Center Lovell, Maine
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 Grandma 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.” It had been engrained in her from a young age to respect her elders, regardless of who they were. Or what uncalled-for cruelty they’d inflicted on her in the past.
Five years ago, she’d tried to run Elizabeth over.
In the summer of 1952, Grandma had driven 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 had finally had enough of her nit-picking.
“Grandma,” she’d asked, interrupting a tirade about her lack of initiative. “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.
Over the years, 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. Maybe I’ll finally get that apology I’ve been craving. Or, even better, an explanation for the cruelty.
Elizabeth tucked in her white, sleeveless, button-up blouse and smoothed down her blue Bermuda shorts. She’d chosen these conservative clothes on purpose, as her grandmother would surely disapprove of the short shorts and halter tops she’d been wearing to survive the summer heat. It was the same reason she’d chosen soft makeup to complement her heart-shaped face and blue eyes, and why she’d worn her long brown hair tied in a ponytail rather than wild and wavy like she’d done all summer.
With nothing else about her appearance to adjust, Elizabeth officially ran out of excuses to delay. She straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath, and then climbed out of the car.
Elizabeth had barely had a chance to knock on the front door before her grandmother swung it open. The old woman 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 said warily.
No hug or handshake was offered; Grandma just crossed her arms, turned, and walked into the living room. Committed to the reunion now, Elizabeth shut the door behind her and followed her grandmother.
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 on her way to the sofa. Was this an apology? Her grandmother seemed to be waiting for a response, so Elizabeth cleared her throat and said, “I’m sure that’s true. Is there something you’re sorry for, Grandma?”
“More than one thing, but that’s a story for another day.”
Her voice was sharp and short. It seemed Elizabeth would be leaving without her apology. “All right,” she said with a sigh. “So, why did you invite me here?”
“Can’t I miss my granddaughter?”
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. “I guess…”
Grandmother nodded, as if the matter were settled. Then she sat on the couch and pulled up her flowered housedress to the knees. “Now that you’re here, take a look at my legs. Tell me what you think.”
Elizabeth scowled. So much for a long-awaited apology. All her grandmother was after was a free medical consultation. Elizabeth might not be a nurse yet, but that urge to help people burned strongly inside her—especially if they were family. So, rather than stand up and walk away, Elizabeth turned her attention to her grandmother’s legs.
Elizabeth crouched down in front of the old woman and slid a hand over her swollen legs. The edema was obvious. “How long have they been like this?”
“A few months.” Grandma 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 nursing school, aren’t you? Think of this as practice.”
Elizabeth swallowed a sarcastic retort. Grandma’s swollen legs did look painful, and people in pain weren’t always the most polite.
She put her hand on her grandmother’s shoulder and squeezed it sympathetically. “Okay, Grandma. I’ll see what I can find out.”
Her grandmother gave a relieved sigh, and pulled her housedress back down. “Good. Thank you.”
“Was there anything else, or…?”
“Don’t you run away so fast, young lady. 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 anymore, since you’re a model now.” At Elizabeth’s confused expression, the old woman added, “Karl sent me the picture of you posing on a billboard.”
Oh, right. I did a few modeling jobs last year to help pay for nursing school.”
“How did they get your blue eyes to look violet? Or make your brown hair black? You looked just like that actress… what was her name… Elizabeth Taylor. She’s a pretty little thing.”
Elizabeth’s mental gears were spinning furiously as she followed her grandmother into the kitchen. Had Grandma really just complimented her? Or was Elizabeth grasping at straws? Despite all that her grandmother had done to her over the years, a small part of her still yearned for the old woman’s approval.
“They edit the photos before they print them,” she explained. “And I didn’t know Dad was keeping you up on the news.”
“Only when it’s important. Like his daughter’s face on a billboard.” Grandma rapped her knuckles on the kitchen table. “Sit. I’ll be right back.”
She turned on the stove burner under the teakettle, and then disappeared into a small office off the dining room.
Elizabeth sat awkwardly at the kitchen table and looked around the familiar room. Not a single thing had changed in the past five years, from the lacy window curtains to the old refrigerator that was rumbling like a spaceship trying to take off. She fiddled with a strand of her hair and wondered what her grandmother was up to in the office.
Grandma returned to the kitchen a few minutes later with a folded white lace handkerchief in her hand. Elizabeth gasped, and sat up straight in the chair.
“Grandma! I remember that handkerchief—you kept it in your jewelry box.” She left unsaid the part where she’d taken the lovely scrap of fabric out once to look at it, but Grandma had snatched it back right away, and shouted to keep her grubby hands off her things. Elizabeth hadn’t gone near the jewelry box since.
“I thought you didn’t want me looking at it.”
“Things change. You’re older now, and I’m not going to be alive much longer.”
“There’s no point pretending it isn’t going to happen. So, I’m giving this to you now, while I still can.” She unwrapped the folded lace with wrinkled fingers and withdrew a shiny gold medallion. “This is your grandfather’s pocket watch.”
Elizabeth had never spent any time with her grandfather. He died before she was born. But, she heard from the family that he’d been an orchestral trumpeter—a good one, at that—and she saw a picture of him holding the golden trumpet close to his heart. It had sparked a love of music in her, although not one she’d had much of a chance to explore recently. Life kept getting in the way.
“Don’t you tell the family,” her grandmother added sternly, before placing the lace-wrapped 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?”
Grandma’s upper lip curled in disdain. “That’s why you keep this a secret, you hear?”
Elizabeth’s imagination immediately began running wild. A secret daughter, perhaps, sired out of wedlock? Or a mistress? No wonder Grandma had kept the pocket watch hidden all these years.
“Grandpa left it to you?”
“Not exactly. I divorced him two years before he died, but the hospital still sent me his personal effects when he passed. Don’t know why they did that. And I don’t know if your grandfather meant for me to see this.”
She pointed at the folded note that had been wrapped with the pocket watch. Elizabeth carefully unfolded the thick paper and stared down at the words. I dedicated each solo performance to this woman.
“His last words were a confession to me,” her grandmother seethed. “Infuriating man. Couldn’t face me in life, so he waited until death to reveal his infidelity.”
“It might not have been a mistress,” Elizabeth said. “You don’t know if he left this to you purposely, which means it could just be a simple dedication. Maybe to a friend, or another musician—”
Grandma snorted, managing to convey her complete and utter contempt for her late ex-husband in that single noise. “He had plenty of other women. A handsome man like him, always on the road and away from home on his tours… I’m telling you, he left this note as a slap in the face, to get even with me for divorcing him.”
That explained why she had been so upset when Elizabeth had found the mysterious, lace-wrapped item as a child. Even though Elizabeth was older now, it was a lot to take in. For such a proud woman, a philandering husband must have been a constant torment for her grandmother.
“When I was younger, and snooped around… I’m sorry, Grandma. I didn’t know. But I wish you’d told me sooner. This is a lot to carry around by yourself.”
“I thought about telling you back then, but you were too young to understand.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “Dad left Mom for another woman, remember? I was plenty old enough to understand.”
“You were, what, sixteen?”
“Humph. Maybe you were old enough. I’m just surprised you didn’t find out about your father’s mistresses, given how obsessed you were with your grandfather’s life as a child. You must have spent an entire summer in the library researching him.”
It had been right at the time Elizabeth was taking cello lessons and was helping her grandmother around the inn. In search of a connection to the music she so loved, she’d turned to her grandfather. Gustav had been famous, his name and music career featured in newspapers. She’d painted herself a pretty picture of her grandfather. A picture which was, evidently, missing some key elements.
The only part Elizabeth couldn’t understand was why her grandmother was revealing all this to her now. Apart from tarnishing her memory of her beloved grandfather, what was the point?
“Why did you keep the pocket watch all these years, Grandma? It can’t have caused you anything but pain.”
“I kept it so I could find out who the woman in the photo is. But I was too busy, and at some point I threw it in my jewelry box and forgot about it. And now I’m too old. So, I want you to find out for me.”
“You want me to…”
“You heard me. Find that woman in the picture. I cannot die without knowing who she is first.”
A Novel – Coming Winter -January 2022