Sarah resolves to face up to an old secret that has kept her at odds with her mother for decades; by Don Herald.
As was their New Year's Day tradition, Sarah and Andrew were sipping hot coffee, taking turns sharing from their list of ten items on a personal 'To Do This Year' list. Sarah was on item seven.
"Probably it's the most important of all of my ten. It's short and sweet."
She paused and then read aloud. "Rebuild my relationship with my mother."
Sarah looked up at Andrew, searching his features for a response. His reaction to this item was very important to her. She waited silently for him to speak.
"I agree. It's a big one. Fixing the relationship with your mother. For as long as I've known you, you've pretended it wasn't a big deal. But I see how it hurts you almost every day. I don't pretend to understand all that's going on between you and your mother. But I do know this. If you can set it right with her, you'll be free."
Andrew had spoken softly, carefully measuring his words. He knew how sensitive an issue Marjorie was for Sarah.
This relationship thing between Sarah and her mother had always been a vague presence off in a shadowy corner of their marriage. Over the years, somehow they'd learned to build their lives around it. But, just like that musty old storage space in the back corner of their basement, both tried not to go there too often.
Sarah knew that fixing this corrosive non-relationship with her mother was the most difficult item on her list. She had put it off for many years, always finding excuses for doing nothing.
When someone would ask about her mother, Sarah always responded in the same way. 'She and my Dad live over in Fraserville so it's hard for us to get together. We haven't talked in a long time. It's kind of a mutual thing. I guess the best way to describe it is that we are emotionally estranged.'
Emotionally estranged. She liked that term a lot. Not only the sound of the words on her lips, but it felt like a cool, soothing compress on a very deep wound. Even better, no one ever pressed for more details. There would always be an awkward pause, followed by a mumbled 'Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.' Then more often than not, a clumsy, seriously obvious change of topic. Of course, all of this was just fine with Sarah.
When Claire Louise was born twenty-five years ago, Andrew had immediately called Walter and Marjorie to tell them they had their first grandchild. Within the hour, Walter had visited at the hospital, bringing along Thomas the Teddy Bear. Thomas had quickly become Claire's constant companion. He had even gone off with Claire to Algonquin College and more recently to her first apartment in the city.
But Marjorie never visited. Never sent Claire a birthday gift or Christmas card. Never came to a school concert or Claire's college graduation.
Of course, Wally tried to make up for Marjorie's absences by visiting often. He took Claire to his favourite trout stream, dressed up as Santa or hid Easter eggs out in Sarah's backyard. Early on, he tried to offer up excuses for his wife's absence. But after a year or so, he had given up even on that. If asked, he would offer, 'Well, it's just one of those things. Best we just leave it be.'
In an unguarded moment, Wally suggested that Marjorie was suffering from 'nerve problems'. But when Sarah pressed him for more details, he refused, apparently embarrassed that he had already said too much.
So now, Marjorie and her 'situation' were never mentioned.
Sitting in the small sunroom just off the kitchen, Sarah flashed rapidly through these memories, tears forming and eventually finding their way down onto her faded blue denim shirt. She felt badly that not once in all the years of their courtship and marriage had she ever gotten enough courage to tell Andrew the details of why Marjorie hated her so. She didn't know why this happened. It just was.
This morning, Sarah eagerly welcomed the comforting warmth of the coffee through the sides of the mug she held tightly between trembling hands. For several long moments she concentrated on the warmth, consciously willing it to pass along her arms to soothe and quiet her aching, rapidly beating heart. She knew from past experience that in time this dark, frightening fog would pass. And her life would return to normal. Over the years, Sarah had become very skilled in emotionally distancing herself from this blackness lurking in the farthest corner of her inner world.
Unexpectedly, Sarah had a sudden recollection of a brightly coloured drawing Claire had brought home from grade one. It was of a family Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone was about to dig into an enormous turkey. There was Sarah, Andrew, Claire Louise with her beloved Thomas, her younger brother Mark and Wally. In the painting, Claire had given each of them an overly large, happy face.
There was an empty chair. It wasn't facing in toward the festive table but turned away from everyone. It was crudely drawn in several black, slashing lines. It was clear to everyone who wasn't occupying that chair.
Claire had insisted that her cherished Thanksgiving drawing of their family be stuck up onto the fridge door with Scotch tape. It had remained in plain view for several months. Every time Sarah opened the fridge or passed nearby, the empty, backwards facing chair felt like a long sharp pin being slowly and painfully pushed deep into her chest.
TWENTY SEVEN YEARS AGO
May 15, 1988. It was the day when the thing between Sarah and Marjorie started. The white ugly clock with the black Roman numeral letters at twelve, three, six and nine hung on the fading, daisy yellow wall above a chipped and stained white porcelain kitchen sink.
For Sarah, that clock would always be permanently stuck at quarter past five. That was the exact time when a fourteen year old Sarah had rushed recklessly out through the old, beat up screen door with a bundle of letters clenched tightly in her fist, tears flooding everywhere.
Not thinking, she'd run blindly down Cedar, careened right onto Memorial, bumped without apology into strollers and joggers until she reached her favourite bench in Warrior's Park. It was directly under the tarnished bronze statue of the Four Soldiers. This was her favourite place to go and think. The weathered faces of the four soldiers standing on guard above had always kept her safe until she could figure out what to do.
"Mom, how could you do this to us? Especially to Dad?" shouted Sarah up into the silent, dark trees around her. "What are you anyway?"
Young Sarah cried for a very long time, holding herself tightly to stop from surely breaking into a thousand pieces. Huddled under the Four Soldiers was when Sarah first realized that the relationship with her mother would now never be the same.
Quite by accident, she had discovered a carefully tied bundle of letters inside a folded up knitting bag tucked away in the lower drawer of her mother's sewing table. Sarah had been looking for some straight pins to hold two pieces of fabric together while she did the stitching on a smart looking book bag she had designed.
She yelled out to her mother who was at the far end of the house, asking where she could find some pins.
'Right bottom drawer in my sewing desk.'
As an afterthought, her mother added, 'Sarah Jane, be careful you don't stick one into your finger while you're looking.'
Carefully picking through the varied sewing supplies inside the drawer, Sarah was having no luck. She saw the fraying edge of an old knitting bag poking out under some large swatches of fabric. Sarah gently eased the bag out.
It seemed as if there was a small book inside. Upon opening, she discovered a large stack of letters carefully tied with a frayed, red wool string. Sarah figured there must be at least a couple dozen opened envelopes. Each one had her mother's name and work address handwritten on it.
Curious now, Sarah slipped one of the faded blue envelopes off the top of the pile. In the top left corner was a return address:
P.J. Cowling, Kenosha, Wisconsin, USA.
Now that's odd, she thought. As far as she knew, they didn't know anyone in Wisconsin and nobody in her family had ever been there.
As she pulled the letter from the envelope, her mother shouted, 'Having any luck, Sarah Jane?'
Startled by her mother's voice, Sarah dropped the letter, futilely grabbing at the fluttering pages.
'Not yet Mom. Still looking though.'
As Sarah knelt to pick up the scattered pages from under the table, she had a strange spell of breath-robbing anxiety, something she rarely ever had.
In her head, a familiar voice whispered, 'Put it back Sarah. Shove them all into the bag. Put everything back into the drawer. Get out of there. It's just none of your business. Forget it ever happened.'
Her hands trembled as she sorted the pages before putting them in the envelope. That's when Sarah noticed the start of the first page.
'Marjorie, my true soul mate... oh god, how I miss you lying here beside me.'
Fourteen year old Sarah was dumbstruck. Her heart began to flip wildly against her ribs. A wave of nausea started deep in her gut and rushed up toward her mouth, now wide open in shock.
"What the shit is this all about?" she whispered.
For young Sarah, it was impossible not to read the entire letter. Quickly she devoured the words. Disturbing words and scenes jumped out at her from the page. It was just like the stuff she and Lucy had read secretly last summer in a novel Lucy had stolen from her parent's bedroom drawer and smuggled into their camp cabin. Eagerly they had taken turns reading pages to each other. Sometimes with a flashlight under their blankets at night; other times, out together in the bush when they were supposed to be at archery class.
Was this really her mother? Doing all this sex stuff with this PJ person?
'And who the hell is this guy?' she wondered aloud.
Now on auto-pilot, it was as if Sarah was high above herself looking down as a silent observer. She saw herself awkwardly stuffing the letter back into the bundle of other letters and then rushing wildly out of the sewing room.
Through the front hall, past the den where her mother was watching a soap, into the kitchen with the ugly daisy walls and that stupid looking clock stuck at five fifteen. Pushing through the creaky old kitchen door, ripping the screening. Surprised, Sarah suddenly found herself standing on the back porch.
Without any logical thought, she leapt over a short wooden railing right onto the back lawn. At full speed, she ran down the double strip driveway to the front sidewalk, making a sudden skidding, twisting right turn onto Cedar, down a block and then left onto Memorial heading toward Warrior's Park.
She rushed crazily along the crowded sidewalks, sucking deep breaths mixed with groans, drooling spit and tears.
She didn't know it then, but in her rush to get away, Sarah had left her mother's brightly embroidered knitting bag lying on the floor beneath the Singer.
Under the comforting gaze of the Four Soldiers, a distraught young Sarah wiped her mouth with a bare, sweaty arm. In the rapidly fading daylight, she read each of the letters.
At first, Sarah felt dirty and disgusted. But the more she read what PJ Cowling had written to her mother, the angrier she became. After the last letter was back in its envelope and placed on top of the pile sitting loosely on the bench beside her, a surprising calm settled upon her. She counted the letters in the bundle. Thirty-eight. The deliberate act of counting the envelopes was centering her thoughts, cooling her anger.
And then she did an odd thing. Checking the postal date stamp on each envelope, Sarah re-arranged the letters in order from most recent to the beginning. The last letter from her mother's lover was a year ago but the first had been sent a little over two years previously.
Sitting on the bench under the Four Soldiers in the growing shadows and evening chill, Sarah shivered. Involuntarily, she began to shake. Hot tears came again, sluicing down her cheeks, further wetting her blouse and dress.
Young Sarah did not know how long she had been sitting silent and alone on the iron bench under the Four Soldiers.
Coming along Park Street, slowly gliding in and out of the yellowish-white pools of light from the park's old lamp posts, was her Dad's white Fairlane 500. Every weekend, he spent many hours out on the driveway, keeping it washed, waxed and polished.
Oddly, she now remembered how he would often joke that next to her, his second true love was the shiny white Ford. At the memory of his words, her gut suddenly felt like ice. Once again Sarah tried unsuccessfully to fight off the tears and fits of trembling.
The Fairlane came to a stop in front of the Four Soldiers. Wally got out of the car, leaving it running with the headlights shining well down Park Street. He walked slowly up Hero's Path toward her.
Stopping a short distance away, he spoke softly to her.
'There you are my dear one. We've been so worried about you. I've been looking everywhere. Then I remembered how much you love to sit with the Four Soldiers.'
Sarah had managed to carefully tuck the packet of letters into the small of her back behind the wide waistband of her skirt. It was a bit bulky but Sarah thought she could hide it well enough until she got back home.
Her Dad stretched out his arms. She ran into them, crushing into his chest.
Beneath his light jacket, she could hear the heart slowly beating. Sarah knew that she'd never let him go. Not ever! She wondered if her father knew about the affair between her mother and this man Cowling. But it was not her place to ask him. Not now. Not ever!
They drove away from the Four Soldiers. She looked out the window at the passing blur of dark, closed stores separated with occasional splashes of light bordering the streets and almost empty parking lots. Her father stared straight ahead, both hands firmly on the Fairlane's black plastic steering wheel.
Neither spoke but it was clear each wanted to say something. Always with her father, it was never that awkward, uncomfortable silence she often experienced with her mother. In spite of the silence in the car, she knew that she and her Dad were connecting in some mysterious way. Whenever it happened, the experience both surprised and comforted her.
His words barely noticeable above the humming sound of the tires on the roadway, her father whispered 'What's going on, sweet pea?'
She knew that he'd wait her out, not pushing her into a forced reply.
Sarah realized she couldn't trust herself to hide the anger, hurt and confusion. In normal times, he would just intuitively understand her. He'd easily read between the lines of what she chose to share. And in his soft, measured voice he would offer up no judgments. Just helpful observations or a reassuring comment.
But this wasn't a normal time. It was new and scary territory for her. And her Dad wouldn't have a clue about how his daughter's predictable and safe world had suddenly turned terribly bad just a few short hours ago.
He deserved a carefully considered answer. So she willed her heart to slow down. She took several deep breaths to help flush out some of the desperate feelings in her gut. Another cleansing breath and then words came. But she turned away from his gaze, speaking into the passenger side window.
'Just a boy problem, Dad. You know how it is with me and boys. I have a hard time trying to figure out what they see in me, what they want from me. Jonathan and I had a terrible fight on the phone this morning. It didn't end very well. He got angry then I got angry. So I hung up on him.'
He seemed to be buying it, so Sarah continued.
'I was in Mom's sewing room working on my book bag, trying to calm down and think things through more clearly. Suddenly I panicked and totally lost it. I just had to get out of the house, away from everything and cool down. You know how I get sometimes. I didn't mean to worry you by not coming back in good time. I just needed alone time to sit and think.'
She turned toward him. He was looking directly at her, his face alternatively in light then shadow from the passing lights. She knew he was silently measuring her words and story, deciding how best to respond to her obvious distress.
In a sudden, spontaneous gesture of affection, Sarah reached out and squeezed his leg.
'I love you Dad,' she whispered. 'I really do. I would never do anything to hurt you or myself. I knew you'd come looking for me. You always do.'
He tenderly touched the top of her hand. He held it for several comforting heartbeats.
When Wally turned into the driveway, he let her out by the front porch stairs. Then he slowly moved the Fairlane toward the open garage. Sarah went into the front hallway. She didn't know what she'd say if she met her mother.
Almost immediately, Sarah saw her mother in the front parlor. She was sitting stiffly in front of the flickering television screen. No words were exchanged. Her mother's face was deathly pale, expressionless. She seemed to be staring as if in a different world. Sarah knew the spirit had left her mother's body.
The carefully folded knitting bag was clasped tightly in Marjorie's lap. Sarah felt as if the bag was a trapped bird struggling to escape.
Shit, oh shit, thought Sarah. She knows that I found out about her affair with that jerk Cowling. And I have his letters.
Young Sarah looked one more time at her mother. She desperately needed to put as much distance between them as quickly as possible. She twisted and went up the stairs two at a time to her room, gently closing then locking the bedroom door.
In her room, Sarah slid the packet of letters from her waistband. Quickly she set it into her most secret of hiding places - behind the old cast iron heating grill in the wall under the head of her bed. No one would ever find the letters there. She kicked off her shoes, lifted up the pink duvet comforter and quickly wiggled into the safe, familiar cocoon of its warmth and softness. Unmoving, she lay there for a long time, staring up at the ceiling light but not really seeing it.
Perhaps she drifted off for a bit. A soft tapping at her door awakened her.
'Sarah. Sweetie. I've got some supper on. Your mother's gone out on an errand. She'll be back later. It's your favourite. Mac and cheese with some extra grated cheddar. Sarah? Honey?'
She slipped out of bed, smoothed her blouse and skirt, opened the door, squirmed briefly into her father's arms, a short hug and then ran down the stairs into the kitchen.
"OK, Dad. I'm starved. Let's do some real damage to that pot of Mac and cheese, eh!"
Funny thing, she thought, about her choice of the word 'damage'. If only damage in real life could be fixed as easily as cleaning up a pot of macaroni.
THE PRESENT: SUNDAY, LATE MORNING
"Honey? You doing ok?"
Andrew was studying her carefully.
"Yeah, sure. Of course."
But Sarah thought better of trying to hide her distress from him, so she began to talk.
"I've been trying to figure out how I can open up with Marjorie the topic of our terrible relationship. I've been stewing about it for days. Even before I put it on my New Years' list."
She paused, took a sip of the warm coffee and with a deep sigh, continued.
"It's just not like me to let something as important as this go unsettled. It's literally been years and years since we've talked. We don't visit. We don't chat on the phone. Even Dad and I don't talk about her anymore. It's as if she wasn't even alive to me. It's almost as if she has totally disappeared off the face of the earth."
Setting the mug down, Sarah reached out and took both of her husband's hands.
"You've been so understanding and patient. I've never told you any part of the story. I'm sorry about that. I really am. But even now, I just can't bring myself to talk about it.
"I put Marjorie on my list because I realized I can't go on with this horrible fiction that she doesn't exist. That she's not my mother. This thing between us has been corrosive in so many parts of our life as a family. It's something I'll always feel so badly about doing to us."
Sarah drew his hands to her moist, tear stained lips, kissing his fingers tenderly.
"Andrew, I must make it right with her. I've decided to call her in the next day or so. See if we can set up a time to talk it out. Over the past few days I've been rehearsing over and over what I'll say to her. How I can invite her to share things with me. I'm not sure it will work. But I have to try."
Listening intently, Andrew did not feel the need to comment. He knew that finally Sarah had decided to open some secret box in her past. He knew his wife well. If Sarah needed his advice, she would ask for it.
Slowly slipping his hands free from Sarah's light grasp, Andrew stood up and went into the kitchen to pour more coffee.
"If I can be of any help, Sarah, just let me know."
She nodded at his words.
"Yeah, you're always there when I need you. You're a good man, Andrew Wright."
She smiled at him then wiped her damp cheeks on a shirt sleeve.
THE PRESENT: MONDAY, LATE MORNING
Sarah waited until she knew her father would be at his weekly curling game. There was no way she wanted him to answer the phone. The plan was to keep this conversation strictly private between herself and Marjorie.
Over the years as their estrangement deepened, Sarah had stopped calling her Mom or Mother. Using Marjorie seemed more appropriate somehow. It reinforced the emotional distance between them. And if she was being honest with herself, it somehow made her feel safer.
Sarah focused her thoughts, took a couple of deep breaths and dialed the number.
After several rings, a woman answered.
"Hello? Who's this?"
It was a weak, old sounding, whiny voice.
"Hi Mom. It's me, Sarah."
A short, soft breath.
"How are you doing?"
Admittedly, it was an awkward start but at least they were finally on the phone together.
After a long pause, Marjorie answered in that distinctive, sing-song tone that Sarah remembered so well.
"Truth be told, these last few days I'm feeling a bit under the weather."
And then, as if she suddenly realized who she was talking to, Marjorie's voice turned all business. Abrupt. Faintly rude.
"Sarah, what do you want?"
There was an impersonal, distant, slightly pissed off tone to her voice. It was as if Marjorie was talking to an unwanted phone solicitor who had called once too often during the supper hour.
In spite of the tone, Sarah rushed into it.
"Mom, we need to talk. We need to fix what's between us."
Sarah paused, took a deep breath and plunged on.
"We need to talk. About you and Peter Cowling."
After so many years, Sarah had finally spoken their secret out loud.
Sarah waited. There was faint buzzing of static electricity on the line.
She could hear Marjorie breathing. Maybe it was just imagination but it sounded forced. Jagged. Full of difficulty.
Then suddenly. Angry. Accusing.
"You had no fucking right to keep those letters. I want them back."
Marjorie's voice was rising. Not yet a scream but clearly well on the way to becoming one.
"You had no fucking right to even know about us. I demand that you return his letters to me this instant."
The line went dead. Marjorie had hung up.
"Well," Sarah muttered to herself, holding the gently beeping receiver out slightly from her ear. "That went well, I suppose."
She sat very still for a long time trying to figure out what on earth to do next. She had no Plan B.
THE PRESENT: MONDAY, LATE EVENING
The phone rang just as Sarah and Andrew had settled into bed. Nobody usually called this time of night unless something bad had happened.
She did a quick mental check. Claire was most likely at her boyfriend's place. From his emails, she knew that Mark was working the night shift this week on his Shell rig up in remote northern Alberta.
"Dear God, please keep them safe," she mumbled to herself.
Sarah picked up the phone.
"Sarah. It's me. Dad. Sorry to bother you so late but I'm at the hospital. It's your mother. She collapsed in the kitchen getting supper. The paramedics got there fast but it was too late. They brought here, to the hospital emergency, Sarah."
Her father's normally calm, reassuring voice sounded uncharacteristically flat, distant, a bit mechanical. As if he was reading from a script or something.
"She died, Sarah. A massive cerebral bleed they think. They won't know for sure until they do the autopsy. I'm here with her now. At the General. Please come. Soon as you can. She's gone, Sarah. Your Mom's dead."
Just before Wally clicked off, Sarah heard a deep, wrenching sob.
"Andrew. That was Dad. Mom's died. They're at the hospital. Get dressed. We've got to go there right now."
THE PRESENT: TUESDAY, EARLY EVENING
Sarah sat alone in her office sipping cold coffee, staring aimlessly at nothing. She could hear Andrew moving about the kitchen downstairs, talking to her father. They had brought Wally back with them for the night, maybe even for the next week or so. Time would tell for how long.
After arriving at the hospital, most of the night and all of Tuesday had been a blur. Short clips of random events flashed through her mind.
Sitting with Wally by the gurney that held her mother's body. Marjorie was covered in a blue hospital sheet with a faded, unreadable logo. Oddly, a pale foot with bright red-painted toe nails remained uncovered. No one bothered to cover it.
A young doctor, showing absolutely no emotion, telling them of his suspicions about an arterial bleed. Then, almost as an afterthought, quickly expressing his regret at their loss. He left the cubicle through parted white linen curtains. They had not seen him again.
Sitting in silence with Wally. Sometimes holding his hand, sometimes not. Sometimes he reached out to touch the sheet covering his wife, letting his fingers linger for several moments before drawing them quickly back onto his lap. Or other times reaching out for the comfort of his daughter's hand.
Out in the waiting room, Andrew was on his cell calling Claire, Mark and other family members with the news.
Later at Hudgin's Funeral Home, making the arrangements. Frank was a long-time friend of Wally's. He respectfully eased them through all the necessary details. The funeral was to be on Saturday morning at eleven. That should give enough time for everyone to travel back home for the service.
Now in her office, Sarah was numb. A thousand conflicting thoughts were crashing around in her head.
Her feelings were a mish-mash. Sometimes crying. Often times angry. But mostly just empty. She had to pull herself together. Her father was a mess. She needed to be strong for him now. He had always been there for her during bad times in her life. Now it was her turn to give that strength back to him.
Sarah had been thinking quite a bit about that new file folder in her desk. She reached into the bottom right drawer, flipped through several coloured tabs, stopped at a neon yellow one marked 'PJC'. She pulled it out onto her desk.
Sarah stared at it for a bit, then seemed to make up her mind.
She opened it, taking out a single sheet of paper. Two weeks ago she had written down a few notes from the research she had done on the net. Sarah studied the page for several minutes even though she had the information memorized.
She picked up the phone, first double-checking that the area code was 608. She dialed and waited. It was after business hours, so she knew it would be an automated answering service.
'Thank you for calling Bay Point Power. Our offices are closed at the moment. If you know the extension of the party to whom you wish to speak, please enter the number now. If you wish to use the company directory, push the number sign. Or stay on the line to leave a voice message that will be forwarded to the appropriate staff member when we re-open tomorrow morning.'
In her earlier research, Sarah had obtained Peter Cowling's extension from the company website. She punched in '1-2-0-4'.
She imagined a phone ringing in a large, beautifully furnished executive office that looked out over downtown Kenosha and the lake beyond. Sarah could see several wood framed portraits of the Cowling family posed in various settings. One of them had been taken on a dock at the family cottage in northern Wisconsin. For sure there would be a large, chocolate Lab sitting proudly between three teenaged girls. Each one very attractive, wearing expensive casual clothes right out of the latest J. Crew catalogue. His wife, Sarah imagined, was also smartly dressed. Smaller than her daughters, pale skinned, light auburn-coloured hair fashioned into a smart bob, she sat beside them, smiling warmly into the camera.
A pleasant baritone voice broke into Sarah's thoughts.
'Hello. You've reached the office of Peter Cowling, Executive Vice-President of Sales, Bay Point Power. I'm not in the office at the moment, but do leave me a message along with your number. I'll get back to you as soon as I can.'
Nice voice, thought Sarah. Not at all what I expected. It's not too late to hang up. To just let sleeping dogs lie. But I've gone this far so just might as well get on with it.
"Mr. Cowling? Hi. My name is Sarah Wright. I am the daughter of Marjorie Williams of Fraserville, Ontario. I just wanted to tell you that Marjorie passed away unexpectedly yesterday. Since you were a good friend of hers back when she worked at Bay Point in Toronto, I thought you might want to know about this."
Then very efficiently, without any trace of emotion, Sarah quickly ran through the specific details of the funeral arrangements, paused briefly, then hung up.
Heart pounding, Sarah turned to her last remaining task.
Getting up from her desk, she went over to the closet that doubled as a small file storage and office supply space. From the top shelf she took down a small, water-stained brown box. It was tightly wrapped with old, now crinkly, transparent packing tape.
Back at her desk, using a sharp bladed craft knife, Sarah slit the box and removed the packet of her mother's letters. She sat for several moments staring at them in her hands, seeming uncertain if what she planned to do now was the right thing.
Mind made up, Sarah turned on the document shredder beside her desk.
One by one, Sarah fed the letters into it. She counted aloud each of the envelopes with its letter inside. Much like she had done so many years ago on that park bench under the Four Soldiers.
"Thirty-seven," said Sarah as she distractedly watched the shredder rip through the envelope and its contents, spitting the pieces into the bucket below.
The final letter was now in her hands. She hesitated for a moment, then slipped it into the thin slot on top of the machine.
"Thirty-eight," she said as the shredder finished its work then automatically shut off.
Opening a small, clear plastic disposable bag from beside the shredder, Sarah dumped the contents of the shredding bin into the bag, twist tied it shut and set it aside for garbage pick-up on Thursday morning. Almost as an afterthought, she also took the box which had held the letters, broke it flat, cut it into small pieces and fed everything slowly into the shredder.
THE PRESENT: SATURDAY, LATE MORNING
The graveside committal service for Marjorie had just finished. In spite of the cold, early January weather, there had been a good turnout at the cemetery. People now slowly picked their way between the headstones toward their cars and pickup trucks parked along the upper roadway. Many footprints left random dark patches in the freshly fallen snow.
Sarah was standing alone at the graveside, deep within herself. A slight movement to her right brought her back.
A man was moving slowly toward her, passing under an almost leafless maple tree, Its thin branches shook and rustled in the cold, gusting wind.
He stopped briefly at the graveside opposite Sarah who was now watching him in silence. Leaning down, he gently placed a single white rose on the top of Marjorie's casket resting just above a green artificial carpet surrounding the plot.
He was a tall man, maybe in his early to mid-sixties. In spite of the blustery cold, no hat covered his gray, fashionably long hair, strands of which had escaped to spread lightly over his shirt collar in several places. He was warmly wrapped in an expensive, full length brown cashmere coat, collar turned partly up against the chill wind. His eyes were light blue, a striking feature in a pleasing, tanned face. Light crow's feet spilled from the corners of the eyes. Thin, steel framed glasses added to his overall confident, professional manner.
The man turned to his left and came round the grave, moving slowly toward Sarah. He stopped at the edge of the graveside within an arm's reach.
He smiled warmly. Quite unexpectedly, Sarah felt herself being instantly drawn to this man. Her mother's secret lover.
Under different circumstances, we could be friends. Sarah tried to push this unexpected impression from her thoughts.
"We've never met. But as you know, Marjorie and I were colleagues." He paused as if struggling to not stumble over his words. "And close friends many years ago."
His blue eyes held steady on her.
Sarah nodded ever so slightly.
"I very much appreciate you taking the time to call me about Marjorie's passing. I'm deeply sorry for your loss. I hope you don't mind, but as you just saw, I left her a white rose."
He smiled awkwardly. It surprised her.
Sarah sensed that he was struggling with some deep emotion.
"She loved white roses, you know. Once again, thank you for your thoughtfulness in letting me know."
The man hesitated as if he wanted to say something more. Or perhaps it was to let Sarah reply. Apparently deciding that neither was going to happen, he turned and walked slowly back to his car, pulling his collar more tightly around his neck. Apart from Sarah's Honda, his was the only car left on the upper roadway.
Just before ducking inside, he stopped.
For a long moment, over the roof top, he looked directly at Sarah. He mouthed some words to her. And then he disappeared into his car.
His unspoken words were clear. I loved her. God bless.
Sarah heard the silver Fusion start and slowly pull away toward the eastern gate of the Citadel cemetery. In spite of the distance and all the road dirt, she could just make out the bright red letters in the top left corner of the rear plate. Wisconsin.
"I knew you'd come," Sarah whispered.
But the wind swept her words out among the gravestones.
She looked down at the single white rose on the top of her mother's coffin.
He said she loved white roses. He said he loved her.
Sarah wished she had known so much more about her mother.
Pulling her coat tightly around her, Sarah made her way carefully up the hill and to the welcome warmth of her car.