Three Years of Her Life – Chapter One

ONE 

Center Lovell, Maine                                                                   

August 1957

As Elizabeth stepped out of the car and looked around her grandmother’s farmhouse, she was relieved to find the scent of the towering pines hadn’t changed. The old Colonial house was a different story; the paint was peeling off the clapboard, and the adjacent two-story henhouse looked on the verge of collapse. It seemed Grandma had fallen on hard times after she sold Sunset Inn, her beachfront resort for rich city folk.

            If her grandmother’s mood had deteriorated as much as the property, Elizabeth was in for an unpleasant reunion.

            When she had called Elizabeth a few days ago, out of the blue, she was her usual straight-to-the-point self. “Heard you’re here for the summer before you go off to nursing school. Stop by. I’m home.”

            Taken aback, Elizabeth had muttered, “Yeah. Sure, Grandma.” Hearing Grandmother’s voice brought back her uncalled-for cruelty as if it were yesterday. Elizabeth had second thoughts about facing her.

            “Good,” the old woman had snapped, then hung up.

            But, why did her grandmother even want to see her? It wasn’t as if they were close. Far from it, in fact.

            Five years ago, she’d tried to run Elizabeth over.  

            In the summer of 1952, Grandma drove 13-year-old Elizabeth to a cleaning and dishwashing job every day at her uncle’s lakeside lodge. Despite the long hours Elizabeth worked to help out her uncle, her grandmother constantly ragged on her, calling her a lazy good for nothing kid whenever she forgot to do a chore around the farm. One morning, on the drive over to the lodge, Elizabeth finally had enough of her nit-picking.

            “Grandma,” she’d asked. “Why don’t you like me?”

            Grandma’s face turned red. She slammed on the brakes, pulling the car over to the shoulder. Then she reached across the stick shift to start slapping and punching her granddaughter as she berated Elizabeth for being a rude, ungrateful girl.

            Terrified, Elizabeth jumped out of the car and ran. Grandma floored the gas pedal and raced after her. Elizabeth flung herself into the trees lining the road to escape, and was crying and shaking when she finally made it to the lodge and collapsed on the kitchen floor. Her aunt and uncle had been concerned, but didn’t believe her when she told them what happened. Elizabeth had tried to convince herself that it hadn’t happened, that her grandmother loved her. But she’d never quite managed to fool herself.

            What was she in for this time?

            Elizabeth wasn’t a girl anymore. She was a grown woman about to start a career in nursing. I can handle this,she told herself. It won’t be like before. If I’ve changed, then maybe Grandma has as well. Why else would she reach out? Maybe she regrets what she did.

            Elizabeth tucked in her white, sleeveless, button-up blouse and smoothed down above the knee blue Bermuda shorts. She thought better of wearing controversial shorties shorts and a halter top to visit Grandmother. At least she would be presentable, facing her grandmother.

           Whatever happened after that …

            She flipped her long brown hair away from her face and set Cat-eye sunglasses on top of her head. Then, braced herself and walked up to the front door and knocked. 

            Her grandmother was grayer and plumper than Elizabeth remembered, and she greeted her granddaughter as if nothing had ever happened between them. “Now just look at you, all grown up. It’s been a long time.” Grandmother grinned.

            “Hello, Grandma.” Elizabeth didn’t trust Grandmother’s grin to mean everything was all right. Not to forget, she tried to run over her.

            No hug or handshake; Grandma crossed her arms, turned and walked into the living room. Elizabeth followed. The dark, musty room filled with overstuffed Victorian furniture and embroidered pillows was a stark contrast to the sunny day outside. A Hammond organ took up most of the far wall. A small smile tugged at Elizabeth’s lips when she spotted it. She’d always loved that old thing.

            Grandma’s voice trailed behind her. “I want you to know… Sometimes, when people get old, they do things they’re sorry for.”

            Elizabeth paused mid-step. Was this an apology? Unsure where she stood with Grandma, she thought better of asking. Elizabeth cleared her throat. “Nice to see you too.”

            Grandmother nodded, as if the matter were settled. Then she sat on the couch and pulled up her flowered housedress to the knees. “Now, take a look at my legs. Tell me what you think.”  

            Elizabeth bent down and slid a hand over the old woman’s swollen legs. The edema was obvious. “How long have they been like this?”

            “A few months.” She pointed to a worn copy of The 1951 Family Physician lying on the coffee table. “Says it’s the way my heart pumps.”

            “Dad takes a water pill for blood pressure. Maybe you have the same thing. You really need to see a doctor.”  

            “I don’t want anyone to know. You find out for me. You’re going to be the nurse.”

            Elizabeth scowled. So much for a long-awaited apology. All her grandmother was after was a free medical consultation. But it was a way to connect, and her grandmother certainly needed the help. And despite all her grandmother had put her through, she was still family.

Elizabeth put her hand on Grandmother’s shoulder. “Okay, Grandma. I’ll see what I can find out.” She gave her shoulder a sympathetic pat. Her swollen legs did look painful.

            “Good! Now, I’ve got more to say. I’ll make tea, and I baked those brownies you liked so much. Don’t know if you eat ‘em since you’re a model.” At Elizabeth’s confused expression, the old woman added, “Karl sent me the picture of you posing on a billboard. Your blue eyes were violet and brown hair, black, just like the actress, Elizabeth Taylor. She was a pretty little thing.”

            Elizabeth followed Grandmother into the kitchen. “Really? Dad keeps you up on the news?”  Elizabeth chuckled at her grandmother’s offhand remark, close to a compliment.

            “Sit down. I’ll be right back.” She turned on the stove burner under the teakettle and disappeared into a small office off the dining room.

            Elizabeth sat awkwardly at the kitchen table. She looked around at the same sheer curtains, GE stove and refrigerator. Nothing had changed from years ago. She fiddled with a strand of hair. What was she up to now?

             Grandmother came back with a folded white lace handkerchief in her hand.

            “Grandma! I remember that; it was in your jewelry box. You grabbed it from me once.”

            “Now you’re older and I’m not going to be alive much longer. There’s no point pretending it isn’t going to happen. I’m giving it to you. It’s your grandfather’s gold pocket watch. Don’t you tell the family.” Grandmother put the watch into Elizabeth’s outstretched hand.

            Elizabeth unwrapped it, set aside a note lying on top to read later, then examined the pocket watch. She raised her eyebrows. “It’s beautiful.” She ran a finger over the floral engraved case, opened the latch, and stared at a sepia photo of a young woman. “Who is this?”       

            “Humph… Who knows? Your grandfather died and the hospital sent me his clothes bag. The watch was in it. Don’t know why they did that. I divorced him two years before.” Grandmother picked up the note. “Look. Just look what he wrote to me. I dedicated each solo performance to this woman. His last words were a confession to me. Infuriating man. So, I want you to find out who she is.”

            “How can I…?” Elizabeth frowned.

            Grandmother pointed to the picture. “He threw this in my face to get even for divorcing him. He had plenty of other women. I chucked it in the jewelry box drawer years ago so I’d forget.”

            That explained why she was so upset when Elizabeth had found the mysterious, lace-wrapped item as a child. “Grandma, I didn’t know.”  Even though Elizabeth was older now, it was a lot to take in.

            “You were too young to understand. I’ll give you this, though. You were the only grandchild interested in Gustav back then, doing all that research at the library about his life and asking questions. Even so, you were too young to know.”

            Elizabeth sighed. “Dad left Mom for another woman, remember? I was plenty old enough to understand.”

            “You were, what, sixteen then?”

             “Fifteen.” Still too young, but she’d finished crying about it years ago.

             “You can understand why I want you to find out who that woman is. You know more about boys’ evil ways now. Same goes for men.”

             If Grandma only knew, she had just broken up with an older boy, who, she suspected might have had evil ways and left her for another. Elizabeth held up the opened pocket watch. “But… I can’t just show the picture around and ask people, ‘Do you know this woman?’ Besides, you’ve had years. Haven’t you tried looking yourself?” 

            “Like I said, I threw it in the jewelry box and forgot about it. I got it out for you when I found out you were in the area. Looked inside again and… You know the rest. Gustav was a private man; never talked about his life before he immigrated here. He came and went as he pleased. I never asked why, when, or with whom. I just knew there were other women. All that’s beside the point. Elizabeth, you know how to do research. This woman was part of Gustav’s life, so…. You’ll find out about her for your reason, and the other reason for me.”

A Novel – Coming Fall 2021