Friday, December 8, 2017

More Than We Think We Are

I sat beside my sister at the funeral of our dear friend's mother. Our eyes fell on my sister's young daughter. She sat contentedly in the lap of her grandmother, beside us in the same church pew.

"She's so beautiful," my sister remarked, her eyes bright as she watched her daughter.

"She really is," I said, then voiced the next thought that filled my head, "People are always saying how beautiful our daughters are, and how they look exactly like us. Do you ever think that maybe we were more beautiful than we realized when we were younger?"

My sister reached over and squeezed my hand, voicing no response. She didn't need to reply. I knew. I knew the struggles she and I had navigated over the years. I knew what it took to eventually believe ourselves beautiful.

The funeral began with an old, familiar hymn, but the thought remained with me. As the priest blessed the family and friends filling the rows in the church, I couldn't shake the question: are we more beautiful than we realize?

I'd encountered a lot of beauty in the past week. Easily overlooked beauty. Misconstrued beauty.

It was there to see in the face and hands of my best friend. Exhausted, no makeup, eyes not long dry from the most recent of many tears, she greeted me with a long hug when I arrived at the hospital where she and her family kept vigil with her dying mother. We sat at her mother's bedside, talking in reserved voices that rose with emotion then quieted as her mother's ragged breathing fluctuated. My, she was beautiful. The love in her eyes. The gentleness in her fingers as they grazed the blankets of the bed in front of her. The aching tenderness in her glances at her mom. My friend had spent years caring for her mother. Years of tending to her needs, housing her, shuttling her to appointments, encouraging her, upholding her dignity. Loving her.

Then there was her mother, Connie, who lied dying beside us. If my friend hadn't let me into the room, I would not have known I was in the right place. She was unrecognizable, seemingly a shell of her former, spirited self. Seemingly. Except, if I kept my wits about me, I could see that she was still her whole self. She was still Connie, who battled cancer for all these years, never willing to give up. Through treatments and sickness and depression, through remissions and reoccurrences, she'd plodded onward. Yet, here she was. She wasn't a woman defeated. She was a woman ready. She was a woman ready to leave. She'd done her work and fought her battles. Her readiness was as beautiful as it was heartbreaking.

So there I sat in the church pew, wondering over how many different ways we miss the beauty. Wondering why we can't see it.

I want to see it. I want my spouse to see it. I want my children to see it. I want you to see it. This life, it's so much more beautiful than we think. Its beauty is only surpassed by the people, by us. We are more, much more beautiful than we think we are.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Stranger's Hands

She could not look away from his hands. Wide palms; long, sturdy fingers. Strong. They looked capable of holding her, all of her; something she hadn't thought of a man in years.
Two years and twenty-six days. Cora didn't keep track each day. That stopped around one and a half years. Every few months though, she added it back up. Numbers were a comfort to her; a steadying force reminding her some things made sense. This didn't begin with her husband's death. It was true since she first learned basic mathematics.
Two years and twenty-six days and suddenly (anything new since his death felt sudden), she was staring at a stranger's hands, thinking of how they would feel holding hers across a restaurant table, or on the small of her back, guiding her through a busy airport. Ordinary tasks of her husband's hands. A stranger. At the gym, no less. What was wrong with her?
"Less than yesterday." That's what her sister Tessa would say. Tessa thought Cora should move on. Cora thought Tessa didn't know what she was talking about.
She made up her mind to switch to a different treadmill in a different row, away from the stranger and his capable hands. Tessa's next question would be, "was he attractive?" Cora realized she couldn't have answered. She'd noticed nothing except his hands.
"It's a start," she heard her sister say in her head.
"It's an ending," she whispered as she began to run.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Summer Holiday - Part Three


Part One



“Good evening,” Michael greets us. “You both look lovely. I am glad to see you.”

He addresses Aunt Rita too, but his gaze remains on me and I am surprised to see a touch of nervousness in his friendly expression.

“Good evening, Mr. Gable. I hope you are well tonight,” Aunt Rita responds.

“I am.”

I blush under his attention. He is even more handsome in this glittering, giddy atmosphere than in the midday sunlight. His black tuxedo is well tailored, with a pop of color in his emerald green pocket square.

The band begins another high spirited tune. Dancing couples cover the open space on the large, raised patio where the band is arranged, facing the ocean. The harmonizing notes fill the silence that falls between us.

Aunt Rita clears her throat. “I’m going to find some acquaintances.” She finishes her wine and places the empty glass on a passing footman’s tray. “Enjoy yourself, Mary.”

While I am wondering what I might say to encourage her in her mission for the night, she is already striding away with her chin high.

Michael looks toward the band and back at me. “Would you care to dance?”

Again, I am struck by his nervousness. It is slight, and if I did not have his self-assured demeanor of this afternoon with which to compare, I might not notice. Somehow, the alteration in him bolsters my confidence. This man, this stranger who feigned friendship in order to speak to me today, has a unique effect on me.

“Perhaps we could walk first and see the grounds,” I suggest. “I can’t say I’ve ever been to a party quite like this one. Have you?”

“Only here.”

He offers his arm and I slip my hand into the bend of his elbow. We begin to walk the circumference of the lawn and the crowd it contains.

“Do the Colemans host many of these?”

“Twice a year. This is their annual end-of-summer garden party.”

I laugh in disbelief. “Garden party?” Images of the garden parties I’ve attended flash through my mind: small gatherings of intimate friends; tea and finger sandwiches; quiet conversation.

“They like to take something average and raise the bar," he remarks with a laugh. “Their other annual event is the Christmas party. That one is indoors, of course, and even more grand.”

The reality that I know nothing about Michael is dominant in my thoughts. “How do you know the family?”

“I am a second cousin. Mrs. Coleman’s maiden name was Gable.” He greets someone as we round a back corner of the courtyard, then returns his focus to me. “And you, Mary? If this is your first Coleman celebration, how did you happen to be here tonight?”

I admit, “We weren’t invited.”

“Do tell." His eyes widen with curiosity.

“I don’t think I can.”

“You are more a mystery than I expected.”

“I’m not, truly, but it turns out my aunt might be.” I leave it at that, unwilling to confide Aunt Rita’s secrets.

Michael stops beside a stone fountain at the end of the courtyard. It is a circular structure with a tall statue of a heron perched on a pedestal at the center. The bird’s wings are spread as if about to take flight. Water flows from the backs of its wings and around its feet down into the tiled bowl below. We admire it in silence. The band segues into a softer, slower melody.

“You’re a bit of a mystery yourself, Michael.”

“Tell me about yourself, Mary.”

“I was about to make the same request.”

“You first. Tell me anything you’d like.”

He lets my hand slip off his arm and takes a seat on the edge of the fountain.

“My full name is Mary Eve Harper and I have lived in Boston all my life. I have an older brother and sister, both married. I teach piano to schoolchildren, which I rather enjoy. I paint, though I’m terrible at it. I have a collie named Jasmine and a nephew named Paul, and I love both of them dearly."

I ignore the wave of embarrassment I feel over the bits of autobiography that tumbled from my mouth without forethought. "It's your turn."

“Fair enough.” He thinks for a moment. “I live in Manchester. I’m a civil engineer for the city, as is Tommy, whom you met this afternoon. I have four sisters, two older and two younger. I have a spaniel named Devlin. He’s my bird hunting partner even though he’s fairly useless. I’ve vacationed here in Hampton Beach with my family every summer of my entire life except when I was eight years old and sick with the measles. I almost didn’t come this summer, but I am exceedingly glad I did now.”

My cheeks blush madly and I’m thankful for the low light of the lanterns in the courtyard behind us.

“I do have to add one more thing.”

I wait.

Michael fiddles with the buttons of his jacket, diverting his eyes from mine. “I’ve been watching you all week.”

My mouth drops open and I take a step back. “Excuse me?”

“No! No, I said that all wrong.” He half groans, half laughs. “I’m sorry. I mean, I’ve seen you around the town throughout the week. I mean, I’ve noticed you several times this week.”

I bite my lip, unsure if this is an improvement.

Michael leaves his seat on the fountain and stands in front of me. His voice softens. “I first saw you on Sunday, walking with your aunt on the boardwalk and wearing a blue hat. I was drinking coffee at an outdoor table at a café. You passed right by me," he refuses to drop his eyes from mine, “and I wanted to follow you then and there. You were conversing with your aunt, but your eyes watched everything around you. You looked like you wished for nothing less than adventure.”

I remain stunned and speechless, but also thrilled in a manner that makes me anxious.

“Then you were in the crowd at the concert in the park on Tuesday evening, and I saw you again the next day when you were eating lunch with your aunt and someone else, one of her friends, I guess, at the same café where I had coffee on Sunday. I just finished brunch with my parents and aunt and uncle when you arrived there. That’s when I promised myself I’d speak to you somehow the next time I saw you.

“I waited for my next opportunity, watched for you everywhere we went. I had Tommy on the lookout for you too,” he says with a chuckle. “You can imagine how relieved I was this afternoon when I realized it was you and your aunt walking so closely behind us on the boardwalk. I’d begun to wonder if you’d left town already.”

He raises an eyebrow. “You didn’t notice me even once before this afternoon, did you?”

“I’d be lying if I said I did.”

Nerves threaten to disband the gumption I’ve somehow possessed since meeting Michael today. Behind the fountain is a gravel footpath extending away from the house and toward a manicured maze of tall hedges. I walk to the path without a word and hear Michael follow. Our feet crunch on the stones covering the narrow lane. Rosebushes laden with late summer blossoms in an array of hues – red, pink, white, orange, yellow – line the length of the path. I stare at one perfect, pink bloom and am overcome by the beautiful unexpectedness of this night.

Before we reach the entrance to the hedge maze, I stop and Michael comes around in front of me. I want to tell him every thought in my head. I want to tell him I’m flattered, but that is an entirely inadequate word for what I feel. I want to say I wish we’d met on the first day I arrived instead of a week into my stay. I want to ask if he ever visits Boston for any reason at all, and if I might be a reason to visit if he does not. My search for words lasts longer than I’d like.

“Have I scared you off?” he asks, hands in his pockets and eyes on his feet.

I inhale the intoxicating fragrance of the flowers, then I lay my hand on his smooth cheek. The feel of his skin against my palm startles me, as if I didn’t realize I was touching him. He frowns when I drop my hand back to my side. I do not want to make him frown.

“Does your invitation to dance still stand?”

The party, the patio, and the band are all behind me. He looks over my shoulder and asks, “You want to go back?”

I shake my head.

He surveys our spot here on the white gravel path, with its rosebush walls and high-rise, starry ceiling. His smile reappears and, with a deep bow, he extends a hand. “Would you do me the honor, Miss Harper?”

Mirroring the smile while suppressing a giggle, I curtsy. “It would be my pleasure, sir.”

We sway and turn with the distant music. His hands, one wrapped around my fingers and one on my waist, are warm, like the inside of my chest where my heart beats at a doubled pace.

“If you tell me you are going home tomorrow, my summer will be utterly ruined,” he declares.

I laugh aloud, setting a sparrow flying from its hiding spot in a hedge. “We are here another week.”

He twirls me out and back in again. “May I take you to lunch tomorrow?”

I nod.

“Tomorrow, I’ll ask to see you on Monday.”

I nod again. Anticipation tingles in my fingertips.

We slow our dancing though the music’s rhythm does not change. “On Monday, I’ll ask for Tuesday, and then for each day that remains.”

“We’ll have a splendid week.” I am breathlessly aware of how near his face is to mine. I almost ask about after, about letters or telegrams or visits, then I tell myself to enjoy tonight. Tomorrow, I will enjoy tomorrow. I’ve never felt that the days ahead must be known before they arrive, and I don’t wish to start now.

As if reading my thoughts, Michael winks the way he did in the first minute of our first meeting. “Maybe I’ll take piano lessons in the fall, in Boston.”

The song comes to an end and we stand still. Statues sculpted in a dance. I try to remember what it was like to be unfamiliar with his smile. We are both holding our breath until we laugh in unison at ourselves. He releases my hand and my waist.

“Would you like to return to the party? You haven’t even tasted the food, have you?”

At the mention of food, I realize I am famished. Back at the hotel, Aunt Rita only ordered a light supper for us while we prepared for the party. Knowing all I know now, I realize she was likely too anxious to eat.

“Food does sound good, thank you.”

Before we can step from the shadows of the tall hedges though, we hear footsteps. Two people deep in conversation, and clearly assuming they are alone, approach on the gravel path. I freeze.

“It’s okay, Mary. We won’t be in any trouble for walking back here.”

I shake my head. I know immediately the identity of one of those voices, and I feel certain in my guess at the other. Grabbing Michael’s wrist, I pull him through the entrance of the maze. There are only the stars to see by now, tucked away behind the eight-foot-tall, two-foot-thick hedge.

Michael peers at my face in bewilderment. “What’s wrong?”

How can I explain? I cover my face in my hands, realizing how ridiculous I must seem. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “It’s my aunt and Miles Coleman.”


To be continued.

Read Part Four here

The Summer Holiday - Part Four

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

“Are you certain?” Michael tries to peek around the leafy wall.

I tug on his arm to come back. “I’m certain.” My brain holds an open debate on the best next move.

“And why is it that we’re hiding from your aunt and my cousin?” he asks in a whisper.

Sighing over the impossibility of avoiding an explanation, I step further into the corner we are tucked into just inside the hedge maze. The close quarters do not appear to bother Michael. Even in the filtered moonlight, I observe the playfulness in his eyes. He takes my hand and it takes everything in me to stay on task. I need to explain before Rita and Miles get any closer. Already, their words are becoming discernible. I can only suppose ours will soon be overheard by them as well. In haste, I deliver a summary.

“Rita and Miles knew each other many years ago. They were once engaged but Miles broke it off. They have not seen or spoken to each other since. Rita decided to seek him out here tonight.”

Michael’s eyebrows are arched high on his handsome face. He releases a low whistle that I silence with my fingers over his lips, which makes him smile.

“Sorry,” he says, “but this night keeps getting more interesting.”

“Tell me about it. I knew nothing of this until we were driving up to the party.”

“I still think we could have greeted them and went on our way, Mary.”

I shake my head. “Maybe, except it took every bit of courage for Aunt Rita to come here and speak to him tonight. That much was clear. I could be wrong, but I have a hunch that if they are interrupted before Rita says whatever it is she hopes to say, she’ll lose that courage.”

Michael nods.

“Couldn’t we walk further into the maze?” I ask.

He stares into the blackness of the tall, perfectly pruned hedges. When he turns back to me, his brow is creased with concern. “That isn’t a good idea. There is no lighting in there, and this maze has won awards for its cleverness and difficulty. I’ve ventured into it plenty of times and I still would not do so at night.”

I cover my face with my hands.

Michael squeezes my shoulders. “I’m sorry, Mary. I’m sure it wasn’t your intention to eavesdrop. Nonetheless, it seems our only options are to wait them out here or mysteriously appear back on the path with them.”

We are silent as Miles’ and Aunt Rita’s footsteps come to a halt on the other side of the hedge. Their voices reach our ears clearly now.

“I can’t believe this,” we hear Rita say.

“Neither can I,” Miles replies. “You really never knew I didn’t marry her? That I never married at all?”

“How could I have? We didn’t exactly live in the same social universe, Miles. My family and friends knew nothing of you, and I wasn’t one to read the society pages in my father’s newspaper.” After a pause, she adds, “Besides, my only aim was to avoid every thought of you.”

There is the crunch of footsteps on the gravel. Michael and I exchange a hopeful glance and put our faces up to the wall. It takes a moment to find adequate spaces between the leaves and branches to peer through to the other side.

“Are we in the clear?” I whisper.

Michael shakes his head. When I find a sightline through the hedge, I see it is only the sound of Miles pacing while Rita stands still with her eyes on him. The moment gives me an opportunity to observe him. He is of average height and a slim build. His face is pleasant and attractive. There is a peppering of gray throughout his black hair. He wears a black tuxedo, like Michael, but his bow tie is a bit askew. I see why when he tugs at his collar more than once.

I know I should back up, give them at least that much privacy, but I can’t look away from the quiet pain on my aunt’s face.

She swallows hard, wrings her hands, and asks, “Why didn’t you marry?”

Miles stops in front of her. He reaches for her hands but she folds them behind her back. Her expression clears and she lifts her chin. I see in her posture all the strength I used to mistake for mere hardness.

“I didn’t marry her, or anyone else, because she wasn’t you.”

“There had to be more than that. There had to be. We were so young.”

“Don’t do that.” His voice is harsh. “I had to hear all of that from my parents, non-stop until I gave in to their demands. I was so ashamed of myself, Rita. That’s why I didn’t contact you immediately after I ended the engagement they’d arranged for me. I couldn’t imagine you forgiving me.”

He pauses but Rita holds her tongue, so he continues. Regret laces through his words. “By the time I did seek you out, I discovered you were to be married that very week. It was too late. I did my best to accept it. In the next couple years, I checked up on you a few times. I told myself it was to make sure you were okay, that you were content, after what I’d done to you. Really though, I wasn’t ready to let go of you. I stopped after I got word your first child was born. I’ve known nothing of your life since then.”

“You checked up on me?” She looks stunned.

They watch each other, uncertainty filling the silent air between them until Miles asks, “Were you happy, Rita? With your husband, were you happy?”

“I was,” she says quickly, then adds, “eventually.” She swipes at her cheeks for tears that I cannot see from my hidden vantage point.

“I’m so sorry, Rita. I have never stopped regretting my choice.” He takes a step closer to her.

“We were so young.”

“I loved you. You loved me. That’s what is true.”

Rita releases her hands from behind her back and he immediately takes them in his. A smile breaks across his face.

“I remember these hands in mine. It’s like arriving home for the first time in over thirty years.”

She doesn’t match his smile though and he loses his.

“My love.”

Rita’s eyes widen at his words. “Am I, though?”

“Of course you are.”

“We have lived whole lives since then, Miles. So much has happened and changed. How can I be?”

“Did you love me?”

“With all my heart,” she admits without hesitation.

“And that heart is still in you.”

A smile now tugs at her lips and she stares up at the stars. “Maybe.”

Miles touches her chin, leading her to meet his gaze again. “You owe me nothing. Nothing. I understand if you never want to see me again. I understand if you wanted an apology tonight, and nothing more. Considering that you thought I was married all these years, I suspect that’s all you thought you might receive tonight.”

Rita nods.

“If, however, there is anything in you inclined to see me again, to speak with me again, I only ask that you consider it. Please. You say the word, and I will not contact you or try to see you for the rest of our years. Say otherwise, and I will be grateful for any time you are willing to give me.”

I glance at Michael beside me, having nearly forgotten his presence. I feel the sting of tears in my eyes. He grins at me before we both resume our watch through the wall of foliage.

Rita lays her hands on Miles’ cheeks. “It’s hard to say what I expected to gain by coming here tonight, but it was not this.”

His arms encircle her waist and draw her to him.

She hurries to add, “And I don’t know what to expect going forward. I don’t know.”

“I don’t need to know. There is possibility, and that is enough.”

Miles kisses her. It is a firm, needful kiss and when Rita’s arms wrap around his neck, I force myself to step back from the hedge.

Michael is grinning again and I cannot help but do the same. We stand side by side when, overhead, fireworks begin to fill the sky. I jump as the boom of the first ones catch me by surprise. A chorus of cheers floats to us from the party up near the house.

“Wow,” I whisper. Even when Michael takes my hand, I do not look away from the bursts of fiery color.

He kisses my cheek and I do look at him then. “Mary.”

“Yes?”

“I’m glad I pretended to know you today.”

I cover my mouth to silence my laughter. “Michael, it has been an unexpectedly splendid night.”

“The best?” he asks.

I lean into his side and he slips his arm around my waist. A red firework cascades across the sky, its sound thrumming in my chest. “The best so far.”

The End.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Turning: Hodgepodge Thoughts on Birthdays and Our Unwritten Stories


Let's review the week, shall we? Two days ago, my daughter turned 2 1/2. Yesterday, my son turned 4. Tomorrow, I turn 36. These realities march through my brain and I find myself stuck on the word "turn."

There are numerous meanings of the word (dictionary.com listed 40 definitions in the "verb (used with object)" category alone!), but the ones that initially come to mind when I think about "turn" have to do with a change in direction.

Turning a corner.
Turning around.
Turning toward.

Turning causes a tangible change. It involves a departure from one direction or place and an arrival in or movement toward another. But the turning of age? Intangible change.

We can turn another year older yet turn no corners, take no new directions, nor move toward anything different. Unless we choose otherwise, a birthday will do nothing but advance a digit on our annual odometer.

More than I typically do at birthday time, I am reflecting on all the turning that happened in the past year. Tangible changes abounded during this trip around the sun.

The big standout is the change from a writer continuing to wonder if she'll ever publish her novel that she started ten years ago to a writer publishing her first novel. This birthday is the one year anniversary of my first attendance of a writer's conference, which included a pitch meeting with the acquisitions editor of Bold Vision Books, which led to a request for a full book proposal, which led to a publishing contract offer, which led to my current state as an author about to be published. Honestly, I went to that conference simply hoping to feel like I belonged in that club of writers who are serious about their writing. The experience exceeded my measly expectation by a million miles.

(Side note: I don't know if any other christian writers read this blog, but if so, I recommend considering the Maranatha Christian Writers Conference in Muskegon, MI.)

Beyond this dream-fulfilling turn during age 35, I also began a new position with my company (which I kind of love), lost more than fifteen pounds, ran my first 10K and a couple more 5K races, created a Facebook Author page as a home base for promoting my writing, entered the Twitter world as another online presence as an author, transitioned to primarily blogging fiction pieces, and, you know, continued to learn how to love my husband and raise my children.

It's been a year to remember. A year to celebrate. A year to motivate.

The truth is, for the very first time, I have not looked forward to my birthday. The very first time. 30 didn't bother me. 35 didn't bother me. 36, however, has bothered me. When I set out to choose some words for a post here, that was the primary force behind it: I was feeling bothered. The discontented thoughts were muddled and emotional. After writing a few paragraphs, I stopped. I deleted it all. I forced myself to turn my mind from those thoughts and gain a more reasonable perspective.

This post is not what I originally conceived it to be. Instead, this is me on the last day of 35, ready for what's next. My discontent and dread regarding my birthday has turned into excitement and ambition for the potential of the next 365 days. They are 365 pages of my story unwritten thus far. I'm ready to write and turn each one.