her friends of many years. She was rarely invited to join friends for cultural events. She was dismayed when a new friend who was rapidly losing her own sight shared her reality with Hedda. “They don’t know what to do with us, as if we are now different. They get uncomfortable because they see us as disabled. We are now ‘sidelined.’ “Wow! I did not expect this at all.” She was very saddened by this revelation. She felt as capable as she had ever been. She fell into a month-long depression.
Then she got angry. “To hell with them!” She was going to live her life to the fullest that she could.
She knew about the many resources available to “the blind.” She used this term cynically when talking to government support agencies since they treated anyone who sought any vision assistance as “the blind.” She and people she knew who had also lost perfect vision preferred the term sight impaired.
Hedda knew that she would need to move to a safer place, more walkable year-round, perhaps an urban setting. She purchased a small house in the Bernal Heights area of San Francisco. She wanted to fill her days and evenings with the cultural life of the Bay Area, meanwhile she continued taking classes in Braille.
Her new house, a cottage, was near a quiet street filled with all kinds of amenities. She still had enough sight to walk around her new neighborhood. She had a walk-out back yard which became a luxurious garden. She knew that eventually she would not be able to see the flowers and plants, but she could smell and feel everything. She made sure there was nothing planted with thorns or prickers.
Hedda and her husband had always smoked marijuana. They loved getting a buzz on and then going to hear music or viewing an art exhibit. This was never going to happen again. She did find some relief when she discovered THC edibles. She would not have to try to light something with her fading depth perception.
She became such a familiar patron at the cultural venues that staff knew her well. She simply called a taxi or UBER and had them drop her off at the front door. The staff would then show her to her seat from there. She tipped very well.
She particularly liked to dress in outrageous outfits. She had arranged her clothes very carefully, so she always knew exactly where each piece was hung or placed in a drawer. She mixed and matched outfits that would turn heads, particularly at the symphony or the Jazz Center. She loved to shock people seated near her when she heard disparaging whispers about her garb. “Can you tell me what I am wearing? Since I am blind, I have no idea what I grabbed?” She loved listening to the women muttering that carried on among her seat mates when they realized she was blind.
“The poor thing, she has no idea.”
“I actually think it’s quite stylish!”
“I have never seen those colors together on someone, hmm.”
Hedda’s hearing was very good and she smiled each time she heard the critiques.
Her new friend Irma who had recently completely lost her sight told Hedda that her greatest difficulty was knowing what to wear, given she could no longer differentiate garments by sight, just feel. She had organized the placement of her clothes when she could see so she knew what was where. But eventually it all became jumbled. Occasionally a friend would say “Irma, let me tell you what you are wearing” and Irma would be appalled. Hedda could see the dilemma she would be facing once she could not differentiate colors or patterns of the clothes she owned or wished to purchase. Hedda had real fashion sense from her years of sewing and interest in creating garments. She and Irma devised a rudimentary method of labelling their clothes with braille tags. Hedda bought a braille printer. With the help of a “seeing” friend she made up small tags in braille that would describe the garment; blue, red, or yellow stripes or solid with as much detail as possible without writing a paragraph. They attached the new tags to all their clothes in an obscure but consistent place.
Utilizing her new computer technically adapted for the sight impaired, Hedda shared her clothes ID system with the sight impaired group on Facebook. The responses were immediate, “Please do this for me, I will pay any amount.”
These immediate and numerous requests made an impression. Hedda started a new venture. She contracted with a clothes marketing firm to develop the idea. Hedda liked the business name of BAT fashions since she often referred to herself as “blind as a bat.”
“So, let’s put it out there.” She said, “It’s catchy, if not possibly offensive.”
Women’s boutiques talked to her about labeling some of their clothes.
Hedda became so busy with developing the business she put out an ad on social media sites. “Looking for a woman to work in women’s fashion business. Fashion design and marketing experience preferred. Sight-impaired essential.” Her ad created quite a stir. No one had ever specified a qualification of “sight impaired essential” before. Blind people are often the victim of employment discrimination. Employers are senselessly unsure of what adjustments or adaptations need to be made. Hedda knew that sight impaired workers were proven to be reliable, hardworking and very adaptable particularly given the new technology today.
She was flooded with applicants from all over the country. May Bendell was the final candidate. She had majored in fashion design and marketing at the San Francisco Art Academy but never graduated due to her sudden loss of eyesight. She convinced Hedda that her Braille labelling program and fashions could have a very broad market, all ages. May knew how to develop web sites and together they developed an APP as a resource for the sight impaired.
Hedda and May worked with a clothes manufacturer to create her own clothing line. Braille labels could be attached, always tucked in a convenient out sight spot when the garment was being made. They also developed a code for each type of garment that would be on a laminate chart with more detailed description in braille. The chart would simply hang in the closet. They even made sure the laminate had no sharp corners. Hedda’s business took off and she hired more sight impaired employees even a young man who had gone to the Fashion Institute in NYC but also had to leave prematurely due to sudden loss of sight.
For the first time since her husband’s death Hedda felt alive, she felt vital. She was very optimistic, really thrilled, that she was developing a business that would enhance the lives of sight impaired women. She especially enjoyed adding her personal design touch to some of the fashions.
Although BAT fashions had become a successful business, Hedda missed the touch and intimacy of a male companion in her life. She missed the tender moments of togetherness. She enjoyed her cadre of friends with whom she shared many like interests, although none of them enjoyed jazz as much as she did. She got a seeing-eye dog and named him Thelonious after her favorite musician. She and Theo walked everywhere. Up and down the hills of San Francisco. For occasional amusement she acted like she was deaf around new people. She always said, “It is amazing what people will say about you when they think you cannot hear.”
She went to hear Herbie Hancock one evening at the Jazz Center. She was brought to her seat as usual. Hancock was playing with quite a group, Joshua Redmon, Christian McBride, Nick Payne and John Mayall’s grandson Norm. As she prepared to sit in her aisle seat Thelonious started acting differently. Approaching the aisle seat in the row in front of hers was Edward Lucas. “Excuse me,” Hedda said. “Someone is playing with my dog. Thelonious is a seeing-eye dog and I would appreciate it if you left her alone.”
She then heard Edward say, “Well excuse me, someone is playing with my dog and she is a seeing-eye dog, please stop it.” After a slight pause they realized that they were both sight impaired. Already their respective dogs were getting to know each other and enjoying it. Once they understood what had occurred they started to laugh.
Hedda asked, “What is your dog’s name?”
Edward responded, “Why it is Herbie, named after you know who. And yours?”
“Thelonious, after you know who.”
Edward responded, “Well isn’t that something that our seats are together here at the end of the aisles. I hope you enjoy the show.”
They settled in. The dogs sat side by side cozily leaning against each other at the end of each aisle.
Hedda and Edward talked about the performances throughout the intermission. After the performance they continued their conversation across the street at the popular post-concert hangout. As they entered Hedda heard greetings directed at Edward.
“Edward, so good to see you.”
“Edward, how are you doing?”
“Edward, wasn’t Herbie magnificent tonight?”
Edward answered, “Thank you, thank you. Great to see you all. This is my friend,” and then he stopped. “Forgive me, but I don’t know your name.”
“My name is Hedda.”
Edward cocked his head. “How lovely.”
“This is my friend Hedda and this is Thelonious.”
“Welcome madam. Here are the menus. I will be back shortly. First, would you like some water, plain or sparkling?”
Hedda responded, “I would actually like sparkling, no fruit.”
“I will have the same,“ Edward said softly.
Hedda then said, “I don’t know why restaurants give us menus when we can’t see a damn thing.”
Edward then offered, “Try this one, you might find it helpful.”
Hedda opened it to find everything written in Braille.
“Well, I’ll be damned. I have never been to a restaurant that had a menu written in Braille. Oh, except for that new trendy place where they only hire blind people. The place is pitch black with just braille menus. You hear a lot of ‘This is not what I was expecting.’”
“I’ve been there a few times.“ Edward remarked. “It is different and fun to talk to the staff, but the food is not worth it.”
Hedda responded, “I agree, I think I got ill the only time I went. I won’t elaborate.”
“I took four menus from here and had them translated into Braille. Then I told all my blind friends and now they come here often. They also give the seeing-eye dogs treats here. Jimmy, the maître d’, said they had six or seven people with dogs here one evening. It was quite a scene with the dogs sniffing each other and their owners laughing at the sounds coming from them all.”
“Edward, this is just lovely. Now that I know what your name is, tell me a little bit about yourself.”
“Well, Hedda, I was going to ask you the same thing.”
Music was playing in the background; mostly selections by known artists – Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Max Roach, Ahmad Jamal, Stanley Turrentine, and many others. During their break, each musician stopped by the table to say hello to Edward who they called Eddie.
Edward paused and said “I grew up outside of Mobile, Alabama. I attended the University of San Francisco. I liked this area so much I stayed. I was married for thirty-five years. My dear wife Clara died of cancer fifteen years ago.”
“What kind of work did you do?”
“I first worked as a machinist for a company in South San Francisco. It was a good company and they treated everyone very well. I then worked for the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. I used my skills as a machinist to build devices used in medical research. It was a very interesting place to work. Good people. I worked there until my eyesight loss forced me to quit. They accommodated me for a longtime. It was my choice to leave. I did not want to be the sympathetic hire. And you, how have you spent your life?”
Hedda started talking, then stopped. She had not had a conversation with anyone about her past or who she was, is in a very long time. She was happy to be sharing again. Hedda and Edward closed the place at 2:00 a.m., both eager to continue building a beautiful new relationship.
I have unhappily resigned myself to being alone. I never met the man of my dreams. Like anyone my age, I have many good memories and yet there is a space inside me that remains unfilled. I was never really happy living on my own. I often felt lonely so far from my east coast friends and family despite friendships with colleagues and their spouses at UCLA. At times, my apartment felt more like a trap than a home. During those dark times, I would become unreasonably jealous of the life that my best friend Jane had with her husband Henry. Why hadn’t I been as fortunate as Jane? I longed to share my life with someone.
From the first day that I met her, I liked Jane. She was a petite, dark haired girl who wore horn rimmed glasses over her bright blue eyes. Jane was very gregarious while I was the studious introvert. Somehow our contrasting personalities led to our becoming fast friends during college. Our senior year Jane met Henry and fell in love. They had a beautiful summer wedding on his family dairy farm in Cambridge, VT along the Lamoille River.
Over the years I have enjoyed my visits to Vermont that gave me a respite from my lonely existence in the bustling city of Los Angeles. Strange that living in such a big city surrounded by millions of people, I was lonelier than Jane and Henry on their farm outside a tiny village. Though it was a hardscrabble existence, Jane and Henry happily embraced farm life. Last year their happiness was overshadowed by the news of Henry’s pancreatic cancer. As he and Jane faced his mortality, I felt sad for my friend who would soon know how lonely I have felt all these years.
Jane and Henry put the farm up for sale as Jane could not manage it on her own. During my summer break, I helped her sort through their possessions as she chose what she would take to the house she was buying in the village. Fortunately, Henry died just before the sale of the farm and was not forced to move from the only home he had ever known. Flying back to LA after the funeral, I pondered how my life would have been different if I had found someone to love me like Henry had loved Jane. I decided, enough is enough. This will be my last year teaching. It is time to live close to those I love.
Now I volunteer at the village library a few days a week. I enjoy being there among the books that feel like friends and smell of paper, ink, and glue. The red brick library sits in the middle of town and has been a surprisingly wonderful place for me to meet the local people. I have settled into my life here and I am content. I spend time with my family and best friend anytime I wish, and I am getting to know the rest of the community.
On Friday morning as I get ready to go to the library, I find myself thinking back to Wednesday when a pleasant looking man I did not recognize came through the heavy glass double doors of the entrance. He had snow white hair, bright blue eyes and laugh lines that crinkled when he smiled at me. After browsing the shelves, he came up to check out and I spied the latest Ken Follett book in his pile.
“I read this. It’s excellent! Have you read the others in this series?”
“No” he answered, “though I have read other books by him.”
“Well, that’s actually okay, because this is the prequel to the other three even though it is the most recently written.”
“I hope I’ll have time to read all of these before they are due back. I hesitated over taking the Follett book because it is pretty long.”
“I found it a fast read.” I replied. “I see you also like Charles Todd and Louise Penny.
“Yes, mysteries and historical fiction are my favorites.”
“I’m Sam, by the way.”
“I’m Leigh, as in Vivian not Robert E.” I laughed, feeling my face flush as I feel a frisson of excitement.
Later my morning reverie is interrupted by the ring of my phone. It is Jane.
“Will you come to dinner tomorrow night? I’m hungry for lasagna and need some help eating it.”
“Only if you let me bring dessert. I just saw a great cheesecake with blueberry compote recipe that I am anxious to try out.” I reply.
“Sounds delicious, it’s a deal. Let’s say 6:00.”
“Great! I wonder if…”
“I have to run, there’s someone at the door. See you tomorrow night.”
I was going to ask Jane if she knows Sam. It will have to wait until tomorrow.
When I arrive at Jane’s on Saturday, to my complete surprise, Sam opens the door just as I reach for the handle.
“Hi” he says eyeing the basket in my hands. I heard you were bringing dessert.”
“Hi, I didn’t know you would be here tonight.” I exclaim, and then worry that he will think I did not want him to be there. “I’m sorry,” I stammer. “I am glad to see you and yes, I made cheesecake and homemade blueberry compote to go with it.”
Sam smiles, “That sounds delicious!”
I am still recovering from the surprise when Jane steps into the hall. She hugs me and takes my coat. Why is Sam here? Jane has not mentioned that she is seeing someone. I raise an eyebrow at her but she doesn’t notice. Drat, just when I had started to let myself have a glimmer of hope.
We move out of the hall into the cheery living room for drinks. I sit in a dark red and black brocade wing back chair close to the fire. Sam pours our drinks and then sits across the fire from me.
“Have you known Jane long?” I ask.
“Yes, I was Henry’s good friend, but I lived in Boston until very recently.” Sam informs me.
My mind is whirling with more questions about their relationship that I don’t dare ask. I sip my drink instead and listen to Jane and Sam chat about last week’s town meeting. Rising from the sofa, Jane says “I think the lasagna has cooled enough to slice it now. Sam will you carry it into the dining room while I slice the bread? Leigh, would you light the candles and fill the water glasses? The pitcher is on the sideboard.”
We move into the dining room with the beautiful maple farmhouse table that Henry’s grandfather made years ago. As I light the candles, they reflect in the burnished tabletop. A large green salad in a wooden bowl sits in the middle of three place settings. The rich smell of lasagna and garlic bread wafts from the kitchen. I lift the antique blue and white pottery pitcher and fill the three water glasses. Taking a deep breath, I remind myself that Sam was Henry’s friend, and it does not mean that he is in love with Jane. Although I wouldn’t blame him. Everyone loves Jane.
After filling our plates and enjoying the first few bites Jane says “Sam tells me you met him at the library.”
“Yes, on Wednesday.”
Sam smiles at me before turning to Jane. “This lasagna is delicious as usual.”
His lack of comment about our meeting leaves me feeling that my attraction to him is totally one sided. I take a deep breath and focus on the delicious food. After clearing the dinner dishes from the table, we decide to have our dessert in the living room by the fire.
“This cheesecake is delicious,” says Jane.
“I love the blueberry compote with it. I could eat this every day.” Sam smiles while addressing me directly for the first time since we started the meal.
“Thank you. I love making desserts.”
“I hope I get to try more of them. You ladies have spoiled me tonight.”
At nine o’clock Sam and I rise and thank Jane for her hospitality and the delicious dinner. As we head out the door, I give Jane a hug and Sam gives her a peck on the cheek. I am even more confused about their relationship. Perhaps they are only good friends.
Before I finish my coffee the next morning, Jane has rung me up.
“Hi! What do you think of Sam?” she asks.
Not sure where this is heading, I tentatively answer, “I think he is nice, why do you ask?”
“Because he hasn’t stopped talking about you since he met you at the library.”
I am totally floored. “What?”
“You heard me. He seems very smitten.”
I feel a twinge of hope. “Are you sure? Sam barely had anything to say to me last night that wasn’t about my dessert.”
“Yes, I’m sure” Jane responds. “I wouldn’t lie to you!”
“Why didn’t you say anything before I came over last night?”
“I wanted to give you a chance to get to know each other. I didn’t want to push him on you. I was waiting to see if I could tell what you thought about him before I said anything.”
“I would like to get to know him better,” I reply. “So, what should I do now?” I am suddenly eager to see Sam again, but I can’t think clearly. I don’t want to make more of it than it might be.
“Next Saturday is the library fundraiser auction and pot luck, right?”
“I know that Sam is planning on attending, so there you go.”
“Okay.” I answer hesitantly.
“I’m sure that will give the two of you a chance to talk and get to know each other better.”
“Have you forgotten that I am going to be extremely busy? I’m in charge of the silent auction.”
Jane laughs “You still have to sit down to eat, don’t you?”.
“Okay, okay, that’s true” I say feeling like a schoolgirl with a crush instead of a grown woman.
“We have a plan!” Jane giggles and rings off.
The week goes by with nerve wracking slowness. I do not see Sam at the library. Saturday finally arrives, I am as nervous as I was when I waited for my tenure to be granted at UCLA. I decide to wear my favorite yellow knit dress that compliments my complexion and my waistline. I apply some lipstick and check myself in the mirror for the umpteenth time as I get ready to head out the door. When I arrive at the school cafeteria, I get busy setting out the donated auction items and putting bid sheets and pens by each one. Soon the room is filling up with smiling, chatting neighbors. I look around. I do not see Sam anywhere. I know that it is early and that not everyone has arrived, but I feel a little disappointed and very anxious.
Soon I see Jane coming in the door. She catches my eye, frowns, and shakes her head. Oh, no! The only thing I can think is that she is indicating that Sam is not coming. I feel very deflated. All that primping for nothing! Jane comes over and tells me that Sam called her to say that he would not be able to come after all.
“Did he say why?” I ask.
“He was in a rush and said he had something he had to take care of right away in Boston. He didn’t give me any details.”
I did not realize just how much my heart was set on seeing him tonight until I felt my eyes start to well up with tears. I should have guarded my heart more carefully. Why did I think I would find love at this time of life after searching for years and coming up empty handed? As the auction proceeds, I smile bravely at my neighbors through my disappointment.
Another excruciating week goes by without seeing Sam at the library. I fear he has gotten cold feet. I am sure he knows plenty of charming women in Boston. A second week passes. Jane and I have decided that she must have been mistaken and that Sam was not romantically interested in me.
On Friday evening, Jane calls. “Sam called a few minutes ago to catch up and told me that he has been extremely busy since he got back from Boston. He brought someone named Frieda back with him. I was just going to ask about Frieda when he said he had to go.”
“Well that’s that then. He is already attached to someone. I am disappointed. He seems like such a great guy.”
“You’re right. He is interesting and kind. I was hoping you two might connect. I am sorry to bring you such disappointing news. Why don’t we get together for coffee tomorrow morning?”
On Monday morning I am at the library shelving books that were dropped off over the weekend. The sunny day makes the library feel bright and cheery. My mood has lifted despite my latest disappointment. I am startled by a tap on my shoulder. I spin around and find myself looking into Sam’s blue eyes.
“Hello, Sam. How are you? I haven’t seen you in here lately.”
He raises an eyebrow at my tone of reserve. “I’m fine. I’ve been quite busy. How have you been?”
“Fine.” I answer while glancing over his shoulder looking to see if he brought Frieda, but I see no one.
“I was wondering if you could help me find the next Ken Follett book.”
“Did you finish The Evening and the Morning?”
“Yes, I really enjoyed reading it.”
I start to relax. He doesn’t seem to know that Jane was trying to set us up or that I was interested in him. I help him find The Pillars of the Earth and check him out. As he heads for the front doors, I quietly sigh. I am walking back into the stacks to continue shelving books when I hear footsteps behind me.
“Leigh, would you like to have dinner with me on Friday evening?”
I am so surprised that I can’t even speak as I slowly turn to him.
“I hope I haven’t offended you by asking.”
“Is this a date?” I blurt out, feeling my cheeks turn crimson.
“Yes, is that okay?”
“Yes, but, wait, what about your friend from Boston?” I ask as my initial excitement fades.
“My friend from Boston?” Sam asks with a puzzled expression on his face. Then he breaks out into a huge grin. “You mean Frieda? She’s my new cocker spaniel.”
“Oh, a dog!”
“Yes, so what about dinner?”
Joy and hope stream through me as I answer, “I would love to go to dinner with you.”
Thought for the Day
Compassion is an action word with no boundaries
How we treat one another is the only thing that matters
One reason that cats are happier than people is that they have no newspapers
Courtesy of Gratefulness.org