The Makings of a Matriarch
Updated: Jul 5
Chapter 1 - A preview of my book in progress
Summer was almost over, it was the year of 1967. Bethany was 16 years old but felt like she had already become an adult. She knew that she was about to go through a certain rite of passage that made her feel much older than her true age. Having reached her full height at only 14 years old, Beth was 5’8” and she had towered over most of the other girls for years. Now at 17 she was thin but shapely, her physique was on the athletic side but her slight curves were still feminine. The boy’s whispers this summer had been about her legs and how they went on for miles. Her straight and smooth yellow blonde hair fell just below her shoulders and was always perfectly curled, turned up at the bottom of the strands in big wide rings, thick with spray they stayed in place perfectly. She would have been accused of being doe eyed, except that her eyes were a brilliant sky blue. Her mood was often apparent in her eyes and today no matter how hard she tried to hide it, she was sure that her sadness was viewable by the world. She kept them cast down to her hands as she sat in the back seat occupying her mind by practicing the string game.
Sitting in the back seat of the car, she was half listening to her mother sing along with The Turtles on the radio while her father drove. Beth’s bottom rubbed against the hot leather seat of the Buick LaSabre as her navy blue mini skirt rode up from underneath her. “hmm hmm hmm Happy together… ba da bop bah bah” her mom went on and on with the chorus, her voice an audible whisper below the volume of the radio.
Beth was trying to be fully present, to thoroughly listen to her mom’s voice, and burn it into her memory but her mind wouldn’t obey and went somewhere else. In an attempt to snap herself out of it, she leaned forward and put her string filled hands over the center of the front seat. “Mom, your turn.” She said. Beth was the spitting image of her mother, Ann except for one thing. Ann’s hair was a deep chestnut brown. Not a single gray hair had yet to arrive on her head. Ann smiled and turned sideways in her seat to face the string in Beth’s hands, wrapping her pinkies around the corners while her pointy fingers and thumbs grabbed the middle. “ha-ha I got it! Now your turn Beth!” Their eyes met and they both smiled. Suddenly Beth misted and tears behind threatened. She was lost in a flood of memories, swinging in the park, picking blackberries in the backyard, giving Charlie, their Border Collie with one blue eye, a bath with the hose and watching him shake the suds all over her mom, the smell of baked goods flowing from the kitchen all the way out to the front porch as she came home from school. She wished that good memories wouldn’t make her want to cry. Beth pulled at the strings in her mother’s hand, managed to make a new configuration and returned to the back seat.
Beth was considered the first female boy scout of all time. Her father Edward was a scout leader and every summer she went with him to camp. From the time she was 9 years old she had spent her summers learning to survive in the woods, how to fish for dinner and twiddle sticks. This however had been the last summer she would go. Beth would never ever be allowed at Boy Scouts again, because the boys had stolen a bra from her cabin and raised it up the flag-pole as a joke and her father, Edward, had been furious. In truth it could have been her bra, or her friend Carrie’s. His face had flushed with so much fury that it had nearly turned the same shade as his red hair. Beth took it to mean that she was finally considered one of “them.” After all they were always pranking each other. She tried to tell him that the prank meant that she finally belonged, that she was considered to be an equal by them now, but he had not wanted to hear that. Instead he confined her to the cabin, along with her friend Carrie for the remaining days of summer. Edward had always wanted to have boys. He knew after all what to do with boys, how to act around them and teach them things. Girls on the other hand were a source of worry. Other than follow his protective instinct, he had no clue.
Edward had grown up alongside his brother, and father hunting and fishing in the woods every chance they could. About to assume sole responsibility for his daughter, for Edward, was just terrifying. As his eye watched the road, his hands gripped the wheel and he thought of the million scenarios in life that Beth may need support in as she moved into adulthood. He feared being inadequate. How would he manage to both protect her as a father should and groom her as her mother would have, had she been able to, all on his own? He didn’t turn to look at his two ladies playing the string game beside him. He knew what they were doing and saw them slightly in his periphery. His jaw tightened and he kept his eyes focused on the road. He couldn’t let them know how truly worried he was, he had to be strong now. This would be a difficult day for all of them.
He was tall, 6’4” and most often had a neatly combed orange-red mane. Her mother sometimes called him “my lion.” He was as fierce as he was sweet. As a WWII veteran, he was a former medic who carried wounded soldiers off the battlefield. He never spoke of it, but if you spent enough time with him it was easy to see that he had seen nightmares that affected his soul. Scraping wounded and bloody soldiers off the battlefield while an occasional stray bullet flew over his shoulder had changed him, witnessing so much violent death had cost him his innocence.
Beth would miss going to Boy Scout camp. That was for sure. The boys loved her, for the past 11 years they had treated her like a girl they had only just begun to accept her tomboy nature. But, as pretty as she was and as hormonal as the boys were, her dad felt it was no longer safe for her to spend the summers sleeping in a cabin, unattended, near so many rambunctious young men.
He had loved to watch Bethany explore the trails in the summers. He was equally saddened that their summer Boy Scout camping days were over. She had the most beautiful voice and it was so distinctly heard over the boy scouts during song times. They all sang together but her perfect pitch soprano voice along with the guitar just made each day of summer perfect for him. He could hardly believe that this blonde beauty had come from his seed. From his wife he could understand. She was like a flower in bloom when he had first met her on his parent’s farm. But with his red hair and awkward height for his skinny shape and big floppy feet made him feel more that he looked more like a Great Dane puppy than a man.
The summers had always been a break from mom, a short one of 10 weeks. Not that anyone needed a break from Ann, but rather from dealing with her illness. For the past few years, Grandma Belle had been coming to stay with her for the summer. More correctly, to be her caregiver because she could not be trusted to be alone as she might forget to lock the door or not turn off the flame on the stove. Ann had problems. Mainly with her memory, but in recent years it was more than just memory at times it was full blown confusion. She had even forgotten a few times recently that Beth was her daughter. Ann had just looked at her with a blank stare and then asked odd questions of Beth: “So, you have enjoyed spending the afternoon with my husband have you?” In a sharp tone. Beth didn’t understand until she realized that Ann had forgotten that Beth was her daughter. The first time it happened, Beth and Edward came in from working in the garden together, covered with sweat and laughing. Ann had thought that Beth was a mysterious woman, perhaps a girlfriend for Edward, here to steal away her husband as her hands and body often trembled so badly that insecurities rose within her and she was unable to participate in family activities. At only 39 years old, her hands shook so bad when she held a fork that often it clanged against her plate and the food slipped off of it into her lap. Trying to get a fork into her mouth had become such an embarrassment and she didn’t want to leave the house anymore, certainly not to eat. When she was aware, Ann didn’t know how Edward could stand it. She didn’t want her husband to see her this way. When he had married her they were so in love and she was such a lady. Her manners were perfect as was her health. Her chestnut locks always perfectly curled tightly against her head, her appearance groomed. She baked the best breads, grew the sweetest strawberries and canned her own jams. They had a root cellar full of jellied and pickled treats she had made. There was enough to last years, longer than she would perhaps.
Edward loved his wife. He would never leave her. But going to camp every summer gave him the time he needed to not think of her illness. Parkinsons. How unfair that it struck her, struck them. He took Bethany with him because he figured she needed a little time to forget the madness of home too. Plus since she enjoyed being outdoors, they had some mutual ground on which to bond. When they were apart from her, they could remember the beauty of her without seeing the illness. Plus they got to have fun. The rest of the year Edward worked for General Motors, engineering automobiles. He had been there since college and he had worked hard for so long that he was able to take a full ten weeks off all summer. It meant he had to work through the winter holiday week when most of his colleagues had off, but he didn’t mind, not one bit.
But what the future held for Beth was so much change that it was scary. Today they were driving her mom to a nursing home. One where Ann would live, from now until she died a death where she would remember no one. Edward worked so many hours she feared he wouldn’t be able to visit, except on weekends. They lived just outside of the Hartford city limits. At 17 years old Bethany was not ready to let go of her mother. Her mom had a very kind and gentle way about her. She was the kind of woman who had read stories to her daughter until she was completely asleep and kissed her on the forehead and eyelids so gently as to not wake her.
Beth would rather have mom at home. She didn’t mind feeding her and caring for her. Edward on the other hand had a hard time looking at her lately. As her once beautiful smile had turned sideways and was now a bit twisted. Her head often bobbled back and forth as she tried to hold her lips together to stop herself from drooling out the one side. Edward thought that Beth deserved to be a teenager instead of a caregiver. He didn’t want his daughter growing up as her mother’s nursemaid. Lately Ann didn’t recognize Beth a majority of the time, but when she did, she didn’t want her daughter wiping drool off her lip or serving her dinner either. Ann was embarrassed to be coddled like a child by her only child.
Bethany’s thoughts turned to next summer. What would happen then? With momma in a nursing home and no more summer Boy Scout camp, what then? Would dad be leaving her behind, heading off to romp in the woods without her? Would Grandma Belle come to try and babysit her instead of her mother? Love her as she did, she certainly didn’t want to spend the summer re-learning proper fork placement, ironing curtains and staying inside “out of the heat.” No, she didn’t want that at all. This would be her last year of high school too, next year she would be college bound.
Why did this have to happen all at once? She thought, it is just too much. It was like all of her prayers had not been answered all at the same time. “Dad, this is too far from home, don’t you think…?” His eyes looked into her’s through the rear view mirror. He was a man of few words, always. As if saying too much would expose an emotion and he was not interested in such a risk. “No, it is the closest place that was good.” Was all he said. He knew that she was looking for comfort, to be reassured that everything would be ok and they wouldn’t let go of her mom. He just didn’t have enough confidence that it wouldn’t happen. He was sure he would have to let go of Ann in a way.
He had seen plenty of suffering on the battlefield. He bared it like the man he was taught to be. But to see his bride suffer is something that he refused to bear any longer. He didn’t want to look at Ann anymore. He would pay the bills, bring supplies she needed and things she loved. He would not abandon her, but he was ready to close the door on his heart. For him it was a must. Leaving that door open was just too painful. In fact the entire journey leading up to the nursing home had been a series of painful moments. He knew, as they pulled in the driveway of the Amberwoods in Farmington that Beth would never let go. How could a young girl close the door on her heart to her mother, impossible. He wished that they could carry on without missing her. He feared the wedge that was about to come between him and Beth, but he didn’t think that he could do anything about it.
At the Amberwoods everyone was nice. It was an expensive facility as these places often were. The entry way was quite grand. The courtyard was filled with flowers and vines grew up on the walls. There were a few stone benches to each side and in the center a large white wooden door. When they walked in, her mother held her hand. Ann knew that this would be where she would live out her days as she lost her entire life and every memory of it. She had helped Edward make the decision. She didn’t want her husband and her daughter to bear the burden of caring for her either, it had been a joint decision and a tough one at that. Ann felt as though she was leaving them behind. She took a deep breath and squeezed her daughter’s hand tighter, hoping that would make the shaking in her fingers cease but it did not. She turned her head and looked Bethany, gazing deep into her blue eyes. “It’s going to be ok Beth-baby, this is what is best for ALL of us. I may not remember everything, but I always know deep inside how much we all love each other. We are going to let these people take care of me for the tough stuff. You know I picked this place with your father and I like it here. Doesn’t it smell so wonderful?” Beth looked back, directly in her mother’s hazel brown ones. The mist in them gave her away as she pushed a brave smile onto her face. “Yes mom, it does smell wonderful, like soup.” Was all she could manage to say. In fact it did. It smelled like the most marvelous things were coming from the kitchen. Today, it smelled like beef and garlic.
The nurse manager appeared in the waiting room and escorted them to Ann’s new bedroom. Edward followed in tow, carrying two suitcases and wheeling a box on a cart behind him. Finally they came to the last room at the end of the hall. It was a nice size suite with an adjoining private bathroom. There was a full size bed with a cherry wood headboard. A dresser was at the foot of the bed, and a nightstand on the side by the window. On the other side was a floral print chair with pink roses and green leaves. On the other side of the room there was a cherry wood square table with a pink marble top and three wooden chairs each with a pink cushion. In the corner, a cherry wood bookcase. The bathroom had all of the appropriate safety railings in place. Being that it was on the corner there were windows on two sides of the room. One of the windows could be pulled ajar for fresh air to come in. Out the window was a view of the side garden, which had beds of pink roses. Ann stood and looked out the window, having roses everywhere made her relax a little and feel almost at home. Together they silently unpacked her clothes into her drawer, some framed photos of the three of them were hung on the wall. Edward had to go fill out some paperwork. Beth stayed to help her mother get situated, organize dresser drawers and place her things around the room to help her feel at home. Truthfully she was curious. She was the only one who had not yet seen Ann’s new living quarters. It was slightly comforting to actually know what it looked like. Together they put Ann’s floral sheets on the bed, and a quilt they had brought from home. A few classic books placed on the shelves along with the cribbage board and a few decks of cards.
Ann planned to have something to do when her daughter came to visit, but now she was getting tired and the forgetfulness was creeping in. She started to recall that when her energy wore thin, everyone would suddenly appear as a stranger and she knew she was heading in that direction. “Beth, I think it’s time for me to take a nap, would you mind letting me rest?”
“Sure mom” Beth answered fully knowing the cycle. “I’ll go get you some tea from the kitchen and bring it back.” Beth handed her mother a bath robe and exited, softly closing the door. She followed the smell of food to the kitchen and found a walk up counter just outside the dining room. She peered inside and politely asked for some hot water. Holding a tea bag in her hand, without a cup and looking a little bit lost. A nice woman of about 30 years old appeared at the food pass window with a cup and saucer in less than a minute. “Lemon? Sugar lumps?” she asked. “No thank you.” Said Beth. “Momma is pure English, she takes it plain., um I’m Ann’s daughter. She is new. Room 303” And dropped the tea bag into the cup. She gazed into the cup and watched the tea swirl it’s color into the white porcelain glass. She remembered how her mother used to read tea leaves and wished she had learned before Ann had forgotten. Somehow it was soothing to know that her mother would easily be able to have her afternoon tea. Routine was important for Ann, somehow having expectations of what was to come next helped her to keep her memory together better. “Um, could I have two more cups?” she asked, as a second thought. Perhaps Dad would agree to share tea before they left. “Certainly, are you helping your mom get settled in?” “Yes.” Beth answered averting her eyes, she didn’t like the idea of a stranger witnessing her sadness. “Let me help you carry these, my name is Henrietta by the way, I met your mother last week when she came in for her last deciding visit, we got along famously. I do believe she is going to teach me how to make jam in this kitchen one day”, the woman responded. She came out from behind the window and followed Beth down the hall, she was still talking, but Beth only caught some of what she said. She rambled on with reassuring words, about how well they would take care of Ms. Ann.
When they reached the room, Edward had already returned. The two of them were sitting at the table. Henrietta placed two cups of tea down on the table and Beth the third. She touched Ann on the shoulder and winked before heading out the door, saying something over her shoulder about being excited to learn Ann’s recipies before closing it behind her.
Once the three of them were alone, the silence was deafening. Nobody moved, as if trying to preserve this moment in time, to remember the three of them together having their cup of tea, just in case it never was to happen again. Edward stood between them and wrapped his arms around both of them. He squeezed so tightly, tighter than he normally would, as if if he squeezed hard enough he could make everything all right again. He rested his chin on top of his wife’s head and sighed. Beth closed her eyes and stayed suspended in his arms with her mother, wishing this moment could last forever. She tried not to cry, but her eyes betrayed her and tears started to fall. She excused herself and went to the bathroom to cover up her crime of tears.
The ride home seemed to go much slower than the ride there. Both Beth and Edward were silent. When he pulled up to the house the two of them sat in the car, in the driveway just looking at the house. The sun was starting to go down, and just a sliver of light rays rested over the rooftop. The perfectly white wooden planks, the porch railing and wooden steps with the rose garden edged out next to the stairs, they sat and gazed at all of it. Home. It would never be the same again. The black shutters that edged out each window now seemed foreboding instead of welcoming as they had before.
When Beth finally got out of the car, Edward followed, they walked in the door the silence. When he unlocked the door the sound of the latch opening went through her like a knife. She fell to her knees and sobbed, no longer feeling like she had to be strong for her mother, she released all of her tears. She couldn’t hold back anymore and she cried out loud, wailing for her mother. Edward didn’t know what to do. He felt the same inside but thinking that he needed to be strong for her, didn’t want to cry. After a few minutes of holding her in his arms, face pressed against his shoulder, he gave in to it too. They cried together, letting out the emotions that had been locked inside all day, missing the woman who had once made their lives full of love, their bellies full of good food, their tea hot, garden full of food and made everything right with the world. “I just can’t stand that she is alone there.” Said Beth. “She’s not though.” Edward responded. “She picked the place herself, she likes the nurses and the staff. We will visit, a lot, you’ll see. It’s not that far.” He meant for his words to comfort his daughter but the tone of his voice expressed the doubt they both felt. He knew it was really fruitless. For him it was a total disappointment that it had come to this. Neither of them could change anything. They could only wonder at why this had happened, what to blame and worry what the future would bring, as they had for so long. Only this time it was different, because she was no longer here with them wondering.