Praise For Shadow of a Smile
“A Shadow of a Smile is highly recommended. Just make sure you have a nice block of time set aside to read this because it is so hard to put it down!"
"From the moment you enter Meredith Springfield's world, you will feel as if you are alongside a dear friend on her amazing journey to self-discovery. Valerie Joan Connor's writing is so vivid, so intimate, that Meredith's travails and triumphs become your own. I miss her already, now that she's gone on with her life and I must go back to my own. A story of love and lies and life, Shadow of a Smile is a must read."
---Linda Hughes, author of Becoming Jessie Belle and What We Talk About.
"Shadow of a Smile examines the large price paid for secrets and coverups, not just by the perpetrators but also by generations before and after them. Ms. Connors has written a novel for anyone who likes family and relationship stories that are emotional, complex, and altogether satisfying."
---George Weinstein, author of Hardscrabble Road and The Five Destinies of Carlos Moreno
With extraordinary deft, Valerie Joan Connors explores how we take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. In Meredith Springfield, Connors has created a woman who discovers truths about her own relationships, the consequences of her actions, and how close her life has come to mirror her mother's. We follow Meredith on her journey along roads her mother traveled with all their twists and turns and nests of lies and secrets. Shadow of a Smile has layer on layer of emotion, anger and pity, joy and sadness--interwoven, juxtaposed, and "back to back.”
---Rona Simmons, author of The Quiet Room
"Valerie Connors has a distinctive voice. Each scene is filled with secrets and longing. Each character is brave and steady and real."
---Nicki Salcedo, Author of All Beautiful Things
oShadow of a Smile...
Following the untimely death of her mother in 1992, thirty year-old Meredith Springfield learns the shocking truth about her origins, the father she never knew, and the mother whose life was very different than it appeared. When the attorney who prepared her mother’s will delivers Anastasia’s personal journals along with the keys to a trust fund Meredith never suspected she had, she and her boyfriend Derek embark upon a journey from Chicago to Los Angeles in search of answers, and to carry out Anastasia’s wish to have her ashes scattered in the Hollywood Hills.
In 1960, at twenty years old, Anastasia left her parents and the cold mid-western winter behind in Milwaukee and drove her powder blue Ford Fairlane down Route 66 all the way to Los Angeles, certain that’s where all her dreams would come true. Just two years later, Anastasia is forced to retrace her steps, traveling back to Milwaukee with her dreams already shattered, a broken heart, and a daughter she would have to raise alone.
Shadow of a Smile takes the reader on two journeys across historic Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles, and back. The first follows Anastasia to 1960 Los Angeles and the beachfront hotels where she would meet the man of her dreams and take to the stage for the first time. The second, thirty-two years later, takes Meredith and Derek on a journey of discovery that has a greater impact on their lives than they could ever have imagined.
Once Anastasia is gone, and her carefully hidden secrets are revealed, Meredith gains a new perspective on her own choices, and must come to terms with the grey area between what our hearts desire and what is right. Shadow of a Smile is a story about family secrets, the choices we let our hearts make, and living with the consequences.
CHAPTER 1 - Meredith
I was born in Los Angeles the day Marilyn Monroe died, August 5, 1962. Shortly thereafter, my father was killed in a car accident on Highway 101 between L.A. and Santa Barbara, on his way to play the saxophone with his band at one of the hotels along the beach. A drunk driver going sixty miles an hour veered into his lane and hit him head on. Many things about my father remained a mystery to me until I reached my thirties, but his secrets paled in comparison to my mother’s. People say that you never really know someone, and on some esoteric level, I had always believed that to be true. But when you begin to peel back the layers of a person’s life once they’re gone, when they no longer have the opportunity to color the truth, you begin to understand how accurate a statement that really is.
A short time after my father’s death, my mother and I moved back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she’d grown up. We lived with my grandparents, so my grandma could take care of me during the day while Mom went to work as a hairdresser at Pearl’s House of Curls.
We stayed with my grandparents until I was four years old and my mom had finally saved enough money to buy us a little house of our own on Elderberry Lane. Grandpa helped us set up a hair salon in the basement so mom could work from home once I started school. That way she could always be there waiting for me when I got out of school at three o’clock and walked the few blocks back to our house. The salon had its own separate entrance on the side of the house, part way down the driveway between the street and the small one-car garage. Above the door was a green and white striped awning, just big enough to cover the entrance that led customers down a flight of stairs to the basement. My mother had special ordered a small neon sign that read, “Anastasia’s,” to put in the window beside the door.
Unlike me, all of my friends had two parents when I was growing up. Because of that, I felt a vaguely disturbing sense of being diminished in some way, not quite on equal footing with my peers. People seemed to be a little uncomfortable when my mother was around, particularly women, although it wasn’t until I was much older that I began to understand why. Eyebrows were raised and knowing looks were exchanged when my mother showed up alone at my school events, and my friends’ mothers seemed to cling to their husbands when she was around, as if to establish property rights. My mother was quite beautiful as a young woman, and she aged very gracefully. Her vocation may have had something to do with that. She paid close attention to fashion, and as far back as I can remember, always looked more put together than the other moms. No one ever saw my mother with curlers in her hair, or without makeup.
While we were living with my grandparents, we went to the Episcopal Church in our quiet Milwaukee neighborhood every Sunday. After moving into our own house, we gradually stopped going to services except on Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve. As a result, my religious education was somewhat stunted. Over the years I went to church with friends sometimes, and was exposed to the different philosophies of various denominations, but this only added to my religious ambiguity. There were so many different points of view, and each group was certain that theirs was the real truth. How was I to know who was right? As a child, after a particularly frightening experience at Catholic mass with a friend’s parents, where I understood precious little about what was being said, I had found myself grappling with the concept of a person’s soul. After a couple of days, I initiated conversations about it with my mother and each of my grandparents, and determined that in my way of thinking, when a person died, something that looked a great deal like Casper the Friendly Ghost would float out of them. Casper would either head straight to heaven, straight to hell, or be stuck in some middle ground for a period of time until a final ruling could be made. As an eight year-old, this was both confusing and more than a little bit disturbing. Another one of my friends told me that her parents believed there were only a finite number of souls to go around, and that when people die, their souls are recycled into newborns who arrive on earth the same day. To me, that seemed like a fairly reasonable explanation – which explains my connection with Marilyn. Not only was I born the same day she died, but in close geographic proximity as well. The latter, I figured, significantly increased my chances.
Like me, Marilyn grew up without a father. So, besides potentially sharing a soul, another thing I had in common with Marilyn was that neither of us had a proper set of parents to raise us. And then there was the blonde hair. I didn’t learn until much later in life that she wasn’t a natural blonde, but that didn’t change the way I felt about her, nor did it diminish the connection I felt we had.
I left home after college and moved to Chicago to take a job teaching English in a high school. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my little family, my mom and my grandparents. I was just tired of being the poor little girl who grew up on Elderberry Lane without a father. I wanted to simply be known as Meredith Springfield, a high school English teacher, who might have cosmic ties to Marilyn Monroe.
Another thing Marilyn and I had in common was our tendency toward unhealthy relationships with men. Like Marilyn, I had one sad relationship after another, including two broken engagements. But finally, I decided that I was better off on my own and that’s how it stayed for a long time.
In April of 1991, I got involved with Derek Carpenter, the man who did my taxes. We’d been seeing each other for nearly a month by the time he admitted to me that he was married. He was separated from his wife, and had been for several months, but still married just the same. Unfortunately, by that time I had already developed some fairly deep feelings for him, and I couldn’t bring myself to get all indignant about it and simply walk away. At least that’s what I told myself when I couldn’t sleep at night, knowing there was another woman out there who might or might not wish to have her husband back at some point. Derek was with me in my condo in downtown Chicago on a Thursday night in January of 1992 when my grandmother called to tell me that my fifty-two year old mother had just died of a massive coronary.
“I’ll pack a bag and get on the road right away.”
“It’s snowing like crazy up here, Meredith. Maybe you should wait until morning. There’s no rush now, I mean she’s already—”
My grandmother had put her hand over the receiver, but I could hear her sobbing in the background. No one should have to see her child die, even if that child is fifty-two years old.
“Don’t worry Grandma,” I said. “I’ll drive carefully. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I hung up the phone and stood there for a moment, stunned, trying to make some sense of what I had just heard. My mother was in reasonably good health, as least as far as I knew. She had smoked for years, but lots of people did that, and twice a year she took a two-week vacation to California that she referred to as being “for her health,” whatever that meant. I always just assumed she needed a break once in a while like the rest of us. My mom worked long hours in her hair salon to supplement the insurance money she had been receiving since my father’s accident when I was a baby. It seemed perfectly natural to me that she took those trips to relax and recharge her battery. And like most children, my little world revolved mostly around me, so it never occurred to me to ask any questions about my mother’s travel plans. I enjoyed staying with my grandparents while she was away. Then my mother would come back two weeks later. It was part of our lifestyle, a normal routine.
Derek put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me in close to him, ready to hold me up if necessary.
“I’ll come with you,” Derek said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “How am I supposed to explain you?”
“What do you mean, explain me?”
“You know,” I said. “You’re someone else’s husband. There’s no way I’m bringing you to my family – what’s left of it anyway.”
That was so harsh, I thought. But I was having trouble getting my head around what was happening. I wanted to be alone, but at the same time that was the last thing I wanted.
“Meredith,” he said, “Vanessa and I are legally separated. I agreed to hold off on the divorce until she gets her head together a little. She’s still very unstable after what happened with Lily. But we live separate lives. Besides, it’s not as if she doesn’t know about you. You’re practically pals. Can’t you leave that little detail out of the introduction? Come on, honey, let me be there for you.”
I desperately wanted to say yes. For once in my life, I thought, it would be nice to feel like I didn’t have to be the strongest person in the room. What I really wanted to do was lay down on the floor and cry like a baby, and let Derek gather me in his arms and rock me until I stopped. I wanted him to tell me that everything was going to be fine.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll run to my apartment and get a change of clothes while you pack a bag and be back for you in an hour. We’ll take my car and I’ll have us there before midnight. I’ll make a reservation. What part of town do your grandparents live in?”
“No hotel,” I said. “We’ll have to stay with Grandma and Grandpa. They’ll want me at the house, at least for tonight. I’ll tell them that you’re a friend who offered to drive me because I was too upset to go on my own.”
“Of course that’s what you’ll say, Meredith,” he said. “It’s the truth.”
But it didn’t feel like the truth, exactly. He was a friend, yes, but he was my boyfriend, not just a buddy, and I had never been too upset to manage the events of my life before. I had been on my own a lot and was proud of my independence, but at that moment I realized I should have been too upset to go on my own. My mother had just died. I supposed I was in shock, and it would all hit me once I arrived in Milwaukee. Meanwhile though, it was as if it were happening to someone else. In any case, I decided that having Derek with me would be better than being alone. And like he said, I didn’t have to introduce him as my boyfriend who was still technically married to another woman. As far as my grandparents were concerned, that wasn’t really relevant. It was just my guilt, that despicable little thread of not-rightness that was woven through every minute of every day.
I called my grandmother back.
“Hi Grandma,” I said. “I’m just packing a bag and I’ll get on the road, but I wanted to let you know I’m bringing a friend with me. His name is Derek. We’ve been dating for a little while. He didn’t want me driving alone tonight in the snow. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not, honey,” she said. “We have plenty of room for your young man,” she hesitated, “but, well, I know you’re a thirty year-old grown woman, and what you do in your own place is entirely up to you. I mean, I’m not judging you, it’s just that—”
“It’s all right Grandma. I don’t expect us to share a bedroom. Please don’t give it another thought.”
“Okay, that’s fine then. I’m glad you have someone to travel up here with. Drive safely dear. Your grandfather and I will be waiting.”
“How is Grandpa holding up?” I asked.
“Not well,” she replied. “He’s been sitting in his big reclining chair in the den with the lights out ever since we got back to the house, staring out the window. He’ll be better once you get here. We both will. Just be careful, please.”
After Derek went home to pack a bag, I took a suitcase out of the hall closet and started putting things into it. I soon realized that there had been no rhyme or reason to the things I was putting into the bag. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone, or what we’d be doing exactly. My mind refused to focus. But I finally managed to tell myself I’d need my black dress, some warm clothes, pajamas and cosmetics, so I dumped everything out onto my bed and started over. I had just finished zipping up the suitcase when I heard the knock on the door.
“Come on in, Derek,” I called. “I’m almost ready.”
When the knocking continued, I hurried to the living room, tossed my bag on the chair, and pulled open the door.
“It’s not locked, Derek—”
But it wasn’t Derek standing in my doorway. It was Vanessa. And just looking at her I could tell she was completely wasted. Her eyes were glassy from the alcohol, her cheeks flushed, and that far away stare told me she’d taken something else as well. Most recently, it had been the anti-depressants she liked to mix with her drinks. It wasn’t the first time she’d been to my door, but the first time she’d come when Derek wasn’t there.
“Oh, hi Meredith,” she said. “Is Derek here?”
“No, Vanessa,” I said. “Not right now, but he’ll be here any minute. But listen—”
“Are you two going on a trip or something?” Vanessa slurred, obviously having noticed my suitcase. “Where are you off to?”
She was talking very loudly, but not angry, at least not yet. The last time she’d been at my condo she had made a terribly scene in the hallway, and one of my neighbors threatened to call the police if we couldn’t make her quiet down.
“I can’t remember the last time Derek and I went on a trip together,” Vanessa said. “It must have been before Lily—”
And there it was. The moment she said her daughter’s name, I knew we were in for trouble. Her face grew dark, and her whole body language changed. I could see the rage and desperation washing over her. I knew that Derek would arrive soon, but I had to do something to diffuse what would surely turn into a disaster if I’d let it continue.
“Vanessa,” I said, putting my hands on her shoulders and forcing her to look at me. “Listen! There’s no time for this right now. Yes, we’re about to leave town, but it’s not a vacation. I just found out my mother is dead, and Derek is going to take me to my grandparents house as soon as he gets back here. I’m begging you, Vanessa, just this once, please don’t make everything about you tonight. Please.”
Something in my voice had reached her, even through her drug and alcohol induced stupor. It was almost as if I had slapped her, the change was so sudden. She stood up straight, and put her arms around me.
“I’m sorry, Meredith,” she said. “Really sorry. I’ll go.”
Then she released me as suddenly as she had embraced me, and as she turned to leave, to my great relief, I saw Derek coming out of the elevator.
“What’s going on, Vanessa?” he asked. “Why are you here?”
“It’s okay, Derek,” I said. “Just help Vanessa get a cab, okay? I’m ready to go as soon as you are.”
Vanessa didn’t hate me. I knew that. I’d even picked her up a few times when she was too drunk to get herself home and Derek was out of town. She called my number on a regular basis, looking for him for one reason or another, something with the house, or the bills. And she was always very cordial, as was I. However, she had no intention of relinquishing the hold she had over him any time soon. He was free to carry on with his life, up to a point, but no further. She was constantly in and out of rehab for her alcoholism and substance abuse, and she occasionally ended up in the psych ward when she’d lose control of herself, perhaps threatening suicide in front of someone who was bound by law to report it.
“What was it this time,” I asked.
“No idea,” Derek said. “By the time I got her into the cab, I’m not sure she even knew who I was.”
“Will she be all right?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I gave the driver an extra twenty and asked him to make sure she gets inside the front door.”
“Are you sure you should leave?”
“Yes,” he said. “She’s a grown woman. I’m not going to babysit her. It’s emotional blackmail. She’s been doing it for years and it’s not fair. But it’s like with a bully, if you don’t let them think they’re getting to you, it isn’t fun anymore and they’ll go and pick on someone else. If Vanessa had her way I’d follow her around twenty four hours a day to make sure she didn’t do anything stupid. It’s exhausting, and I’m not going to live like that anymore.”
He picked up my suitcase, and switched off the lamp on the coffee table beside the door.
“Is the stove turned off? Your iron unplugged?”
I laughed. We both knew that we didn’t have to worry about either of those things. I hardly ever cooked anything, and if it didn’t come out of the dryer ready to wear, it went to the cleaners.
“We’re good,” I said. “Better get going.”
My heart ached for Vanessa, but she was toxic. I couldn’t help her, and Derek had spent years trying. She was a raging alcoholic before what happened to Lily, and afterward, Vanessa gave up even trying to get straight. I often hoped that she would meet someone new who could make her want to start over again and do something with her life besides getting wasted. But sadly, the type of person she would be likely to attract in her condition probably wouldn’t be a positive influence.
As Derek drove us north on I-94 toward Milwaukee, the windshield wipers clearing the snow off of the glass, I found myself doing something I did as a child. I leaned my head against the window and tilted my head back so I could see the snow coming down from high above the trees. It was magical when I was young. I used to think about climbing to the tops of those trees where I imagined the snow originated, to see what the world looked like from way up there. That night it only made me think of my mother, and growing up with just the two of us in our little house. It wasn’t easy financially, but we got by. My grandparents helped us with the unexpected costs of maintaining our house, like when we needed a new roof or had to call the plumber. They also paid for my tuition at the University of Wisconsin. In high school I did a lot of babysitting to earn money for clothes, and in college I waitressed at a diner on campus. I made enough to pay for my books and some of the groceries, and that helped mom to save for her trips to California. As I got older, I realized that it had probably been very important to her to visit the place where my father had lived and was now buried. But it was obviously very painful for her too, because she never said much about her vacations when she came back home, so I didn’t ask a lot of questions. If she’d wanted me to know what she did out there on the west coast, she would have told me. And except for doubling the cost of the trip, there was no reason she couldn’t have taken me with her if that’s what she’d wanted to do. I would have enjoyed seeing Disneyland. What child wouldn’t? The one time I asked about that, she assured me that if she ever decided to include Disneyland in her vacation plans she would definitely take me with her. But she never did, and I didn’t ask about it again.
My mother probably worried about money a lot more than she let on, but we managed to get most everything we needed and even a few of the things we wanted. It was never our financial status that made me feel inferior to the other kids. Lots of families struggled financially. It was the glaring lack of a daddy. Mom was pretty, everybody said so, and I never understood why she didn’t remarry. She didn’t even date. That was another one of those threads running through my childhood that seemed a little off, but I accepted it without giving it too much thought. We accept so many things as children, without questioning. Then as adults we learn how very complicated life can get, how complicated we can make it by letting our hearts make our decisions for us.
“Where did you go?” Derek asked.
“Just thinking about my mom,” I said. “I can’t believe this is happening. I know that once we get to Milwaukee it’s going to be plenty real, but I just can’t get my head around it. I’ve been after her for years about her smoking, but other than that she seemed fine.”
“I’m sorry Meredith,” he said. “I wish I could do something to make this easier.”
“Thanks,” I said. “And thanks for coming with me. It will be nice to have someone to lean on. My grandparents are devastated. They may end up leaning on you a little, too. I hope you’re okay with that.”
“Anything I can do,” he said.
For the most part, Derek was a very good man. He was hardworking, honest, and kind. The only downside was the fact that he still legally belonged to someone else. His marriage was very sad. Things had begun to fall apart when their daughter drowned in Lake Michigan a year or so before. The little girl had only been five years old when it happened. Vanessa felt responsible for what happened, and arguably she was. When I first learned about it, I couldn’t believe she hadn’t gone to prison for child endangerment or worse. But I didn’t want to probe into the details because it hurt Derek so much to talk about his daughter’s death, and his wife’s involvement in it. Lily’s drowning was the most devastating consequence of Vanessa’s drinking, although with several DUI’s to her credit, it was a miracle she hadn’t killed anyone else. You’d think she would have learned something from what happened to Lily, but instead she used more alcohol to try to numb out some of her pain and guilt. When that didn’t work, she added narcotics into the mix. After the first round of rehab, she seemed to be making some progress, but it didn’t stick, and after only two months of being clean and sober, she fell back into her old habits. She tried rehab again, which also resulted in a brief period of sobriety followed by a disappointing relapse. After that, Derek gave her an ultimatum. He said she needed to clean up her act, or he was going to leave her, because he wasn’t going to watch her kill herself. When Vanessa continued to drink, he moved out of their house. For him, the marriage was over. When he brought up the subject of divorce however, she threatened to commit suicide. So there we were, in a kind of purgatory, where all of us were able to go through the motions of living each day, but none of us could make plans for the future. The three of us seemed inextricably joined together. Vanessa knew Derek was involved with me, but accepted it, knowing she still held the upper hand. She had him paralyzed.
“Sorry, Derek,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m not very good company.”
“No worries. I don’t expect you to be. In fact, let’s make a deal. For the next few days you have complete amnesty. No apologies necessary.”
“Here’s the exit,” I said. “Why are you so good to me?”
“Because I love you, silly.”
When we arrived at my grandparents’ home, it looked as though every light in the house was on. I saw my grandmother’s face in the kitchen window and bet she had been standing there watching for us for a very long time. A moment later she and my grandfather were waiting inside the open front door. I ran to them, leaving Derek to get our luggage, and threw my arms around them both. As he approached us, my grandparents tried to pull themselves together to meet my boyfriend. Their strength of character simply amazed me.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Derek said, hugging my grandmother.
Derek said the same thing again, as he took my grandfather’s hand in both of his.
“I’m Derek Carpenter,” he said, as we crossed the mud porch into the living room. “Meredith’s friend.”
“Of course dear,” Grandma said. “We haven’t heard much about you, but we’re looking forward to getting acquainted.”
“We’re Ben and Martha Burke,” Grandpa said.
My grandparents looked better than they had sounded on the phone, and seemed to have pulled themselves together some, for my benefit no doubt.
“You must be hungry after your long drive. Come into the kitchen and I’ll fix you something.”
“Thanks Grandma, but we’re fine. We stopped for a bite an hour ago. Let me fix you a cup of tea and you can fill me in on the details. This is all just so unreal and out of the blue.”
We sat at the kitchen table, Grandma with her tea and the rest of us with bourbon in highball glasses, mine with ice and water, the men with theirs neat, while Derek and I learned the painful details of the past twenty-four hours.
“Her cholesterol was very high, had been for years,” Grandma said. “The doctor has been after her to quit smoking forever, but she just wouldn’t listen. He warned her that something like this could happen. Naturally, she didn’t want you to know how bad it was, because she didn’t want you to worry.”
“But why didn’t she listen to the doctor?” I asked. “She was a young woman. Mom should have had so many years ahead of her.”
“You know your mother. I suppose I should say knew her,” she paused to regain her self control. “No one could ever tell her what to do. She was headstrong, always, and did exactly as she pleased, no matter what the consequences were for you or anyone else—”
“Martha, that’s enough,” my grandfather said.
“What consequences?” I asked. “What do you mean Grandma?”
“Your grandmother is just upset honey, that’s all. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
My grandfather tossed his remaining bourbon down his throat and poured a couple more fingers worth into the glass.
“Anastasia has been taken to the Lowery Funeral Home where she’ll be cremated. It’s what she wanted.”
“How do you know that, Grandpa?” I asked. “She never said anything like that to me.”
“She had a will,” he said. “Gave us a copy. There were specific instructions about her final wishes. She wanted to be cremated immediately, and there are to be no services.”
“What?” I asked. “No services? Who does that? We have to do something.”
“No,” he said. “She was very clear about it. The strange thing is, there was a letter. It was sealed, and addressed to the legal firm whose name was printed on the folder her will was in. The instructions said that it was to be mailed immediately upon her death.”
“Where is it?” I asked. “I want to see it.”
I started to get up from the table, but my grandfather raised his hand as if to stop me from going any further. I paused for a moment, frozen in place halfway to a standing position, and sat back down in my chair.
“Your grandmother mailed it this evening. Walked it down to the post office while we were waiting for you to get here. Anyway,” my grandfather said, “ it’s done now. All that’s left to do is clean out her house and put it on the market. That is, unless you want to keep it. It’s yours, of course, along with everything inside. That, she was very clear about, too.”
“But we have to let people know. If there are no services, how will people know? A person can’t spend more than half a century on earth and then simply cease to exist, just like that, with no explanation and no funeral.”
Then it occurred to me that when someone dies, that’s exactly what happens. One second they’re here and the next they’re gone. It’s final, in the blink of an eye. All that’s left is a body. The person you have loved your whole life is gone, forever. What remains is just an accumulation of flesh and bone that needs to be disposed of in one way or another. In my mother’s case, turned into ashes. For all I knew it had already been done. I realized my hands were balled into fists and I was holding my breath. The corners of my vision had begun to blur. I tried to breathe normally, and dug my fingernails into the palm of my hand, hoping the pain would be a distraction from my thoughts so that I could focus on the conversation I was having.
“What about her clients?” I asked. “How will they know she’s gone?”
“There’ll be a notice in the papers,” Grandma said. “The funeral home will take care of that once we give them the details for her obituary. Is that something you could do honey? Maybe your friend, Derek, could help you.”
“Sure, Grandma,” I said. “We’ll do that first thing in the morning. Then I’ll call the school and have them arrange a substitute teacher for my classes next week while I get mom’s house in order.”
“That’s fine dear,” she said. “Now, it’s late. You kids must be exhausted. Let’s get you settled in and see if we can all manage a little sleep.”
That didn’t seem likely, but my grandmother probably needed some privacy and tucking everyone into bed was the only way she was going to get it.
Grandpa went straight to bed while Grandma helped us get settled in the two unused bedrooms upstairs. When everyone was behind their closed doors, I changed into my pajamas and sat on the bed where I had spent so many nights as a child. One of my biggest fears as a little girl was that something would happen to my mother and then I would have no parents at all. And now it had actually happened. I was an orphan.
It had only been two weeks since I had spoken to my mother on the phone. We usually talked every Sunday, but the last weekend we had just played phone tag all day and were never able to actually connect. She sounded fine, but she wasn’t. And she knew it, too. Yet she hadn’t said anything to me. Mom didn’t want me to worry, they said, but instead all she did was set me up for a cosmic two by four across the side of my head that came completely out nowhere. Was that better that letting me worry? I didn’t really think so. And maybe I could have done something, but I supposed it was too late for that now. My mother was gone, and she wasn’t coming back.
I took a notebook out of my bag and tried to begin writing my mother’s obituary. I was exhausted, but certain I wouldn’t be able to sleep. As an English teacher and an aspiring novelist during summer breaks, I had been in the challenging position of having to summarize three hundred pages of prose into a two or three page synopsis. That’s difficult, but not nearly so difficult as trying to summarize fifty-two years of life into several paragraphs. She was a mother, a daughter, and a hairdresser, and she vacationed in California twice a year. Sometimes she attended stylists’ conventions, at least that’s what she’d said, but mostly she said her trips out west were for her health. Having grown up in Wisconsin, it seemed perfectly logical that getting out of sub-zero temperatures a couple of times a year would be good for her. I was usually too wrapped up in my own life to care very much about the details. But that night, sitting on the bed at my grandparents’ house where I had spent the first four years of my life, I started to wonder about what the draw really was. And I couldn’t stop wondering what the consequences were that my grandmother had referred to at the kitchen table. I always thought my mother’s life was an open book. She moved to California when she graduated from high school, because she wanted to start her own life in a place that was warm and sunny. Who could blame her for that? She fell in love, married, had a baby, and lost her husband in a tragic car accident. Naturally she came back to Milwaukee where her parents could help her. She never seemed like much of a rebel to me, or headstrong for that matter, as Grandma had called her. My mother worked hard and took good care of me. On the surface it all seemed pretty straightforward. But I was about to find out that my mother’s life was anything but ordinary.
I heard a light tap on the door, and Derek poked his head in.
“I couldn’t sleep either,” he said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’ve just been sitting here thinking. I tried to start on the obituary, but my writing skills have deserted me.”
“I’ll make a few calls in the morning,” Derek said. “I can stay through the weekend to help with the heavy lifting over at your mother’s house, but then I’ll have to get back. I’ve got a crazy week coming up. Will you be able to deal with all this on your own?”
“Sure. Don’t worry. And you don’t really have to stay the whole weekend. I can just drive my mother’s car back to Chicago after I clean out her house and get it listed with a real estate agent. I’ll probably be back by the end of next week.”
“I know I don’t have to stay, Meredith. I want to stay.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I think I’m going to be very sad.”
He put his arms around me, and for the first time since I received my grandmother’s phone call, I cried. I stood there, in his arms, and cried for a very long time.