Lizzie pulled into the guest parking area at the Serene Oaks Retirement Home. They had timed it to arrive a bit after ten, assuming Beverley would be dressed and prepared to receive callers. She looked over to M.A., “Are you okay?”
M.A. sighed, “I just have an aversion to homes for old people. I mean even the name of this place sounds like it’s run by an undertaker.”
Lizzie laughed, “I suppose they could come up with better names, but for some people, either there is no family to help care for them, or they need more care than family can handle.”
“You would think my years as a nurse would make me less sensitive, but I have horrible childhood memories of visiting my grandfather in one of these places. It always smelled like decay and people just sat around in wheelchairs drooling.” M.A. leaned forward to check her lipstick in the visor mirror.
“Oh, I think things have definitely improved. If you want to wait in the car, I completely understand.”
M.A. grabbed Lizzie’s arm. “Are you kidding? I want to see this Beverley first hand.”
Before Lizzie could respond, M.A. had jumped out of the car and slung her purse over her shoulder. So, Lizzie did the same, and the two walked into the lobby and signed in.
Moments later they were shown into a sitting room that would have made Marie Antoinette envious. They perched rather uncomfortably on a gilded settee with stiff peacock blue silk cushions.
“This is certainly a step up from my grandfather’s home,” M.A. whispered.
The two sat still just trying to absorb the array of artwork and knick-knacks, all with a decidedly French influence.
The door opened and with the whir of a small electric motor, a vivacious and colorful woman rolled into the room.
“Yes, my receiving room is a lot to take in on a first visit. It was hard to take a four-thousand square foot house down to a three-room suite.”
Lizzie stood. She was unsure what to do or say, so she made a mini-curtsey, then turned a several shades of pink as the woman in the wheelchair let out a deep belly laugh.
“Oh, my dear, let me get a good look at you! My nurse tells me you are the daughter of my niece, Caroline.”
“Yes, ma’am. Caroline Bowman was my mother; she was married to my father.” Why did I say that? Lizzie felt M.A.’s hand on her arm, pulling her back down to a seated position and gratefully she allowed herself to be guided.
M.A. then stood and reached out a hand to Beverley, “I’m Mary Ann, one of Lizzie’s best friends from childhood.”
Beverley took her hand in her own and patted it. “A good friend is worth more than all the French treasures in the world.” She laughed again and pushed a button on her chair. A woman appeared almost instantaneously. “Bella, could you please prepare a tea tray?” It was a question, but it was clearly communicated as a command.
Bella nodded and stepped away as quickly as she had come.
Lizzie sat tongue-tied, but Beverley hardly seemed to notice. She began a synopsis of her life. She was Annabeth’s younger sister by twelve years. She had been twelve when Caroline had been born, and they had grown up more like cousins, than aunt and niece. When Caroline had been engaged to Cole Wentworth and then left home after his death, Beverley had been a diplomatic wife in Europe, where she and her husband had spent over forty years of service. They didn’t have any children of their own and returned to the States to retire.
“As you can see, I was rather fond of my years in Europe,” Beverley waved her hand at the furnishings of the room. She maneuvered her chair over to a small writing desk opening up a faded hat box that was resting on its surface. “I’m embarrassed to admit I have not sought you out. I’ve been back stateside about eight years, and the first five of those were spent tending to my husband’s health needs. When he died, my health spiraled down, and well, here I am.”
She put the box in her lap and rolled over to the settee and thrust the box at Lizzie. “You can take this with you; it contains letters from your mother, some pictures and a few other odds and ends.”
“Thank you,” Lizzie managed to say.
Bella returned with the tea and a lovely assortment of European biscuits. Once they all had a steaming cup of tea, Beverley began again.
“Now, my grand-niece, before I get into the meat of the information I ‘m sure you are seeking, I want to hear all about you and yours.”
Lizzie set her teacup on the marble-topped coffee table, and much like a child forced to give an account of their day, she began to tell about her childhood. She spoke a little about her parents and then began to share her memories of Aunt Dorothy and Uncle George. As she continued, she began to relax. Her voice became more natural and animated, and she found herself delighted with the approving nods and laughter her memories elicited from this woman who was both family and stranger. She briefly shared about her first marriage and quickly moved on to her return to Mount Pleasant and her life with Bennett, Dot, and Sawyer. She finally stopped to take a sip of her now cold tea.
M.A. rose to refresh the cups and offer around the plate of biscuits. Beverley selected two chocolate hazelnut ones and ate them with enthusiasm.
“Well, I guess we’ve crammed a lifetime of stories in less than an hour. But I know what you really want to hear about is that sister of yours. I better tell what I know before I get too tired to tell it.” Beverley paused and brushed a few crumbs from her bosom.
Lizzie sat still, almost afraid to breathe, worried it would somehow break the spell.
Beverley continued, “As you are aware, Caroline was engaged to Cole, and he was mighty handsome, too much for his own good if you ask me. Well, he was shipped off to Vietnam, freshly graduated from the Citadel. I’m sure it did not take much persuading to get Caroline to give him a warm send off. Just a few short months after he left, his plane crashed in the jungles of Vietnam, and Caroline found herself in a family way. Well, her parents were very distressed, as it was quite a scandal back in the day in a family like ours. If it had been up to your grandmother, I think Caroline would have been sent away to join us in Europe, and I would have become the mother of the child. Your grandfather, on the other hand, wished to have the matter taken care of discreetly by a doctor if you understand my meaning.”
“He would have had my mother have an abortion?” Lizzie interrupted, “I thought he was a deeply religious man from what I have heard!”
“He was, dear, but he was also a man of some standing in this community and he worried the truth about the child would come out even if I had taken it on as my own. Needless to say, Caroline was distraught with grief over Cole, and she could be head-strong. Before the matter could be settled, she packed a bag and disappeared. She did leave a note for your grandparents, and she mailed me several letters over the years. Now, I loved my sister Annabeth, but I never understood why she didn’t make more of an effort to find Caroline. If I hadn’t been away in Europe, I certainly would have gone after her.”
Some of the larger than life persona seemed to deflate out of Beverley, much like a balloon that is a day or two old. Suddenly Beverley sat before her, a tired old woman and Lizzie was moved to embrace her.
The move took Beverley off guard, and a few tears escaped. “Oh, you do have so much of Caroline in you!” She patted Lizzie’s back and returned the embrace with all the strength her failing body could muster.
“I do hope you won’t judge Annabeth or me too harshly when you read through those letters. I also hope you will come back sometime and see me. I know it is a drive from Charleston, but I would like to think I could maybe heal some of the old wounds that have been hidden too long in this family.”
“Absolutely, I would love to bring my daughter to meet you as well.” Lizzie kissed Beverley on the cheek.
“You have made an old woman very happy today. I do hope you find your sister; I would like to meet her too before I go to meet my maker.” Beverley pushed the button on her chair again, and Bella soon appeared. “I’m tired Bella, could you please show my grand-niece and her lovely friend out, then I will have a nap before lunch.”
When M.A. and Lizzie got in the car, they sat in stunned silence for a moment.
“Wow, the only thing I can think to say is wow.” M.A. strapped on her seatbelt.
“I think I need some bourbon with lunch.” Lizzie managed to answer as she started the car.
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