March 20, 2018

“The Unexpected Gift” by Jennifer Gaye Peterson

“The Unexpected Gift” by Jennifer Gaye Peterson

The sound of whispers and shuffling feet fell from the welcoming side of a dark burgundy curtain. Its mass was hung and stretched across the full width of an auditorium stage. Hidden behind its thickness was Samantha, sitting nervously, at a baby grand piano. She was silently rehearsing a selected piece of music in her head while at the same time trying desperately to block out the noise. It was the night of the eighth annual music recital at Benton Junior High School, and her first time to play in front of a large audience.

Slowly, the heavy curtain opened with a lazy glide across the stage floor. The snapping sound from the spotlight quickly broke her concentration and instantly engulfed her. Frozen and unable to move, the sound of her pounding fear grew louder as a thousand eyes looked back at her with shining expectation.

The next few minutes seemed like hours to Sam as she sat motionless in the complete silence of the auditorium. Fear had gripped every aspect of her being, so much so that she hadn’t noticed her grandmother’s presence next to her own on the piano bench. A loud chord pierced the silence, causing Sam to quickly turn her head. Seeing her grandmother’s face immediately gave her an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and love.

A nod was given—a gesture from her grandmother that they play together—and without speaking a word, Sam placed her hands on the ivory keys. Taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling, she felt every twinge of fear and anxiety leave her body as they began to play their favorite duet.

A tear gently slipped down her cheek, bringing her back to reality. This precious memory that she kept tucked away was one she thought of often. It had been difficult to accept the news of her grandmother’s passing. Her choice to stay abroad and travel after finishing school had limited her visits home. She couldn’t help but question herself: If only I had been there. It was too late. The hands of time could not be turned back and she was home now—home to say goodbye to her beloved grandmother.

As she drove the continuous stretch of Highway 1 to Big Sur, many thoughts clouded her mind. The beauty of the California coastline had always offered much to the eye of the beholder, but today their familiar surroundings were offering a strange sense of bittersweet to Sam.

Wiping another tear from her face, she shifted her foot from the accelerator to the brake, slowing her speed, as she made a left turn onto an S-shaped driveway. Its design weaved from side to side across an unattended and overgrown property and up to the entrance of what was once a bright and beautiful home.

Pulling around to her usual spot, Sam parked and stepped out of the car. The realization that her grandmother was not there to greet her caused her eyes to fill with tears again. She stood silent in her grief as she looked up at the deserted home.

It was a grand two-story structure, precisely framed and filled with lots of space and windows. On a bright sunny day, when the light filled every nook and cranny, it was simply warm and inviting and the only home she’d ever known.

Opening the trunk of her car, she retrieved her suitcases and moved in the direction of the entrance. Sam took a deep breath as she approached the steps of the front porch. She had never felt so alone and her emotions caused her to stop again. After another moment of stillness, she slowly proceeded up the steps to the front door.

The door wouldn’t open when Sam turned the knob. Probably due to being closed and unused. She shoved against it with the weight of her body. Suddenly, it opened and she lost her balance. Stumbling forward, she tripped over the large oval rug that lay crumpled in the foyer. Reaching down, Sam pulled one corner toward her and let it go. As it dropped flat against the floor, dust filled the air.

Turning back around, she stepped through the doorway and picked up her suitcases. Pausing for a moment, she noticed the weathered wooden swing still suspended at the far end of the narrow porch. Visions flashed in her mind of the hours spent talking in that old swing and without hesitation, she smiled.

Her hands strained from the weight of the suitcases as she walked back into the house and placed them against the wall. Rays of sunlight were bright and streaming through half-closed blinds that covered a row of narrow windows filling the entire east side wall of the living room. Sam eyed the thick layer of dust on the floor, walls, and furniture.

The home had been empty since her grandmother fell two years ago and was sent to a nursing home. It obviously had been neglected all that time.

She stood in the foyer with her hands on her hips while her mind processed all that had happened. She had been told by the lawyers that her grandmother left everything to her, the home and all its contents. What an incredible gift, she thought. What exactly, was she going to do with it?

As Sam entered the hallway, she remembered the warm feeling she felt each summer she returned home. She had always loved coming home. It was a special place for her, since boarding school was home the remainder of the year.

Pictures hung on both walls of the hallway. She smiled as she remembered her grandmother calling it the Hall of Fame. Her passion for taking pictures reflected her passion for family. Both young and old, she had loved all branches of her family and displayed them proudly.

As Sam approached the end of the hallway she stopped at the doorway that led into the library. This had been her grandmother’s favorite place. At the far end of the room, still precisely set, was her grandmother’s work table. In front of the windows had been the best spot for sorting through pictures, for it was that spot which gave her the most natural light possible, something she was always adamant about. So much so that Sam would tease her until they laughed themselves silly. Many hours were spent sitting there while listening to the stories told behind each one.

A wave of emotions came over her as she stepped into the room. Memories of time spent with her grandmother flooded her mind, especially the long talks they shared and the closeness between them.

Sam had never known her real mother. Her absence was never discussed, but Sam knew in her heart that her grandmother had always been there for her and filled that void in her life. She had always felt she’d been doubly blessed to have had such a loving grandmother. Now, she was gone and things would never be the same.

Sam wiped the tears from her eyes as she walked slowly across the room, taking inventory. She remembered when she had the chicken pox—she was covered from head to toe and itching so bad that on one particular night she couldn’t sleep. Instead, she sat curled up in her grandmother’s lap, listening to her read stories all night long.

The brown leather chair still sat in the corner with the reading lamp next to it. The floor to ceiling bookshelves were still filled with all of their favorite books, the baby grand piano with lingering echoes of songs once played, and the portrait of her grandmother still hung above the fireplace. Nothing had been changed or moved.

As she approached the table, Sam touched it lightly with her finger, walked around it and sat down. She smiled as her mind took her back to a day when they had been looking through old photos. Her grandmother had shared stories with her and told of her upbringing and family background. Some of those stories had been told with tears and some with laughter, but all had been told with a fondness for each memory. Her face had simply glowed with love that day.

It was as if her grandmother had been trying to tell her something without having to say the words. The warmth Sam felt in her heart earlier had suddenly overwhelmed her again, and she vaguely remembered her grandmother saying, “One day, sweetie, this home will be yours.” Until now, she had given little thought to what her grandmother had really been trying to tell her.

She rose from the table and decided she needed to explore the rest of the house to examine its condition. She already knew from the evidence of dust that there would be a great deal of cleaning involved, but she wanted to know if she would be faced with any major repairs.

After surveying the remainder of the house, Sam realized it was going to be a major task for her to restore it to its original state. Some minor repairs were needed, a fresh coat of paint overall, and a thorough cleaning of every room and item in the place. She also realized the house was much too big for her. She had grown accustomed to living in a small apartment and living in the city over the last few years, whereas this place was located several miles away, on the outskirts of town.

Sam sighed and quickly decided that her goal would be to restore the house to its original condition and place it on the market for sale, as soon as possible. Besides, her twenty-fifth birthday on the first day of June was fast approaching and the expenses for her long awaited trip to France had slowly increased. The sale of the house would give her more than she needed to make it possible for her to go.

The days passed quickly as Sam worked diligently to finish the upstairs first. After two weeks, the progress of the restoration had produced tremendous results. A few days later, she was finished.

It was in the early hours of the morning as Sam stood on the balcony upstairs that overlooked the lower level. She examined the results of her efforts and found that her dedication to restoring the house to its original condition filled her with complete satisfaction.

The magnificent entrance was breathtaking. The reddish-brown hue of the mahogany door with its glass inlay had been renewed from neglect of emptiness. The fresh coat of light beige paint on the surrounding walls gave the foyer a clean, crisp appearance. The spiral mahogany staircase carried the brilliance of the entryway across the marble floor and up to the second level. And when the sun rose each morning, filling the foyer with its presence, it was as if the house literally smiled.

It pleased Sam to see the home come to life. She had stepped back in time twenty years. Everything was exactly as she remembered. Everything that is, except for the smell. She closed her eyes and imagined the rich aroma of cinnamon-apple pie that filled each room of the house whenever she came home for the summer. The memory was so vivid that she could almost taste the sweet plump apples tucked inside her grandmother’s flaky crust.

She remembered how they always had fun making pies together. Her grandmother would say, “Sam, you certainly do have the touch for making good pies.” Then, she would touch the end of Sam’s nose with her flour-covered finger, leaving her fingerprint, and they would both burst out laughing.

Yes, those were good times. Sam blinked back tears of nostalgia. She had missed the old place so much that giving it new life was beginning to have special meaning to her. Sam was home again. Really home.

The next morning, she awoke full of energy and excitement. It was satisfying to see everything clean and orderly, but one area still needed her attention. She had been anxious to look through her grandmother’s special belongings and had purposely saved the attic for last. She knew in her heart it would be the most difficult to sort through.

Halfway up the narrow stairs, she started sneezing when that unmistakably musty attic smell filled her nostrils. The attic reeked. When she reached the top and looked out across the dim space it seemed smaller than she remembered it. Along each wall, stacked 3 feet high, were boxes of various sizes. Mixed among them were several pieces of old furniture, a large oval mirror, books, clothes, and an array of other items.

She felt sad for a moment as she stood looking at the remnants of her Grandmother’s life. She wished they could have spent more time together those last few years, but it was her grandmother who had encouraged her to stay abroad and travel. “Soak up life, my dear; absorb it like a sponge.” Her words still rang in her ears, giving her a slight giggle at the thought of them again.

Looking around, Sam spotted a big black trunk at the far end of the room. As she made her way across the floor she stopped, leaned over the boxes underneath the window, and pushed back the torn curtains. As they curtains slid away, a stream of sunlight stroked the wall of the attic like an artist’s brush would stroke a canvas, quick and flowing.

Sam turned her attention to the trunk, while at the same time pulling an old wooden stool across the floor from beneath the window. She sat on the stool and lifted the trunk lid.

Neatly spread across the top was a thin sheer cloth, perfectly folded. Sam peeled back each side to reveal a long and narrow shell of a box with various size compartments. Each one contained an interesting assortment of gloves, jewelry, baby booties, a couple of small white Bibles and a silver hand mirror with a matching brush and comb.

Sam gently picked up the long box, removed it from the trunk, and laid it atop the table to the right of where she sat. When she turned back around to look inside, she caught her breath. A beautiful white satin material with delicate lace and pearl beading had been carefully folded and placed inside the trunk for safekeeping. As Sam lifted it up and held it out in front of her, she realized it was her grandmother’s wedding gown. It was simple, yet very elegant. She smiled; it was just like her grandmother to keep it.

Hours passed as Sam carefully examined her grandmother’s belongings. She looked at numerous personal items, all the while thinking to herself that her grandmother must have saved everything that had ever held special meaning to her.

Noticing the stiffness in her back and legs, Sam finally stood and stretched. It was then that she realized the sunlight that had shone so brightly across the attic wall earlier had now almost disappeared. There were no lights in the attic and she knew this was her signal to retire her efforts until tomorrow.

Just as she closed the lid on the trunk, something behind it caught her eye. It was a small door in the wall. The trunk had been pushed against it as if to hide its presence. How odd, Sam thought, as she stood up and scooted the stool back away from the trunk. She stepped to the side of the large black box, grabbed its iron handle, and pulled the box away from the wall.

She hesitated for a moment and then placed her hand on the doorknob. Her heart pounded as her mind raced with thoughts of what was inside. Slowly, she opened the door and stepped into what seemed to be a small closet. On the wall, facing her, were three shelves. There were two hat boxes on the top shelf with one box on each end and three pairs of two-inch high-heeled shoes placed neatly between them. The second shelf was stacked with newspapers, several books and picture albums.

As her eyes continued downward, she saw that the third shelf held several personal items. A beautiful hand painted parasol and matching fan lay atop what seemed to be a woven blanket. The sort you would take to the beach and use to sit upon the sand. Gradually, the darkness had overtaken the room and Sam realized she would have to wait until tomorrow to discover all that was inside. As she turned to close the door, she looked down and saw a stack of three large books with a pink ribbon that banded them neatly together. Quickly grabbing the books, she closed the door behind her and found her way through the attic and down the stairs.

The day had been interesting for Sam, but her curiosity had been most stirred by the three books she had found on the floor in the closet. Anxious to see what was written inside, she hurriedly took her shower and prepared to settle in for an evening of reading.

The first two books were all about her ancestors and their family history, including stories that had been handed down several generations, along with familiar stories of her grandmother’s childhood.

As Sam opened the third book, it appeared to be written more in the form of a journal. Looking at the words, Sam thought of how beautiful the handwriting flowed across each page. The letters carried an artistic flair in each bend and curve.

The words of her grandmother were relaxed and casual, as if, she were sitting next to her gently talking and sharing the experiences. She missed her grandmother immensely, but the warmth she felt at each word comforted her and fed her lonely spirit.

Most of the stories were familiar, but there was one that she had never heard before. It was the story of a young man that her grandmother had met late in life and how they had been introduced through friends after her husband had passed away.

The two had made a mutual connection from the beginning. They each learned they had similar interests and talked for hours. She wrote of how he made her laugh and how he brought out the best of herself. She wrote of how the thought of him holding her in his arms, how it had given her a deep and warm sensation within her soul. And how when they were together, it was so much more than she could describe.

She told of the friendship between them that soon became an inseparable force, as if he had been the missing link to her vagrant soul. And how their closeness developed into something more than either one of them could understand or control.

Then, five months later, the nation’s economic recession took him away to find work and it broke her grandmother’s heart. A month later, she was notified there had been an explosion in the coal mine where he worked. The news of his death had devastated her.

She neither saw him nor loved another man again with such completeness in her spirit. She would never forget him, she wrote, or the love they shared and explained that their love would never die. It would live on in the daughter that was conceived and later born on June 1, 1970.

Sam gasped. She stared at the page. Her mind raced with random thoughts searching for clues, looking for answers. For as long as Sam could remember, it had always been her and her grandmother. Her mother had never been mentioned.

How could this be? Once, when she was seven years old, she had asked if she had a mother. Shaking her head, her grandmother had told her things happen that sometimes people outside of the family don’t want to understand. They don’t even want to try to understand the circumstances—they only want to judge the ones involved. So we don’t talk about it.

Flashes of her grandmother popped up in Sam’s mind like the flash of a camera taking pictures, one right after the other. It wasn’t possible—her birthday was June 1 and she was born in the year 1970. As the memories continued to play in her mind, she could see her grandmother’s face and hear her voice.

And suddenly, like a waterfall spills over a high cliff and then settles into a calm pool of water, the presence of her grandmother’s love fell upon her. She was drenched in the reality of it all. And more than anything else, at that very moment, Sam knew and understood everything her heart had always tried to tell her.

***

Jennifer G. Peterson is a southern gal who believes in the value of family bonds and close-knit friends. Living in East Tennessee only enhances her southern hospitality and love for people. Her passion for books and heartfelt quotes have followed her since childhood, so it was no surprise she would develop an interest in writing. The completion of two course studies at The Long Ridge Writers Group of Danbury, Connecticut gave her the confidence to step out of her comfort zone. This is her first publication.

 

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