Authors: Katherine Hall Page
pregnant! I called to tell you we're coming for Christmas!”
“Oh, darling, lovely, lovely thought; but sorry, no can do. Ed and I are leaving for Mustique in a few days. I'm just waiting for the final alterations to the clothes I ordered at Bendel's. Ed has rented a villa through New Year's. Just between the two of us, I wouldn't be surprised if that dear man ends up giving it to me in my stocking. He does love to play the course on the island and it's a hop to all those other island ones.”
Probably Sir Paul will be their guest for dinner, Sophie thought bitterly. Rejected at the holidays by her own mother.
Babs was still talking. “It's not as if you haven't been here recently.”
“That was my
“I know, sweetheart, which is exactly my point. You are a married woman now and you should be spending this first Christmas with your new family. I'm surprised Will wants to leave them. Gloria and Anson are bound to have some fabulous soirees, and of course Savannah is known for celebrating the season.”
Sophie mumbled something to the effect that she hadn't run the idea by Will yet, and Babs pounced.
“Don't tell me you two are still having that little tiff! Now, Sophie, I told you when I was there that whatever happened was best forgotten. So suck it up.”
Such nurturance and such language, Sophie reflected. But her mother was right. She'd have to suck it up and deal with it.
“Have fun and send me a postcard,” she said.
“You know I never send postcards. I'll bring you something nice for Christmas instead. Something from that fun shop, the Pink House. One of their silk sarongs for the beach?”
Tybee wasn't a silk sarong-type beach, but Sophie thanked her mother, sent love to Ed, and hung up.
The radio was playing Elvis's “Blue Christmas” and she was tempted to throw it straight through one of Gloria's very expensive glass-fronted kitchen cabinets.
When the phone rang, Faith grabbed it, thinking it might be Sophie calling back to talk some more. Sophie had sounded depressed. Very, very blue, and Faith wished she could take time off and meet Sophie for a long weekend in Manhattan. Retail therapy surrounded by the shiniest of ornaments. A poison pen letter was such a cowardly act and mean. Faith was beginning to equate Patty Sueâit had to be herâwith the middle school girls making Amy's life hell.
But it wasn't Sophie, it was Ursula. “I'm worried about Millicent. She didn't show up for the Evergreens's sale today.”
The Evergreens was Aleford's garden club and dated back if not to Eden then at least to the 1930s. Besides their meetings, their fund-raisersâplant sale in May and holiday greens in Decemberâwere events few ladies in town missed and definitely not a club member. Faith had stopped by when the sale started at eight thirty and scored a festive holly table decoration with peppermint-striped candles.
“Have you tried to reach her?”
“When she wasn't there by nineâand she was supposed to man the amaryllis tableâI called. You know she won't have a machine, so I kept trying on and off all day until noon. We were supposed to stay open until one, but everything was gone.”
Faith wasn't surprised. Many people waited for the sale to hang their wreaths, including First Parish's Altar Guild. Its members were always first in line for the few oversize ones that would adorn the church's facade.
“Would you like me or Tom to go check on her? She may be ill.”
“Just as I've never known Millicent to miss an Evergreens event, and duty, I've never known her to be sick. I went over as soon as I could. She didn't answer the door, but I knew she was there.”
“The curtain moved?” Faith guessed.
It was well known that Millicent's muslin curtains were sheer and a slight twitch gave her an even clearer view.
“Yes, so I just kept knocking. She hasn't hung the wreath she made for herself when we were making everything for the sale. I don't like this, Faith. I can tell you I am worried.”
For a stalwart New Englander like Ursula Lyman Rowe, this was tantamount to admitting abject fear.
Ursula sighed audibly. “She came to the door eventually, opened it a crack, and instead of scolding me for making so much noise as I would have expected, she told me she was fine and had forgotten today was the sale. I didn't believe that for one minute. I hadn't mentioned the sale for one thing, so she certainly remembered it at some point. But what is concerning me is how she looked. I don't think she can be eating and her face was quite drawn.”
Faith was assailed by guilt. Millicent hadn't looked well last week, and Faith being crazy busy was no excuse for not going back to check on the woman. “I'll go by first thing in the morning.”
“I think it had better be Tom,” Ursula said. “You and Millicent have, well, a complicated relationship. She's more apt to tell Tom what is going on. And something is definitely going on.”
When Tom returned from his meeting, he was more than happy to stop by Millicent's and was reassuring about what might be wrong.
“You forget how old she is. Yes, forgetting the sale, or forgetting to tell someone she was missing it, is uncharacteristic. But she has probably picked up a bad cold and doesn't want to admit her distinguished gene pool could ever succumb. You've got chicken soup in the freezer, I assume. I'll bring that and whatever else you want to send.”
Faith always had containers of that panaceaâalso known as Jewish penicillinâon hand, and before she went to bed she'd bake some pumpkin muffins, the closest Millicent came to
sweets. She was preparing several more cookie varieties for the Uppity Women luncheon tomorrowâeach would leave with a large plate of assorted treatsâso whipping up the muffins would be easy.
But the deathwatch for Charles Frawley came to a peaceful end in the early hours of the morning, and Tom's ministrations to the family took precedence. He made a note to see Millicent soon, but the living would have to wait for a while as he helped Godspeed the dead On Eagle's Wings.
Before Sophie went to work, she called Gloria about the treeâ“Honey, you didn't have to ask me! You go ahead and do whatever you want to the house. Laura told me you'd had a good day looking at some listings, and if this one were a tad larger I'd adore for you and Will to have it!”
“A tad larger”? Less than twenty-four hours ago Sophie would have been completely mystified by the comment. When Gloria was finished, there would be four bedrooms, three and a half baths, an eat-in kitchen, living room, dining room, library, media room, garden room, and outdoor space. As it was she thanked her mother-in-law and before she hung up was told the best, and only, place to get a tree.
Sophie's mind was buzzing while she got dressed. If Gloria knew about her afternoon with the real estate agent, so did Patty Sueâor vice versa. Ridiculous to think that Gloria could have been her assailant in the park. She had been nothing but welcoming to Sophie, but she
close to Laura. Laura the person Gloria had hoped would be her daughter-in-law? Besides, she was a petite woman. But she might have written the note. She quelled her impulse to call back and ask if it would be all right to drape the Connecticut State flag from an upstairs window with its singularly appropriate state motto, “Qui Transtulit Sustinet”â“He Who Transplanted Still Sustains”âor in this case, “She.”
Tree ordered and delivery scheduled, Sophie stepped out into the kind of Savannah morning that never failed to enchant her. The air was warm but crisp, and everywhere she looked she saw things to delight the eye. The houses, the landscape, but also the people off to work or just off walking. There was something to be said for living in this sort of warm climate. People looked happier, and were friendlier. She knew the summer would be an endurance test, but for now she was enjoying the weather and not missing the cold at all.
She planned on decorating the tree very simply with tiny white lights, maybe some sort of garlands and a few special ornaments. Will and she would be collecting ornaments for years to come. The Christmas Shop on Bull looked enticing and she'd already decided to look for Will's present at the Savannah College of Art and Design's shop. And then there were the historic house gift shops as well. She'd missed the big Christmas Made in the South craft fair at the International Trade & Convention Center on Hutchinson Island just across from downtown. She hoped to get to something else there just for the experience of taking the Savannah Belles Ferry instead of the Talmadge Bridge. She'd taken Will on the Staten Island Ferry. Maybe they should do a round-trip this weekend for the fun of it.
One of the other resolutions she'd made when she woke upâthe main one being to snap out of it and, yes, suck it upâwas to invite Ruth, the office manager at the firm, to lunch this week. She knew Ruth had already been welcomed by everyone else. Sophie liked the competent young woman, and she should have invited her earlier. With that in mind, she went directly to Ruth's desk when she got to the office.
“Could you spare some time to grab lunch today or tomorrow? You probably know places better than I do, but someone told me that the Jepson Center has a good cafÃ©. Maybe squeeze in some Christmas shopping?”
Ruth beamed. “I'd love to, and I haven't been to the cafÃ© but have heard it's excellent.”
It occurred to Sophie that Ruth was the New Kid on the Block, too.
“I know the former assistant was here for many years. I hope it wasn't too hard to step into her shoes.”
Will had told Sophie about the legendary Sophronia Webster, “Miss S.” to all. She'd been like family. “From what everyone has said, she was a lovely person and I'm sure a big help,” Sophie added.
Ruth shook her head, and her smile vanished. “I never met her, although I've heard about her, too, from so many people. It was tragic. She was killed instantly by a hit-and-run driver right in front of her own home.”
“A vaporizer, two years in a row! Granted, the second year he included some Vicks VapoPads. CVS on Christmas Eve is his go-to solution for what to put under the tree.” The women gathered around Sandra Katz's dining room table erupted in peals of laughter.
It was the Uppity Women's holiday luncheon. They had long ago added both Faith and Niki to the group, insisting the kitchen door be left open so they could both hear and contribute. The question Pamela, a tall slender Wharton grad with her own financial planning firm, had thrown out was: “What was your worst Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza gift ever?”
They had started in the living room with flutes of prosecco and a simple hors d'oeuvre of bite-size melon wrapped in prosciutto. Faith knew the group would be counting their calories and was giving them a delectable dessertâher own eggnog ice cream with Niki's take on mince tarts. Hers had a rich butter crust that tasted like shortbread, and she added clementines to the traditional spiced currant/apple filling, spiking it with brandy.
Niki wasn't able to do the luncheon today. It had especially become her gig when her husband, Phil, had lost his job and the
group's amazing networking capability landed him a plum new one in less than a week. But little Sofia had picked up a bug, and Niki needed to be home. The women had expressed regret but also delight at seeing Faith after “too long,” they all told her.
Sandra's dining room looked beautiful, with a shiny brass menorah that she told them had been her grandparents' on the sideboard. Blue-and-white porcelain cachepots filled with white amaryllis and cyclamen were placed throughout the room. Margaret, a dean at a local college, had brought favors she'd madeâpomanders studded with cloves and cured in cinnamon, orris, nutmeg, and allspice. They were heaped in a Simon Pearce glass bowl in the center of the table, their spicy orange fragrance perfuming the air just enough not to overwhelm the food.
While Faith plated the first courseâendive spears with fresh chÃ¨vre and pomegranate seeds in a light vinaigretteâshe thought about what a great mix the group was. Married, divorced, never married, and stay-at-home momsâpresent and pastâworking full- or part-timeâpretty much a cross section of forty-something women. What they all had in common was a well-developed sense of humor and interest in a wide range of topics from politics to how to get ink stains off a silk blouse. And books. They were omnivorous readers. At the moment they were still on the worst gifts.
“Mine was a
moment,” Nora, a petite woman with short dark curls, said. “You remember when Emma Thompson opens the gift she believes is the necklace she saw her husband buyâ”
“Alan Rickman,” Sandra called out. “He was practicing to play Snape in the Harry Potters obviously!”
Nora nodded. “So it's Christmas Eve and Emma and the kids are each opening one gift. It's not the necklace, but a CD.”
“Joni Mitchell, however,” Margaret added. It was no surprise to Faith that the group seemed to have the film memorized. It was one of her favorites, too. “So, Nora, don't keep us in suspense, what happened?”
“It was pretty damn similar. Just after Thanksgiving I found
a receipt from Tiffany's in one of his jackets that had to go to the dry cleanerâ”
She was interrupted again by somewhat raucous laughter and a comment, “Men are sooo stupid!”
“It was for the Elsa Peretti diamond open heart that I had admired when we were picking out gifts for his partners and some other business contacts. Sure enough, on Christmas morning there was a little blue box in my stockingâgift wrapping is not his thingâand I gave him a big kiss before I opened it.”
There was a hushed moment before she continued, “It was a sterling key ring with my initials and the âbig' gift under the tree was a Natori peignoir and gown set I'm sure his secretary picked out. The Peretti necklace appeared around the neck of our recently divorced next-door neighbor whom I'd invited to our annual New Year's Eve party because I felt sorry for her!”
“It could have been a coincidence,” Pamela said.
“True. But the fact that they were sucking face even before midnight when I went out to the fridge in the garage for more champagne was not.”
Faith knew Nora was divorced, but had never heard the backstory.
They continued around the table and were moving on to best gifts when Cheryl said, “How materialistic are we? Shouldn't we be discussing the election?” Faith did not remember seeing her at an Uppities before. She must be a new addition.
A chorus of nos and one boo greeted her.
“Nothing serious today, ladies,” Sandra said. “It's my house and I'm making the rules! Now, we definitely need more wine.”
That was Faith's cue, and she moved into the room quickly to pour a Geyser Peak sauvignon blanc and an Arboreto Montepulciano. “Montepulciano,” she whispered to herself. So much fun to say and a place where she and Tom had celebrated a significant anniversary
As she cleared the plates, she was struck by how much she would miss jobs like thisâand other longtime clients. Niki could certainly keep working at the Uppity luncheons, but would
she be able to do it from whatever location Faith found on the South Shore? Niki was constantly offered jobs from Faith's competitors and she could also set up her own firm. Was that what would happen if Faith had to move?
“Why is change so hard?” Faith thought she had spoken her thoughts aloud and almost dropped the plates she was carrying, but it was a recent member of the group speaking, Jessica. “When I was younger it was all I wanted. New jobs, new places to live, new men. New experiences across the board. Now I want to stay put! Have a great guy. Great place to live. Great job.”
“So what's the problem?” Margaret asked.
“He wants to move into town. Says we're in a rut. So if I want to be with himâand I doâI have to move.”
The discussion took them through the next course, with suggestions and questions flying: “Does he know how you feel?” “Is he worth it?”
It was the second night of Hanukkah. In honor of the hostess and a few of the other women, Faith had prepared latkesâsilver-dollar-size crisp potato pancakes. They accompanied lightly smoked grilled salmon with mustard dill sauce and roasted root vegetables. By the time the last latke had disappeared, the conversation had moved on to aging parents and growing kidsâtopics that came up at every one of the luncheons Faith had attended. Today her ears were wide open.
She brought in the dessert with one for herself. She, or Niki when it was her turn, always joined the women for the final course. Sandra had selected a Moscato that was not overly sweet as the final wine, and Faith poured herself a glass, too.
Laura, who looked like a teenager herself, was speaking. “We haven't even gotten near a tuition bill yet and we're already feeling pinched by the application fees. We've tried to get him to narrow his choices, but he's afraid he won't get in anywhere. And I guess we are, too. He hasn't built an orphanage in a poverty-stricken
country or happened upon a cure for something in the chem lab, so he's going to have to rely on a decent GPA and varsity soccer. I kept telling him to join the drama club or model UN, broaden his scope, but would he listen?”
Margaret reassured her, “There's a lid for every pot and he's a great kid. The whole application process has gotten insane. It's something we're all talking about in higher ed.”
“Any change will be too late for us. Billy's our one and only,” Laura said ruefully.
Sandra changed the topicâand mood. “Faith, this meal was the best everâand that's saying a great deal. You've been so busy serving us that we haven't heard from you. What's new? And how's Niki?”
Quelling her desire to talk about Tom's recent decision, Faith gave them an update on Niki, including the Sofia-meets-a-paper-clip incident, and then decided to talk about Amy. Maybe she'd get some suggestions. “My daughter Amy has started middle school.”
Several groans greeted the news, and Sandra said, “Would not go through that again for anything. Is she still speaking to you?”
“Pretty much. The big problem is school. She's at Hancock, not Adams, where everyone from her elementary school went. It turns out we were in a different district all along and she should have been in another elementary school, too.”
“And the powers that be wouldn't budge. Been there and not done that,” Sandra said.
Faith nodded. “It's been really tough. There are aâ”
Just as she was about to launch into the whole Mean Girls problem, Laetitia, also one of the group's newer members, broke in. “My daughter Cassandra is in the seventh grade at Hancock, too! She has tons of friends and I know they'll all be happy to welcome your daughter. Your Amy probably knows my Cassie already!” She beamed.
Cassie. Oh yes, Faith thought. There couldn't be two. Cassie,
short for Cassandra, the Greek princess with the gift of prophecy and the curse never to be believed. A seer and a liar. Cassie, Amy's nemesis.
The next day was Charles Frawley's funeral and Faith was sitting in her accustomed spot in church. Her first Sunday as a new bride she had slipped into one of the pews farthermost to the rear, her mother's longstanding choice, and was politely but firmly escorted by one of the ushers to the front pew, right-hand side just below the pulpit. “The minister's wife has
The spot had its advantages. She could look inattentiveâher mind tended to wander during a serviceâand only her husband would know. However, it also had disadvantages: she couldn't count the house and see how many parishioners had shown up, and who had not bothered.
As she waited for the service to begin, her mind was on several things at once. The thought that she'd be occupying a different designated spot in a new church and Amy, always Amy. After Laetitia's announcement about her daughterâand what was with these oh-so-classical names?âFaith had jumped up to serve coffee and holiday cookies for those Uppity Women secure enough with the way they looked to nibble on themâa surprising number indulged. At the end of the luncheon, she'd been tempted to pull Laetitia to one side and confideâwhat? “Your daughter is making my daughter's life a living hell”? Instead she'd thanked her for the offer of Cassie's friendship and said she was sure the two girls' paths would cross. She'd also crossed her fingers.
The church was beginning to fill up. Charles had been a treasured member of the congregation and the whole town. He'd been widowed ten years ago and his children lived at a distance, so Aleford had filled in as family. He'd been a frequent guest for
Sunday dinner and other meals at the parsonage. Ben and Amy were very fond of him. He was a great storyteller, a self-described amateur historian, who had more knowledge about Aleford and New England than most professionals. Faith was starting to feel sad. He'd had a good long life, but she was filled with mixed emotions. Happy that his suffering was over, but depressed by the increasingly rapid passing of his generation. As for her own death, it was something she hoped was many years in the future and would occur at the exact moment of Tom's passing. As for an afterlife, she planned on being pleasantly surprised.
Her end-of-life thoughts strayed to Sophie's discovery of the corpse in the wardrobe. Faith had no doubts about what the young woman saw. When she herself had discovered a body that then vanished, everyone's disbelief was the worst part of all. She still got angry when she remembered the gesture one of the gendarmes had made when he thought she wasn't lookingâhis hand to his mouth as if tipping a bottle. She'd call Sophie soon and find out if there was any more news.
“She's not here,” a voice hissed.
Faith was startled from her reverie. Ursula had slid next to her. The act was such a departureâthe Rowes' spot was third row left-hand side since before Revere's midnight rideâthat for an instant she was frozen in place, then quickly responded. “Who's not here?”
Faith darted a look over her shoulder. When Millicent did come to a service she occupied the last pew, always seated next to the aisle. The spot Faith longed for. It was indeed empty.
“There's still time. She might just be late.”
“Millicent late?” Ursula said. “Aside from the fact that she's never late, she lives only a few steps away. Did Tom go talk to her?”
Faith shook her head. “Not yet. He's been busy planning the service with Charles's family.”
“Please tell him I am very concerned about Millicent and
hope he can go see her as soon as possible. She
be ill to miss Charles's funeral.”
Charles Frawley had been a past president of the Aleford Historical Society, as was Millicent. Both were board members emeriti, although Millicent chose to ignore that part and attended all the board meetings as if she were still an active member. The fact that she would miss her old friend's funeralâa person who shared her passion for the pastâwas more than troublesome.
The first hymn was beginning, and Ursula slipped back across to her pew. Faith stood as her husband came down the aisle, watching as she always did with pride and a slight lump in her throat today.
It was a beautiful service. Charles himself had chosen one of the readingsâLongfellow's “A Psalm of Life”âand asked that his son-in-law, who was an actor, read it. It was a good choice, especially as one of the children might have choked up. The son-in-law did not, and “Act,âact in the living Present!” rang out just as Charles must have wished.
A final hymnâ“Abide with Me”âand everyone moved into the parish hall for the collation. At Charles's request, interment would be private. Faith headed for the restroom, slipping through the throng intent on getting a deviled egg and one of the chicken salad triangles. The anchovy paste sandwiches and cream cheese pinwheels always sat on the platters as last resorts. Yesterday she'd dropped off a white lasagnaâbÃ©chamel sauce instead of tomatoâalong with salad makings, and an apple cake for the Frawleys to have for dinner tonight when the day drew to a close. Whatever they were eating now, if they were, wouldn't provide much sustenance.