“Ada?” Adele’s cool voice echoed through the phone.
“Yes,” Ada answered, fearful without knowing why. “I was just outside watering. These afternoons are too nice to be inside.” She gave a breathless laugh, hoping to dispel her anxiety.
Adele paused. “Ada,” a silence that cut Ada in two, “it’s John. He’s had a stroke.”
Ada gasped, “My God! No!” She reached out toward the window that faced John’s house. “When? How is he?”
“Early this morning. He’s in intensive care.” Another pause. “I’ve got Heather and Rachel with me. Dr. Richards is confident that John will be coming home soon. He mentioned to Madeline that you had been trained as a nurse in homecare.”
Ada steadied herself against the doorjamb. “Yes, I worked for a while. When Steve and Dan were alive.” She didn’t mean to bring them into this. “I wouldn’t know what to do anymore.”
“I think Madeline needs the reassurance more than anything, Ada.” She gave a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m not very helpful.”
Ada nodded, though she knew Adele could not see her. But she could visualize Adele: eight months pregnant, the beginnings of being uncomfortable, yet the awakening of the spiritual bond between mother and child, between the giver and given. No, what Adele did not realize is that Madeline would need her, too.
Like a weight of chains, Ada felt a bond of sisterhood with Madeline. “I’ll go over to the hospital right away and talk to the doctor and Madeline.”
After she hung up, she stood immobilized. Hearing the mailman’s rustling on her porch, she forced herself to move. She retrieved the bundle of mail, and without looking through them, let the letters drop upon her dresser top.
She drove with care, aware that she must anchor herself in reality and not let her fear undo her sensibility. Meeting with Dr. Richards, she remained calm and felt the emergence of her other self that could cope, the other woman of her that could push aside all feelings and do the job at hand.
She walked through the day, talking and soothing, arranging and ordering for Madeline and John. She committed herself to them; reluctantly, she agreed to come to the house and be his caretaker. Madeline, dry‑eyed but showing strain in the taut pull of her lips and stiff carriage, left Ada at the hospital to talk with Dr. Richards about the particulars.
Ada edged gingerly into the room where John lay stretched beneath the white sheets, looking peaceful in his sleep. Tubes criss‑crossed his nose and over his arms; yet he seemed as if any moment he might wake and laugh at the incongruity of this cruel joke.
Ada touched his cheek, but he did not awaken.
“Oh, John, John,” she murmured, easing away from him.
At his door, she stopped, pressed her hands over her eyes to wipe away the tears, and walked down the bright sterile hallway, out the doors and to her car. She could not remember any particulars driving home, only the surprise that she sat in her car parked in her driveway.
She slammed the car door shut, fumbled for her door key and finally stood alone in her bedroom. She flung her car keys and purse onto the bureau. A letter from Rodger snagged her attention. She picked it up and hugged it to her, plopping onto the crazy‑patch quilt, patterns of her mother and grandmother so lovingly sewn by the fireside, and broke the letter’s seal.
Rodger’s words described a strange, frightening land where bombs blew up and people died. As the fading daylight blurred the words on the last page, Ada shivered. Could she take in two foreigners? she wondered. Could she do that much for Rodger? A little twelve‑year-old girl and her aging father? Ada’s hands began to tremble, and the tears smeared the words on the paper.
“Give me time to think about it,” she whispered. “Just a little time.”
Through the next week, Adele, Madeline and the girls occupied Ada’s time, so much that she put off writing to Rodger. Adele and Madeline had both written to him, leaving a space for Ada to think before she, too, sent him a letter. At last, one evening, she sat before the blank stationery and faced the question squarely.
“Yes,” she said simply after the first paragraph, “I would gladly have Mary Elizabeth and her father, LinChing, live with me.”
She wrote about the details of her life. John would be coming home in the morning, and during the day, she would be his caretaker until he was stronger. He had done remarkably well, recovering from his slight stroke. He might even go back to work in a month or so. Ada tapped the pen against her teeth.
I’ll be here for John if he needs me. Just like I’m here for Rodger.
With a flourish, she signed her name then added a postscript: “Don’t worry about us here at home.”
Folding the letter in thirds, she was overcome by melancholy. Maybe she should have left this town after Dan and Stevie were killed, gone and found a big city where she could lose herself in the crowds and faster pace of living. Instead she had chosen to stay cloistered in her house. And now she had Rodger and a circumspect life. Moments like these saddened her to think how easy she had come to be alone. She got up; it was so late, and she must be rested for tomorrow when John came home. As she turned out the lights, she felt herself fading, transfiguring into a spirit in a disarray of billowing white substance tracing down the hall, consecrating the house. She walked around her bedroom, unwilling to turn on the lights, feeling the room absorb her. She undressed in the dark and climbed naked into bed.
The room was too strange. She felt so alone with her things. Her dreams began swirling with confusing images of Rodger, Stevie and Dan, their faces and bodies intermixing.
She pulled herself away from them, forcing herself to awaken. Turning on the bedside light, she was surprised by the rivers of tears that blurred her sight.
This was her room. No trace of anyone. Just bits of sewing, unfinished projects, clothes needing to be ironed, shoes scattered about—hers, every room of this house was filled with her.
She quickly pulled on her long flannel nightgown. Although she fought sleep, it enclosed about her until the bright sun filtered through the slats of the blinds. Dust motes danced in the sunlight.
It must be late morning, thought Ada wildly. I must hurry.
Ada came in through the opened front door of the Brown’s house. She caught sight of Madeline as she settled John into his study which had been converted for his convalescence, then looked to see Adele standing alone at the top of the stair landing. Adele pointed to upstairs.
“The girls are still sleeping. The poor little ones. They don’t know what to think or do.”
Ada felt a surge of confidence as she met Adele in the living room. “It’s only going to be for a little while, Adele. You’ll see. John’s strong. Resilient.”
Adele smiled and patted Ada’s arm. “Come in the kitchen and I’ll show you what the drugstore delivered this morning.”
They were together in the kitchen arranging the medication, comfortable in one another’s company. Madeline’s sharp voice from the other room made them both stop short of their task.
“For heaven’s sake, John!”
Ada tensed. Adele turned awkwardly, steadying herself against the table. “I’ll go see if I can give Madeline a hand. Maybe you could bring John’s medication while I go get the girls up.”
Ada could only nod, careful to keep her back to Adele to hide her anxiety. She looked over her shoulder to watch the tall, well‑built woman leave the room. She wished she had the ease to move about these people so freely.
Ada came out into the hall at the sound of whispers. Looking up, she gave Rachel and Heather a small wave as they watched, huddled together at the top of the stairs, the frantic movements below them.
Adele, half-way up the stairs spoke with gentle authority. “Rachel, help Heather get dressed, and I’ll walk you two down to the library.”
Madeline bolted out of the study. Ada held out John’s medication, but Madeline had turned to Adele. “He’s impossible! He’s not sick enough to be nursed, but not well enough to be on his own!” She flicked her wrist at the study, as if she could dismiss the whole distressing matter.
“I’m sure it’s hard on a man who’s been used to being so active,” Ada began. Madeline’s hardened stare frightened Ada. She closed her hands about the vials and gave a low laugh low, hoping to draw the anger out of Maddie.
“Why don’t you get away for a spell. You deserve it. Adele and I will manage here.”
Adele nodded emphatically. “Yes, Maddie, go on. I’ll take the girls, and you go on to your bridge club.”
Madeline’s eyes were focused on the creaking door that inched open, exposing the outlines of table legs, the thick Oriental rug upon the shiny hardwood floor, and the plump raspberry velvet brocade couch where John lay.
“It’s been so trying these last few days!” Then snatching her gloves and purse, she rushed out the front door.
Adele sighed. Heather and Rachel came tripping down the stairs and waited with unblinking stares until Adele gathered them one in each arm. “Perhaps tomorrow the girls could have a little picnic with John in there. Let me know if he’s up to it, Ada.” She guided them to the front door. “Bye.”
John called from the study. “Ada?”
“Yes, John.” She picked up the tray with water jug and glass from the hall stand and moved carefully into the study.
“I brought news from Rodger. Would you like me to read it?” She handed John a fistful of pills and a glass of water.
John gulped down the pills and nodded. He swung his legs away from the cushions, pulling his robe taut around his middle. He motioned for Ada to sit close to him.
She sat down stiffly, tugging at her dress to cover her knees, and then fumbled with the pages, tearing the envelope as she took the letter out. John watched her, but Ada avoided his eyes and slipped on her reading glasses.
“He says it really has been quiet on the Chinese front. Not much action, except in the poker games.” She peered over her specs, meeting John’s twinkling eyes. “He says if he got as many strikes in the air as he does on the ground, he’d be the most decorated Ace around!”
She shuffled the pages. “He says right here, ‘Haven’t had much chance to write Dad. Trying to get leave to come home. Miss the bull sessions to discuss the good old times we never had.’ ”
Ada jerked upright when she realized what she had read. But John said nothing, waiting for her to continue and she did. “’Tell him I got a letter off to him. It left tomorrow.’”
Ada heard a sharp intake of breath, flinched, and looked over at John. To her surprise, he was chuckling.
“Here,” she handed him the letter, “why don’t you finish this while I get some tea?”
John hesitated before taking the letter. He looked searchingly at her. Flushed, she jumped up and headed for the kitchen. The doorbell rang, and in mid-stride, she turned around and grasped the knob, opening the door with a hearty yank.
A distinguished, silver‑headed, mustached older man in military uniform stood erect before her “My, God! What do you want?” she cried out.
He took a step back, peeking over his shoulder uncertainly. “I’ve come to see Madeline Brown. Have I gotten the wrong address?”
In sudden embarrassment, she clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh, no, excuse me. It’s just…that I thought…that…,” she stammered. “Well, they have a son, and…”
“No, ma’am, I don’t bring any bad news. At least not of that kind.”
Ada, relieved, dropped her sweaty hand from the door knob.
“I’m Kyle Mansard, Madeline’s brother. I’m sure she’s not expecting me, but if you would be so kind as to tell her I’m here?”
“Oh, no, she’s not here.”
“Then may I speak with Mr. Brown?” He had a tone that belied his impatience, and Ada got the distinct impression that he thought of her as hired help.
“Won’t you,” Ada hesitated, glancing away from his direct stare, then waving him into the living room, “come in and have a seat? I’ll tell John you’re here.”
The kettle was singing. Ada ushered the man into the living room, turning to inquire of him as he sat on the couch, “Would you like a cup of tea?” She began to collect her wits again.
“Yes, that would be very nice. With milk and sugar, if you please.”
Ada wanted to explain the circumstances to him, but the whistling teapot had an urgency she couldn’t ignore. That he thought of her as a housekeeper stung. She flung silverware and china onto the tray, telling herself to stay calm. She sat down on the opposite end of the couch from him and poured a cup of tea for each of them.
“Please excuse me, and I’ll go see if John is up to coming in here.” She didn’t understand the strange man’s quizzical expression. Surely Madeline would have written to her brother, but quite possibly he did not know. “Otherwise we’ll have to join him in the study.”
John had fallen asleep with the letter clutched tightly in his hand. His head was thrown back and Ada traced the outline of his face with her eyes. His hair lay askew, sticking straight up in the air in some places, but with his eyes closed and his mouth relaxed, he had lost the rigidity about his features that so aged him. He could have been a young man napping. With a dreadful sense of purpose, Ada returned to the living room.
“He’s sleeping. I shouldn’t like to disturb him—the doctor feels it’s so important for him to rest.”
Kyle’s teacup stopped in midair. “Has something happened to John?”
“You didn’t know? John had a very slight stroke. He’s being allowed to recuperate at home.”
Ada resented having to explain things to this man, but he waited, his persistent stare demanding more information.
“I’m qualified as a nurse in homecare.” Ada suddenly became aware of the nearly empty house.
“Adele is looking after the girls. And Madeline is away tending to some business.”
“Adele is here?” Setting his cup down, Kyle leaned closer to Ada. “And how is she getting along these days?”
Ada felt drawn in by honest, unblinking eyes. “Very well. The baby’s due the latter part of July, or first of next month.”
“My, God! Neither she nor Rodger wrote me of this!”
Ada, flustered, offered the first excuse that came to mind. “Perhaps the letters haven’t caught up to you, with everyone moving around these days.” She blushed, wanting to be away from this man. “Adele will be back soon from the library. She and the girls. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some things I must get done.”
“Oh, please go about your routine.” He pulled himself gracefully up from the couch, stretching. “I’ll amuse myself with magazines or this book.” He picked up a red-leather hardbound with its title obscured.
Ada returned to the kitchen and prepared a roast, rubbing spices of basil and sprinkling oregano liberally before she shoved it into the oven. The girls’ squeals could be heard as they came bounding through the front door, Adele trailing behind. Ada stopped at the kitchen doorway just as Rachel halted in mid‑stride when she sighted the strange man; Heather, right behind her, couldn’t stop and plowed into her. Both girls tumbled into a heap before the bemused eyes of their uncle. Ada laughed with him at the sight of tangled arms and legs.
John called out. “Ada! What is it?”
She went to the study, leaving Adele in Kyle’s embrace. She collected John, who leaned heavily against her as they walked awkwardly out to the front room. Rachel and Heather were pressed against the kitchen door frame, eyeing them like two surprised fawns.
Hunched over his cane, with an awkward grace, John extended his free hand. “Kyle, long time. How are you?”
“Fine, fine.” Kyle took John’s hand in his and pumped it, letting it go abruptly. “It appears you’re not.”
“Oh, a little setback. It comes with the banking.”
John shuffled over to a chair. Kyle backed into the couch and sat down next to Adele, who immediately grasped his hand in hers. John motioned the girls over to his side.
“You probably don’t remember your Uncle Kyle.”
Heather was chewing on her fingers. Rachel peeked from underneath half‑closed eyelids, then turned to face the stranger with a defiant look.
He spoke first. “If you want, just call me Kyle. Rodger always did.”
Ada felt the warmth of recognition and smiled. This man, so like Rodger, had a charm about him, an inborn sense of what it takes to make people respond. Both girls giggled.
Rachel, arms akimbo, asked boldly, “Where do you come from?”
A well-tanned hand gestured. “If you give me that atlas there on the table, I’ll show you where I’ve been.” He traced routes in between bits of conversation with John and Adele, always able to include Ada with a quick glance. She sat apart, silent, yet so much a part of this family, feeling as if she were sailing in a tiny boat on a river that flowed towards a great ocean.
Madeline materialized from nowhere. She looked them over, her expression curiously blank.
John stopped speaking and looked from Madeline to Ada. Adele looked at Ada, then at Madeline. Rachel and Heather widened their eyes. Kyle turned and met his sister’s eyes.
“How very like you, Kyle,” Madeline exhaled, “to show up without so much as a call or a letter.” It was the softness of her voice that shocked Ada, almost as if Madeline had embraced Kyle, yet she stood tensed, as if to do battle.
“Oh, I’m sorry, but I wasn’t sure where I’d be at what time.”
“Nonsense, you always know.” Madeline stood firm in her stony certitude. The silence stretched out. Madeline and Kyle stared at one another.
John spoke. “Kyle, old man, you’ll be staying with us, I hope? You’ll be very comfortable in Rodger’s room.”
Adele chimed in. “I dare say, you might appreciate those pictures of boxers better than I.”
“I hadn’t intended on staying. Just a visit.”
“Nonsense,” Madeline reiterated, pointing to the porch behind her. “Bring in your suitcase. You’ll sleep in Rodger’s room.”
Kyle chuckled. “All right.” He started to get up.
“Stay.” Ada commanded, waving him back into his seat. “I’ll set it inside as I leave.” She got up and went over to Madeline. “I’ve put a roast in the oven and set the table. Adele knows Kyle and will help with John. Everything will be ready to serve at six-thirty.”
“Ada! Please stay for dinner, too!” Madeline ordered, with a hint of urgency in her voice.
“Oh, no, thank you. I’ll be on my way. I’ll be over early tomorrow morning.” She started for the door.
Heather began to cry. Madeline’s face clouded with annoyance, but before she could scold, Ada rushed to Heather and hugged her. “Come over later, both of you, and listen to Captain Marvel with me.”
The girls beseeched their mother with watery eyes.
“Yes, yes, you may, but be home for dinner. But only for an hour.” Madeline walked Ada to the door, squeezing her arm as she leaned over to whisper, “It’s just that we never got on that well. What a rude surprise! Of all days!”
“I imagine,” Ada whispered back.
“Oh, Ada! What would I do without you?”
Ada patted her arm. “Adele will be here. She’s very nice to have around, isn’t she?”
“Yes, yes, I suppose. But I do wish you would stay.”
Ada had an uneasy feeling of indebtedness. She could almost see strands of Madeline’s web hooking onto her; she had to sever the threads.
“Maddie, you might want to enjoy these precious few times spent with your family without me around. Besides,” she added sharply, “you’ll be seeing me quite enough during the day.”
Madeline stared at Ada in astonishment, her jaw slack. Then, stepping away, she slammed the door, the echoes ringing in Ada’s ears. Ada quietly eased the door back open and slipped Kyle’s suitcase inside.
She walked through the gate and into her back yard. Oh, she was bone-tired! A breeze played about the trees. She inhaled the fragrant night air.
It was the sort of evening folks should enjoy in a comfortable chair. Pulling one alongside the edge of the tomato plants, she sat. She took out Rodger’s letter and finished reading the parts she had given John.
When Rodger came home, she had hoped that they could have some time for just the two of them, like the old days. She was just plain tired of having to share so much anymore.
I have more than other widows, I know, she thought. Yet like the sunrise and sunset, I am but a part of someone’s day.
Her other self, the one with unclouded eye, knew, knew she would be there for them as long as she lived and breathed. With a little smile at herself, she leaned down and plucked a few straggling weeds around her tomato plant, smoothing back the dirt to cover the small wound. By summer’s end she’d have enough vegetables to give to all of them. Yes, she would like that; to give them each something out of her garden. She pushed away the chair and kneeled on the ground to begin another row of weeding before darkness fell around her.
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