Authors: Jaclyn Reding
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Contemporary
For Steve ...
... and another twenty years
She’d been looking over their most recent acquisition, a rare first edition of Anne Bradstreet’s
The Tenth Muse,
when the call had rung in on the shop phone.
Their Wednesday afternoon clerk, Rosalia, poked her head around the doorway of the book-crammed office a moment later, something she would do any number of times on any number of Wednesday afternoons, usually to ask things like:
“Want a coffee, Lib?”
“We’re sending out for Chinese, Lib.”
“Who the heck wrote
Highland Heroes: The Adventurer,
Her face this time, however, wasn’t its usual sunny self.
“It’s for you, Lib. It’s ...” Rosalia hesitated, bit her bottom lip. “Um, it sounds important.”
Libby didn’t even ask who it was. She fished for the receiver hidden beneath the nest of packing material that littered the desk in front of her. Her heart actually thumped as she put the phone to her ear, her voice breathless when she spoke her name a moment later. It was as if she already knew, which was impossible, given the fact that the words she would hear had been so utterly, so absolutely unexpected.
“Isabella ... this is Dr. Winston. I’m calling about ... I’m afraid ...” He paused. “It’s Matilde.”
From that moment, and for the rest of Libby’s life, the poetry of Anne Bradstreet would be synonymous with her mother’s death.
That had been a week ago. In truth it felt like a lifetime must have passed since she had received that terrible phone call.
Libby was no longer sitting in her cluttered office at Belvedere Books, at Fifty-eighth and Lexington on Manhattan’s East Side, where she spent her days cataloging their newly acquired titles and listening as Rosalia recounted her latest dating disasters. Instead she was standing in the parlor of her mother’s Victorian house, high above the historic fishing village of Ipswich-by-the-Sea on Massachusetts’s North Shore, where she had spent the past three hours accepting condolences from the people of the town in which she’d grown up.
It had been a long and emotionally draining day. Stealing a quiet moment when there was a lull in the gathering of mourners, Libby wandered over to the tall front windows to look out at the expanse of the gray north Atlantic. The glass rippled in the light reflecting off the sea, washing the cozy parlor with a pale autumn blush.
She’d almost forgotten how much she loved this place. The house had stood on its rocky cliff for some one hundred and sixty years, an idyllic sea captain’s house complete with a widow’s walk and rusted sea gate. Inside, the faded walls were papered in huge cabbage flowers, a delicate backdrop to the collection of antiques placed about the room. Books were arranged both vertically and horizontally along the far wall, while potted plants flourished underneath the bay window. Lace doilies, like intricate spiderwebs, stretched along the arms of the wing chair and the velvet sofa’s curving back. On the mantel were photographs, Libby building a sand castle, Libby being pushed on the old garden swing by her father, displaying the happy lives that had been lived there.
It wasn’t until she turned from the window that Libby happened to notice the cherry cabinet clock standing in the corner. It had stopped at precisely ten minutes after twelve, having been left unwound since the very morning her mother had passed away. It was sadly symbolic, that unticking clock. The room, after all, had always been the very heart of the house.
In that same parlor, Libby had played as a child, had had tea parties with her mother on summer afternoons. Every year they’d celebrated Christmas before the warmth of the small hearth, decorating a huge fir tree with garlands and lights and bright tartan bows. There was the carpet where Libby had learned to dance, standing on her father’s great feet as he had waltzed her around the room. And in the corner, the piano where she’d practiced her scales stood, just by the entryway where her height over the years of her childhood had been chinked into the doorjamb with her mother’s favorite paring knife.
Standing there now, Libby felt her gaze turn toward that doorjamb; the marks still visible even from across the room. She gave in to a small smile as she remembered how she had always tried to lift her heels a little off the hardwood floor to make herself taller than she really was. She remembered, too, how her mother had always caught her.
“Flatten those feet, Isabella Elizabeth Mackay Hutchinson,” she would say, her voice carrying the soft Scottish lilt that had remained with her long after she had crossed the ocean to America. “There’s naught to be gained from trying to be a tree.”
How Libby had always hated the fact that she hadn’t grown tall and lanky—and blond—like her friend Fay Mills, who had become a runway model at the age of sixteen, had left high school in Ipswich to move to New York, and now had her face beaming out from countless covers of newsstand magazines. Fay had always had the perfect face, the perfect body, and even the perfect name for it. Try as she might, Libby had never been able to think of a single fashion model named Libby.
Libby was, had always been,
—average height, average weight, average black hair and eyes that were more smoky than blue. She made an average salary, lived in an average studio apartment on West Seventy-sixth that needed far more redecorating than her average salary would allow. And since she spent most of her time surrounded by musty, aging books, she wore average clothes, comfortable khakis and chunky oversized sweaters that she ordered from the L.L.Bean catalog because she was too busy most of the time to go shopping herself. Even her shoes were average, with only a hint of a heel, best suited for climbing the rickety ladders that stretched to the highest of the shelves at the shop.
So she supposed her name fit her.
Her mother, however, hadn’t agreed.
“You’ll ne’er be average to me, Isabella Elizabeth. To me you’ll always be my one and only ...”
The one and only child Matilde Mackay Hutchinson had ever had.
Closing her eyes against the sting of tears, Libby took a deep breath and tucked the memory back into the farthest corner of her thoughts. She felt more alone at that moment than she could have thought possible. She let the breath go slowly.
she thought as she opened her eyes. There was a sink full of dirty dishes in the kitchen waiting to be washed, and food enough to feed the whole town lining the counters, waiting to be put away. Everyone who had come to pay their respects had brought something in covered casserole dishes and linen-lined baskets. If she had six months, she could never eat it all, so she planned to wrap it in plastic and distribute it the next day to various homeless shelters in Boston. Her mother, she knew, would think that “grand.”
Libby started for the kitchen to tackle the mounds of ham salads and baked beans—but stopped, hesitating, when she caught the whisper of voices coming from the other side of the arched doorway.
“A shame it is, poor child.”
Libby heard a responding sigh.
“Oh, yes. Libby’s all alone now. No brothers or sisters to comfort her. Not even a husband ...”
She recognized the voices. Mrs. Phillips and Mrs. Fanshaw had been two of her mother’s neighbors who for as long as Libby could remember had made it their business to comment on the business of others. Libby should have expected they would have an opinion this day.
“And how old is she now—Libby? Must be nearly thirty.”
Libby wanted to say, but bit back the words when the other one spoke again.
“Goodness! But I was wed and had three children before I was thirty. At this rate, by the time little Libby finds herself a man, it’ll be too late for her to have any children to leave this place to.”
“This is true ...” Another sigh. Mrs. Fanshaw was excessively fond of sighing. “If only things could have been different last April ...”
She didn’t finish the thought. But she didn’t have to. Everyone in Ipswich-by-the-Sea would have known what she meant.
“And to think,” she said instead, “all those bedrooms upstairs, empty still. Poor Matilde and Hugh never had any other children.”
“You know, I wonder if Libby would be interested in selling the place. It isn’t as if she’ll move back here now that Matilde is gone. Charles Derwent had always told Matilde she need only name her price and he’d buy it from her. The view from the porch is simply the best anywhere on the North Shore.”
Libby stiffened. Sell her mother’s house?
“Of course she’ll have to sell,” Mrs. Fanshaw persisted. “What other choice will she have? Living so far away now in that city?”
As if New York was akin to Sodom and Gomorrah.
“Oh, yes. Though she never let on, I know Matilde was simply shattered when Libby moved away. Oh, she tried to put on a brave face. Matilde always hid her sorrow well, but look how Libby came to visit less and less often these past months. Poor Matilde. At her age, a woman should have been surrounded by the laughter of grandchildren, instead of sitting on that porch alone each night, staring out at the sea.”
Libby turned, leaned against the wall. She looked toward the windows and caught a glimpse of her mother’s rocking chair there, its wooden spindles bleached and cracked from years of sunlight and the harsh sea air. Seeing it empty now, she felt something unpleasant twinge deep in the bottom of her stomach.
Was it true? Had her mother felt as alone as they’d said? Neglected by Libby after she moved to New York those five years ago?
Libby thought back to the day she had told her mother of the position she had accepted with Belvedere Books, Manhattan’s oldest and most prestigious antiquarian bookshop. For Libby, it had been the opportunity she had always dreamed of, a chance to spend her days immersed in her love of old books. And Matilde had been happy for her. At least it had seemed so ...
Libby had only answered the advertisement on a lark, had never dreamed she would be asked for an interview, let alone offered the position of acquisitions assistant.
But she had.
Most of the time she wasn’t even in the shop. She could spend days, even weeks traveling to estate sales and out-of-the-way bookshops, in search of those editions that were most rare. She had an eye for it, and George Belvedere had told her it was the reason she’d been offered the job.
Quite often her travels had brought her through New England, and she would stop and spend a long weekend with her mother, just the two of them. But truth be told, those weekends had come fewer and farther between in recent months, ever since ...
It had just been too hard, coming back, having to face the memories, the looks on the faces of the townspeople. In fact it had been a full two months since Libby had been to Ipswich-by-the-Sea at all. Instead she’d kept in touch with her mother through a series of less and less frequent phone calls.
And now, because of that, her mother had died alone, sitting in the very parlor where Libby now stood, only to be found by one of the neighbors, who had grown worried when Matilde hadn’t shown up for the weekly meeting of the Ipswich-by-the-Sea Gardening Club.
Dr. Winston, the family’s physician since Libby had been a child, had said she’d had no symptoms, no episodes that would have warned of such a thing coming. Her mother’s heart had simply quit.
Just like the clock in the corner.
He’d said it, Libby knew, to try to comfort her, to ease the guilt he obviously knew she must be feeling. His kind words and gentle smile had done nothing, however, to lessen the harsh truth that Libby should have been there with her.
“I’m here now, Mother,” Libby whispered, even though she knew it was too late. She could only close her eyes and wait out the churn of her emotions before turning once again to the kitchen.
Three hours later, the house stood empty.
After the last of the mourners had left, patting her hand and pitying her with their eyes, Libby had curled up in her mother’s rocking chair on the porch. It was a cool autumn night, and she’d wrapped herself in the weathered folds of the woolen throw Matilde had kept there, watching the darkness of the October night steal over the star-filled Atlantic sky.
Libby pressed her nose into the scratchy blanket and breathed deeply, seeking her mother’s familiar scent. Lilacs. Always lilacs. Would she always remember that scent, Libby wondered. Or would time diminish it, fading like the autumn leaves until it was simply gone forever? Libby felt the sea wind blow across her face, pulling at her hair, heard the fallen leaves toss about at the bottom of the garden steps. Her heart twisted in her chest just like those leaves, roiling on the swirl of her emotions, and she wept into that blanket as she wished—just wished—she could see her mother’s face once more.