Something was up. From the hallway outside her bedroom she heard the words “Old Missus” murmured -- or possibly they were shouted -- her ears were sharp for a ninety year old, but even she couldn’t hear through thick pine doors the way she used to. For a moment she contemplated protesting. Essie who had been her housekeeper/cook/and general factotum for --was it twelve years now? -- knew that using the hated “Old Missus” title was a call to arms, even if the sweet young thing Essie had just hired did not. Sharp words were called for. But it would take energy to deliver them. And one had to be careful how one spent that precious commodity at her age. Besides, she wasn’t sure she wanted her faithful retainers to know exactly how much of the conversations that swirled around her she managed to pick up. Eavesdropping was one of her main pleasures—and there were so few left to her.
She hoisted herself out of bed as quickly as ninety-year-old joints would allow, so she could begin assembling the various parts – dental bridges, eye glasses, and medications —which now made up the whole of “Old Missus.”
Twenty minutes later, she climbed back into her bed. There were additional rustlings and murmurings in the hall, and the sweet young thing entered with a breakfast tray. She had initially balked at hiring the child whose name was Cherry and whose job description was “companion/helper.” But Essie had put it in terms she couldn’t fight. “I can’t keep up with this big old barn of a house on my own and you can’t go on living in it all by yourself,” she said. “I ain’t coming in some morning to find you dead in your bed, or lying on the bathroom floor with your other hip broken. You let me get someone in here to sleep through the night, or I quit.”
So now young Cherry was standing in the doorway holding the breakfast tray and wearing a fond, if slightly patronizing grin.
“The Charles Valley Gazette is here, Old Missus,” she announced. .
At that moment, the child could call her Old Missus or Old Mushroom, she didn’t give a damn.
“Give it here,” she said eagerly. The Charles Valley Gazette hadn’t come for two months, and she had missed it desperately.
The Cherry Child carried the tray full of clanking china and cutlery across the room with the concentration of a tightrope walker. Breakfast in bed was an indulgence “Old Missus” had started allowing herself lately, but she still cringed slightly when it appeared.
The girl finally came to a shaky halt at her bedside. “The paper was in your mail box down at the post office yesterday.” she announced. “They must have sent it out from Charles Valley last week.”
“Probably. I’ll take it now, Cherry.”
“Where is Charles Valley?”
“Lawson County. May I have my newspaper, please?”
But the girl wasn’t through cogitating. “I thought it wasn’t any place around here.”
“No!” And silently, by reflex, she added, “God forbid!” Although by now it probably wouldn’t matter how close she got to Charles Valley. She could march down the main street of the town shouting out her life’s story over a bullhorn. No one was still alive who could possibly care. Or would they?
“Why do you get a newspaper from a town that’s miles away?” her new “helper” broke into her thoughts. They were making sweet young things a lot sharper than they used to. “I mean, it’s not like there are any stories about the whole state or the country or anything but Charles Valley. You couldn’t even buy any of the stuff in the ads over here.”
It is never easy to pull yourself up to your full height while fighting bedclothes, but she didn’t get to be Old Missus for nothing.
“Cherry dear, I want my breakfast before it congeals on the plate.” She was trying for a regal tone, but it came out cranky old lady. That happened a lot these days.
The Cherry child settled the tray over her mid section and helped her adjust her pillows. The Gazette was under the bowl of oatmeal that her enthusiastic young doctor said was a real heart saver. What the hell the boy was saving that aged organ for was anyone’s guess.
She pulled the paper out from under the bowl, and positioned herself under the fancy new natural light lamp she’d allowed Essie to put on her night table. She’d insisted she didn’t need the damn thing, but the truth was, it did make the small print easier. And the print used by most newspapers, including The Charles Valley Gazette, was infinitesimal. She should start a law suit on behalf of elderly Americans across the country being driven mad as they attempted to stay informed.
As usual, the first thing she did was look through the newspaper’s table of contents for articles written by Laurel Selene McReady. For the past seven years, Ms McReady had been listed on the paper’s masthead as the assistant to the editor, Hank Barlow, although, she also did double duty as a writer. But about three months ago her name had disappeared. After which, there was no newspaper for two weeks. When it appeared again there was a new assistant listed on the masthead. Soon that name was gone and two others appeared and disappeared in rapid succession. And the arrival of the Gazette, which had been a regular feature of Old Missus’ Saturdays suddenly became a random event. Sometimes it showed up on Tuesday, sometimes on Friday—if it showed up at all.
Clearly, the loss of Ms McReady was a major catastrophe for the paper. And not just because of whatever she had done to make sure it was published each week. Since her disappearance, the damn thing was loaded with typos. But in the humble opinion of Old Missus, it was Laurel Selene’s writing that was the biggest loss. The absent Ms McReady had had a nice way with a phrase and an irreverent slant on life that gave her stories an unexpected and welcome tartness. They were better than the swill turned out by the man she had assisted—that much was sure.
“What’s that picture?” asked Cherry peering over her employer’s shoulder at the front page of the paper.
“Those are the azaleas at Garrison Gardens”
“I’ve heard of that —some kind of vacation place isn’t it?”
“It’s one of the most important horticultural centers in the country,” she responded huffily. “Didn’t they teach you anything about your own state in school?” Which was an overreaction, but the Cherry child wouldn’t take offence. No one ever did when you were over ninety. No matter what you did, you were cute.
“That garden place is in Charles Valley?”
But mere geographical location didn’t begin to explain the relationship of the gardens to Charles Valley, Georgia. The little town owed it’s livelihood to Garrison Gardens. Students from around the world came to study the work being done by their botanists. Tourists poured into the Garrison Gardens Resort to enjoy the golf courses, the man-made lake, the tennis courts, the hiking and biking trails, and the phenomenal thirty thousand acre Garrison Garden Nature Preserve. Ms McReady’s boss at The Charles Valley Gazette genuflected in print whenever he mentioned the gardens, the resort, or the Garrison family which had built both. The family no longer owned the gardens which were now part of a charitable trust. But the Garrisons—or, more accurately, Peggy Garrison who had inherited the whole shebang from her late husband Dalton -- had a controlling voice on the board that ran the trust, and retained full ownership of the very profitable resort attached to the gardens. The Garrison name—if not the blood line -- remained the eight hundred pound gorilla in the area.
“Would you like me to read the paper to you?” the Cherry child asked brightly. The girl was terminally perky. “You seem to be having a little trouble this morning.”
“I’m fine,” she answered firmly—hopefully not crankily. “I’ll call you if I need you, dear.”
“Okay, ” Cherry said in the indulgent tone that young people used with her now. The girl vanished and Old Missus reached up to turn on her fancy lamp. She was having a little trouble this morning. With her hands, not her eyes, thank you.
The Cherry child had touched a nerve. It was foolish to keep renewing her subscription to the Gazette. Her only connection to the town had been gone for so many years. But the little newspaper had become a part of her life. There were names which had appeared regularly in it for so many years that they were like old acquaintances by now. She liked to keep tabs on them. At her age, it was hard to make new friends. And it wasn’t true that she had no connection to the place –there was still one person whose goings and comings had personal meaning for her. So it was with a gasp that she scanned the front page of the Gazette and read that Peggy Garrison was dead.
Read Chapter 1 of Family Acts
Read Chapter 1 of The Three Miss Margarets