“Keep Wednesday afternoon open,” my lovely wife, Grace, declared as she reviewed her weekly calendar.
Looking up from the morning paper, I replied, “Why?”
“We are taking Toogie out for lunch on Valentine’s Day.”
My Aunt Toogie had recently moved in with us. How that unfolded is a longer story.
I’d taken Grace to the NASCAR race at Darlington last Mother’s Day. Boy, was she surprised! I even overheard her tell a friend, “Can you believe he took me there, of all places?” Women seem to love big surprises. On our way home from the track, we visited my Aunt Toogie. She still lived in the rambling family house in a small North Carolina town where she and her sister and brothers grew up. Her husband, my Uncle Harold, had died a few years before. Although it was apparent she could use some help in a number of areas, she hung on fiercely to the independent part of “independent living.”
So, it came as much of a surprise as Carolina winning the SEC in football when Toogie telephoned late last fall saying she had concluded the house was, indeed, becoming more than she could handle. She talked to Grace for a long time and revealed her growing concern for tending the house, yard, and even herself. It was a tearful call on Grace’s end and, I suspect, on Toogie’s as well. When the call ended, Grace sat for a moment and then mused, “I don’t know whether to feel glad or sad.” She went on to explain she was relieved Toogie had reached out for assistance but also sad to see her leave a place filled with so many happy memories.
Thus began a process of looking for a new home for Toogie. She and Grace inspected many options and locations. None seemed to quite measure up to their standards and high expectations while properly balancing available care, fine dining, and a cheery atmosphere. So, it wasn’t a total surprise when Grace declared, “Dalton, let’s invite Toogie to stay with us.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked.
“I know we can care for her better than the places we have visited so far. Think of it as a transition as she finds her way to her next residence.”
“But you know how she is…,” I continued. When Grace didn’t answer, I described how Toogie always had a compulsion to say whatever was on her mind whenever the thought struck to whomever was in earshot.
Grace smiled and replied, “Sounds like the two of you will get along swimmingly.” And with that, it was done.
“So, where are we going on Valentine’s?” I asked.
“It’s a surprise. You’ll see,” Grace responded. “A romantic setting.”
I was about to opine that the words “romantic” and “Toogie” didn’t fit in the same sentence but held back knowing it could generate “the look.”
On Valentine’s Day, we piled into the car. Grace drove, and I sat in the back seat. Toogie rode shotgun as we headed west on the Mark Clark Expressway. We exited onto Highway 61 heading toward Summerville. To my surprise, Grace slowed the car and turned into the entrance of the Middleton Place plantation.
After parking the car, Grace instructed me, “Help Toogie with her door, dear, while I fetch something from the trunk.”
I opened Toogie’s door and said, “I’ve heard the restaurant here is quite good.”
“So have I, but we’re not eating there,” Grace replied, lifting her head from the trunk. Continuing her ascent, Grace held up a wicker basket. “We’re having a picnic!” she beamed.
“Oh, my,” Toogie whispered.
Grace closed the car trunk, handed me the basket, and took Toogie’s arm. “This way,” she said as she led us toward the grassy, terraced hillside overlooking the Butterfly Lakes and the Ashley River.
Grace spread out a blanket and laid the place settings. The gentle breeze did not disturb the plates or napkins, and we felt comfortable sitting in the sunshine. Grace pulled three old-fashioned, glass bottles of Coca-Cola from the hamper and handed one to Toogie.
“Will you look at that?” I exclaimed, studying my bottle. “I haven’t seen one of those in years. Where did you find it?”
“Online,” Grace answered, handing me a “church key” to open the bottles.
Toogie looked at the bottle, placed one hand to her throat, and said softly, “Oh, my.”
Grace continued to unpack the picnic hamper. She identified each item as it was removed from the basket and placed on the blanket. “We have apples. Saltine crackers. A jar of peanut butter. Vienna sausages. And for dessert, a Hershey’s chocolate bar.”
I looked down at the feast before us and thought, This is one sorry excuse for a Valentine’s Day lunch. When I looked up, I noticed tears beginning to trickle down Toogie’s cheeks. I reckoned she was equally disappointed with the paltry provisions. She reached for Grace’s hand and wept, “I must have told you the story.”
“Yes, dear,” Grace replied, reaching to hug Toogie. “Some years ago.”
While they both dabbed their eyes and sniffled, I finally asked, “Okay, what story?”
Toogie pulled a handkerchief from her purse, wiped her eyes again, and took a deep breath. “Well,” she began, looking out beyond the river, “it was on this very hillside…your late Uncle Harold proposed to me, back in…” She looked toward Grace.
“Sixty years ago today,” Grace said softly.
Toogie nodded, dabbed her cheeks, and resumed. “We drove to Charleston for the day. Harold had taken off from work. I think it was a Friday. The weather was much like today, unseasonably warm and sunny. Anyway, Harold said, ‘Let’s stop and have a picnic. There’s something I want to talk over with you.’ So, we found a roadside market…and we bought…”
Toogie looked down, and her shoulders began to shake. Grace squeezed her hand. Toogie inhaled deeply.
She continued. “We didn’t have much money. And so, we bought…Coca-Cola, apples, saltine crackers, peanut butter, Vienna sausages, and a Hershey’s bar.” She faintly gestured toward each item on the blanket as she spoke, recalling the similar snacks from years ago.
“Although the plantation was closed, we found an open gate and made our way to this spot. Just like today, the camellias were in full bloom. It was a beautiful setting for a Valentine’s Day meal and a marriage proposal.”
Toogie looked out over the river and then back to the picnic setting. She closed her eyes and smiled.
She wiped a tear with her napkin, opened her eyes, and chuckled, “Your Uncle Harold loved his Vienna sausages. Personally, I couldn’t stand them, then or now. But I loved Harold…then and now…and I said ‘Yes’ when he asked me to marry him. I still miss him so.”
“It’s a wonderful story,” Grace exclaimed. “Thank you for sharing it.”
Toogie pull her shoulders back. “Well, just look at me. I’ve been blubbering away. Lunch is waiting. Let’s eat. Pass me the peanut butter. And Dalton, keep your mitts off that chocolate bar until we finish the other fare.”
We ate in silence for quite some time.
“How do you like lunch, sweetheart?” Grace finally asked me.
“Good grub,” I mumbled through a dry mouthful of peanut butter and soda crackers.
Grace gave me a glance that I immediately interpreted as a possible beginning of “the look.” I quickly sputtered, “I mean great. It’s great. A culinary delight!”
“And romantic?” Grace inquired.
“Yes, dear. Romantic. Very romantic.”
Grace smiled. Toogie smiled.
As we sat in the warm Valentine’s Day sun, we reflected on a lifetime of memories and polished off every morsel of the memorable, romantic repast…. Well, maybe not all the Vienna sausages.
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