Authors: Lorena McCourtney
Kendra knocked on my back door the evening of the day I finally got hold of Molly. I was standing at the kitchen counter, looking at a tomato. It was a lovely, perfectly shaped, store-bought tomato, unlike many of the misshaped vegetables I grew. But I couldn’t seem to rouse enough get-up-and-go to pick up a knife and whack the tomato with it. I kept thinking,
Thea loved a good bacon and tomato sandwich.
“I just came over to see how you’re doing,” Kendra said. Today she was in red short-shorts that stopped below her belly button, and a gauzy white top that stopped above it. “This must be so difficult for you.”
My put-up-a-strong-front response came automatically. “I’ll be okay.”
“Did you get hold of Thea’s daughter?”
“Yes. But they can’t get here for several weeks, maybe longer. She said to go ahead with the funeral.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry . . . Are you sure you’re okay?” Kendra put a hand on my arm. Twin lines of concern cut between her dark brows.
This time I opted for honesty. “Not really.”
Kendra draped comforting arms around me. “I know how hard it is to lose someone you love.”
“I feel so guilty. So responsible.”
Kendra leaned back to peer at me. “Guilty?”
“I should’ve realized something was really wrong when we got home from the cemetery. I should’ve gone over to check on her. I thought about it during the storm. But she was so tired, and I thought it would be better if she slept through everything. I was wrong! If I’d gone over, maybe she’d still be here.”
“Oh, Ivy, don’t feel that way. She wouldn’t want you to. I’m sure she went too quickly for anyone to do anything. You could see it in the way she was just lying there, the sheet not even mussed. It was just her . . . time.”
I nodded and picked up a knife and whacked the tomato, barely missing my thumb because my eyes were blurry. “Would you like a glass of lemonade?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, please. The air-conditioning in our office still isn’t working. And then I managed to lock my keys in the car when I was at the mall.” Kendra leaned against the counter while I filled two glasses.
“Harley wired an extra key under the back bumper on the Thunderbird. I suppose it’s still there, though I’ve never had to use it.”
“My brother told me that’s probably the first place a car thief would look, so mine’s tucked into a little cavity where the front bumper fastens to the frame. I have to get down on the ground and practically turn myself into a pretzel to reach it. But I guess that means some car thief isn’t apt to find it.” She drank thirstily before cradling the cold glass against her bare midriff. “But I feel as if I sweated off five pounds today, so I guess I accomplished something.”
I didn’t think Kendra could afford to lose five pounds, but I didn’t say anything.
“Can I drive you to the service on Friday?” she asked.
“I appreciate the offer, but . . . I think I’d like to go alone.”
“I’m glad you’re going to be there. I doubt there’ll be many mourners. Not many of our friends are left around here now.”
“Ivy, I hate to ask this . . . I don’t like to be thinking about myself or bothering you with my troubles at a time like this. But I’m wondering about the apartment. Will Thea’s daughter want me to vacate it right away? I don’t have a lease, and my rent is paid only through Monday.”
“I told Molly I’d look after things here, and, as far as I’m concerned, you’re most welcome to stay. Though I suppose Molly and her husband will put the house up for sale when they come.”
“That’s okay. I don’t think I’ll need the apartment for more than a few weeks longer anyway.”
“You won’t?” I was both surprised and sorry to hear that.
I thought she might offer some explanation, but she didn’t. She just turned and set the empty glass on the counter. She’d tied her dark hair into a swingy ponytail, probably because of the heat. Then I spotted something I hadn’t seen before. She’d missed a few strands behind her left ear when she’d colored her hair. Blond.
“Will you be getting another apartment? Or going back to California?” I asked.
“I’m just playing it by ear,” Kendra said. “Thea didn’t have any grandchildren?”
No solid information about her plans, and a smooth segue into a change of subject, I noted. “After five miscarriages, Molly and her husband gave up.”
“Oh, that’s sad. You don’t have grandchildren either?”
“No. Our Colin was in the army. He was sent on a peacekeeping mission to Korea a long time ago. There was an accident and . . . he didn’t come home.” After all these years I could say it without overt emotion, but the pain would always be there. And never knowing what had happened to his body . . .
“Oh, my . . .” Kendra looked near tears, and I found myself in the unexpected position of giving her a comforting pat. I wondered about what Kendra had said just a few moments earlier about knowing what it was to lose someone you loved. Who had Kendra lost? Not her parents, because she’d mentioned both of them. Had Thea been right about Kendra losing the love of her life?
“Life’s so unfair!” Kendra suddenly burst out.
“But God is in control.”
“You really believe that, don’t you?”
“I wish I did. It might have made things easier when—”
“Earlier.” A stubborn note entered Kendra’s voice, erecting a barrier around her loss as surely as if she’d thrown up a wall of concrete blocks.
I didn’t prod further. “You can have God’s comfort any time, child. Just—”
“Maybe I will. Later. But right now—”
“It isn’t something that should be put off.”
“Neither is what I have to do.” Kendra swiped her left eye with a knuckle, smearing her mascara and smoky eye shadow into dark streaks. I was curious about what Kendra had to do, but I knew how far prying got with her. Like trying to read a book with the pages glued together.
“I’ll see you at Fleur & Fleur on Friday, then,” Kendra said. “But you call or come over if you need anything, or if I can do anything to help before then. Anything at all.”
* * *
The short service at the funeral home was quiet and dignified. Closed coffin, as Thea had specified. “I don’t want people looking down at me and telling each other how lifelike I look,” she’d sniffed. The occasion had seemed far off when Thea said that. And now here it was.
I surreptitiously counted the people present. Including myself and Kendra, eighteen. More than I’d expected, actually. A few old Madison Street friends who lived in other parts of the city now. A man who used to do Thea’s yard work, before he got too crippled up with arthritis. A few others were people I thought had worked with Walter in the county road department.
I didn’t know the pastor who conducted the service. I’d requested one of the pastors from Riverview United, the big church that had absorbed our little one, but none had been available, so the funeral home had arranged for this serious, bespectacled young man. The music Thea had chosen a long time ago was recorded: “In The Garden” and “Standing on the Promises.”
If I hadn’t been convinced before that Thea was dead and gone, I truly knew it now. Thea had never been able to hear that old hymn without enthusiastically surging to her feet.
Afterward, when the few mourners had filed out, I went up to lay a hand on the casket. Kendra followed, standing a few feet behind me. I rubbed the smooth metal as I talked to Thea for the last time.
Well, I guess we always knew one of us would have to go first, didn’t we? But that doesn’t make it any easier. Say hi to Walter and Harley for me, will you? And Colin too. I’m going to miss you so much. I miss you so much already. Thanks for being a wonderful friend.
I gave the casket a final good-bye tap, secure, even though my tears flowed, in the knowledge that believers in our Lord never really had to say good-bye.
See ya later, alligator.
I felt at loose ends and drove out to Country Peace after the service. No more tombstones had been yanked out of the ground, but the air of serenity that had once lingered over the cemetery was missing now. I picked up the jar of withered marigolds beside the fallen tombstone on Aunt Maude’s grave.
Today I had plenty of time, and I climbed to the top of the hill to look over the other side. The first thing that surprised me was that the road didn’t end in the cemetery as I’d assumed. It wound back into the hills to a small house tucked into the woods, though on squinting I realized it was more tumbledown shack than house. The next surprise was how wild and untouched the wooded area looked, perhaps not much different than when settlers first arrived. Beautiful. But not for long, I supposed regretfully. The subdividers were on the move.
I called my niece in Arkansas that evening to tell her about Thea. DeeAnn Harrington, my dead sister’s only child, and her family are my only living relatives, except for some distant cousins out in Idaho. Even though DeeAnn and I seldom chat more than once or twice a month, our relationship is warm and caring. I know I can always count on DeeAnn.
“Oh, Aunt Ivy, I’m so sorry to hear this. Your very best friend. And she was so sweet. I remember she brought me the most gorgeous fern one time when she came with you to visit. Look, why don’t you come stay with us for a while? A long while, actually. We’d love to have you.”
I knew the invitation wasn’t merely obligatory politeness. DeeAnn and her family truly would welcome me. They live in an enormous old house outside a small Arkansas town, a noisy, messy, splendidly alive mélange of kids, friends, foreign exchange students, cats, dogs, birds, and the occasional baby possum or squirrel under temporary adoption. They are always finding homes for stray animals. DeeAnn’s husband, Mike, is an executive with a roofing manufacturer, but he gives much time and energy to an active church youth group. I’d given all of Harley’s fishing equipment to Mike when Harley died.
Their family consists of just-graduated twin boys, Rick and Rory, and daughter, Sandy, a lithe and limber teenager given to spinning into exuberant gymnastic back flips without warning.
“Thanks,” I said, “but—”
“Now, Aunt Ivy, don’t be so quick with your ‘thanks, but,’” DeeAnn scolded. “The boys are heading off to college early because they both have jobs lined up. The house will be so empty. Sandy would love to teach you how to surf the Internet. It would be good for you. Us too, and we want you to consider living here permanently, either with us or in a place of your own nearby.”
I had no intention of leaving my home, but I welcomed the invitation, finding comfort in the knowledge that a family haven awaited if I wanted it. My sister, Lily, DeeAnn’s mother, had lost her battle with breast cancer just weeks after the twins were born, so I’d always been something of a surrogate grandma.
“Right now I have some loose ends to finish up.” I didn’t elaborate on what those loose ends were because I couldn’t pinpoint them for myself. But it felt as if there were some. “How about if we plan on a few days around Thanksgiving?”
Thanksgiving would be a bad time to be alone. For years Thea and I had defied turkey tradition and made a ritual of eating out and trying something totally new and exotic for Thanksgiving dinner. Last year it was a Thai dish with tiny squid, which turned out to have way too many slippery appendages for comfortable consumption. But it supplied much happy laughter.
“Thanksgiving will be great, Aunt Ivy. We’ll look forward to it. But if you get lonely or depressed or anything, you come anytime, okay?”
“We love you.”
“I love you too, all of you.”
* * *
I went for a walk before breakfast the following morning, for the first time since losing Thea. Thea hadn’t accompanied me often in recent months, but now I was all too aware that she’d never walk on this earth with me again.
Yet in spite of my gloomy cloud of loss, I couldn’t not be aware that this was a glorious morning. Even as shoddy and rundown as Madison Street had become, blue sky arched serenely over maples older than I am, and sunlight dappled the cracked and humped sidewalk. A hummingbird darted by, pausing momentarily to check out my red-flowered blouse. A scent of fresh-watered grass hung like a promise in the air, and a bed of petunias in a nearby yard stretched into a purple carpet of bloom.
The Lord does mornings,
I thought with unexpected joy. And Thea was no doubt having a morning so glorious that it put this one to shame, which also gave me joy.
I took a different route today, circling out past Wal-Mart and the new bowling alley, avoiding the section of Madison that had been taken over by taverns and something called the “Exotic Flower Club” that I was reasonably certain had nothing to do with growing orchids or African violets. I didn’t see anyone I knew, which wasn’t unusual these days.
I had no trouble passing the greasy-scented fast food places lined up beyond the bowling alley, but when I approached a portable stand called “Ella’s Espresso” at the edge of the Thriftway parking lot, I paused and inhaled deeply. A magnetic scent, rich and lush and enticing. Coffee, surely fresh ground. Vanilla. Cinnamon. Thea and I had always intended to try one of the fancy espressos, but . . .
four dollars for a cup of coffee?
We’d also talked about saving up and taking a cruise to the Caribbean. And never had. We’d never tried a massage, rafting down the Grand Canyon, or going up in a hot-air balloon. A wind of regret, unexpectedly powerful, swept through me.