Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight
Updated: May 3, 2022
“Humor me,” Mabel’s physician, Everett, had said, insisting that she ‘At least take the tour!’ of the senior’s lodge.
“You seem to think I’m under the delusion that I’m not frail and fading and ninety-two,” she replied. “That you need to somehow remind me by taking me to a place where I’m surrounded by the old.”
“I’m taking you to a place where you’re surrounded by staff who could help you, Mabel,” he said.
She jacked a brow. Help her? How was that possible when the staff—an entire battalion of them—were currently ducking and diving around a wrinkled beast who, hunched over a walker, was also (and bizarrely, thought Mabel), waving a cane like a bat. The Beast (who smelled like a billy goat; Mabel and Everett had passed her on their way in) was also swearing, a string of profanity as foul as the seat of her pants, soaked wet and stinking. Watching her was like witnessing a car accident; Mabel could not to help but gawk.
The Beast caught her and narrowed her eyes. “What are you looking at?”
“A disgrace,” Mabel replied, gaze fastened and perversely pleased when a simmer boiled across the Beast’s face, turning it peevish and mean. A thin smile curved her lips. “See?” she said. “I’m correct. For if you were a dotty old thing who didn’t know any better, an old fool who was not keenly aware that she was every bit as foul as her wet bloomers stink, it would not make you so angry to be called a disgrace. As it is, though, if you still possessed the coordination and gait to approach me, you’d claw my eyes out—and that tells me you not only know you are a disgrace, you also choose to be. Shame on you,” she added, then turned.
Everett stared, a mix of alarm and amusement on his face.
Silly boy. What on earth did he think she had to lose, speaking her mind at ninety-two? “You can take me home,” she said, and tucked her hand in his elbow. “I haven’t witnessed nine decades just to live amongst beasts who smell like barn.” She steered him toward a door with a glowing red EXIT sign hanging over its threshold. Lord, how pathetic. That the inmates here (for who on earth was Pollyanna enough to call them residents?) needed a visual cue to show them the door.
Behind them the Beast bawled out a string of indiscriminate curses, some intelligible, others not. “Poison,” murmured Mabel. “It’s 2016. Surely there’s something by now that won’t leave a trace.”
Everett’s mouth twitched, a movement that pleased her for she could tell how badly it wanted to erupt into a full-blown smile. “2016,” he echoed, “meaning technology is so sophisticated nothing can’t be traced.”
Mabel exhaled, an intentionally world-weary sigh. “‘A man with technology is like an alcoholic with a barrel full of wine’,” she said.
Everett barked out a laugh. “Are you quoting the Unabomber?”
Now her mouth twitched, wanting to smile. “Perhaps he quoted me. I am ninety-two,” she said then led them, under that pathetic EXIT sign, out into the sun, a bath of warmth that instantly washed the air clean from the stench of turnips and urine that had been in the lodge.
‘Lodge’. What a cruelly laughable euphemism. Shuddering, she slid gratefully into Everett’s car after he, as any gentleman should, opened the door. “I will not live as long in my house as I’d survive taking up residence here,” she announced, and peered up at him from the passenger seat, thankful she could not see the dismay on his face due to the cut of the sun. “But that’s the operative word, Doctor: ‘Survive’. I prefer living—don’t you?”
His sad eyes spoke before he could.
Mabel arched a brow, an expression she’d perfected in the classroom decades ago. “I am ninety-two,” she said clearly. “My history outpaced my future quite some ago—and right now only one of us is pretending that isn’t true.”
He looked startled. Then sheepish.
“Ninety-two,” she repeated, then settled herself back against the vinyl seat of his car, a tiny thing aptly called a Micra; it could fit in her purse, for goodness sake. An icy winter highway would turn it into a curling rock, whirling down the road with no weight to speak of to keep it between the lines. It was a ridiculous car not befitting a doctor. She raised a halting finger before Everett could shut her passenger door. “Do you at least purchase winter tires when the season calls?” she asked.
He looked confused. “Of course.”
“Wise,” she said, and affixed her seat belt. “Carry on.”
He scratched his head then moved around the Micra, folded his incongruous height behind the wheel. She clocked the defeat in his eyes, and “Everett,” she said.
He looked askance at her.
“Living,” she said, “is wholly different than surviving.” She should know. She’d been doing both, often simultaneously, throughout a life that often felt much too long.
A flash of memory—gentle eyes, quiet questions, and a porch swing awash with late evening sun—pinched her heart hard enough she gasped.
“Pothole,” said Everett. “Sorry.”
She nodded and quickly chased her memory trail elsewhere, to places where she’d indeed found much joy. Like with teaching. With researching. Reading and socializing…curling! (Gracious! No wonder the analogy had occurred to her with Everett’s foolish car!). Her rink of girlfriends and the cocktails they’d share after every last End, rye-n-cokes that raised the eyebrows of the rinks of married men who occupied the lounge with them. Mabel’s lip curled, remembering how their eyes—half judging and half on-the-prowl—would regard them. As if women who drank rye-n-cokes were synonymous with women who’d indulge them in indiscretions kept secret…and perhaps a little wilder than their own white-wine wives.
Good Lord, men could be so myopic, contorting everything into the sexual. Believing a woman’s every choice or preference was some sort of metric that measured how likely she’d be to either lead him into her own bedroom—or meet him under the neon glow of a no-tell motel with stained sheets.
“We are more than just fantasies,” she murmured, something she’d never had to tell Thomas.
“Pardon?” Everett glanced her way.
Dammit! Lately her every thought was tangential, and more often than not blurted aloud; like her brain had foreclosed upon the border once stalwart between what she said on the inside versus what she allowed to be heard on the outside. “I said I wish the Lodge would have been more than just a fantasy,” she lied now.
“Me too,” Everett peered glumly through the windshield.
She reached over, patted his hand, pleased to have covered up her own errant tongue, but truly sorry her young physician had gone through all this trouble for nothing.
Thomas would have done something like this too. His kindness, much like Everett’s, frequently skewing judgement that was otherwise sound.
Thomas. More and more he entered her thoughts these days, and it occurred as Everett approached the curb to her bungalow: Thomas had also survived without living—not because he was ensconced in any euphemistic senior’s lodge, but because she’d kept him with her.
Yet was that okay? Or fair?
Shaken, she let Everett escort her out of the Micra, dispensing with any customary fuss when he plucked her house key as her hands stumbled, fit it into her front lock and gallantly opened the door. “You’re a fine man,” she said.
Concern cloaked his brow.
She touched his cheek. “I am happy here,” she told him.
He looked beyond her, and she knew what he saw. A tiny bungalow where she had always lived alone. “Aren’t you lonely?” he said.
“Yes. I’ve been lonely all my life. But a ‘lodge’,” she hooked gnarled fingers into air quotes, “will not remedy that, and besides—one can be both lonely and happy at once.”
He looked doubtful.
“Trust me.” She smiled. “I am ninety-two. Chances are I know more than you. Farewell, Everett.” She moved inside.
Scents—nutmeg, molasses—rushed forth and, scanning for the source, her eyes landed upon a plate of wrapped cookies, centred on her kitchen table. A smile hitched her cheeks and she approached them, knowing who’d left the note tidily tented atop their plastic wrap.
Mabel set the note aside with purposeful gentleness, as if her neighbor might feel if she were anything less than careful. Never would she have have believed she’d come to call seventy young, but Betty, next door, had over the years become a de facto daughter—and in the absence of any blood relatives, was the keeper of Mabel’s extra house key ‘just in case’.
“And today must have felt like ‘just-in-case’,” she murmured. Betty had known of Mabel’s field trip with Everett. Had said “I’ll support whatever you decide”. A declaration not entirely honest. For this note, these cookies… “Welcome home,” Mabel murmured. As in, this is your home. “You’re awful young to be so wise, Betty,” she chuckled, and pecked at the wrap on the cookies, feeling for the edge but missing it. Missing again, fingers adding tremors to the difficulty until at last she clawed the wrap, throat emitting something like a snarl, and when at last she tore through the plastic, cookies clattering wildly over the table…and she was horrified by how unexpectedly—and how suddenly—she’d become just like the Beast in the Lodge.
Out of control. Raging.
“This…this is not me,” she gasped.
Ah, but this is who I’ve become.
She closed her eyes and the Lodge flashed behind her lids—commercial carpet, uniform chairs. Neutral colors, all purposefully subdued in order to subdue. A place to survive while you remained alive.
The tremors, present more than absent these days, snaked through her hands yet again, but even as tears—frustration and, yes, grief—hit the backs of her eyes, the scents of molasses and spice made her mouth water. A reminder—“I’m still living. Not just alive.” Shakes abided as she set one cookie aside, still she managed to gather the others, arranged them with approximately the same care Betty had taken when she’d fixed the plate. Choosing fresh saran wrap to cover them (one tidy sheet with an easily visible and accessible edge, tucked under the plate), she was pleased that when her hands completed the task they’d reclaimed steady digits.
Mostly steady digits.
Sighing, she bit into her cookie, savoring its spice on her tongue and grateful for flavor because this, too, was something becoming elusive; food that had once bloomed in her mouth now mostly had texture, not taste.
A fresh Hell that frequently called up her gag reflex.
“I am ninety-two,” she said, and set the last bite of cookie aside. She should call Betty, thank her and confirm that yes, she would be remaining at home. But first… “It is time,” she said.
The trunk at the foot of her bed held mementos—her grandmother’s late 1800’s hand-crocheted doilies. A set of drapes whose lilac pattern was mostly faded but still discernable enough, she hadn’t the heart to give them to charity. And, beneath those—
The chenille bedspread, bought brand-new with her own money ($6.99! A fortune!), in 1942. It had been a gift to herself for emerging from teen to adulthood, (the age twenty had seemed a lot bigger than the price of $6.99), and when it had arrived in the post, the chenille had been so much grander and divine than the pen and ink sketch depicting it in the Sears Catalog. Plush. Mature. The chenille bedspread was a snowy throw of cosmopolitan luxury; tufted white lines interspersed with bursts of pastel rosettes, anchored by green leaves. The chenille bedspread was not only elegant—it had been perfect for a newly-minted twenty-year old’s sophisticated bedroom.
Twenty-year old bride’s sophisticated bedroom, she’d amended, privately, for upon that breathless purchase ($6.99! Mother had been furious!) Mabel had been preparing for a proposal. The chenille throw would be on her marriage bed.
She brushed a palm over it now, its bumps of tufts still soft beneath her hand. Today, words like ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’, even ‘whimsical’ were used to describe this piece of indulgence she had once called refined. Urbane.
When new, the chenille bedspread had looked the way she had felt when she and Thomas were courting; front porch conversations drenched in moonlight and sweet lemonade, her skin thrilling when she’d hand him a glass and his fingertips would accidentally connect with the back of her hand. The apologetic way he’d draw back—not because he had not thrilled too, but because, back then, decent men did not just behave like gentlemen—they wanted to be gentlemen too. Still, that electric sensation, fingertip against fingertip, had somehow managed to become one with the scent of night stalk and lilacs that dominated their yard. Bushes Daddy interred because lilacs were some of the only florals strong enough to cover all the malodorous nasty coming out of the chicken coop or outhouse out back.
Not that anything vulgar like that had occurred when Thomas came ’round. Thomas turned the scent of lilacs into the way her heart fluttered whenever her said her name—"Miss Mabel”—and, to this day, in an era where people planted lilacs in their yard for perfume, not practicality, that first sharp scent in spring took her back. Took her back.
To a front porch swing creaking and lemonade she’d fret over—was it sweet enough? Cold enough? “It’s always such a pleasure when you come by, Thomas,” she’d demur, and he would seriously reply:
“I have a love of intelligent conversation, Miss Mabel.” He had hazel eyes the color of wild clover honey, and they would search hers, hunting as if to see if she viewed a man who craved intellectual company as somehow lesser than. A failing.
It astonished her, then and now.
“And I…I have those conversations with you,” he’d add, and at this she’d feel proud and thrilled, for it was true; Thomas liked to discuss everything she’d just read about, or listened to radio serials about—yet had no one else to parse it all through with. Still—“It’s fine if you just call me Mabel,” she’d deflect. “’Miss’ makes me feel like a schoolteacher.”
“Well, you sure know as many things as a schoolteacher, Mabel. Maybe more.”
That part, while flattering, turned out not to be true. Years later, alone, and actually becoming a teacher, she’d had to learn much, much more than what she’d known as a girl on that porch. And some of what she’d had to learn well enough to teach scorched her heart. Lessons like—“Our next unit is World War II.” There was no year she’d said it when her tongue did not numb at the words. No time when her throat would not close when she made vocabulary lists including words like “Conscription” and “Normandy”.
Now, with the chenille bedspread on her lap, Mabel studied its familiar pattern, marveling at how the word ‘Conscription’ was still a fresh shock. A steel door slammed shut upon her every plan and dream. After Thomas departed, she’d never placed this chenille on her bed. Instead she’d grasped it like worry beads, plucking tufts off coral and sky-blue rosettes until the flowers looked like a late September garden—all bald patches and plucked petals that suffered most in the spates between every letter coming from across the Atlantic; her breath held and nerves raw as she haunted the path between the mailbox and this once smug and so self-assured chenille bedspread.
When that last letter arrived in an envelope without Thomas’ penmanship…her fingers searched the fabric, found the spot of rosettes where she’d cried. Tufts still slightly stiff from the salt in her tears.
“There are other beaux,” her mother had said, a rare softening when months passed and Mabel had come to resemble her patchy and plucked chenille flowers.
“I love learning,” she’d replied dully. “And intelligent conversations.”
It was true, and over the years her classroom and her students had also became loves, and as she sat remembering now, she wondered what Betty would do with all the mementos she’d saved over the years—the collection of World’s Best Teacher mugs. The yearbooks. The wedding invitations, birth announcements and, most important, the excited missives from pupils who’d gone been accepted into Graduate studies. Sometimes Doctoral degrees.
All starting with being taught to have intelligent conversations that sharpened critical minds.
“What should Betty do with them, Thomas?” she asked, aloud and peering down at the chenille bedspread. After Normandy, and in secret, she’d developed a ritual: once a year she’d fold the chenille over her lap like she’d done when she’d waited for his letters, and for hours she’d pretend they still sat on her porch. There she’d share all she’d seen or that had troubled her over the year. Ask questions and imagine answers. Look for guidance and advice she’d pretend to then get.
And as she did so, she’d pluck tufts here and there, a muscle memory movement from a time when Thomas been similarly absent…yet still alive. Plucking, she’d told him about Teacher’s College. About her students. About world events and world worries. She told him about about crocheting in her spare time, and regaled him about curling, imagining his laugh at the antics of she and her girlfriends, out on the bubbled ice, and their customary stiff rye-n-cokes after the last end.
She told him every one of her maybes, and mights. She shared every “I wish” as she plucked this chenille bedspread, their wedding blanket, the one possession that anchored her to him even though he’d never seen it. Thomas was, after all, a gentleman. He’d never stepped foot beyond the dinner table in her family’s farmhouse. Had been content to spend almost all of their time together on the porch.
When her parents had died, she’d sold the farm, her attorney adding a clause that the new owners consider letting her remove the porch swing so she could place it in her yard here in town. They’d been gracious, obliged, and it had felt like a victory; not having to give Thomas up.
Yet sitting on the swing in her own back yard had felt hollow. Like a phony stage set, especially after she planted that lilac bush next to it. What had she been trying to prove?
“Pathetic,” she spat. After the swing debacle she rarely even looked into her back yard anymore much less visited it, and for decades had been hiring local youths to mow. And the lilac, dug out long ago, had been replaced by a caragana with no scent.
This chenille, though…? Reaching into the trunk, she extracted the bag of fluff she’d plucked too, the pieces encased in a clear zip-top sandwich sack she kept tucked next to a stack of yellowed letters, tied together with a lilac-hued ribbon. “I survived, Thomas.” Her fingers moved over the bag, making the plastic crunch. “And I’ve lived a bit, too.”
She rose, a stiff clench of pain grasping her knees as she stood, the chenille and sack of plucked tufts in her hand. Pausing, and weaving a bit as feeling flooded back into her legs, she shuffled out to her phone, a rotary dial affixed to the wall. Last week an ad in the local paper had caught her eye and she’d clipped it out, tacked it onto the corkboard fastened next to her phone.
Vintage Textile Restoration
Daisy McCullough, Proprietress
Beyond ‘restoration’, two things about the ad had struck Mabel: First the name—‘Newly Old’. It was true. One ever felt old. ‘Old’ was something that took one by surprise, for most of the time one only felt like oneself—ageless; a collection of experiences rather than years. But then some untimely reminder (whining knees, deadened taste buds) served to remind how many years had passed, a number always far more jarring and definitely more finite than the lengthy highlight reel of classrooms and curling. Of porch swings and lilacs and cold lemonade. Of a hand whose touch upon one’s wrist was a rollercoaster thrill.
Sighing, Mabel moved on to the next thing was that had impressed her about the ad.
Proprietress. Not ‘Owner’, not ‘Manager’. Instead ‘Proprietress’—meaning not just a businesswoman, but one with a refined vocabulary. “You will do nicely,” she said and, with the chenille clutched to her chest, dialed and waited.
A voice answered. “Newly Old. Daisy McCullough speaking.”
Brisk. Efficient. This earned another nod, and Mabel said, “Mabel Astoria here. I am in possession of a chenille throw, circa 1942. I would like it restored.”
“Size?” clipped the Proprietress.
“Double.” Which had never even covered a single.
“And will it require patching or—”
“No. It’s…been plucked.” Mabel cleared her throat. “But I have most of the tufts.”
“Really.” This came out too surprised to sound like a question. “But other than missing tufts, it’s intact?”
“It is pristine,” Mabel told her and, examining the chenille in the sunlight of the kitchen, could see this was not just wishful thinking. The snowy fabric had not yellowed; there wasn’t a single errant, ivoried spot.
“When can you drop it off?” the Proprietress, Daisy McCullough, asked.
“Ah…” In 1977, a handful of years before she would retire in ’82, Mabel purchased a white Thunderbird, straight off the lot. The last, and only new car she’d owned. It was still in her garage and, like the chenille, was also pristine. She’d had it serviced faithfully over the years, and more than one teenage student who still saw her for tutoring said “That is a sweet land yacht, Ms. A. How much are you asking?”
“More than you can afford,” she’d clip briskly, but inwardly smile. She loved that car more than any good curling end or sweet rye-n-coke. Still… “This chenille is far younger than me,” she told Daisy McCullough, “though I am similarly worn and plucked. So I’m afraid I don’t drive.”
A small, somewhat delighted, laugh erupted from the Proprietress’s end.
Mabel said, “I may have to have it delivered.”
“Or I could come pick it up,” said Daisy, before rapidly adding “If you’re comfortable with that. I just…1942. I rarely receive a piece quite that vintage.”
A thousand quips crossed Mabel’s mind. Saying none of them, she instead recited her address. “Is that too out of the way?”
“Not at all.”
“Do you need me to repeat it?”
“I wrote it down.”
Orderly and efficient. A proprietress. Daisy McCullough was the right choice. “When may I expect you?” she asked.
“Is this afternoon too soon?”
“I am ninety-two, Ms. McCullough. There is no time too soon.”
Daisy McCullough did not look brisk or orderly. Arriving within the hour, she pulled up in a black Monte Carlo as yester-year as the last five decades of fashion that had thrown up on her person. Polyester, patterns, a neon sleeve of bangles and a crocheted top so ghastly Mabel simply stared.
“I’m a walking advertisement,” Daisy told her, in lieu of an introduction and somewhat sheepishly before adding “And I’m also never able to decide between a textile or style.” Her fingers moved then, fondly caressing the seam racing down the front of her polyester slacks.
The gesture struck Mabel as reverent, and she said, “Your true love,” nodding at the fabrics and patterns Daisy wore.
The young woman exhaled, relief Mabel could see. The gratitude that came with being understood. “A great love is not always a person,” Daisy told her.
Mabel smiled. “That is true. Sometimes it is lemonade and excellent conversation.”
Daisy nodded, unfazed, and, “The chenille?” she said.
The bedspread, draped over the cleared kitchen table, earned Daisy’s discriminate eye; squatting eye-level with it, she examined in silence, then said, “It’s not nearly as rough as I’d feared. Especially considering its age.”
“Old things can surprise one like that.”
If Daisy heard the dryness, she did not say. Efficient, Mabel thought again, enjoying her.
“And these are the tufts?” Daisy lifted the small sandwich bag.
“Most of the tufts.” Mabel grimaced. “In the early days I did not have the foresight to save them.”
“No matter.” Daisy tucked the bag into a satchel she carried. “I have others that will be a close, if not identical, match.”
Mabel nodded, appreciating how Daisy refrained from inquiring why she’d saved the tufts—or what had propelled her to pluck them at all.
Her eyes stole to where the rosettes, intact, were nonetheless bristly from having been baptized by a love never consummated and babies never born. Of conversations unentered and unfinished. “There is some…damage there.” She pointed.
Daisy touched the spot. “Baby detergent,” she said. “It has a softening agent.”
Mabel blinked. Baby detergent. Of course. It was both a surprise and not a surprise that this had never occurred to her. “So…you can fix it?” she said. Her chenille. Her Thomas. Her life.
“Of course I can fix it.”
There was a thread of indignation there that pulled Mabel’s gaze from the chenille.
Daisy regarded her. “How soon would you like it done?”
Mabel’s moth pursed. “There is a measure of urgency,” she said wryly.
Daisy nodded, no pity, no patronizing. “I can bump it in queue,” she offered, then quoted a price.
“Reasonable,” said Mabel. “Deposit?”
There was a measure of respect in being treated like any other customer as opposed to a frail and fading old lady. Unclipping her purse, Mabel thumbed through bills. “Cash is acceptable?” she asked.
“Cash is king,” Daisy replied.
An excellent answer. “May I offer you a cookie?” Mabel said.
Daisy glanced, half alarmed, at the chenille still spread over the table. “Grease or crumbs—”
“Ah.” Mabel waved a hand then moved (with swiftness that both pleased and surprised her) to a kitchen drawer. Extracting a plastic bag not unlike the one encasing the chenille tufts, she slipped four Betty-cookies inside. “Problem rectified.” She handed the biscuits to Daisy—who promptly glanced at them, then down at her thighs.
"Umm...my mother always said one cookie was enough to feed the appetite and that any others were just feeding an empty soul."
Mabel blinked, slow. "It sounds like your mother did not know the difference between existing and living," she said.
"Or that beauty and a big appetite can co-exist in a woman. In fact," She pursed her lips, “it's been my experience that scolding and shaming are a gluttony far more poisonous than four cookies."
"I...agree," said Daisy, but it teetered out high-pitched, like a question, as if the notion had never actually occurred to her, not till today.
"I was once a teacher," Mabel told her, then tucked tongue in cheek. Teacher or not, she'd have never gotten away with judging parents this harshly. Not aloud, at any rate. Ah, well. What was being ninety-two if one couldn’t impart a bit of audacious wisdom now and then?
Mabel watched from the stoop as Daisy backed her Monte Carlo out of the driveway and then, with a business-like salute, drove away with every conversation Mabel and Thomas had never had on the passenger seat beside her.
It was the first time she’d not had the chenille in her possession since Thomas died.
She froze there, on her step. Up till today, she’d never said Thomas died. She had said ‘conscription’. She had said ‘Normandy’.
She had never said ‘died’.
Shaken, she turned back into the house, picked up the rotary phone.
Betty answered off the first ring, no hello, just—“And…?”
“And you were correct,” Mabel said. “I feel most welcome here at home.”
The smile over the line was loud.
“And these cookies are splendid. I think they’ll go well with rye-n-coke.”
Betty gasped, scandalized, but then tittered in a way that said she’d be right over. Mabel hung up the phone. There was 2/3’s of a bottle of rye in the cupboard, and she always kept a six pack of coke in the fridge much like Betty kept a key to her house.
Just in case.
“…she was wearing Fortrel?” Betty asked.
Lord. Mabel hadn’t heard the trade-name Fortrel for polyester in years. It was like Betty had just spoken out from inside a time capsule. “Yes,” she answered, slightly jarred. “Her slacks. Circa 1972. Maybe three. I’d forgotten how popular that jacquard print was.” Mabel sipped rye-n-coke. “It was a good look.”
“I miss it,” Betty sighed. “I wasn’t even forty then and still svelte. I could get away with jacquard on my hips without looking like somebody’s sofa.”
Mabel sniggered. “The nice part about polyester prints was the camouflage factor. You could stand up against the wallpaper and never be seen again.”
“A wallflower!” Betty tittered.
Oh, yes. After two rye-n-cokes, Betty was well on her way. Mabel hid first a smile then alarm when her neighbor hoisted the rye, and splashed a little more in her glass before thunking it back onto the table.
The bottle was down to a third. Oh, my.
“I miss it, actually,” said Betty. “Wallpaper. Think it’ll come back?”
“Not while I’m still living, I hope.”
Mabel shrugged. Sipped her cocktail. Could she ever belt them back like Betty? Probably after a few particularly solid ends of curling.
“Do you have regrets?” Betty asked.
The question took her by surprise and as she floundered Betty’s face took on the color of apples. “That was thoughtless. I’m sorry. I—”
“No, it wasn’t. It was real and I appreciate honesty—as you know,” this she said starchly, then thought. “Regrets? I’d have liked to have been more serious with curling. I was good—a skip,” she said.
Betty listened, big eyes.
“And teaching—I’d have missed the classroom, but I’d have been an excellent principal. No kow-towing, no diplomatic sacrifices.”
Betty pulled a face. “That may have been good for the school, but you’d have been slaughtered for not politicking.”
Mabel considered this and, “Probably,” she sighed, and splashed herself a little more rye and a bit more coke.
“And the kids would have lost out, without you.”
She would have been lost too. Again she thought of her collection of mementos. Wondered once more what Betty would do with them when…. Well, when. She took a hearty gulp of rye-n-coke.
“What about marriage?” asked Betty.
Mabel blinked, and good gracious if she didn’t feel a bit blurry when she said, “I did marry.”
Betty sat back, agape. “I…” She squinted. “When? To who? Did you…” She smacked hand atop mouth, eyes moon-big. “Did you elope?”
Mabel chuckled, a merry sound that rang out young. Felt young. Jarred, and wondering—Am I dying or just drunk?—she said “He was Thomas and I married him in 1944.” More rye. More coke. “It was beautiful. We danced to You’ll Never Know by Vera Lynn.”
“’You went away and my heart went with you,’” Betty sang.
Mabel blinked at the apposite lyric. “My mother made a three-tiered fruitcake,” she said. “Soaked it in rum weeks beforehand. We cut it into narrow sticks to hand out to our guests, wrapped them each in cellophane and small paper doilies.”
“Tied with ribbon,” Betty nodded.
Mabel looked at her, sharp. Was she mocking her? Or—she took stock of Betty’s face. It wore a dreamy, far-away look. Imagining. Like me, she thought, and a stitch of melancholy hitched in her chest. Nonetheless, she continued. “We held the reception right there on the farm. There were lilacs and baby’s breath. Clouds of baby’s breath. And daises,” she added, spontaneously. Fondly. “We had daisies.”
Betty’s mouth moved, lost for words. “I…had no idea. It sounds lovely. I wish…I wish I’d have been there.”
“You would have been an infant,” Mabel chided, and took a sip of her drink. Too much coke. She added rye.
Betty said, “Are there pictures?”
Mabel sat back, considered, then, “Did what I told you paint a picture in your mind?”
Betty nodded. “Baby’s breath and daisies. Lilacs and you, a young you, in a wedding dress. Yes.”
Mabel regarded her. “Then that’s what you’ll have to be content with, Betty. As have I.”
Betty looked confused.
Mabel pushed her rye-n-coke away with a finger and said, softly, “I got married in my mind. June 6th, 1944. A June bride.” She smiled mirthlessly.
“But that…that’s D-Day,” Betty said.
“Oh, yes. I know.” Mabel lifted her glass. “The Beaches of Normandy.”
Betty’s face fell.
“Thomas was conscripted in 1942. We planned our wedding in the years he was gone—in letters.” Where Thomas became bolder and more forward than he’d ever been face to face. At the time she thought he’d grown more direct because it was easier to write such romantic notions and feelings without having to look her in the eye, lose his nerve. Or perhaps the company of other men penning missives to their sweethearts back home had emboldened him.
It was not till much later—lately, really, if she were to be honest—that she realized he’d actually been forecasting; living out his future in the only way he’d had available—through fantasies and wishes sent in letters to her, because he must have known, in that unconscious place where truth seemed to live (was it in the heart? In the soul?) that he’d never really see her again. “I’ve married him a thousand times in my mind,” she said softly. A tear crawled down her cheek. “And I’ve always included every detail we planned. Vera Lynn. Lilacs. All that baby’s breath he was so fond of.” And the chenille bedspread, beneath them on their wedding night.
“I’m sorry,” said Betty, and thankfully no pity weighted her words. She was just sorry. Truly sorry.
“I appreciate that.” Mabel toasted her and then, with a wistful smile—“Over the years I’ve heard lots of names,” she told her. “‘Spinster’. Old dyke. Oh, yes!” She laughed at Betty’s appalled expression. “The worst, though, was ‘Martyr’. My own mother used to say there were other beaux.”
“But…you had a beau. And you stayed with him not because you had—what’s the term? Survivor guilt—”
Martyrdom, Mabel supplied, silently.
“—or even because you were faithful. You stayed with him because he was the One,” Betty said, and God love her, she sounded stone-cold sober now.
She was also correct. “Thank you,” Mabel said again.
Betty added, “He was so perfect he remained enough for you—even after he died.”
Also true, so much so that hearing it bit her heart. “Yes,” she whispered, and her hand shot out, grasped her drink. She finished the rye-n-coke in one knocked-back gulp. “I have something to show you,” she said, and stood.
Betty rose too, looking uncertain as Mabel beckoned her ’round the corner of the kitchen, and to the hall closet. “Earlier we were talking Fortrel,” she said, and cracked the bi-fold doors. They squealed the way she imagined her joints sounded whenever she bent down these days. “Look here,” she said.
Betty gasped as decades of outfits became visible, the wider Mabel opened the closet doors. “My teacher clothing,” she said, all hung in tidy intervals; the prim 50’s meeting the mod 1960’s. Then the prints (and, yes, Fortrel), of the 1970’s, stretching out till at last the shoulder-padded 1980’s ended the line. All neatly pressed and hanging in clear, plastic dry-cleaner bags. Her eyes skipped over each outfit, fond. “I enjoyed dressing well,” she remarked dryly.
It was an understatement. A woman alone with years of professional wage? She had afforded designer names like Dior and Halston. Purchased matching shoes and bags.
Betty gaped at the closet, and it was amusing to watch the way she ogled the clothing, Thomas and Normandy, Mabel’s pretend wedding, completely forgotten.
Or at least it was till—“This,” said Betty, and touched a bagged dress that pre-dated all of the teacher clothes. An ivory confection, silk and lace.
Mabel’s grin withered. “Ah, that,” she said. “That was what could have been,” she said. “But this—” out swept an arm, encompassing all of the outfits. “This is what was.”
Yet as Betty fondled the sleeve of a Chanel Mabel had been particularly fond of, Mabel’s eyes remained locked on the ivory silk gown. Then—“This closet is like a store!” exclaimed Betty, and she laughed, relieved and delighted to have shared such a prize with her dear friend.
“It is, isn’t it?” she said. “I thought you’d get a kick out of it.” She paused, then—“Think the young proprietress, Daisy, would enjoy all these suits?”
“Oh, I’m certain she would,” Betty gushed, still gazing.
Mabel waited a beat, then, “Perhaps I’ll get the opportunity to show her one day,” she said, as offhand as she could, but knowing, as she watched Betty absorb this, that the seed had been planted. “And I wanted you to see this too,” she said, as though it were an after-thought, and quickly shuffled into her bedroom.
The trunk that had housed her chenille still stood open even though she’d been certain she’d closed it. Ah, well. If her memory was only now starting to depart at ninety-two, it had indeed been a good run. Crouching, knees popping, she reached for the stack of her grandmother’s doilies.
They brushed the pack of Thomas’ letters as she pulled them from the trunk, and she winced as the fragile paper crackled like brittle leaves.
“Are those—” began Betty, peering.
Her love letters. Her wedding plans. “Yes. And Daisy McCullough may not have them,” she said. “But. She can have these.” She handed Betty the doilies. “Unless you want them. From the 1800’s,” she added.
Betty’s mouth formed a silent, impressed, ‘O’.
“One more drink before nightfall?” asked Mabel, aware that this, too, held double meaning.
Betty knew it too. The corners of her mouth turned down. Still—“I’d like that,” she said.
Mabel liked it too, and when the last of the rye was gone and Betty rose to her feet, she barely noticed the way her friend weaved as she ambled to the door.
She did note, however, the way Betty clutched the doilies close to her heart as she departed for home.
It made her want to cry.
The birds had long stopped singing by the time Mabel woke in the morning—and her phone was ringing.
“Hello?” she said, and oh, my. Her throat was so dry. And her head hurt.
“Mabel? Daisy McCullough. Your chenille is done.”
A lifetime of damage fixed within twenty-four hours? The weight of disappointment, of worry, stole Mabel’s voice and she sank to her chair. Dammit! She’d wanted the chenille to be perfect.
“Mabel?” said Daisy.
“I-I’m just surprised you’re finished this swiftly.” And I’ve misjudged you. One more thing I’ve lost the ability to do.
“I told you,” said Daisy. “I never get a textile from 1942. Once I started working, I just couldn’t leave it. I’ve been up all night, unable to set it down, and now…now I’m done.”
She sounded deflated. Like she, too, was disappointed—but at having completed the task so soon.
“I have no reason not to give it back to you now,” Daisy added and, yes, that was definitely disappointment.
“Your true love, textiles,” said Mabel, and as such it made sense that Daisy stayed up all night, unable to depart from a ‘lover’.
In ninety-two years, she had learned that it took all kinds.
“If you’ve worked all night you should rest,” she told her.
“I plan to,” Daisy shot back, resuming her efficient self. The ‘proprietress’. “But I thought I’d call to make an appointment to bring it back to you later.”
Mabel’s gaze strayed to where the kitchen table was still animated by last night’s ghosts of memories and dreams shared with Betty. And there were their rye-n-coke glasses, rinsed, yet still in the sink. She needed to wash them properly, put them away. Give the table a good wipe before Daisy returned, spread the chenille over it so Mabel could see the repairs.
Mabel stared at the table, half excited, half fearful that the chenille was done, and apprehension she thought, labeling the feeling but then frowned. That wasn’t quite right.
“I anticipate you’ll be pleased,” ventured Daisy.
Anticipation. That was it. Mabel brightened, and, “Me too,” she said. “Two?”
“Two-fifteen,” Daisy parried. “I really do need some sleep.”
Mabel brewed tea. Not because she wanted it, and not because it was what a polite hostess should do. Instead it was to busy her hands, to help them dispel some of that feeling—anticipation—that Daisy had so aptly described.
The Monte Carlo pulled in at a prompt 2:13, and Daisy exited the car in a caftan circa 1974; flowing sleeves, plunging neckline, and a pattern of waved stripes that would have made Mabel woozy even if she wasn’t hungover.
Hungover. Good Lord. Evidently she needed to prove one could still be a fool, even at ninety-two.
“Good afternoon,” said Daisy. The chenille was under her arm, zipped into a plastic blanket bag.
Mabel’s heart stuttered as the magnitude of the repair at last swept over her: no more conversations with Thomas, plucking tufts from posies as she re-animated him, imagined him, sitting beside her, lemonade, and lilacs, and a porch swing. The chenille, repaired, meant—
“Done,” she whispered.
Daisy’s brows leapt, a question as she took the stoop.
Mabel’s mouth worked to recover, and she said, “You’re all done.”
A brisk nod and “May I?” Daisy asked, indicating the door.
Mabel stepped back, allowed entrance, and Daisy slipped her flip-flops off at the door (rubber; 1980-something), then strode barefoot over to the table. “Ready?” she said.
Yes? No? Mabel’s head waggled, a movement she herself could not translate.
Daisy, though, took it as a ‘yes’, and unzipped the plastic, extracted the chenille then grasped it at two ends. “One, two,” she said, and with a gentle billowing, tossed it over the table.
A gasp—Mabel’s own—sharply punctuated the movement for as her gaze raced the blanket—its pastel posies between perfect, tufted lines… “It’s new,” she blurted, then immediately felt the fool. She was in her kitchen in 2016, for goodness’ sake. Not in her bedroom of 1944.
She was still ninety-two.
Daisy, though, smiled, and “Whip-stitches,” she said. “The secret behind restoring chenille.” She flipped the spread over, began pointing out and explaining the process.
Mabel nodded, but only to be polite. The machinations were lost on her. Unimportant.
The chenille…her chenille was new again.
And she was old.
Still, she enthused at all the right places, and paid Daisy the balance of her invoice in cash. “Thank you,” she said.
“My pleasure.” The young woman stole one last, longing gaze at the chenille, prompting Mabel to say “Wait,” as she then turned to the door, slipped her tacky flip-flops back on.
Daisy halted and Mabel shuffled, to the closet in the hall, its bi-fold door squealing again as she opened it wide, extracted the Chanel. The exertion shortened her breath and she was winded when she said, “May I offer this as a tip?” as she re-met Daisy at the door.
“I—ooh—that’s—” Daisy stared, loose-jawed.
“A Chanel,” said Mabel. “1962.”
Daisy looked at it, then at her. “It sooo suits you,” she gushed.
Mabel regarded the outfit. “Yes,” she said. “It does. Now perhaps it will suit you, too. But!” Her mouth tightened. “With proper shoes. A matching bag.”
Daisy nodded, obedient. Reverent.
Mabel softened, and “Who knows,” she said, hoping to sound enigmatic. “Perhaps I’ll find another outfit for you here and there.” She waved an oblique hand. “I’ll send word if I do.”
As the Monte Carlo slid out of the drive and Daisy waved, Mabel smiled, a little bit fond, a little bit sad.
She’d have liked to see her again sometime.
By seven o’clock the last weighty wisps of hangover had lifted, and Mabel was, in fact, ready for tea. She steeped a cup, inhaling its fragrance. Orange Pekoe, the most pedestrian, yet finest, of teas.
Of course she could not taste it.
“Ninety-two,” she muttered, and pushed the cup away. At her side, the chenille remained where Daisy had left it, spread out on the table.
Mabel gathered it.
Outside, the summer night still cast light through the yard, and she was sure if she looked out her back window, the old swing would be awash in evening sun beams. “Just like it used to be,” she murmured, and grasped the edges of the chenille then flocked it out the way Daisy had done, spreading it over her bed which, with the blinds drawn here in her bedroom, was darkened. Quiet.
And she was tired.
“What a previous night’s rye-n-cokes do to a girl,” she grinned, but it was fleeting. Nervous. Anticipation, she thought, then donned her nightdress, a raw silk affair with lace at the collar and cuffs. Her penchant for designer things had always been with her. Brushing a hand down it, she savored its texture against her palm, then stooped and opened her trunk, extracted the packet of Thomas’ letters.
She had not expected to feel decadent—sitting, swathed in silk with her stack of old love letters, beneath a renewed chenille. “I expected it to feel like goodbye, Thomas,” she said, aloud—and confused. She had never re-read his letters before, had imagined him instead as aging along with her—not frozen as a young man whose written words became bolder and bolder as he marched to his grave.
The Thomas she’d imagined as her husband had not died in the War. Had not died at all. Instead he’d stayed with her, an unseen presence who listened to her. Offered thoughtful, intelligent reflections in her head.
Now it all seemed so banal. Such a waste, and what was more—“Disrespectful,” she bit off, shamed and disgusted at herself. To have never honored that young man. To have ignored, forgotten, the person he was, the person who’d died, and instead to have pretended he’d grown old along with her, forever being the person she needed him to be.
Forever the person she’d fallen in love with.
“Now I am ashamed that I never let you go,” she said.
In the past, her imaginary Thomas always answered.
“I’m sorry I never told you goodbye,” she whispered, and forced herself to resist the muscle memory that badly wanted her fingers to stray to the chenille, to pluck tufts as she talked to him. “I’m sorry, Thomas, that I could always just barely say Normandy. Could not quite say ‘conscription’. I denied your reality and I…I’m sorry I never had the courage to just admit you were gone. Died.” She untied the lilac ribbon then, and his letters slid over her lap, stopping up against the solid tufts of re-tooled chenille. Starting from the beginning, one by one she re-met Thomas through the words he’d mailed over the Atlantic—and across the ocean of time her life had become without him. And as she read, she was aware that the stationery felt simultaneously silky yet brittle, and that her fingers also seemed to wax and wane; from wrinkled sticks to plump digits before her eyes—her old self rekindling the young woman who’d once read words like ‘Our wedding’ and ‘Lilacs’. ‘We’ll serve lemonade’ and ‘I love you, Mabel,’ for the very first time.
There were tears on her cheeks when at last her lids became heavy, too heavy, and her fingers worked absently, weakly—not to pluck any tufts, but instead to make sure Thomas’ letters were properly stacked, all squared corners, and if not tied back shut, then at least in proper order. “Goodnight, sweetheart,” she whispered. “I’ve missed you all my life.”
Late the next afternoon, Betty opened the front door and said, “Mabel?” softly. Then “Mabel?” a little louder, more urgent, as her gaze swept the kitchen, empty yet with an uncustomary teacup, half full and cold on the sideboard. “Mabel?” She rushed then, unmindful of her shoes, into the bedroom.
“Oh, Mabel,” she said.
Mabel smelled lilacs. Unmistakable. Floral and heady. Strong enough to cover the smell of a chicken coop or an outhouse. Vulgar, she thought, and scurried the thought clean away. A lady should never have thoughts that are vulgar.
“Mabel,” Betty murmured, quietly, then gathered the fanned-out letters covering her friend’s silent lap, squaring their corners and tying them shut with the lilac ribbon, sealing them from any prying eyes. “The paramedics would probably never bother to read them,” she said, dry-eyed and efficient, just as Mabel would like. “But you never know.” She gazed at her friend and her face fell a bit. “Mabel,” she said, again. “Now where did you go?”
“Where did you go?” a voice said. “I’ve been waiting.”
Mabel, shaking herself awake, looked askance to where the voice came from, where she knew her bed lamp and antacids to be.
They were not there. Or, more accurately, she was not there. She stood on a front porch, not in her spinster bedroom, and there, rising up from the swing—
“It’s as beautiful as you described,” Thomas told her, and pointed.
She looked down. The wedding gown—a raw silk affair with lacy cuffs and collar (she always had loved designer things) fit like a dream. She felt a smile flood her eyes. Felt it light up her mouth.
“There’s so much baby’s breath and lilacs,” he said, marveling. “But your letters never mentioned all these daisies.”
Mabel looked around. Daisies in vases. Daisies in pots. Daisies poked amid the clouds of baby’s breath and within the bunches of lilacs, looking mismatched and disharmonious, and … “Lovely,” she laughed at all the bouquets and nosegays. “Surprise,” she said.
Thomas grasped her hands.
Betty tenderly folded Mabel’s hands. “I paid attention to what you said,” she told her. “I knew last night I was supposed to call your textile proprietress. Daisy.” She paused, then peered at Mabel’s quiet face. “I may have been drunk, but you weren’t exactly subtle.” She fished in the pocket of her housedress, brought out a phone. “I can’t imagine it makes much difference to call her before I herald an ambulance.” She sighed. “Because I’m pretty sure that’s what you wanted.” She trod out to where the number was pinned upon cork. Dialed.
“Newly Old, Daisy speaking.”
Betty drew a breath, then began.
Once she was done, Daisy said, weakly, “More Chanel? And did you say Dior?”
“And Halston. Indeed I did,” Betty told her, adopting Mabel’s trademark briskness. “In fact, there are only two pieces you may not have.” Three, if one considered the doilies, but Betty kept those off the record.
“Y-yes,” said Daisy. “Of course.” Her tone was a sort of dissociated, thrilled bewilderment, like someone who’d just won a lottery.
“Two pieces,” repeated Betty, softly, and regarded them now, having moved back into Mabel’s bedroom with her cell phone. She’d tell the paramedics, when they arrived, to remove the wedding gown carefully—to not tear the fragile silk or put any rents in the lace (although, she supposed the proprietress Daisy would make short order of restorations if they did). And that left—
Mabel held fast to Thomas’ hands. “I’ve crossed an ocean of time for this wedding,” she said.
“I’ve been waiting,” he replied.
They beamed at each other, then she said, “I’ve saved the most beautiful cover for our…our bed.” She looked down then, blushed. Never, in her long lifetime, had she shared a bed. And she suspected that never, in his short lifetime, had he done so either. She rushed on, bashful. Nervous. “It’s a fine piece I bought with my own money. Sophisticated and elegant, a style called—”
“Chenille,” he said. “I’ve seen it, Mabel. It’s been on your lap throughout every conversation we’ve had while I’ve waited for you in my dreams.”